Molly O’Neill: It’s our final installment of Everything You Wanted To Know About Middle Grade and Weren’t Afraid To Ask! Michael and I could probably talk even longer about this topic—but when we’re blogging, we’re not signing/acquiring/editing the next Great American Middle Grade Novel, so….priorities!
One thing that I notice a lot about middle grade is that I see the same ideas over and over again, in countless submissions. We’ve already talked about creativity in Part One and Part Two of this series, but I think it’s a point worth coming back to again as we wind things up. Michael, what do you think: if there’s truth to that myth that there are only seven (or 3 or 20, etc, depending which expert you ask) basic plots, how does any writer create a story that feels fresh and exciting and unique?
Michael Bourret: That’s the challenge, isn’t it? (Dramatic announcer voice) In a world where tens of thousands of novels a published a year, and it seems that every story has been told, how can authors writer something worthwhile, interesting and original? (End dramatic announcer voice.) I don’t think it’s easy, but I know it’s possible. I read new things every day, published and yet-to-be published that knock my socks off. Things that strike me as truly original, even if I can trace back elements of the stories to classic books like The Chronicles of Narnia or Phantom Tollbooth. A story may well be familiar: kid travels from ordinary world to magical one, learns things, grows up. (Which, by the way, is the experience of reading a book.) But that familiar story looks different through the lens of different authors. C.S. Lewis write a Christian parable, whereas Norton Juster and Jules Feiffer created a fantastic world of abstract concepts come to life. A more modern example is a series by Dale Basye that I represent. In the Heck books, a brother and sister are navigating a child’s version of hell. Inspired by Dante’s Inferno, there’s also a good dose of Norman Juster in the wordplay and smart-silliness. But the voice and point of view are very unique, and you certainly wouldn’t confuse it with either of those forebears. Even if there are, say, a million stories, they’ve all be told already. The details are in the telling.
MO: Michael, it sounds like we’ve come to very similar conclusions: that the details of a middle grade story are so often where the magic is. A lot of time, it’s the details that make a story memorable. In fact, it’s often those same specific details that we remember, months or years after reading a book, rather than the plot itself. So on a craft-level, how does one build a story with the kinds of rich details that make it feel like a story that’s all-new? I think a key to it is being careful that your story does not become too singularly-focused and one-note in its telling. It’s all well and good to drive toward the ending from the moment you’ve begun your story—a story that meanders or doesn’t really know where it’s trying to go can get confusing or dull, after all—but if it’s too predictable, it can fall flat, or a reader may forget it almost as soon as they’ve finished reading it, or a reader may get bored because it’s too obvious where the story is going and there’s nothing really enticing to “find out” by reading more.
One thing that I notice time and again about the middle grade writers I publish, and also many that I don’t publish but that I admire, is the ability of their authors to take a handful of seemingly-disparate ingredients, ones that seem to have nothing in common at the story’s outset, and then weave and wind them together as the story progresses. The subplots that those details form can give a story more depth and range, and they also enliven it and create the unexpected twists and moments that keep you eager to read on. I’ll give two quick examples from my own list to explain exactly what I mean. If you boiled down Kathryn Fitzmaurice’s THE YEAR THE SWALLOWS CAME EARLY to its most basic nugget, it’s a story about something valuable that is stolen, and a young girl who has to deal with the ramifications of that loss. But it’s also a story about cooking, illegal immigration, friendship, bird migration, family, earthquakes, addiction, hair salons, and chocolate-covered strawberries. Those things don’t seem like they should go together—but they do, and learning precisely how is part of what makes the story so memorable. In the same way, the simplest core of Bobbie Pyron’s A DOG’S WAY HOME is that two friends, girl and dog, lose each other and must journey to find each other again. But how does that have anything to do with Nashville’s country music scene, or mapmaking, or a celebrity’s daughter? Those unexpected twisty sidenotes and subplots of the story make it a richer read than if it were simply a straightforward journey from points A to B with no other details in-between.
