All right, it’s been a while since we were on this adventure together. So, let’s recap.
I’ve decided to try to write MG.
The first thing I did was read a bunch of MG books, which I am still doing. Here are some of the books I have read since my last post:
- The True Meaning of Smekday by Adam Rex
- The Wild Robot by Peter Brown
- The Wild Robot Escapes by Peter Brown
- The Black Cauldron by Alexander Lloyd
- Coraline by Neil Gaiman
I’ve only just now realized while typing that list that I’ve been reading all male authors. I’ll remedy that tomorrow with my new book The Girl and the Witch’s Garden by Erin Bowman.
The next step was having kids in my target age range have a look at my writing. I had the opportunity to read a short story of mine out loud to a class of third graders (ages 8-9). Here is what I learned from that experience.
- You must set the correct expectations right away. Before I read my story, I told them it was a scary story. The story, however, was also riddled with jokes. And I got a lot of laughs! I kept on reading, thinking I had done well, but when I asked for feedback, the kids had a jarring criticism for me. They asked, eyes narrowed: “Why was it so funny?“
- You see, by telling them it was a scary story, that’s what they expected. They expected it to be spine-chilling terrifying. They had braced themselves for the worst. So when the story made them laugh, they were actually disappointed. They’d gotten on the ride expecting to be scared, not amused!
- There is no room for writing between the lines. At the end of my story, the main character threw a haunted book out of her window, and it landed on the sidewalk. The next day at school, it is revealed that the main character’s friend is now in possession of the book and is being haunted by it. When the story was over, the kids immediately asked: “How did [the friend] get the book?”
- Because I hadn’t spelled out that the friend had found the book outside the main character’s house, they couldn’t understand how the friend came to have it. They even made up their own narratives about how the book came to be in the friend’s possession, such as the spirits haunting the book bringing the book to her and things of that nature. Even though, earlier in the story, it was explicitly explained that the friend walks by the main character’s house every day, they struggled to make that connection.
Later, I had the opportunity to have those same kiddos read the opening chapters of the MG book I had begun to write. For those who don’t know or may not remember, I was writing an MG sci-fi story. Sci-fi often uses complex jargon, but I tried to keep it simple. Still, I asked the students to highlight any words that they didn’t know or understand. Here is the list of words they highlighted:
- cargo bay
- stealth training
- internal weaponry
As before, I learned the hard way that things can’t just be implied in MG. Things have to be spelled out. For example, I had introduced a villainous race of synthetic lifeforms called Hoplites. After using the word “Hoplite” in the story for the first time, I then followed it with a description of a Hoplite and a brief explanation.
However, because I did not explicitly say “A Hoplite is…” they did not understand what a Hoplite was even with the description. They weren’t able to make that connection.
Another interesting thing was their confusion with the term “cargo bay.” Even though the story explicitly stated that they were in space, the kids saw the word “bay,” associated it with the word “ship,” and became confused about whether or not the story was set in space or on the ocean.
But one of the most important mistakes I made was that my story was too complicated.
I am used to writing for adults and older YA audiences, so my stories usually have in depth backstories, complex subplots, intricate relationships, etc. While I thought I had cut most of that out for my MG story, it was still too complex for the kids to follow. There was too much stuff going on, too much they had to keep track of. While some of the more advanced readers in the class had no problem with it, the majority of the kids did not want to keep reading because it was too difficult. I realized I needed to go back to the drawing board and start over with something less elaborate and involved.
With what I have learned so far in my back pocket, the next step in my quest to become an MG writer is to really dig down deep and draw from the person I was when I was 8-9 years old. I’ve been a storyteller my whole life. What stories did I want to tell back then?
I’ll let you know how it goes in the next installment of My Adventures in MG.