MG, YA, & DECIPHERING THE DIFFERENCE

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Once upon a time, I participated in a query letter boot camp with agents Kimberley Cameron (@K_C_Associates), Elizabeth Kracht (@ElizabethKracht), and Mary C. Moore (@Mary_C_Moore) from Kimberley Cameron & Associates, via @WritersDigest.

During the sessions, I received the opportunity to converse in a discussion panel, learning key rules about writing query letters (more on that to come) and the first 10 pages. For a debut writer like me, best money I could’ve spent. Sure, did I dream of the far-fetched possibility of my one-on-one mentor asking for more pages? Duh. Did I think it likely? Heck no…but that’s not why I did the boot camp (just a chance)!

If you’re anything like me, sometimes you just need a professional to tell you Abby, you do this great, but THIS is what you need to do to make it publishable.

For me, my mentor – Mary – pointed out one CRUCIAL question. Did I want to write MG (middle grade) or YA (young adult)?

Observing how my voice and content were inconsistent, I decided to reach out to bloggers & experts including two agents (Mary Kole @Kid_Lit & Michael Stearns), two writers (Ruthanne Reid & Clair Legrand), and the friendliest Barnes & Noble employee I’ve ever met (I definitely recommend talking to booksellers if you feel lost—they read everything and REALLY know their stuff!).

Conclusions?

A variety of views assimilated into 5 major points (I love bullets!), helping me to infuse YA styles over my original more MG-ish version. If all reads as intended, you can (hopefully) use my thoughts in your great MG or YA debate, clarifying the fuzzy areas and deciphering the important differences! (Phew!)

THE BIG FIVE: MG OR YA?

  • POV (Middle School or High School…age, awareness?)
  • FOCUS (Small-World Problems or Real-World Problems?)
  • LOVE (Holding Hands, Kissing, or More?)
  • JOURNEY (Just Beginning or Really Beginning?)
  • VOICE (Language & Style– simple or complex?)

POV (how age of the protagonist shapes it)

Perhaps the easiest way to decide your point of view is by your protagonist’s age: middle school (9-12) or high school (14-18…sometimes out of high school but not yet in college). Remembering that the character’s developmental level should mirror the reader’s developmental level, we can eradicate the gray area.

By popular consensus…the toughest age to make your character is age 13, so maybe stay away from it. It’s a tricky age, playing with the year where the character is a little too mature for MS but not yet in the mindset of HS. Of course, there are exceptions.

Harry Potter, for example, starts off young and ends the series in the end of his teens. Then again, HP is the book agents say NOT to compare your book to…for this very reason. It’s difficult for an agent/publisher to decipher where to place your book in the bookstore if you don’t know the developmental level of your characters.

For a debut book, probably better to focus on a stand-alone novel, with series potential. Hook your audience before confusing them – if it takes off, then you can think about crossing over as your characters grow.

Age isn’t the only way to determine the POV in your book. Clarifying the character’s awareness of the world around them—how they see obstacles and make decisions—also plays a big role. As a high school teacher, I can vouch…maturity difference between 9th (just coming out of MS) to 12th graders is HUGE. Heck, 9th to 10th grade is unrecognizable, especially in their ability to problem solve (9th grader – tell me the answer! versus a 12th grader – how do I find the answer on my own?).

Do your characters come across a lot of things they don’t understand (MS) or do they draw from past experiences to figure out how to get over something (HS)? Such a character approach can make or break the target audience who reads your book. Ask yourself this: does my character need their mentor to get where they need? Or does my mentor guide my character, advising them without giving them the answer? In other words, Dumbledore in book 1 or Dumbledore (now gone) in book 7:

HARRY POTTER BOOK 1 v. HARRY POTTER BOOK 7

HARRY, BOOK 1: Harry pairs up with Ron and Hermione. They learn how to deal with social and individual struggles like flying and potions class with the help of their friends and professors, finding their place in the school.

