One Writer’s Journey

September 19, 2017

Middle Grade vs Chapter Book

Filed under: Uncategorized — suebe @ 1:05 am
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Middle grade novels like these have subplots.

Last week I blogged about where middle grade novels fit into the “book with chapters” spectrum.   On one end, you have chapter books.  Chapter book readers have just mastered reading on their own.  Because of this, sentence structure is straight forward.  Internal dialogue is kept to a minimum.  You have a plot and no subplots.  Chapter book characters may venture into the world to have adventures but they return home.

Unfortunately, about half way through my first draft I realized that my characters are not in the chapter book sweet spot – 8 years old.  They acted 10 and as soon as I realized that it just felt right.  But character age isn’t the only different between a chapter book and a middle grade novel.

Chapter books tend to be from 4500 to 7000 words long.  Middle grade?  Younger middle grade like my book range from about 10,000 to 20,000 words long.  Gulp.  How on earth am I going to take a story from one range to another?

Back in August I did a study of the balance between action, dialogue and narrative.  Chapter books where almost 50/50 dialogue and action.  There were only a few lines of narrative on each page.  In the middle grade novel I sampled, dialogue was still about half of the total.  Action and narrative were each about 1/4 of the total word count.

This means that I can use more of my word count to build up that world and color in the setting.  I also have space for a flashback or a bit of inner dialogue.

But wait!  There’s more.  I can also add a subplot.  Thank you to Mary Kole’s post “Writing a Novel Subplot.” She is definitely responsible for sending my thoughts in this direction.  As she explained in her post, a subplot can take several forms.

A secondary story for my main characters.  This could work rather neatly as they gather scientific evidence on their find while trying to get back to their family.

A story driven by one of the secondary characters.  I don’t see this working.  Unless I make another change.  Right now I have a buddy story with two cousins as the main characters.  If I make on of them the main character and the other a secondary character, that character could have his or her own plot line.  Not sure I want to do this but it is a possibility.

A story driven by the antagonist.  That won’t work for this book simply because there is no “bad guy.”  Circumstances conspired against them and I can’t see giving circumstance his own plot line.

Something going on elsewhere in the story.  To an extent, this is happening but it is more of the series story arc than a story arc to be explored in one particular book.  Thinking forward, but first?  I need to work through that subplot!


September 11, 2017

Books with Chapters: Where Does Middle Grade Fit In?

Filed under: Uncategorized — suebe @ 1:00 am
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While I work on my latest nonfiction manuscript, I’ve been pounding out a new fiction draft.  Initially I thought it was a chapter book.  Because of this, when I needed a mentor book, I pulled out a Magic Tree House.  Those are fantasy.  Mine is fantasy.  Those have two main characters.  Mine has two main characters.

I read through the Magic Tree House book.  Once I had a good feel for the characters and the pacing, I got to work. But as I drafted my manuscript, I found myself holding back.  “No, that doesn’t sound like an eight year-old. That sounds like a ten year-old.”  I haven’t been 100% comfortable having to do this.

Finally I started to wonder if maybe this really isn’t a chapter book.  It doesn’t feel like an older middle grade (a large part of my reading) but maybe it is a younger middle grade.  I realized that I need to do some more research, so I posted a question on Facebook asking my writer, teacher and librarian friends to make recommendations.

Wow.  The book titles have been pouring in and, although some of them are definitely older middle grade, some of them are in the younger part of the middle grade spectrum.  That’s part of what makes middle grade so tough as a “target book type.”  Middle grade isn’t one level as much as it is two.

Emma Dryden firmed up this thought when she commented on my post.  She reminded me that a younger MG character should be 10-12.  An older character, 12-14.  The plot, themes, emotion, psych and more has to fit within those age ranges.  This will, she pointed out, also impact the voice and POV.  Voice. That is definitely what tipped me off that I had a problem.  My character sounded too old.

My story is definitely younger middle grade with a character who is 10.  Fourth grade.  Not a second grader which is the age/level I tried to force.  Yes, this means I need to tinker with the first five chapters but that’s okay.  Now I can quit trying to hold my slightly sassy character back and just write.


For additional posts on writing for the middle grade market, see Middle Grade vs Young Adult and Writing Middle Grade Nonfiction.


August 23, 2017

Dialogue, Narrative, and Action: Getting the Right Balance

Filed under: Uncategorized — suebe @ 3:42 am
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Tuesday, I read a Writer’s Digest piece on what characters say and what they think.  The writer discussed needing to get the balance between dialogue and narrative just right.

Balancing dialogue, action and narrative was one of the things we discussed when I did the novel rewriting workshop with Darcy Pattison.  I remembered doing a manuscript mark-up to see what the proportions were in your manuscript before deciding what you needed to change.

But what is the correct balance?  I suspect that a chapter book manuscript needs a different balance than a middle grade or young adult novel.  But what would that balance look like?

