These tips (which I first posted on Twitter tonight) are meant for people writing middle grade fiction. They come from discussions that I’ve had with my son about the books we’ve read and the books I’ve written. He’s an avid reader of middle grade fiction, and the first reader of every one of my books, and his criticism has been incredibly helpful in my editing process. I thought it might be useful for other writers to hear some of our top writing tips.
1. To start, let’s talk about the beginning. Make the beginning snatch the reader’s attention. That first page, and the first chapter, need to clearly introduce a character (ideally your MC), pose a meaningful conflict, and ramp up the tension. Answer this: What’s this about, and why should I care?
2. Second and third chapters need to keep it going. If you’re writing for middle grade readers, don’t slow the tension or they’ll put the book down. Weave in the explanations you need to introduce. Show characters by their interactions with others. Just keep your story humming.
3. Give your reader a chance to breathe. Let your characters have a chance to think, not just to act. And while you want your readers to be unable to put this book down, remember that sometimes they just have to go to school or sleep. Give the tension a wee lift here and there.
4. If you’re pounding your characters, be sure that you give them a hand up too. It’s no fun to keep reading a character who is treated horribly and feels no joy, page after page. Just a tiny bit of kindness or warmth (say a delicious meal, even) can make a big difference.
5. Be sure to know all your characters, especially your major characters, not just your MC. Give them their own stories, and great dialogue. If you do this, you’re giving readers many options of characters to love most. It doesn’t have to be the MC.
6. Take care how you kill off a character. Yes, you sometimes need to. Be aware that your middle grade reader may be really upset with a literary choice that removes a favorite character, which may make them not eager to read another one of your books. Just be humane.
7. Don’t waste the middle of your book. Start weaving together the tensions of the early parts, and introduce a few new elements to shake up your MC’s life. Middles can be hard, and can bog. Keep your middle tense and busy.
8. Know how you want to end the book. Most middle grade readers want a happy sigh ending: Some sadness is okay, but overall things are good. And make that last chapter matter. Even in a series with a cliffhanger, something should be solved, or just feel right.
9. One more: It’s fine to write what you feel middle grade fiction should have, but write for your kid audience, not just for yourself and for other adults. Most of us MG authors want to pack our books with Big Themes and Powerful Stories. But they won’t be of any use if no one reads them.
Because I love examples, here’s a book to highlight each item on the list (taken from the incredible list of books that my son and I have read this year):
1. Stellar Beginning: Scar Island by Dan Gemeinhart. A nice kid is dropped off at a youth prison on an island for a crime that maybe he did commit, but something’s fuzzy about it, and something’s clearly wrong on that island, and oh, my, you can’t stop reading.
2. Great Secondary and Third Chapters: Takedown by Laura Shovan alternates characters, which is a great way to keep your reader hooked, but this story also loads up the tension for each MC with expectations, nervousness, and pressure from peers and family.
3. Letting Your Reader Take a Breath Without Dropping Interest: Sayantani DasGupta’s The Serpent’s Secret shares a few mysteries and a few secrets in a new world to the MC, right between massive bouts of action (with snakes and demons!!!).
4. Being Kind to Your MC: Kelly Yang’s Front Desk pounds its poor MC from the start (though nothing keeps her down for long). But the kindness of her neighbors, and her parents’ own kindness to others, show that this world, while hard, isn’t all bad.
5. Creating Fab Secondary Characters: Kat Yeh’s The Way to Bea has wonderful secondary characters. Will and Briggs are so engaging, lighting up the story each time they come onto the page. I wouldn’t be surprised if either one of them are readers’ favorites.
6. Killing Characters Kindly: Pádraig Kenny’s Tin kills off *sob* a wonderful character in the most beautiful, humane manner possible. And this is fiendishly hard to do right. I can’t say more without spoiling the story! (BTW, Tin will be out in the U.S. on March 26, 2019.)
7. A Tight Middle Section: Black Panther: The Young Prince by Ronald L. Smith hits its stride so perfectly in the middle, where the superhero story rises, and the other important story of two male friends is reaching some of its most tense peaks.
8. Happy Sigh Endings: While we agree that it’s a cliffhanger ending, my son and I also agree that The Forgotten Shrine by Monica Tesler ends well. It’s a tense moment, and things aren’t solved. But two important characters are together and that lets the reader get that sigh.
9. Writing Big Ideas for Kids: It’s hard to pick just one, but Mae Respicio’s The House That Lou Built has family struggles, a MC who disobeys her mom, brilliant engineering idea, friends conflicts, identity questions, and grief and happiness rolled up in a fun, deep story.
I hope this list and the examples I’ve shared from my son’s and my 2018 reads are helpful. These are certainly writing tips that I need to keep in mind myself, and it’s heartening to have so many great books around to help me remember how to follow them!