Am I Writing Middle-Grade Fiction or Young Adult?

“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!

middle-grade fiction, mg vs ya, middle grade vs ya, middle grade or young adult, middle grade novel, young adult novel, writing for children, children's novels, writing children's fiction
Who is your audience? You have to pick one. Perhaps the dog?

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.

How to Write Early Readers, Easy Chapter Books, and Chapter Books

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.

easy reader chapter books, easy chapter books, what are chapter books, easy reader chapter books, how to write and publish early readers, how to write and publish chapter books
CLEMENTINE is an example of writing great easy chapter books for young readers.

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.

Writing Middle Grade for Boys: Voice and Character

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, boy books
When you’re writing middle grade for boys, is it okay to focus on plot and action over voice?

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.

Writing About Family in MG or YA Fiction

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?

writing about family, realistic fiction
When you’re writing about family, does there have to be a dysfunctional element to be competitive in today’s market?

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.

If You Write About an Issue Book, Do It Justice

A commenter on my post about premise vs plot got me to thinking about the issue book. In my post, I used some examples of life issues, one of which was a kid with a parent addicted to meth. In response, a reader named Alan wrote this:

Other than the gay issue, plot or not, it’s a story that can only be told by someone who is living the story. It’s not a one book or essay or short story, it’s a never ending saga and life style. Please do it justice if any of you pursue this issue (meth) and the destruction of the family.

issue book, writing about social justice
Do you have the “right” to pursue a story about a life experience that isn’t your own?

Writing An Issue Book: Do You Have the “Right”?

This raises the bigger question: do people who are not living a certain story have a “right” to pursue it in fiction? I personally happen to both agree and disagree with Alan’s comment, which is why I wanted to dig into it here. I agree with the fact that people who write about a certain issue need to roll up their sleeves, dig in and absolutely do it justice. (For this post, yesterday’s post and future posts, an “issue book” is one that deals with one of the many more serious problems or predicaments that a teen might face in their coming of age: drugs, sex, rape, discrimination, sexual orientation, abuse, divorce, alcoholism, death in the family, pregnancy, abortion, eating disorders, immigration, legal trouble, murder, crime, running away, etc. These issues will figure more heavily into a story and a plot than, say, a lying friend or a bad grade on a math test.)

What If I Could Only Write About My Experience?

However, I disagree with the idea that only people who have lived through something can write about it. For certain books — like memoir — this is very true, obviously. Also, it does happen that some of the most comprehensive and gripping issue books tend to be written by people who have lived certain experiences. Ellen Hopkins’ breakout, CRANK, came directly from family experience and I don’t know if she would’ve been inspired to write it or if she could speak with such authority if she didn’t have this front lines perspective on meth and drug addiction. Still, what if men only wrote books from the male POV? What if gay people only wrote gay characters, or straight people only wrote straight characters? What if writing about social justice issues was only available to people impacted by those issues? What if I could only write about white, middle class, female, Russian literary agents? I’m exaggerating to prove a point here but I think you get it.

Start With Character

Most issue books, in my opinion, need to start with character. And remember, every character is different. Some people who suffered rape think of themselves as victims. Others think of themselves as survivors. Every person reacts to an issue differently, so there’s not one way to approach writing about social justice or rape or meth addiction or being gay. So the character and their story should really be your starting point. Besides, a lot of people who really did live through an experience are emotionally invested in it. They may not be able to separate their experience from a fictional story with all the moving parts of other, wholly fictional novels on the shelves. As a result, they may only be able to think of a particular issue in one context. That’s not bad, but it is important to remember that there are many different experiences for every issue out there. How do you make sure you’re writing a valid character having a valid issue experience? There’s a fantastic thing called research, and more fiction writers need to use it.

Do Your Research

If you are writing about a person who has been adopted, go interview people who have had different adoption experiences. Interview people in closed and open adoptions, people whose parents raised them with the awareness that they were adopted and people whose parents did not, people who ended up with a great adoptive family and those who never quite bonded. Go interview mothers who gave up their children for adoption. Those who are grateful for their choice and those who regret it. Even if the birth mother is not a character in your story, you need to understand the issue from all sides. Interview an adoption counselor who matches families with birth mothers or a doctor who counsels or treats a lot of pregnant teens who are grappling with this choice. Sound like a lot of work? Well, yeah, but how are you going to understand this issue and these characters if you just make it all up?

