A quick question with a quick answer about writing a literary adaptation, whether you’re doing a PB or a YA novel inspired by a classic tale (folklore, Shakespeare, etc.). This comes from Randi:
Do you think the re-writing of a classic picture book with a different protagonist and different word choice, but with the same setting could be marketable or are the classics hands-off?
Add Value to Your Literary Adaptation
Every time you do a literary adaptation, you have to add value to it. Changing a few details around (this includes wording, names, location, time period) but keeping the story premise intact is just you letting the original do most of the work, so I don’t see the benefit. Anybody could do that, and publishers are looking to publish a creator and a voice that are unique. The best adaptations are INSPIRED by a classic but then go off in their own completely fresh directions.
A Twist on Cinderella
My favorite curve-ball example to give when people are talking about adapting classics is CINDER by Marissa Meyer. The original tale is, obviously, Cinderella, but this is a futuristic book where Cinderella is a cyborg working in a scrap heap in New Beijing and there’s an entire civilization of Lunar people. At least that’s what it was back when I read it as a manuscript. That is certainly much more impressive and imaginative than changing a few names and locations.
Let’s put it this way: If Marissa Meyer had not brought the core concept of CINDER to the Cinderella story, there would be no book. She didn’t just tinker with the original, she took the entire thing apart, repainted it, and put it back together her own way. A literary adaptation in today’s market takes nothing less.
Are you thinking of writing an adaptation? I’d love to be your developmental editor and help you workshop ideas for putting your own twist on a classic tale.
“The Problem With Immortality in Fiction” doesn’t seem like a very real headline. The problem with immortality? What problem with immortality? I know that I, for one, would love to be immortal. *bares neck for any vampires that might happen by* But writing immortal characters has a few pitfalls. Read on.
But in fiction, immortality is a huge problem for stakes. If your characters are immortal, they can’t die, and therefore one of the worst things that could befall someone is out of the question. When your characters are immortal, stakes plummet.
High Stakes Situations are Difficult to Write
The same goes for scenarios that are larger than life. It’s very hard to wrap one’s mind around a global apocalypse, when you really think about it. Think about those charity ads for starving children. If we hear the same mind-numbing statistic of “XX million children are starving in the world,” it’s almost too much to process. And it doesn’t stir our hearts for long. But those ad campaigns that highlight a particular child in a particular place and tell us their story, those are the ones that engage us into putting a specific face on world poverty and hunger.
So if you have an immortal character running around screaming, “The world’s going to end! Gaaah!”…I don’t know if you’re going to get the kind of reader-hooking reaction you want. The stakes you say are present (death/end of the world) are too big, and therefore they start to mean nothing, after all.
How to Make High Stakes Believable, Even With Immortality in Fiction
Let’s say you are writing a story about an immortal character or the end of the world. Should you put down the quill and sulk because it’s hopeless? No. The trick is to build in a framework of things (probably people) that your character cares about more than life itself, and put them in very real and immediate danger that is much smaller, more menacing, and more specific than some malformed looming apocalypse.
Through your character’s relationships to these people and their willingness to risk all for what they really care about, we will start to get invested in their story. After all, immortality is one thing, and it’s pretty boring, turns out. But the event that threatens to make immortality shallow and meaningless for your character? That’s what I’m interested in. And an apocalypse isn’t scary to me because it’s too huge. But the thing your character can’t bear to leave undone before the world grinds to a halt? That’s what I want to see.
Writers keep hearing advice to up the stakes, but it is possible to make your stakes too high and impossible to care about. If that’s the problem you’re battling, give your characters other more immediate things to despair over.
Struggling with building believable stakes and tension. Hire me as your fiction editor and we can make sure your novel hits the right emotional notes to pull readers in.
I got some questions from Darshana and NAP about writing animal characters. NAP asked why they seemed to be unpopular in today’s market given the many perennial animal favorites, and Darshana wrote the following:
I am under the impression that when you have a topic that could be traumatic to a child using animals lessens the effect. Example: Corduroy or Sylvester and the Magic Pebble. Also there are wonderful stories such as CLICK CLACK MOO, BEAR SNORES ON, LITTLE BLUE TRUCK that simply can’t be told any other way. Or is that if you use animals in your story, it has to be a story that couldn’t be possibly told with any other setting/character?
Animal Stories: Not Quite as Popular Anymore
When I talk about animal stories, by the way, I mean mostly picture books, chapter books, and some MG. It’s highly unusual to see anthropomorphic animal characters in YA. And it’s true that there seems to be less excitement in general about animal stories than there was a few years ago. Sure, in ye olde days, animal protagonists were de rigeur. Now, I can acknowledge that they’ve somewhat fallen out of style, though publisher’s catalogs are still crammed with all sorts of critters, especially on the PB side.
There’s nothing wrong, per se, with writing animal characters. Ask Erin Hunter, the creator of the WARRIORS middle grade series. I’m pretty sure you can find her on the road to the bank…she’ll be the one laughing. And, as I said, there are tons of creatures on shelves today. But why is there this aura that animal stories aren’t quite as popular as they used to be?
Are Animals Better Suited For Difficult Stories?
