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Middle Grade "Slush"

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I'm disappointed that our editor friend won't be continuing her adventures in slush pile heck, but I understand her decision. She brought a certain knowledge beyond the basics of formatting, etc. (not that it isn’t helpful to get reminders) that you would only know by reading slush.

I don’t read slush but I do a lot of critiques, and since it’s been a while (several months) since doing any, everything has aggregated in my mind and I can speak generally without thinking of any specific manuscripts. This is just what I've seen, and it's small territory -- plus it's my taste, not an industry standard -- I'd love for anyone else who reads a lot of MG manuscripts to join in.

Some things I’ve seen more than once that make me reluctant to read on:

- Author tries for self-deprecating humor but it comes off as whiney.
- Bullies figure into plot, but they aren’t developed as characters.
- Book about a specific activity like rowing/ballet/space camp but the author clearly hasn’t researched the topic and just makes stuff up. This is my number one pet peeve in manuscripts.
- Hero signs up for a sport or activity because their parents make them, and whine about it for several chapters. High correlation to poorly researched activities (see above).
- Bossy moms, quirky neighbors, bratty little brothers, difficult teachers, etc., who are stock characters in middle grade and are described in a clichéd, often exaggerated way.
- Best friends who have nothing in common with hero and no explanation of why they hang out.
- Grandmas who skateboard, etc. I see what the author is trying to do in reversing a stereotype, but it feels cutesy and contrived.
- Manuscripts that are really short (e.g., 18K middle grade). Not to say NO middle grades can be short (see Angleberger comma Tom), but my assumption going in is that the author hurried it.

Of course all manuscripts have strengths too, and those are harder to aggregate because what makes them special is what makes them unique, but some of the stuff that makes me eager to read on:

- Really compelling, multifaceted story about bullying.
- High interest book where the author knows their stuff and the hero likes what he or she is doing, pulling me into their world through the hero’s interest/passion, even if it’s something I didn’t know I was interested in.
- Historical settings with enough detail to feel real to me but enough character development that I still connect.
- Compelling family relationships—interesting and believable moms, big sisters, grandfathers, etc.
- Believable friendships.
- Good writing.
#1 - March 07, 2013, 09:07 AM

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I'm sure I don't read as many mss as you do, but the things that bug me are whininess and passivity. So you're stuck at tennis camp? What is there at a tennis camp that can explode?
#2 - March 07, 2013, 09:33 AM
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Good topic, Kurtis!  I'm totally with you on the bratty little brother/sister.  I'm trying to think of things that are overdone (I feel) in MG, or sort of a turn-off.  Most of this is totally subjective, of course.  There will be people (maybe people in power) who can't get enough of whatever it is I'm tired of.

My list would include:

*A main character who begins the book describing him/herself as boring, with nothing special about him/herself.  "I'm so blah.  I'm the one everyone overlooks because there's nothing interesting about me."  Unless I quickly see otherwise, I might be inclined to agree!  Hopefully the writer will prove this character wrong fast because I have to care about my MC, and if the MC is actually very blah, I'm not going to care all that much.  Not to be confused with *shy* which doesn't have the same turn-off factor for me.

Sidenote:  Characters who describe their main problem as being "bored" are similar.  Who was it who said "bored people are boring"?  If there's some sort of bummer of a boring situation going on, I hope it's livened up soon!  I hope the MC has enough character/brain power to entertain his/herself.

*The overly-quirky best friend who is just too wacky to believe.  This seems to be sort of a formula, of sorts, straight from a Disney tween show or whatnot, and I guess it's traditional that best friends be just be bit weirder than the main character, but two things can happen, for me:

1. The best friend character quickly becomes annoying.  or
2.  The best friend character is automatically more interesting than the main character, as has happened on many a sitcom (see Urkel).  I want to care about the main character the most.

*Sad, emotional girl main character who is probably an orphan and/or abused who probably will be pictured on the front of the book looking sad or maybe closed-off emotionally.  This really only bothers me when the main character is a victim and getting no joy out of life in any way.  This is a personal preference, but I have to have some hope/joy somewhere, and I don't really like reading about abuse.  However, many people do!  Think "Jenny" as a child in "Forrest Gump."  Someone will climb a tree in this book and wish they could stay there.

