I was chatting with a friend the other day about a picture book class they’re taking. My friend said they’d been instructed to type out the text of picture books they loved word for word. At first, they hadn’t thought much of the exercise, but they ended up very surprised at how effect it was. The act of writing out great picture book texts put that structure in their brain. While it would be hard to do use this technique for middle-grade novels, I realized that I have successfully used the same type of analyzing for my chapter books and middle-grade graphic novels.
Jumping into writing new types of books can be daunting. Children’s books aren’t like writing for adults. As well as genre, we have to consider the ages of our readers, their voice, language, vocabulary and more. And some book categories have specific things that traditional publishers are looking for. Early readers and chapters books are nearly always series, so the story has to be designed to continue in future stand-alone books. In middle-grade, there are younger middle-grade novels that are thinner, much like the AMERICAN HORSE TALES series, of which my HOLLYWOOD is one, and Christina Soontornvat’s new LEGENDS OF LOTUS ISLAND series. But there are also the longer, more complex middle-grade novels too. Analyzing what publishers are publishing, and readers are reading, can help us craft our best stories.
I used this technique a lot when I first started working on chapter books. I had the opportunity to audition for a new unicorn chapter book series. Since I hadn’t written a chapter book at that time (only middle-grade and young adult), I decided to do my homework. I sat in my local bookstore and read chapter book after chapter book. I borrowed a heap of chapter books from the library. Plus I bought a few that I knew I’d refer to again and again. But I didn’t just read them. I took my analysis a step further.
I made a spreadsheet with some of my favorite chapter books, including ones the publisher had suggested as comps. Then I noted things like: the number of chapters, number of words in the books, number of illustrations, on which pages they came, number of characters, number of settings, etc. I outlined the stories too, comparing them to the outlines I did for my middle-grade novels. And I even typed out the opening pages word for word to get a good idea of the voice, pacing and tone. I did this for multiple books in different genres, by different authors. This gave me a good sense of the category as a whole.
I didn’t get that job, but the next time I had the opportunity to audition for a chapter book series, I used that knowledge and analyzing technique again. This time, I won the contract, and I now have four books out in my GEMSTONE DRAGONS series.
I’m about to go out on submission to editors with a graphic novel manuscript, and I used the same analyzing technique when I was writing that too. I read a bunch of graphic novels, noted their page counts, and even wrote out their scripts in the form of:
Page 1 (5 panels)
Panel 1: MC does X
Through this analysis, I could find the patterns and structures that are unique to graphic novels scripts. That made it a lot easier for me to create my own book, and so far, my agent loves it. (Fingers crossed it’ll have the same reception when it goes to editors.)
You’ve no doubt heard that reading is one of the best ways to learn how to write. I challenge you to take that one step further. You don’t have to type out an entire middle-grade novel, but consider ways that you can do more analyzing of those stories. Type out the first few pages or chapter. Note page counts and chapter numbers. See how your favorite authors start their stories and end them. Observe when they end a chapter. You can even catalog characters, their arcs and how their arcs intertwine.
Learning how to write by analyzing the stories you and millions of other readers already love will give you a key to unlock the tools those authors are using, so you can use them yourself.