Darshana brings up an interesting point. Are talking animals better suited for difficult stories that need one step of remove from reality? This could be a reason for writing animal characters, though lots of the animal stories I’ve read are simply stories with critters who act very much like human children. In fact, as an interesting counterpoint, I know that one publisher, Lee & Low, will not publish stories with anything but real children, because their mission is diversity and they want the opposite of that remove, they want the human experience only so that their readers can instantly relate. In this vein, I think that we, as people, are so used to relating to protagonists in stories, whether animal or inanimate object or kid, that I don’t know how real this psychological distance is. I’m guessing it’s negligible, though it is good food for thought.
Are Animal Characters Integral to Your Story?
As for the other examples that Darshana mentions, she’s right, they can’t be told any other way, but I think the reason there is just because…they are stories that happen to include talking animals (or Little Blue Trucks and their animal friends). Her last point is true of all stories, I think, or at least it should be: You make the choices you do in your fiction because you simply cannot make any other choices. Your particular choices are so right that they seem like the only ones. This should apply to characters, of course, but also to setting, plot, word choice, etc. THE VELVETEEN RABBIT is a story about a discarded toy looking for a home. It literally cannot star anyone else but a toy character.
It’s a Matter of Personal Taste
I think anthropomorphic animals are very much a case-by-case question, as well as one of very personal taste. Personally (and here I speak for me and me alone), I do not like chapter books or MG with talking animals. And most unpublished picture books with animals fall short for me. From what I see in the slush, I get the distinct feeling that some people are writing animal characters simply because they remember reading a lot of animal stories when they grew up. This is a red flag because it shows that they may not be as familiar with today’s market and that they may not be making the strongest and most inevitable choices.
Writing Animal Characters: The Overall Market Trend
Overall, across the tens of thousands of submissions I’ve read, animal stories tend to cluster near the bottom of the barrel. This is by no means true across the board, it’s a huge generalization, and it has nothing to do with the canon of successful animal stories out there, but this is a clear effect I’ve noticed. (Again, just speaking for myself here.) So I’m wary of them most of the time. And it could very well end up being my loss.
However, I’ve personally broken that mold on my list with BUGLETTE THE MESSY SLEEPER (Tricycle Press) by Bethanie Murguia (and its sequel, coming from Knopf in 2013, SNIPPET THE EARLY RISER), WHEN BLUE MET EGG (coming from Dial/Penguin in 2012) by Lindsay Ward, and POCO LOCO (coming from Marshall Cavendish in 2013) by John Krause. It’s important to note that none of these books deal with issues so difficult that we needed to project them onto talking animals. It’s more important to note that all of them are tales that could only happen with these particular characters, because their creators made very active story choices. This is a critical point to keep in mind when you’re approaching how to write a character. I think that’s the bottom line, right there.
My developmental editing services will help you determine which kinds of characters (whether animal or human) will best suit the needs of your story.
Your story opening line is what pulls the reader in. Here are some of my favorite first lines from PB, MG and YA books. Some of these you’ve heard me read live. Others are recent releases or old favorites. Without any further ado, here’s an analysis of novel opening lines from published works and why they work so well.
Story Opening Line: Picture Book
On the outside Bernadette was mostly monsterly.
This super cute beginning to MOSTLY MONSTERLY by Tammi Sauer, illo. Scott Magoon (Paula Wiseman Books, 2010) sets up the expectation that Bernadette (a monster) doesn’t quite fit in. There’s the old internal conflict established: I don’t match people’s expectations for me.
Little Mabel blew a bubble, and it caused a lot of trouble.
So begins BUBBLE TROUBLE by Margaret Mahy, illo. Polly Dunbar (Clarion Books, 2008). And, no, you don’t have to work the book’s title into your first line, though both of these examples have. This is a very simple statement of conflict that, in picture books, at least, works very, very well to launch us into the story.
On her birthday, Eva was given a very special present.
This is from MAGIC BOX by Katie Cleminson (Hyperion, 2009). It’s a whimsical PB tale and the first line isn’t a statement of conflict as much as it is a call to adventure (see my choice from FROM THE MIXED UP FILES… below for a MG example). The question raised here, of course, is: What was in the box?
Story Opening Line: Middle Grade
Once upon a time, fairy tales were awesome.
From A TALE DARK AND GRIMM by Adam Gidwitz (Dutton, 2010). This is a book of twisted fairy tales where the author basically runs amok with the story of Hansel and Gretel. The whole thesis of the book is expressed in the opening line: “They were awesome, sure, but then they got lame, so here’s a truly awesome retelling.” It also plays with the familiar “once upon a time” and introduces the voice (“awesome” is a certain term spoken by a certain type of person…me, for example).
I was raised in a gaunt house with a garden; my earliest recollections are of floating lights in the apple-trees.
Since you were probably expecting me to quote from the M.T. Anderson canon with FEED (the first line of which most of us children’s publishing professionals have memorized), I decided to change it up a bit with THE ASTONISHING LIFE OF OCTAVIAN NOTHING, TRAITOR TO THE NATION, VOLUME 1 (Candlewick, 2006). There’s some lovely writing here, and a ghostly image of lights in the trees that recurs. We can also sense, right away, Octavian’s loneliness. The house is “gaunt,” which doesn’t seem very nourishing to a child, and his first memories aren’t people, they’re faraway twinkles in the treetops. A haunting first line.
