Writing the Middle-Grade Novel

By Kristi Holl

Middle graders (ages 8 to 12) belong to the "Golden Age of Reading." They devour books on a wide variety of subjects. For writers, middle-grade readers represent a large market eager for our work.

Know Your Audience

You can't hit a bull's-eye with your target audience until you study that audience well, so take time to know this age group before writing for them. This knowledge can come from a variety of places. When I sold my first middle-grade novel, my children were babies so I relied heavily on my own childhood memories and issues. When my children were in grades 3-6, I observed them (and their middle-grade friends) in a variety of settings. Now, with my children grown and married, I observe kids in malls, libraries and movie theaters. If I rely solely on my memory now, my heroes and heroines sound dated.

In addition to direct observation, research web sites like Girls' Life at www.girlslife.com, where you can check out fashion and music trends for middle-grade girls. The Nickelodeon site at www.nick.com also shows current middle-grade music, games, sports and slang.

Middle-grade girls may be as much as two years ahead of the boys in physical maturity. Both boys and girls are bigger and stronger, growing rapidly at the end of this age period. They like to join clubs and are more interested in competitive sports. They may develop an interest in special collections or hobbies. They like rituals, rules, secret codes, and made-up languages. They may play musical instruments. Activities such as camping, biking, building models, skating, and playing board games are popular.

Middle-graders are beginning to realize that parents and authority figures can make mistakes; some kids will defy parents at this age. They are often "black and white" thinkers, seeing things as right or wrong, with no room for differences of opinion. Upper middle-graders prefer spending time with friends rather than parents, and they show interest in the opposite sex by teasing, joking, and showing off. They may sometimes be verbally cruel to classmates, with name-calling and nasty put-downs.

Inside a Middle-Grader

During the middle grades, friends and school become more important than home and family as kids try to figure out their place in the social structure. Parents disappear from many middle-grade novels, or (as in the Nancy Drew books) they play a minor role and are barely needed. Children of this age feel more capable and like to see self-sufficient heroes venture out and conquer new territory. While I don't get rid of parents altogether, I have novels (e.g. Patchwork Summer, No Strings Attached, Mystery By Mail) where the parents work long hours, are gone due to a divorce, or in jail, letting the kids operate independently. Upper middle-grade readers (grades 5 and 6) especially like books where the protagonists manage just as well as adults.

Readers this age daydream about their future and enjoy planning and organizing tasks and events. Middle-graders have great imaginations and creative ideas, but can have difficulty following through. They like games with more complex rules. Their language abilities have grown to the point where they appreciate jokes, riddles and tongue twisters.

Common childhood fears for this age include being late for school, finding out you're adopted, someone in the family becoming ill or dying, the house burning down, someone close having an accident, being followed by a stranger, and being kidnapped.

The Middle-Grade Novel

What actually goes into a middle-grade novel? First of all, a riveting main character. Kids read books because they identify closely with a character that they care about and want to know better. They root for the character to succeed and overcome whatever problem you've created. Middle-grade protagonists are doers, not passive watchers. They don't wait for some adult to rescue them and resolve the conflict. They get involved and have believable motives for why they take action. They care deeply for things and people, and they're not afraid to take a risk. (That doesn't necessarily mean jumping off a cliff or confronting a burglar. A risk might be standing up to a bully, defending an unpopular friend, or daring to trust a new step-parent.)

Middle-grade heroes and heroines are also thinkers; they have strong opinions and beliefs about themselves and the world around them. They also speak, and they sound like real kids. One of the best books on developing captivating characters is Elaine Marie Alphin's Creating Characters Kids Will Love, published by Writer's Digest Books.

Dialogue is another essential ingredient in a middle-grade novel. What story people say (and how they say it) reveals a lot about their character. To be believable to your reader, characters must speak in ways real children speak. Depending on your protagonist's age and education, he or she needs to use the kind of vocabulary and have the kind of knowledge appropriate for that age. If you don't have kids on hand to listen to, then eavesdrop shamelessly in stores, schools and fast food restaurants. Listen carefully for cadence, pacing, and subject matter. Since slang expressions come and go with each passing season, use them sparingly. Otherwise your story will be outdated before it's even published.

Conflict is also critical in a middle-grade novel. If a character has no problem to solve, there is no point to the story. The story plot consists of an urgent problem confronting your main character and how he or she goes about solving it, against tremendous opposition. Early in your story planning, decide what one thing your main character wants more than anything. (It must be something that cannot be easily obtained.) There must be something vital at stake, too. What terrible thing will happen if your main character doesn't get what he or she wants? The consequences of failure need to be serious. For possible conflicts, brainstorm ideas based on the common fears of middle-graders listed above.

Setting might not seem terribly important compared to character and conflict, but every good novel has a setting that contributes to the plot. For example, mysteries have frightening settings, but they aren't scary unless you, the author, convey through sensory details the eerie sights and sounds and smells in each scene. To make the reader believe in your story, you must create a setting so vivid the reader feels as if he can step into the pages of your book. Children react strongly to the color, size, shape, sound, smell, and feel of things. Learn to see the world through a child's eyes. Be sure to include in your setting details about the changing weather, seasons, general background (city, farm, forest), plus specific details. Just keep it under control. The book will be 90% action and dialogue, with maybe 10% (or less) description. Work description into the action when possible. Young middle-graders (grades 3-4) are more willing to read books where home is the setting. Older middle-graders are drawn to books revolving around school or trips away from the home.

Learning the Market

When it's time to market your novel, first decide which type it is. Did you write a chapter book for grades 3 and 4, or a book for a reader in grades 5 or 6? A chapter book for lower middle-graders has a format that looks adult, with a longer text, often a lot of illustrations, and with medium-large print. The plots of these books are often in episodes, where each chapter can almost stand on its own. Chapter books usually have chapters of five to seven manuscript pages, and the overall manuscript may run from thirty to a hundred pages. The cast of characters is generally small and covers a short time span. There isn't time or room for complicated plots and subplots.

Middle-grade novels for grades 5 and 6 are standard adult size, although usually shorter than adult titles. They may have a few pictures. The plots are more complicated and include subplots, and there are more complex themes and figurative language for these older readers. Fiction for upper middle-grade students can be school stories, mysteries, fantasy, sports, humor, and historical novels. Most chapters for this age group run ten to twelve manuscript pages, and the overall manuscript runs from about a hundred to a hundred fifty pages.

Nuts and Bolts

When you're finished with your novel—after it's been critiqued and revised many times—it's time to market it. Study publishers' catalogues; write for them, study them online, or ask to study your children's librarian's copies. When you have chosen the publishers you want to submit to, find the names of their editors in a market book. Many guides are available: Writer's Market published by Writer's Digest Books, the publications by The Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators (www.scbwi.org), Literary Market Place (usually available at your library's reference desk,) or The Writer's Handbook. Some writers prefer to study the market books first, then study the catalogues.

Check market listings for the format in which to submit your novel. Some publishers still ask for the whole manuscript, some want three chapters and an outline, some just a query. A few will take only agented submissions now. Be careful to submit exactly what they ask for, and include an SASE (self-addressed, stamped envelope). If you want to send multiple submissions, and the listing says the publisher accepts them, note it in your cover letter.

Then be patient while you wait for a response. That can be hard if you don't have another project in the works. A quote I found recently said, "The real secret of patience is to find something to do in the meantime." What you, the writer, need to do in the meantime is to focus on your next middle-grade idea—and keep writing.

Kristi Holl is the author of 24 middle-grade novels, two nonfiction middle-grade books, and a book for writers, Writer's First Aid. You can read more about Kristi and her work at www.KristiHoll.com