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Writing Middle Grade Voice

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I've written a middle grade novel, and submitted it. The response I got was that the voice was too much of a grown-up trying to sound like a middle-grader. How do you work on finding that true 11-year-old voice? Do you watch a lot of Nickelodeon and Disney channel shows? Hang around playgrounds and creep out the kids by eavesdropping? Just read more mg novels?

Any advice is appreciated.
#1 - April 26, 2014, 11:33 AM

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If you only received this advice once, it's just one person's opinion. Get some critiques before sending it out again.

Listening (subtly, not creepily) to kids talking and reading more current MG novels can't hurt, either.
#2 - April 26, 2014, 01:10 PM
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I've read some MG that sounded too grown-up - I've written some of it too! Usually it's about vocabulary (too many words that are too long, old-fashioned or just too advanced in meaning), sentence length (too long) or turns of phrase that kids just don't use.


I found reading my MG out loud to my six-year-old was BRILLIANT for weeding out the adult voice parts. It immediately felt odd reading those parts and I was able to highlight them as I went through. This was after the story had been critiqued by several others who had also helped pinpoint the areas where my MC sounded too adult. Fresh eyes are invaluable for spotting these things!

#3 - April 26, 2014, 05:38 PM

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Some of it is in what you're focusing on, too. Instead of a streamlined narratory adult POV, kids will sometimes put unnecessary focus on thing that aren't the main point. Ie, throw in a little "ooh, shiny!" at appropriate moments. :) (At least, the middle graders I live with are like that...)
#4 - April 26, 2014, 05:52 PM

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Definitely listening to real kids talking will help. I'm sure reading the right MG novels would help too.

Watch the vobabulary, like Franzilla said. And keep in mind what an 11-year-old has experienced in life so far and consider what the world looks like with those limited experiences. For example, say the MC's parents are fighting a lot. An 11-yo may not have the insight to her parents' relationship, but she'd definitely be afraid of what their fighting means to her personally.


#5 - April 26, 2014, 06:01 PM
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Excellent advice, all. Thank you!
#6 - April 26, 2014, 10:31 PM

This is probably the hardest thing about writing MG, making sure that it has a believable voice. I think a lot of it is rooted in the character's attitude and worldview.


At the risk of self-promoting, I actually wrote a guest post about this very topic a few months ago for a fellow BB's blog:


http://www.katielcarroll.com/writing-middle-grade-with-anna-staniszewski/


Hope that helps!
#7 - April 27, 2014, 08:30 AM
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To echo what others have said, remember that this is (so far) just one person's opinion and it might help to find a critique group. I instantly thought of the author Brandon Mull, who writes MG with a very adult-sounding voice and advanced vocabulary. And it totally works! His books are fantastic.

I love Franzilla's idea of reading a manuscript out loud to weed out the adult voice parts. And definitely go eavesdrop on some real kids! Some places I hear great conversation are: the mall, food court, pool, arcades, etc. The other day I went to a book signing/presentation by Eoin Colfer and there were a ton of middle grade aged kids in the audience. I picked up on some priceless conversation... Hope that gives you some ideas. Good luck!
#8 - April 27, 2014, 08:47 AM

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I've been criticized on voice too for my YA. And I'd definitely take a plot problem over a voice problem any day. So much easier to fix.

I'd recommend reading all the MG you can stand. I heard an author say at a SCBWI that she read 100 YA books before she submitted her book to an agent. That will help a lot with understanding the MG voice in books. I also got another nugget from the same conference, MG needs to be about action and YA is more introspective. Is your character sitting around thinking things out a lot? That's generally a no-no in MG. (Of course, I can think of some exceptions to this "rule.")

And if you are looking to connect with the 11-year-old age set, volunteer. I'm In NC and the schools here are in desperate need. Every year the budget is cut in our schools. So there are plenty of opportunities to mentor kids, tutor, start clubs, and coach sports. That could be a win-win for everyone. (All that is required is a background check and your time.)