Claudia knew that she could never pull off the old-fashioned kind of running away.
This is from the old favorite, FROM THE MIXED-UP FILES OF MRS. BASIL E. FRANKWEILER by E.L. Konigsburg (Aladdin, 1967). It plunges us into a) action and b) the narrator’s matter-of fact voice right away. We know that Claudia is running away, but also that she’s craving an adventure that’s much more epic than just, say, what I used to do when I mock ran away as a kid (went down the street to Kepler’s bookstore). Lots of action and momentum here. (And boy does Claudia ever pull off her goal of adventure!)
There is no lake at Camp Green Lake.
Louis Sachar and his Newbery-winning HOLES (Random House, 1998) hit us with trademark humor right away. No matter what happens from here, we know that we’re in for a zany ride. But rather than just being funny, this first line introduces us to the kind of contrarian narrator who would point out such a delicious detail, too.
Ms. McMartin was definitely dead.
This is from THE BOOKS OF ELSEWHERE by Jacqueline West (Dial, 2010) and it plunges us into action right away, too. Who is this woman? How did she die? Did the characters have anything to do with it? It doesn’t really hint at the fantasy nature of the novel and doesn’t really pass the vague test (follow the link for more tips on what makes a good novel first line), but I like this book and it starts with a bang!
Story Opening Line: Young Adult
In these dungeons the darkness was complete, but Katsa had a map in her mind.
This is, of course, from GRACELING by Kristin Cashore (Harcourt, 2008). What is Katsa doing in prison? What did she do to get there? Better yet, it seems like she has a plan to get out. And how come she knows the dungeon layout so well? This plunges us into action and raises stakes immediately. Pay attention to all the questions each of these novel opening lines have been raising. They’re intense and urgent.
They took me in my nightgown.
This is from the beautiful BETWEEN SHADES OF GRAY by Ruta Sepetys (Philomel, 2011), about a girl deported with her family to Siberia during WWII. Not only does it give us action, but it also conveys a crucial mood for the events: helplessness. By emphasizing that it was night, that she was in her nightgown and vulnerable, we really lock in on an emotional connection right away.
The first thing you find out when yer dog learns to talk is that dogs don’t got nothing much to say.
Ha! I love this first line from THE KNIFE OF NEVER LETTING GO by Patrick Ness (Candlewick, 2008). And Manchee (the dog) is one of my favorite characters in anything I’ve read in the past ten years. This line introduces the core relationship of the story, the dialect, and the odd fact that, in this world, at least, dogs talk (in terms of world-building, this lets us know there’s a fantasy element). The humor can’t be beat, either.
There you have it: an analysis of novel opening lines, grabbed at random from my shelves. Enjoy and discuss! Tell me some of your published favorites in the comments.
When you hire me as your children’s book editor, I’ll give you feedback on all aspects of your story: from the overall plot to the nitty-gritty of your story opening line.
Not every sale happens quickly or easily, but when you finally make that connection with a project like this, it’s very gratifying. Such is the story of the middle-grade novel FLY A LITTLE HIGHER, PIPER LEE, by Dianna Dorisi Winget, pictured below.
Dianna was one of my first clients and I loved everything about Piper Lee DeLuna’s sweet, salty, and Southern middle-grade voice. This book is the story of a girl who holds out hope that her pilot daddy is still alive after a crash…a belief that keeps her from embracing her mother’s plans to remarry and rebuild the family. You can check out a beautiful teaser page for it here. PIPER LEE had been in the works since 2003 and Dianna writes:
I’m not from the South but I’ve always been intrigued with it and had a lot of fun doing research on Georgia, which is the setting I chose. In 2004, I won a scholarship to attend the famous Highlights Children’s Writers Workshop at Chautauqua in New York based on the first chapter of Piper Lee. While at the conference, my mentor, author Juanita Havill, gave me lots of encouragement and advised me to find an agent enthusiastic for middle grade fiction and not to settle for anything less.
I spent the next year querying at least thirty agents. I received a lot of ‘personal’ rejections and scribbled notes of praise but no takers. Frustrated, I set PIPER LEE on the back burner. But I never actually forgot about Piper Lee. How can you forget about a story you love so much? So in 2009 I bought the latest edition of the GUIDE TO LITERARY AGENTS and decided to give it another go.
I very methodically narrowed my list of prospective agents down to 15 and sent out my first batch of five e-queries. Mary Kole was one of the five, and within a few short weeks she’d requested the whole manuscript, read it and called to offer representation! After seven long, doubt filled years I’d finally found someone as passionate and excited about Piper Lee as me.
But connecting with me was only one piece of the puzzle. What Dianna and Piper Lee’s Dream Team needed was an editor who loved her as much as we did. That part turned out to be more difficult, as contemporary coming-of-age MG came to be seen as “too quiet” in the marketplace around the time we submitted. I went out with PIPER LEE in January 2009. One of the editors on my first list was Harcourt VP and editorial director Jeannette Larson, who I had just met in San Diego. She was busy with a move to the New York office and so she passed it on to her assistant, Adah Nuchi.
