MYC: Make Your Story Fit Your Reader

Welcome to this week’s Master Your Craft post! Each Wednesday we’ll discuss prewriting and drafting a new book from the BIG IDEA to QUERYING. Last week, we talked about Creating Interesting Dialogue and Description. This week, we’ll discuss making sure the content and sentence, paragraph, chapter, and word count work for your reader.

As you are revising, one important step in the process is to make sure that you wrote a book that “fits” your reader. Below, I’ve attempted to attach some numbers as rough estimates based on my own browsing and research about books in these categories, but please, please, please do you own research too. The point of this post is to make sure you’re thinking about content and sentence, paragraph, chapter, and story length as you revise.

Chapter Book

These are for kindergarten through fourth grade. But, of course, that’s quite a spread in reading ability. Some chapter books are for beginning readers and others are transitionary, getting the reader ready for middle grade fiction. Often these books are about family relationships and friendship.

Beginning-level Chapter Books: In terms of vocabulary, they are similar to the level 3/4 books in the popular I Can Read leveled readers. The plot is normally simple and the sentences are short and uncomplicated. These early chapter books are typically published with a large font and are color-illustrated, often with a picture on every page. The art typically supports the texts, meaning it is important to the story because it shows things that don’t have to be described, much like a picture book.

Examples: Princess in Black series, Mercy Watson, Captain Awesome, Ivy and Bean, Heidi Heckelbeck, and Dragon Masters.

Sentence Length: Generally short (<10 words) with a few longer sentences.

Paragraph Length: Less than six sentences. Some are single sentence. Lots of white space. Normally less than 50 words.

Chapter Length: Some have no chapters, but typically less than 12 highly-illustrated pages (note: this is as-published, no how it will be in your document)

Story Length: Ranges typically from 1500-6000 words

Higher-level Chapter Books: As compared to the beginning readers, the vocabulary is broader. There is less repetition. The sentence structure becomes more complicated by adding phrases and more adjectives and adverbs. The plot may be more elaborate, maybe by adding mystery or leaving out details to let the reader figure out on his/her own. The concepts/details may require a higher level of thinking. Perhaps the biggest change of all is that the font is usually smaller and, though the illustrations are still there, they aren’t usually necessary for understanding the story. Illustrations are often done in black.

Examples:  Judy Moody, Diary of a Wimpy Kid, Captain Underpants, early Magic Tree House series (the Merlin Missions are for middle grade readers)

Sentence Length: Usually less than 20 words per sentence. There are still many short sentences in between longer sentences, and this structure is ideal even for adult works. More complicated in structure and word choices.

Paragraph Length: Slightly longer than the early chapter books, but still generally less than 75 words. Still more white space than middle grade.

Chapter Length: Some have no chapters, but typically less than 12 illustrated pages

Story Length: Typically from 4000-15,000 words

Middle Grade

Middle-grade stories are typically for ages 8 and up. They deal with more complicated concepts and sometimes cover sad and more mature topics than you will find in most chapter books, like divorce, death, bullying, and risky behaviors. These books often give children a wider window into the world by covering these topics and they also often include characters that have different cultures or ethnicities. Often books help readers explore their feelings about issues with friendships and family through story, and they are great tools in helping children understand empathy and community. Romance, if any, is usually limited to hand holding or a quick, nervous kiss. These books have few illustrations and they are often confined to the chapter heading.

Examples: When You Reach Me, The Journey of Edward Tulane, Fourteenth Goldfish, Karma Khullar’s Mustache, Wish

Sentence Length: Readers are capable of tackle long, complicated sentences, but using a variety of sentence lengths is still important. Vocabulary should reflect the types of words you would expect these readers to know or be able to figure out with context clues. Though helping the reader expand his/her vocabulary is a fine goal, be careful that there isn’t a high density of challenging words in your sentences.

Paragraph Length: Mostly two hundred words or less with a variety of paragraph lengths so that you don’t tire your reader.

Chapter Length: There’s really no rule here. A young reader is often more likely to tackle the next chapter if it is less than 10 pages, especially if he knows mom/dad will let him/her go a few minutes over lights-out time for reading. 🙂

High action scenes may require longer chapters, but if the chapter is clocking toward 20+ pages, you may want to find a way to break it up. Short chapters with choppy sentences are great for when you need to increase the tension in the story.

