Wednesday, June 29, 2011

What Is the Difference Between Writing for MG and YA?

Who Am I?
Hi. My name is Rebecca Ryals Russell and I write Children’s Books. Currently, I have 7 Middle Grade and Young Adult books under contract as well as an adult Horror short. My WIPs include a half-finished YA Dystopian, a newly planned YA Dystopian, an Early Tween Series for use in the classroom, as well as completing the 2 series I have going right now.

I’ve done something I believe to be unique in publishing. I have a basic story I want to tell, but I want it to be read by young Middle Graders on up through Twenty-somethings. As you’ll see by the end of this workshop, you can’t do that with just one style or one book (series). They are too different. So I have written a YA series called Seraphym Wars Series and a MG series called Stardust Warriors. But although the basic story is the same for both series, they are nothing alike.

The YA series is written in first person using 17-year old protag’s POV. There are also various Antag POVs in separate chapters. The YA series also contains a romantic subplot that the MG does not have, as well as more violent scenes, which I left out of the MG.

The MG series is written in third person limited using 14-year old protag’s POV and a narrator’s POV who tells about the antagonists. The MG books are also about half as long as the YA.

But wait, there’s more! I’ve taken the characters and world one step further. I’m in the process of writing Picture Books and Early Reader Chapter Books based on the more fun characters when they were the reader’s age of the book I’m writing for. So far I have about 5 stories written. The names of the world, creatures, and other aspects remain the same throughout all levels of the books.

It’s an interesting experiment. I’m excited to get everything finished and into readers’ hands to see how this works.

 Book Basics 
Whether you write for children/teens or choose books for them, you should probably be aware of the differences between books written for older teens, younger teens, middle graders young and older, even early readers with Chapter Books. Believe it or not, there are definite differences.
            First, let me explain some basics about the various reader levels:

Picture Books
·         Ages 0-7
·         Read TO child
·         1,000 wds max; 500 wds avg
·         Child’s world-neighborhood, home
·         Can be real people or anthropomorphic (animals acting like people)

Beginning Readers
·         Ages 5-8
·         Leveled Readers
·         Read on their own
·         Short sentences, limited vocab
·         500-1500 wds
·         Child’s world-incl school

Chapter Books
·         Ages 7-9
·         Becoming fluent readers
·         4,000-12,000 wds
·         Main character usually 8 or 9
·         Real life and Fantasy, Humor, Mystery, Adventure
·         Plot w/ setbacks

Middle Grade Novels
·         Ages 8-12
·         20,000-60,000+ wds, dep on pub
·         Any genre
·         Plot lines geared to 10-12 yr olds

Upper Middle Grade Novels
·         Ages 10-14
·         Emerging division-more serious MG books not quite YA
·         Length can go MG or YA

Young Adult Novels
·         Ages 12+
·         40,000-90,000+ wds –exceptions both ways
·         Any genre
·         Any subject matter from lite romance to high fantasy
·         Edgy YA-taboo subjects: sexuality, abuse, mental illness

Remember, these are guidelines—not rules. Always read the publisher, agent or editor’s requirements if in doubt.
Next, let’s discuss some basic terminology. As with any job, writing has its own jargon as well. It helps to know: 

Common Terminology

Anthropomorphic- animal characters that talk and behave like humans
Multicultural-stories emphasize cultural diversity; pop rite now
Published Clips-samples of published work; for mags usually
Query-letter or email that describes proposed book or article
Royalties-money pd to writer by pub; taken from future earnings
SASE-self addressed stamped envelope
Seasonal Material-stories, articles or books with seasonal setting or relate to a holiday (anthologies)
Sidebars-supplemental material that accompanies a main article or book (recipes, charts, anecdotes, quizzes, games) Teaching guides
Simultaneous submissions-MS sent to more than one place at a time; depends on pub/agent
Synopsis-page long summary
Tweens/MG, teens and YA-tweens aged 10-12; teens and young adults used interchangeably to refer to ages 12-18
Unsolicited MS-writer submits ms to pub or agent without request

What Are Middle Grade Readers All About?

