Middle Grade Mafia: Thank you, Anita for taking the time to share your expertise and knowledge with our readers. It is great to have wonderful editors like yourself answer the questions that are on many MG writers’ minds.
Anita Mumm: Thank you so much for having me! MGM is such a wonderful resource for writers and book lovers, and I’m honored to be included here.
MGM: Can you tell us what agents are looking for in middle grade manuscripts?
AM: That’s a big question! Naturally, every agent has her own subjective preferences and wish list in terms of genres and writing styles, but I think I can zoom in on a few things that apply across the board. Probably the most important is that unique, authentic middle grade voice. I’ve heard a lot of people in the business say that this is one of the hardest voices to pull off, and I’d have to agree. Middle grade readers are immediately turned off by any hint of an adult or pedagogical perspective creeping into the story—they want characters and narrative that sound like them or feel relatable.
Aside from that, agents look for things that are important across genres and target audiences: a fresh premise, mastery of craft, characters that feel real, and enough tension to turn pages (this is particularly important for young readers, whose attention spans are pretty unforgiving).
On a genre-specific level, I’ve heard a number of agents clamoring for more contemporary, realistic middle grade lately. In the end, though, a well told, unique story will get attention, regardless of the genre.
MGM: Middle grade is a fairly broad category. In your experience, how would you describe middle grade and when does it cross the line into YA?
AM: Okay, brace yourself for a complicated answer to a simple question! One way to define middle grade is by the age of the target audience (generally 8-12) and by the age of the protagonist (generally 9-13—kids gravitate to characters their age or slightly older). Just as important, though, is the subject matter. Like all fictional characters, middle grade protagonists struggle with tough challenges, but there is not as much self-realization (that “coming of age” element) as you find in young adult, and while MG characters often have crushes, there is less emphasis on romantic threads than in YA. MG can certainly deal with serious themes, but there is a limit to how dark it can go or how much violence it can contain, compared with YA. In middle grade, violence is more often implied—a threat hanging over the characters’ heads or a roughly sketched event—without the more gruesome details found in adult novels, and increasingly in YA as well. Perhaps the most important ingredient of all is that elusive middle grade voice—a narrative style that engages young readers without the pedagogical style found in younger kids’ books (MG readers have outgrown that, thank you very much).
MGM: Since the category is so broad, should writers add further description to their query letters? For example, younger MG, MG for ages 8-10, or just leave it middle grade?
AM: Great question! It’s always good to be specific in a query letter, but in this case it’s not a requirement. In a well-written query, it will be fairly clear to an agent which end of the spectrum a novel fits, based on the themes, word count, and age of the characters. For example, if the main character is ten years old, agents will assume it is on the lower/younger end, since kids like to read about characters older than themselves. If the characters are a bit older and the subject matter a little more mature, it will be seen as upper/older middle grade.
If you’re going to specify, I recommend the terms “lower” or “upper” middle grade because that refers to reading level and content, rather than the reader’s age, which is harder to pinpoint (i.e. some children challenge themselves by reading above the average level for their age).
MGM: Some publishers use the term, “contemporary middle grade”. Can you tell us what that means in the industry?
AM: That term refers to a story set in the present day real world, as opposed to a different historical period or a sci fi/fantasy world. The story usually deals with the kinds of situations kids might face in real life (family and parental situations, overcoming illnesses or other physical challenges, friendships, crushes, and conflicts at school). The lines also blur a little to include mysteries set in the present day. A couple of examples are The Lemonade War series by Jacqueline Davies and Wonder by R.J. Palacio.
MGM: It seems that many books are written in a trilogy. Are agents/publishers still looking for stories with series potential?
AM: Yes, definitely. Producing a high quality book is expensive for publishers, so when they take a chance on a project, they are of course hoping it will be one of those rare finds that makes it big. If that’s the case, it’s to their advantage to keep readers coming back with subsequent books. Another reason trilogies and series are popular in MG and YA is that it allows the author to age the characters up in sync with the audience; in other words, the characters grow along with the kids reading about them, and that makes for a nice long-term connection between the author and fans.
MGM: What is the role of a Beta reader and at what point do you feel a manuscript would benefit from a pass by either a Beta reader or professional editor before submitting?
AM: I think having beta readers, a writing partner, or critique group is essential. Because writing is a solitary and very personal endeavor, it is difficult to get enough distance from your own work to see the problems objectively. Putting yourself out there for critique is scary, but it’s also the best way to get through the growing pains of novel writing. A second (or third, or more) pair of eyes can help you spot inconsistencies and gauge the emotional reaction to your work. You’ll also learn from others’ mistakes as you critique their work in return. And there’s a bonus: if you later decide to hire an editor, you’ll likely save money because the more polished your work is to begin with, the fewer rounds of editing you’ll need. That said, it’s important to choose knowledgeable readers whose opinions you trust, and to take all feedback with a grain of salt. For some advice on choosing the right critique group, here is a post I wrote on that topic: http://wordcafeblog.wordpress.com/2014/07/22/dream-team-finding-the-right-critique-group-for-you/.
For the second part of your question, there are several reasons a writer might also want to enlist the help of a professional editor: (1) He or she has a vague awareness of problems in the story but is not sure how to address them. Sometimes beta readers point out concerns but don’t have the time or experience to go into the nitty gritty of fixing them. (2) The writer has submitted her work to agents, with disappointing results. Agents don’t have time to give extensive feedback on every manuscript, so the writer may turn to an editor to find out what is keeping her from breaking out of the slush pile. (3) The writer wishes to self-publish the novel and wants it to be as polished and professional as possible when it goes out to the reading public.
Obviously, I have a personal bias about the value of hiring a qualified editor. J But I certainly understand this doesn’t fit into every writer’s budget. For resourceful writers, building a team of trusted beta readers is a great first step toward putting your best work forward.
MGM: WOW! Thanks for all this great stuff. I know our readers will be grateful for your answers.
AM: Thanks again for having me! Happy writing, MGM fans!
Anita Mumm is a freelance novel editor. Her home base is Denver, but she sometimes gets carried away to India and other magical realms. Previously, she worked in submissions & foreign rights at Nelson Literary Agency. You can read more about her work at her website and on her blog, Word Café, where she shares advice on writing and publishing.