Writers House agent Brianne Johnson shared a talk with us last Friday afternoon about writing middle-grade novels. She discussed plot, character, voice, beginnings, and theme in middle grade, using examples from some of her clients' books, The League of Beastly Dreadfuls and The Only Thing Worse than Witches, as well as from Harry Potter, A Single Shard, and Matilda.
She started out by sharing Aristotle's definition of plot, "the change of good fortune to bad, or bad fortune to good." Then she said there are three basic types of plots: conflict, mystery, and/or lack. A middle-grade novel may have one, two, or all three of those plot types, but each plot must have its own complete story arc (stasis, inciting incident, escalating complicating events, climax, resolution).
Some of the most common problems she sees with character are in the dialog. Her advice? "Read it out loud!" She also recommends using the worksheets and checklists in Cheryl Klein's book, Second Sight, for both plot and character development.
Some common themes in middle grade that she discussed in the workshop include challenging the status quo and learning that not all adults are kindly caregivers looking out for their best interests. "You can be really dark in middle grade," Brianne said, "but at the end of the day… there does need to be hope." She ended her presentation with this quote from Richard Peck: "A children’s novel ends not with happily ever after, but at a new beginning, with the sense of a lot of life left to be lived."
Finally, we had time to read some of the attendees' first pages aloud and discuss as a group what was and wasn't working in each of the pieces.
— Reported by Laurie Ann Thompson