You know me – I need to see the answer.  So I scanned two pages of a chapter book text.  In this case, I randomly chose two pages in Dinosaurs Before Dark by Mary Pope Osborne.  Then I printed the scan and got out my highlighters.  Okay, in reality I tried highlighting it on-screen only to discover that I can’t mouse a straight line to save myself.  Any-who, I got out my highlighters.

I marked up dialogue in green.  Every time Annie or Jack speak, green highlighter.  As you can see, that’s about half the text.

Then I marked the action in orange.  Again, that’s about half the remaining text.

Only three lines are highlighted in pink – that’s the narration.  In this case, it is inner dialogue.  Three short lines.

Part of it would be the age of the reader.  They want action (orange) or to see people interact (green).  Thinking about what might be or remembering things?  Not nearly as interesting and there just isn’t much room for that if you are writing for the 2nd and 3rd grade reader.  So this is the balance that I’m going to go for when I draft my own manuscript. Equal parts dialogue and action with just a dash of narrative.

How much narrative can you have in a middle grade or young adult novel?  More but I won’t be sure how much until I break out my highlighters.


January 26, 2016

What Are You Writing?

Colorful books on shelfWhenever a new writer comes to critique group, I ask, “What do you write?”

Can I say, without giving offense, that it is off-putting if they can’t tell me?  Too often the answer is “children’s stories” or “books for children.”  That’s too broad and it makes me think that you don’t know the answer in contemporary publishing jargon.

Hey, wait!  Aren’t writers supposed to think outside of the box?

You are, but if you don’t know what the heck you’re writing, you don’t know what box to avoid. If you are just starting to write for children and teens, here are some categories to know.

Fiction vs nonfiction.  It’s basic but I understand some of the confusion.  If you are writing a story about growing a garden and framing it as the experience of fictional Adam, what is it?  Fiction or nonfiction?  Without reading it, my guess would be fact based fiction.

Picture book.  A picture book is an illustrated book in which the text and the art equally tell the story.  These books give readers the info they need to learn about the world in general. The recent Newbery Last Stop on Market Street is a picture book.   Adults read these books to young readers.
Audience: Toddler to early grade school.
Length: Up to 3 manuscript pages.

Beginning or early reader.  The purpose behind these books is for new readers to be able to read them independently.  That meanst that vocabulary and sentence structure are simple.  Illustrations don’t expand on the story but provide contextual clues for the reader.  Look at beginning readers and you’ll see lables like “level 1.” Levels vary from publisher to publisher.  Elephant and Piggy.
Audience: 1st and 2nd grade.
Length: Up to 20 manuscript pages.

Chapter books.  These books may contains some illustrations but they are for confident readers who aren’t intimidated by a lack of pictures.  That said, these are still newish readers and the books tend to have a main plot line and no subplots.  Often published in series. Magic Tree House.
Audience: 1st to 3rd grade.
Length: 40 – 60 manuscript pages.

Middle grade novels.  These readers can handle at least one subplot.  Characters are discovering their place in the world so stories are frequently about family, friends,  and school.  It is rare for these books to include extreme violence, drug use or sex. Some romance, very light, is okay. Diary of a Wimpy Kid.
Audience: 3rd to 6th grade.
Length: 100 – 250 manuscript pages.

Young adult novels.  Middle schoolers read some of these books and these are the books with less extreme content.  Books for high schoolers can include, but don’t have to focus on sex, drugs, etc. These are kids who are challenging the world although they may still be looking for their place in it. Graceling.
Audience: 7th grade and up.
Length: 200 – 350 manuscript pages.


July 3, 2012

How to submit your chapter book

Filed under: Uncategorized — suebe @ 1:09 am
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Do you have a chapter book manuscript that you are trying to market?  If so, you need to market it as a series.

That’s what I’ve been told by two editors in just over two months.  The vast majority of publishers who market material for this reading level want a series, not a stand alone title.

This doesn’t mean that you need to write three or four books before you starting marketing your work.  If you don’t have a track record in children’s fiction, have your first manuscript written.  In your cover letter, include the series name and paragraph long plot summaries of two more books.

Here are some questions to ask yourself as you consider the series possibilities for your chapter book:

Is the main character in the first book going to be the main character in subsequent books?  Or will one of book #1’s minor characters be the main character?

What is my series based on?  It can be as narrow as Magic Tree House or as broad as Junie B. Jones.

Do I have the passion to stick with these characters for multiple stories?  If you don’t like them well enough to do this, your readers won’t latch onto them either.

When you can answer these questions, get going on that cover let and get your chapter book manuscript back out in the mail.  New readers need great books and they love series.  Why shouldn’t one of them be yours?



Of course, this means that your character has to be series worthy.  completed.  , but you do need to know what addition

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