Writing a Middle Grade novel can be an exciting adventure! But, like any adventure, it’s best to know the ground rules before you start. As a book coach, I’ve steered many Middle Grade authors through the writing process. Here are ten of the basics to keep your book squarely on the road to publication.
Word counts for Middle Grade (MG) novels
1) Know the ages of your protagonist and your audience: Middle Grade fiction is defined by the age of its protagonist and its intended audience. Your main character should be no older than twelve. They could even be as young as six or seven, if you’re writing an Early Reader. (An Early Reader book is written for new readers. It’s intended to create a bridge between picture books and chapter books.)
Since kids typically read up in age, not down, you’re writing for an audience of children between the ages of eight and twelve—with an Early Reader audience as young as five!
2) Book lengths: Your MG story is likely to be fairly short, as far as novels go. Depending on the intended age group of your readers, your final manuscript might be as short as 10,000 words or as long as 50,000 words. If you’re writing fantasy/adventure, especially for an older MG audience, you might need 50,000 to 100,000 words—or more!
We can look to the Harry Potter fantasy series as an example of an author expanding word counts to suit her maturing audience. The first book in the series, THE PHILOSOPHER’S STONE, is 76,944 words. In that book, Harry and crew are ten years old—smack dab in the middle of MG audience age.
However, as Harry and his readers grow up, the word count of the books increase. This trend continues until, having reached the far end of the kid-lit spectrum with the final book, the Young Adult title HARRY POTTER AND THE DEATHLY HOLLOWS, we’re looking at 198,227 words.
How long should your Middle Grade chapters be?
3) Chapter lengths: Early Readers don’t really have chapters. But “chapter books,” the next level for Middle Grade readers,do. Since chapter books come in at the low end of the total word-count estimate for MG books, their chapters are proportionately short at 500-750 words. Middle Grade books, meant for more experienced readers than the chapter book audience, can have chapters of up to 2000 words—or even more, if needed.
4) Sentence and paragraph lengths and complexity: Allow your reader to enjoy the story, rather then trying to educate them with too heavy a hand. To that end, keep your sentences straightforward and fairly simple. Paragraphs, too, should be short and easy to digest. Also, no need to send your reader to a dictionary often, either. Write in language they can easily understand.
Age-appropriate content when writing a Middle Grade novel
5) Focus on the story: Focus your writing on the story and action, rather than on description or psychological insights about the characters.
6) Think G or PG rating! While your middle-grade age characters may undergo significant difficulties, convey these in a way that doesn’t dwell on the darkness, but, rather, looks to solutions. Avoid swear words and graphic discussions of sex.
7) Lighten up on emotions and psychology: Let your young characters grow and change through their actions and reactions to story events. Don’t belabor psychological insights or character introspection in the process.
8) Third person POV: Third-person point of view allows a bit of distance between character and reader. Third person makes it feel safer to read about even tough circumstances. Your MG reader will, consciously or unconsciously appreciate that distance.
9) Get good readers: Teachers and librarians of your intended audience make great beta readers! They know what’s engaging to the kids in their care. They can also help you step carefully where needed.
10) Read 200 Middle Grade novels: Those same teachers and librarians are also familiar with what’s being published currently. (In other words, what types of stories you should be guided by). Get lists of books from them and from around the internet. Read 200 recent (last three years-ish) Middle Grade novels before committing to your own story. You will be vastly more informed about what’s selling now.
Further, you’ll have developed an inner sense for the rhythms of the stories being published for your young audience. This makes your success in the field much more likely.
Good news for a Middle Grade author
MIDDLE GRADE NOVELIST GAIL SHEPHERD has great news! She writes, Jamie, I wanted to let you know I just signed a contract with Penguin Young Readers Group/Kathy Dawson Books, for a two-book deal. Kathy made the offer based on SOUTH BY SOUTHEAST, the book you were so helpful with in workshops. I’m thrilled of course and wanted to thank you!
Shepherd is also the author of Middle Grade novel THE TRUE HISTORY OF LYNDIE B. HAWKINS.
Ready to write that Middle Grade novel? As a professional writing coach, I can help!
If you have questions about writing your Middle Grade novel, a free 30-minute chat with me might get you on the right path. Schedule that free consultation. And also check out THE WRITER mag article “Should I Hire a Writing Coach.”