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October 2012

Reporter: Delores Topliff

Delores TopliffTopliff is a freelance writer, editor, publisher,cteacher, and speaker with more than 250 publications. Besides teaching at Northwestern College in St. Paul, and presenting seminars, she continues as president of the 130-member Minnesota Christian Writers Guild. She provides writing-editing consulting through Creative Design Services, and operates TrueNorth Publishing: A Friend to Writers.

Presenter: Joyce Magnin

Joyce MagninMagnin is the author of the Bright’s Pond novels, including The Prayers of Agnes Sparrow which was named one of top five books of 2009 by Library Journal and was Carol Award finalist for 2009, Harriet Beamer Takes the BusCarrying Mason and CAKE. She is frequent conference speaker and writing mentor. Follow her online.

Workshop 8: What’s So Tough About Writing The Middle Grade Novel?

Boy readingJoyce Magnin has authored seven novels: five for adults and two for middle-grade readers. “I never wanted to do anything else,” Magnin said in her ACFW conference workshop What’s So Tough About Writing the Middle Grade Novel?. “Every day I wake up astonished that I get to do what I always dreamed about.”

Middle-grade novel protagonists are aged 9-12. Younger children prefer picture books or chapter books not exceeding 5,000 words, but the word count for middle-grade readers extends from 20,000 to 60,000 words. They are quite flexible and spread across all styles and genres. However, it is a must-hit-the-target mark. Readers demand excellence, or they won’t keep reading.

“Young Adult fiction tolerates a little romance, but middle-grade fiction seldom does,” Magnin said. “Here it must stay puppy love—and the gatekeeper buyers are moms. To write middle-grade well, you must read it.” She recommends: Gary Schmidt, Jerry Spinelli, Richard Peck, Cynthia Leitich Smith, among others.

In writing for this age, consider your readers’ hormone changes and mood swings, growth spurts and psychological development, Magnin said. “These kids aren’t managing abstract thought, but they’re starting to think. They’re becoming aware of wars and things happening in our world. They have one foot in childhood and the other in adulthood. They can handle a few abstract concepts if we use really concrete images.

“It’s hard for kids this age to talk about what they’re feeling or what’s going on inside. Instead they may do or talk about strange things to cover up their real feelings and actions. They may discuss magical events, like objects flying out of cake” (as in Magnin’s book, Cake). “Their world is up and down, black and white, but these kids love to laugh and respond to new experiences with humor.”

She suggested authors include surprises and the unexpected, since middle-grade readers are sharp. “They get it, and unlike adults, aren’t willing to read scads of pages to follow story world or get your point.”

Magnin discussed these Ten Points to Ponder When Crafting Middle-Grade Fiction:

  1. Character
  2. Tight Writing, Economy of Words
  3. Setting
  4. Dialogue
  5. Concrete Images
  6. Concrete Emotions
  7. Voice
  8. Humor
  9. Originality, Central Symbol or Metaphor
  10. Song

“Your story begins,” Magnin said, “by starting with a really good character kids can identify with. Middle-grade readers won’t stick with a perfect kid.” In addition, there must be a goal, a problem to solve on the inner journey. What the character does or says forms plot and develops voice.

“You can fill in some back story with a bit of flashback,” she said. “Show emotion through both external and internal ways kids can relate to and understand.”

Magnin included a great quote from C.S. Lewis: When you sit down to write for a kid, remember what it was like to hate your peas…or prunes. If you do, then you’ll write believably.

Boy reading image courtesy of imagerymajestic/


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