Tag Archives: joyce sweeney

The Blurred Line Between MG and YA

It’s easy to tell that some books are middle grade novels at first peek—and the same goes for some young adult novels. But a bunch of them feel like they’re somewhere in the middle of MG and YA. With a main character who is 13 or so, the line between MG and YA feels blurred at times, because MG can explore intense topics and some YA are fairly tame.

I asked a bunch of amazing authors who have both middle grade and young adult novels published how they know if their books should be MG or YA, besides the age of their main characters. Here’s what they said:

Debbie Reed Fischer

As “Kidlit” authors, we aren’t just writers; we’re impersonators. Teens and tweens can smell an adult author doing a bad impersonation a mile away (so can editors). One word or phrase off, and you’re sunk. Sometimes we don’t always get it right. I went through an ‘Is this MG or YA?’ identity crisis with my original version of THIS IS NOT THE ABBY SHOW, my first middle grade novel. When my agent first submitted it to publishers, it was a YA manuscript (or so I thought) starring Abby: age 16, impulsive, funny, and ADHD. Editors responded enthusiastically to the premise and humor, but felt Abby’s voice and concerns were middle grade, despite the fact that the book contained profanity and sexuality. There were also other MG aspects, like a character who did magic tricks. You almost never see magicians in YA, but magician kids do appear in MG. Editors wanted to see the book again but as a middle grade. I had never considered writing middle grade, and I had heard from author friends that middle grade humor is difficult to pull off, so I shelved the manuscript for over a year. But eventually, I made the decision to give middle grade a try, because the only difference between me and a rottweiler is that a rottweiler eventually lets go. Also, I really wanted to get published again.

So I read middle grade books and started researching the differences between MG and YA. I learned that middle grade books focus more on family, friendships and the Here and Now. There isn’t a lot of serious long-term planning in their characters’ perspectives, whereas if you’re writing a senior in high school, personal life goals, serious relationships, and the looming future typically factors in. What’s important to a middle grader isn’t the same as what’s important to a high schooler. What’s funny to an eleven-year-old isn’t what’s funny to a seventeen-year-old. What scares a seventh-grader is not the same as what terrifies a high school freshman. Once I understood both the overt and subtle differences, I began again from scratch and completely rewrote the book. I eliminated several characters and added more members of Abby’s family, I toned down the romance aspect to make it more of a friendship story. I focused more on her evolving friendships, her struggle to control her ADHD impulses, her classroom experiences, her relationships with teachers, and the complications of daily life with her quirky family. I made it multi-generational, making her grandparents key characters, which is something you see more of in MG than YA. One to two words can make all the difference in tone and authenticity. Did you know some editors/ gatekeepers consider “crap” a curse word in MG? I didn’t. Word choice was challenging. I made the chapters shorter than the chapter length of my YA novels to reflect the pace of a middle grader’s point of view, and shorter chapters also moved the plot faster to reflect the reactive way a middle grade mind works. Shorter chapters also served to mimic an ADHD mind, which was important to me while writing from Abby’s POV. Ultimately, I learned that middle grade vs. young adult has more to do with voice and mindset than age level.

 

Dorian Cirrone

For me, the issues that the main character deals with in a middle-grade novel seem to have more to do with friendship and family. And while there might be a male-female bond brewing, it’s more of a crush than anything resembling the type of relationship you’d find in a ya novel. If I think of a story where characters are concerned more with the immediate world around them rather than a larger view of society or a relationship involving love and/or sex, I know it will be middle grade. This isn’t to say that middle-grade novels don’t involve heavy themes. They do, but they’re seen through a different lens, sometimes more earnest, less jaded. In addition, while young adult novels often end on a hopeful note, sometimes they don’t. I would say middle-grade novels almost always do in some way–at least the ones I’ve been reading lately. One more practical issue: If the characters can’t get to where they have to go (without adults) by foot, bike, or public transportation, I’ll have to rethink the setting or the age.

