Posts Tagged middle-grade writers

For Those Who Write Short: How to Lengthen Your Manuscript

In online and in-person writing circles, I often hear fellow writers bemoan having to cut down their lengthy manuscripts. “Oh no!,” they wail. “I have to cut 30,000 words!” My problem is a different one. I write short. My first drafts tend to be one-half to two-thirds the suggested word counts. I used to feel insecure about this, but now I think this is my process. I feel a little like a painter—I do the broadbrush outline first, then with each draft add more detail and depth. I’ve come up with a few ways to add, so in case you are my fellow traveler on this narrow road, I share them with you.

Add Physical Descriptions

I’ll can get all the way to the end of my first draft and realize I have never given my main character a physical description. Not a hair color, eye color, even a race. Part of me thinks, it shouldn’t matter! The reader can fill in whoever they want! But it can be distancing for the reader if they can’t picture your character. Not only should you include a physical description, but you probably need to mention that physical description more times than seem appropriate. Do you know how many times JK Rowling told us that Ron has red hair? A lot, my friends. A whole lot. Even in book seven. When reading, I didn’t even notice it, but when I started looking for it, it seemed absurd. All of those reminders, though, make Ron seem like a living, breathing person, whom I might run into at the Leaky Cauldron.

Describe Places

Your main character’s home, school, soccer field, favorite spot in the woods—all of the important places where he or she experiences events–should be described. This is a great opportunity to use the setting to show us more about the character. Does the soccer field feel like freedom or dread? The description should show us that.

Check the Calendar

It is likely that some holiday happens during the timeline of your book. Have you included it? If it’s the start of the school year, you’ve got the major Jewish holidays, and then Halloween. Summer includes Fourth of July. Your character has a birthday, right? Or his or her friends or family members do? Think about writing those up. They might be interesting scenes to play around with.

Give Your Main Character Friends

I heard an editor mention that one of the consistent issues she sees in middle grade and young adult manuscripts is that the main character doesn’t have friends. “You guys, it’s really weird if they don’t have friends,” she said. “If they don’t, there needs to be some explanation for that.” Even if your character is alone on a spaceship, he or she should remember friends from back home, and if you can find a pet or at least a pet rock, that would be good. Side characters in general are a great opportunity to flesh out your character and introduce new conflicts.

Figure Out Where You’re Cheating

Sometimes, the reason my book is short is because I’m gliding over the hard parts. I want to get from A to B, but I’m not entirely sure how it would happen, so I just skip that part. This type of thing drives readers crazy. You have to do the work. But you don’t have to do it alone. This is a great spot to phone a friend. Ask a fellow writer (or anyone, really) to brainstorm with you. “Here’s what’s happening and where I need to go,” you’ll say. “What do you think might get them there?” It’s amazing what people who haven’t been living in the book like you have will come up with. Even if they don’t have the magic bullet solution, their fresh ideas may spark something in you that will get you to the answer you need.

Fix a Problem

There is likely some issue with your manuscript that you’ve identified, or that beta readers point out consistently. Maybe people aren’t connecting with your main character, or the conflict doesn’t seem intense enough, or the pacing is too slow. It may be possible to address that problem through a subplot, or adding another character. Brainstorm solutions; try to come up with at least twenty possibilities. Talk them over with other writers, and get their ideas, too. You’ve got the space! Consider yourself lucky, and use it to your advantage.


Finally, maybe writing short isn’t all bad. The book that made me cry most recently (Kate DiCamillo’s Lousiana’s Way Home) comes in at a slim 40k. One of my all-time favorite books, David Almond’s Skellig, is just shy of 34k. You can pack an emotional wallop–and plenty of laughs–without oodles of words. Don’t add text just to lengthen. Say what you need, and trust that it’s enough.


Promoting Summer Creativity: The Historical Fiction Premise for Middle Graders

Most middle grade readers will soon have a months-long opportunity to reboot their imaginations after a busy school year. Summer is a great time to offer up creative writing activities to MG readers: through summer programs at the local library, at camps or enrichment workshops, in the homeschool activity center on a rainy day, or as a mid-summer pick-me-up when boredom starts to creep in. Many kids pursue their own writing projects when on break from school, free of classroom guidelines and assessment rubrics… but others might need an idea or two to ignite the creative fire. This post details a writing activity for middle grade readers and writers that has worked well for students in my 5th through 8th grade classes—and it can be adapted for younger or older writers as well.

