The Secret to Writing Middle Grade Fiction

Saltwater TaffyThe Secret to Writing Middle Grade Fiction

The secret to writing middle grade fiction is not really a secret, but rather a discipline of practice for authors.  That discipline is the craft of rewriting and being ruthless on your own work.  This is what I had to do when I began writing the Saltwater Taffy book…an adventure book for tweens.  I had to become my own editor.  I had to scrutinize every word, because if I didn’t, my middle grade readers would see it on the page.  

With that in mind, I will give you a few of MY secrets, because after writing three books and making my share of independent movies, not to mention 7 years of working on NBC’s LAW & ORDER, I am often asked…‘how do you write a book?’  How do you write a screenplay?  Where did you learn how to make a movie?”

As we all know, bookstores are filled with “HOW-TO” books on just about everything, but the section on writing is extensive.  There are a million opinions on how to craft a story, write a great mystery, create snappy dialogue, but there is only one key element required for writing; THE FINISHING FACTOR.

What is the secret to writing Middle Grade Fiction and every other kind of writing?  Well, the finishing factor is the discipline and how you finish your writing is by the process of re-writing.  Even the great Stephen King is a rewriter.  John Grisham, Neil Gaiman, and James Patterson are rewriters as well.  Heck, even I’m a rewriter, just not as successful as these guys…YET.

Rewriting is the nature of the work, and is considered to be a secret to writing children’s book.  My first draft of Saltwater Taffy was almost 86,000 words and appeared on the page in a short 3 months, which is haulin’ booty, but I rewrote for an additional 8 months.  Writing is a process.  It’s hard and more often than not, you’ll sit there and stare at the blinking cursor as if it were saying: ‘Okay smarty pants, where do we go from here?”

Before you finish, you first have to start at the beginning.  You see, the secret to writing children’s books is not just one thing, but many things tied together like a spiders web. Remove one piece of the web and the strength of that web deteriorates.  The same can be said for your story.  In order for you to tell the best story possible, you must have three key ingredients of story:


On Law & Order, nothing ever survived on the page unless it drove the plot like a hot jack hammer through a mound of frozen butter.  The ideal was reinforced in the editing room, but the motto among the producers was: “if it doesn’t move the plot, cut it.” Sure, you can write a great character piece, but if there is no story, what do you have?  A monologue and not a narrative story.

The Secret to writing children’s books, screenplays, or anything that is considered the work of STORY is this: The 10-20-10 Rule.  The 10-20-10 rule was developed by Walter Parkes of Dreamworks Pictures and is the backbone structure to every great story.  You see, as writes, we like to go merrily merrily into the wild blue yonder.  Sure, you can write to see where the story and characters will take you, but without a structure of where you are going, you paint yourself into a corner and have no idea how to get out.  Using the 10-2-10 rule keeps you on story track.

I was weened on the 3 Act structure of filmed entertainment and it has served me well over the years.  No matter if I was ghosting for Random House, adapting NY Times best sellers for 20th Century Fox, or writing Saltwater Taffy, the 10-20-10 rule is a secret to writing and always showed me the way.

10 Story Beats (SET UP)

20 Story Beats (CONFLICT)

10 Story Beats (RESOLUTION)

While this is a secret to writing children’s books, or any other story for that matter, you still have to come up with the STORY that is not only unique, but captivating to the reader.  Your story has to be your story and it MUST be connected to you emotionally.  If it is not, then go back to the idea bank and choose something you are passionate about.  Passion is transferred to the page and readers, editors, publishers, and agents WANT YOUR PASSION.  The market is flooded with writers trying to write like successful writers.  You know how they got successful?  They had a unique voice and told a passionate tale.

Which brings us to the FINISHING FACTOR.  You have to have a level of sticktoitiveness in order to see your idea into full realization.  If you don’t, you will never be a professional writer.  Writers write and successful writers find a way to tell unique and passionate stories.  Remember what Wayne Gretzky once said about scoring goals in hockey:

“I missed 100% of the shots I never took.”

Which means, you have to keep on shooting.  Writers write…every day…no matter what.  It’s like working out.  It’s a discipline.  Yeah, okay…maybe you won’t win the Oscar or perhaps the Pulitzer Prize, but that doesn’t mean you should give up on your idea if you are passionate about it.  Stick to it.  Stay with it.  Find the same drive and inspiration you had for the idea when it first came into your mind and then apply it to the home stretch.   Why climb up a mountain only to stop ten feet short of the summit?  Write.  Write.  Write.  Then write some more until you have that first draft finished.  Then start the process of rewriting.  Remember.  The secret to writing is FINISHING, but first you have to WRITE.

Eric DelaBarre is an award winning filmmaker and the author of Saltwater Taffy: A Novel of Adventure & Self-discovery. Copyright September 21, 2010 All Rights Reserved.

3 replies
  1. Eric DelaBarre
    Eric DelaBarre says:

    It is crazy to even think about because you cannot leave behind the self-limiting lies you’ve been telling yourself for so many years. Rise up my friend.

  2. susan mcgraw keber
    susan mcgraw keber says:

    I am so excited…reading all I can to find out how this works…I know how to draw and write and in the end, that’s what I will do…my life long dream…it’s finally time! These are wonderful energetic and positive directions for a newcomer to the children’s book industry. Thank you very much for sharing this with us…I write everyday and night and draw…it’s my passion…Great advice!!! Susan


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