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Missing the Middle Grade Mark: 12 Common Manuscript Problems

Middle grade is hot.

Agents and editors are seeking more middle grade content as an answer to a saturated young adult market.

In the spring, I attended a talk on writing and publishing middle grade novels with Sky Pony Press senior editor, Alison Weiss.

She gave a list of the 12 most common middle grade manuscript pitfalls she sees in her query inbox.


MG = middle grade

YA = young adult

DA= diverse author

Problem #1 Your character is too young or too old

-There are two age levels for MG:

-Standard MG covers ages 8-12

-Upper MG covers ages 10up

-Keep in mind, readers read up. They want to read about kids slightly older than them.

Problem #2 Your voice isn’t authentic

-Are you conveying emotion realistically? Is it distinct?

-What makes this your story and no one else’s?

-Authenticity comes from being specific. Use details to evoke feelings. The more general you make things, the more alienating they become.

Problem #3 Your dialogue does not sound natural

-If your dialogue sounds stiff, your characters won’t feel real.

-Listen to how kids talk so you can portray that in your story.

-Your dialogue must match your character.

-Read your dialogue out loud. If it sounds weird coming out of your mouth, it’s weird coming out of the character.

Problem #4 Your vocabulary is too sophisticated

-MG readers are just getting comfortable reading. If they struggle too much with the words they’ll give up on your book and move on.

-Keep it simple.

-Give context for complicated words.

Problem #5 Situations that don’t make sense

-As a normal 8 to 12 year old living with your parents there are limits to the things you can do.

-How do you get around those limitations?

-If you are choosing a historical setting, it needs to be pivotal to what the characters are going through.

Problem #6 You are writing what you think is a middle grade experience, not what’s actually middle grade experience

-Some experiences are universal, others have changed. For example, having a cell phone.

-Observe kids:

-How do they speak?

-How do they act around each other?

-How do they spend their time?

-What are they watching?

-What do they do online?

Problem #7 A manuscript that lacks conflict

-Something needs to happen. The journey is the plot.

-You must ask yourself:

-What does your character want?

-What is in the way?

-What happens if they get it?

-Or not?

Problem #8 You’re making choices that will date your book

-You don’t want your manuscript to be out of date before it goes to press.

-If your manuscript is too “of the moment,” it will be obsolete tomorrow. Too old and it won’t resonate with young reader. Choose classic references.

-Be careful with your use of technology.

Problem #9 Your manuscript is too long

-Not everyone is JK Rowling.

-Readers are still getting comfortable reading

Problem #10 You don’t know the market

-To get to know the market, read books by successful MG authors.

-Examples to read: Jenny Holm, Jacqueline Woodson (DA), Sharon Creech, Laurel Snyderm, Chris Grabenstein

-DA Exaples: Jason Reynolds, Marjorie Agosin, Sherman Alexie, Rita Williams-Garcia

-Books exaples to read: Savy by Ingrid Law and Penderwick by Jeanne Birdsall.

-Adventure is an MG sweet spot.

Problem #11 Use of sex, drugs and other inappropriate content 

-Content like cursing, references to alcohol, smoking, drugs and sex can be problematic for this age group. It will limit your market because of gatekeepers like parents, teachers, librarians and school boards.

-With rare exception, these references don’t belong in MG.

-Keep in mind, your content will decide if you get on:

-Scholastics Book Club

-State Lists like the Florida Sunshine State, Texas Blue Bonnet and the State’s Library Association

Problem #12 You aren’t asking enough questions

-Did you seek help?

-Did you ask questions?

Send any comments, questions or delicious recipes for baked goods to @MayraECuevas 

Why write YA? The virtues of this category and concepts every writer should know.

This Spring I attended a  SCBWI Southern Breeze SpringMingle conference with  Jacquelyn Mitchard.  Mitchard is a New York Times bestselling author and editor of Merit Press, an imprint of Simon and Schuster. Her novel The Deep End of the Ocean was Oprah Winfrey Book Club’s inaugural selection and was later adapted into a film.

During her workshop titled Why write YA? she talked about the virtues of writing for the young adult (YA) book category and some concepts every aspiring YA writer must know.  