Good luck. This is a common hurtle and you can get over it with some hard work.
#9 - April 27, 2014, 10:52 AM
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EXCELLENT EGOR (Knopf 2015)
101 REASONS I'M NOT TAKING A BATH (Random House 2016)
www.kidlitcoach.com

It's "becoming" an 11-year-old that's the really tricky part (especially if you're a few decades past that ...). In workshops, I've gotten young writers to use interviews to really get to know who their characters are, how they'd think in certain situations, etc.  - here's a link to some sample questions (just found it quickly, there are no doubt better MG templates available). Even if you don't go through the whole process, it might help you think, and therefore behave and speak, like a MG person.  :) 


http://www.writingclasses.com/InformationPages/index.php/PageID/106
#10 - April 27, 2014, 03:08 PM
« Last Edit: April 27, 2014, 05:38 PM by jancoates »
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One of the things that helps me with voice is reading other middle grade books. It gives you a strong sense of how kids of that age think and act.



#11 - April 27, 2014, 05:08 PM

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Reading middle grade is definitely the way to go, I think. There are a couple of things that happen. One is that you get a great dose of being eleven or twelve. The other is you get a dose of marketed middle grade, so you understand what kind of voice sells. The other thing I think we have to do is go back to that time in our own lives and really remember what it was like. All the Feelings. What it was like to get a pair of jeans like the ones everyone else was wearing, or the knockoffs your mom thought were "just fine." The first kiss. Having the first crush. Getting betrayed by a best friend. Those first understandings of the bigger world. Capture those moments in real time, not as a look back, and you'll do fine.
#12 - April 27, 2014, 05:41 PM
« Last Edit: April 28, 2014, 09:12 AM by TracyH »

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I agree with those who say reading is the best way to absorb the feel for MG voice. Read LOTS of MG, in all the genres.
#13 - April 27, 2014, 06:00 PM
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Social media can be a good source, too, since many pre-teens use it (even if they are younger than the minimum age to sign up). I've seen video diaries and interest related personal videos made by kids, for their friends and peer groups on YouTube. Also, reading the comments on videos that are largely of interest to that age group can be helpful, depending on what kind of stuff you're looking for. Blogs are another way of observing kids interactions (if they have any) and gaining an insight into their lives. Even blogs written by moms of kids in that range can be helpful. (I feel like I should add, although I think we all know this already, that nothing tricky or underhanded should be done to access these things. If it isn't available for the general public to view, you should just find another source that is.)

And reality tv shows or news programs that feature kids are another potential source, especially if you can find some related to your story idea (like, for insight on a child dancer you might watch Dance Moms and focus on the girls and what they say (as well as other programs that document young dancers, perhaps Dateline or 60 Minutes or 48 Hours has done something, etc.); you could also then look for interviews or even extra videos online since many shows don't put all their footage into an episode and will sometimes share extra bits on their website. Just listening to the kids talk can help, really, whether they are talking about something related to your idea or not.
#14 - April 27, 2014, 07:30 PM
« Last Edit: April 27, 2014, 07:36 PM by jillifish »

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I will echo a bit of what people are saying. MG is really hard to nail down. It has a lot of factors. A lot of it is word choice, especially your verbs. It is also in your sentence length. Average sentence length in MG tends to be a bit shorter. This also directly affects pacing. A lot of middle grade is paced a little faster to attract shorter attention spans.

Some good ways to nail down voice, first read lots of middle grade. Then take time to pick apart what makes it stand out from say a YA or an Adult book. Try to rewrite scenes from MG books in your own voice to mimic the effect.

Watching MG shows and movies can help but I caution on this because some shows tend to over dramatize and you don't necessarily want that in a book. Another way is to observe kids. If you have kids, have friends with kids, or even just watch them in public. Pay attention to how they interact and speak to each other.

Another tip for MG is to avoid being didactic. If your character is trying to flat out teach a lesson then it's going to kill your MG voice. MG lessons need to come out much more organically then being flat out stated.

If you can get a kid to read your book, they will point to things directly that they don't like. They may or may not be able to explain exactly why but it's so helpful to see what they comment on. You can then look at what might not be working there. Also If there's an area they particularly like, then try to narrow in on why.

Another thing that is usually helpful is to search your own writing. You may on a large scale be struggling with the MG voice but there are always certain sections of your work that will stand out. How do you find those? There's probably some scenes that you wrote that were just so fun to write and they poured out of you. It's probably at a point in your story where you let your MC drive. If you are struggling ask a critique partner to help you find passages where the voice really shines. Take a look at scenes like that and work through why they stand out. Ask yourself what makes them different from your other scenes and try to pull that MG voice out throughout the rest of your story.

And lastly just keep at it. It will come. It takes a while to nail down voice in general and MG is particularly tricky. But I know you can do it!
#15 - April 28, 2014, 05:44 AM

I think reading MG is a great idea, but I'm not so sure about TV shows, for the reasons already mentioned.
For me, the things that have helped me with voice are more internal.

