Monday, 28 October 2013

Mastering Middle Grade

 Yesterday I attended my very first SCBWI masterclass and lucky me, it was run by the wonderful Sara O Connor from Hot Key Books.

 Twenty eager scooby people turned up at the Theodore Bullfrog Pub in Charing Cross hoping for a practical workshop on writing the best middlegrade fiction and that's exactly what we got!

 For those of you who couldn't join us Sara has very kindly allowed me to blog about the day, so here we go, Halfway to the Middle by Sara O Connor.

We started off by looking at the basics -

 How do you define Middle Grade?

1. Age of the main character (between 10 and 13 usually)

2. Level of violence (do what you want to monsters etc but not so much with people) and romance (not beyond hand holding)

3. Length (around 40 000 words)

4. Contains innocence and optimism and isn't cynical

5. Earnest with a sense of justice.

 We then moved onto talking about character and Sara encouraged us to find our inner ten year old. Most importantly;

Do Not Condescend or Underestimate 

Make sure there is Authentic Depth to your character - 
Know what they Want, Think and Need  
Ensure there is True Motivation.

Writing Exercise One -
Read your first two pages - what do you learn about character? Underline everything you learn about them.
(Remember - Physical description isn't character - we need to find out what they believe, see authentic motivation for the plot as early as possible.)
If we don't find out enough, why not? Is backstory or secondary characters getting in the way?

Remember the Less is More adage. Everything you tell your reader must be worth it!
Imagine that your reader has to carry a backpack from page one to the end of the story. The backpack holds everything you tell your reader so make sure they NEED to carry it.
If they don't need it - CUT IT OUT and remember small details often matter most.

Writing Exercise Two

To make space for the essential details go through your first page and CUT twenty unnecessary words.
(Yes, 20 words!)
Now Cut twenty more. (Yes I know, it's hard. We moaned as well but No Pain No Gain!)

Main Character Essentials

We have to love them in order to want to spend the next however many pages with them. 
They need Conviction - we have to believe in them and what they want and need.
Their Motivation must be in sync with the plot.
They must be in the drivers seat, make decisions and drive the plot forward.

For more help with this Sara suggested we check out the Carnegie Shadowing site and specifically Roddy Doyle talking about Greyhound Girl.

Writing Exercise  Three
Ask yourself these questions;
What is the first thing your character does that will make the reader care about them? (how early or late does it happen?)
Why should the reader want to be your main character? (reading is aspirational)
What is memorable about your main character in the first chapter?
What is the worst thing that could ever happen to them?
What is the one thing they will do anything to avoid admitting to themselves or others?

Sara used examples from published books and participants submissions to highlight her points and the whole group was buzzing over lunch as Sara's ideas inspired us all to think differently about our work.

Plot Basics

Plot should be inseparable from character.
Plot should be because of character.
Ask big questions to develop the plot.
Ask questions again and again - how far will your character go to get what they want?
Each answer should complicate your plot and test your character.
Don't force it! You can't make people do what you want and you can't overlay plot onto character.
Create the situation bring in your character and see how they react.

Before the workshop Sara asked us to write a two line chapter summary that gave the most important points. It was a really useful way to get the whole picture of your novel and check whether the following points all work.

Each chapter should be able to lead on to the next with the word because not and then.
Each chapter should move the story on in terms of plot or character. If it doesn't - Cut It!
With each chapter get in late and leave early.
Remember your backpack and make sure only the essentials are going in.

Writing Exercise Four
Write a two line summary chapter summary for your book.
Now cut out three chapters.
(Don't shout at me, Sara made me do it!)
 Our last instruction came in terms of making our story meaningful in some way. 
We talked about the Obligatory Scene which should almost have been set up in the early chapters. It is what readers have been expecting from the beginning and therefore it MUST happen!

Writing Exercise Five
 Do you have your obligatory scene?
Does your protagonist meet the antagonist?
How does the scene change both characters?
Is it the biggest, best scene in the book?
Where does it occur? Would a different setting make it more dramatic?
If the scene isn't as good as it could be look at the buildup before.

And here's what Sara thinks makes great middle grade -

Brilliant idea
Vivid characters
Don't condescend.
Make it meaningful.
Embrace revision.
Have fun! 

I want to thank Sara for giving such a great masterclass. Everything in it was useful and can be applied to my w.i.p so I'm very glad I came along and as always I had a brilliant day with my fellow scoobies and the very lovely Sara!

If you found Sara's ideas useful and would like the chance to work more closely with Sara and three other great editors do check out her new venture Book Bound.


  1. I wasn't able to make it so this is brilliant, Lorraine. Thanks for posting in such detail!

  2. Replies
    1. Thanks Candy, it was so useful and Sara is an inspiration!

  3. thanks Lorraine - you were paying attention, weren't you! It was a perfectly timed masterclass for me to begin revising. I wouldn't have had the courage to cut so much without being prodded to do so. In the nicest possible way, of course :) Maybe this masterclass could be a regular feature for our SCBWI?

    1. Hi Sue, I think we all need prodding sometimes don't we? And Sara really knows what she's talking about doesn't she! I think it would be great if it could be a regular feature for scbwi as there's so much practical help in it.

  4. Lorraine this is a brilliant write up, thank you very much !