The Middle Grade Writer’s Holy Grail: That Elusive Voice

We read about it everywhere, in writers’ magazines, publishers’ and agents’ blogs, conference notes and those dreaded query  rejections:

Editors really want Middle Grade fiction.

They think it’s going to boom like YA has, and are chomping at the bit to represent MG writers who will make that happen. There’s only one problem: they say they aren’t getting  any MG queries. At least, not ones they can use, anyway.

“But”, you might argue as I did many times, “I’ve queried and queried and queried MG until magic hats, silly jokes and kidnapped parents are bleeding out of my ears! What more do they want?”

What they want, my fellow writer friend, is the VOICE.

Ah, that elusive Voice. Both the bane and the holy grail of MG writers everywhere. It’s even hard to nail the definition of Voice down, let alone the actual meat and potatoes of it. It is akin to that voice inside your own head that dictates and narrates your everyday comings and goings: the character of the narrator, as it were. But while in adult fiction it’s pretty easy to capture a convincing Voice — after all, we are adults so we mimic adult speech and thought patterns pretty well — unless we’re a prodigy child writer, we haven’t been kids in a while. Because of this we naturally find ourselves tripping over the Voice, and sometimes — every one in a while — actually capturing it. But every once in a while isn’t good enough for publishing success. So how do we lock a convincing MG Voice firmly in our writer’s toolbox for consistent use? Well, there are two methods I have personally found:

Method Number 1: Use First Person

  • This is the go-to method for most MG writers. In first person, capturing the Voice of a middle grader is as simple as capturing the personality of your MC. It’s often easier to “hear” the voice of a child in your narration when that voice comes directly from a character you have built to be a child in the first place. This is by far the easiest method, and one that you will find the majority of successful MG books follow. However, I personally found that first person is difficult to maintain when the MC changes a lot over the course of the story (as in “Harry Potter”, etc). After all, the assumption in past-tense narration is that this story has already happened to the MC, so if they changed a lot, the past-set MC and the present-set narrator would have to be confusedly different, and it would be difficult not to give away too much about the plot in that situation as well: “If only I had known then what I know now, but I have to pretend I don’t know it for your sake.” You can imagine how confusing that could become after a while. Some writers combat this by using present tense rather than past. Still others, like myself, aren’t at all fond of present tense style to say the least. Luckily for us, there’s method number two…

Method Number 2: Third-Person Double Vision

  • This came to me only last night, and when I realized it I almost stopped breathing: make your MC schizophrenic! Only not really. Let me explain: as I said above it’s easiest to capture middle grade Voice when your narrator is a middle grader, thus first person from your MG MC works very well. Now imagine your MC is still telling the story, but in third person rather than first. For example, I was listening to my daughter play recently and heard her narrating her imaginary world in third person. Only she was a part of that world, so she was referring to herself not as “me” or “I” but “Joei” (her name) and “her” and “she”. So to put that in a more literary idiom, as you write your story, think of your MC and your narrator as the same person, with your narrator telling their own story from an omnipotent third person POV. Such as, “Billy hated ice cream”, Billy said. Only nix the “Billy said” part entirely. I have already found that this method gives you and the reader a closer relationship to the MC while still maintaining the more flexible third-person style.

Well, I have to go get ready for my meet-and-greet now. Hee! I hope this post helped you a bit, and if you have any questions or comments please feel free to post them. Trust me, I know how frustrating that Voice can be!

Happy writing!


4 Responses to “The Middle Grade Writer’s Holy Grail: That Elusive Voice”

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