Today I'm thrilled to have follower and friend Jessica Lawson here to share with her awesome agent Tina Wexler from ICM Partners about getting the voice right in middle grade stories. And it's so exciting to have Jessica back to share about her new MG mystery NOOKS & CRANNIES, which sounds like a wonderful story full of twists that you won't see coming.
Here's a blurb from Goodreads:
Tabitha Crum is a girl with a big imagination and a love for mystery novels, though her parents think her only talent is being a nuisance. She doesn't have a friend in the world, except her pet mouse, Pemberley, with whom she shares her dingy attic bedroom.
Then, on the heels of a rather devastating announcement made by her mother and father, Tabitha receives a mysterious invitation to the country estate of the wealthy but reclusive Countess of Windermere, whose mansion is rumored to be haunted. There, she finds herself among five other children, none of them sure why they've been summoned. But soon, a very big secret will be revealed— a secret that will change their lives forever and put Tabitha’s investigative skills to the test.
Here's Tina and Jessica!
Hi Natalie—thank you so much for having us on Literary Rambles today!
“Voice” is one of those things that comes up often when literary agents describe what they’re looking for in a manuscript submission, but it’s also one of the most difficult pieces of the writing-craft puzzle to get concrete advice about. My brilliant literary agent, Tina Wexler, is an expert on middle grade fiction and she’s been kind enough to answer a few questions about the nature of voice in middle grade literature. Get out your notebooks, because she’s got some fabulous advice!
1. What appealed to you about the voice of Nooks & Crannies?
All of it! Everything! Every word! There are the chapter openers---excerpts from a Sherlock Holmes-esque detective series---which are deliciously droll and good-naturedly authoritative and quite crafty in how they hint at the action to come. Then there is the story itself, narrated in a similar arch tone of voice with a detective’s eye for detail and mischief. The voice also holds a good deal of compassion for the medley of characters---not all of whom are strong of character or reputable in spirit---who get pulled into this wild mystery. And at the center is our dear protagonist: clever, kind, affection-starved Tabitha Crum, whose voice rings clear and true throughout the book, despite the troubles she must endure.
2. Can you tell within a page or two whether or not a manuscript submission is written well for a middle grade target audience?
Yes, that’s usually all it takes. Middle grade kids are undergoing major cognitive, physical, and emotional
3. Middle grade characters will always vary in background and personality, and plots will vary widely as well, but what are two or three constants that you find in novels with great MG voice?
A great middle grade voice, like all great voices, is distinct. Take NOOKS & CRANNIES and THE ACTUAL & TRUTHFUL ADVENTURES OF BECKY THATCHER. These two middle grade novels have the same author (a very talented one, I might add), but I can read a page from one and know it is not from the other based on the voice alone. Distinct, consistent, and well-matched to the material: those are the three things I’m looking for in a great MG voice.
3. What are one or two red flags you’ve seen in middle grade submissions that indicate the writer may need to work to develop a stronger MG voice?
Much of the time, it’s a strong narrative voice that makes me turn pages; if the pages are turning slowly, the voice isn’t carrying me along. On the flip side, I may race through pages because there’s a great talky narrator leading me forward, but if the plot isn’t progressing, I’ll tire of the verbal gymnastics. It’s a delicate balance, and striking that balance is no easy task.
4. Do themes that may match up well with the middle grade years (finding a sense of “home,” finding out that adults aren’t always right, finding/embracing friendship) play into a manuscript’s voice?
I’ve never thought about it that way, but yes, I think they do. The voice has to be able to capture the highs and lows, the uncertainty and absurdity and splendor, of those years in a way that feels authentic. The voice shouldn’t be condescending or worse, nostalgic, otherwise the exploration of those themes won’t ring true.
5. What differences do you see in the voice of middle grade submissions that are 1st person narration vs. a more omniscient/3rd person narration style? Do certain genres of middle grade lend themselves to certain voice approaches?
The story dictates the best narrative approach, regardless of genre. I could try to come up with rules based on the contents of my bookshelves and query pile (“Third person is the purview of fantasy; all contemporary realism should be written in first”) but I can’t think of a single “rule” that I really believe in. Likewise, I don’t favor one point of view over another. Some people find third person too distancing; others think first person is a cheat. I don’t agree with either camp, and my reading life is richer for it.
Please name three novels that stand out to you in terms of having a “middle grade voice.” (your own clients)
BRIDGET WILDER: Spy-In-Training by Jonathan Bernstein
TEDDY MARS: Almost a World Record Breaker by Molly Burnham
THE REAL BOY by Anne Ursu
Please name three novels that stand out to you in terms of having a “middle grade voice.” (non clients)
I thought this question would be easier, since I wasn’t being asked to pick from my clients, but I’m having just as much trouble. I’ll choose from the titles I’ve read recently:
THE FOURTEEN GOLDFISH by Jennifer L. Holm
RAIN REIGN by Ann M. Martin
GONE CRAZY IN ALABAMA by Rita Williams-Garcia
*THANK YOU SO MUCH FOR YOUR TIME, TINA!!!
Thank you so much for having me!
Tina Wexler is an agent at ICM Partners, focused on middle grade and young adult fiction and non-fiction. She is particularly interested in modern folklore, non-linear storytelling, magical realism, humor, weepies, and most anything with a feminist slant. Current titles include Teddy Mars, Almost a World Record Breaker by Molly Burnham, Nightbird by Alice Hoffman, The Cost of All Things by Maggie Lehrman, and Bone Gap by Laura Ruby. She holds an MFA in poetry from Brooklyn College. Her Twitter handle is @Tina_Wexler.
Jessica Lawson does not live in a fancy manor house, but she does deal with mysteries on a daily basis. Most of those mysteries involve missing socks and shadowy dessert disappearances. She is the author of The Actual & Truthful Adventures of Becky Thatcher and Nooks & Crannies, and lives in Colorado with her husband and children.
Thanks so much for your advice, Tina and Jessica!
If you mention this contest on Twitter, Facebook, or your blog, mention this in the comments and I'll give you an extra entry. This is an International giveaway.
Here's what's coming up:
I'll be on a blog break until Saturday, July 4th when I'm participating in the I Just Couldn't Put It Down Blog Hop. I'll have lots of great new YA books to choose from or an Amazon Giftcard if you prefer that.
On Monday, 7/13 I have a guest post by Julia Durango and a giveaway of THE LEVELLER, her new YA science fiction book.
Hope to see you on Monday!