HARRY, BOOK 7: Harry continues to team up with Ron and Hermione, but they are no longer at Hogwarts – they have a greater task to accomplish, left to them by their deceased mentor. With Dumbledore gone, Harry must rely on past experiences to explore new ones, facing a rivalry greater than him and Voldemort alone.

To put a cherry on top, there’s also the actual POV of the narrator – first, third person, or does it matter? Writer Claire Legrand is the first I’ve seen address this idea in her blog, and I was glad she did! Conclusion? Many YAs are written in 1st, many MGs are written in 3rd. Don’t panic – my heart jumped into my throat when I first read this (I wrote a YA in third person – against the majority). Does it matter? No. Then what does? Following your gut and giving your characters the voice you think gives your book authenticity. Generalities are guidelines, not laws.

dumbledore 1

R.I.P. Richard Harris. We will miss you.

Harry_and_Albus_limbo 7

R.I.P. Dumbledore. You are missed.

FOCUS (Small-World Problems or Real-World Problems?)

When I taught Secondary English, I came across a bundle of students who complained about reading books too wordy to entertain them. Well, I’d tell them, when you read, do you see words or images? Often it was the first. Of course reading bored them; when you read, you want to visualize the character on their adventure by experiencing the lessons with them. The character’s FOCUS of the lessons can decipher the difference between MG and YA. Let’s see if you agree…

Expanding Character Perspective (internal or external?) It all depends on how the main character identifies their place in the world and how they experience it.

For MG, think the question, what lunch table should I sit at? MG characters focus primarily on friends and family, searching for their identity with a limited, safer perspective that guides their choices so they can avoid bullies and the receiving-end of a swirly (or so they hope!). They still think and act, but their choices keep in mind their impact on their personal social/home life.

Not YA characters. YA characters see the bigger picture, and set out for it. Think the question, where should I go to lunch today? YAs tackle universal social pressures and home issues impacting more than just the character’s personal life. I love when James Barry (playwright of Peter Pan) discusses how he lost his innocence in Finding Neverland. He tells a story of how he tried, desperately, to help his mother get over her depression (suffering from the loss of her eldest son), dressing in his brother’s clothes and walking into her room – it was “the end of the boy James,” he says.

YA characters look for answers to questions outside their safety zone, introducing themselves to experiences and obstacles they have never crossed before – and will be wiser, stronger, better for crossing them. They will have grown up, and ready to take on the world. For example…

HARRY POTTER BOOK 1 v. HARRY POTTER BOOK 7

HARRY, BOOK 1: Internal Focus: Harry’s rivalry with Malfoy grows, a major antagonist in this book. Harry does learn more about Voldemort and his growing threat, but we don’t learn much about Harry’s past other than how his mother sacrificed herself for him. Obstacles like the Mirror of Erised allude to Harry’s greater purpose, but the majority of the book focuses on in-school events…Harry doesn’t need to make the ultimate choice yet.

HARRY, BOOK 7: External Focus: Harry has left boyhood. He accepts his fate and gathers courage in the face of death, leading up to his sacrifice for the greater good.

malfoy

I could take this snobby pureblood

vold

Hmm, maybe I need Harry’s help with this one…

LOVE (Holding Hands, Kissing, or More?)

Romance is arguably needed in every novel because, let’s face it, love represents a driving force in our readers’ lives. But how do we draw MG romance away from YA romance? With one subtle difference: sexual stirring or sexual awakening?

In MG, tweens are learning feelings of what it’s like to have a crush– they hold hands, they kiss, they touch…but ultimately, they’re PG. Tweens feel romantic stirrings in their hormonal instincts, but aren’t quite sure how powerful these natural instincts will later affect them in life.

But YA characters …they know what sex is, and recognize when they have a sexual attraction, or awakening. Now, I’m not suggesting you need Fifty Shades of Gray SEX scenes in your book, but your reader should be aware of your character’s ability to feel an awakening in their bodies after interacting with someone who attracts them– reaching somewhere inside them deeper than physical. It’s Love, and everyone wants it. Think Ron and Hermione at 11 versus at 17.