From Mitchard:

YA is a growing market

YA is the only consistently growing category of fiction. Teens are embracing books and buying hardcovers over e-books. They love stories like no one else. To a teen, the characters in these books are real people. When you write YA, you hook a reader for life.
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Best-selling author Jacquelyn Mitchard talks great beginnings, story structure, dialogue and great endings

On Friday, I attended Jacquelyn Mitchard’s writers intensive workshop as part of the SCBWI Southern Breeze SpringMingle conference. Mitchard is a New York Times bestselling author and editor of Merit Press, an imprint of Simon and Schuster. Her novel The Deep End of the Ocean was Oprah Winfrey Book Club’s inaugural selection and was later adapted into a film. She has written over twenty books for adults, teens and children. She is also a faculty member at the Vermont College of Fine Arts. 

Mitchard had me at hello. Her morning talk began something like this: In hard times, “writing will save your life.”

Her day-long workshop focused on great beginnings, structure, dialogue, and great endings. I have compiled the highlights in the following post.
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The Breakout Novelist, a reference book for novelist

This is my second read of the The Breakout Novelist by literary agent Donald Maass. The first was while I was revising my second manuscript– a contemporary YA, which landed me an agent and is currently under submission (fingers & toes crossed). Now, as I write past the midpoint of my third manuscript (in-progress), I needed a refresher, so again I rifled through my worn copy of this writing craft favorite.   

Maass says every novelist could strengthen three primary levels of novel: plot, individual scenes and line-by-line micro-tension.

Below you will find some highlights on these three areas extracted from The Breakout Novelist. The book also covers other important topics like premise, stakes, character development and world-building.  
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Dear Kid Lit Writers of Color: The odds are not in your favor.   

Face it. They are not. I don’t care how good your book is.

I’m not saying this as some emotional rant, but as a fact.

Look at this chart:

It is an infographic on kid lit publishing statistics provided by the Cooperative Children’s Book Center and designed by Sarah Park Dahlen.

Based on this illustration, the half-Latina protagonist in my YA novel—her name is Jo Lopez—has a 2.4% chance of being published. My odds would have jumped a full 10% if I had written Jo as a non-racial animal or an inanimate object like a cupcake, instead. But she is neither. She is a half-Latina from NYC having a hilarious—sometimes quirky—identity crisis while attending a cowgirl camp in Wyoming. And she was written by an author of color to connect with readers of color.

None of that matters, though. It doesn’t matter how well the book is written. It doesn’t matter that it’s an original premise. It doesn’t even matter that Latino readers are one of the fastest growing book markets in the U.S. The fact remains that Jo’s odds of publication are 2.4%. Even when one in four female students in public schools across the U.S. is Latina, according to a White House report.

What is even more astounding is that a whopping 25% of the nation’s public school students are Hispanic, yet they can only see themselves in 2.4% of children’s books that are published. How is that even possible?

It may have something to do with another fact: 80% of the publishing industry is white. Which would explain why 73% of the children’s books published in 2015 depicted main characters who were also white—I refer you back to the infographic.

Facing these staggering odds, I have come to realize that Jo may very well become a statistic. I have accepted this fact, not out of frustration but because I want to change things. It is not until we accept our reality that we are able to change it. So instead of getting angry and crying foul I am working to made a difference and so can you.

Here is how:

VOLUNTEER: I am a proud volunteer for the We Need Diverse Books (WNDB) organization. Their internship grant program gave eleven people opportunities in children’s publishing this summer. Four of them landed jobs after the internship. In January, WNDB will be publishing the short story anthology titled Flying Lessons aimed at promoting diversity among middle grade readers. WNDB’s programs also include awards, grants, contests, mentorships and resources for librarians and teachers.

MAKE A DONATION: If you can’t donate time, then donate money. WNDB needs our financial support to function. Your donations have a direct impact on the success of our mission—case in point: debut author A.C. Thomas, who won the WNDB’s Walter Dean Myers Grant in 2015. Her novel, The Hate U Give, will be published in 2017 and a feature film will follow.

ATTEND AN EVENT: Support the book launch of another writer of color, sign-up for a writers conference, join a critique group, attend a writers mixer. There is strength in numbers—show up, be seen and connect with other writers, and with industry professionals.

HOST AN EVENT: Get off your writing chair and host a local mixer, a writing group, a critique group, a writers’ retreat or a workshop. This is a great opportunity to connect with other authors and build relationships.

SPREAD THE WORD: Promote books and events that give writers of color a seat at the table. Use social media to boost signals on book releases, events and industry news.

KEEP WRITING: My personal goal is to produce one manuscript a year—regardless of whether it gets published or not. The result is that by the end of this year, I will have written three full-length manuscripts. With each one, my voice is honed, my writing flows better, and my story-telling technique improves.

We need more authors of color writing books of

all genres, for all readers.

We need our voices to be loud enough that they can’t be ignored.

Or even worse, be defined by a number on an infographic.