Special Treat Time! Jackie Minniti, journalist and author of the historical novel, Jacqueline, joins us today to share insights from a career as both teacher and writer.
Part I: The Guest Blog
WRITING SUSPENSE FOR THE MIDDLE GRADES
As a former middle school reading teacher, I’ve learned that middle grade books have to be interesting enough to tear kids away from their iPads and Wiis. So if you’re thinking about writing suspense for the 8-12 audience, here are some tips that might help.
KNOW YOUR AUDIENCE
Familiarize yourself with what’s hot in middle grade fiction. Browse bookstores and online sites to see what the kids are reading. Visit a local middle school or the children’s section of your library and talk to the librarian. If it’s been a while since you’ve been around kids this age, find a neighbor, friend or relative who has one and spend some time with him or her. Pick their little brains to find out what they like (and hate) in a book. And keep in mind that your book will have to make it past the gatekeepers – parents and teachers – before it can get into those eager little hands.
KEEP IT SKINNY
One thing that immediately turned off my middle school students was a “fat book.” Books with too many pages can intimidate them, and many won’t even bother to pick one up. For this age group, your book should weigh in at between 30 and 60,000 words with chapters around 10 pages long, so your writing will have to be very tight. And while you might love to wax poetic with lush, descriptive passages, a middle grade reader probably won’t share your enthusiasm. Focus on action and dialogue, and limit description to about 10% of your total content.
GRAB THEM ON PAGE ONE
If your first page doesn’t hook them, you’re toast. Plunge right into the action. Your first sentence may be your only opportunity to pull them into the story, so start building the suspense there. For my book, Jacqueline, I spent more time on the first sentence than on the entire first chapter. I finally came up with this: “Her mother’s scream was followed by the crash of shattering glass.” My 10-year-old Beta reader called the sentence “awesome” and said it made her want to keep reading to find out what was going on.
IT’S NOT HAMLET
Your protagonist will make or break your story. Middle grade readers are still figuring out how they fit into the world, and they want to read books with characters they can identify with and care about. Your main character should be between 10 and 13 years old with strong opinions and beliefs. Most of the character’s interactions should be with friends and peers, not parents or adults. The problem that triggers the suspense should be something your protagonist can resolve without adult intervention. This isn’t an age where kids do a lot of navel-gazing, so keep self-reflection to a minimum. By the end of the story, the hair-raising experience your protagonist has endured should result in growth and change that kids can recognize and perhaps apply to their own lives.
There are few things that will turn off middle schoolers faster than someone talking down to them, so don’t write down to them either. Make the language challenging, and resist the temptation to “dumb it down,” but include context clues for unfamiliar words so your readers won’t be running for a dictionary. Be sure to keep your content age-appropriate. Avoid graphic violence, coarse language and any hint of sexual activity. Your book should be something a teacher could read aloud to the class – without being called down to the principal’s office!
MOMENTUM IS A MUST
Middle schoolers are quick to toss a book if it becomes “boring.” Pacing is vital to keep them flipping the pages. Plot your story so the suspense builds relentlessly, right up to the last page. Try to end every chapter with a cliff-hanger. Your climax should have them clutching the book and holding theirbreath. The end of your story should be positive and decisive. Middle graders HATE an open ending. I’ve actually seen students throw a book across the room because the conflict wasn’t resolved satisfactorily. Even if you have a sequel in mind, the end of your book should be the end of the story. If not, your sequel won’t have a chance.
All in all, middle graders enjoy books that transport them and help them make sense of the world. In that regard, they’re much like adults. But unlike adults, they’re still in their formative years, so what you write could impact them in ways you never imagined. It’s a heady responsibility – but it’s also what makes writing for them so much fun!
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Part II: The Interview...
I had the pleasure of meeting author Jackie Minniti recently and reading her wonderful and touching new novel for middle grade readers, Jacqueline. By hook or by crook, I managed to get her to chat with us.
Welcome, Jackie! Give us the nickel tour of your background and your novel Jacqueline.
I was born and raised in the heart of New Jersey and was a teacher for 25 years. I also did some education writing for the Courier Post.
After I retired, I moved to Florida and decided to start working on my bucket list. The first item was to become a writer. I started by writing for The Island Reporter, a local paper. Two years later, I completed my first novel - Project June Bug, the story of a young teacher’s efforts to help a student with ADHD. It won several awards, including a Royal Palm Literary Award for women’s fiction, and was named Premier Book Awards “Book of the Year.” I’ve also had three stories included in Chicken Soup for the Soul collections. Last year, I was offered a contract for Jacqueline, my middle grade historical fiction, which was released in July. I live on Treasure Island with my husband and two rather noisy macaws, but I spend a lot of time back in New Jersey visiting my parents, three grown children and six gorgeous grandkids.
Jacqueline was inspired by an experience my dad, a 99 year-old WWII vet, had while stationed in France with the 127th General Hospital in 1944. A little girl named Jacqueline began following him to and from the military hospital where he worked. Their friendship blossomed, and when the 127th was transferred to another city, my father promised her that if he ever had a daughter, he’d name her Jacqueline. This was the only war story Dad was willing to share, and it became part of our family lore.
Describe your writerly influences. Who do you love to read, and which among them influenced you?
I’ve dreamed of being a writer for as long as I can remember. As a kid, I “published” a little handwritten newspaper using carbon paper (truly old school!) that I sold for a nickel. I always loved writing stories and dabbled in poetry in high school. But I never really had the time to pursue writing seriously until I retired and my kids were grown.