Okay, let’s get down to the nitty-gritty. ARE there differences between Middle Grade readers and Young Adult readers? Most definitely:

Middle Graders:
·         have strong opinions & freely express them
·         care deeply for things & people; not afraid to take a risk
·         are thinkers
·         daydream about their future
·         enjoy planning & organizing tasks & events
·         have great imaginations & creative ideas, but difficulty following through
·         Like games w/ more complex rules
·         Appreciate jokes, riddles & tongue twisters
·         Learning how they operate w/in own world
·         Solidifying own identity
·         Experiencing physical & psychological changes of puberty
·         Taking on new responsibilities
·         read books for characters they care about & want to know better
·         friends & school more important than home & family
·         realizing parents/author figures can make mistakes
·         some defy parents/author figures
·         ‘black and white’ thinkers-see things as right or wrong; no gray
·         Interest in opposite sex-teasing, joking, showing off
·         Verbally cruel to classmates-name calling, nasty put downs

Books should be:
90% action & dialogue
10% description

So, what are the various aspects of good MG books?


·         Personal struggle is the focus; conflict viewed by ‘how it affects Protag’
·         Must be ‘doer’ not ‘watcher’
·         Must solve problem-NOT adult
·         Self-sufficient hero
·         Venture out and conquer new territory


·         Friendship
·         School
·         Relationships w/ siblings
·         Relationships w/ peers


·         React strongly to color, size, shape, sound, smell, feel
·         Include changing weather
·         Seasons
·         General background (city, farm, forest)
·         Work descriptions of setting into action


·         No problem=no point to story
·         Protag’s greatest desire-not easily obtained; something vital at stake
·         Severe consequences if Protag fails


·         Late for school
·         Finding out adopted
·         Family member dying or ill
·         House burning down
·         Someone close having accident
·         Followed by stranger
·         Kidnapped


·         Must be realistic for age of char
·         Vocab and knowledge –age appropriate
·         Use slang sparingly-changes quickly

Example books:
Charlotte’s Web by EB White
View from Saturday by EL Konigsburg

Okay, so now we know what Middle Grade readers prefer in their books and it’s up to you, the writer, to provide it—if you want them to read your books. Let say you have a great idea that doesn’t fit any of these preferences and you think maybe it would fit Young Adult readers? Let’s look at what older teens prefer.

What IS YA Literature?

ALA (American Library Association) definition:
Any book written for and marketed to youth age 12-18. Too broad.
Publishers say:
Books written specifically for ages 14-21 with a YA protagonist and are about issues these young adults deal with or may have to face in the future.
BUT-YA lit can also include what teens are reading during their free time: from adult books pushed to a YA audience like Michael Crichton, Stephen King (some), Danielle Steele, John Grisham or any book marketed as YA by a publisher.

YA Lit has certain unique features

·         Almost always First Person POV
·         Teen protag
·         Marginal Adult Char
·         Brief Time Span (summer, Holiday, few weeks)
·         Limited number of Chars
·         Universal and Familiar Setting
·         Current Teen Language, Expressions, Slang
·         Positive Resolution w/o Moralizing
·         Focus on Experiences and Growth of ONE Char
·         Main Char whose decisions/choices drive the story
·         Problems Specific to Adolescents crossing into Adulthood-Coming of Age
YA Lit – more than age range; addresses emotional intensity of teen’s journey thru adolescence.
YA Fiction – world in flux and teen exploring it, surviving it or just navigating w/o compass.

YA Characters Are Consumed By

·         Who am I?
·         What am I going to become?
·         Where am I going and how can I possible get there from here?
·         Their emotions and desires are intense-have huge impact on how they make decisions.
·         YA Protag in Adult Lit knows these answers (The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold)

Differences Between MG and YA

Reader’s age
Protagonists’s age
Word count
Point of View
Third Person
First and Third Person
Main w/ 1 sub, min secondary
Main w/ 2+ sub & secondaries
External struggles
Internal change
How Protag fits into World
Self-understanding, discovery
Wide: Protag’s family, friends, community-Protag as hero
Narrow: Protag growing into adulthood, relationship w/ society
Sweet only
Limited to Edgy*
Adults in the Story
Incl but Protag solves problem
Understated values lesson
*Edgy YA depends on Publisher-some are actively searching it out, others avoid it completely. Usually moves classification up a bit to Reader Age 14+.