 

Sean Easley

The struggle in figuring out whether you’re writing a YA or a MG novel is very real, but I think it comes down to what the reader’s mindset is more than the characters, and what you’re wanting to communicate. MG readers are, mostly, still in a world of dependence, safety, and trust. They need adults, and they have to figure out how to accomplish their goals within a framework of that need. That carries through into their goals, and the way they see the world, too. If you live in a state of having your needs cared for, then your goals are to explore, to connect, to learn, to enjoy.

YA readers are in a different place. Freedom is on the horizon, and there’s a fear that comes with that. They’re butting up against their parents because they want to experience that freedom, to figure out what life is going to look like for them. They live on the edge, testing adult boundaries, figuring out who they’re going to be for the rest of their lives. Whereas MG readers live in dependence on the adults in their lives, YA readers are growing cynical of the boundaries placed on them. And while MG stories can be full of peril, at the end of the day their readers still often need the comfort of knowing it’s going to be okay, that there is someone they can trust besides themselves, and that the responsibility isn’t all on them.

Something important to note too is that, in writing for a target demographic, you’re writing for just under that age bracket, too, as well as (and this is important) all the gatekeepers who will decide what is appropriate for that group. This might not matter as much with YA, but in MG you’ll have to walk a very careful line with your content. More mature subject matter—while it might be something you are certain kids need to deal with and understand—will be content filtered by librarians, parents, etc. before it ever gets into the hands of your reader. Those harder topics will have to be handled delicately if you want to find your audience in MG, and if they’re not you’re going to have a rough time. A lot of determining whether your book is MG or YA comes down to when it’s age-appropriate to deal with the content, and the character, you want to share.

 

For all the nonfiction lovers out there, Jennifer Swanson, one of the queens of nonfiction, shared this:

When writing a nonfiction book, tone, language, and content are the things that determine the age range of your reader. The biggest factor is that you need to make sure what you are discussing in your book has already been introduced to your target reader. For example, if you want to talk about how plants grow, in a picture book, you will explain how they need water, sunlight, soil, and nutrients. But, if you are going to discuss photosynthesis, the process by which a plant takes energy from the sun and turns it into food for itself, you are going to be writing a book for say a 3rd to 5th grader. If you want to talk about the genetics of a plant, how they cross-pollinate, and the way you can manipulate their DNA and RNA, you will be speaking to YA reader. The voice of the manuscript will also help you decide the appropriate reader age. Books for middle graders will have a more lively, active tone and should still be fun. There should be lots of explanations and age-appropriate analogies. For instance, when I talk about height, I say it’s “as tall as a 3-story building” or maybe “it’s a long as a football field”.  When you write YA you have longer, more complex words and sentences. You can use bigger words and give more in-depth explanations and more sophisticated examples, such as exact measurements and exact scientific terms. That is because you assume that your reader has a much wider vocabulary. The length of the story also comes into play. Middle grade nonfiction tends to be shorter than YA nonfiction, which can run up to and over 30,000 words. Basically, if you are unsure which level your manuscript is, I highly recommend taking a look at similar books to see where they were placed. That will give you a good idea of what level your own manuscript might be.

 

Here’s the response of author and writing coach, Joyce Sweeney, when I asked how she can tell which genre her client’s books should be besides the age of the main characters:

There are a couple of differences between MG and YA.  The most obvious is romance.  In an MG, there are crushes and romantic feelings but they are pure and innocent, not going any further than maybe a kiss very close to the end of the book, at most.  In YA, main characters are more aware of their sexuality and openly lust after each other, fall in love and can even have sex in some books where it makes sense.  Another difference is that YA readers are aware that at some point in time, they will truly grow up and leave the nest.  MG’s are still ensconced in a world where grownups have the power.  So MG’s may save the world, question the system and fly on dragons, but at the end of the day, they still depend on adults to care for them or lead them in some way.  YA’s have an almost antipathy for adults which is a defense mechanism, because soon they will have to leave their care.  In many YA novels, the main character does end the book outside the care of adults, on their own in some way.  Finally I would close with this — in Picture Books, the reader lives mostly in their body, in Middle Grade, they live mostly in their minds.  In YA they live mostly in their emotions.  So while an MG reader has super patience with complicated world building, for instance, they are most interested in a smart main character who figures things out.  A YA reader identifies with a main character who feels deeply and acts on those feelings.