Particularly important for this age, leave small cliff hangers at your chapter endings when possible.

Story Length: Stories that don’t require a lot of world building are typically 20,000-50,000 words. Sci-fi and fantasy can be longer, but generally those should be less than 70,000 words.

Young Adult

Young adult stories are mostly for ages 13+. Profanity, sex (not erotic), drug and alcohol use are okay, but it’s not as acceptable for books with a younger protagonist (<15 years old). In young adult books, the parents tend to have a less important role in the protagonist’s life because they are more focused on friendships and non-familial relationships.

Great resource by agent and author Marie Lamba about what’s appropriate in MG vs. YA.

Examples:  Across the Universe, The Sun is Also a Star, I’ll Give You the Sun, The Hate You Give, Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children

Sentence Length: These readers often have adult-like reading skills and can handle complex sentences and vocabulary.

Paragraph Length: Less than 200 words for most paragraphs. A variety of paragraph lengths is best.

Chapter Length: Less than 25 pages generally with mini-cliff hangers to keep the reader turning pages.

Story Length: Less than 90,000 words unless complex world building is necessary for the story. For sci-fi and fantasy, this can be longer. See Maria Lamba and the post in resources for more details.


Word count:

Page count (funny):

Chapter length:

An excellent resource for finding out the word count for your favorite books:

Thanks for reading this week’s Master Your Craft post. Come back next week when we’ll discuss Tightening your manuscript!

MICHELLE LEONARD is a math and science nerd, an Indie children/teens bookseller, and a SCBWI member who writes middle-grade and young adult fiction. Her young adult sci-fi short story IN A WHOLE NEW LIGHT , about a teen girl who uses technology to fight racism, is in the BRAVE NEW GIRLS ANTHOLOGY: STORIES OF GIRLS WHO SCIENCE AND SCHEME. Proceeds from the anthology go towards scholarships for the Society of Women Engineers! Connect with Michelle on Twitter.











Breaking Through Writer’s Block

Last month, one of my editing clients emailed me a panicked plea for help with writer’s block. And although we’ve talked about this a bit on the blog already (How Do You Tune Out Online “Noise”?, Ideas to Hack Down Writers’ Blocks, 4 Ways Winged Pen Writers Get WordsPerfectionism and Pomodori), it can’t hurt to share the tips I gave my client for breaking through writer’s block:


1. Writing exercises can help. NaNoWriMo started on November 1 and the @NaNoWriMo and @NaNoWordsprints Twitter feeds will be full of daily inspiration and prompts. I have used these in the past to map out aspects of my story that I know need to be written even if it means writing out of order. Sometimes just writing a scene or a short sketch will get the creative juices flowing in other areas.

2. Don’t be afraid to write out of order or to use brackets to leave place-holders when you feel stuck. My first drafts often say stuff like [Something needs to happen here so that MC feels this or does that] and then I go back and fill in the blanks on revision, or later on whenever I have an ah ha moment.

3. If you know, for example, that you need to write a love scene and you’re not feeling inspired, read a few of your favorites from other authors. I was struggling to add life to my Seattle-based setting in my current ms (some of my other settings have been more far-flung or exotic, so the urban scene felt blah to me) so I read some urban fantasy to get a good feel for what I could do. Even though my MG is a far cry from gritty urban fantasy, it really did help shake some things loose.

4. Just keep writing, even if you know what you’re writing is bad. You can’t wait for inspiration to come to you–you have to write yourself into inspiration. And that only happens with regular sessions of butt-in-chair.

5. Have a conversation with one or more of your characters. This often goes something like this: “OK, MC, I don’t know what’s supposed to happen here. How would you react if Love Interest does X? What if he does Y? What do you WANT him to do?” It sounds cheesy, but if you can get out of your head and into your gut, I think that’s the place from which your characters will start to tell you what needs to happen to move the story forward. Some writers call this getting into “flow” and it’s a truly beautiful feeling (although I spend hours writing when I’m not in flow–it’s not something that you can maintain for an entire draft).

