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Writing Excuses 8.25: Middle Grade with E.J. Patten

Writing Excuses 8.25: Middle Grade with E.J. Patten


Key Points:  What is middle grade? Books that a teacher or librarian gives to a kid, rather than the kid buying them. OR books for older kids still in the children's section. Some series start with middle grade and transition to YA. Middle grade has less complex situations, without romantic subplots. Frequently quest type books focused on maintaining the establishment, resisting change. Simplified, but don't write down. One or two viewpoints. Short chapters. In bookstores and libraries, middle grade is often not segregated by content.

[Mary] Season eight, episode 22.
[Brandon] This is Writing Excuses, Middle Grade with Eric Patten.
[Howard] 15 minutes long.
[Mary] Because you're in a hurry.
[Dan] And we're not that smart.
[Brandon] I'm Brandon.
[Dan] I'm Dan.
[Mary] I'm Mary.
[Howard] I'm Howard.
[Brandon] And this is Eric, back with us again.
[Eric] Hello.
[Brandon] Thank you very much for joining us. Eric, remind us again what you write?
[Eric] I write middle grade fiction, which is very appropriate for this podcast. My book is Return to Exile. The Hunter Chronicles is the series. The second one comes out in either December or March, depending on when Simon and Schuster settles on a date.
[Brandon] Yes. This right now is July, so it's probably already out by the time this airs.
[Dan] Yeah. By the time this airs, they'll be out.

[Brandon] All right. So we're going to talk about middle grade as a genre, which we haven't narrowed in on before. Eric is our local expert. Although I technically have written middle grade, I kind of wandered into it. The Alcatraz books were published middle grade. I wrote them with Alcatraz at 15, which actually puts them high middle grade or young YA, depending on which market, which editor you're talking to. Then we wrote them down to 13 because we thought that they matched middle grade better, their plot sequences did. So I ended up in middle grade there. Mary, you've done one middle grade.
[Mary] I've done one middle grade, which was the first thing... The first thing that got me writing again. I haven't published any. But in my puppetry world, the bread-and-butter of puppetry is the middle grade audience.
[Brandon] Middle grade. Yup.
[Dan] Now, there is no quicker way to start an argument among publishers and editors than asking them to define age groups. But, to the best of our abilities, let's say very quickly what we mean by middle grade?
[Brandon] Middle grade are books that a teacher or librarian give to a kid, rather than a kid buying themselves.
[Dan] Excellent.
[Eric] Wow. That is the best definition I've ever heard.
[Brandon] Conversely, the other definition could be, middle grade books are books for older kids that are still in the children's section. They are shelved in the independent reader section...
[Dan] The bridge between chapter books and YA.
[Brandon] YA is outside the children's section, so if the kid is old enough that you wonder... They're old enough, there like sixth-grade or seventh grade or eighth-graders, maybe fifth-graders... If they're old enough that they're becoming a teen but they're still young enough that they don't mind going into the children's section... These are the kids that are like, "Kids' club, yay! I'm the king of the kids' club. I'm the oldest kid in the kids' club." These are kind of the middle grade kids.

[Mary] People get confused about it a lot, because the Harry Potter series started middle grade and transitioned to YA.
[Brandon] It did. That does happen fairly often, although she's the best example of doing it.
[Eric] I think that that's actually the trend. You sort of have to start there because... This is according to people I've talked to, but there really isn't a YA boy market.
[Brandon] No, there isn't.
[Eric] Maybe you've talked about that before.
[Brandon] I don't know that we've talked about it, but the YA... There is a fall off point for boys at about 12 to 13, where for whatever reason, they stop reading. Sometimes it hits a little bit earlier.
[Eric] I was told they jump just right into fantasy. A lot of them.
[Brandon] A lot of them will jump to adult. A lot of them just stop reading. We lose boys around the sixth-grade age like in droves. For whatever reason, they just stop reading. This is why, whenever they talk about a reluctant reader book, it's usually a boy book. It's usually like some young teen playing basketball. Those books are the books that they're trying to get the boys that drop-off at that age to keep reading.
[Eric] If you capture them before then, then you kind of age your characters up and you can kind of keep that audience as you're kind of going through the young adult stage.
[Brandon] I don't know if there isn't one, but yeah... Christopher Paolini managed to grab some sort of audience, but you could argue he was young YA even from the get-go, rather than middle grade.
[Eric] Rick Riordan's an interesting example because he does... He started in middle grade, right? Percy Jackson, the character, was 10 years old. They aged him up for the movie. But then the character aged up. Now his new series that he's starting are actually in the YA section, but I think most of the people reading him are actually middle graders, because it's still kind of the same audience, but he kind of managed to keep part of his audience and gain new audience. It seems to be a common trend. If you write on that upper end of the middle grade section, because, I mean it's actually a huge segment, right?
[Brandon] Yeah, it is.
[Eric] Diary of a Wimpy Kid on one end and there's the Percy Jackson stuff on the upper end. They're very, very different kinds of books.
[Howard] Now I'm thinking... Harkening back 33 years ago when I was in fifth and sixth grade, I moved from I think the old Hardy boys books which... My dad would hand me and got bored with those. He handed me the Hobbit.
[Brandon] Yeah. This is what you were saying, Eric, happens a lot.
[Howard] Hobbit, Lord of the Rings, then Larry Niven's science fiction...
[Dan] Sixth-grade is when I stopped reading kid books and started reading Anne McCaffrey.
[Brandon] But Anne McCaffrey was shelved in the children's section in my local library, because so many kids enjoyed Anne McCaffrey. I was offended, which is why I know this. I volunteered at the library.
[Dan] That's funny.
[Brandon] I was offended is a kid in young high school, that Anne McCaffrey was in there [not in the adult books?]. That you can tell is the distinguishing mark of someone in YA and not middle grade, when they get offended if their books are called kids' books. They're YA, not middle grade.

