The First Fifty Pages of the Middle Grade Novel

By the way, time is running out to sign up for my class at the Loft – starting on March 19. It’s called the First Fifty Pages of the Middle Grade Novel, which makes its topic and focus pretty self explanatory. In essence, as writers for this audience, our stories success hinges on how well we can hook the habitual readers – the kids who always have a book in their back pockets, or under their beds, or tucked under the crook of their arms. Those are the kids who shove our books into their friends’ hands, telling them breathlessly to read this at once. These are the kids who insist that their teachers read our books or who hand it to their favorite librarian and insist, possibly while jumping, that they read this now.

These kids rule.

Hooking those kids, and doing it in those crucial first fifty pages, is crucial, and it’s what we talk about in this class. I work my students pretty hard. I read their first fifty pages of their WIPs pretty carefully, and give them intensive exercises during class and homework and reading and whatever. And, you know what? It’s pretty fun.

Think about it. Here’s the link.

Things that shouldn’t exist:

1. Splinters. Look. Splinters are jerks. You know it, I know it. Also, I think they secretly want to kill us. Which, let’s face it, is rude. We are in my house, as I have mentioned before, in a state of project-doing. My husband is building a new family room in the basement, so that our current family room in the attic can be transformed into two rooms – a bedroom for my thirteen year old and an art-space/study-space for the family. So my house is loud. And dusty. And filled with splinters. Which means that I am pulling splinters out of the fingers of my family. Here’s the thing about splinters – they hurt like the dickens when they go in, but they hurt way worse coming out. So in order to relieve the pain, you must, on the people you love so dear, inflict more pain. It’s terrible. I had a doosy on my hand, and foolishly decided to just keep it clean and let it work it’s way out. Then my hand swelled up. Thank god for antibiotics. Did you know that Calvin Coolidge’s son died of a blister that he got playing tennis. Within days of the blister, he swelled up, streaked red, and died. Awful things. You know what else shouldn’t exist? Stupid blisters. Jerks.

2. Tea. I know. I love tea. Tea shows up in every book and story that I write. Tea accompanies me on my life’s various journeys. I’ve drunk tea on a sand dune in Morocco, and next to a glacial lake on a mountain in Washington and outside a bug-infested motel in Key Largo and in the early morning dawn in the BWCA. I have never, in all of my adult life, had a morning without tea. But right now, tea is my enemy. On Monday morning, a steaming mug slipped from my fingers and gurgled its contents all over my computer. My lovely little Macbook Air. My beautiful Esmerelda! Her condition is yet unknown. She is sitting, right now, in a box of rice, and I am praying for her recovery. Tea! YOU ARE DEAD TO ME!

3. Snow-covered ice patches.  So far, two of my neighbors have nasty bruises, another neighbor is possibly-concussed, I have a bigger-than-a-grapefruit-sized bruise on my poor, sorry arse, AND, most upsettingly, my kid, at school, during pick-up, slipped under my only-just-stopped car (I still am having panic attacks about that one. He’s fine, I’m fine, and the school has fixed the slopey ramp that is supposed to be for wheel chairs but had been an icy slick leading small children straight into the street. I’m not over it. My god.) I love Minnesota so very much. I love her seasons. I love her wintery winds and her stunning falls and her sultry summers. I love the promise and dynamism of spring. But ice? Screw it.

4. Lice. For real you guys. On Sunday, just as I’m getting the kids ready for church, my son comes into the kitchen and tells me that his head is itchy. “It’s just dry skin,” I said. “I think it might be lice,” he said. “Impossible,” I told him. “Barnhills don’t get lice.” That, my friends, is called hubris. And so far it has been true. I’ve been parenting now for almost fourteen years, and nary a nit has crossed my threshold. Until now. I did a perfunctory check of Leo’s head. He was crawling with bugs. I grabbed a tupperware, and started picking louse after louse and tossing them in. Leo was thrilled. “I want to keep them,” he said. “As pets. That’s Rodney. That’s Oscar. That’s Reggie.” But seriously, WHY DO THESE THINGS EXIST? They only eat us. They do not jump. They do not fly. They only crawl and fall. AND, they die within twenty four hours of being away from a host. They simultaneously disprove both evolution and intelligent design – because natural selection should have done away with these jokers years ago, and there is no way that any Designer worth his salt would have come up with such a dumb, useless, friggin’ annoying creature. Honestly. If you serve no purpose, get off the bus. That’s my philosophy.

5. Gum.  When I was going through Leo’s hair, I found something else hiding in the thistledown mop that he was trying (and failing) to grow out: Gum. (Why was he trying to grow out his hair? Because his big cousin Micah had long hair, and my boy hero-worships that kid. He wishes he had a big brother, but Micah is all he gets. And oh! How he loves him! So he wouldn’t let me near his head with a scissors, and what grew on that cute little skull was nothing short of a disaster. Part cottonwood seed, part river reeds, part autumn leaf pile, part barbed wire. What a mess.) The gum was a small chunk, about the size of pea, and it looked like it had been there for a while – I wondered why he wouldn’t let me near him with a comb. “I look FINE, mom!” he’d say. (He didn’t.) It was hard and shiny, like amber or glass. I wondered if it had artifacts inside. Or fossils. Or perfectly-preserved prehistoric bugs. Doesn’t matter now. Hair is buzzed. Gum and nit free. WE ARE SAVED!

Which reminds me.


