Though I’ve been an avid reader all my life, when I’m asked about my favorite books, the novels I read as a child are always top of mind. I think this is because childrens’ books are especially transformative. They open up readers’ worlds, often for the first time. They help forge connections over differences in culture, inform our senses of humor, and often, help us to see that we’re not alone. The Ice House is my first book. I wrote it while I was teaching elementary school full time. I wrote about this experience in an essay for Nerdy Book Club, which you can read here. I didn’t set out to write a book about grief for middle school kids. The book covers a range of topics: social distancing, quarantining, mental health, middle school friendships, growing up. I’ve always loved realistic fiction books for middle school readers, and I did my best to create a world for my characters that felt real, even through an unprecedented climate change event – the Freeze – where snow won’t stop falling across the globe. I’d like to devote my first blog post to passing along some lessons I learned during The Ice House’s long journey into readers’ hands, in case there is someone else reading this right now who is about to embark on a similar path, or hopes to do so one day in the future.
My Top 5 Tips for Writing Middle Grade Books
1. Get clear about one reader you’re writing for. When I started writing The Ice House, I was basically creating something I would have wanted to read – a book that would have made me feel less alone at twelve years old. You are your first audience, so it makes sense that YOU love what you’re writing. But the writing process is long, and I found that without a larger purpose, it was easy for me to go down unnecessary tertiary plots. I had to focus on one type of reader I felt would most appreciate this story. Eventually, I decided that the one audience I would focus on was a middle school reader feeling isolated (for any reason), who wanted to create a real change in their own world. Thinking about this one reader provided clarity as I wrote, which kept my plots more concise. This was especially helpful as I edited. 2. Reconnect with the middle grader within. Though fair warning, this can have you reliving some of your most embarrassing moments of all time.
It wasn’t super difficult for me to access my inner sixth grader as I wrote in Louisa’s voice. To reflect on what mattered most to me as a kid, I remembered what I wanted when I was twelve, what frustrated me, what I found challenging or anxiety-producing. Some of the themes that run through The Ice House felt pretty simple to connect to: a first experience with grief, frustration with family, feeling stir-crazy or misunderstood. Other experiences, like Louisa’s uncertainty about her friendships when returning to school, or the internal conflict she faces around Luke, were harder. Not because I couldn’t remember exactly how I felt about similar situations in my own life – I could – but because as a middle school kid, your emotions are amplified. Thinking about how humiliated I felt when I didn’t fit in with the cool kids in my class, or the guilt I felt when I realized I’d hurt a friend at twelve years old can still conjure up those feelings. This was super unpleasant, but ultimately, reflecting on those majorly embarrassing or upsetting middle school events in my own life improved my ability to add nuance to Louisa’s story. 3. Never underestimate your readers. Not every reader is going to enjoy your book. Obviously, this can be painful. A tactic I developed to handle this was to come up with one aspect of my book that I can definitively say I’m proud of. For me, the thing I’m proud of in The Ice House is its honesty. It doesn’t sugar coat some of the more complicated aspects of being a member of a family, a school community, a friend. It doesn’t infantilize readers. I know that there’s been at least one middle school student who has read and enjoyed the book. It resonated with her, and that’s all I can ask for. It makes me feel more confident in my decision to tell a story that reflects an experience that isn’t ideal in Louisa and Luke’s lives — many kids’ lives aren’t ideal either. 4. Have voracity when it comes to defending and promoting your vision. This doesn’t mean don’t listen to feedback or incorporate it into your work – that’s a subject I’m very passionate about, but a topic for another post. I mean that if there’s a unique element to your story that you feel is critical and others aren’t picking up on, it’s your job to get clearer about what that element is intended to do. Dig deeper until you can explain why it’s critical, and how you can show it’s importance. Ask yourself why this aspect of your story matters to you. How does it show up in your writing? Through plot points, character actions, prose, themes? I had two whole characters I cut out of my original manuscript during the editorial process. This was because these characters were diluting the plot and taking away from the theme I was trying to create in the book. In losing them, the more important points of the book became clearer. 5. Have faith in your story. I know how difficult it can be to stay focused when you’re working on a manuscript, especially if you are anxious to land an agent. As I work on a second manuscript, it’s even harder to block out the noise around middle grade trends. I honestly had no idea if anyone would ever be interested in my manuscript for The Ice House, which made writing it easier. I wrote it before the pandemic; I really wasn’t sure that many kids would relate to the feeling of isolation I’d experienced often throughout my life. That’s the funny thing about isolation – it can make it feel like this very human emotion is something only you are experiencing. All I focused on was finishing the story. When I thought it was done, I asked myself if I still thought it was unique, and if it was worth trying to query. There was just something about the story that I couldn’t let go of. So I edited it, and I queried. Through this lengthy, disheartening process full of no’s, I thought about that feeling I had — something about this story was really unique to me. Only I could tell it. I had faith in Louisa and Luke’s story. I kept going, and eventually the manuscript found someone who understood what I was trying to do. So keep writing. Of course, incorporate feedback, but while you do, remain steadfast to the part of your story that you know you alone could tell.
How about you? Have you learned unexpected lessons in your time writing? Is there anything you’d like to learn more about from my experience finding an agent and getting published? Let me know in the comments!