So you want to write a middle-grade novel… That's awesome! I love middle-grade—anyone who has been to any of my conference workshops (or has just randomly run into me anywhere, like at the grocery store) will know that my heart belongs to the M-G.
I didn't set out to write middle-grade novels, however. I got my start writing mysteries—mostly short stories—for many years. Circumstances (an agent, an MG book premise, and a little luck) kind of rolled me into middle-grade, and that's what I've been writing ever since. Midnight at the Barclay Hotel is my fourth published middle-grade, and one of the things I'm enjoying so much about writing MG is how the segment has changed dramatically. Topics you couldn't really cover in the past (like death, murder, incarceration) are now the topic in many successful books. Diversity in MG is getting better, giving us a better representation of the kids who are reading these books. I love middle-grade.
I've also been talking to other writers about the MG segment of the children's book market, and I find I'm often talking about all I've learned. And I still use these tips I'm about to share with you to date—middle-grade really expects you to walk the line and know your stuff.
Here are seven tips for developing a compelling MG fiction premise.
Do you love reading a good mystery? Have you always wanted to write one? During the Essentials of Mystery Writing workshop, you'll have the choice of creating a brand new mystery story from scratch or working with a story you already have in progress.
1. Start by remembering what it was like to be 12
The thing writers often get wrong about writing for kids is that they want to impart some important life lesson—say, bullying is bad, or: You shouldn't lie, or: Whatever you think your decades of life on this planet has taught you.
Although there's nothing wrong with that as a motivation, you need to write from the perspective of a kid if you want your book to resonate. Remember what you were doing when you were 12. What were your worries, your hopes, the stuff you were dreaming about? Write about those feelings. The best MG writers are still kids at heart.
2. Misconception: middle-grade is for middle-schoolers
You're writing for ages eight to 12, roughly, which are kids in the upper elementary grades. Your main character will likely be around 12, since most kids 'read up'—meaning they like to read about kids that are a little older than they are. You may have some readers in middle-school, but by that age kids have largely moved on to YA.
3. Try some humor
Kids love humor at the MG level. That doesn't mean you must have slapstick stuff, farts, or anything like that in your story. At the MG reader's age, kids are starting to see flaws in their parents and teachers, and they see the irony in things. There's a lot of humor to be had in that. Use a little humor in your premise, if possible.
4. Drop the adults
Although adults still play a major role in a 12-year-old's life, make sure your kid protagonist is the one solving the conflict in your story. For mysteries for instance, that can be really difficult: You have to get around transportation challenges, curfews, access to whatever investigation tools your kid has, etc. Think about how you're going to work around these challenges as you develop your premise.
5. Remember the gatekeepers
So, you're writing for that 12-year-old target reader, but… Who is actually buying your book and handing it to your kid reader? Those are the gatekeepers: parents, teachers, grandparents, librarians. They will look at your book and make a judgement on whether it's okay to give to kids. Make sure you keep violence and other content appropriate for your target kid reader. That doesn't mean you can't cover important issues, etc.—just make sure you keep your message age appropriate.
6. Find your voice and tone
I'm always hesitant to bring up voice, because it can really send writers to chase their own tail. Voice can be elusive, sometimes very pronounced, and sometimes softer and hard to pin down. When it comes to MG, voice is important because you are looking at the world through a kid's lens. So whether you're writing in first or third person, think about your voice and tone, and make sure you are looking at everything from that 12-year-old (or so) kid's perspective.
Spend a day at the food court, or the park, and observe the world as if you are your reader's age. If you happen upon some kids (don't be creepy about it, though…) listen to how they talk to each other, and what they talk about. Now apply that to your concept and writing.
7. Read a lot of middle-grade, and then some more
You're an adult, so you may not be reading middle-grade fiction regularly, if at all. So get right on that: Read lots and lots of middle-grade. And I'm not talking about your classics, as lovely as they may be. If your goal is to be published in middle-grade today, you have to know what's being published in this segment today. Read broadly, even books that maybe don't fall into your normal favorite genre.
Once you have a good understanding of tone and content, work on finding your comparable titles: books that are like your premise. This helps in two ways: You get a better idea of where your book fits on the bookshelf and in the bookstore, plus once it's time to pitch the project to an agent or editor, you can quickly sum up your premise (and people will be impressed with your knowledge of the market).
Extra tip: Don't forget to have fun
When people ask me about what I do, I often joke that I get to be a 12-year-old kid for a living. And that's kind of true: to write MG, you have to get into the mind of the kid whose perspective you're writing from. For Midnight at the Barclay Hotel, that meant that I got to be JJ, who loves to go ghost hunting but is hiding from his parents that he's failing his classes; Penny, who is afraid of a lot of things but wants to be brave; Emma, who is stuck at a dusty old hotel, excited to make new friends. I mean, what's more fun than that?
Did I mention I love middle-grade?