I asked the rest of the Pennies for their tips and here’s what they said:

Richelle Morgan: Fresh air! I find walking the dog to be my most productive “writing” time most days — as long as I remember to write down all my insights when I get home! Sometimes I even record them into my phone as I walk…there’s something about using my whole body that gets my sluggish brain moving.

Also, when I was in college, I took some random class that ended up being primarily about lucid dreaming and how you can make your brain work for you when you’re asleep. Ever since then, if I’m stumped about something, I tell my brain to find an answer right before I go to sleep. Usually, within 24 hours or so, I’ll have it figured out. Works like a charm with writing — though sometimes my brain wakes me up mid-sleep to tell me the solution!

Gita Trelease: Once, when I was working on a hard part of my dissertation (19th century British lit), I took a nap. In my dream, I saw a hand writing out, in perfect 19thC boilerplate script, a paragraph in which the argument I needed to make was made with exemplary clarity. Woke up and wrote it down! I just want to make this happen more often.

Reading something truly excellent (regardless of genre) or watching a movie set in the place or time period I’m working with. Here’s something new I discovered: When I’m struggling to uncover what my characters are feeling, I find I can access the thoughts and emotions more authentically if I write them out by hand. Maybe this connects to the feeling of writing in my journal, which I’ve been doing since I was in 4th grade? Or maybe it connects to the unconscious, like walking or dreaming does?

Gabrielle Byrne: Long walk. Long shower. Stop pushing and read a book. Give yourself permission to breathe for a day.

Mark Holtzen: I love the quote about writers block that says simply “lower your expectations.” And for me getting outside it is vital. Going for a bike ride we’re going for a long walk. Also reading something completely out of genre is really helpful for me. Even if it has nothing to do with my topic it always shakes something loose.

Laurel Decher: Motion! Getting your brain to relax is key. Asking the “boys in the basement” to send up the answers (like Richelle’s lucid dreaming up above.) Lowering expectations.

National Novel Writing Month can be a transformative experience because you learn to feel the abundance of words and story and inspiration. Being amazed at how much you can write makes you hold those precious words much more lightly.

How do you cope with Writer’s Block? Have you tried any of these tips? 

4 Ways Winged Pen Writers Get Words

View of a blue river, blue mountains in the distance, framed by bushes
You have to write a lot of words before you catch a glimpse of your story. View from Löwenburg, Rhine River valley, Germany. © Laurel Decher, 2016.

Did you ever wonder why this is The Winged Pen? It’s because this group of writers make the words fly. How do they do it?

When you face the dreaded blank page, what helps you start your writing engines? Do you have a daily word-count goal?

Read the Winged Pens’ answers in our own words:

Laurel Decher: I’ll go first. 🙂 I realized I aim for at least 1000 words at a time because 500 words doesn’t always get me into the story, even when I have a scene list. *cough* Too much caffeine makes my characters chatty.

For first drafts, I like to prep with mind-mapping to find the scene conflict and then freewrite with a kitchen timer.

Halli Gomez: When I write a first draft, I aim for about 1500 words. Sometimes I make it sometimes I don’t. I usually have to stop because I have to be somewhere.

Michelle Leonard: I’m a very goal-oriented person, so I tried giving myself word total goals for writing days. For some reason, it didn’t work for me. I ended up achieving the goal with words I didn’t like. The pressure to achieve a certain word level seems to mess with my creativity. I always put a lot of pressure on myself to do more than I think I can, but I’ve found for writing, to stay happy (and not give up on writing), I have to give myself a free pass to let my mind roam and be unproductive to be productive. That being said, when I get on a roll, I can churn out 5000 words in a day.

Kristi Wientge: I don’t think I’ve ever followed the same routine for any of my manuscripts. I just try to get something on the page in the beginning. No real word count goals, I need to really feel the voice first and then things flow (for the first draft).

Sussu Leclerc: First, make sure I know my characters well. Then I plan my set pieces for the whole novel. I make sure I know which tone the chapter will have, what I need to accomplish and what the character arc is going to be. I do not write until I have this pinned down. When my chapter brainstorming is done, I start writing. Word count is unimportant to me. If I have reached my goal for the day, I’m happy and have a feeling of accomplishment. 🙂

On a daily basis, I decide what I am going to do that day. I try to tell someone and then tell them at the end of the day what I have accomplished. Usually it’s my son. He never misses asking me if I have done what I planned. He checks on me as I check on him and his work. So voicing goals is important to us.

