Tag Archives: middle grade

How Hormonal Can Your Middle Grade Character Be?!

I was recently editing a MG manuscript where the protag kids were about 12 or 13 years old and I realized there’s a distinction, in my opinion, between writing as if your characters are actual kids and writing your characters for kids. So actual 12 or 13 year olds are using some pretty colorful language (even including all the more nasty 4 letter words), experimenting with kissing and touching (I know! Shocking, right?!) and they are basically just walking bags of smelly, emotional hormones. Yes, 13 year olds are already hormonal! Often, middle grade stories, whose readers are between 8 and 12 years old, feature older kids. It’s natural, because kids want to read about older kids, they want to look up to your characters. But if you’re writing for a middle grade reader, I don’t think it’s appropriate to be talking about nascent BJs, embarrassing BO, or dropping F bombs, you know? (If you need somebody to explain what those initials mean, ask a 13 year old…) Ok, you can talk about body odor… Now, if you’re writing a YA manuscript and you have 12 or 13 year olds walking and talking like actual 12 or 13 year olds, I think it’s a whole different thing.

What do you think? How true to life do you think MG or YA characters should be? Where do your characters stand? 



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Palimpsest: In whose voice do your characters speak?

Let’s talk about “voice.” Way back in the Paleolithic era, when I was in graduate school, I had a professor whose area of research was the poet, H.D. Ok, it wasn’t the Paleolithic, it was the 80’s, and evidently it was hot to study H.D. back then because she was some big pre-feminist icon who hung out with Freud. Be that as it may, I learned nothing about H.D. or her poetry but I did learn the word “palimpsest.” Apparently H.D. wrote a poem using imagery of the palimpsest. (Or a collection of poems, or a whole book… I don’t know. See I really didn’t learn anything in graduate school!) “What, pray tell, is a palimpsest?!” you may ask. Well, a palimpsest is a page from a scroll or book made of parchment, where the writing has been removed in order to use the parchment again. (Recycling is not a new idea.) Parchment is made from animal skin and the original text was scraped and washed off using milk and oat bran. What makes it unusual and interesting is that over the course of time the original writing kind of resurfaces. Cool, right?

So now you’re probably saying to yourself, “Interesting, but why is she talking about this when she said we were going to be talking about voice?” Well, the palimpsest imagery can be pretty powerful when thinking about creating an authentic voice in fiction. The question becomes, “How much of the author‘s voice should surface through the voice of the created characters?” I’m currently reading a young adult manuscript and it’s so clear to me that the 7th graders who populate this story just would not say the things they are saying. Or thinking. Or even doing. The voice of the (probably middle aged) writer, who has written a great YA book, keeps materializing through her characters. Bits and pieces of someone who is not 13 years old keep shining through. The way a girl describes a boy’s body. The response to the self-righteousness of the bitchy step-mother. The understanding of why a bully bullies. All the author not the characters.

Of course some of the things we like about certain writers is their unique voice (think the inestimable talents of say, John Green, John Irving or Amy Tan). It’s a tricky dance. How much of ourselves can we allow to surface through our fictional characters? At a certain point, if too much of ourselves as people, our life experiences, our personalities, peek out of the characters, it becomes obvious. The character palimpsest can become unintelligible, indecipherable. Unless your character is a person just like you, they really need to speak for themselves. Our job as writers is to let our characters do that. In my (not so) humble opinion, that is what creates an authentic voice. Maybe I should go back and try to read H.D.

How much of yourself do you write into your characters? How do you think you are doing in maintaining an authentic voice in your writing?



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it may be dreadful to be old but it’s worse not to be young

I sat in the audience of the BEA Middle Grade Author Buzz today, listening to three authors discuss their upcoming books. They fielded questions about where they got their ideas, how many drafts they usually wrote, how they felt about being labeled fantasy writers, writing to boys versus girls. All three were pleasant and articulate and I was happy to grab the advanced reading copies of their work, which I will devour as soon as I can. I happen to love Middle Grade books. There’s something so lovely about pre-pubescent stories, the absence of all that smelly, hormonal angst that YA books are steeped in (although I love YA books, too).

I wanted to ask a question, but I couldn’t quite put together a coherent enough sentence, even in my own mind. What did I want to know? It was something about voice, about writing the characters, about capturing the essence of an 8 to 12 year old, and getting it to ring true on paper. How do they do that? It’s not about writing a story and then dumbing down the language or vocabulary. At least these authors hadn’t.

After the panel discussion was over I kind of slunk up to one of the writers and sort of fumbled around with a half assed question. He was so kind and generous and somehow extracted what it was I wanted to know. He said, “I write to my 11 year old self. I write characters I would have wanted to read about or know when I was that age.” I love that. I can get that. That just seemed like such an authentic way to go about it.

All afternoon I’ve been trying to remember who I was when I was 8, 9, 10 years old. What books did I read and love when I was 12? How about you? Who were you? What did you read?


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