*Books written in Southern (or faux-Southern) voice by someone who doesn't live in the South or isn't from the South originally, etc.  For some reason, if you tell writers they should have a "strong voice," the go-to voice that seems to come out is what I call "corn-pone."  Exaggerated Southern, in other words.  Not my cup of tea.  (And yes, I doesn't seem right that I'd be so judgmental about where the writer lives/was born.  Again, just a personal pet peeve.  You should write whatever you want and if your narration comes out like the Waltons, so be it.)

*Relatives who are just soooooo quirky, the story reads like a Garrison Keillor Lake Wobegon piece.  Uncle Jam Jar thinks he's a garden rake, Mama wants to be on X Factor, Granny wears a Mickey Mouse hat at all times, even in the shower, and they all live in a funeral home.  A little of this kind of thing goes a long way.

*Main character has a very odd name because the writer was trying to be unique and create a character named something nobody's ever used before, like . . . Taxi.  Taxi René Salamander will spend one of the first paragraphs telling you she was named Taxi because she was born in one.  I'm just tired of the lengths this trend has gone to (though it was awfully fun to try to write one of these stories myself, I admit!).

*Bratty, rude, slacker, or mean main character never learns/grows.  This seems to be a current trend, but it also was a "thing" when I was a kid and 70s/80s MG main characters displayed what I thought was terrible behavior that was painted as "normal."  This is totally subjective, of course, but I've never liked books that sort of celebrate jerkishness, as if the best thing in life is to "have fun!" at the expense of everyone else.  Not talking Ferris Bueller here (at least he wasn't really hurting anyone), but more along the lines of main characters who would tease other kids, give all the adults a hard time, cheat, steal, lie or just be brats and the author seems to be saying "Ahh, kids.  Whatcha gonna do?"  Hard to explain without naming names, but it's like Calvin and Hobbes WITHOUT HOBBES.

I think you've hit the nail on the head when you talk about believability and well-roundedness.  I've been guilty of most of the things I've listed, I think, and I've certainly written some flat characters.  I used to have a little sign up near my desk that said "Think Again" to encourage myself to NOT go with the first thing that popped into my head--which was usually the cliche.
#3 - March 07, 2013, 09:52 AM

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This is so interesting. Other pet peeves of mine:

Most of the characters in a contemporary novel have names that were popular a long time ago (Debbie, Susan, Pete).

Preachiness. For instance, in YA novels, girls who have sex even just once often get pregnant or get a disease.

Parents are either perfect Mr. and Mrs. Brady types or are horrible physically abusive/alcoholic types. They aren't three-dimensional human beings.
#4 - March 07, 2013, 10:53 AM
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I'm sure I don't read as many mss as you do, but the things that bug me are whininess and passivity. So you're stuck at tennis camp? What is there at a tennis camp that can explode?

Hee! My kids would read a book with tennis camp explosions in it. :)
#5 - March 07, 2013, 10:57 AM

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Most of the characters in a contemporary novel have names that were popular a long time ago (Debbie, Susan, Pete).

Yes! I do not read a lot of mss but when I do, at a conference for instance, this totally takes me out of the story.

The social security website has such a great resource for finding out names there were popular in any given year so it's easy to avoid this, too.
#6 - March 07, 2013, 12:42 PM

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Good thread. As another ICL instructor, I see a lot of the same old stuff ...
Cooking or gardening with grandma is very popular.
Underdog wins the race.
Encyclopedic overviews of various animals.

That said, I really love working with my students because they are working on their craft. And some of them have been published, and not just the obviously good students, but also the ones who were mediocre at first, but kept at it, finding their own unique spin on a familiar story. It's very rare for me to keep harping on the same thing (for any one student). They all grow and turn in better stories and articles, and I keep pushing them further. That's why I also like taking a class once in a while because left to my own devices I can get lazy and do the easy thing and not push myself.

Vijaya
#7 - March 07, 2013, 01:00 PM
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Oh, I would never harp on any of these with one student, though they certainly make it into my critique letter. And I really enjoy reading and responding to works in progress, there are always positives to celebrate and comment on. In fact, I'd say the most important part of a critique isn't telling a writer what to fix, it's helping them learn their own strengths.
#8 - March 07, 2013, 01:26 PM

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In fact, I'd say the most important part of a critique isn't telling a writer what to fix, it's helping them learn their own strengths.