Do the same level of research, with the same layers, for all the issues you choose to write about. If you really care about an issue, if you really want your book to be authentic, if you want people who have lived this issue to read your work (and they will) and respect it, do research. There’s so much to be said for having a fantastic imagination, sure. But there’s even more to be said for knowing the limits of your imagination and for reaching out to people who might give you information, details, scenes and experiences that are totally new to you. Sometimes, something made up by you is the perfect thought, image or turn of phrase for a certain moment. Sometimes, though, you will find something in your research that will change your story, change a scene, add just the perfect touch of authenticity to what you’re writing. A thought. An image. A bit of dialogue. A certain term that only “insiders” use. These details will only make your manuscript better.

A Good Writer Can Take On Any Subject

Good writers know that they are not an island. They can’t possibly — nor should they — be expected to fabricate absolutely everything. They need “authenticating details” and they need to really be invested, emotionally and intellectually, in the issues they write about. So Alan’s concern for doing the issue justice is very much at the front of my mind. However, I think that a fantastic writer can take on any subject and, by augmenting their imagination with really comprehensive research, write a compelling book that rings true. If we could only write what we’ve lived through, we’d be limiting ourselves and the book market. Plus, we wouldn’t have great stories from masterful storytellers like Laurie Halse Anderson, who has written about issues from rape to anorexia with absolute clarity and respect. And that’s what you need when tackling an issue book, I think. It’s definitely not the easy way to go but it is very important work.

Authenticity is Key

As one reader posted, in response to Alan’s comment:

Hmmm, Alan’s comment made me think. I have a experience with a number of subjects that could be touchy (being gay, living with an alcoholic sibling, suicide in the family). I’ve never had a problem with someone writing about these things who doesn’t have any experience. But I’ll tell you what…a lack of authenticity really sticks out to me. And it’s kept me from doing things like writing from a male perspective or a different race or about addiction.

I wonder how many people write from unfamiliar situations and how often that’s done well.

I think the point we’re coming back to is that — whether you’re writing about social justice or abuse or addiction or trauma — authenticity and the execution of the story are the bottom line.

(By the way, if anyone has a phenomenal issue book that’s been backed with lots of great research and where the issue isn’t the only plot point, I’d love to see it!)

When you bring me on as your novel editor, I’ll help you spot instances where authenticity is lacking in your story.

First Place Winner, Novel Beginnings Contest

I’m very excited to share the First Place winner of the novel beginnings contest. This is a contemporary MG story and one that I think will have you cracking up and loving the voice. It’s by Anita Nolan and is called ELLIE AND THE KING. Read on to see why I picked it.

***

Lisa Marie Presley and I have a lot in common. Maybe it’s not obvious, since she’s older than my mother and has been married to Michael Jackson and Nicolas Cage, among others, and I, at the age of thirteen, have been married to no one.

This is a great opening line and paragraph. It also sets up an interesting problem. The narrator says they have a lot in common, then goes on to outline how they couldn’t be any more different. And yet…

But we both have Elvis for a dad.

Ah, there it is! The moment I was hooked.

The only difference is—her dad really was Elvis.

My dad, on the other hand, just thinks he’s Elvis. Okay, maybe he doesn’t really believe he is, but he plays along with the people who play along with him pretending to be Elvis.

I don’t think I have ever read a plot conflict about an Elvis impersonator, er, tribute artist. 🙂 I love her thoughts on him and his audience, how he plays along and they play along with him, it sums everything up in a tight little sentence.

Whatever.

Don’t get me wrong. I love my father—I do. He ‘s taken care of me since my mother left when I was three months old.

But sometimes I wish he were a normal dad, with a normal hobby, like woodworking, or golf, or creating sculptures from tree trunks with a chain saw.

No, my dad wants to be Elvis. How humiliating is that?

Thank you, Dad. Thank you very much.

Love the Elvis nod at the end of this mini-section here. While there are moments where the voice strains just slightly into overused “sarcastic teen” territory — “Whatever” or “How humiliating is that?” — we do get some nice humor here, and some odd details (“creating sculptures from tree trunks with a chain saw”) that show us a true, idiosyncratic character. We also get a little family history here, but not too much. The big lesson in this contest so far — don’t weight the beginning down too heavily with backstory and exposition. See how little other writers are doing and how it feels like just enough.

