Our Top Ten Middle Grade Novel Writing Tips

by Victoria Bennion

I turned to the Twitter community for novel writing tips when I began to write my first middle grade novel. At the time I didn’t know the difference between middle grade (MG) and young adult (YA). I just knew that I wanted to write a children’s book. But there are conventions for each group which I’ve learnt more about through working one to one with an editor, reading and attending workshops which you will hopefully find useful to know. So, here are our top ten middle grade novel writing tips:

1.       What age is Middle Grade?

Middle Grade books are aimed at the 8-12 year old age bracket. Of course, there will be younger children who are fluent readers who will be able to read these books as well as older readers and even adults who may choose to read them. Harry Potter anyone?

2.       What's the best length for a Middle Grade book?

Books for this age range usually fall between 20,000-40,000 words but there are always exceptions. Some of the Harry Potter books are much longer. However, if you’re writing your debut novel aim to keep within this bracket.

When I attended a literary agents' party we had a chance to mingle with the agents and tell them about our books. One lady asked me how long my work in progress was and at the time it was 43,000 words which caused her to tilt her head and squint. She confirmed she’d prefer it to be a little shorter.

3.       Choosing  appropriate language for this age group

Reading levels obviously vary between one child to the next but when you’re writing your book you can assume  it’s safe to use words of three syllables at the bottom of the age and more complicated language towards the top of the bracket.

This can feel like a tricky thing to get right but there are some tools which can help. Gunning’s Fox Index is one. It is a readability test for writing. You can use the formula to assess the level of your writing or try one of the calculators available.

When I put 100 words of my work in progress into a Gunning Fox Index calculator it gave me a score of 6.5. This is about right. Mark Twain scores a 6. Anything above 12 is too difficult.

4.       Things to avoid

Swearing (I was told off by an editor for this, my cheeks are still red), graphic violence, romance and sexuality. Keep this for YA.

5.       Which tense should you choose?

Middle grade books are usually written in the third person but you do find some written in first person as well. I recently read The Girl of Ink and Stars and this is written in the first person.

6.       Choosing the age of your protagonist

Children like to read about children who are older than them. So think about the age of your reader. If you’re aiming your book at the lower end of the middle grade market then about 10 is a good age for your protagonist. If you think your book will appeal to the top end of the age bracket you might want your character to be 12 or 13 years old.

7.       Should you include a sub plot?

If you’re writing for the lower end of middle grade don’t make it too complicated. I had a sub plot in mine and the editor said it was too much for the younger readers. She suggested I either removed it completely or rewrote the book for the older age bracket. Older readers can handle sub plots and other literary devices. I’ve opted for removing the sub plot. Wish me luck!

8.       Write for the children of today

Our own childhoods can provide us with great ideas for our writing but we have to make sure our writing reflects what life is like for ten-year-olds today (unless you’re writing historical fiction.) What’s their world like? It won’t be like mine and yours. Theirs is very much a fast-paced digital world. The phrases they use are different from our glory days so by golly don’t date your work by using words from your youth. Listen to how children speak today.

9.       Novel writing tips: Suitable topics

 In the 8-12 section of any bookshop you’ll find a plethora of books about a wide variety of topics. Perhaps this is why adults enjoy reading middle grade books too? You’ll find plenty of mysteries and adventures, witches and wizards, historical novels, humour, books addressing environmental issues and more.

While the world has changed the things children care about hasn’t.  Popular topics for children of this age are still friends and family, school and pets – familiar things in a child’s world.  

10.       Write a great story

Although there are all kinds of novel writing tips and rules out there, there are also exceptions to all these rules so bear them in mind, especially if you’re working on your debut novel, but above all write a great story.

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