Category Archives: Writing MG Books

How I Write A Middle-Grade Novel

Joanne RocklinIn a former life I was a clinical psychologist. To this day I’m fascinated with the psychology of the writing process. I know that one process doesn’t fit all, but I do know that it’s important to examine and honor what method works best for you.

Here is mine.


For me, the Good Idea is the impetus, the push, the motor, that gets me going.
I haven’t always known that getting the Good Idea was vital. Vital for my own work, in any case. Perhaps I didn’t realize its importance because the so-called good idea often arrives as a mere wisp of a phrase, creating a ping in my heart, or as Robert Frost said, when describing his own good ideas, “a lump in your throat.” And if I try to describe the Good Idea too early, I often can’t explain why it is good. I am usually the only one who understands its goodness possibilities.
I know that other authors have experienced this process.

Consider the following.

A middle grade author kept a journal in which he scribbled phrases and doodled designs. Squeezed among the phrases and doodles was the following phrase: “an eccentric man runs a candy factory.”

Another middle grade author (or not quite; her middle grade novels hadn’t been published yet) was on a train when the vision of a school for young wizards popped into her mind

A weird candy factory and a school for wizards are not necessarily inspiring ideas, or even unique, for that matter. I’m not really certain whether J.K.Rowling was on a train or using another form of transportation. But I’m positive her heart pinged when she got that idea, as did Roald Dahl’s, thinking about candy. Wizard schools and candy factories were good ideas.

For them.

I would bet money that many, if not most middle grade novels began that way, as a vague phrase exciting to one person only- the author of the still unwritten story. I often revisit books to try and distill their creators’ good ideas.
You probably know the story outcome of these vague phrases:

two kids hiding inside a museum.

an unhappy gorilla in a cage in a shopping mall

a boy and a girl enjoying an imaginary kingdom among the trees

a girl who is seeking messages in spider webs

O.K., that last one is mine, the impetus for my latest novel FLEABRAIN LOVES FRANNY.

Arriving at a good idea is easier said than done, of course.

Sometimes my good idea arrives as a gift as I wake up in the morning. ‘Cats Have Nine Lives’ was the trite phrase, yet the golden nugget that inspired my novel THE FIVE LIVES OF OUR CAT ZOOK.

But when my idea store is empty, then I must fill it. The best way to do that is to do what Roald Dahl did: brainstorm. Write down a bunch of ideas, even Very Bad Ones. Doodle. Write. Play the What If game. Write. Anything.

After a while, a surprising phrase usually appears, along with that lump in my throat.


I do not outline at the next step in the process. There is really nothing to outline. All I have is my Good Idea. And I know that this next phase is a series of false starts, new beginnings, cross-outs, scribbles—a big, chaotic mess. But knowing that this will be the case, in other words, honoring my process, has made it all a bit less scary.

I am answering a lot of questions at this point. Who is the girl seeking messages in spider webs? Answer: A friendless girl with polio who wants her own Charlotte, because she so loves the recently published book CHARLOTTE’S WEB.

And will I be writing in first or third person? Whose point of view? Where is the story to be set? Are the desires and conflicts those of a middle grade reader? What is ‘the day that is different’ that will get my story rolling? What prevents my character from getting her heart’s desire? Do I have any idea of the ending?
I usually have to just keep writing, playing around with my story, until I come up with the answers to these questions, and then I may even change my mind. I sigh. I pull my hair. I perspire. I think of the martini at the end of the day. But I continue. This phase is a big mess. But because I have read so many, many novels, and so many, many middle grades, I do have the feeling of story in my bones. I know that the basics of my story will follow the basic rhythm of URGE, BARRIER, STRUGGLE, RESOLUTION, four words I once learned from an essay by the brilliant Katherine Paterson. I just keep forging ahead, very open to surprises, rarely going back, until I come to some sort of ending.

Then it’s time to look at what I’ve got.


I guess you could call this stage of my process the Outline Stage, because I do have all those written words that enable me to create one. I read my story, such as it is, and try to see what I’m trying to say, to tease up the plot, discover some themes. I begin to think about plot in a more definite, concrete way. I don’t like to think too much about plot in Stage 2, preferring to concentrate more on character and feeling and voice. But in Stage 3 I apply various dry formulas of plotting to my story to see what works. I storyboard with index cards and shuffle things around, often sitting on the floor to do this.

Here is what my Stage 3 outline looks like.

Are there holes and gaps among the scenes? Does my story conflict increase steadily in tension to a crisis? Where does the character discover what she needs to learn? How does the ending illustrate this? The process is still messy, but it’s a mess I understand.


This is not as dire as it sounds. Bear in mind that I LOVE this step, because I now know what I have to do next. Revise! And perhaps start over and revise again. And again. The joyous part of my process, for me, is revision. My pages may look chaotic but my mind is clear. I am in control. I know the story I want to tell.
Good ideas are hard to come up with. It’s not easy to embrace and slog through the chaos to reach the more enjoyable stage of revision. Yet studies have shown that it’s true grit and perseverance as much as intelligence and talent that help accomplish challenging projects.

And we middle grade novelists are certainly brave and gritty, right?


Joanne Rocklin is the author of many award-winning middle grade novels. Her website is This is her first and only post with From the Mixed-Up Files.Joanne's books

Procrastination, Celebration, and Hibernation: Seasons of A Writer’s Life

‘Twas the season.

That’s what they say, right? We’ve just ended a season of candlelight, cookies, giving, worship, family, faith, friendship, peppermint mocha lattes.

Now the New Year has arrived, and ’tis the season for resolutions, reflection, diets, new leaves, saying goodbye to old habits, embracing new, healthier ones.