“I’m adopted. It’s the only possible explanation.”

The Piercing Pagoda kiosk at the mall provides excellent cover for my friend Lindsey and me while a group of kids from school—the popular ones—stroll past, but I duck lower anyway. I don’t know why I worry, because I’m one of the more invisible people at school. But if anyone connects me with the man dressed in full Elvis regalia standing across the way, my name will flash through every IM in Cranford Middle School, and possibly the entire state of Pennsylvania.

Locates the reader, gives us a snappy line of dialogue and grounds us in the scene and the moment that’s happening. We also get a little bit more context for this character and her social life, or lack thereof. I like that we jump into scene quickly.

Lindsey glances at the older ladies—it’s always older ladies—lined up to meet my dad, and shakes her head. “There’s only one problem with the adoption theory. How do you explain your eyes?”

That is the problem. I’ve tried to convince myself that I look nothing like my father—and I don’t—except for my dark green eyes, complete with little blue flecks. I guess the adoption theory can’t be right, but as my father bursts into song, I wish it were.

The challenge of how to describe the physical traits of a first person character is a constant one. Here, the writer does a good job of giving us some physical detail that works into the story. This is an icky trick that all first person writers have to do at some point, and this is a rather elegant solution. (I also love the “it’s always older ladies” aside. Good voice.)

The kids from school hang at the edge of the crowd, pointing at Dad and laughing. My face flushes and I have a hard time swallowing. I wish Dad would keep the Elvis stuff out of the mall and away from anyone I know.

Gram says I shouldn’t be embarrassed. Everyone has a few skeletons hanging in their closets. Unfortunately for me, my skeleton is the one dressed in gold lamĂ© singing Love Me Tender in front of the Cinnabon.

What a terrific image to end the excerpt on! And there is great interiority here, so Ellie’s big predicament — and moment of panic at the mall — is beginning to be very clearly felt by the reader. There’s also tension. They’re hiding. The popular kids are on the prowl. Dad is gyrating. You get one guess, and one guess only, about what could possibly happen next. And with this voice and this sense of humor, I really do want to see it unfold after reading this snippet, don’t you?

***

The contest concludes tomorrow with the announcement of the Grand Prize winner. Thank you to everyone for reading these entries and commenting. Keep your thoughts comin’!

Manuscript Length: How Long Should a Children’s Book Be?

ChristaCarol asked this question of how long should a children’s book be via email. I thought I’d answer it for everyone, since manuscript length really is on writers’ minds. I almost hesitate to get into the children’s book length discussion publicly because it can be controversial. But, well, that’s never stopped me before. 🙂

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That’s a lot of words. How long should a children’s book be? Probably not this long.

Here’s the question:

I have a question about your opinion on word count in YA fantasy. And this may be one of those subjective things that drive us all nuts, but my manuscript length is at 90K, which I’d thought (for a Fantasy) was high, but okay. A wonderful agent who offered to critique the query through a contest mentioned she would pass on the project just because of the high word count. Is this done often? Should I be scared? Should I go back and find a way to chop out 10K? How long should a children’s book be? Another writer mentioned just querying it at 80K even if it’s 90K, but I’m not sure, wouldn’t this dirty up my integrity or something?

This is a great question. I love getting publishing myth/rumors that I can confirm or deny. Now, ChristaCarol is astute when she mentions that this might be one of those subjective things that drives us all nuts, because… this is one of those subjective things that drives us all nuts.

How Long Should a Children’s Book Be?

I can give you two answers. First, the cute and fuzzy one: As long as the manuscript and the story has earned every single one of those vital and carefully chosen words, the word count doesn’t matter. There are those very rare exceptions where I see a word count in a query, have a mini heart attack, but then the author convinces me that each word is necessary and I agree whole-heartedly. If given enough reason, people (and that includes editors and agents) will read long books.

Now for the more practical, everyday truth. Personally — and this sounds extremely crass and judgmental of me, I know — the lower your word count, the more I like you, right off the bat. For example, at any given time, I’ve got about 150 queries and 8 manuscripts in my queue. And that’s from, like, the last couple of days. That’s a lot of words for me to read. When I get a query for anything over 80k words that sounds really cool, I groan a little bit inside.

