Wednesday, January 6, 2016

Changing a Story from Young Adult to Middle Grade: Not a Minor Revision

Happy 2016! All of us here at the SCBWI Germany and Austria Blog wish each and every one of you success in all your creative and professional endeavors! 

Today's special guest is Amy Bearce who was featured on the blog a while back for her debut novel FAIRY KEEPER. In that article she mentioned her editor asked her to age-down her novel from YA to MG. Today she's goes through what that process took. 

Shifting a book from young adult to middle grade—even to upper middle grade-- involves several considerations. Ideally, you’d know your intended audience from the beginning because the plot of your story should fit the age of your audience. But for my first published book, I ended up changing it from YA to upper-middle grade.

I wrote and queried Fairy Keeper as a young adult fantasy. Curiosity Quills Press accepted it, but asked if I would consider lowering the protagonist’s age and making it an upper-middle grade book instead. They said the tone and story had a sweetness to it that was just more middle grade. So my main character, Sierra, went from 16 years old to 14 years old. I couldn’t have made my book be pure middle grade once it was completed because the central problem required behavior that I didn’t find believable for a 12 year old, or even a 13 year old. But a 14 year old? That could work.

A shift in a main character’s age like this then required more changes within the story, like a row of dominoes falling. You might find these helpful to consider. There were three biggies: romance/sexuality, language, and violence. 

Sweet, not Heat 

If you are writing pure middle grade, romance will be very minimal—as in a distant crush, maybe—or not there at all. But if you are writing upper-middle grade, thirteen and fourteen year olds DO have crushes, and many experience their first kisses at that age. It’s a tumultuous time in a young teen’s life.

For upper middle grade, I wanted my romance portion of the story to be sweet rather than sexy. That meant removing any physical responses to attraction beyond butterflies in the stomach or feeling drawn into his eyes. I love a good romance, so this was the hardest part for me to lower. I’m glad that as upper-middle grade, I had some flexibility to include a subplot that was at least light romance. 

Say What? 

I didn’t have a ton of curse words in the story to begin with, but there were a few like hell or damn. Some people might feel okay putting those in an upper middle grade book. I’ve seen even saltier than that in a Carl Hiassen book for middle grade/upper middle grade and think it works for his style. I’m not advocating censoring. But for me to be comfortable knowing 11 year olds could be reading this, I changed out the actual curse words to phrases like, “She cursed.” It is vague and yet conveys the same thing. Four letter words will instantly make your book feel older, even if it’s a twelve year old doing the cussing. Also, even if you believe that kids should be exposed to realistic language, the gatekeepers who buy MG books for kids and teens might not (parents, teachers, librarians). 

Put the Knife Down 

Kids see a lot of violence in movies, and so you may feel they are pretty inured to it. And they can handle a lot. But a very violent book is going to feel more YA. For mine, Sierra originally killed a man

with her knife, slicing his throat. I changed that part to something less violent, because otherwise the scene felt too grisly. MG and upper-MG can be dark—Coraline, Holes, and Hatchet all have very dark moments. But they are not graphically violent, and they end happily.

Tweens and younger teens are an incredibly rewarding audience to write for—there aren’t a ton of books that focus on life at ages 13-14 with suitable content. Admittedly, it’s harder to market because of that, but all kids deserve to have books written with them in mind, because each group has their own needs and unique views of life. Shifting from YA to upper-middle grade simply requires being sensitive to that.

About Amy:

Amy writes stories for tweens and teens. She is a former reading teacher who now has her Masters in Library Science. As an Army kid, she moved eight times before she was eighteen, so she feels especially fortunate to be married to her high school sweetheart. Together they’re raising two daughters and are currently living in Germany. A perfect day for Amy involves rain pattering on the windows, popcorn, and every member of her family curled up in one cozy room reading a good book. Amy's book FAIRY KEEPER (Curiosity Quills Press) was released on March 5th. The next book in the series, MERCHARMER, will be released May 2016. You can reach Amy via her blogFacebook  or Twitter.