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In my former life as a middle school reading teacher, I got an “up close and personal” look at what middle graders like in a book. This came in handy when I decided to pursue a second career as a writer.
My dad, a WWII veteran, only shared one war story with our family – the tale of Jacqueline, a little girl who stole his heart while he was stationed in France. When I started writing, Dad asked me to write a book about her. Jacqueline was about 11 years-old when she met my father, so I decided to write her story as a middle grade novel. Since writing for this age group presents some unique challenges, I used what I knew about middle school students to craft a novel that would appeal to even the most reluctant readers. I’d like to share ten middle grade writing tips.
1. DO familiarize yourself with your audience
If it’s been a while since you been around 8 to 12 year old kids, find some and spend time with them. Talk to them about the books they like (and the ones they don’t.) Ask them what makes them choose one book over another, and what genres and topics they’re interested in.
2. DO plunge right into the action
Once they pick up your book, you’ve got one chance to hook them. Your first sentence may that chance. For my book, Jacqueline, I spent more time on the first sentence than on the entire first chapter. I finally came up with this: “Her mother’s scream was followed by the crash of shattering glass.” My 10-year-old beta reader said it made her want to keep reading, so I knew I had a winner.
3. DO make your protagonist age-appropriate
Your main character will make or break your novel. Middle schoolers like to read about kids a little older than they are, so your protagonist should be between 10 and 13 years old. Your main character should be someone your readers can identify with and care about; a kid with strong opinions and beliefs. Be sure your character has a few flaws though – middle graders have lived long enough to know there are no perfect children.
4. DO use authentic dialogue
Middle school students like to talk, and they like books with lots of dialogue. Listen to middle grade kids, get the sound of their dialogue into your head so your character will sound realistic. Make sure all your characters don’t sound the same. Steer clear of coarse or vulgar language – remember that your book will have to be pre-approved by parents and teachers (the actual buyers.)
5. DO focus on friends and school
Middle school students are straddling the worlds of childhood and adulthood trying to figure out where they fit in. Their focus is shifting from home and family to school and friends, and your story should reflect this. Keep parents, teachers and other adults in the background, with most of the action centered on the main character’s interaction with the outside world. Keep introspection to a minimum. Middle schoolers don’t do a lot of self-analysis.
6. DO center the story around a problem the main character can solve independently
There should be a single inciting element in the story – something that sets the main character’s life askew. In Jacqueline, it was her father’s plane being shot down by the Germans. The central problem should be one that the protagonist can eventually solve without adult intervention, so keep this in mind when you plot your story.
7. DO edit out anything that doesn’t propel the plot
Be relentless in your editing. Your final word count should fall between 30,000 and 60,000 words. Avoid excess adjectives and adverbs. Eliminate everything that doesn’t move the plot forward, no matter how much you may love the sound of it. While you should definitely include descriptions and sensory details, make this about 10 percent of the total text. My students steered clear of thick books, so keep that in mind when you have to cut a favorite paragraph.
8. DO challenge them
Just because your readers are young, there’s no reason to “write down” to them. They can deal with difficult subjects if presented appropriately. Use language that makes them stretch a bit, but include context clues so they can figure out the meaning of unfamiliar words. I used several French words in Jacqueline, and my beta reader was able to mentally translate them using clues I embedded into the text. (She was very proud of herself!)
9. DO keep the momentum going
Middle graders have no qualms about abandoning a book that gets “boring.” If you want them to make it to the end, you have to keep them flipping pages. Don’t use too many abstract concepts. Stick to the “Show, don’t tell” rule so that there’s a steady flow of action. Try to end each chapter with a cliffhanger. Don’t let up on them until the last page.
10. DO end on a positive note
Be sure that your ending is positive and satisfying. Middle grade readers don’t react well to open endings. I’ve seen kids throw a book across the room because the ending left them hanging. In Jacqueline, I decided to end with an epilogue that showed what happened to the characters as grown-ups. My beta reader really liked that.
Most of all, DO enjoy the process. Middle grade readers can be profoundly influenced by the books they read, and that’s what makes writing for them so much fun,
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Thanks so much for stopping by and sharing these tips with us, Jackie! Now, tell us a bit about your book :-)
Based on a true story, "Jacqueline" is a tale of family, faith, unusual friendships, and the resiliency of the human spirit set against the backdrop of occupied Rennes in 1944. With the drama of fiction and the authenticity of personal history, "Jacqueline" is both a story about family and a family's story.
About the Author:
Jackie lives on Treasure Island with her husband and two rather noisy macaws, but she frequently travels back to New Jersey to visit her three children and six grandkids.
You can learn more about Jackie and her books by visiting her on her website, blog, and Facebook.