Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Writing Middle Grade by author J.S. Lewis

We welcome J.S. Lewis to WriteOnCon! It's always great to have fabulous middle grade authors, and he's one of the best! Today he's divulging some tips for writing middle grade.


Warning! If your childhood is nothing but a distant memory, stop reading!

Seriously. You see, if you really want to write for the middle grade market, the passions of your childhood must be a vibrant part of your world today!

If you’re poisoned by the realities of the world, turn back. If you’ve been jaded by politics, financial scandal, and sensational news stories, it’s hopeless. And most importantly, if you find yourself using phrases like, “when I was your age . . .” you are, I’m afraid, terminal.

However, if you’re the kind of person who frequents eBay in search of that special My Little Pony your mother sold in a garage sale, or if you go to Target in search of bath towels, but end up in the toy section looking at Star Wars figures, you’re well on your way to becoming a beloved middle grade author.

Sound ridiculous? Maybe, but here’s the thing. Kids know. They know if you have a real passion for what you’re writing about, and if you’re trying to sell them a story that isn’t saturated with passion, they’re going to reject it. If you still live in Neverland though – if you have stories with young heroes and heroines that are screaming to be told, then you’ve found a home.

When I was approached to take part in this revolutionary writing conference, I asked the creators what subject matter would help most. They gave me a list, but instead of focusing on one, I think I’ll touch on a few. Like kids, I have a short attention span, so it’ll help me stay focused. In turn, hopefully it’ll give you a wider perspective on the subject as a whole.

Times Have Changed, And They’re Changing Fast
I was asked to lecture at a writing conference where I ended up reviewing two manuscripts. It’s something I never do, and I hated it. I rarely read books that friends of mine have written because I’m brutally honest. I don’t know how to fake enthusiasm, so I’d rather avoid the discomfort of telling someone that I don’t like what I read. The problem, though, is that if you don’t hear fair criticism, you’ll never grow.

Someone who looked to be in her sixties wrote one of the manuscripts. It was a touching story that would have been perfect for a Hallmark movie of the week, but (in my opinion) it wasn’t going to work as a story for kids. Why? The characters were right out of Leave It To Beaver or My Three Sons. They were the children from her youth, but not kids from today.

One thing I’ve learned is that it doesn’t matter if you’re writing a script for a movie or television, or if you’re writing a book. Kids hate retro. I mean, how nostalgic could a twelve year old actually be?

To solve that problem, you have to inundate yourself with where your target market is at today. What are their language patterns? What music are they listening to? What television shows do they watch? Who are their heroes?

I’m lucky. I have three kids. But I’d watch Spongebob Squarepants, Ben 10, Fairly Odd Parents and Star Wars Clone Wars even if I didn’t. If you don’t have access to kids, volunteer at the children’s section of your library. You could teach Sunday school for the grade level(s) that you’re writing for. Offer to host your friend’s kids for the weekend. Watch the Disney Channel or Nickelodeon to study the humor and dialogue cadence. You’ll be amazed by what you learn!

You’re Not Alone . . . Even Four Year Olds Think Elmo and Dora are Lame
Kids are growing up faster than ever. Each one of my kids was done with Sesame Street and Dora by her third birthday. Say what? I watched Sesame Street until I was in kindergarten. What happened?

Whether or not we like it, kids are growing up faster than ever. You can fight it, or you can use that knowledge to your favor because it’s a small but critical point. Kids want to read stories about people who are older than they are. So if you’re writing for 10-12 year olds, consider making your heroes and heroines 14. There’s something alluring when it comes to gettng a glimpse of what the future holds, and aging your characters will make your stories more compelling to a middle grader.

How to Keep Kids Turning Those Pages
Kids don’t want to read. Sure, we can all come up with examples of a kid (maybe even five) who loves to read, but those numbers are dwindling. Librarians and educators are desperate for stories that attract those reluctant readers (i.e. boys). It’s a battle that the schools are losing.

Can you blame kids for not wanting to read, though? Books, by nature, require a serious investment of time. It can be intimidating – even for an adult – to look at a book and wonder if they will have time to finish it.

The competition for “free” time is unrelenting. There are video games where you can customize your characters to look exactly like you, or better yet, exactly like what you’d want to look like. The worlds inside those games are nearly photorealistic – it’s almost as though you’ve become a character in a movie.

Then there’s social media, texting, sports, homework, television, movies, and slew of other activities. With all of that available to them, when are kids supposed to read for leisure?

If you get lucky enough to have a kid pick up and open your book to the first page, you better start off with a bang! You have to grab them and never let go.

If your story starts to lull, your reader is going to put it down and he or she won’t come back – not just to that book, but most likely any book you write in the future.

Here are a few thoughts on how to keep that momentum going . . .

* Adjectives and adverbs are not your friends
My advice? Eliminate modifiers except where absolutely critical (which is rare). Logic would state that you’re helping create a rich environment when you add a lot of description. What adjectives and adverbs actually do is bring your story to a screeching halt.

* Keep ‘em guessing!
You need at least one character that will keep your readers guessing. Is that character friend or foe? Then, just when the reader is sure where that character stands, make them do the exact opposite of what would be expected. Use this character to keep your audience off-balance. Twists and turns in the plot will keep kids engaged – they love to be on the edge of their seats. We all do!

