Saturday, September 17, 2011

Writing for Middle-grade Children

Plotting a children’s chapter novel is easy, right? All you have to do is chart a path from the beginning  through the middle to the end while filling in significant events.

Plotting is actually hard work, even when writing for kids. You need settings, situations and the kind of people that children can relate to. However, even the most talented writers often fall by the plotting wayside. Some start a manuscript with a great character who has a problem but the writing project often loses momentum and is never finished. Why? Because of plot problems.

You need more than a strong central theme, memorable characters and a problem that can be solved over the course of the book. I write middle grade mystery novels in addition to my books for adults, so I’m referring to the 9-12 age group although plotting techniques apply to all novels. Plotting for middle graders, especially when writing mysteries, requires technique.

Aristotle’s three-act structure has been used since the Greek philosopher lived during the 4th century BC. Plots are structured around three acts, the first and third comprising half the work.The second act comprises the other half, which is the middle, where most novels seem to fall flat. So you should plan to introduce your character(s) and the problem at hand in the first 25% of your novel.

The middle half is when you make things more difficult for your protagonist by placing more barriers in her path. And the remaining 25% is when you present the climax and resolution. Decide on setting. Most middle graders’ lives are centered around school so you have to decide if your plot takes place during those hours or during vacation or after school.

You need to develop a time schedule when events are going to take place. That means outlining. (I hear groans from the pansers). The outline doesn’t have to be detailed, but it should include events that are going to get progressively worse as the plot continues.

Otherwise you can paint yourself into a corner, which I’ve done in the past. Then decide which activities you need to write that will complicate your character’s problem. Kids are well aware of stereotypes, so make sure your characters are unique  Your protagonist will interact with her friends, teacher, principal, school librarian , bus driver and parents, among others, so decide which ones to include and keep them to a minimum. Unless characters are directly involved in solving your protagonist’s problem, they shouldn’t appear in the book.

Middle graders don’t require complicated plots so it’s usually best to concentrate on one powerful theme in a simple plot line, such as bullying, teasing, losing a best friend, etc. And don’t attempt to write only from experience. Do your homework and as much research on the subject as time allows. Talking to your children and grandchildren about problems they currently face will help tremendously. It also helps with learning their language.

Saturday morning childrens' programming is also a great resource. And be sure to check out Penny Warner's terrific site for kids:

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