I took a quick glance at the first page and was immediately drawn in by the Southern voice and fantastically spunky main character. The very next day I sent Jeannette an email that began, “I took a sneak peek at the first couple of pages of Fly A Little Higher, Piper Lee and have to admit, I couldn’t stop reading after that!” A few months later I was still thinking about Piper Lee and reread it to see if it still held the same spark. It did. While Jeannette really liked it, she wasn’t sure it was quite strong enough to acquire, but she did mention to Mary that I had loved it.
With some other feedback in mind, I advised Dianna to revise PIPER LEE so that we could send it out to a second round of editors, including Piper Lee fans Jeannette and Adah. Since Dianna had seen a lot of rejection for PIPER LEE over the years, she wasn’t really excited about its chances. She writes:
When I signed on with Mary, I was overflowing with hope and optimism. But after the first long round of submissions and no takers I was very discouraged. I thought, “See, I knew it was stupid to get my hopes up. Who am I trying to fool?” And then after I did the big revision you asked for and it headed out on its second round, I tried to be optimistic again but it was tough. This little voice inside my head kept saying, “You don’t really think this is ever actually going to sell, do you?” Even when we started getting positive feedback from Jeannette and Adah, I really expected it to turn out the way all the other positive responses I’d gotten over the years had turned out.
But I wouldn’t give up. I love PIPER LEE so dang much that I knew this book would find a home. During the second round, though, Jeannette and Adah, who were the most passionate about it from day one, wanted another revision. This was tough news to break to Dianna, and, of course, I had a few moments of doubt myself, but I really wanted to follow through and give PIPER LEE one last shot. Adah recaps:
After Dianna revisited the story over the summer of 2010, Mary sent the revision to Jeannette and reminded her that this was the manuscript her assistant had loved. I read Dianna’s revision and liked the direction she had taken it, but it still needed some work. I was enthusiastic enough about Piper Lee that Jeannette was willing to hand the project over to me to see if I could help get it where it needed to be for acquisition. I sent editorial comments in January of 2011 and received Dianna’s second revision in April. After that it was just a matter of getting the right approvals, and luckily everyone in-house loved the manuscript, too.
Finally, in May of 2011, more than a year after I first sent PIPER LEE into the world, after over 30 agent rejections, two dozen editor declines, and two serious revisions, I knew we were very close. Adah wrote that she was putting together an offer! I couldn’t wait to tell Dianna the great news!
Honestly, it wasn’t until Mary told me that not only did Adah love it but that her publisher had given wholehearted support to acquiring it, that I finally started to allow myself to get excited. Then when I came home that day and heard Mary’s message on the machine asking me to call, that’s when I finally started to believe.
Every sale is gratifying and unique, and I’m so happy that I had faith in PIPER LEE from the very beginning. I sometimes had to have enough faith to keep Dianna excited, too, but all of her hard work paid off and now FLY A LITTLE HIGHER, PIPER LEE will soar on Harcourt’s 2012 list!
It was a long process from first submission to acquisition, but I’m so excited to be able to share Piper Lee with readers.
This workshop piece comes from Michele Tennant. Enjoy!
Dylan pushed off the sidewalk with his black Converse high-tops. Beneath him the wheels on his skateboard whirred. Tiny bumps on the concrete beneath sent vibrations up his legs. The only voice in his head was his own.
The Converse shoe is a “hi-top” (and they often call them Chucks…as a former punk kid/skate rat, I try to be aware of these things). The second sentence reads awkwardly. There’s a simpler way to say it, and the syntax is off. Not sure why you need to say that “The only voice in his head was his own.” I should hope so…whose else is in there? Doesn’t need explaining.
“Okay, folks you’re in for a treat,” Dylan mumbled under his breath. He mimicked the roar of a crowed stadium. “thirteen year old Dylan Davis will now be attempting the laser flip. Let’s hope he doesn’t scrape any freckles off on the pavement.”
Capitalized “Thirteen” here. When I talk about mimetic writing, I want you to be aware of what the character is doing. If he’s skating, he’s working out. The freckles/pavement line is too long for someone out of breath…
Another push and Dylan picked up speed. The crisp morning air stung his eyes making them water. Dylan breathed in the smell of damp pavement and lilac blossoms and saw a flash of red across the street. Katie Jordan had stepped off the curb. She was fresh and clean and dressed for work.
I’d put a comma between “eyes” and “water.” Good smell detail, though. We usually ignore that sense. “She was fresh and clean and dressed for work” is not something I’d imagine a 13 y.o. skate kid saying about a woman. The voice is too adult and too female. I would’ve also loved more context for who Katie is…a teacher? A neighbor? Mrs. Robinson?
She smiled and waved, and a breeze blew her flowing red skirt up just high enough for Dylan to get a glimpse of the black lace on her slip beneath. He waved back. Still following her with his eyes, he pushed off the ground again. One of the wheels struck a pebble. The board wobbled precariously causing Dylan to flail his arms as he steadied himself.