I'd say you are one wise critiquer, Kurtis!
#9 - March 07, 2013, 01:31 PM

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I'd say you are one wise critiquer, Kurtis!

Agreed. I haven't done a ton of critiques yet, but I hope to do more, and this is a great bedrock principle to keep in mind.
#10 - March 07, 2013, 01:45 PM

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And the funny thing is that two out of three of the pet peeves I mentioned--preachiness and one-dimensional characters--are problems that find their way into my manuscripts. Writing is hard!
#11 - March 07, 2013, 01:52 PM
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Same, Debby.  They say "You dislike in others what you fear in yourself" (or something like that), so a lot of times things I "pick on" are things I've either done or currently do.  Eep!

As a matter of fact, after writing the above, I realized what might be a problem in one of my mss.  All it took was thinking about what I don't care for for it to occur to me that I may have set up that very situation.  So that's a real plus to writing down pet peeves!
#12 - March 07, 2013, 01:57 PM

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On the best friends thing, I've seen a lot of boys who are best friends with girls. I think it needs to be set up really well to be believable. While I think boys and girls can be friends, I think most kids in the MG age range have BEST (closest, die hard) friends of their own gender.
#13 - March 07, 2013, 01:57 PM

What I ID'd as my number one pet peeve isn't one I commit -- I research every little thing -- but it def. speaks to an anxiety I have, that people knowledgeable about the topic will find it misses the mark entirely. I sent Mamba Point to the world's foremost expert on black mambas, and I had both a robot league coach and a participant read the robot book, so I can get that expert POV before I send a book out into the wild.
#14 - March 07, 2013, 02:00 PM

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Hee hee ... well you learn best when you teach, I think. That's how I learned my organic chemistry, and I found my writing improved considerably when I began teaching. The problem is that while writing rough drafts I am very aware of the mistakes I am making ... so I am constantly editing as I write, which can stop the flow ... I've had to relearn to let it go when the thoughts are coming fast.

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#15 - March 07, 2013, 02:27 PM
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I know it works a lot of the time, but I can't read another book about the kid who finds a magic item/ ancient trunk/ mysterious diary and goes from being ordinary and overlooked to savior of the world.
#16 - March 07, 2013, 03:08 PM

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Great list. And I have to say that I LOVE the fact that you've added what you do love to see in MS too. Honestly, I would like to read more about 'why I didn't reject this' rather than the more negative 'why I rejected this.' I know we need both but I suspect the 'why I passed' version is easier to write which is why there are more articles/threads/blog posts on that topic than the other.

Jaina, 'corn pone'??? You've totally lost me there but I'm intrigued. Oh and if I could write a novel in Waltons-style? I'd be heaven! I wouldn't sell it (well, I wouldn't be able to!) but I'd read it to my kids. I grew up with that show and still like to yell out, Goodnight, John-boy! to my sister if I'm staying at hers.

So, erm, back to the topic. I really agree on the boy-girl friendship thing and also the granny-skateboarding thing. That said, both work fine when they're done with care.

And I agree, Christine, about the magic item/ancient trunk. It's the finding of it that rankles – if only it were that easy to gain access to a magical world! But I wonder whether children still enjoy this type of story and it's just us adults who are bored of it.

PS The best granny-skateboarder ever was Supergran. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VtymNiYlSD4 Did you get her in the US? She was cool.
#17 - March 07, 2013, 03:33 PM
« Last Edit: March 07, 2013, 03:47 PM by Franzilla »

And I agree, Christine, about the magic item/ancient trunk. It's the finding of it that rankles – if only it were that easy to gain access to a magical world! But I wonder whether children still enjoy this type of story and it's just us adults who are bored of it.
I do think it's different when you're a kid -- a book that just came out with, say, a diary leading to a magic world might be the first or second book a kid has read with that concept. We've had a lot longer to get tired of things! Many kids like familiar stories, and imagining yourself going to a magical world doesn't get old. Of course, I think putting a new spin on familiar tropes is always good.
#18 - March 07, 2013, 04:01 PM
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We've had a lot longer to get tired of things! Many kids like familiar stories, and imagining yourself going to a magical world doesn't get old.

Very good point.
#19 - March 07, 2013, 05:09 PM
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Cooking or gardening with grandma is very popular.