Elements of a YA Novel

PLOT--5 basic plot elements

  • ·         Character
  • ·         Setting or Situation
  • ·         Important Goal (char has high stakes/strong desire for
  • ·         Conflict
  • ·         Disaster (resolution to disaster=climax)
  • ·         Universal (big picture) Theme

Genres have specific Plot Structures
Romance-hero & heroine must meet w/in first 2 chapters
§  Intense repulsion/attraction
§  Eventual attraction/consummation
§  Conflict keeps them apart
§  Overcome-HEA (happily ever after)
Western-hero has goal, villain tries to thwart him=conflict
§  Hero tries harder-Villain tries harder
§  Hero wins

Strong Plot has

·         Likeable characters
·         Rising tension
·         Universal theme (The Pearl-first glance tale of man who discovers pearl that leads to great wealth. Small Pix-What will happen to man & wife? Big Pix-Can wealth ever buy happiness?

According to Larry Brooks in his Story Structure Series at
What is the conceptual hook/appeal of your story?
What is the theme(s) of your story?
How does your story open?  Is there an immediate hook?  And then…
§  what is the hero doing in their life before the first plot point?
§  what stakes are established prior to the first plot point?
§  what is your character’s backstory?
§  what inner demons show up here that will come to bear on the hero later in the story?
§  what is foreshadowed prior to the first plot point?
What is the first plot point in your story?
§  is it located properly within the story sequence?
§  how does it change the hero’s agenda going forward?
§  what is the nature of the hero’s new need/quest?
§  what is at stake relative to meeting that need?
§  what opposes the hero in meeting that need?
§  what does the antagonistic force have at stake?
§  why will the reader empathize with the hero at this point?
§  how does the hero respond to the antagonistic force?
What is the mid-point contextual shift/twist in your story?
§  how does it part the curtain of superior knowledge…
§  … for the hero?…  and/or, for the reader?
§  how does this shift the context of the story?
§  how does this pump up dramatic tension and pace?
How does your hero begin to successfully attack their need/quest?
§  how does the antagonistic force respond to this attack?
§  how do the hero’s inner demons come to bear on this attack?
What is the all-is-lost lull just before the second plot point?
What is the second plot point in your story?
§  how does this change or affect the hero’s proactive role?
How is your hero the primary catalyst for the successful resolution of the central problem or issue in this story?
§  how does it meet the hero’s need and fulfill the quest?
§  how does the hero demonstrate the conquering of inner demons?
§  how are the stakes of the story paid off?
§  what will be the reader’s emotional experience as the story concludes?

Secondary vs Subplot

·         Secondary Plot-POV Char’s fictional lives
·         Subplot-POV Char’s minor story in addition to main one
·         No Limit to either
·         Beginner-2-4 POV Char w/ plot line and Protag w/ own Subplot

**Writing the Breakout Novel by Donald Maas
**The Writer’s Journey by Christopher Vogler


A Definition of Character (from Larry Brooks
“A hero takes a stand, takes risks, makes decisions, dives in and executes.
A villain rationalizes behavior and is insensitive to, or refuses to accept responsibility for, the associated costs and violations of accepted social standards.
Character – in this sense defined as moral substance, or lack thereof – is defined not by backstory or inner demons, but by decisions and behaviors.
You may have been angry enough to kill someone, or at least punch someone’s lights out, at some point in your life.  But you didn’t.  Why?  Because of your character.  That decision defines you.
Now imagine that you had yielded to that impulse.  Same backstory, same inner turmoil and agenda, same inciting series of events, same emotions… different decision. 
And because of that decision – you cold-cocked the bastard – a completely different dimension of character manifests.”


