There’s more to writing “tween” books than making characters come to life, crafting unique plots, and weaving suspense and humor throughout.
You also have to keep up with the times—what’s cool nowadays? What do nine to thirteen year olds think about? Are you using phrases or similes that relate to them?
This concept became obvious to me a few weeks ago when my husband and I decided to take my kids on a hike in Southern Utah.
We were in an area with lots of natural red-rock formations. Some of them were high up on mountain tops, like the “elephant rock.” Other face-like formations were on the sides of dangerous cliffs. There was one outcropping of rocks on the top of a plateau, however, that was within our reach. By the locals it’s called the “milk bottles.”
“Huh? Milk bottles?” my kids asked. “What are those?”
It’s true. My children have never seen a milk bottle before. To them, milk comes in one gallon plastic jugs at the local grocery store.
We pointed to where the milk bottles were. They couldn’t see them. We then explained the precise location. Still nothing. Then we did one simple thing that changed their entire perspective.
“Think of them as water bottles,” I said.
“Oh,” my children said, “we can see them now!”
So, in the morning hours of that late summer day, I hiked, with my husband and children, to the “water bottles.”
Fifty years ago kids would have been stumped if you’d called them water bottles. Who drank their water out of bottles? But in 2014, that’s what our kids know.
Visiting a class of fifth-graders and brainstorming with them is awe-inspiring and gives writers for tweens cool insight into the kids’ world, how they think, and what they like. We discovered a wonderful way to engage them during an author visit, so maybe this will give you some ideas, too.
For several years now, Bob Schumacher and Jeff Lindeman, fifth-grade teachers at Cooley Ranch Elementary School in Colton, California, have invited us to visit their classes on Dr. Seuss Day. Mr. Schumacher would usually have us read the final chapters of Curse at Zala Manor, Book 1 in the Monster Moon Mystery series. From there, we’d talk about writing, the importance of revising, and field questions, but this year we tried something quite different.
We asked Mr. Schumacher to read the final chapters. The students were familiar with our ongoing characters, so we decided to try brainstorming with them for our next Monster Moon book.
First, we drew a simple graph of rising squiggly lines on the board and explained, “Here’s the beginning of a story. All of these hills represent an obstacle the main character has to deal with in order to reach his/her goal. The rising action becomes more and more intense with each obstacle, until finally you reach the end of the story, the climax, the battle.”
Next, we explained that we were going to read the beginning chapters of our work-in-progress, Legend of Monster Island, Book 3 in the series, and we wanted the kids to brainstorm and tell us what obstacles they’d like to see the main characters face.
We read the first couple chapters, which begin with 12-year-old AJ Zantony brushing his teeth in the guest bathroom at his Aunt Zsofia’s creepy mansion, Zala Manor. A strange octopus-like tentacle slithered out of the toilet and wrapped around his leg. He managed to escape its grip and watched it slip back down into the commode.
Soon after, his 11-year-old cousin Jaz screamed from the other bathroom. AJ found her in a puddle next to the toilet with a tentacle attacking her, too. After fighting it off, they tried to get some sleep, since Jaz had a big swim meet to compete in the next day.
The class seemed to listen closely, knowing we wanted to hear their input and might possibly write some of their ideas into the novel. When we finished reading the chapters, we asked the students to share some of their ideas. “What would you like to see happen in the story?”
More than a dozen hands shot up, and we were taken aback by the kids’ eager responses. Some of them were so enthusiastic, they could barely stay seated, waving their hands to be called on next.
As students shared their thoughts, sometimes they’d spark an idea in some of the other kids. Their eyes lit up as they let out an, “Oh-oh” and raised their hands.
Here are some of the comments:
Boy: “At the swim meet, the kraken comes back to take Jaz away.”
Another student: “Dang!” (Mad because the other boy thought of his idea.)
Girl: “When the kraken comes through the pipes in the swimming pool at the swim meet and gets Jaz, AJ and Emily have to get a boat and go to the island to look for her.”
Boy: “They find the dead body of Vlad. The kraken got him.”
Kids exploded with protests, shouting at the boy. Whoa! He slunk down in his seat and covered his face, clearly sorry he had shared that idea.
The class was in such an uproar at the suggestion of killing off Vlad, the 300-year-old pirate rat (a favorite in the series), that Mr. Schumacher had to stop their protests.
“Great idea,” we told the class. “It’s good to make the reader think something bad happened to a character the reader cares about. They think Vlad’s been killed, but he really hasn’t.” A few minutes later the same boy raised his hand again with another idea.
It was a good way for the kids to learn that when brainstorming, we should be free to come up with anything and everything. Nothing is off limits. Even if one idea doesn’t fly, it can lead to more ideas, some that turn out to be a brilliant twist to our stories. So it was important for that boy and the class to know that his idea was just as good as anyone’s.
We found it interesting the way the students would springboard ideas off of each other’s comments, just like we do when we’re brainstorming Monster Moon plot lines.
Some of the ideas were wild and crazy, and we loved hearing them:
Boy: “Jaz gets taken in the toilet, but she lets out a scream, so AJ comes in and then he gets sucked in, too.
Kathy: “Oh, no! How will they get out of the toilet?”
Boy: “There’s another set of mazes because they’re in the sewer.”
Some of the kids wanted the villains from Curse at Zala Manor to come back in the new book. Many students wanted more scenes in the underground tunnels and secret passages from Curse at Zala Manor. The students’ suggestions confirmed that elements like catacombs and hidden passages appeal to many of us, playing upon our universal curiosity to find out what’s behind the closed door.
Here’s one of my favorite ideas shared by one of the boys:
Boy: “While Aunt Z is driving AJ and Jaz to the swim meet, all the krakens circle around them and take the pink hearse.”