Word Count Can Be Flexible

It’s not the word count, per se, because, if something sounds cool, I really do get excited to read it. It’s that I have so many other submissions on my plate, so I half-dread loving it a lot and having to read all those 80k words. And if I take it on, I’ll have to read those 80k words over and over again as we revise. It represents a big time commitment. I realize this is arbitrary and perhaps lazy of me but… welcome to the world of a very busy agent. Sometimes, we have these thoughts.

There are times, though, (and these are the rule, not the exception, I find) when an inflated word count isn’t earned, isn’t awesome, isn’t because every word deserves to be there.

When Manuscript Length Is an Issue

I usually find that first-time fantasy, paranormal or sci-fi authors are the worst offenders. They craft a redundant manuscript full of lavish description that moves at a snail’s pace. Then they send it to me and proudly say that there are 155k words and that it’s the first in a trilogy. I read the writing sample and see paragraph after paragraph of dense text with no breaks for dialogue or scene. These are the high word count manuscripts that are problematic.

Because, clearly, the author hasn’t revised enough. And if I tell them what really needs to happen — that they need to lose about 50% of their words — they’ll have an aneurysm.

But, truthfully, if your children’s book length is anything over 100k, it better be higher-than-high YA fantasy. And all those words better be good. Cutting words and scenes and “killing your darlings,” as I like to put it, is one of the most hard-won revision skills any writer can have. And it usually comes after you’ve done lots and lots and lots of revision in your life. Many debut authors haven’t yet learned how to make — and enjoy — this type of word sacrifice. It shows.

The Problem With High Word Count Manuscript Length

Now, there’s also a real reason I usually balk at manuscripts with a high word count, besides my own busy inbox and the fact that most really wordy manuscripts reflect a lack of polish and revision. So, as we’ve already established, a lot of my highest word count submissions come from debut authors. For editors, debut authors are an exciting but fundamental risk. They’re untested in the marketplace, they could potentially lose the publisher a lot of money.

Words equal pages and pages equal money in terms of production costs. Longer books are also heavier and bigger, so the publisher will have to invest more in shipping costs and warehouse space, which all figures into their bottom line before they even acquire the book. (All editors have to guess how much money their house will have to spend to publish this book and how much earning potential the book has. They have to put it together and present it to their team before they can make an offer. It’s called a Profit and Loss Statement or, in my mind, The Spreadsheet of Terror.)

The more words a manuscript has, the more expensive it’ll be to turn into a book. So editors will frown if I try to send them a really long book from a debut author. Their investment in this book will have to be much higher and, these days especially, there’s less chance they’ll take that kind of risk on a debut. So I have to think about that when I think about representing a longer manuscript, too. I’m here to sell your many words, not just enjoy them by myself. 🙂

Ideal Children’s Book Length

As ChristaCarol says, there are different accepted manuscript length word count limits for different genres and age groups. This is the part I hesitate to do, but I will throw my hat in the ring and suggest some ballpark and maximum word counts for different types of projects.

How long should a children’s book be?

  • Board Book — 100 words max
  • Early Picture Book — 400 words max
  • Picture Book — 600 words max (Seriously. Max.)
  • Nonfiction Picture Book — 3,000 words max, but closer to 1,000 to 2,000 words
  • Early Reader — 1,500 words is the max
  • Chapter Book — This varies widely, depending on grade and reader level, usually starting at 4,000 words and 15,000 words max
  • Young Middle Grade or MG — 15,000 to 25,000 words
  • Middle Grade or MG — 45,000 words max for contemporary, mystery, humor
  • Upper Middle Grade — 65,000 words max for fantasy/sci-fi, adventure and historical
  • Young Adult or YA — 85,000 words max for contemporary, humor, mystery, historical, romance, etc. 95,000 words max for fantasy, sci-fi, paranormal, etc.
  • New Adult — 65,000 to 85,000 words

Now, again, these are just estimates I’ve gathered from my experience.  If a manuscript length goes over the maximum that editors usually deal with, there has to be a damn good reason.