·         NOT cliché – no stereotypes
·         Strong sense of self


·         Reader Age (read 2 years older than chron age)
·         Character’s role & Purpose in story must be clearly defined
·         Usually young adult ages15-21
·         Can be ages11-13 (readers read up about 2 years from their age)
·         Show teen readers they are not alone, same feelings, desires, problems as real teens
·         Familiar yet Unique; readers see some of themselves in char but also quirky trait for interest
·         Believable traits and skills; protag must be capable of solving problem
·         Correct age
·         Strong voice; thoughts, tone, word choices consistent and self-assured
·         Combination of good and bad; never all good or all bad

***Protag MUST have High Stakes/Strong Desire to solve conflict


(A strong villain creates a wake of tension and conflict for the hero. They lie, steal, cheat, kidnap, backstab, hijack, blow up things...the list is endless. So, what makes a memorable villain?)
·         Does the villain have a believable, clear goal?
·         Does the villain's goal stand in direct contrast with hero's goal?
·         Does the villain have redeeming quality?
·         Is the villain as powerful or more powerful than hero?     

  • ·         World Building
  • ·         Use character POV to Describe Setting
  • ·         Embed time and place into action and events
  • ·         NO long blocks of description

  • ·         Same as Mainstream Adult Novels
  • ·         Action and Reaction
  • ·         MUST complicate Protag’s life and move story forward
  • ·         Ending can’t be predictable

  • ·         Parents
  • ·         School
  • ·         Peers
  • ·         Society

THEME (Hero’s biggest inner problem-ethical focus of story)
  • ·         Sex
  • ·         Drugs
  • ·         Music
  • ·         Coming of Age
  • ·         Dating
  • ·         Fitting In
  • ·         Friendships
  • ·         Self Esteem
  • ·         School
  • ·         Relationships w/ parents & siblings
  • ·         Bullying
  • ·         Sibling rivalry
  • ·         Teen pregnancy

10 Common Themes (completely cliché but true)

o   Power corrupts even the pure
o   Light at the end of the tunnel
o   Opportunity seldom knocks twice
o   Love conquers all
o   No one is beyond redemption
o   Dreams always come true
o   Honesty is the best policy
o   Beauty is in the eye of the beholder
o   When it rains, it pours
o   One man’s food (trash) is another man’s poison (treasure)


Point of View can be very confusing. And even when you think you understand it, you can be rolling along then go back later and read what you wrote and find all kinds of confused POV. So here’s a basic primer.

§  First Person
o   ‘I’ viewpoint
o   Most pop for YA novels, poetry, detective/PI, gothic
o   Reader ‘relates’ to narrator/story teller
o   Creates sense of foreboding

§  Second Person
o   ‘You’ viewpoint
o   Associated with literary works
o   Small doses
·         Prologue
·         Italicized scenes

§  Third Person
o   Limited
§  “he said” or “she said”
o   Subjective Multiple
§  Reader remains in one narrator’s head until scene or chapter shift, then goes into narrator’s head
§  Used in detective/mystery novels
o   Omniscient
§  Panoramic, bird’s eye view
§  Complicated plot and multiple characters

§  Mixed POV
o   No POV rule
o   Third Limited to Third Omniscient
o   First for Protagonist and Third for Antagonist

Something that confuses new authors about POV is this. They write a story in first person, using I and me to represent the narrator/protagonist. But what they forget about is the POINT of VIEW for first person is LIMITED TO ONLY WHAT THE PROTAGONIST WITNESSES PERSONALLY. The minute you tell what another character is feeling, thinking or doing out of the Protag’s visual—you’ve stepped OUT OF POV or HEAD HOPPED. And this is a big no-no right now. So when you choose your POV, keep in mind the story must be told strictly by the Protag’s or narrator’s sensory reach. If you want to have more than one POV in a book, it is possible to do. One method is having a separate chapter per POV. But for YA, your POVs should be limited to 3 maximum, preferably 2. For MG, limit POV to a max of 2. The other way to cover multiple POV is using asterisks to separate whose view we are experiencing.
            Here’s an instance where I had to cover several POVs within the same chapter. This is how my editor and I solved the problem:

