Hello, writers. Several dkos writers attempted NaNoWriMo, the challenge to write 50,000 words during the month of November. Below are their results as of November 21st. (Word counts in italics.)
Emmet all but ch 1 of ms revised (goal is revise ms, plus 15k, plus query 20 agents)
True North (goal is 20k)
wonderful world about 22,000
NonEuclidian about 31k
Pretty remarkable, I think. An excellent showing for three weeks of writing.
So how did it go from there? Anyone hit 50k, or whatever their personal goal was?
Write On is getting long in the tooth; it's nearly five years old. And I've never written a WO diary about what I do, which is writing for children... specifically, middle grade. Recently, though, a lurker mentioned she was interested in writing middle grade fiction.
So this is for her, and for anyone else who's ever thought of writing for children.
Middle grade is a label that's been used only recently for fiction aimed roughly at ages 8 to 14. The Narnia books fall into this category. So do Lloyd Alexander's Prydain Chronicles. The (sigh) Little House Books. The All-of-a-Kind Family series. The Great Brain books.
You'll notice all of these books have been around a while. And that's the curse of children's fiction. More is being written and published than ever before. But if you go into a bookstore, you'll probably find that much of what's in stock was published 20 or 30 or 50 years ago... because that's what people come in and ask for. It's very hard for new children's fiction to get attention.
If you want to write for the new middle grade market, however, you'll need to read what's being published now (some of which can usually be found in bookstores if you search hard enough). The expectations for middle grade novels have changed a lot in the last thirty years. Here are the two main ways I think they've changed:
A character arc and a plot are required.
Many middle grade novels in the past were simply collections of episodes. The Little House Books and the Great Brain books are good examples of this. Each chapter was a separate little adventure, with no lasting effects on the characters or the overall situation... rather like an old tv sitcom.
This sort of thing no longer sells.
Now it's usually necessary, as with adult fiction, to have a (1)likeable protagonist who must overcome a (2)seemingly insurmountable difficulty to achieve a (3)worthwhile goal. The difficulty and goal can be internal/personal (coping with the loss of a friendship) or external (seeking the Jewel of Togwogmagog) but they should cover the whole of the novel.
It's also necessary, even more than in an adult novel, that the character grow and change. Ideally s/he experiences some stage of growing up... for example, s/he learns that adults aren't infallible and that sometimes s/he needs to be the strong one.
The voice and the story logic must respect the reader's intelligence.
In one popular book that's nearly always in stock in bookstores, a boy goes out on a quest with certain objects in his pocket. A lollipop, some rubberbands, I forget what else. Anyway, each of the objects becomes necessary at some point in his adventure. There's nothing in his pocket that he doesn't need, and nothing he needs fails to be in his pocket. The book was first published in the 1930s. You'd never get away with that now.
Nowadays, your character had darn well better get into situations where he doesn't know what to do, he doesn't have anything helpful in his pocket, and his back is to the wall. Just like in adult fiction.
As for the voice, you obviously want to stay away from the smarmier sort of Dick-and-Jane enthusiasm. I remember reading a book when I was about ten that contained, to the best of my recollection, the following line:
What fun it was to pick out the candy in the bright, shiny wrappers!
Children feel insulted by this sort of thing.
But there are lesser degrees of talking down to the reader, which you also want to avoid. I find one's best bet is to simplify nothing-- sentence structure, vocabulary, complexity of ideas. (Very rarely I'm asked to simplify something by an editor. Very rarely. And my books still get rated as a 5th or 6th grade reading level after they're published.) Don't overexplain. Don't pat the reader on the head. The only concessions you really need to make to the fact that you're writing for children are these:
- no sex scenes
- the ending should leave the reader with a general impression that life is worth living
Rewrite the passage below so that the voice is less cloying and condescending. If that's not enough of a challenge, rewrite the passage below so that the voice is even more annoying.
The callow youth was a brave and good boy, but he still felt a tremor in his little heart as he approached the lair of the dread least grebe.
“Don't worry,” he told his stout companion. He was worried himself, of course, but he didn't want to frighten his good friend. “I'm sure the Dread Least Grebe isn't really as bad as everyone says.”
“Even if he can breathe fire,” replied the other, in cheerful tones, “I'm not worried, because we both have fireproof clothes.”
“Do we?” said the callow youth, in some surprise.
“Oh yes,” said the stout companion. “I thought we might need them, so I bought them at a market in the last village.”
“How kind!” replied the callow youth, with a happy smile. “But anyway, if we reason with the Least Grebe, I'm sure he will give us a map to get through the Eternal Swamp. Maps are important, because they prevent one from becoming lost.”
Write On! will be a regular weekly diary (Thurs 8 pm ET) until it isn't.
Before signing a contract with any agent or publisher, please be sure to check them out on Preditors and Editors, Absolute Write and/or Writer Beware.