MB: Yes, yes, yes. I agree with all of those things. Great authors imbue their stories with particular details, both in terms of plot, setting, character and voice, that make them unique, interesting, and singular. What interesting to me is that as a reader, I can easily see the elements of a novel that make it stand out from the pack, and I don’t mean as a trained reader or agent. I think anyone who reads enough can point to the things that really make a book shine. But it constructing a book, writers can find it difficult to inject their stories with the necessary elements. This proves that not every reader is a writer (though as a non-writing reader, that I already knew!), and it also shows how hard it is to construct a book that’s satisfying on all levels.
And, as we’re wrapping up our discussion, I think that’s the thing I most want to stress to authors: while agents and editors are going to help you dig deep and make your book the best it can be, ask yourself if your book is firing on all cylinders. Is the central conflict/conceit compelling? Are the stakes high enough? Is my protagonist interesting/appealing/real? Have I given a good sense of the setting? Is the point of view the best one from which to tell this story? Is the voice helping to tell the story the best way possible? I don’t want you to spend the rest of your life locked in your basement fixing the story over and over, but it’s important to understand how to make your work as finished, polished and compelling as you can. Too much of what I see that is merely good instead of great is just under-baked.
MO: I don’t think I can say it better than Michael just did. There are so many steps to writing, and so many layers of refining involved. And while many exciting things can happen after you sign with an agent or get a book deal, you also become a part of a whole company’s processes at that point, and it can get busy, fast. Before you aim for that, be sure you’ve given enough time to your OWN processes. I think writers rarely get the chance to be as creative as when they’re in the creative stages of developing a new story – so don’t short-circuit your own creative potential by rushing to get to market too fast; in the end you could end up cheating yourself and your potential readers. And the great thing is, especially for middle grade writers, that there will always be new readers emerging, waiting for great stories.
Another thing I’ve been thinking more and more about lately is that, yeah, we’re all consuming far more information, thanks to the internet, Twitter, etc. But pretty quickly, the seemingly-helpful internet can become an echo chamber of everyone seeing and hearing and talking about basically the same ten things each week that have loped the internet and gone viral. And I’m not convinced that the viral internet is an environment that breeds personal creativity—for a few it might, but for others, it might actually stunt creativity. So be sure you take time AWAY from the things that everyone else is thinking and talking about, in pursuit of the original, the unique, and the things that drive YOU versus all the other writers in the world. Visit new places and read old books you stumble across in used bookstores and talk to interesting strangers and throw yourself into unexpected situations and visit museums and go down bizarre and uncommon internet rabbit holes on Wikipedia or via StumbleUpon…in short, give yourself an environment in which you can try (and fail) in following different fascinations, and in discovering things that refresh your curiosity and sharpen your ability to recognize when you’ve had an idea that’s really special, one worth devoting months and years to as a writer. It’s no coincidence that some of the best writers I’ve ever met are also some of the most curious-about-the-world-and-all-the-people-in-it I’ve ever met, too.
MB: Oh, the rabbit hole that is Wikipedia. I’ve learned more about Morgellons and conspiracy theories that I ever intended. (Also, if you have any novels about Morgellons or conspiracy theories, I can assure you that both Lauren Abramo and I will be interested.) But Molly’s advice is excellent. It’s important to break out of your comfort zones and explore the world. Writers need inspiration, and our increasingly digital world provides opportunities to learn and grow, but it can also become, as Molly so well said, and echo chamber that just reinforces what a writer already “knows.”
I’m a little sad to be wrapping up our conversation on middle grade, but I feel like we’ve both said everything we set out to say, and I hope we’ve answered most of your questions. Since I’m wrapping things up, here are my final thoughts: if you take nothing else from what we’ve written here, I know we both feel that the focus of the writer should be on craft. You may know the market, know the players, have been to the conferences, but that all means bupkis if you haven’t taken the time to develop your work. Because in the end, it all comes down to the words on the page.
Thanks again for reading, and for your patience while we battled sickness and deadlines. You can catch me here, and Molly over at her blog. Thanks!