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.


  1. Thanks, intern, for this post! You're absolutely right - MG is one of the hardest, if not THE hardest, category to nail because voice, theme, and character have to come together flawlessly. MG readers are in that awkward in-between place, so it's tricky to write for them. I can definitely understand why so many manuscripts feel stuck.

    P.S. If you're ever looking for a post topic, I'd be interested to hear a little more about the process you described in the second paragraph. Do you guys read every manuscript and query before Susan does, and what are some of the characteristics of those average, good, and fantastic stories?

  2. Thank you for this excellent blog post! It's something my critique group has discussed and I'm sure we'll continue tackling.

    Can you recommend specific MG novels with excellent voice?

  3. Alisha, thanks for this question! When You Reach Me by Erin Stead comes to mind right away. I'm reading Breadcrumbs by Anne Ursu now and really liking it. A classic that I adore and re-read often is The Westing Game by Ellen Raskin. Happy reading!