“Did you check on the guys?” I asked Brigid.
“No answer at their door. I figured they’re either sleeping or went out.”
“They may have gone into town looking for us.” I shrugged.
 * * * *
Inside Myrna’s bag, the wand began to change. It softened and became flesh and blood. The demon wand grew a head with tiny black eyes and two sharp fangs filled with venom in an arrow-shaped head. The tail grew long and sharply pointed. He slithered out of the bag through a gap on the side and crawled across the dingy gray carpeting of the motel floor. Momentarily distracted by spiders and roaches found along the path and consumed, he chuckled about living too closely the lives he imitated as he shapeshifted throughout history; he quickly reminded himself of today’s ultimate destination and goal. A long forked tongue flicked out. The snake found his way by the taste of the air surrounding the girl he sought. 
Tien knelt beside me. She put her finger on the snake’s belly. “I feel his stomach muscles moving. I think he’s waking up.”
I leaped backward between the beds. The snake came to, rolled over, and looked around.
* * * *
“Hello, again.” Tien thought. 
“You again! Get out of my way, little girl, or suffer the consequences,” the snake hissed back at her angrily. 
“I told you, you can’t have her. Who sent you? How did you get in here?”
“I will not tell my master’s name. As for the other question, here is a riddle: I once was stiff and could not move; but now I slither and I groove.” He snarled and began quickly slithering toward Myrna, who sat mesmerized on the floor. Brigid reached down and grabbed her arm, pulling. 

As you can see, I needed to have the demon-snake think at one of the girls and hear what she thought back to him. But we also needed to see what was happening in the room between the three girls. So the different POV was separated by **** asterisks.

Adding Adult Characters to Children’s Books

      Role Model
      Good Villains
      Portray Weakness, Flaws
      Must Serve Purpose
      Small Number of Well-Developed Adult Characters
      Can have child-like qualities, curiosity, quirkiness
      ****Child Protagonist MUST solve conflict WITHOUT Adult’s assistance
      Fewer Adults in YA Lit

Word Choice
      Challenge Vocabulary but use context clues
      Can Set the Tone
      Promote Visualization through descriptions
      Avoid Wordiness and Redundancy
      Delete Unnecessary Adjectives and Adverbs
      Cut Dialogue Tags
      Eliminate Repetitious Sentences and Paragraphs
      Use Writing Resources

Okay, your turn to do some work. Read these two statements and decide which has the better wording:

  1. She had cold gray eyes.
  2. …her eyes were flinty gray chips like the touch of freezing water

  1. She stared at him.
  2. Her eyes gleamed like razors.

Did you choose the second sentence each time? That’s what is meant by ‘show don’t tell’. Effective, isn’t it?

More Word Choice

Here’s a piece from (p 151) City of Ashes by Cassandra Clare. Read it through and record any words that ‘show’.

            The sun had set completely and the moon was up, a wedge of creamy white casting its reflection onto the pond. It wasn’t quite full, but shadowed at one edge, giving it the look of a half-lidded eye. Night wind rattled the tree branches, knocking them against one another with a sound like hollow bones.

  • What mood is Cassandra creating here? 
  • What words did she use to depict that imagery? 
  • Could she have used other words as effectively? 
  • What would happen to this sentence rewritten a more basic way?

Night wind rattled the tree branches, knocking them against one another with a sound like hollow bones.

The wind blew the branches.

The wind blew the branches of the trees making a mournful sound.

Still More Word Choice

Let’s talk about dialogue tags for a moment. Again, using Cassandra Clare’s City of Ashes:

Jace’s eyebrows shot up. “Oh, now…”
“It’s fine.” She waved a hand at him. “It’s me. I panic way too easily these days.”

Notice there are NO normal tags such as ‘he said’ or ‘she replied’. Cassandra used ACTION as tags, which also moved the story along. Also notice—and this is critical, your editor will love you if you get this—when using action tags, THERE ARE NO COMMAS. EACH PHRASE ENDS WITH A PERIOD.

5 Mistakes New Children’s Writers Make

1-Not researching the Children’s Publishing Market
2-Creating only well-behaved characters
3-Forgetting Conflict is required
4-Making the Moral Lesson transparent (doesn’t apply to YA)
5-Letting Adults save the day

10 Things to Remember When Writing for Children

If you want an agent or editor to get past the first chapter of your story, here are 10 things to keep in mind:

1. Make your main character want something. Desire is the engine that drives both life and narrative. Characters who don’t want anything are rarely interesting.