HARRY POTTER BOOK 1 v. HARRY POTTER BOOK 7

HARRY, BOOK 1: Harry does not have a love interest, but Ron and Hermione grow a love/hate relationship, bickering in a way that somewhat annoys them, but ultimately intrigues them. They do not recognize these interactions as love…yet.

HARRY, BOOK 7: Ron and Hermione, at long last, put aside their need to make each other jealous and embrace the heat between them, finally giving the audience what they’ve been waiting for – LOVE!

ron and hermione 1

Ron is so young, so innocent, so…confused & annoyed with Hermione

ron and hermione 7

Hermione…so sexy. RON IS IN LOVE

JOURNEY (Just Beginning or Really Beginning)

Confession time. I fell madly in love with Joseph Campbell and his theory of the hero’s journey in my junior year of college, and I’ve never really let go. It is a great breakdown of every stage a character needs to experience in order to become a hero, but its complexity could consume a doctoral essay, so I’ll try to save you some time (best I can) and simplify one of its major accomplishments –the character’s CHANGE from beginning to end.

Accomplished screenwriter Blake Snyder points out how a producer can determine the success of a screenplay by reading the first and last ten pages of a script. CHARACTERS MUST GROW in a journey, but they do this in different ways in MG or YA novels.

In MG, the character experiences obstacles in their own world and learns a lesson about their personal life, changing the way they see their world. They grow as an individual, but have not grown up…they are only beginning their journey.

But YA, these heroes experience a journey that teaches them their purpose. They decide who they want to be and discover the opportunities in life beyond education. Life is a journey, but doesn’t really begin until you’ve figured out how you’re going to contribute your skills in the world, using them to make it better. Notice, for instance, how Harry isn’t even at Hogwarts by book 7; there are bigger things than learning magic going on…

HARRY POTTER BOOK 1 v. HARRY POTTER BOOK 7

HARRY, BOOK 1: Dumbledore confirms Harry’s notion that Voldemort is not gone and will return again. But for now, the worst thing on his mind is returning to the Dursleys.

HARRY, BOOK 7: Voldemort is inescapable. Overtaking the world outside the wizarding world, major sacrifices are made on mental, physical, and spiritual levels. This is it, the last battle, and if Harry doesn’t make the right choice, evil could consume both worlds forever.

Dursley_family_(Promotional_photo)

Bloody Hell, not these three again. Do I have to go back?

godrics-hollow

A creepy, old lady’s home on a snowy eve…okay, guess there’s nothing left to do but go inside?

VOICE (Language & Style– simple or complex?)

You’ve made it! The home-stretch!

After reading and re-reading Mary’s feedback to me, I gathered a better idea for the voice, language, writing style, whatever you want to call it, needed to clarify my YA book from MG. For instance, Mary noted one of the biggest hitches in my writing was in over explanation of action/movement. She advised that often I did not need to fill in every action a character takes, e.g., “he dismounted the horse and walked him over to a fence post.”

This made me chuckle, and feel slightly relieved, since I originally placed this sentence in my first ten pages because a beta reader suggested he needed to visualize the action. It wasn’t this action alone, however, that caused the distractions Mary pointed out.

For MG and YA, you don’t want to tell your reader what’s going on, but show them. Both MG and YA use commas and other punctuation to create tension, avoid fancy dialogue tags, and limit their use of unnecessary adverbs. So how can we decipher the difference between MG voice and YA? Easy – the complexity of the sentences.

Whattt…not easy?

Let’s see if I can help with some examples from my own writing…

MG: She shivered. The dark clouds worried her, hovering over the mountain like a shadow, waiting for the right moment to attack.

YA: Cold ran down her spine, causing her to shiver. She remembered what her father told her about the dark plumes over the mountain – how they would devour the city like a voracious monster, consuming everything and anyone in its path. Even silent shadows can reek of death.