 :yeah I have a cooking with grandma scene in my MG!  :grin3

I also remember reading in an old SCBWI Bulletin that boys with long eyelashes has been way overdone.
I had that in an earlier draft, too. But after reading the Bulletin...  :scissors:
#20 - March 07, 2013, 08:43 PM

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*Main character has a very odd name because the writer was trying to be unique and create a character named something nobody's ever used before, like . . . Taxi.  Taxi René Salamander will spend one of the first paragraphs telling you she was named Taxi because she was born in one.  I'm just tired of the lengths this trend has gone to (though it was awfully fun to try to write one of these stories myself, I admit!).

This is so one of my pet peeves too, see it in adult novels too, drives me crazy... and yet I did it in my first novel (tho at least it was just one line). Hahaha.
#21 - March 08, 2013, 04:21 AM
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A guy from booklist tweeted about characters with cutesy nicknames and I commiserated, then realized not only that I sort of did this in my next book, I'd just sent him a galley and the tweet may very well have been inspired by same.
#22 - March 08, 2013, 05:26 AM

I started writing a story with a character with the most ridiculous inanimate-object name I could think of, "just for fun" to test out some new software, and it actually was a blast to come up with a situation where such a name would be "realistic."

I think that's just it.  I start objecting when something breaks the realism for me, whether that's me thinking the author's trying really hard to come up with a unique name, or thinking "this family is just too quirky to believe!" or whatever.

Sadly, I think the "sad girl" fiction I mentioned is all too realistic.  That's just a matter of me not being crazy about that sort of story, though.  Hey, I don't really care for mythological creatures, either--but my middle grade daughter LOVES them!
#23 - March 08, 2013, 05:33 AM

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*Main character has a very odd name because the writer was trying to be unique and create a character named something nobody's ever used before, like . . . Taxi.  Taxi René Salamander will spend one of the first paragraphs telling you she was named Taxi because she was born in one.  I'm just tired of the lengths this trend has gone to (though it was awfully fun to try to write one of these stories myself, I admit!).

Brandon Sanderson does this in ALCATRAZ VERSUS THE EVIL LIBRARIANS - the main character is named Alcatraz, of course. But he completely ties it into the plot, so it doesn't come off as quirky just to be quirky. Plus, the way he reveals the reason for the name lets you figure it out before you're explicitly told the reason, which makes it way more fun.
#24 - March 08, 2013, 05:37 AM

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I love it when quirky characters fit the story perfectly ... a lot of the characters in Blue Balliet's books are quirky, and that's what makes the books work. Goodness, I'd follow Kate diCamillo's or Richard Peck's mice or pigs or inanimate object even, anywhere ...

Vijaya
#25 - March 08, 2013, 06:41 AM
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 :goodthread:  I really don't have anything to add, but I am enjoying this thread.

#26 - March 08, 2013, 09:35 AM

On the boy-girl best friends thing, I agree with this. My daughter's in that age range, and of all the kids I know, there's only one girl-boy best friend pair that I can think of. But I did this deliberately in my MG that's currently on submission  (and yeah the boy's pretty quirky too, but I hope it works...who knows.) If you have all girl characters, which I do in a couple of other books I've written, there's an assumption that boys won't read it and it gets labeled a girl book, even if it has themes and other elements that might appeal to boys. I think this is why you see boy-girl best friends so often in MG, even though it's not reflective of the real world.
#27 - March 08, 2013, 09:57 AM

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good point, cindoh! but it can and does happen. my son is grade 9 now, but when he was in middle school, one of his best friends was a girl. they bonded over common challenges, and he liked how she was nice to everybody. they hung out outside of school quite a bit. we recently moved away, but they keep in touch. and she wasn't a crush.
#28 - March 08, 2013, 10:05 AM
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Oh, I know that's why people drop in the opposite sex bestie, but there are plenty of ways to bring unlikely combos together without just declaring they are friends. They can be neighbors, siblings, cousins, put together by a school assignment, whatever. In one of my books the girl is a runaway and the boy discovers her in a house where he's taking care of the homeowner's pet pig. (That old thing...)
#29 - March 08, 2013, 10:14 AM

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lol, um yeah. what Kurtis said.

#30 - March 08, 2013, 10:21 AM
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