By the end of the session, every single kid in the class had raised their hand and participated. We had so much fun brainstorming with Mr. Schumacher’s class that we could have spent hours with them, but we had to hurry to Mr. Lindeman’s class, which was right next door.
We repeated the brainstorming exercise, and the same energy ignited throughout that classroom, too. We left Cooley Ranch Elementary School feeling as pumped up as the kids. They’ll be mentioned in the acknowledgements of Legend of Monster Island because some of their ideas made it into the book!
BBH McChiller is the pseudonym for two Southern California writers, Lynn Kelley and Kathryn Sant. The Monster Moon series began one Halloween as a discussion about their greatest fears and ended up being one of their most rewarding experiences.
Harry Potter series by JK Rowling A new-classic in every sense of the word. Dealing with friendships and making the right decisions even if they’re hard to do, Harry Potter teaches some great life lessons.
As an author, I am often asked, “What inspires you to write?” The answer to that is both simple and complex. I am motivated by many things. It could be something as small as an insect crawling on the ground, a cloud formation, or an emotion that was aroused within me.
As many of you may know, the PRINCESS KANDAKE series was inspired by my granddaughter. She wanted to be a princess and because I really have no tolerance for the messages of the typical princess stories, I felt compelled to create a totally different kind of princess. A story where the people are not surprised by the strength of her character or her determination and independence. But this is a post about inspiration, let me get back to that.
I recently watched a movie on television called The Magic of Belle Isle. I highly recommend it. The plot was fairly straightforward and well-acted about a struggling author and recently divorced mom. It was beautiful! It called to the story within me! It begged for me to write.
There have been many movies, books, or situations that have had this effect upon me. I am not sure how to explain it other than to say that something awakens within me and a story is born. It’s like a feeling of the fantastic, a yearning that must be expressed, the groaning of something yet to be given birth. In simpler terms, my creativity has been quickened and I must write, yet again.
The story I develop must be one that has appeal for my audience: action, struggles, light romance. This is not an easy thing to do. In everything I write, I must consider the age of my audience, being careful not to take them any farther than they are truly ready to go. And because my readers are savvy, intelligent beings, I include a tiny bit of life’s wisdom for them to chew on. I add something they can take away from the story that they can apply to their lives. This is regardless of whether the tale takes place in modern day, the ancient past, or far in the future. Honestly, sometimes that bit of wisdom is what can inspire a story.
So now I am writing a story about one of the characters in my PRINCESS KANDAKE series. I am not quite sure where it is leading, but I will follow wherever the character takes me and tell the story he lays before me. But I will tell you a tiny secret…the inspiration for this story is supporting others while building a life of your own and what that looks like when romance enters the picture.
Stephanie Jefferson is the author ‘Tween action/adventure series, PRINCESS KANDAKE. When she isn’t researching a new book (aka people watching) she’s hanging out with her favorite people or enjoying some new craft. You can find out more about Stephanie Jefferson on her Website, Blog, or on Facebook
Ever wonder how your favorite middle grade author came up with the idea to write a series? Many of the Emblazon authors here have written a series, including myself, and believe me when I say that it’s no small task. The most important thing to remember in creating a series for ANY genre is to connect the dots, create a common thread to tie your individual stories together into a nice, shiny bow at the series end. Complicated? Not really. Here’s a peek at the process of how I developed my middle grade series:
First: I made sure that my adolescent characters had enough problems going on both individually and together in order to carry my series through the ten books (eleven if you include the prequel) I have planned. In essence, the entire series needs to get from A to B to Z dragging my characters along (sometimes kicking and screaming) until, by the end of the series he or she or they need to come out changed. They need to have shown growth, they need to have evolved through the course of their adventures.
Second: I didn’t put any elements into my first story that I didn’t want to live with through the entire series of books. It’s a long haul to drag unnecessary fillers such as a troublesome pet, a psychotic boyfriend or an ongoing health problem for the ride. Like they say, “Use it or lose it”.
Third: I didn’t solve the big mysteries or resolve all my characters’ problems in the first book. Too much, too soon. The idea is to hook readers with that first book, and get them begging for more. Characters should still have dreams and goals and ambitions to work toward through the length of the series. And while I do answer the burning questions and resolve the terrible conflicts, I will make sure that I replace them with additional—hopefully more serious—ones.
Fourth: It’s all about building relationships between my characters, and getting my readers to care about them. So I throw obstacles at my characters and create the necessary tension to get readers to care about, and sympathize with the characters. It’s all about the journey and how my characters work together to resolve their problems. I want my readers to be as invested at the end of the series in how that relationship is working out as they were in the first book.
Fifth: I keep a series guidebook stuffed with all the vital information on my main characters— and recurring side characters. The color of their hair and eyes, their brother’s or sister’s names, or any allergies is vital to log. Believe me readers know when something is amiss and will call you on it!
Sixth: When I first sat down to plan my tween time travel series, I made sure I was writing it for the right reason—because I loved my characters enough to tell their story over a period of years. And hopefully, if I’ve done a good job, then I will be lucky enough to engage many readers to follow my series for years to come.
Remember—the first book in a series is the most important, especially if you’re a debut author like I was. This book will be your hook, and the first glimpse readers have into the world and characters you’ve created. So, what are some of your favorite middle grade series? We’d love to hear from you!
This post is part of Tween the Weekends, a monthly theme here at Emblazon. To participate, visit out TTW page and join in!
Sharon Ledwith is the author of the middle-grade/YA time travel series, THE LAST TIMEKEEPERS, available through Musa Publishing. When not writing, researching, or revising, she enjoys reading, yoga, kayaking, time with family and friends, and single malt scotch. Sharon lives in the wilds of Muskoka in Central Ontario, Canada, with her hubby, a water-logged yellow Labrador and moody calico cat.