What is the secret to selling a middle grade book?

The Mystery:

My friend Karla and I were standing in the college courtyard during an alumni writing conference at Hamline University. We both had Middle Grade books, books in which we had put our hearts into, fail. We talked about why things weren’t working out. We talked about what we were doing, and how we were going to move forward.

The magical thing that happened is that in talking about all the various books on writing we discovered a secret to writing a selling Middle Grade Book.

The Secret:

A winning middle grade book focuses on a hero/person who truly wants something terribly but cannot have it.

Put another way, a story should be about a person who has a very specific desire and will stop at nothing to accomplish it.

That’s it.

What we discovered is that the main characters in our novels were not relatable. Now that word relatable can be a confusing word.

Relatable does not mean writing about someone who everyone can relate to, it means writing about someone real. it means that the main character of the story needs NEEDS needs something. This is harder than you might think. Crime novels are easy in this respect. The detective needs to find the killer. So are romances, the guy or girl needs to find their true love.

In literary fiction it is much more difficult. How do you identify a need in a kid who lives in northeast Iowa, where there is no murder or kidnapping, or crime, or romance? Do you understand now why movies are so formulaic?

An Example:

Consider the movie Up,

In Up, an old widower lives alone in a house collared by high office buildings. And into this jaded old man’s life walks an equally charming boy who demands connection with a man who wants to protect himself from loving again. But what does this man want? He wants to go to Paradise Falls. The Pixar team did this marvelously.

From the very beginning of the movie we begin with a little boy in a little town, and right away, in the first minute,  we learn about Paradise Falls. “Adventure is out there!”

The movie pivots on this single place, Paradise Falls. The whole movie is about getting to Paradise Falls. Are you sick of Paradise Falls? You shouldn’t be, because our stories need such a yearning. It must be introduced immediately, and like a crime drama, our stories must pivot on these single motives.

You want another example. Let’s pick another award winning story … Holes.

Another Example:

What does this story pivot on? A curse! Curses are always born out of legends. And so the author drives the story around this idea that his boy has a curse and wants to survive it. In fact the story begins with an awful place, a desert. Yet, the desert is not haphazard, it is has a connection to the curse.

The story of Holes is one of survival. Every legend told in the book is about surviving. And for Stanley Yelnats (the hero) its about surviving the curse upon his family because of his great-great-great-great-great-no-good-pig stealing great grandfather (throw in a few more greats for good measure).

Lab Exercise:

What is the yearning that your story pivots on?

Picture Book writing teacher Phyllis Root would say, what is the heart of your story?

Find that pivot. Find the yearning. Find the heart. Find whatever it is you want to call it, but find it and make your main character care only about that one thing. Now you know the secret to writing a selling Middle Grade book.


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