I promised some thoughts on the Baker's Dozen entries, so here you go! Jodi covered all the main points in her excellent blog post last week, but I've got something I'd like to focus on here:
KNOW WHAT YOU WRITE.
This has two meanings:
1. Know your genre. If you don't know what you're writing, how can you create a world that is believable? For instance, if you don't know that science fiction and fantasy are two completely separate genres, how will your story make sense? (There is no such thing as "science fiction/fantasy". A story is either one or the other. There is such a thing as "science fantasy", which incorporates elements of both. But, again, it's a separate genre, and you need to know it if you want to write it.)
Know, also, that "YA" and "MG" are not genres. They are categories. And within each category, there is a wide realm of genres, from contemporary to mystery to fantasy to historical. If you are calling your story simply "YA" or "MG", that tells me right up front that you don't know what you're writing.
"Fiction" also doesn't cut it. If you say that you write "Adult Fiction", that tells me nothing. Is it a thriller? A romance? A fantasy? You need to know what you are writing so that you can write it well.
2. Once you know your genre, LEARN IT WELL. In other words, read it. Research it. Talk to people about it. And read it some more.
(And when you're reading it, make sure you are reading CONTEMPORARY WORKS. Because reading HEIDI and THE LITTLE PRINCESS and THE BOXCAR CHILDREN is not going to prepare you to write a good, contemporary children's novel. And that is what you need to produce--a contemporary novel.)
It seems like voice is most often a problem with middle grade novels. Usually, it's a question of not nailing a middle grade voice at all--the "author voice" is imposing itself on the story, giving it a narrator-y feel and infusing the young characters' dialogue with adult-sounding words and phrases that simply don't work. If you write middle grade, you need to read A LOT OF GOOD MIDDLE GRADE BOOKS. And it also helps if you spend time with REAL MIDDLE GRADE CHILDREN. For some reason, finding a really good middle grade voice is challenging. The more you read and research, the better chance you'll have at nailing it.
We also came across some middle grade novels with a voice that sounded more YA. The characters were TOO sassy and sophisticated for their ages. There is a firm dividing line between MG and YA, so make sure you know which one you want to write, and then work on nailing that voice.
Less frequently, we ran across a YA with a voice that was too young. Again, know your genre, and READ your genre. A 16-year-old does not think, reason, or talk like a 12-year-old. So it's important to know the difference.
Again: READ. READ. READ WHAT YOU WANT TO WRITE. You can't be a good writer without being a good reader! If you try to do it, you will, in effect, be writing in a vacuum, and your novel will reflect that.
Think of this in terms of music. There's jazz and pop and classical and Celtic and blues and country. And dozens more. And if you want to be a songwriter or performer, you need to know what it is that you're writing or performing. Because if someone hires you to play jazz at his book launch party, and you show up and play Yiddish folk songs, someone's going to be unhappy.
"What do you play?"
"What kind of music?"
"You know. MUSIC."
It doesn't work that way. And it's the same with novels.
"What do you write?"
"What kind of fiction?"
"You know. FICTION." Or... "You know. YA." Or... "You know. MG."
(Just today, my barista asked me what I wrote. I immediately said, "Science fiction and fantasy." Because I know what I write! And now he knows, too.)
Know what you write. Read what you write. Then you will be able to WRITE IT RIGHT!