Some thoughts on writing a middle grade novel

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I’ve been working hard these past few months to finish up the first draft of Winterwatch. What’s Winterwatch? It’s a Norse-inspired middle grade novel set in a secondary world. It features a boy named Hadrian whose life changes when Llorn Lightbane, the son of the dark god, comes to the Bryndlholt forest in search of… Well, what he’s in search of is part of the mystery of the story, so I’ll leave it at that for now, but I’m proud of the world and the story that’s come from it. It focuses largely on Hrindegaard, a village built in the upper reaches of a forest with thousand-foot-tall trees and great prowling wyrms and flying lynx. A war has been brewing in the holt, and it threatens the stability of the nine worlds. Elding and dvergr and jotun visit from neighboring worlds for a council called by King Justus, but as they do, Llorn resurfaces, and it falls to young Hadrian, and his friends Eiren and Irik, to find out what he wants and to prevent him from getting it.

About a month ago, I finished up the zeroth draft of the novel. The zeroth draft is the raw, unfinished manuscript, the point at which I type “the end” for the first time. I usually have a ton of notes about what I want to change about the ms sprinkled throughout or jotted down in a separate file. I allow myself to continue a draft by taking these notes, but because I take time to redirect plot or character for any major changes, they often won’t cause me tons and tons of rework. (My basic rule is to stop and rewrite during a draft only if it’s something that would cause me problems if I don’t fix it now.) So usually what I have by the time I’m done with the zeroth draft is a somewhat-creaky-but-mostly-stable story and a few dozen changes that need to be implemented.

It’s that next draft that really starts pulling the story together, the work that gets me to the true first draft—a readable draft, in other words. I don’t show people zeroth drafts. Only after the first draft is done will I let alpha readers take a look. (As a small aside, I do create exploratory drafts—very early drafts that allow me to see if I even like the world and the story enough to continue to write it—and I do show those drafts around to get a fresh set of eyes on the project. But I digress…) I’ve come to enjoy rewrites, a lot more than I used to. I do get a ton of good work done in those drafts, and often the story doesn’t really come alive until that stage. And that’s because the grand tent, so formless and saggy before, is becoming tighter, its shape more defined.

The first draft of Winterwatch is now complete and off to some alpha readers. Hopefully that goes well. While I’m in this waiting period, I’m going to start taking notes for the second book in my Song of the Shattered Sands series (tentatively titled With Blood Upon the Sand). I have 50k or so of words that were cut from Book 1 that I’ll reuse in part. Some of them are either drek or won’t line up with the storyline as it stands after the heavy revisions I did for Twelve Kings in Sharakhai, but a goodly portion, maybe 40k will be useful. And as it happens those words were the end of Twelve Kings, and they’ll be the end of the second book, so I have some very clear direction for where the second book (and the series as a whole) is headed. I’m looking forward to getting that train rolling.

I’m also going to be launching into the (hopefully) final rewrite for Twelve Kings, too, as soon as I get my editorial letter. But meanwhile, Book 2 will keep me very busy.

Winterwatch was a very interesting ride for me. There were a lot of things that translated from adult fiction, but some things that didn’t. I’d say the world is just as complex as any of my adult novels, as is the story that unfolds over the course of the books. The characters, I hope, are as nuanced as well. It’s just that they’re younger. And because they’re young (in the twelve to fifteen range) their set of experiences aren’t as broad as an adult’s. Their interests are different. They’re kids, and this is a story that targets upper middle grade readers, so the way the story was told had to change.

How did it change? Well, that’s a tougher thing to quantify, or even explain. My favorite bit of advice was from Sean Williams and Garth Nix, who said you need to put yourself into the mindset of your younger self, and to write the kind of book that he would like to read. It’s an interesting shift of the mind to do this. I’ll state it another way. Instead of trying to project what a kid would like, you have to become a kid and figure out what would excite you. And it isn’t just in the brainstorming of the story or in the worldbuilding or character generation. It’s a non-stop task in the writing of the story as well. I did find myself constantly veering off course, especially when I was tired, but when I noticed it—or later, when it came easier and I slipped into it naturally—I would take a moment to put myself in that frame-of-mind and start writing again from that new headspace. That’s really the best I can do at explaining it.

Another great piece of advice came from Paolo Bacigalupi. We were trading a few emails on the transition to writing MG. I was trying to figure out what not to do, and I explained a few of those things, and he said, I think you’re looking at it the wrong way. You can’t neuter an adult story, you can’t make it less, and expect a kid to find anything that will excite them in such a story. Instead, think of how you can make it more. More fun, more zany, more exciting, more adventurous, more KID… To be clear, he wasn’t suggesting the story become any one of those things, per se, but rather, to find the thing that drives the story, that makes you want to write it, that makes it a great read for a middle grade reader, and focus on them, draw them out, make them bigger, and then, naturally, the things that don’t enhance the read for a kid will fall away.

I liken it to how you might teach someone to ski. If you tell them not to head for the trees, to avoid them at all costs, what’s going to happen? They’re going to focus on the trees and freeze up and sooner or later head right for them. Instead, tell them to focus on the center of the ski lane, to aim themselves for the sweet spot, and they’ll do a much better job of avoiding a trip to the hospital with a compound fracture. I think this applies in writing as well. Try not to focus so much on what you shouldn’t do. Focus on those things you want the story to be, and the rest will work itself out, if not in the first draft, then in subsequent rewrites.

One other thing I noticed was that I had to really stomp on my urge to tell backstory, or if I did have to get things across, if it was truly necessary, then I would convert it to conversations among the kids instead of a paragraph or two of dull backstory. This is something I need to keep an eye on in my adult fiction as well, but where in adult fiction it’s somewhat expected (as long as it’s done at the right time and in small doses), I think it’s the death knell for a middle grade story, where the readers are much less forgiving of such things.

Those three things really saw me through this draft. I’m hoping I can use them again and push myself even harder on subsequent drafts to really cut the fat out of the story. I know I haven’t really found my MG voice yet, but I’m partway there, and I’m hoping with the help of others I can eventually nail it.

Here’s hoping, yes?

In the meantime, I’m happy to be done with Draft the First of Winterwatch. I’m excited to get back to The Shattered Sands and Twelve Kings. I’ll have a ton more news in the coming months, so stay tuned!


  1. Paul Weimer (@PrinceJvstin)

    July 30, 2014 at 5:23 pm

    I find it amusing that a few authors I associate with more traditional fantasy have been dipping their toes into MG work. Django Wexler, Martha Wells (kinda sorta), and you.

    • Brad

      July 31, 2014 at 12:27 am

      I can’t speak for the others, but for me, it was for a couple of reasons. One, to get a few series going at once in a few genres just to broaden my potential base by working in a few different pools. And two, to do something that would bring me closer to my kids. They’re 8 and 4 now, and it’s a lot of fun for me to relive a bit of my own childhood through them and now through a bit of fiction as well.