The Problem With Early Middle Grade and Tween

Let me also address right now that I’ve been seeing some queries for “Early Middle Grade” in the 7,000 word range. No, no, no. That’s too tiny. The categories below middle grade are chapter book and early reader, and you can read about them in a different article. Middle Grade, even Early Middle Grade, beings at around 15,000 words minimum. But this does bring to light that there are all sorts of gray areas. Upper Middle Grade. Lower YA. The sometimes-mocked label of “tween.” So word count is a tricky wicket. How about this? If you’re worried that your book is too long and you sometimes dread doing yet another revision because there’s so much of it to read… cut!

And know that some agents do automatically reject manuscripts because of their length. I’m not quite there yet but, if I do see something over 80k, it has to work pretty darn hard to convince me that all those words are necessary.

Do you need help bringing your manuscript word count up or down into an acceptable range? I am happy to be your developmental editor and suggest ways to expand or cut your work in a way that preserves your manuscript’s integrity.

Review: Love, Aubrey

by Suzanne LaFleur
Middle Grade, 272 pages.
Wendy Lamb Books (2009)
ISBN: 978-0385737746

At the beginning of LOVE, AUBREY, we don’t know what kind of tragedy has rocked Aubrey’s world, we just know she’s utterly alone. As we watch her buy herself a beta fish and putter around her empty house, it emerges that her father and sister died in a car accident and her mother fled from the grief of losing them and the guilt of being behind the wheel. Grandma comes to pick up the pieces and moves Aubrey to Vermont. The two women, young and old, united by tragedy, try to put the pieces of their lives back together while searching for Aubrey’s mother.

Once they find her, it becomes clear that her pain is too raw and she simply isn’t ready to be a mother yet. Aubrey must begin the slow and complicated process of making friends, grappling with her memories and reimagining what home and family mean in this new life of hers.

If only most adults had the strength and grace of this eleven year-old character. Aubrey is so hurt — on many more levels than she’ll ever admit, even to the reader, who knows most of her secret heart — but her wisdom shines brilliantly from these pages. Through writing letters, first to her beta fish, then to her dead sister’s imaginary friend, then to her dad and finally to her mother, she expresses just how strong she’s become, how strong, in fact, she’s always been. These letters cap off chapters in the perfect balance of narrative and the character’s own self-expression.

LaFleur’s writing is a thing of beauty and simplicity. Through Aubrey’s crystal-clear voice, she expresses longing, love, pain and hope with the lightest touch. The reader is always deeply involved in Aubrey’s emotions but never told about them outright. We just know Aubrey so well from the first page that everything she does makes total, resonant, brutally honest emotional sense. When her mother doesn’t come home for Christmas, we know her rage and grief, even if we’ve never experienced her circumstances.

This is the whole point of fiction, the very essence of creating a character who lives and breathes. For such a short, quiet book, LaFleur manages not only startling character development but a fleshed-out plot. Memories, emotions, flickers of new life and tortured pangs of the old combine seamlessly as Aubrey does chores to keep her mind off her grief, goes to a new school, visits with a guidance counselor, rediscovers her relationship with her mom and finally chooses her real home, at least for now.

The tagline of the book is: “She will make you cry. She will make you smile. Aubrey will stay with you forever.” I can’t put it any better than that. In this age of high-concept paranormal adventures, barbed-wire edgy and unrealistic, cookie-cutter romance, sometimes I wonder where all the small, literary books of amazing emotional depth and power are. LOVE, AUBREY is the book I’ve been waiting for (Gayle Forman’s IF I STAY (review) and Carol Lynch Williams’ THE CHOSEN ONE (review) also come to mind). It fills me with utter joy that such a talented writer and such a passionate editor found each other and created this unassuming, completely take-your-breath-away masterpiece.

LOVE, AUBREY comes out on June 9th, 2009. If you’ve forgotten the glorious ache of feeling your entire register of human emotions, read it as soon as you can. You’ll be so glad you did. I didn’t even know how much I needed Aubrey in my life. Links: Amazon, Shop Indie Bookstores.

For Readers: This book will appeal to middle grade readers as well as, um, everyone on the planet. Buy this for the kids in your life and tell them to pass it on to siblings, parents, grandparents. I’m serious. Everybody needs to read this book and its appeal is so broad, so human, that it will charm and touch each person who comes in contact with it. Of all my recent reads, this one is most likely to stand the test of time. It is a modern classic in my head already and it hasn’t even come out! Yes, I know I’m gushing, but I’m totally allowed.