See a difference?

It’s subtle, but evident. The complexity of the sentence makes a monstrous change. One is more innocent and simple, the other physical and internally focused – despite not being written in first person. I’ve spent a good amount of time revising my voice to read more like a YA, and subtle changes like this one have brought (and continue to do so) my writing to a new level.

Best advice I can give you, READ! Soak your brain with everything you can in your genre and pay attention to how these authors create tension between their sentences. With practice, you can turn something great into something immortal. Look at J.K. Rowling.

HARRY POTTER BOOK 1 v. HARRY POTTER BOOK 7

HARRY, BOOK 1: “Harry wished he had about eight more eyes. He turned his head in every direction as they walked up the street, trying to look at everything at once: the shops, the things outside them, the people doing their shopping.” (Chapter 5, pg. 56)

HARRY, BOOK 7: “‘Severus Snape?’ Mad-Eye Moody’s voice whispered out of the darkness, making all three of them jump back in fright. ‘We’re not Snape!’ croaked Harry, before something whooshed over him like cold air and his tongue curled backward on itself, making it impossible to speak.” (Ch. 9 p. 170)

sorcerers

It all began in a cupboard under the stairs…

hallows

A boy, now grown up, and ready to do more with his life in the world outside Hogwarts..

And now it’s your turn to decide…MG or YA?  Hope these thoughts help!  Good luck! 🙂

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How to Show (Not Tell) the Five Senses

All rejected writers have heard it before: I need you to show me, not tell me. I’ve heard it too, though not explicitly, from the few readers I’ve asked to edit my manuscript. Seems like a simple concept to fix, don’t you think?

On the outer surface, sure, I’d agree with that. But then I went to look at my work and realized I needed to do some serious research before revising my “telling” sentences.

After all, what’s the point in re-wording my work if I didn’t understand the root cause holding me back?

HOW TO SHOW, NOT TELL

First, let’s look at two major problems my manuscript readers noticed, as pointed out by agent Mary C. Moore.

  1. One of the biggest hitches in your writing is the over explanation of action/movement. Often you do not need to fill in every action a character takes, e.g. “he dismounted the horse and walked him over to a fence post,” or “He spun around so he faced forward.” These are all filler actions that slow the pace and are unnecessary to the central plot.

Perfect examples of when I would “tell” what was going on in my story v. “showing” my reader, a.k.a. spoon-feeding, my reader the story. A definite no-no!

Readers don’t want to be spoon-fed. If they can’t visualize the story, why waste time reading it?

That’s right, I said waste. I don’t want to write the book a reader puts down and thinks, eh, not worth it. I want them to imagine the world I’ve created and experience the adventure my characters take on, encouraging them to re-read – not throw away.

messy baby

Don’t spoon feed me the story, I can feed myself! Ok, I’m messy, but I want to do it!

The question, then, is how do we do avoiding telling? Let’s look at problem two first.

  1. The dialogue tags are too fancy (She squealed, He reassured, They bellowed). These are distracting and take away from the dialogue. The dialogue itself should give the emotion, not the tag.

This was an ah-ha moment for me in my writing. Oh crap, I thought. I only do that…everywhere.

Well, one more reason why revising is so important!

Distracting speech tags like the ones mentioned are cliché and unnecessary. The word said (what they tell you NOT to write in elementary school) is really the magic tag. Why?

Because any other word is distracting, and unnecessary adverbs used to spice up “said” only tell me something about a character’s voice or feelings instead of show me something about them.

For example, instead of saying:

“Get out!” he bellowed.

I could say: “Get out!” he said, throwing his hands over his head, grinding his teeth and spitting in the boy’s face.       

See the difference? The second one gives me a lot more about how “he” reacts to the situation, which the dialogue supports, instead of the other way around.

WRITING WITH THE FIVE SENSES 

Okay, now that I’d figured out the difference between my stronger “showing” writing v. my original “telling” style, I set out to fix those issues in my manuscript (time to tackle problem one).

