Let’s get something very, very clear: I never intended to write Middle Grade. In fact, when the day came near the end of my 36th consecutive year of breathing to finally quit pretending I was going to start writing books—you know, someday—and instead actually begin writing something that very day, a Middle Grade novel was the very last thing on my mind.
See, I was going to be a King (of the Stephen variety). Or a Robert Jordan. I’d have even been happy to come in as a Weis and Hickman, especially since I figured I already had enough errant thoughts for two people, easy.
The point, though, is that I was going to write fantasy stuffs, and they would be for adults, leaning towards something accessible that even my wife or mother-in-law might enjoy, since they both tend to prefer books grounded in the Real World*. My novels would be about relatively average people (over 25, naturally!) dealing with remarkable, mature problems that anyone could see themselves wrangling over. Sometimes the stories might start with the modern day and spiral into a dark fantasy place with an edge of horror, and other times it would start with the edge of a double-bladed ax. But whatever the concept, the books were always going to be for grown-ups.
You know, because being able to write characters that swear like sailors six miles offshore was important to me. For reasons.
But then, a funny thing happened on the way to International Bestseller-dom. Back in the waning months of 2011, when I was knee-deep in creeping subplots for my first novel, my oldest son, at the time a mere child of 9 years and into reading books of his own choosing for the first time, asked me one night as I was hunched over my laptop, hammering out adverbs (badly), if he could read my fledgling novel.
Unfortunately for him, as that particular novel contains themes beyond the emotional range of most 9 year olds and is also littered with language I’m sure his mother would still prefer he not use when the grandparents come over to babysit, I had to tell him no. Hoping to lessen the blow somewhat, I told him he could read it when he got older, if he still wanted to. But he’s my son, meaning that demonstrating a modicum of patience was never likely to be his Plan A.
So he pitched Plan B.
“Well, if I can’t read that one until I’m older, maybe when you’re finished writing it, could you write one for us?”
Wait. He wanted me to write a story that he and his 8- and 7- year-old brother and sister (respectively) could read on their own? Why…that was just crazy enough to work.
Maybe. I still wasn’t convinced, but I told him I’d see if I could come up with a good story.
Time past, as it does, and I finished that first novel, and revised it to within an inch of chucking it into the oven and setting the self-cleaning cycle. But by the time another year rolled past, I finally had a novel to query.
Just in time for NaNoWriMo 2012. If you’re not familiar, NaNoWriMo is an abbreviation for “National Novel Writing Month”, which is this thing where caffeine-fueled fiends attempt to pound out a complete, 50,000-word sloppier-than-a-kid-on-picture-day-after-recess-and-spaghetti-lunch draft of a new novel all in the month of November. Before then, I’d always sworn I’d never attempt NaNo because 50,000 words, while indeed a sizeable chunk of text, does not an adult fantasy novel make.
But then I remembered Oldest Son asking me to write a new story, one for them. And hey, look at that, 50,000 words IS enough for a Middle Grade novel. Kind of the perfect number, really, if you write science fiction or fantasy.
cough likeIdo cough
But then, how do you write a middle grade novel?
I didn’t know. Not the foggiest clue. What I did know, though, is that I’ve often been accused through the most recent two decades of my life of acting somewhat, um, less mature than my age would indicate. And as the father of four kids ranging in age from 4 to 10, I also had a very clear daily view into the “He touched me! She called me Cheesebuckets! Dad! Make Him/Her Give Me The REMOTE!” world of the middle grade set.
So when November 1st arrived, I put my fears aside and started hammering away at the keyboard like a squirrel with a full piece of corn. Fast. Much faster than I’d written the novel before. So fast I didn’t have time to think about whether I was hurling up words that made any kind sense, or sounded right or, heck, might someday be read by anyone other than my kids.
And thus my second novel, my first Middle Grade, was born.
Now, I know what you’re thinking. “Puddin”, you say (yes, that’s a nickname of mine because, well, I’m perpetually 12 and uh…it’s a long story), “that’s a great fish tale, but it’s a lot more about how you came to write middle grade. Not so much the why.”
Well, that’s the thing. An even funnier thing happened along the way to reaching that particular “The End”. Somewhere in the mad, almost thoughtless dash to come up with 50,000 words in 31 days, I found something else, too. I found a novel that was funny and fun, full of honest mistakes and the adventures that often accompany them in fiction.
I found the kind of book I had loved reading when I was a kid.
Even better, I found a hunk of prose that sounded like me. That felt like me. And characters that lived and breathed and hoped and feared and bickered like uncertain, just-trying-to-learn-about-the-world-around-them middle grade kids do. Much like the nerdy, unsure 12 year-old from 1985 that still lingers deep inside me, hoping for friends to come over for a game of D&D.
It took me some time to realize it, but that month, I found My Voice, and got back in touch with the light of the youth I’ve never really outgrown. And more important than any of that, I found a new way to communicate and empathize with own my kids. A way to see the world through their eyes, even if the world I’m seeing is one of my own creation.
Why do I write middle grade? Partially because it fits me like a spandex Star Trek uniform from The Next Generation (the first few seasons, duh).
But also because I think it helps make me a better parent. Which I’m hoping will cut down on therapy sessions down the road.
*By “Real World”, I mean the one we average folk live in, NOT that farcical TV show with the unlikely arrangement of strangers MTV used to produce in the hopes someone would hook up…and then break up…all on camera.