I’m sending a huge thank you to the awesome authors who took the time to help all of us make the line between MG and YA a lot less blurry than it was. You’re such a wealth of information!

I’d love to see your tips for knowing if a book is better for an MG or YA audience.

Interview & Two Giveaways with Joyce Sweeney

I’m thrilled to interview super-mentor, Joyce Sweeney today. Welcome to the Mixed-Up Files, Joyce! It’s great to have you here.

It’s great to be here, Mindy!

As a writing coach, what are the most frequent mistakes you see, and do you have any tips for fixing them? 

The most common mistake I see in beginners is over narrating, not putting everything into scenes and intruding on the scenes with too much narration. Summarizing dialog, telling the reader what to think and of course, warning them that the main character has no idea what is about to happen.  Narrators should be invisible if writers want to grab readers.  The most common mistake in intermediate writers is not being thoughtful about POV and choosing it intentionally or not being deep enough in the POV.  Most common mistake in advanced writers is not studying the structure carefully and making sure all threads are woven in tightly and things promised are paid off. 

Thanks for sharing that—it’s nice to know what pitfalls to watch out for.

Some people seem to find inspiration everywhere while others struggle to find ideas. Do you have any helpful ways for writers to come up with ideas for future books?

Writers should look into their own passions, obsessions and struggles.  Keeping a journal is one way to stay in touch with one’s own emotional struggles.  The keyword is, choose your subjects from your feelings, not from your intellect.  Your mind will always pick a topic that’s safe, or seems like it will sell or might please someone else.  If you ask your heart, you get a powerful story every time. 

Thank you! My mind is already reeling with possibilities—and I have a feeling your advice will help our readers come up with powerful new ideas, too.

What are the plotting issues you see most often? Do you have any tips for pantsers who don’t like to plan their entire novel in advance?

I think everyone should be true to their own nature.  If pantsers plot too much, they just waste their own time.  If plotters try to be spontaneous, they have trouble investing in the story.  So for process, do whatever you like.  Once you have a draft, then look at your plot and make sure you have a main character who is really actively pushing their way through the obstacles you’ve created for them and growing with each one. Make sure there is a range of emotion for the reader. Most people are weak in the act where there’s an emotion they don’t like to feel.  For instance I don’t like to feel sad, so I tend to rush through and gloss over Act 2. The Plot Clock is a great tool if you get lost and don’t know what’s missing in your plot. 

Is there a point when writers need to move on from a manuscript they love?

That’s a difficult question.  I think the thing to say to yourself is, I have to move on for now.  If you are getting no queries on a concept, you have to try a new project.  If you know you haven’t nailed a book, you have to put it aside until you can fix it.  But I, and lots of writers I know, have put books away for as much as ten years and then suddenly you take it out and you know exactly what to do.  As long as you still feel the emotions that moved you to write a book, it’s not dead. But it often takes years to see a book clearly enough to fix it. 

How did you become a writing coach?

Joyce’s bookshelf is overflowing with books from the authors she’s mentored.

I started all this back in the late 80’s, when the Florida Center for the Book asked me to teach five-week classes.  I found out I loved teaching craft and was good at it.  But I also saw that after the five weeks, people lost a lot of momentum, so that led to my ongoing workshops and that eventually led to online classes.  And now 57 people with traditional publishing contracts, so I know my mission is working! 

Wow, that’s an impressive amount of books. Congratulations!