For Writers: It isn’t often that writers achieve the ultimate goal of transparency, as LaFleur does here. There are some writers, of course, who thrive on their trademark voice, who use it everywhere as an indelible stamp. LaFleur has a style, sure, but as a writer, she completely disappears into Aubrey’s voice, she spins her words without once interrupting the “fictive dream” to call attention to a flourish of writing, a clever joke, an important moment. Most writers, whether consciously or not, just can’t quite get themselves out of their own writing. Not LaFleur. What you see here is all Aubrey, all the time. Please read it. If it doesn’t change your writing, and I’m not sure it will because its lessons are very subtle and complex, it will change the way you see character and it will redefine your boundaries of how deeply into a fictional soul you can go.

How to Write Action Scenes

More writers should be wondering how to write action scenes. Because the more action sequences I read, the more I’m convinced that they’re the Achilles’ heel of even the most seasoned writer (with the exception of thriller writers, of course). Lovely and agile prose sometimes tends to fall apart when an action sequence is called for.

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How to write an action sequence even this guy would be proud of.

How to Write Action Scenes With the Movies in Mind

This is a difficult situation for writers who have to contend with an action movie world. Cinematography can do things that prose can’t. It can show us five quick moves from a martial arts sequence in the space of one second.

Take this example from page 83 of SKULLDUGGERY PLEASANT*, a perfectly lovely book that came out with HarperCollins in 2008, written by Derek Landry, a screenwriter, as it happens:

He screamed and let her go and staggered back, cursing, and Stephanie rolled off the car and ran to the Bentley.

Give that sentence a coffee break, it’s been working too hard!

Action Sequence Writing Needs to Flow

As you can see, there’s a bit of conjunctivitis going on (and no, I’m not talking about pink eye, I’m talking about an overload of conjunctions). The author’s “and” addiction sends way too many images shooting at the reader and we can’t quite make a clear picture of the action. Put this sentence in a group of similar sentences and we’ll get whiplash.

Tips on How to Write Action Scenes

This is a reminder to check back on all of your action sequence chapters and run through these revision tips:

  1. Clarity. If you hadn’t written it, would you be able to tell what’s going on? So much, well, action happens in an action sequence that clarity is of the utmost importance.
  2. Consistency. Just because they’re in an action sequence, characters should still act and speak like themselves. They should not develop any surprising but convenient powers or skills in the heat of the action.
  3. Sentence variety. The heavy emphasis on description in an action sequence usually means that style takes a backseat. For example, you get an entire paragraph of sentences that start the same: “He grabbed his gun… He volleyed over the wall… He slid into the driver’s seat… He skidded to a halt to smell the roses…” Make sure your sentences have structural variety. Your readers will get bored with all the “Subject verb” construction, or of any other sentence tic that you develop.
  4. Brevity. Even if your plot calls for the longest action sequence in the world, make sure there are pauses in between bouts of action. Break it up with some snappy dialogue, let the character take a breather. No one can be an action machine 24/7, that includes the reader whose heartbeat has been (hopefully) racing for the last ten pages. Let them take a rest. Some readers are great at reading action sequences, other gloss over them (I have to admit, I skimmed most of the Quidditch sequences and the big finale fights in the HARRY POTTER series, because I am just not that great at reading action scenes and keeping all those pieces and images in my head.)
  5. Believability. Alas, every action sequence must come to an end sometime. Make sure yours ends in a believable way. No “how convenient!” scrapes. No deus ex machina**. And don’t be afraid to let something go wrong or to let someone get hurt. There are always winners AND losers in an action sequence. Give us a taste of both.

There you have it. Now go forth and blow our action-movie-addled minds!

* This awkward action sequence aside, you should definitely read SKULLDUGGERY PLEASANT or any of its sequels if you write MG. It’s a great mix of action and adventure that appeals to girls and boys, realistic and fantasy lovers alike.

* Latin: “god from the machine.” This term refers to “a plot device in which a person or thing appears or is introduced suddenly and unexpectedly and provides a contrived solution to an apparently insoluble difficulty” (nice, articulate definition from Wikipedia). This means that if something feels like a “cop out” in your book…if ane scape is too easy or too good to be true…your reader will probably think so, too, and you’ll lose credibility and authenticity points with them.

Plot and action can be hard to master in a vacuum. Hire me as your manuscript consultant, and you’ll never write alone.