A daunting task, maybe, if I hadn’t done some research on the five senses and the six universal emotions that all people feel, according to psychological studies reviewed by Cornell University, writer @ChuckSambuchino, and articles from the websites Humintell & novel-writing help.

What are the five senses and how do I write them?

Writers Digest’s Chuck Sambuchino mentions how there isn’t anything “more boring in real life than being told all about someone you’ve never met.” A good point, and an honest one that helps differentiate showing v. telling in writing.

Yes, we do need to provide some exposition and backstory in novels, but too much will bore the reader. Developing tension, delivering natural dialogue, and showing expressions & actions, however, can improve the quality of your sentences.

The easiest way to do this?

Understanding exactly what the five senses are, as well as the six universal emotions that all people feel, and will relate to, if described in a novel.

THE FIVE SENSES:

  • Sight
  • Smell
  • Sound
  • Taste
  • Touch

THE SEVEN UNIVERSAL EMOTIONS: i.e. – the emotions everyone feels & understands

  • Happiness
  • Sadness
  • Anger
  • Disgust
  • Fear
  • Surprise
  • Contempt

Next, put these concepts into writing:

SIGHT

sight

Can you imagine how difficult it would be to describe a sunset if you’d never seen one before?

 

The easiest and, therefore, most commonly used by writers. In other words, the culprit of telling v. showing writing if you only write visuals, painting pictures of appearances of people, places, etc., without triggering the other four senses in the reader. For instance,

His hair looked black v. His matted hair ruffled in the wind, black and furious like a valiant soldier charging forward in the heat of battle.  

Yes, it is nice to know the character’s hair is black, but remember…we don’t want to spoon-feed information to our readers. The second example mentions the hair is black, too, but indicates sound (ruffling of wind), touch (wind against your face), and other senses (when you think about it). If I was a reader, I’m buying the book with sentence two. Wouldn’t you?

SMELL

scent

Nothing triggers a memory like smell…

Smell, without a doubt, is the best trigger of nostalgic memories, giving the reader a greater connection to a character’s internal thoughts…without telling them about them. Using smell can help the reader relive the backstory of a character through flashbacks without black & white descriptions of what happened (boring!).

For me, it’s the smell of grapes. Can you smell them better with sentence two v. sentence one?

smell2

Time to take a trip down memory lane – using my nose!

She walked through the vineyard. v. The sweet, musty scent of the grapes falling off the deciduous vines reminded her of her grandpa, teaching her how to suck the juice out of the fruit without eating the skin – a tricky advantage. She smiled a half-smile, missing him.

SOUND

sound

Everyone loves the sound of a street performer. Music just makes the day better 🙂

Sound, like in movies, can make or break the tension lingering in a moment. We all know the awkward silence on a date (absence of sound can be just as entertaining as sound effects), the boom of an explosion, the crackle of the fire…see what I’m getting at? It’s not the adjective you’re looking for when writing sound into your painted sentences, it’s verbs…and smart ones – the choices everyone can identify because they’ve heard them before. Take a typical action like walking a dog…

The dog walked down the street. v. I trotted behind Rocky, pounding my feet against the pavement in a rhythm that patterned the jingle of his collar and the pant of his tongue. No friend accompanied me on a summer morning like my dog.  

TASTE

taste

Umm…does this photo even need a tag? YUM!

 

Nothing brings people together like food. It comforts us, it satisfies us, it sometimes even fills the voids in our emotions, lifting our spirits on a bad day or making the night a tad more romantic. Sometimes you don’t even need to mention what a character tastes to help the reader understand what their character’s tongue senses. Just mention the word tongue – people can imagine what the character tastes because, fun fact, we all eat! For example…

She dove into the ocean. v. She opened her lips, washing her tongue with a mouthful of salt water.

Notice how I didn’t mention the character was in the ocean in the second sentence? Do you think you would imagine her in the sea if you hadn’t read the first sentence…well…first?