[Dan] Okay. So now that we've got that definition more or less out there...
[Howard] Now that all of our listeners are screaming at their computer monitors at how wrong we are...
[Dan] Let's talk about the differences. As you write middle grade, how is that different from writing a YA book or...
[Eric] There's a lot less complex situations. I don't know... How extensive can I go on this?
[Brandon] Clean rating.
[Eric] I don't want to get into sex.
[Brandon] Clean rating.
[Eric] I don't want to say the word sex.
[Brandon] You can get away with that.
[Eric] Is that okay? If I say the word sex?
[Dan] You can say the word sex. We had a whole episode about sex.
[Eric] Okay. Awesome.
[Brandon] Yeah, we did. It was only one question. And we ended it poorly.
[Eric] I didn't know if this was middle grade friendly or not.
[Dan] [inaudible]
[Eric] So we are doing a middle grade podcast that is not middle grade friendly.
[Brandon] Oh, we can talk about sex in middle grade, to middle grade kids. Maybe not in Utah. I grew up in Nebraska. They talked about it a lot.
[Eric] Okay. So I think...
[Dan] Okay, so there's no sex.
[Eric] One of the things... Right. Romantic subplots are out. But it's also a focus. I mean, when you're writing middle grade, it's really at sort of the change, right? It's that you're...
[Brandon] The transition.

[Eric] The character is evolving, it's transitions based. I think that the drivers in it... I mean, they're usually like quest type books. You have a lot of focus on like maintaining the establishment. Right? That's kind of... The goals are oriented around obtaining something to keep something in place from changing.
[Brandon] Interesting.
[Eric] Right. It's a resistance to change. Whereas I think the YA stuff, the young adult stuff, is the opposite of that, it's actually like bring down the establishment. It's a starting goal rather than a stopping goal, usually.
[Brandon] That's pretty awesome. I've never heard it described that way, but it fits really well.
[Dan] Yeah, it does fit really well, and it explains things like the huge boom of dystopian we're seeing is a distinctly YA boom because that's what it's about, is bringing down the status quo.
[Eric] Even if it's romances, right? Romances are about starting something, they're not about stopping something. But I think that's... For me, I mean, I thought about it, and I was like, "What is the distinction? What really is the difference between these?" Because there's clearly something that's appealing to YA readers that is not as appealing to middle graders, and vice versa.
[Brandon] I've often heard it explained also as middle grade kids love the whimsical adventure. That is still fine. They're willing to go with you out... And this is why you see so many middle grades being the transition out of our world to someplace fun. They want to kind of escape the mundane and still kind of have that... Maybe even a little bit childish desire to do that, but it's inside of all of us. Whereas the YA kids want conflicts relating to them. Like school is big in YA and not so big in middle grade because... They'll happen in both. I should say that there are no hard and fast rules. Diary of a Wimpy Kid takes place a lot in school, although it's done in a very whimsical kind of... In picture form, divorce yourself from reality, where Twilight is like let's bring the strange to school and let's have angst in school because that's what we do and that is... Those seem to be hallmarks kind of of the genres.
[Mary] Well, one thing that I would say, that I find from the puppetry side, is that the fourth fifth sixth audience has a lot fewer boundaries than older kids. They're still trying to figure things out. I think that is part of the reason that the focus on the status quo is so interesting to them. Because they... I don't want to say that they're looking for things that are a guidebook, because that sounds like write preachy things. But there is a certain amount of, "Oh! That's how that works." When you're dealing with them in audience form, that becomes... Live audience form, that desire to understand the rules becomes much more apparent because you'll sometimes trigger the herd effect with them. Where one kid will do something, and then they all do it. Because they're like, "Okay. So they're doing it and getting away with it, that must be the right way to do things." I think that in fiction, that you see a lot of that trying to figure the rules out. Like with Harry Potter, that's "How do I fit into this world? What are the rules and how do I fit into them?"
[Brandon] That's a very good way of putting it, too.

