In interviews, a writer is often asked whether they are a plotter, a pantser, or—thanks to some writers refusing to claim one category or the other—a “plantser.”
If these words mean nothing to you, they’re easy enough to decode. A plotter is a writer who plots out the story beats, the action, and the overall narrative arc of their books before they sit down to fill in the structure with actual prose. A pantser is a writer who prefers to write by the seat of their pants. These writers usually begin with prose and allow it to carve a path before them which they dutifully follow, only knowing the plot of their story once a full draft is complete. A “plantser” falls in between the two, but I won’t be talking about them for this post.
I’ve always known which category I belong in, and to be honest for a long time that answer was a source of shame for me. I’ve read enough articles, autobiographies, and craft books penned by great writers to know (or at least think) that real writers are always pantsers. Plotters are the hacks who don’t have the natural—almost magical—instincts at storytelling, so they have to muck about in formulaic tricks to mimic a story before they sit down to write.
I am a plotter through and through, and I had thought that identity marked me as a lower tier of writer.
BUT—and this is especially important if you also identify as a plotter—you must know this:
I was dead wrong.
Plotting is a powerful skill, the same as pantsing. Neither technique to writing challenges the validity of the other. I’ve come to understand this as dear author friends, ones who typically pants their way through beautiful stories, have asked me about my general routine with book writing. And rather than balk at the annoying level of preciseness in how I study and write books, they are highly intrigued.
Thanks to some nudging from these authors, I have decided to share my craft study findings and writing process with you all. Because lower middle grade is an emerging subcategory that is garnering quite a bit of attention and interest as of late, I figure I’ll start there. Here goes:
Writing Lower Middle Grade—Part 1: Category
The first thing to know about lower middle grade is that it is not its own category.
Lower middle grade is geared for readers aging out of chapter books, but who are not yet ready to tackle most longer middle grade fiction. When it comes to shelving, lower middle grade books belong in the overall umbrella of middle grade. This means that when the writer must choose to lean towards a chapter book convention or middle grade convention at any point in the writing process, the answer is usually middle grade.
But knowing about chapter books is also very important. When I first set out to write about roller derby and a group of kids, I thought I was embarking in chapter book territory. An editor had put out a call for a queer chapter book series, and I was hungry to answer that call. The Derby Daredevils series began as a series titled The Flannels, which was about a group of third graders cavorting around Austin, Texas. Book 1was all about Kenzie Ellington trying to get a group of kids together for her birthday party since her best friend Shelly had recently moved to Alaska. In the end of the book, the group of kids that Kenzie meets (Tomoko, Jules, Camila, and Bree) attend a roller derby bout.
If you’ve read the Daredevils Book 1, you’ll realize the above paragraph tells a pretty different story from the one that was ultimately published. This is because my earliest draft of the Flannels was strictly in chapter book territory. Here are some of the hallmarks of chapter book writing I learned while studying that craft back in 2017:
· Just like in most middle grade fiction, chapter book readers want to read “up,” or read about characters slightly older than themselves. Because I imagined my readers in first and second grade, I made my characters third graders (eight years old).
· In chapter books, you have to get small stakes to feel like really big stakes. So internal thought and emotion becomes extremely important. Finding people to attend a birthday party is only a compelling plot arc if the main character really really really needs some new friends for her birthday party but doesn’t know how to find them. Small stakes. Feel big.
· Word count in chapter books ranges from 8,000 to 12,000 words. 10,000 words is the sweet spot. Word count in chapter books has a lot to do with avoiding reader fatigue while also weaving a much more complex story than those found in early reader books.
Studying chapter books was absolutely essential to my writing process, and would have been essential even if I had never written a chapter book draft to start. Why? Because in writing lower middle grade fiction, I have a responsibility to be aware of my bookend categories. I need to know what kinds of books my readers are aging out of. I need to be aware of the jumps in character traits, in word count, and in plot. Additionally, I need to be highly aware of all these elements in standard middle grade, to make sure I’m writing a book that fits well between these two categories. I’ll shift now to some of the overall hallmarks of middle grade fiction:
· The main character is usually around eleven to thirteen years old. As with chapter books, the intended reading audience will fall slightly younger than the protagonist’s age. Most middle grade books are aimed at eight to twelve-year-old readers.
· The stakes rise in middle grade. Like in chapter books, we’re juggling the same internal emotional ties to the external struggles. But we can go a lot bigger in middle grade. The goals can feel a lot harder, and can take much more time to complete. Characters are also branching out from the protective family structure so often featured in chapter book series.
· Word count in middle grade books ranges from 40,000 to 60,000 words.
If you’re thinking to yourself—holy hats, that’s a heck of a lot more words than in chapter books!—you’re not alone. Word count gap is a very big reason why "younger” middle grade books are popping up on shelves. Let’s now turn to the basic categorization of lower middle grade fiction and how it balances the bookends of chapter books and middle grade books:
· To split the difference in character age between chapter books and middle grade, lower middle grade often features characters around the ages of nine or ten. Seven to ten year olds work best as a reading audience for lower middle grade, which means the author needs to consider readers from second grade up through fourth or fifth grade—not an easy feat!
· Lower middle grade needs struggles and goals that would feel tough for ten year olds to accomplish, but coupled with the support of friends and family characteristic of chapter books.
· Word count of lower middle grade fiction sits right around 20,000-30,000 words, with 25,000 words being a nice sweet spot.
To summarize all this into facts and figures:
Most chapter book protagonists are around six to eight years old.
Most middle grade protagonists are around eleven to thirteen years old.
Most lower middle grade protagonists fit in between, around nine or ten years old.
Chapter books make small stakes feel like big stakes.
Middle grade books are often defined by the character venturing away from their supportive family unit to go after bigger stakes in thematic quests of self-discovery.
Lower middle grade provides a solid balance of these two aspects, with characters reaching for higher goals but with ample support.
Typical word counts of chapter books are 8,000-12,000 words.
Typical word counts of middle grade books are 40,000 to 60,000 words.
Typical word counts of lower middle grade books are 20,000 to 30,000 words.
It can be pretty tempting for a writer to read the above information, conclude that lower middle grade evenly splits the difference between CB and MG, and simply run with that 50/50 balance in every decision throughout the writing process. After all, the character ages fall right between, the word count falls between the two categories, and the overall plot stakes seem to be a healthy mix of chapter book stakes and middle grade stakes.
But whew dally, is there SO much more to it than that.
When working with lower middle grade, how do you reconcile the elements of subplots, of ensemble casts, of illustration, or plot arc beats, of chapter breakup? The answers to these questions are not so simple. There’s an important balance to be maintained. A lot of lower middle grade doesn’t require illustration, but some books do. The typical plot beats don’t fit into lower middle grade the way they do in older middle grade books. Subplots additionally take on a very different role. But in order to truly understand how lower middle grade stories function, as well as their importance as a subcategory, we’ll need to break these points down one by one.
For my next post in this series, I’ll be using my process in writing The Derby Daredevils Books 1, 2, and 3 as examples for how I navigate the internal and external beats of lower middle grade fiction. Join me back here next month for Part 2 of this blog post, in which I break down the Save the Cat plot points and how they integrate into the lower middle grade structure.