Stuck in the Middle

I’m lucky to have a group of wonderful interns who give me invaluable feedback on manuscripts and queries.  We’ll be hearing from these awesome readers over the next months; here’s the first post, on the topic of middle grade novels – and what makes them work:

First of all, let me thank Susan for letting me borrow her site for the day!

I am here to talk about being stuck. I read lots of manuscripts; I see a lot of average stories, a fair amount of good ones, and, every now and then, fantastic stories I can’t get out of my head. The decent stories are rejected with a nice note, the good ones get a flattering reader’s report and are forwarded on, and the fantastic stories get recommendations wrapped in silver paper and tied with red velvet bows, flagged as top priority.

And then there are those stories that are riding the line between good and great. These stories are the stories with lovely writing, lovely characters, lovely everything. Except they are stuck.

When I say a manuscript is “stuck,” I mean it is so tightly wedged between two different age groups, that it’s impossible to fully enjoy the story. It’s hard to relate to the characters, because they’re too mature (or immature) for their age. They lack believability.

Reading these manuscripts is like riding a bull; the flow of the story is uneven, so even if the characters or plot do give you a thrill, it’s not something you can stand for the entirety of the book. Eventually, you get nauseated.

Some signs that a story is stuck:

(ONE) The concept doesn’t fit the age group. Think paranormal romance with 10-year-old characters. You can’t do that—because one: romance (or at least very developed romance) doesn’t work in middle grade, and two: the middle grade market is more keen to fantasy/action adventure than paranormal.

(TWO) The characters aren’t appropriately aged. I’ve read many middle grade stories where the characters act NOTHING LIKE their intended audience.  Middle grade characters range in age from 8 to 13 years old.  There are exceptions of course, but typically, anything younger or older puts the protagonist at too far of a distance, and readers can’t relate.

Bad MG example: Suzie Q is six years old, and when Evil Villain comes and turns her Twin Brother into a pig, she cries and goes running for her mommy.

Bad MG example part 2: Suzie Q is fourteen, and when Evil Villain comes and turns her Twin Brother into a pig, she throws around a few choice words (“That m*ther %$^#!!!!! Turn my $^%$$# brother back!”) and goes searching for weapons.

Both ages don’t work. In the first, Suzie Q is so young, and her actions make for a boring story. In the second, Suzie Q curses and is far too mature.

I have only read one middle grade book with a protagonist over 13 that maintains that signature middle grade voice, THE INCORRIGIBLE CHILDREN OF ASHTON PLACE by Maryrose Wood. The protagonist is 16, but the concept and voice are perfect for middle grade, and it works.

(THREE) The voice is off.  Middle grade voice is hard to tackle, and it’s complex enough to merit its own blog post.  But, perhaps the most important way to get started is to read, read, read all the books you can get your hands on. If you’re writing MG, read a billion MG novels. If you’re writing YA, keep 15,000 YA books on your bedside table. 

Everything in fiction is a case-by-case situation; nothing is set in stone. There are no Ten Commandments of Writing for Children. There is only you, your keyboard, and the characters who keep your writing days lively.

All I can say is: Know what you write, and, if you want, write what you know.

Query Hold

Some news to share.  I am closing queries as of next Monday, December 19th, and will open again in mid-January.  I’ll respond to anything I receive in the next week, but any queries that arrive after that date will get an automatic response, asking you to re-query me again in January.

Closing queries gives me the opportunity to get things in order – a mid-winter house cleaning of sorts.  I love the idea of starting the new year with a clean slate, and doing this will improve my response time to both queries and the full manuscripts I’ve requested.

I’m definitely looking for new clients in 2012, so don’t worry.  Thanks for understanding and I can’t wait to see what will arrive in my queries in-box in January! 

Revision, or Helping Me Help You!

I recently had lunch with one of my amazing and wonderful clients.  We were busy talking over the novel that she’s currently working on.  This is the novel that I signed her up for; it’s a marvelous book that takes place in an fantastically inventive world, peopled with characters that cleave to your heart (I can’t wait for people to read this book, can you tell?).  We picked apart a particular scene, came up with some good ideas and then she asked me this, “How can I help you help me?”

Well!  How lovely to be asked!  I was happy to answer of course, and thought I’d share that answer here for others who are at the same relative point – beginning revisions of your novel. 

The best thing you can do is: Stop.  Stop and take some time before you begin writing or re-writing.  Give yourself some time.   

Why?  Because a part of revision takes place off-stage, in your unconscious.   I’ve always disliked discussions of the writing process that give things a feel of the mystical or ineffable, and that’s not what I want to do here but, even if you’re not a writer, you know what I’m talking about – have you ever woken up in the middle of the night with that light bulb thought?  That’s the brain putting pieces together in ways you might not have seen initially.  Have you ever said, I get my best ideas when I…?  Whatever the rest of that sentence is, I bet you don’t get your best ideas when you sit down to figure out your best ideas.  Sometimes, you have to leave things alone; jumping right in might close the door to an unexpected idea.

There are so many pressures sitting on a writer’s shoulders, that I know.  And there’s more to revision than what I’m discussing here of course.  But take this small piece of advice:  Stop and sit with things for awhile.  You might be surprised what light bulb you get in the middle of the night.

What revision advice do you have to share? What ideas do you use?