How To Cheat As A Middle Grade Writer (Part 1)

There’s a pretty well-known, damn near universal set of Official Obstacles for anyone writing with the intent of being published. You’ll spend countless hours making words—and later, making them shiny and minty fresh—while having roughly zero certainty that anyone besides your significant other and possibly your mother will read it. You’ll having to explain to everyone—from family members to complete strangers in grocery aisles—that publishing, as an industry, moves at a pace that makes Evolution point and snicker, and that your book might enter the real world after some uncertain period of time ranging from Soon to When the Sun Grows Cold And The Ice Returns. You’ll learn to hear and absorb rejection like some kind of gelatinous mass taking in new pens and binder clips as it oozes its way through an Office Depot.

Yeah, if nothing else, writing for traditional publishing isn’t just about putting words together into a compelling narrative, but also about learning to develop a tough outer hide to protect your soft, squishy cream center (mine tastes like dark chocolate, espresso, Dorito powder, and hopelessness).

There’s also a set of specialized obstacles, too, for writers in a particular category. Romance writers, Sci-fi and fantasy writers, Young Adult writers, all have a certain set of assumptions and challenges. It’s something I never realized until I decided to try my hand at Middle Grade novels. For isntace, things I’d taken for granted when writing my first adult book, Famine, suddenly had to be carefully avoided in Longshots. Hello, no F-Bombs! Oh, and maybe let’s not drop subtle references to sexytimes, eh? I mean, as amusing as it might be to have a 13 year old character call another kid a name referencing a specific part of an elephant’s genitals, that’s not exactly the likeliest route to the pages of the Scholastic order form.

Kid characters shouldn’t (generally) go around saying things like “God, you suck.” Sure, they often do in the real world when The Adults Aren’t Looking and yes, occasionally that’s represented in a MG story.  But that’s more the exception than the rule. Let’s be honest, Harry Potter and Draco Malfoy aren’t half as vicious in their verbal assaults on one another as they likely would have been as actual rivals in a real school.

The point is, I sometimes struggle to get dialog between kids right in a MG story.  Because at times of high stress or big action, I expect the words coming out of their mouths to be the kind followed by exclamation points, rather than the lukewarm sort that the Beaver would have drawled to Wally back in black and white.

My personal inclination is to have characters say things like, “S#&tballs, we gotta get out of here!” as opposed to “Oh, dear, we gotta get out of here!” Because the latter just doesn’t sound, feel, or read as authentic.

But, see, there’s no “s#&tballs” in middle grade.

Which leads me to confessing my single greatest crutch as a middle grade author: parenting.  At this particular moment in time I am theoretically responsible for kids that are ages 11, 10, 8, and 5 years old (but let’s be honest, the Puddinette keeps the house from catching fire). What that means to me as a writer is that I have a veritable treasure trove of free resource to steal adopt from  as necessary.

For instance, my kids know better than to let the wrong sort of language slip  at la Casa de Puddin, so they can be downright creative when it comes to substantive substitutions. When I recently heard a particular turn of phrase being repeated several times in response to certain frustrating situations (aka, times when an adult might have muttered something, um, stronger, that would have obligated a donation to the Swear Jar), I lifted it clean from Oldest Son’s mouth and deposited it into the manuscript for Project Tennyson without delay.

If you’re a middle grade author, then, I highly recommend having some middle-grade aged kids around to remind you how to act like one. Sure, they come with plenty of unreasonable demands (“we need food, drive me to soccer practice, please please please don’t embarrass me again by singing ‘Do You Want To Build a Snowman’ out loud around my friends”), but that’s a small price to pay for a wealth of material you can pilfer from them and pass off as your own eccentric genius!

Plus, you can make them do chores, which is always a bonus.


5 thoughts on “How To Cheat As A Middle Grade Writer (Part 1)

  1. So true and very funny. I’ve been fortunate to be around these kids most of my adult life and the material is priceless. When they are away, just turn on the Disney Channel some night and you’ll be thrown into the MG world real quick. Thanks for the great post.


    1. Ha! That’s brilliant! It never occurred to me, but you’re right. Flipping on one the 18 Disney or Nick channels would totally do the trick!

      Glad you enjoyed the post and I look forward to hearing from you again. Good luck with your books!


  2. Jason – am I right in understanding that you aren’t published yet? If I am… I CAN’T BELIEVE somebody hasn’t snapped you up yet. You have a delightful way with words. I would buy your books. Come on publishers… get with the program!


    1. Thank you so much! That’s the best comment anyone’s ever left for me here! And don’t worry, my agent is hard at it, working to find the absolute best place to have my stuff published. It’s a slow process, but we’re hoping for good news in the near future!

      Thank you again! I can’t tell you what your compliment means to me!


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