--I try to think on the word choice level. Does he/she have a pet word or phrase that encapsulates his/her personality? What things are important to the MC and his world? How would he/she talk in metaphors or expressions? I feel like those things are so individual that they you wouldn't hear them on the playground, etc.

--Sentence length and diction are also key to me and something I notice in books that have a strong voice.

--But, honestly for me, so much of voice comes on a "feel it" level. I need to be in my character's skin--to see things through his/her eyes. It's not usually until I get some distance that I can see if I achieved this or not.

But here's one of my favorite posts about characters by Shannon Hale: http://www.squeetus.com/stage/mince_characters.html
She talks about using colors and/or animals when you think about characters, which has been helpful to me.
#16 - April 28, 2014, 09:39 PM
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When I was writing my first MG, I had a scene where two boys are walking to school. One boy has a hole in his shoe. In my first pass of the scene, I had the narrator describe the hole in the shoe and what it meant to the plot. I got the same response you did: sounds too grown up.


I rewrote the scene so that the boys discussed the hole: Hey, your toe's sticking out of your shoe.
                                                                               Yeah, I know, cool huh? That means Mom's                                                                                      gotta buy me new shoes after all.
                                                         
                                                                         
Anyway, that little bit of dialogue doesn't exactly sparkle, but you get the idea. My critique partners were right. I try to keep this in mind when I write. Get in the head of your age group and don't explain where you can illustrate with action and dialogue.



#17 - May 01, 2014, 04:11 PM

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I'm working on a couple MG stories right now and read a lot of MG to get the voice (and also because I love them). I tend to not go to TV shows because the kids usually speak way beyond their years. There are exceptions, of course.

I also live with an almost-11-year-old girl, my daughter, who is very opinionated like most almost/fully-11-year-old girls and who loves to read everything I write and give me feedback.

What I'm focusing on now is reading the books that have a voice similar to the one I'm aiming for in my current WIP.
#18 - May 01, 2014, 07:46 PM
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I want to echo some of the comments that have been made about getting out of your adult mindset and thinking like a kid. A game I like to play when I have idle time is to figure out what my main character would notice or do if he (my current MC is a boy) were with me. How would he entertain himself in the car? What would he notice out the window? Would he walk quietly beside me on the way into the grocery store, or run ahead, or stop and do something on the way? And so on. It's a fun game, and I get to know my character in a way that helps with the voice.
#19 - June 19, 2014, 11:01 AM
« Last Edit: June 21, 2014, 02:00 PM by Melissa K »
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Sounds ideal, if you know enough of the answers to these questions!
#20 - June 19, 2014, 11:31 AM

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One thing that helped me get into a the MG frame of mind was to research child development. I had a class in college, but I still refer to online resources that define various changes in cognitive and social behavior of pre-teens. Kids think differently, which for me is the biggest difference I see in MG vs. YA books: what are they thinking and feeling when X happens? How do they react? There is very much a "me" sort of feel in that age bracket vs. a different establishing "me" viewpoint of YA stories.

Also, maybe try to write your first chapter from different points of view. Originally, I wrote in third person POV and heard the same thing about voice. I changed to first person, as an experiment, and found my voice and character came out so much better!

Finding voice is one of the hardest aspects of writing for me.
#21 - October 11, 2014, 01:12 PM

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Everyone is different in how they write. I  have never felt comfortable writing first person.  Do not really know why. I write in third person, and it seems to work all right for me.
#22 - October 11, 2014, 02:07 PM

I apologize if I repeat anything.  I read several comments but not all.  First, I agree with the advice about listening and reading it to a willing listener.  Also, is your book in first person or third?  The way I see it, if your book is first person, then you have to write every observation from that middle-grader's eyes.  If it's third person, you have a bit more flexibility as a narrator, depending on how you tell the story.  Mine is third person, so I can change perspectives, but I keep each scene to one point of view and make it clear whose story we're in. I actually enjoy being able to change the angle of the story.  I have done this in first person, but I have to put the name of the character narrating at the top of the chapter. All that being said, in third person, your narrator can sound a little more mature, IMO. Then you just focus on dialogue. I'm usually turned off by too much "trendy" slang, so I'd just try to make it sound natural, but use a bit of sarcasm and humor.
#23 - October 13, 2014, 09:33 PM

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