Friday, June 13, 2014

That Middle-Grade Voice by Kell Andrews

The long and the short:
Character sketch for a chapter-book-
middle-grade story
By the time I was middle-grade age, I wanted to be a writer, but for grownups. It was only as a grownup that I found my voice writing for middle grade.

I've been thinking about that since a tweet from agent Sarah LaPolla (whom I've never queried but I like her Twitter feed):

It's not a coincidence I moved from writing for adults straight past YA to middle grade. Those were the books that made me love reading, and it turned out that I have a middle-grade voice.

Not-blurry middle-grade voice

So what's middle-grade voice? It's elusive -- one of those "you know it when you see it" things. You know it whether it's Lemony Snicket's wry, formal omniscient or Rachel Renee Russell's effusive, run-on first person. And while the lines might be blurry, middle-grade voice itself never is. It's crystal clear and succinct -- no words wasted, whether lyrical or comedic, prose or verse.

And once you have that voice, it's a bit persistent.

The long story of a short story

Once I decided to write middle-grade, I wrote two novels. (The second written  turned out to be Deadwood, which releases June 24 from Spencer Hill, and the first of which has not yet decided what it will turn out to be). Then I had a great idea for younger story -- a chapter book featuring second-graders. The draft was 6,000 words, and I loved it. But I was between agents, and my querying efforts yielded exactly zero agent requests -- chapter books are not great agent bait. My single request, actually, was from an editor in an early reader/chapter book imprint who found the voice (third person, whimsical) to be charming but the story too thin for 6,000 words.

I realized that my chapter book wasn't really a chapter book -- it was a picture book. I started with a blank page, chose first person, present tense, changed the age of the characters to first grade, and wrote the story in 850 words. Still loved it -- my favorite story that I'd written.

This time when I queried the story as a picture book, I got an agent offer of representation. On the phone, I told her about my middle grade novels too. She said, "I can tell. Your picture book kind of sounds middle grade."

I chose a different agent and we subbed a different book. But I didn't forget my favorite story. Eventually I rewrote it featuring third-graders and finally sold it as an early middle-grade short story. Which is what it was meant to be all along.

Middle-grade voice is varied. It isn't a length or a genre -- it managed to assert itself as strongly in my 1,000-word contemporary story as in my 60,000 word fantasy/mystery. And if I ever write for grown-ups again, I'm going to have to hope they're looking for a little bit of (not-blurry) middle-grade whimsy. 


  1. Great post, Kell! I love the way stories change as we rewrite them. My MG novel was originally written as a YA novel.

  2. I love this insight into your writing journey, Kell. And I had never thought about the blurry lines between Adult and MG, as expressed by Sarah LaPolla. Interesting.


Thanks for adding to the mayhem!