[Brandon] Let's go ahead and stop for our book of the week. Eric's going to pitch a book of the week at us. You're going to do Red Pyramid, I believe?
[Eric] Red Pyramid, Rick Riordan. So if you haven't read the Percy Jackson series, this is sort of the Egyptian version of that series. You've probably seen the movie if you haven't read the series, but... It is... Red Pyramid is about Carter and Sadie Kane, who destroy the Rosetta Stone at the beginning of the book and sort of unleash havoc on the world as a result. Set is released, and they sort of have to stop him from building a Red Pyramid in Phoenix. Very interesting. Very interesting book.
[Brandon] Cool.
[Howard] Head out to You can start a 30 day free trial membership and listen to the Red Pyramid by Rick Riordan, and pick up other books for 30% off.

[Brandon] All right. I've got kind of a hard question for you, Eric. I want you to try and field this one.
[Eric] Oh, man.
[Brandon] A lot of times when we talk about writing for kids, middle grade in particular, there is a discussion of simplifying the story, but not writing down. Wrapping my mind around how exactly to do that, how to simplify but not be condescending... How do we do that?
[Eric] I don't, actually. I don't know... I mean, Dan's read my book. My book is described as complex. "It's a complex book brimming with imagination," as the quote says on the front. But no, I don't believe... I believe in creating smart characters and writing them as smart characters. Not really dumbing it down. You can have fun with...
[Howard] Giving them difficult problems to solve.
[Mary] Can I...
[Brandon] Well, see, this is the thing. I would say that that's not writing down. But I do think you can simplify without writing down, which is what I'm trying to get at. This is what people keep trying to tell me to do for this.
[Mary] How long is your book?
[Eric] It's 500 pages.
[Mary] Okay. Do we know...
[Brandon] Do you have a word count?
[Eric] It's very large, very large. It's about...
[Dan] It's much bigger and more complex than you would expect from a middle grade book.
[Brandon] Okay. For a middle grade. Right.
[Eric] It's about 115,000 words.
[Mary] Oh, it is long.
[Brandon] Wow!
[Mary] That is really long for...
[Brandon] That is awesome.
[Dan] That's long for YA.
[Eric] It's a big book. It's actually been a barrier for us, because in foreign language rights and other areas, it... Nobody wants to pay to translate.
[Brandon] Scholastic... I mean, I've kind of got some good sales numbers and things. They wouldn't let me go over 50.
[Eric] Oh!
[Brandon] Even with my... Like I wrote one at 55. They made me cut 5000.
[Mary] See, that's where I was going to go with this. Except that then you completely bucked the trend. I think that one reason...
[Eric] Messed everything up.
[Mary] That you have to simplify in YA is not because of the kids, it's because of the length. The size of the canvas is smaller. This gets into the difference in writing short fiction and writing long fiction. You're writing a novella. Except for you.
[Eric] Except for me. I don't write that way.
[Brandon] How many viewpoints you got?
[Eric] Just one.
[Brandon] Just one. Okay. There's a way to simplify.
[Eric] It's a third person limited.
[Mary] There's a way to simplify.
[Brandon] There's a way to simplify without dumbing down. That's the primary way. In fact, I've been told this time and time again for kids. Stick to one or two viewpoints is actually the good way to go. You can be in one viewpoint, far more complex with that one character, than if you had three characters, then you have to simplify even more. Just to keep your plot reined in.
[Mary] This is true of all short fiction.

[Dan] One thing that I will point out as a simplification in Return to Exile, that you may be didn't even do on purpose, is that every scene is a chapter. The chapters are very simple because it's...
[Eric] That's true. I wrote really short chapters.
[Dan] Let's do this one thing. Let's do this chase through the dark while I'm being chased by monsters. That's one scene and one chapter, and it ends.
[Howard] You have attention span chapters.
[Eric] Yeah. I actually had really long chapters. I went back and it just wasn't flowing well. The pacing felt off to me. All I did was add chapter breaks. That was it. It made this huge difference in the pacing of the book. I was like, "Wow! Okay. That's all I need." So my chapters are about 5 to 10 pages. That was one of the things that I did, is just tacked them down and found good cutting points.