Your group might include middle graders for whom the task of writing a whole tale is too daunting, along with those who would happily write an entire novel if given the chance, as well as everyone in between. Here is a plan and suggestions for kids of varying interests and language skill levels: Creating historical fiction premises.

Just a cautious word before we proceed: Kids generally don’t want to hear assignment or work while on break from school, and even activity and writing can send up flags of alarm. So take care with the pitch (story crafting, authoring, and premise design are upbeat and interest-piquing descriptions) and the stakes (no grades…no deadlines…sharing aloud is completely optional).

Step One. Explain that a premise is the idea behind a story, without the details or the actual words of the tale. Premises can take lots of shapes, such as the blurb on a paperback, or the inside jacket copy on a hardback. In a short form, writers try to sum up the premise of their story in a logline or “elevator pitch.” A tagline on a movie poster or book trailer can serve as a hint of the story’s premise.

However, a good premise reveals attention-grabbing info about each part necessary for a well-developed story. These parts are the story elements: Plot (Conflict), Character, Setting, Theme, and Point of View. Middle grade readers will be very intrigued at the notion of dreaming up a story idea…without having to write the story itself. (Of course, there’s nothing to stop those interested in penning the actual tale from doing so; it’s summertime, after all!)

Step Two. Provide a quick rundown of the story elements:

Plot (Conflict): Remember, it’s just the idea of a story, so no need to get bogged down in plot details or structure! Just an explanation of the big conflict the main character faces: what’s the problem? How does it worsen?

Character: A brief character design is enough for a premise: age, gender, name, background, occupation or talents; any character traits that are important to the conflict.

Setting: Here’s where you get to add a bit of history! Have writers brainstorm historical events they recall from recent studies, movies, documentaries, or books. Then they can narrow their list, and choose a time, place, and historical event for their premise. This is a great chance to do a bit of searching or use library resources for research, depending on skill and interest level. Let your MG-aged writers know that a historical element can add to (and not limit) speculative genres like sci-fi, fantasy, and action/adventure (examples include The Inquisitor’s Tale by Adam Gidwitz, historical fantasy set in 1242; and several superhero blockbusters in recent years set during historical wartime).

Theme: In language arts classes, students learn about theme topics (“love,” “friendship,” “loyalty,” “pride”) and their more didactic accompanying theme statements (“True friendship can withstand tests over time.”) Simple, one-word theme topics work well for premise design.

Point of View: Remind middle graders that some stories are best told in the “I-voice” and others in 3rd person. As the premise designer, he or she gets to choose.

Step Three: How will your middle graders note their ideas and communicate their creative, original premise? This depends entirely on the size and abilities of your group. A handy activity sheet that you type up for distribution could list the story elements and allow lots of room for writers’ ideas, sketches, lists, and notes; this might be most efficient.  Some writers might prefer to design their premise on blank, oversized paper, sans “worksheet,” keeping in mind the story elements.

Don’t forget that middle graders can also communicate a story premise without writing a single word: they can cut and paste magazine images in a collage to represent each element. Drawings, iMovies, storyboards, and photo-journals all lend themselves to story premise design as well.

Step Four: Middle graders can share the premise aloud to the group, if they would like.

Writing JournalExtensions and adaptations:

  • Pose the premises of popular books or movies and have readers deduce the title. Or, have the readers tell a premise of a popular book or film (without character names or giveaway details) and see if others in the group can guess the work.
  • After a read-aloud session of famous opening lines–and the fun of guessing the book that is opened by it—have middle graders write the opening line of the story for which they have designed a premise.
  • Early finishers can dream up multiple premises while they wait for the group to finish. More methodical writers, ELLs, or anyone who finds the premise-design task too daunting might try focusing on just one or two story elements.
  • Story premises can easily drive drama exercises in the form of scene tableaus, character creation and development, monologue writing, or (if you provide plenty of guidelines) improv activities.

I hope you have fun adapting these ideas for your needs, whether that means a writing workshop of 25 student attendees at a library or camp, or your own child’s picnic blanket afternoons. Thanks for promoting inspiration and creativity in the sunshine of summer.