I’m a voracious reader, and since I write a column and a blog on Florida authors, I spend a lot of time reading books by Floridians. I’m constantly amazed by the number of terrific writers we have here, and I love to read their books. But my all-time favorite non-Floridians would include J.R.R. Tolkien, Ray Bradbury, Stephen King, and Maeve Binchy, and my writing’s been influenced by each of them.
Jacqueline fits squarely in the camp of historical fiction. Is that a direction you’re going? Do you write in other genres, or are you tempted to?
The funny thing is, I was never a big history buff. My genre preferences ran more along the lines of sci fi, thrillers and fantasy. I did love Gone With the Wind and Dos Passos’s USA trilogy, and I was always amazed by the amount of research that went into those books, but it never occurred to me to write anything historical. Now that I’ve done it, though, I’d like to write another. I’ve developed a real interest in the WWII era.
You resisted writing the story of young Jacqueline for years. What finally tipped the scales and convinced you to tell her story?
My dad always wanted me to put the story on paper. I explained that it wouldn’t interest the average reader, and there wasn’t enough material for the 80-90,000 words I’d need for a historical novel. It was a chance encounter with a stranger at my son’s wedding that changed my mind. “Your father says you’re a writer,” he said. “He’s been telling me the most amazing story. You’ve got to write a book about it.” I smiled politely and started to explain why it couldn’t be done, but he stopped me. “I have a daughter in sixth grade,” he said. “She doesn’t know anything about World War II. She’d love to read a story like this, and it could help her learn history.” And there it was – the “Eureka!” moment. I still can’t explain why I never thought of writing the story for younger readers, especially after I’d spent so many years teaching reading in middle school.
You write for The Island Reporter on Florida’s Gulf Coast, which makes me aware of a certain journalistic approach in Jacqueline. By that I mean economy of language, fitting the right word, the right image, the right emotion, within a tight framework.
When you’re writing columns that have to weigh in at around 500 words, you learn to make every word count. I’m a relentless editor. I’ve learned how to take a scalpel to my writing to fit as much information as possible into the smallest space. The ironic thing was that during the editing process for Jacqueline, most of my editor’s suggestions were to add more to certain scenes. That was a new experience for me!
The narrative is convincingly told from Jacqueline’s point of view. The language is direct, the emotions immediate. Did you find that difficult?
Not really. Jacqueline has lived in my head for such a long time, she’s like an old childhood friend. And I spent so many years working with kids and raising my own, it wasn’t too hard for me to get into the head of a 12-year-old. I considered telling the story in first person point of view with Jacqueline as the narrator, but I opted for third person limited with Jacqueline as the focus because I wanted the book to appeal to boys as well as girls. I’m happy with that decision.
Jacqueline has the feel of a well-researched novel. I find that the hardest things to research are the little details of daily life, rather than the big stories or issues. For example, the type of shoes a little French boy might wear is more difficult to ascertain than General Patton’s 3rd Army advances. What say you?
That’s SO true! In fact, when I started Jacqueline, the first roadblock I hit was finding out how the families of French resistance casualties were notified so I could describe the letter that Jacqueline’s mother dropped on the floor. I spent over a week scouring the internet. I even contacted Western Union, but I finally decided to give up or the book would never get written. Thanks to Google Earth, the internet, and Julie Trumbull at the University of Texas Moody Medical Library, the details in Jacqueline are as historically accurate as I could get them. Frankly, the research was the thing that I originally found most daunting, but it turned out to be one of the things I enjoyed the most.
Do you want to revisit this setting, occupied France?
Not so much the setting, but I would like to revisit the era. I’ve developed such a profound admiration for the Greatest Generation that I think I’d like to write another book set in the 1940s. This time, though, I’d like to set it on this side of the pond. I’m toying with the idea of a coming-of-age story for young adults.
Jacqueline’s friend and neighbor intrigues me. We’ve all seen old footage of young women who’d consorted with Nazi officials during the occupation, and the anger and retribution unleashed on them after the liberation. You write her with compassion, yet the fear for her is palpable.
Next to Jacqueline, she’s the character I found most challenging to write. In my dad’s old photo album, there’s a snapshot of four “collaborateurs” with their shaved, painted heads and haunted eyes. My dad has a vivid recollection of these women, and I knew from the beginning that I wanted to include one in the story. The challenge was how to present her. Middle graders are just beginning to see the world in shades of gray, and I wanted to incorporate this in Yvonne Jamet. While the adults in the story see her as a traitor and a tramp (which is, to some degree, justifiable,) I wanted Jacqueline to see a different side of her. I thought this could spark some positive discussion about how the perception of a person can depend on one’s perspective.
The broken kitten seems a deftly handled symbol, mirroring Jacqueline’s situation as well as David’s…
That one-eyed cat was there from the beginning. I thought it could work on a number of levels. It mirrors Jacqueline and David’s broken worlds, the stubborn tenacity and resilience of the French, and the ability to rise above one’s physical limitations. Middle grade kids have the tendency to find physical abnormalities frightening, and I wanted to present Clinoche in such a way that, by the end of the book, they’d forget all about his missing eye. I hope they can learn to do that for people with disabilities as well.
What’s next for the talented Jacqueline Minniti?
You’re making me blush! Right now, I’m focused on marketing Jacqueline, and as I’m sure you know, that’s extremely time-consuming. I’ve also got my two columns for The Island Reporter and my Fabulous Florida Writers blog, so I’m keeping pretty busy for a retiree. But I am playing with some ideas for another book. Time will tell.
Thanks so much for joining us, Jackie! In case anyone was still wondering, I loved this novel and recommend it to adults as well as younger readers. Purchase it online here... Jacqueline