Some thoughts on middle grade voice

I’m going through a big stack of submissions that have been languishing for a while (and if you submitted a partial before Sept. 1 and don’t get a request for a full manuscript by the end of the week, you’ll know the answer is a no thanks). I’m on the lookout in particular for a book that will appeal to middle-grade girls, and I’m having a bit of a frustrating time of it. Mostly because humorous middle-grade voice seems to be a hard one to nail, and so many of the submissions in my pile seem to be going for a humorous bent.

Voice is the one thing that I don’t feel, as an editor, that I can fix. It’s too intrinsic to the art, too personal, something that has to be worked on before it comes across my desk. And a humorous voice? Even harder to shape as an editor. I completely appreciate how tough humor is just in general. It’s very subjective. So something that makes me giggle madly might not tickle someone else’s funny bone.

However, there is also a certain voice that I can only describe as “trying too hard.” The intended humor is super-goofy, overexplaining the jokes and losing the reader in the process. It feels too self-conscious, like the character is watching herself too closely instead of living her life. Humor should come, in my opinion, as a side effect of situations that happen to be a little goofy, rather than forced out of something the character finds funny, which is harder to translate into reader laughs. Thus, I personally think it’s really hilarious that Tyler Sato gets a killer asteroid named after him because, coincidentally, his cousins happened to name a star after him. But Tyler Sato himself doesn’t find it all that funny.

Part of the problem is that self-consciousness can sometimes work in YA, at least more than middle grade, because teens are more likely to notice things  comment on them in a snarky way. Middle graders aren’t expected to be jaded just yet. But it’s not just that. Have you ever noticed that whenever, say, Stephen Colbert loses his deadpan, the joke loses a little something? Part of the hilarity is in the deadpan delivery. And we also have to acknowledge that not everyone is a humor writer—and that’s okay. Sometimes a book can be better when it’s not trying so hard for the laughs.

If you are writing humor, my only suggestion for improving your craft is to read writers who make it work, like Lisa Yee, Michael Buckley, and Tu’s own Greg Fishbone.

What I’d really like to see in my submission pile, though, as far as middle-grade books are concerned, is not necessarily humor—after all, we’ve got the hilarious Galaxy Games coming out this month already; go buy it! or read an excerpt!—but rather straight-on fantasy, science fiction, and mystery for middle-grade readers of both genders, but particularly girls because I don’t have much on my list for middle-grade girls right now. I’d love to see something more along the lines of Shannon Hale’s books for middle grade readers (one of my favorite books of all time is her Book of a Thousand Days, set in a Mongolia-like world): adventure and coming-into-her-own (not necessarily coming-of-age, which is more of a YA thing; would love such YAs, but I’m talking MG here right now). I also wouldn’t mind something along the lines of Michael Buckley’s The Sisters Grimm, while noting that even though the book is funny, the point-of-view character, Sabrina, is the straight (wo)man. It’s everyone else around her who’s all wacky-fairy-tale-ish.

…aaand another thing! Slang. Slang is the bane of every writer, and getting it wrong can definitely affect voice for the negative. It’s so hard to get slang right—current enough that today’s readers will not feel like the character sounds like their parents (even though it was probably written by someone from that generation or older), but also not trying so hard that it sounds corny or—worse—gets dated before it even comes out, just new enough to be thought up-to-date by the adult author but old enough to be completely out of style for the young reader. It’s particularly hard in middle school, an age where kids are sometimes just getting the hang of slang themselves. How do you write up-to-date slang without sounding completely wrong?

The general consensus among the writers of my acquaintance can be summed up in Kimberly Pauley‘s response:

Make it up. 🙂

If you’ve ever watched Buffy the Vampire Slayer or Firefly, I think one of the biggest strengths of those universes are their mostly undated slang, because they didn’t go for the easy late-90s slang everyone and their brother on Dawson’s Creek was using. Joss Whedon really is a master at made-up-yet-contemporary-sounding slang. (The hairstyles in Buffy, however, haven’t stood the test of time so well.) Find a way to fake-curse, for example, by playing with language and using something that would be unique to your character—it will make them stand out more in a good way anyway, and avoid trendy words that will be out of date before the book even gets accepted by a publisher. You might also run your slang by the tweens in your life, and if  you get an eyeroll, you might reconsider.

Voice is tough to master for any writer. So perhaps take a look at your book and consider: am I trying too hard to make it funny? Can it be played straight and enjoyed for the adventure, mystery, magic, and fun of it all, whether it’s funny or not? Because perhaps its strengths lie elsewhere—and that’s a good thing!

7 thoughts on “Some thoughts on middle grade voice

  1. The old saying is that comedy is pain plus distance. Something is funny because it’s happening to somebody else, or because enough time has passed to make it feel safe. Someday, Tyler will be able to look back and laugh.

    Also yeah, the easiest way to kill a joke is to try to “explain” it.

  2. Great post, Stacy. I happen to be reading Galaxy Games right now on my Nook (thanks for letting me read & review it via netgalley) and I see exactly what you’re talking about. There are a lot of funny situations in it that make me giggle. But Ty seems so unaware of the humor in it, which is in itself funny! I managed to eek out some humor in my fantasy novel, but have yet to be able to master it in more mainstream stories. I guess I feel a little intimidated by it.

  3. By the way, I celebrated my birthday yesterday by taking my teen daughter to B&N (our annual excursion w/out all my other kids.) And guess what!!! Wolf Mark and Tankborn were prominently displayed under New Teen Fantasy. I think the whole store heard me shout when I saw them. Lookin’ good!

  4. My kids and I just discovered Buffy the Vampire Slayer at the library on DVD and love it! We’ve been watching episodes every night since then. We wonder how we passed it up until now. I laugh out loud a lot at the things they say.

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