By Allison Rushby
I had one of those dilemmas only writerly-types can have. I knew what I wanted my next story to be about. I had a loose plot and a list of all the things I couldn't wait to include (tea! buns! ivy! Victorian cemeteries! a talking fox!). I even had a title—The Turnkey. But then I came to a screeching halt in my planning, because I had a problem: I didn't know if this story was going to be Middle Grade (for readers ages 8-12) or Young Adult (roughly ages 13-18). And that, my writerly friends, is a very big problem to have indeed.
Now, a long time ago, before I wrote both Middle Grade and Young Adult books, I might have given myself some very bad advice indeed. “Start writing and see where the story takes you!” I might have said. Or, “It doesn't matter. A story's a story. If it's good, someone will buy it”.
Luckily, I now have a better way. Here are my top five questions to ask yourself about whether you're writing Middle Grade or Young Adult.
1. How old is my main character?
How old do you see your main character being? Kids love to read about characters who are a little bit older than them. Because Middle Grade books are generally marketed at children of around 8-12 years, a main character who is 11, 12 or even 13 is a perfect fit. Young Adult, on the other hand, is marketed at children 14+, so your protagonist needs to be older than this. However, it's rare to see Young Adult characters who are beyond high school age.
2. What's your main character worried about?
It's simplistic, but I like to think about Middle Grade being more about the outer world and Young Adult being more about the emotional inner world. In Middle Grade, we often find one outward incident has interrupted the main character's status quo. Something needs to be fixed, or restored. The Young Adult protagonist, however, lives in a more complex world. Something may still have changed, but the mechanics of fixing this change will be more difficult and eye-opening and reveal more about the adult world than he or she knew before.
3. How far are you taking things?
Want to include sex, drugs, violence and so on in your story? If you do, it's extremely doubtful you're writing Middle Grade. If you're thinking of making things very dark, or edgy, you're looking at Young Adult territory.
4. What's your sentence structure like?
If you jot a few paragraphs down, what does your sentence structure look like? Middle Grade work needs to have a simpler vocabulary and a less complex sentence structure than Young Adult.
5. What do you see your word count being?
Ah, word count. Always a contentious topic. Of course, there are exceptions to every word count rule. Yes, several books which shall not be named are way, way over even adult fiction word count guidelines. And when you sell as many copies of your books – and I hope you do – you may also do exactly as you please. Until then, it's best to keep word count in mind.
Middle Grade – aim for around 35,000-50,000 words (with a little leeway to go slightly higher if you have fantasy elements). Young Adult – aim for around 50,000-70,000 words (again with some leeway for fantasy).
These are rough guidelines and you will also hear people talk about upper Middle Grade and lower Young Adult. However, at the end of the day, when your book is published, it will be shelved in either the Middle Grade section of a bookshop, or the Young Adult section. Think about where your story fits.
So, how did I work out whether The Turnkey was Middle Grade or Young Adult?. Well, I saw that there were two key factors pointing me towards Middle Grade. The first was that there was one big event rocking my character's world – in the middle of the Blitz, she had spotted a ghostly Nazi officer in London. What was he doing there? She had to find out. She had a problem that needed to be fixed. It wouldn't be easy and she'd learn a lot about herself and her friends along the way, but once she fixed it, it would be fixed. The second hint didn't come from within, but from my agent. “A talking fox?” she said. “You're writing Middle Grade.”
Allison Rushby is the author of more than fourteen books, including three YA novels and six Middle Grade novels. Her latest novel, The Turnkey, is published by Walker Books and is available in bookstores and online. You can find her on Facebook and Twitter.