Would a 13 y.o. boy know what a slip is? This lacy peek is a bit sexy in this context, and we still don’t know who Katie is, so I don’t quite understand it yet. That description is not in voice, again, and the first sentence is overlong. I’d also use “underneath” here. We’ve got a bit of play-by-play narration going on here…you’re tracking what’s happening very closely, but I’m not sure we need all these details described so thoroughly. “Causing” is a very dry voice word, esp. for a 13 y.o. boy narrator. “Steadied” too.
He glanced back, hoping Katie hadn’t seen. Thankfully, she had bent to pick up the Sunday newspaper.
Up the street Dylan heard an engine rev.
Come on focus, he told himself. A little faster now . . . What did Jason say? Push off, jump, flip and land. Landing, that’s the part I’m worried about.
Is he just skating for the sake of skating or is there something coming up that he’s practicing for? A competition? The Impress The Older Lady Olympics? You could frame what he’s doing and why to give us more stakes for this practice session. “Thankfully” not in voice here. Overall, I’m really not getting a 13 y.o. boy sense from the prose. Try reading it aloud. Really get into your boy’s character.
A black SUV sped past Dylan. He turned to see it bump up over the curb and onto the sidewalk. There stood Katie, hand in her open mailbox, frozen, her eyes wide.
We don’t really get the danger in this description. Is it weaving? Does it narrowly miss him? One moment it “sped,” the next moment it is on a rampage. You could build up this moment more so that it’s not a jarring surprise to the reader, who wasn’t expecting this. It’s an issue of tone.
The newspaper dropped from Katie’s fingertips. Dylan opened his mouth to warn her, as he did the skateboard stopped abruptly. A jolt shuddered through Dylan’s body. He was propelled forward like a test dummy. The world flew past; Katie’s frightened face, the SUV, houses, trees, picket fence, sidewalk, sky.
The second sentence is clunky and an awkward transition. The test dummy image is a bit of a cliché. Like the snatches of images…they’re mimetic of what’s going on.
Dylan found himself on his back in the damp concrete culvert. All he could hear was the whoosh, whoosh, whooshing of the blood rushing through his veins. His body felt disconnected, numb and cold and a salty, metallic taste filled his mouth. He spit a mixture of blood and saliva onto the pavement beside him.
“Found himself” is a rather mild way of putting it. I’d switch out something with more impact. (Get it? Because he just hit the ground?) These sentences are a bit dry for something so intense. The syntax of “numb and cold and a salty” is off to me. Also, there has been no interiority in terms of his thoughts. Have your character react to what’s going on…a lot has just happened…where’s his head in all this?!
Taking a deep breath, Dylan struggled to lift his right arm. It wouldn’t budge. With his left elbow he managed to army crawled up the muddy, moss covered concrete to the sidewalk. There on the blacktop lay Katie’s mangled body. Her arms and legs stuck out at odd angles and a puddle that matched her skirt was slowly spreading around her. A dull hum filled his ears. It was as if someone had pushed the mute button for the whole planet.
Could use more thoughts. Like the last image very much. If we knew more about his relationship (or lack thereof) with Katie, we would care a lot more when she gets whalloped. It’s all about context. This might be a bit graphic, depending on the rest of the story, for MG. Also, good job starting right off with some action!
“Am I writing middle-grade fiction or young adult?” This MG vs YA question is something I get ALL THE TIME from writers. So have you written middle grade or young adult? Let’s find out!
It is some variety of the following, which came from Jesse:
How would you classify a sci-fi adventure novel with 14 year old boy protagonist? Would that be upper middle grade? Lower YA? I’ve heard so many different opinions on the matter!
Ah, yes. The great “MG vs YA” debate. It rages on in many writer’s minds, critique groups, query letters, and even submission rounds with editors. It seems like there are always books that ride the middle grade or young adult line.
The Difference Between Middle-Grade Fiction and Young Adult
My advice? Get out of that gray area! If you read a lot of middle grade or young adult books (and you should be reading both), you can easily isolate the difference. MG books are shorter than YA, deal with any “issues” or “content” (edgy stuff) but only secondhand (like the kid’s mom is an alcoholic, not the kid herself), have less darkness and often a sweeter ending than most books for older readers, are sophisticated but still accessible for reluctant readers, are more open to curriculum tie-ins and educational content, and are written to appeal to 10-12 year-old readers, at their heart.
YA books are longer, darker, edgier, less about education and more about a riveting story (though MG should have one, too, of course), and written to appeal to readers 14+.
Middle Grade or Young Adult: You Must Decide
There are, obviously, gray areas and gray-area readers, say, ten year-olds who are really advanced and sophisticated, and teen readers who are still reading MIX books (a really fun line of girl-centric middle-grade fiction from Simon & Schuster). Or teens who don’t want to read about edgy, risque content*. Sure. There are always exceptions.
But to give yourself the strongest chance at success (and publication), I’d urge you to follow the rules for the project you hope will be your debut, and decide whether you’re writing MG vs YA*. Especially in this case.
When you’re just starting to write either middle grade or young adult, you have to start out knowing which one you want to target. Middle school (where MG readers dwell) and high school (where YA readers live) are as different as night and day. Think about your daily cares and worries in middle school.