* Action
Kids – especially boys – love explosions, fights, monsters, aliens, robots, and all that jazz. Don’t be afraid to include it in your stories. There’s a trick though . . . it can’t come at the expense of story. If you haven’t created characters that your reader connects with on a deep, emotional level, they won’t care what happens when your characters get in trouble.

* Tension
Tension can be as important as action (and it’s probably more important). Look at any Alfred Hitchcock film. There weren’t a lot of explosions, but the tension in his stories keeps you on the edge of your seat. Apply that to your writing. Kids love suspense.

* Cliffhangers
Some people consider the use of cliffhangers a cheap trick. Maybe it is. However, you need to create a reason for the reader to keep going. What better way than to finish each chapter with a bang that’s going to lead into something even more exciting in the next chapter?

I remember sneaking under my covers with a flashlight, reading a book long passed my bedtime. Why did I risk getting grounded? Because every time I went to put the book down, the author compelled me to keep reading – it was as though I didn’t have a choice but to disobey my parents. You need to create that same sense of desire so kids won’t be able to put your book down. At the end of every chapter, the little voice inside their heads should say, “okay, just one more chapter . . .”

Tackling Delicate Subject Matter
Don’t be afraid to tackle real issues. One of the themes in the Grey Griffins series that I co-authored is divorce. It affected my main character in a deep way when his parents split up, just like it affected me and millions of other kids. I didn’t judge whether or not his parents should have gotten a divorce, but I wasn’t afraid to talk about his pain. That resonates with kids.

Why not touch on the struggles that your readers are going through? Peer pressure . . . fitting in . . . self-confidence . . . moving away from the town where you grew up . . . acne . . . rejection by the opposite sex . . . we all went through it, and so are kids today. Tapping into those universal struggles may help you create a deep emotional connection with the reader.

Just be careful that you don’t get too graphic when it comes to subjects like abuse and other violent or sexually explicit acts. Your editor will be a great barometer to help you when aren’t sure about something.

Wrapping It Up
I’ve already gone well passed my word count, so I’ll close with this. Writing for middle grade readers is exciting. You’ll never have a more enthusiastic group. And in truth, if I can do it, you can (and I’m not just saying that)! So if this is really your passion, stick with it and never give up.

Oh, and read a ton of middle grade books in a variety of styles. Check out beautiful prose like Laini Taylor, as well as the wonderful economy of words that writers like Kate DiCamillo use. I have a list of books and authors that I’ve enjoyed here -- listen to the cadence of their sentence structure and try and discover the “why” behind what you like and dislike.

And keep learning! I know that I’ll never stop reading books on writing. I feel my writing has grown exponentially over the last six months because of some excellent books, podcasts and audio series that I’ve discovered.

I have a list of great books that I try to read once a year. You can find that here.

Good luck! And if you have a question that I didn’t address here, you can always email me at jslewis@greygriffins.com. I’d love to help if I can.

J.S. Lewis is an American novelist and comic book writer. His novels include Invasion (coming December 2010), as well as The Brimstone Key (from the Grey Griffins Clockwork Chronicles), and the original Grey Griffins trilogy: The Revenge of the Shadow King, The Rise of the Black Wolf, and The Fall of the Templar (co-authored by Derek Benz). He also wrote a twelve book comic book series based on Sony’s virtual world phenomenon, Free Realms. A graduate of Arizona State University’s Walter Cronkite School of Broadcasting, Lewis has explored a career that includes news reporting, radio production, animation, graphic design, web development, mural painting, speech writing, video game development, voice over work, and marketing. He currently resides in Arizona with his wife and children.


Kelly Polark said...

OMG, I was in Target just last night looking at Star Wars figures (I'm not kidding!)...and I bought a few (I think, I mean, my son will think they're awesome!).
Excellent advice on middle grade. I especially like Keep them guessing! I'm polishing my mg manuscript now, will use your tips in revisions!

Unknown said...

LOVE IT! SO true with kids getting olders faster. I see it with my youngsters. Yes, be involved with your target age as much as possible. Thanks for the pointers.

Unknown said...

Great stuff, J.S.! I couldn't agree more with your advice about staying connected to young people. I tutor at a middle school, and constantly find myself picking up the books I see the students reading just to see what they like about them.

Really enjoyed this ...

Jiggs said...

Thanks for the very generous and honest advice.

Tom M Franklin said...

Hi Jon,

I'm a former elementary school librarian who loved reading to kids. The thing with kids is that they know a great, authentic story when they hear one.

I was always very careful when I chose something to read to them. The stories had to be written in a great voice, have lots of action and good cliffhangers to end the class on. (Always leave 'em wanting more) That said, I read the first four books in Jon Scieszka's Time Warp Trio series to over 600 kids over the years.

You're spot on with so much of what you said here. Thanks for being a part of WriteOnCon!

-- Tom

(who will be reading The Revenge of the Shadow King soon!)

Heather Spiva said...

So exactly what I needed to hear. Thank you for spelling it all out. Wonderful.

Ruth Donnelly said...

Terrific advice--thanks for sharing your insights with us!

Unknown said...

I'm teaching middle school English this year after five years at the high school level.

This was INVALUABLE :-)

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