It’s so hard to write the perfect beginning to a novel. What can writers do to make sure their books are off to a great start?

Funny you should ask.  Sweeney Writing Coach’s next webinar is today…Wednesday, February 8th at 7pm and the topic is Beginnings!  In many ways, there is nothing more important than a good beginning because this is how readers, agents and editors decide if a book is worth reading.  And for the writer, being on a good track from the start is helpful.  A lot of people think they should begin a book in a place of very high action.  Often they’ve been critiqued and told that.  But something exciting happening to a stranger is meaningless.  Job one is to bond the reader to the main character.  You can create enormous tension in the ordinary world if you know how to do it.

Joyce is giving away one spot in tonight’s live webinar: February 8, 2017 at 7pm – Beginnings. How to start, where to start, how to get all those important details in without a big info dump. There are huge pitfalls to writing a great beginning and the webinar will help you find those and avoid them This is useful for those revising or beginning something new.

Thanks so much for your generous giveaway, Joyce! One winner will be selected and contacted between 5 and 5:30 EST tonight. Hopefully the winner will be able to attend the webinar live, but if the timing doesn’t work, he or she will receive access to the on demand version. Enter using the Rafflecopter widget below. Good luck!

a Rafflecopter giveaway

Guess what? Joyce decided to offer all of you the chance to win one more generous giveaway—an on demand viewing of one of her webinars! The winner can choose from:

*Beginnings!

*POV (Point of View)

*Flashbacks

*Dialogue

*Endings

*Marketing

*Emotions

One winner will be selected randomly by the above Rafflecopter on Sunday, February 12. 

The winner of the Beginnings! webinar on February 8th is…

Poppy Wrote

Huge congrats, Poppy! Enjoy your prize.

I can’t wait to announce the on-demand webinar winner on Sunday. The Rafflecopter will be updated to display Poppy’s name and the second winner’s name, too. Good luck!

Thank you so much for joining us at the Mixed-Up Files, Joyce! Find out more about Joyce Sweeney on her website, Facebook, and Twitter.

Joyce Sweeney has been a writing teacher and coach for 25 years, beginning with teaching five week classes for the Florida Center for the Book, moving to ongoing invitation only workshops and finally to online classes which reach students nationally and internationally. Developing strong bonds with the students she critiques and instructs is her hallmark. She believes that writers need emotional support as well as strong, craft-based teaching if they are to make the long, arduous, but very worthwhile journey to traditional publication.

Joyce Sweeney is also the author of fourteen novels for young adults and two chapbooks of poetry. Her first novel, Center Line, won the First Annual Delacorte Press Prize for an Outstanding Young Adult Novel. Many of her books appear on the American Library Association’s Best Books List and Quick Picks for Reluctant Readers. Her first chapbook of poems, IMPERMANENCE , was published in 2008 by Finishing Line Press, her second, entitled WAKE UP will be released this spring. She has had numerous poems, short stories, articles and interviews published; and her play, FIRST PAGE CRITIQUES was produced in 2011. She lives in Coral Springs, Florida with her husband, Jay and caffeine-addicted cat, Nitro.

Mindy Alyse Weiss writes humorous middle grade novels with heart and quirky picture books. She’s constantly inspired by her two daughters, an adventurous Bullmasador adopted from The Humane Society, and an adorable Beagle/Pointer mix who was rescued from the Everglades. Visit Mindy’s TwitterFacebook, or blog to read more about her writing life, conference experiences, and writing tips.

Revision Workbooks and Helpful Tools

Revisions are exciting…and a little scary, too. Years ago, I used to think I was revising, but it was more like tickling my manuscripts instead of ripping them to shreds and rebuilding them with the strongest possible foundation. I’ve been working hard on my revision tools and have come a long way—but the more I learn, the more I realize I still can grow.

breakout-novelMy local SCBWI (Society of Book Writer’s and Illustrators) recently invited me to take an online workshop using WRITING THE BREAKOUT NOVEL WORKBOOK by Donald Maass. Wow! I fell in love with that workbook immediately. Every exercise I completed strengthened my middle grade novel in amazing ways. This is such a fantastic tool for writers—and for teachers to use with their students. You can figure out how to flesh out your characters more and highlight their heroic traits so readers can relate to even the nastiest characters. I also learned how to strengthen all my characters, plot, sub plots, theme, etc.