Tailor Your Theme to Your Audience
Now think about high school. You were preoccupied with completely different things, and your world, your body, your psyche, your emotions, your relationships with friends, family, and romantic others … all of it was very different from one to the next.
In middle school, kids care mostly about friends and family. They feel the pull to stay and be a kid, and also the need to grow up. They want to fit in and be accepted, but they’re also forging their own identities. It’s a very turbulent time. Plus, they’re going through puberty, so hormones and enticing people of the opposite (or same) sex are just starting to cause major havoc. As for the future, most middle school kids just want to survive until high school.
In high school, kids are really individuating themselves. But now some* also drive, drink, have sex, bully on a really grand scale, and have to make decisions about college (and decide the rest of their lives, as they see it). They’re facing enormous pressures from the social world, their families, themselves. Almost all of their childhood selves are gone, and they’re trying on adulthood for size. That’s havoc in and of itself, but a very unique type. This is a very big part of the MG vs YA conversation.
The Middle Grade or Young Adult Gray Area Doesn’t Exist
These audiences are vastly different. Their worlds are different. Their mindsets, cares, hopes, and dreams shift perspectives when you cross from middle-grade fiction into YA. Sure, many things about the childhood/teen experience and many things about the human experience remain the same, but, in terms of relatability — which you really have to think about when writing for pre-teens, tweens, and teens — you are dealing with two different beasts.
In Jesse’s case, I gave the following advice:
I would make your protagonist either 13 and call it MG or 15 and call it YA. There are two shelves at the bookstore: MG and YA. You don’t see a shelf in the middle. Sure, there can be MG for slightly younger and slightly older readers (ditto YA), but you really do have to pick a side. Don’t just go by the age of the character, either (though I would avoid 14, since it’s such a cusp age between middle and high school). Go by level of sophistication, length of manuscript (MG is about 35k, YA more like 50k and up), and darkness (is there a lot of content, ie: sex, violence, etc., or a mature feel, ie: the last HARRY POTTER vs. the first one?). Use all those guidelines to help you pick one or the other.
And I stand by these words. Sure, you can say it’s “upper MG” or “lower YA” or even the (detestable) term “tween,” but the truth is, there are only two shelves at most bookstores: MG and YA. They’re not going to build a special shelf just for your upper-MG/tween/lower-YA opus.
Pick a Category and Commit
There is a diversity of lengths and age levels and levels of sophistication on the MG and YA shelves, from really young MG to really old YA, but each of those books had to pick a side initially. You have to pick a side, too.
Only you can choose which audience your work is written for, but there is a fundamental difference between MG readers and YA readers, and that’s where your thinking needs to start. That’s the thought process I hope I’ve sparked with this post. Think of your ideal audience, then build a character and a story that they will relate to.
When I think of stories and of pitches, the ideal reader (and their ideal age group) are never far from my mind. And I do often try to tweak a character/manuscript to the right age when working with a writer. But it still needs to come to me knowing, at its heart, who it is written for…MG or YA.
* ETA: To over-clarify, I’m saying that you should give yourself a strong chance of success by deciding whether your book is MG vs YA, and not hanging it in a gray area.
I’m not saying that you need to have edgy teen elements in your fiction. Even though I felt I was very clear, someone brought up an issue in the comments, and I want to address things like that, not just leave them dangling out there, unanswered. Just so we’re all on the same — ahem, bad publishing joke alert — page. 🙂
Having trouble deciding whether you’re writing middle grade or young adult? I can help you pick a category and tailor your novel to the right audience as your children’s book editor.
This question about how to write early readers, easy chapter books, and chapters book on the blog comes from Mary:
I have a PB manuscript that I’m thinking of turning into a chapter book. I’ve noticed that I haven’t seen many agents listing easy chapter books as their interest. Do agents represent CBs or is it best to approach editors directly? Also, is it difficult to sell a CB as a single title, or are editors mostly interested in series?
I’m going to expand this question to include another little-discussed market, the early reader. The reason I don’t usually talk about early readers or chapter books on the blog is because I don’t really represent them, and neither do a lot of my colleagues. As Mary has noticed, there aren’t a lot of agents hanging out their shingles and asking to see early reader or chapter book submissions.
Before I talk about why that is, I’ll define both markets so we’re on the same page.
How to Write and Publish Early Readers
Early readers are the earliest “chapter” stories that a kid can get. They’re very short in terms of manuscript length (1,500 words max) but are broken up into either chapters or vignettes that will give the reader the feeling of reading a book with real chapters in it. Your target audience for these is kids ages 4 to 8. Early readers feature a smaller trim size, some the size of or slightly bigger than a paperback novel, and can go from about 32 to 60 pages. The font size is smaller and they feature spot illustrations in either color or black and white instead of full color throughout, like a picture book.
Some examples of early readers: Ling and Ting: Not Exactly the Same by Grace Lin (Little, Brown), the HarperCollins I Can Read! books, and the Random House Step Into Reading books. You can usually find them on spinner racks in the children’s section of your local independent bookstore. If you’re at all curious, go and get your hands on some. As you’ll see, early readers have strict guidelines for vocabulary and sentence structure and are graded so that kids can develop their reading skills and move up a ladder to more independent reading. Even if you think you have a great early reader idea, it has to be a very precise fit for a publisher’s established vocab/sentence/word count guidelines. (For more general information on children’s book manuscript length, go here.)