Julie Artz: 1000 is a solid day for me. At the start of each novel, it was a struggle to even get 400 words down in a day, but once I get going, I can sometimes crank out those bigger days (2,000 to 3,000, 3,000+ days).

It usually takes me 1 to 3 months to draft, so I give myself a deadline. (NaNoWriMo for first book) With Kalevala, I was submitting 10k word sections to a professor as part of a novel writing class, so that gave me a 10 week period of time with set deadlines. With the latest, I have recreated that on my own over a 2-month period..

I use Scrivener’s Project Targets to keep my word count on track and am always racing myself toward the green, which means I’m close to my daily word count (which is usually 1000 a day, but as I approach the deadline and am inevitably behind, it creeps up toward 1500).

I typically try to stop when I still know what needs to happen in the next scene so that I have an easy place to start the next day and I often reread the few scenes previous (and do very light editing/revising) to get me in the groove for the day’s writing session.

Gita Panjabi Trelease: When I know where I’m going with my story, there is nothing that helps me write faster than the growing green bar on Scrivener’s targets. 🙂

Kate Manning: Ack, you guys are definitely making me feel like a slacker. I tell myself when writing the first draft that I have to write at least 250 words every time I sit down to write. Sometimes I write more, but usually it’s not more than a thousand at a sitting. I do occasionally take a weekend writing retreat, where I crank out all the words.

Richelle Morgan: When I’m drafting, my goal is 1000 words each time I sit down to write, but I try to be satisfied with whatever I get down. It’s all progress!

I do have one trick that helps me, though: I leave myself a roadmap when I close out for the day so that I can jump right in the next day. Sometimes it’s hard to make myself stop, but if I write until the end of my ideas about where the scene/book is going to go, I struggle a LOT when I sit down again. Giving myself that little bit of work still to do tricks me into diving in, and once I dive in, it becomes pretty easy to keep going.

Gabrielle K. Byrne: I always start with editing what I wrote the day before. It helps me dive back in and warm up, not to mention improving the work as I go.

When I’m drafting, a word count between about 1,500 to 3,000 is a good day. If I hit a hurdle or a tough scene or impasse, I focus on that and if I can get through it that’s a good day too, even if it’s only 250 to 500 words.

Here’s my quick overview of our best Winged Pen tactics:

  1. PLAN to write. Freewrite for 15 minutes by the clock, take a weekend writing retreat, or plan something in between.
  2. Set STRATEGIC word count goals: 0-5,000 words per day. Most Winged Pen writers build momentum over time. “Just show up” might be perfect for the early draft. But once writers feel the voice of the story, know their characters and/or set pieces, word counts zoomed up and up.
  3. TRACK your progress. Swap goals with a writing buddy and follow-up. Use Scrivener‘s famous green bar (or your trusty calendar) to link your daily word count to a deadline.
  4. MAKE it easy on yourself. A tiny bit of preparation takes the edge off the blank page. Mindmap to find your scene’s conflict, edit the previous day’s writing, leave a roadmap for the next day, stop when you know what will happen next.

Need more help getting airborne? Try these excellent resources:

Rachel Aaron‘s blog post and book, 2,000 to 10,000: How to write faster, write better, and write more of what you love. (The best 99 cents you’ve ever spent on your writing. Her blog post introduces the magical triangle of Knowledge, Enthusiasm, and Time. Her book has smart things to say about speeding your revision process.)

Jacqui Lofthouse‘s free e-book is a great way to ease into a writing session: Get Black on White: 30 Days to Productivity and Confidence for Writers.

IMG_4373HighResHeadshotLDLAUREL DECHER writes stories about all things Italian, vegetable, or musical. Beloved pets of the past include “Stretchy the Leech” and a guinea pig that unexpectedly produced twins. She’s famous for getting lost, but carries maps because people always ask her for directions. You can find her on Twitter and on her blog, This Is An Overseas Post, where she writes about life with her family in Germany. She’s still a Vermonter and an epidemiologist at heart. PSA: Eat more kale! 🙂 Her short fiction for adults, UNFORESEEN TIMES, originally appeared in Windhover.