I’ve come to realize that much of life is seasonal. Especially for me.

Perhaps it’s because my first careers have been in the school setting. As a special education teacher and then a school-based speech-language pathologist, I’ve followed the seasons dictated by a typical school calendar. Off in the summer, back-to-school in the fall, rejoicing over snow days in the winter, celebrating growth and graduation in the spring. Shake. Stir. Repeat.

Or maybe it’s because I married into the farm life. On a working farm, everything revolves around the seasons. Spring planting, summer hay and straw baling, fall harvest, winter shop work. Shake. Stir. Repeat.

I’ve read a lot blogs/interviews about writers who insist they must “write ___ hours every day.” They write faithfully from “____ o’clock to ____ o’clock.” It’s their groove. It’s how they work.

Not me.

Because, for me, even writing is seasonal. My writing seasons have names: Creation. Submission. Promotion. Procrastination. Celebration. Hibernation.

Right now, I’m just coming off a season of Promotion.

kammie Rockford B&N

This year, I had middle grade books release in April, September, and October. After 5 years of no new releases, this was an amazing year, no doubt. Those who don’t know the publishing world ask, “Why did you schedule them so close together?”

Bahahahahahaha! Once I stop laughing hysterically, I try to explain that authors don’t get to schedule a book release. No, there are publishers, editors, marketing folks, book designers and perhaps even divine beings who weigh in on these decisions.

But, lest I sound ungrateful, let me say that I have loved everything about this season of Promotion. I met incredible young readers, older readers, booksellers, librarians, teachers and parents. I visited storied places like The Bookstall in Winnetka, IL and Anderson’s Bookshop in Naperville. I returned to Rockford, IL, the home of the Rockford Peaches and reunited with wonderful folks who were so helpful while researching Kammie on First.

Like all seasons, though, this one has come to an end. And just as fall has stepped aside for winter, I’m done promoting (for the time being)  and ready for what’s next: Creation.

Creation is going to require some Hibernation on my part. Even though I don’t prescribe to the “___ hours of writing every day” theory, I am a sold-out believer in Jane Yolen’s “butt in chair” theory. And on the farm, there’s no better season for hibernation than the dead of winter.

Waiting for spring.

How about you?

What season are you in? Creation? Submission? Celebration? Promotion?  Procrastination?  Whatever your season, embrace it.  Because, like all seasons, this season of your writing life will soon change.

Michelle Houts lives, writes, and plays on a family farm in Ohio. She and The Farmer of Her Dreams are raising children, cattle, hogs, goats, a whole lot of barn cats and a Great Pyrenees named Hercules. Find Michelle on the web at, here on Facebook, and on Twitter as @mhoutswrites.

Writing Retreat 101

Seven years after I took my first writing for children class, I went on my first writing retreat this November, run on the gorgeous shores of Lake Champlain by the fabulous duo of authors Kate Messner and Linda Urban.

The view from a writing retreat on Lake Champlain.  Don't you feel inspired?

The view from a writing retreat on Lake Champlain. Don’t you feel inspired?

I went because I wanted to meet Kate and Linda, and because it seemed like something that writers “do,” but I did not have any other idea of what to expect or how to prepare.  After going on this retreat, here’s what I would tell other newbie retreaters:

  1. Expect to really focus on one manuscript. We went through many writing exercises that pushed us to think more deeply about our characters and plot structure.  For this reason, I think writers who came with a manuscript they had been working with (instead of one that they pulled out of a drawer) were able to hit the ground running on the writing exercises.  You’ll have more questions in your mind about your manuscript, and a better sense of what you want to address.
  2. It helps to know the works of the people running the retreat. While Kate and Linda referred to a wide variety of books, their most personal and in-depth knowledge came from, not surprisingly, their experiences with their own books.  For example, in a writing exercise about plot, Kate took us through her process for looking for plot holes in her book, CAPTURE THE FLAG; knowing the story ahead of time helped me understand exactly how the exercise should work.


    Having read CAPTURE THE FLAG, made Kate Messner’s writing exercise more meaningful.

  3. Expect to make a bunch of new friends! You’ll meet a fascinating array of people who share your passion for children’s literature, and you’ll be sharing your precious work with them.  I loved hearing about other writers’ journeys, and how they expressed their passion for books and writing.  Participants included children’s book fair organizers, the head of a non-profit giving books to children, a co-host and founder of the #mglitchat Twitter discussions, and a leader in writing pedagogy.
  4. You won’t just work on your manuscript – you’ll work on your craft and your ‘writing life.’ While I thought I had exhausted the depths of books on writing craft, going to the retreat showed me that I was just getting started (and that I needed to take a second look at some of the books I already had, including The Creative Habit by Twyla Tharp).  I also loved learning about the writing habits of other writers and what made them strong, consistent writers.  As an extra bonus, Linda shared her excellent #WriteDaily30 program with us, which I’ll write about in a future post.


    Linda Urban found so much inspiration in this book – I decided I needed to take a second look.

  5. You won’t want to leave. The retreat was three days long, and around the middle of the second day, I had the horrible realization that I would have to leave.  Luckily for me, I was going to a conference in a few weeks were I would see some folks from the retreat.  But my big take-away from this was have an exit strategy.  Get the  names and e-mails of your new friends (or Twitter).  Treat yourself to a new book on craft to look forward to.  And as Linda urged us, have one small, concrete step in mind for your manuscript to tackle when you get home.

And of course, you can start planning your next retreat!

Wendy Shang’s next book, THE WAY HOME LOOKS NOW (Scholastic), will be released in April 2015.

Share your favorite retreat tidbit in the comments below.