How to Write and Publish Chapter Books
What are chapter books? Dig in! Chapter books are for more independent readers who are making the bridge between picture books and early readers and middle grade. Some bookstores designate these as for kids 9-12 but I would say readers are mostly 6-8. Manuscripts can range from about 5,000 words to about 15,000 words, max. Since your audience is still developing its reading skills, you have more of a wide berth in terms of vocabulary and sentence structure, story and character.
Younger chapter books will be simpler (some will call them “easy chapter books”), but you can get pretty sophisticated for older chapter books. Trim size resembles paperback books and finished books tend to go from 100 to 160 pages, with black and white spot illustrations throughout. Some of my favorite chapter books are Clementine by Sarah Pennypacker and illustrated by Marla Frazee, the Ivy and Bean series, written by Anne Barrows and illustrated by Sophie Blackall from Chronicle Books, and the fun Geronimo Stilton books from Scholastic (in full color!). If you’re at all curious about chapter books, do pick some up and take a look. They’re a very quick read!
The Market for Writing and Publishing Early Readers and Chapter Books
Now, the reason I don’t talk about them a lot is because early readers and chapter books are a really tough market right now. Most writers are still wondering what are chapter books instead of writing them. Writers have some luck doing I Can Reads or Step Into Reading as work-for-hire for the big publishers, but writers and agents haven’t had a lot of recent success with pitching independent creations and getting an early reader or chapter book series going.
One reason for this? The word I just used: series. If you look at an early reader or even a chapter book, you’ll see that their spines are tiny. When you’re fighting for space on early reader or chapter book shelves with Dora the Explorer licensed early reader #798 and 30 of its closest friends, your tiny spine isn’t going to stand out. It’s been proven that series sell better than stand-alones, so that’s where publishers are turning for these markets.
Obstacles to Writing Early Readers, Easy Chapter Books, and Chapter Books
So why don’t publishers give new writers a series? Well, a debut writer is untested and they won’t have a lot of sales power to their name yet. And, truth be told, early readers and chapter books are not lucrative for publishers. These books have very low price points: about $3.99 to $6.99, unless, of course, they’re published in hardcover. Most are published on cheap paper, about the same quality as a mass market paperback (what you’d find in the grocery store checkout aisle). They’re not big profit-turners. And why would a house spend a lot of money and marketing launching a new series from a debut writer when they won’t really stand to gain from it? Cynical, yes, but this sector of the market is very cynical right now.
While early readers and chapter books are a down market right now, they’re not an absolutely closed door. However, writers hoping to tap this market need to be very familiar with language, vocabulary, sentence structure, reading levels, and all the other strict guidelines in effect for these books.
How to Start Writing Children’s Books
For my money, I think it would be easier to make a debut as a picture book writer in this market. And that’s saying a lot, since picture books aren’t exactly selling like hotcakes, either. I don’t look at submissions for early readers or chapter books unless, of course, someone has the next Clementine character. As it happens, one of my clients is developing a potential idea for this market (the only way I would really touch it right now), and so I’ve been doing a lot of research lately. These tricky little books are certainly on my mind, but I don’t recommend that they be on yours.
It’s not all about picture books and children’s novels. I provide editorial services for early reader and chapter book writers, too.
In the 2010 WriteOnCon chat, I caused a bit of a kerfuffle with fantastic writer Hannah Moskowitz over writing middle grade for boys. (On a side note, if you haven’t read BREAK, stop reading this, go buy that at your local indie, and go read it this instant.) I said that, for MG boy books, in particular, sometimes the sense of action and adventure trumps voice. I still stand by that. I’ve been reading a lot of MG boy books recently. While they’re all well-written, I sometimes feel like the pacing and plot can hold more emphasis to readers and publishers than a really great, character-driven, literary voice. At least that’s what I see when I look at what’s on shelves these days.
Writing Middle Grade for Boys: How Important is Voice?
Well, Hannah disagreed and said that voice and character are just as important when you’re writing middle grade for boys. We never disagreed over this point, I don’t think, but I didn’t want to hijack chat to make that clear. Of course boy books should put just as much emphasis on voice as they do on plot. But when I look at what’s out there, especially in MG, I don’t see it as much. And it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy. Do boys read the kinds of books that publishers publish because those are the kinds of books they want or because those are the kinds of books that are getting published?
If you pick up, say, a MG book marketed to and published for girls, you will find pages dripping with interiority, character, inner monologue, inner tension, emotions, and, yes, of course, action and plot. If you pick up a MG with a boy protagonist, more likely than not, you will find lots of quick scenes, action, adventure, dialogue, and less of the kind of slow, interior stuff that tends to give more flesh and meaning to characters.
