Monday, April 4, 2016

Writing MG/YA novels

by Glenn Haggerty @grhaggertyjr

Writing MG/YA novels

I write for middle grade and teenaged boys because I want to provide serious entertainment from the Christian worldview. It’s tough being a tween or teen today, there’s so much bad stuff in our culture, and secular entertainment often offers only despair. I write to give kids hope that they too can make it through this difficult period of life.

I’ve developed my writing skills for middle grade through reading lots of MG/YA titles, writing practice, conferences, books and most importantly critique groups. Today for Whispers in Purple I’ll review my writing methodology in general, and then give some specific tips for MG/YA writing—not that I’m an expert, this is just one wandering writer’s methods at the moment. Hopefully there’s something here that will help another writer.

My stories are usually inspired by an image that somehow works its way into my mind. Often I’m not sure where it came from, other times it might be based on experiences, other books, movies or plain old inspiration. For example, my first novel, Run, started as a picture of a thirteen-year-old boy on an Appalachian Plateau peering down a heavily foliaged trail leading into a secret valley. For my second book, Chase, (soon to be released) it was a scum bag drug dealer waiting on a river bank for one of his little pushers.

Once I have an image—the scene—I ruminate on the idea and see if it can be built into a story. I’m a plotter, and so followed James Scott Bell and his book, Plot and Structure, as a basic handbook (but also include methods from Randy Ingermanson, Nancy Kress, Camy Tang and many others). Using Bell’s “LOCK” acronym, I first expand on the lead character, with a short Bio, developing his motivation and a goal related to the original scene big enough to carry the story.

Next, I brainstorm the antagonist, the conflict, and the desired outcome. If that looks good, I then brainstorm the “Knockout,” the climax of the book. I spend a lot of time on this part because it has to be compelling and hopefully somewhat unique. If I am not satisfied with the results, I do not move forward and may abandon the idea altogether. However, once I’ve developed these coordinates, I connect the dots if you will, by mapping the story out. I write out as many chapter titles (with goals) as I can think of, and place them in ascending order.

Take a breath! At this Point I return to my lead and further develop his character, his strengths, his weaknesses, and projected character arc etc. I make a greater effort to put myself inside this character’s mind and that changes everything. I write the first three chapters, adjust the plot map, write up an elevator pitch, and a brief synopsis and send these to my critique partners to determine if they think the opening has enough momentum and if the entire idea is viable.

Another break, and reload! Once those questions are answered, and it may take a number of revisions and a lot of time, I once again decide if I will move forward or not. If so I return to my map and begin outlining scenes and sequels using Randy Ingermanson’s methodology. Often as my character is refined, the plot shifts. Then I rewrite the synopsis and if it’s a go, I began writing out the chapters according to the outline and floating them to my critique partners as I go until the first draft is complete.

That’s my basic methodology, and now some specifics relating to MG/YA writing. As I mentioned, it’s crucial to get into the mind of your tween/teen protagonist. To do this, I read many MG /YA titles and try to draw from my own experiences (I’m blessed with a good memory of that period of my life). I’m a little reluctant to admit it, but I also watch television and movies about kids in this age group, but the most important thing is to simply get around kids, to talk with them, listen to them and try to understand the issues they are dealing with. Speech is crucial. I actually have a file that lists vocabulary and different phrases that teens use today. If I’m unsure about a word or phrase, I use something simple and clear. Better timeless than dated, kids will sniff that stuff out. On the other hand I also have to watch using too much adult language. I think writers can be blinded to some of this—another reason for good critique partners, and eventually beta readers.

Another thing I do as I self edit my MG/YA story if is to make sure the crucial plot points are stated simply and obvious. In addition to the usual editing for wordiness, I also look for over complicated dialogue tags. Comprehension trumps subtlety. Both spirituality and themes come back to the issues that kids in your target age range deal with. I ask myself the question, “how would kids deal with this issue without God?” And, “how might the problem play out if they asked for God’s help?” In the end, the spiritual issues are most interesting and important, but they must you woven into the tale seamlessly and naturally.

Last step, as I mentioned before—beta readers. Getting your church’s youth pastor to expose your writing to kids is huge, and even better if you can obtain honest feedback. Of course as always, you have to have thick skin, be flexible, teachable and above all humble. I’m certainly not an expert, but hopefully this is helpful to someone.

Thanks Peg

Author  Glenn 2014 JPEG

Glenn is a member of ACFW (American Christian Fiction Writers), a graduate of Vision Loss Resources and Bethel Seminary, father of six and grandfather of six. He likes tandem biking and kayaking, and lives in Minneapolis with his wife and two youngest college age children. Glenn is also an award winning author who combines his love for teaching God’s word with his passion for writing exciting fiction. Run is his first novel.​

Find Glenn at:

Thanks you so much, Glenn, for sharing this on Writing Talk Tuesday.


  1. You are welcome, It was my pleasure!

  2. Wonderful, in-depth share of how your novels come to life and light, Glenn! I'm sure not a teenage boy, but if I loved the excitement and suspense of reading RUN, I know a lot of them will too. Enjoyable and interesting post. Thanks, Peg, for hosting Glenn.

  3. I enjoyed learning about writing for this age group, Glenn.

  4. Hi, Sally, thanks so much for stopping by. I found Glenn's post very interesting, too. Like you, I'm not a teenage boy, but I find I enjoy reading the genre anyway. I have yet to read RUN, but it's on my TBR list.