Five Lessons I Learned Writing My First Middle Grade Novel

by Janae Marks
published in Writing

For the longest time, I only considered myself a contemporary young adult writer. I’d fallen in love with realistic teen stories, and I thought I’d found my writing niche. Last year, with three completed YA manuscripts under my belt, I started brainstorming my next idea. I decided to share my outline and first couple of chapters with a critique partner early on in the process, and I’m glad I did because she made a huge suggestion.

She thought my idea would make an amazing middle grade story.

My mind was blown. Middle grade? I wrote YA! But as I read through her notes, I started to agree with her. I could see how my plot and themes might be better suited for a younger audience, and making my protagonist younger could strengthen the story. I decided to give it a try, and in the end, it was the best decision for the book. The manuscript turned out even better than I could’ve imagined, and it even won me an award!

Switching my story from YA to MG was not as simple as aging down the protagonist. I had to make a few other changes to the manuscript to make it fit. I started immersing myself in middle grade novels and studied what made them successful. Then I got to work.

Here’s are the biggest lessons I learned along the way.

1) Remember your target age group

YA is for readers age 12 up, while MG is for readers age 8 to 12. If you’re writing middle grade, you have to make sure your story content is appropriate for younger readers. This means no profanity, sex, or graphic violence. Romance isn’t totally off-limits, and neither is the exploration of sexuality. There is a lot of middle grade about first crushes and first kisses, but they are generally more innocent than their YA counterparts.

2) Middle Grade can still include some mature content

I used to think that if I was writing about mature subject matter, my protagonist had to be old enough to deal with it. But that’s simply not true. Think about it. Younger children are exposed to all sorts of serious issues in their real lives: death, mental illness, addiction, incarceration, etc. Middle grade stories can still talk about these topics in an age-appropriate way. But unlike in YA where the protagonists might experience these situations first-hand, middle grade protagonists experience them second-hand. For example, they’re not the alcoholic in the story, but they could have an alcoholic parent who exposes them to some of that behavior.

3) Nailing the Middle Grade voice is key

Every article I read about writing middle grade talked about how important the voice is. Voice is important in all manuscripts, but especially in middle grade, because it’s so hard to nail. It has to sound authentic, and not like you’re talking down to your readers. Coming from writing YA, I had to make sure my middle grade protagonist didn’t sound too sophisticated, but I also didn’t want to dumb her voice down. It’s truly a fine line, and the best way to understand what makes a middle grade voice successful is to read as much of it as you can. Also, observe real kids. Listen to how they speak and interact with one another.

4) Middle grade characters have a limited worldview

Most 8-12 year olds exist in their own little bubble of home, their town and school. They lack the freedom that teenagers have. They aren’t old enough to drive themselves far away, and their parents limit where they can go and what they can see. As a result, most middle grade stories focus on this limited worldview. Common themes are family, friendship, and school drama, like bullying. Middle grade protagonists are often trying to figure out how they fit in their own world – in their family, or with their peers. They aren’t thinking about how they fit into the larger world, like in YA books.

5) Middle Grade characters don’t overthink

This was the biggest change I had to make when switching to writing middle grade, and the most challenging. I was used to writing angsty YA, where my protagonists spent a lot of time thinking about their relationships and conflicts. But younger kids don’t typically over analyze their feelings. In many cases, they lack the experience and wisdom needed to understand exactly what they’re feeling, so their reactions are more immediate and on the surface.

In future posts, I’ll dig deeper into these elements of writing middle grade. In the meantime, if you want to check out some successful middle grade novels, I recommend books by Rebecca Stead, Rita Williams-Garcia, RJ Palacio, Tim Federle, Jason Reynolds, and Tara Dairman. You can also return to the classics, which have remained popular for a reason.

If you write middle grade, what is one lesson you’ve learned?

Janae Marks writes contemporary fiction for kids and teens. She has an MFA in Creative Writing from The New School, and is an active member of the Society of Children’s Books Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI). She lives in New England with her husband and daughter.

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