Here’s how it works: Typically, a book packager, literary development company, or publisher will have a concept or a series already in place. The editors have all sat around a table, throwing popcorn at each other and braiding one another’s hair and now have this idea that they are super proud of. One problem: They need someone to write it.
Meanwhile, you’ve been pounding your head against the keyboard, drinking copious amounts of coffee and applying for every writing job you’ve ever seen posted on your most frequented and beloved message boards. You’re a YA writer? Who cares! Throw caution to the wind! Apply for that middle grade series! Oh wait? They wrote you back? Damn. You’ve never even read a middle grade book before? And they want a sample in a month?
Of course, not like this was ME when I decided to apply for my first work-for-hire. I’m just saying…in case anyone was interested…
Here’s the deal. A book packager is typically going to want a 4,000-ish word audition based on an outline or a spark. The packager will generally want close third person, which for many writers can feel like a huge leap from the way they write their own work. Here are a few starting tips on how to nail your Middle Grade Audition:
1. Vary your sentence structure. A lot of people aren’t used to writing from a close, third person point of view. I know I wasn’t. It can feel like you are typing, “Main character does this. Main character does that,” over and and over gain. So remember that you can use many of the same “tricks” from your first person writing. Use questions to show what the protagonist is thinking. Add shorter punchy sentences that sound voicey but could actually work from either point of view. (i.e. “This was not good.”– works for first, works for third).
2. You can use direct thought. For instance, a sentence in your character’s words can be a fun, easy way to jazz up the page. Slap italics on it and voila!
3. Watch your word choices. Just because you are writing from third doesn’t mean you can go around using all those fancy words from your Webster’s Dictionary desk calendar. Third person still has voice and you want to choose words that are as close to your protagonist’s voice as possible. But good news: That opens up a whole bottle of fun, new words that your protagonist would say…like…loop-the-loop or curly-cue or icky. See? Way better.
4. Have fun with the details. Is a character typing an email? Write it out and use that space to showcase the protagonist’s voice. Is the character listening to a song by a fictional band? Give me some of the lyrics. What’s the band’s name? Is there something silly going on in the background of your scene? Play with a few lines of dialogue for a comedic interlude.
5. Remember your audience. For instance, if it’s middle grade girls, don’t skimp on the description of clothes and fun accessories.
6. The publisher’s outline is both a blessing and a curse. You’re never left wondering what to do next, but it can be hard to distance yourself from the outline enough to add your own flavor. It may be helpful to get the bare bones of the story down first and then go back without the outline to embellish. This means you have to…
7. …Leave enough time. Something I’m bad at, but I know I always do a better job when I have a bit of distance. It’s tempting to say you can churn out 4k words in 24 hours, but don’t. Still leave time for your beta readers’ imput because even though you won’t have as much commentary about plot from them, this is an exercise that focuses on the actual word-by-word, sentence-by-sentence craft of writing. Tell your critique partner the feel of the book that you are striving for. Share the pitch with them if you can. That way that reader understands the effect you are trying to create.
8. If you get the opportunity, ask questions. Sometimes this isn’t appropriate. But I have worked for editors with which I was able to chat before I began. I find it helpful to ask what they would compare this work to. X Meets X. This gives a better idea of the voice which they envision. This is their baby, too, after all. Then ask them to describe the book with a few adjectives. Is it campy? Snarky? Melodramatic? Anything to help give you direction. It can be tough when you are working off someone else’s concept.