2. Make your main character do something. Your story can start with a character who is the victim of circumstances, but afterward the character needs to move quickly into action. Readers like characters who take charge.

3. Let your readers know the story’s premise right away. If they get to the end of the first chapter and still can’t answer the question—what is the story about?—they probably won't keep reading.

4. Get conflict into the story early on. It doesn’t have to be all-out bickering or deception between characters, but let your readers know things will sticky.

5. Skip the omniscient POV. Let the reader experience as much of the story as possible through the eyes of your main character. This is how readers bond with protagonists. If you shift POVs, put in a line break.

6. Introduce characters one at a time with a little physical detail and a little background information for each. (Ella was five-eight, bone thin, and worked for IBM.) Too many characters all at once in the first few pages can be overwhelming.

7. It’s okay to tell sometimes, instead of show. Not every character reaction has to be described in gut-churning, eyebrow-lifting physical detail. Sometimes it’s okay to simply say, “Jessie panicked.”

8. Don’t over write. Nobody agrees on what constitutes good writing, so trying to make your writing stand out will probably work against you. The best writing doesn’t draw attention to itself; it just gets out of the way of the story.

9. Avoid word repetitions when you can. Read your story out loud. You’re much more likely to hear the repetitions than see them.

10. The components of a novel that readers (and publishers) care about most are, in order: story, characters, theme, setting. If you have to sacrifice something, start at the end of list. Never sacrifice the story for anything else. 

Helpful Links  (Adventures in Children’s Pub)  (MG Book Blogs)


Charlie said...

Great workshop Rebecca. Great way to explain the differences and how to write for the different markets. Especially loved all the links. You are a wealth of knowledge. And your examples of 'showing' was awesome. Thanks for sharing!
C.K. Volnek

Sara Durham Writer ~ Author said...

I agree with Charlie, what an amazing and comprehensive workshop. I'm going to have to cut and paste and look over thoroughly before I actually embark on a young adult book! Holly Lisle was the first online source I ever used, she is awesome! Thanks Rebecca!


Susan Kaye Quinn said...

Wow, what a comprehensive and amazing workshop! And thanks for introducing me to this publisher!

Unknown said...

Just when I couldn't think anyone could raise the bar on My Rebecca...of course, you had to do it yourself. WOW! What an amazing and knowledge-filled blog. Outdid yourself my friend. Loved the chart about MG and YA.That helped me understand a lot. Thank you so much. You filled the blog with a goldmine of info.

Lisa Forget said...

Incredible post. You cleared up a lot of things for me.
Thank you for sharing!!

Brinda said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Brinda said...

I really enjoyed your thorough explanations and comparisons. Also, The City of Ashes excerpts as illustrations worked really well to SHOW me the concept. :) Thanks!

Shellie said...

Awesome post. Thanks for putting all this information in an easy to understand format. Bookmarking this one for sure!

Unknown said...

Wow you guys. Now my head won't fit through the door, so I'll starve to death sitting here at my computer. I'm so glad you found this helpful. Thanks for coming by.

Barbara Ehrentreu said...

Gee I really wish I'd had your workshop when I was writing my book.:) I loved all the information you gave us. As I was reading all of your incredibly detailed and researched information showing the differences between MG and YA I tried to fit my book into one of them and though it seemed like it was pure YA the age of my PROTAG is 14. Just cutting her off from the YA group. But everything else fits. So here again I don't fit the mold:) Thank you for this. Though for me it is really a review of what I know you gave us a lot I didn't know.:) Also like the links and I'm copying the whole thing to use when I'm revising my WIP!

Pat McDermott said...

Well done, Rebecca. Thank you for sharing such a wealth of knowledge in such a clear, concise format. A wonderful reference indeed!

J.Q. Rose said...

You put it all down here. So much helpful info. Very clearly written and easy to find points in the future. Definitely sending this on to my MG and YA author friends...This has inspired me to work on an MG piece again. Thank you!!