|The middle grade . . . shoe?|
Here are some (all too) common problems:
The (Elderly) Omniscient Storyteller: The omniscient voice certainly has its place in literature. However, when writing MG, is your storyteller an 8-12 year old, or is it an imaginary, village wise man, reminiscing on youth? You may think your storyteller is 8-12, but how much melancholy, how many lessons, how distanced is your voice from the age of your character? Can you hear a real, modern 8-12 year old in your head, or does the voice belong to someone who wants to weave his yarns to the younger generation? The real MG voice will spend less time reminiscing, “let me tell you a story-ing,” and setting up scenes (vs. plunging right into them) than a true MG voice will.
The Lesson Giver: In no genre of writing is The Lesson Giver appreciated – and for good reason. Very few people choose to read a story that sucks the pleasure out of reading by trying to teach a lesson. In MG, readers can instantly tell – and will instantly reject – a story that overtly teaches patience, education, service or any of the things adults feel MGers should be reading and learning about. The MG novel is not a platform. Consider, for example, the popularity of Artemis Fowl, whose main character is snarky, too smart for his own good and a criminal who most often gets away with it.
The Precious Voice: Have you listened to an 8-12 year old talk nowadays? They don’t sound much like a child from a Dickens’ novel, all wide-eyed and “Can I have some more, sir?” The voices of actual 8-12 year olds vary widely, from intelligent and even know-it-all to carefree to cautious and hesitant. They are not sweet little innocents who never make mistakes; more likely, they rush into mistakes and are reluctant to admit them. This stage of life is about exploring and testing boundaries, as well as the beginnings of self-discovery. The Middle Grade voice should not sound like a toddler, nor should it be innocent and sweet-as-candy. It should be real and raw and confused at times, but hopeful and amused and spirited.
What should you do when writing MG?
Be That Age: Stop trying to write for 8-12 year olds. Stop trying to make up what it feels like to be an 8-12 year old. If you can’t clearly remember how you felt at that age, and still retain some of the personality quirks you had at that age, maybe MG isn’t quite right for you. I don’t believe that the older you get, the harder it is to recall that age; rather, it comes down to whether that stage of your life was one of, if not the most, significant of your life. Did things (good and bad) happen that feel fresh in your mind? Can you both relate to and respect modern MGers? When you are around 8-12 year olds now, do you roll your eyes, smile indulgently (because, oh how cute they are), want to run or wonder why kids can’t be the way they used to be? If you do, MG is not right for you. You have to love this age group, identify with it and write your stories as a MGer. Additionally, you must recognize that modern youth are different from youth when you were that age in some ways. Other ways, such as the pull to be more heavily influenced by your peers, but with the family still being central to your life, tend to be more universal.
Have you struggled with the MG voice? Have you sent out MG query after MG query and wondered why, since agents are looking for MG, yours keeps getting rejected? Scrutinize your MG voice honestly to see if you’ve nailed it or if you’ve fallen into one of the common MG voice traps. Author Chris Rylander has listed some useful questions to (not) ask yourself and some additional MG voice advice at 5MinutesforBooks.