[Brandon] Here's another thing we can point out about middle grade and YA... I think I might have pointed it out in the podcast before, but I do think it affects the genres. They are not segregated by content. Meaning when you go into the bookstore or library, except for YA...
[Dan] They weren't. YA is becoming very compartmentalized.
[Brandon] YA is now. They are, but middle grade still isn't.
[Dan] Middle grade is not.
[Brandon] Middle grade is not segregated by content. You go in and they shall them by author name, with the historical books sitting next to the fantasy novels. YA has split off paranormal romance. Have they split off others?
[Dan] Paranormal romance has split. Dystopian, for a lot of bookstores, has now split into its own.
[Eric] I think there's even an adventure now that Barnes & Noble introduced. YA adventure or something.
[Dan] Well, yeah. Adventure I think is... The adventure category is... My guess is that that's their attempt to put all the boy books in one place.
[Brandon] Right. I noticed that with YA splitting, which was very interesting to me, but it seems to me that the real reason that they don't segregate by content in middle grade is because the kids, as you mentioned earlier, are much more willing to seem to just take what comes. They can laugh on one page, and have great drama on the next page with far less problem than it seems that adults do. We want to know if a book is a funny book or a crying book. We want our books to kind of...
[Dan] I'm actually a little sad that YA is going that same direction, because YA used to be the great boundless frontier where everything was mashed together. Now we have 13-year-old kids that are already identifying themselves by, "Oh, I read paranormal."
[Eric] Do we care about YA, though?
[Dan] I did.
[Eric] I mean, seriously...
[Dan] I mean... You bite your tongue, Eric.
[Mary] Yes, because in order to grow your audience, your audience is always aging out...
[Eric] Oh, yeah. They get older. That's sort of fixed in my mind. I don't let them grow up.
[Dan] That's what we were talking about earlier, is how many middle grade authors end up growing their audience through YA. That's because the middle grade window is very small. Once you've grabbed them, it's not enough to just let them go and grab their little brother, you want to keep them. That's why Rick Riordan wrote Lightning Feet and then moved on with the Red Pyramid to a distinctly YA series, because he wants those same kids to keep on reading him.
[Eric] Even though they really have the same feel as the Percy Jackson books, and they're written at sort of the same level as the Percy Jackson books.
[Brandon] These are, in part, marketing decisions that we kind of have to live with. Just like genre is in the first place.
[Mary] This... One of those other marketing decisions we haven't actually addressed directly is that marketing and sales tend to want the protagonist to be two years older than the target audience.
[Brandon] Yes. That's a good point. Very good point.
[Eric] I've actually heard that 13 is just a cutoff. If you... At Barnes & Noble, if you are over 13, you're in YA... If your main character is over 13, you're categorized in YA. If younger, then you're in middle grade.
[Brandon] Is that what... Because I've heard that...
[Eric] I've heard that. It sounds kind of ridiculous to me.
[Brandon] For 13-year-olds is the cutoff. That a 13-year-old is still a middle grade reader. So a 14-year-old protagonist is a book written for a 13-year-old. But that's...
[Eric] I think Beyonders is a good example of that. Brandon Mull's stuff. His main character in that is 14, but I think it's still technically a middle grade book.
[Mary] Yeah. Because it would be written for 12-year-olds. By the...
[Eric] By the... Yes...
[Brandon] But... You can always find examples that break out of this, and you should. Because these things, the more we delineate them, the more rigid they become, the worse it is for us. They're necessary evils. We deal with them because of what they do for us, but we don't want to become slaves to them. Otherwise, something like...
[Mary] Oh, Ender's Game, which is a six-year-old protagonist.
[Brandon] Right. Right. I was going to say...
[Eric] Yes. That's a kid's book, right?
[Mary] For four-year-olds.
[Brandon] For four-year-olds. Exactly.

[Brandon] All right. Let's go ahead and do a writing prompt. Someone got one for us?
[Throat clearing sounds]
[Brandon] Book for four-year-olds?
[Dan] Silence.
[Brandon] No, I think...
[Dan] Write a book with a four-year-old protagonist, written for adults.
[Brandon] Oh, no. Even harder. For middle grade audience.
[Mary] Oh, yeah.
[Dan] Oh, yeah. That would be superhard.
[Brandon] That would be tough.
[Dan] Okay, now I'm excited. I want to do this.
[Brandon] All right. This has been Writing Excuses. You're out of excuses, and Eric, thank you for being here.
[Eric] Thank you for having me.
[Brandon] Everyone go write now.

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