For years, I’ve cherished advice the incredibly talented author, Bruce Coville, shared at a conference—think of the worst thing that could happen to your character. It’s always been a huge help in raising the stakes. I’ve placed my characters in awful situations and thought I had mastered this task. Turns out, I did a good job (maybe even a really good job).  But I didn’t realize there was an invisible line I couldn’t cross. Exercises in Donald Maass’s workbook made that line visible and opened my eyes to even more ways to torture my poor characters. I love having a new tool that helps me dig deeper than ever and add amazing depth to my novels.

Here’s more info about WRITING THE BREAKOUT NOVEL WORKBOOK by Donald Maass:

This powerful book presents the patented techniques and writing exercises from Maass’s popular writing workshops to offer novelists first-class instruction and practical guidance. You’ll learn to develop and strengthen aspects of your prose with sections on:

  • Building plot layers
  • Creating inner conflict
  • Strengthening voice and point of view
  • Discovering and heightening larger-than-life character qualities
  • Strengthening theme
  • And much more!

Maass also carefully dissects examples from real-life breakout novels so you’ll learn how to read and analyze fiction like a writer.

 

Another great revision workbook is NOVEL METAMORPHOSIS by Darcy Pattison:

  • novel-metamorphasisSystematically inventory and diagnose your manuscript
  • Visually manipulate your manuscript to identify problems
  • Transform dull characters into fascinating, memorable people
  • Strengthen the narrative and emotional arcs
  • Sharpen dialogue
  • Morph dull settings into backdrops that set the mood
  • Enliven narrated events by selecting the right details
  • Use language with confidence
  • Add depth with narrative patterning In-depth professional development
  • Plan your novel’s metamorphosis

The Results: A stronger, richer, deeper story, a story that makes readers weep and cry and turn the next page. NOVEL METAMORPHOSIS turns theory into radical new tools which are practical, tangible, concrete.

 

If you’re looking for intensive plotting help, check out the PLOT WHISPERER WORKBOOK by Martha Alderson:

plot-whisperer-workbookIn this writing workbook, celebrated writing teacher and author Martha Alderson covers everything from constructing spirited action and compelling characters to establishing an unforgettable ending. Packed with Scene Tracker and Plot Planner templates for you to fill in for your own unique story, she also walks you through the development of a successful narrative with exercises that:

  • Help build suspense, tension and excitement
  • Create multi-dimensional characters
  • Integrate theme and meaning
  • Incorporate effective subplots
  • Tie up all the loose ends
  • Keep the reader turning pages

 

Newest Plot Clock 2016The last incredible resource I’m including isn’t a book or workbook—it’s a free hour and a half recorded Plot Clock webinar by super-mentor Joyce Sweeney.

If you sign up for her mailing list, you’ll receive access to the webinar about her amazing four-act plot tool called the PLOT CLOCK that I use before (and often after) writing anything new. She also has lots of other incredible webinars and classes to help with revision and other aspects of writing.

 

Here’s a link to a past post of mine that is chock full of revision tips. I’d love to know what your favorite revision workbooks, tricks, or tools are.

Happy revising!

Mindy Alyse Weiss writes humorous middle grade novels with heart and quirky picture books. She’s constantly inspired by her two daughters, an adventurous Bullmasador adopted from The Humane Society, and an adorable Beagle/Pointer mix who was rescued from the Everglades. Visit Mindy’s TwitterFacebook, oblog to read more about her writing life, conference experiences, and writing tips.