The Boy Problem
But that’s how things tend to be on shelves right now. That doesn’t mean that’s how it has to be. Hannah has written a great post about boy characters in YA, it’s called The Boy Problem. I think this also can apply to boy characters in MG. There are a lot of boy main characters in MG, and those boy readers are at a crucial point in their reading lives…they usually read through age 12 and then drop off the reading planet entirely or swing up to adult fiction to, as Hannah says, find stories that are relevant to them there.
Examples of Great Voice in Boy Books
There are, of course, authors who are writing middle grade for boys with fantastic voice. Eoin Colfer, Rick Riordan, Daniel Handler/Lemony Snicket, M.T. Anderson, Jeff Kinney, Trenton Lee Stewart, Nancy Farmer, Carl Hiaasen, the authors featured in the GUYS READ: FUNNY BUSINESS anthology coming out this fall from Balzer + Bray/HarperCollins (edited by Jon Scieszka), and many more. They know how to tie characterization and voice together with action and plot in a way that’s really appealing to MG boy readers.
Solving the Boy Problem
But other published MG books out there, and some of the submissions I see, don’t seem to put as much emphasis on voice as they should. So instead of saying, “That’s the way it happens to be right now and excuse me for just calling ’em as I seem ’em,” as I did in the chat, I’ve been inspired by Hannah Moskowitz to be one of the people who does something about this. For now, I’m talking about MG boy books in particular, not boy YA. Teen boy books are a different can of worms, because the audience is different. So, in terms of boy MG, are two things you can do right now to start solving The Boy Problem.
First: If you have book recommendations for published books with great MG boy voice and characterization, which manages to combine these with action and adventure, leave them in the comments. I’ve given you some starter authors, above.
Second: As writers, if you’re writing middle grade for boys, read the books recommended in this post. Then work hard on your craft to reach and capture these very special readers. Write books with great characters, great voice, great scenes, and great action. Push yourself hard and don’t be satisfied with, “Oh, it’s a boy book, I can get away with some flat voice and character if I make enough stuff go bang.” Then, query me of course.
I’m officially putting it out there…I would love to see more MG boy books that put an emphasis on voice and character in addition to action and thrills.
Are you writing middle grade for boys? I’d love to be your middle grade editor and help you find the perfect balance of voice and action.
A reader wrote in last week with a question regarding writing about family in realistic fiction. Mary said:
Can a manuscript be sold if the main character lives in a traditional nuclear family? Everything I’ve read has either a parent who left or disappeared, went to jail, or died–even in so-called humor novels. Being a single adoptive mother, I don’t object to a single parent household. But EVERY book?
This is a good point, and steals one of my jokes about MG or YA, which is: The parents (often mother) in a middle-grade or YA novel have the highest mortality rate in all of fiction.
Judging from the writing about family that’s on offer these days, you really do get a sense that it’s true. Parents are always dead or missing or in jail or abusive or otherwise highly dysfunctional. Almost too much so.
Fiction Thrives on Tension
Personally, I feel like there’s room for a more peaceful or normal family unit in MG or YA novels. However, fiction — even realistic fiction — thrives on tension and conflict (not melodrama, mind you, or hysterics, but real conflict). Fiction can never be static, or your readers will put the book down (if you even get as far as having a book in the first place).
So when you’re writing about family, you can absolutely feature a close-knit, whole or loving group in your novel. And nobody has to die or go on a drug binge or murder anybody. However, you can’t have a whole manuscript of Pollyanna love and family moments. The conflict has to come from somewhere.
There’s one good reason that families usually explode in MG or YA novels, I think. It’s during your teen years that you start to look around and realize that your parents aren’t perfect, as you originally thought when you were a kid. You start to see them as flawed human beings instead of superheroes. You also start to get to know them in new and different ways. Family members are also especially high stakes because they’re people you’ve known the longest and are the closest to, for better or for worse. And since the best realistic fiction reflects universal truths of being alive, writers tend to hone in on family relationships as especially dramatic since…let’s face it…they often are.
Writing About Family Without Dysfunction: High Stakes and Tension Elsewhere in the Story
A successful novel manuscript has to have two sources of conflict: internal and external. Internal conflict is the character’s struggle with being themselves and existing in the world around them. (Feeling alone, like a loser, feeling like they have no friends, wanting something really badly, etc.) External conflict is the conflict of a character and their relationships or with a situation in the outside world. (Parents divorcing, sibling rivalry, betrayal by a friend, an impending apocalypse, etc.)
So, even if you’re writing about family in a loving way, your character must have both external and internal conflict to be a compelling fictional person. Nobody wants to read a book that’s 300 pages of, “Everything is great and awesome!” But the conflict doesn’t 100% have to come from a dysfunctional family, either. In fact, in this market, having a functional family might actually set you apart, as long as there is enough tension and the stakes are high enough elsewhere in the story.
ETA: Of course, as is hinted at in the comments, having a family with missing members in it makes it easier for characters to break out of the house and get into shenanigans! One common complaint about MG and YA is: “How in the sam hill did these kids get into so much trouble? Who was watching them?” That’s easy to get around when you off mom and pop. Of course, murder most foul is not the only way to let your fictional kids have more room to roam.
Are you writing realistic fiction for MG? I’d love to be your middle grade editor and help you figure out the family dynamics in your story.