Gotcha!

TOUCH

feel

Priceless, the warmth of snuggling with your best friend 🙂 Touch brings us together, even if we lack other senses.

 

Touch. No sense can replace it. Especially not sight. Recently, I learned of a friend-of-a-friend who discovered her 5-week baby boy is completely deaf and potentially blind. Can you imagine, a mother who coos to her newborn son hour after loving hour, learning her sweet baby has never heard her voice? Maybe never even seen her? It’s horrific, the idea. But all people can touch. And if this baby is blind and deaf, he can feel the warmth of his mother when she holds him and the thump of her heart beating against his head when he lies on her chest. Drumming him into his dreamworld of nightingales and fairies. Isn’t that a brighter description than The deaf baby lay on his mother’s chest?

Last but not least, don’t forget THE SIXTH SENSE (a very powerful sense that peeks into the character’s psyche, if your novel focuses on a world with supernatural beings).

 

THE SEVEN UNIVERSAL EMOTIONS

If you’ve made it this far, there’s a chance (though I hope not!) that your stomach is grumbling or the goop in your drooping eyes is growing thicker, making you sleepier. So I’ll make this snappy – my last suggestion that helped me revise my writing, making it more descriptive!

According to All Things Workplace: “There are 10,000 different facial expressions. About 3,000 of these facial expressions are relevant to emotion and most people only use 50-60 in normal conversation.” Good to know, but telling a reader how these 10,000 facial expressions look on your character’s face is not enough to entertain the reader trying to imagine (and experience!) your novel’s adventure.

Want to know how to change that? Less is more, my friend. Out of those 10,000 facial expressions, seven are universally felt, indicating clear changes in emotions by slight facial muscle movements. Below, I’ve provided Cornell University’s study of the subtle changes in muscle movement (indicating these emotions through facial expressions) with the help of my oh-so-lovely (bear with me, no extravagant makeup on today!) photo collage, demonstrating the subtle differences with visual examples. What are they?

EMOTIONS MOTION CUES (muscle movement)
Happiness Raising and lowering of mouth corners
Sadness Lowering of mouth corners, raising inner portion of brows, eyelids loose
Anger Brows lowered, lips pressed firmly (margins of lips may be pulled in) or teeth bared, eyes bulging
Disgust Upper lip pulled up, nose bridge is wrinkled, cheeks raised, eyebrows pulled down
Fear Eyebrows pulled up and together, upper eyelids pulled up, mouth stretched (opened slightly)
Surprise Entire eyebrows pulled up, eyelids pulled up (expose more white of the eye), mouth hangs open
Contempt Eyes neutral, lip corner pulled up and back on one side only (contempt is the only unilateral expression)

Can You Tell Which is Which?

seven emotions

Which one, which one? Can you tell? Can you imagine how you would describe your character’s facial expressions in your writing?

Were You Right?

seven emotions w: description

How many did you guess right?

 

Why do you think understanding the seven universal emotions matters? Because we all feel them! And if your character feels them, your reader can imagine how they feel, too! Understanding how a character would look when they feel one of these emotions is crucial to writing sight, but (Do I have to say it again? If you insist.) don’t tell what their facial expression looks like alone. Our faces might be the focus of our appearances, but it’s all of our senses & shared emotions that help us connect with a novel’s characters on a different level.

So…

Don’t write: She felt angry. (Way too vague!)

Write: Rage boiled inside her stomach, heating the inside of her throat as she restrained the screams scrapping her diaphragm, begging to escape. She pressed her lips firmly into each other, narrowing her eyebrows and shaking, like the cover on a pot containing boiling water, rattling against the metal until steam popped it off. My mom was not someone you messed with when she was angry.

Well there you go, some sense and emotion pointers to help you write descriptions that SHOW (NOT TELL)! Hope it helps!  I would love to hear your comments and any other thoughts you have on writing…with all five senses!