1. Hair buzzers.


Theories Of Revision

I am, and have been for the last week, engaged in the revision of my new book, The Witch’s Boy. Actually, I’ve been engaged in a lot of things lately – new short stories, two new novels, a novella, a weird research project that had, until last week, soundly kicked my poor arse. But the dominant thing – the substance of the day – has been Witch’s Boy. Even when I’m not working on it I’m working on it, you know?

(This is a thing I tell my students all the time. “What do I do if I get stuck on a project?” they ask. “Start a new project,” I say. Because nothing greases the gears of work like work. And nothing ensures that the stuck stays stuck like stagnation. I avoid stagnation like the plague. If I am stuck, I write a poem. Or a blog post. Or I start a new story – sometimes knowing full well that I won’t finish it for years. Or I do research on …. some damn thing. Or I draw. Or I work longhand on the other novel that I’m not really writing right now. And I write notes on the primary project. The side projects shed light on the primary task. They are my little flashlights in the dusty gloom.)

Anyway, Witch’s Boy. New publisher, new editor. New energy, new life. I love it. I’m incredibly lucky that, so far, with my three novels, I’ve worked with three very different, and very brilliant, editors. All of whom have challenged me to push myself into new territory. All of which have helped me to visualize the path from where the book is now, to where it can be. Where it ought to be. And frankly, where it wants to be.

And so there are theories. Of how this happens. Because sometimes you need a metaphor. Sometimes you need a construct to explain the reason why you’ve been sitting at your desk for so long that you can’t feel your butt muscles and your fingers feel like they are built out of shattered glass.


Last week, on Facebook, I wrote this:

I got my editorial letter.

You know the process that a caterpillar goes through? How they wrap themselves up, and their bodies literally UNMAKE THEMSELVES. How they turn into a mushy, gooey, primordial ooze before re-assembling their cells into the form of a butterfly. How their skeleton forms filament by filament, increasing their discomfort by degrees, how they emerge, spitting and clawing and gasping, only to find themselves brand new again, exhausted and astonished, a damp, leaking mess, and defenseless on the ground?

Well, I’m in the the second part. Primordial ooze. And it is AWESOME.

I’m also forcing myself to refrain from getting to work on it until Monday. So for now, I am in that buzzy, tingly, crinkly, crackly, EVERYTHING IS POSSIBLE phase. It’s a good phase.

This is a real thing. The unmaking. The unravelling. The questioning everything. This is the place where the book goes quiet. Where the writer goes quiet. Where the writer can be found, sitting on a couch, clutching her tea, and thinking. This is where long walks are helpful. Or a quiet cross-country ski through a wood. Or a long, long run. The story, once hard and brittle in the mind, once a living, ruddy organism, happily gorging itself on milkweed, becomes quiet. Dormant. As silent as leaves. Don’t be fooled. There are dynamic things happening inside.


Nine years ago, almost, we bought this house. It was too small for us and it reeked of cigarettes and talcum powder and mildew. But it was right on park land and fields and had a view of Minnehaha Creek and was on a dead end street. So we bought it. And then my husband tore off the roof and started to build.

I don’t know if you’ve ever lived through a construction project (the fact that I survived with two little ones and a new one on the way is something that astonishes me every day) but it sucks. Immensely. There’s dust everywhere. Nothing looks right. Nothing is clean. Debris and tools and supplies eat into the tiny amounts of living space that you’ve set aside. There are strangers in your house. Sometimes, things that you liked have to go forever.

When your editor walks through the house you built, sometimes you have to prepare yourself for bad news. “Yep,” she says. “You see this beam? It’s cracked. And pockmarked. And it makes a weird angle over here. You need to replace it with something else.”

And you imagine the work that it will take you to prop up the house and slide in a beam that will last. And you’ll do it, right? Because we can’t have a house that will fall. That’s just dangerous.

And then your editor goes upstairs. And she says, “You see here? You’ve got four rooms with sealed-up doors. And over here? A room that’s just been plastered over. Don’t you want to see what’s inside?”

And yes! I do! I really do.

And then she says, “Really? No bathroom?”

And then she says, “Oh! Look at the light in the livingroom. And look at the pleasant spaces! And look at how lovely it sits on the hill!” And you know you’ve built something broken, but something good. And you know you’ll do whatever it takes to make it strong, solid and lasting.


When I write books, it’s like I’m on a thousand mile journey with a bag over my head. Or, no….. It’s like I’m on a thousand mile journey walking backwards. That’s it. I can see what has happened, but I cannot see what is coming. I can see the faces of my characters, and I can see the details of the world, but I’m always a second behind them. And I never know where I’m going. This is problematic, of course, because there are stones in the path. And there are deep pits. And bramble patches. And wild, hungry animals.

When one has taken a thousand mile journey backward, entering back into it is a bit daunting. Because you only know the backside of landmarks. You don’t necessarily know how to begin. And you have no map.

Editors, in their souls, are cartographers. They send us detailed analyses of the worlds we built – they create lexicographies and explanations and theories of a world that is not of their making – but one that they inhabit all the same. They allow themselves the birds-eye view and painstakingly chart the course that the author has taken, points out the areas of stumble and groan, points out the trails that may not be marked along the way, but that provide firmer footing and possibly-breathtaking views.

They cannot walk with us as we make the journey again. They know the road is long, and dangerous. They know we will get lost in the dark. They know we will be, from time to time, beset by thieves. And they cannot hold our hands.

But they can give us a map. Mine is nine pages, single spaced. I clutch it to my chest. It is both mirror and lamp, both guide and memoir, both projection and rumination. I treasure it. And I journey forward.

And that is what I’ll be doing over the next month. That and the side projects. How about you?