Crafting Books for Restless Middle Grade Readers

Ask a middle grade reader if they would rather read a boring book from start to finish or shave off all the hair on their head. What do you think they will pick? Shaving their head of course! Yes, boredom is our biggest enemy when it comes to middle grade readers. Boredom is like punishment, so you must create the biggest punch in the smallest writing space and then continue your momentum!

Author Kathleen O’Dell, said the above at the SCBWI Southern California Writer’s Day this past weekend. The following are her tricks to keep middle grade readers turning the pages and hungry for more!

The Problem With Most Beginnings…

  • O’Dell finds that many books start with  what she calles “getting to know the gang.” This is usually a scene where all the major players of the book (or group of friends) are introduced in a quick, un-memorable way. The thought is that the reader needs to know who everyone is. The problem is that the reader has no connection to each character as they are introduced and forget them as soon as they meet them. Instead focus on the main character and his/her point of view.
  • Beware the character that wakes up in the first paragraph, then proceeds to admire themselves in the mirror. Oh yes, my lovely blond locks, my adorable dimple, etc. This is too generic. You need to spark interest. Plus this is very cliché!
  • Avoid the pedestrian set up. After all the News never opens with the weather.
  • Start with action in sentence one! You must wind up with action, and release it in the first paragraph. You don’t have to create something overly dramatic, just a sense of urgency. For example starting with the line: “I’m late.”

Find the Right Descriptions…

  • Be specific in your descriptions, but don’t be overly explicit. Find the right words and don’t go overboard.
  • Observe people in real life. Be nosy, and eavesdrop. Human behavior is very interesting. You will be surprised how much you can learn about two people with only a few cues. Watch couples, mothers and daughters, sets of friends. You’ll find you can learn a lot about them in how they dress, what they say to one another, the exchange of a glance, etc. You don’t need much – but you do need the right details.

The Deal with Dialog…

  • Dialog will always have a back and forth to it, but it doesn’t have to be tit for tat.
  • Listen to real conversations, in fact transcribe them as an exercise. People be-lie. They don’t really say what they mean. Instead they use other cues (body language, word choice, etc.)
  • Study bad dialog as a way to help you see what doesn’t work. Learn how not to write. Bad TV (soap operas, etc.) is a great place to start.
  • Beware the dinner scene! This is a personal pet peeve of O’Dell’s and yet she sees it in published books all the time. This is the contrived scene where the author gives the characters “meaningful business” in the form of eating in order to dump info on the reader. Often this doesn’t share anything about the character, and everything you write needs to tell us something about our characters, or move the plot forward.

Building Momentum…

  • You always want to move your reader forward! Don’t drain your character with too many subplots. Be careful of pulling the focus away from the main story to spend time with a secondary character.
  • Be careful of protecting your character like they are a child. You must give them conflict. They must make mistakes. They must make hard choices. This will push your story forward.
  • Don’t get carried away with pet enthusiasms. You must cut that three page description of the old haunted house even though it is the best thing you’ve ever written and you love it.
  • Fight the mushy middle! It’s that empty sea in the center of your novel where the wind has gone out of your sails and nothing is happening. Jump to something new! Be courageous and do something drastic – get the reader out of there! And don’t worry, you can go back and change it later.
  • Be ruthlessly honest with yourself. If you’re bored, the reader will be bored. You know what the bad parts are. Get rid of them. Put the book away, and then go back and re-read it with fresh eyes. It’s amazing what you will see when you’ve had some time away. Give yourself the space to recognize it.
  • You need to use concentrate not juice. Meaning you want to concentrate as much as you can – keep the intensity and the punch. You don’t want less info, just more per sip!
  • Don’t be lazy!

The Fear of Revisions…

  • “There is bitterness in rejection, there’s fear in revision.” – O’Dell on the revision process with editors.
  • When you disagree with an editor’s note the best thing to do is to at least try it. She does this and often finds that the change is not that big of a deal. You often have to make compromises or barter, such as – this change to keep that.
  • Don’t freak out when you have to change or re-structure your book. It will make the book better.

Kathleen O’Dell is the author middle grade and young adult novels including the Agnes Parker Series, Bad Tickets, Ophie Out of Oz, and  The Aviary.