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How to Write a Middle-Grade Novel

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Gearing up to write your middle-grade novel? Let’s talk about it.

While everyone seems to fawn over the young adult genre, there’s real magic in middle-grade. Middle-grade represents the ages of 8 to 12. This group is both innocent and plucky. They are also voracious readers who enjoy meeting the same characters over and over again (Hello, Harry Potter, Laura Ingalls Wilder, Percy Jackson, and The Last Kids on Earth).

Middle-grade readers want to understand the world and their place in it. The most successful books in this genre help young readers tackle difficult themes such as compassion, sense of self, tenacity, and loss. The lessons that they take away from your middle-grade novel will help them navigate around the obstacles in their world.

No pressure.

In this post, we’ll discuss how to craft a winning middle-grade novel.

Check the Word Count

Word count. I know it may not be the most exciting topic, but it is important.

Most middle-grade novels hover between 30,000 to 50,000 words.

Of course, there are exceptions. Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix weighs in at a whopping 257,045 words. That’s twice the size of most novels. On the other end of the spectrum, Diary of a Wimpy Kid: Rodrick Rules manages to tell a complete story in only 20,165 words.

However, those are extreme examples, with well-developed audiences. If you want to be taken seriously by a literary agent, publisher, and the majority of middle grade readers, follow the standard of 30,000 to 50,000 words.

Also, remember that if you’re writing to the younger crowd half of middle grade (ages 8 to 10), cater to their lower attention span and write closer to 30,000 words.

Think Like a Middle-Grade Reader

When plotting a story for a middle-grade novel, always remember your reader. Yup, they’re kids. And, sure, you’ve been a kid before. So, you know what it’s like to be 8, 9, 10, 11, and definitely 12. But you also know what it’s like to be 18, 21, and so on. Sometimes, that other knowledge clouds the purity of your tween perspective.

When you write your novel, you must constantly think about your middle-grade reader. What types of stories, characters, and life lessons would have appealed to you at that age? Will they be able to relate to your characters? Will they understand the big ideas in your story? What would you have understood at that age?

These questions help you create a story to which your young reader can connect.

Watch Your Language

Write a middle-grade novel

The middle-grade mind does not want to read run-on sentences. They do not want to read lengthy paragraphs that describe the scenery. They do not want a thorough examination of the protagonist’s psyche.

They’re just here for the action. Don’t bore them with overly descriptive or painfully symbolic language. Keep it simple. Use words that they know. Opt for simple sentence structures. Always go for active verbs over passive ones. Choose to write on their reading level.

While you can certainly throw in a few smart words here and there, don’t allow it to become a distraction that takes away from your story, specifically the important themes that you hope to convey. Your prose should be an effortless, frictionless read.

Be Careful With Mature Themes

Young adult novels can get away with murder— literally. But your middle-grade novel still has a bedtime.

Think of it this way: If your reader can’t watch a PG-13 movie by themselves, they shouldn’t read a book that would contain that same content.

If your reader can’t watch a PG-13 movie by themselves, they shouldn’t read a book that would contain that same content.

Your middle-grade novel should be rated G or PG.

It should be age-appropriate, and free of lurid violence, sex, and profanity. Remember, with middle-grade readers, you’ll face many gatekeepers, such as parents, librarians, and teachers. If they think your book is inappropriate, guess who’s book won’t get read. That’s right.

But don’t think that you can’t write about difficult themes when penning a middle-grade novel. You absolutely can. Unfortunately, many kids know what it’s like to go to bed hungry or have a drug-addicted parent. You can write about darker themes, but just remember that you must do it in a way that doesn’t damage the reader.

Don't Go Too Emotional

Write a middle-grade novel

Young adults are emotional. Middle graders are more literal. They don’t agonize about their feelings or go through a litany of what-ifs. The middle-grade mind doesn’t think like that. Instead, middle graders accept life as it comes to them. They grapple with self-doubt and fitting in, but they don’t have the emotional maturity to be introspective. Everything is surface.

Limit introspection and focus instead on action and reaction. Show what your characters think by demonstrating what he does.

Sound Like Your Reader

You’re an adult, which means that you traded in your tween card a long time ago. It also means that you probably don’t sound like a tween anymore (at least, I hope not).

And if, like me, you haven’t been a tween since the 20th century, you have no idea how to sound like a current tween.

You’re writing to 8 to 12-year-olds who live in the 21st century. Emojis are their native tongue. Tweens these days use words like bet, Gucci, lit, YOLO, yeet, squad, and GOAT.

That’s not to suggest that you should use slang words in your middle-grade novel. But it is important that you know how today’s tweens think and communicate with each other.

Spend time with the kids in the same age range as your intended audience. Focus on how they speak to you. Listen to their word choice, speech cadence, and the words that they emphasize.

If you don’t have access to a middle grader, brave the world of YouTube and find vlogs that show tweens in action.

Also, and most importantly, read other middle-grade novels, particularly the best sellers from the last few years. This will also give you insight into the voices that resonate best with your tween audience.

Create a Relatable Middle-Grade Protagonist

As I mentioned earlier, your middle-grade reader wants and needs to see themselves reflected in the story’s protagonist. Young readers connect to protagonists in which they share something in common.

Create characters who are on the same level of naivete as your readers. They should not think or react like adults. Instead, your protagonist should do what the reader would think to do in the same situation.

Middle-grade protagonists don’t have as much leeway as their young adult counterparts. Just like the real-life tweens they represent, middle-grade protagonists can’t leave home without a parent driving them. Their world is a lot smaller and mostly consists of home, neighborhood, school, friends, and family. Make your protagonist’s world very small.

It’s also important to choose the right age for your protagonist. Middle-grade readers prefer a protagonist their same age or slightly older.

Final Thoughts

Writing for middle-grade readers is challenging and rewarding at the same time. You can make a life-long impact on your readers, so use this opportunity wisely.

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