In January 2021, the United Kingdom went into another full-scale Covid-19 lockdown. This lockdown didn’t feel as stressful to me as the schools were better prepared for online learning than in previous lockdowns. With a less stressful lockdown, my mind felt clearer to think up short story ideas.
Towards the end of January, I came up with a story with two characters, a boy called Elliot and a girl called Mei, who live on Mars as fourth-generation Martians. When these children are in class, an alarm sounds, and they must evacuate the colony building. It was a pretty action-packed short story.
Writing this story was fun. I loved the setting on Mars and the characters, Elliot and Mei. This short story spurred another idea: I would write more short stories, but in the same world. Some stories would be with Elliot and Mei, and some with other characters. For a few months, my intention was to put together a collection of short stories in this world.
As I planned out my stories I evolved what looked like a story arc for Elliot and Mei. It didn’t take much more planning for me to realise I had the start of a potential novel instead of a short story collection. Considering our lockdown situation, I became quite excited about the idea as it served as a great distraction to everything going on in the world.
To start my planning process, I came up with a twenty-five-word pitch to set the feel of the novel.
When Martian colonists discover a doorway in a hidden tunnel, humanity can finally answer one of its biggest questions: Are we alone in the universe?
Diary of a Martian Twenty-Five Word Pitch
This simple pitch, or log line, helped solidify the premise I had when planning the short stories. For the Martian setting, I had the idea of two colonies: one called New London – which is part of the Global Space Alliance, a future NASA-style agency – and one called New Beijing. Both colonies are located around the base of the Olympus Mons volcano on Mars. The colonies are rivals, established by rival space agencies.
At the start of my story idea, the two colonies unite. However, as you can imagine, not everyone is happy about the idea, which raises the threat level at the start of the book.
My protagonist, Elliot, who is a resident of New London, and Mei, a resident of New Beijing, soon become good friends. Elliot is my main character – I based him on my son, Daniel – Mei is his sidekick in the story. While this is Elliot’s story, Mei is essential to the plot. Armed with my basic premise and details about my characters, I started some market research. I wasn’t necessarily trying to write to market, but I wanted to understand the marketplace for this genre and age range. I was going to write this book, regardless. Still, I wanted to look at what was already out in the market to make sure I target the right audience.
Genre and Market Research
I already knew that I wanted to target the middle-grade reading age, which is nine to twelve-years-old. This is the reading group I have been writing my short stories for. What I needed to think about was how long a book like this would need to be and what sort of story structure it should have. From my research, I knew that for middle-grade book publishing, word count was important, so I looked at books on the market to see how long they were.
If the authors were already famous, I looked at their first few books, written when they were unpublished or lesser known. Middle-grade falls into two major categories: lower middle-grade and upper middle-grade. Lower middle-grade books are easier reads of about thirty to 40,000 words. Books by David Williams and Roald Dahl are good examples of this category. Upper middle-grade books tend to have 50,000–80,000 words. Books like Artemis Fowl and the early Harry Potter books are good examples.
I wanted a more accurate idea of the range, so I needed some average word counts. If you search for a book on the kobo.com store – a vendor of eBooks – the sales page for a book tells you the word count, which is very helpful. Below are some example word counts for books in the area I wanted to write in.
Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone (J. K. Rowling) – 80,000
Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets (J. K. Rowling) – 89,000
Artemis Fowl (Eoin Colfer) – 61,000
Artemis Fowl: The Arctic Incident (Eoin Colfer) – 61,000
Sky Thieves (Dan Walker) – 58,000
Desert Thieves (Dan Walker) – 60,000
Light Hunters (Dan Walker) – 61,000
Percy Jackson (Rick Riordan) – 90,000
The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole (Sue Townsend) – 57,000
I have read all these books and consider them to target the audience I want to write for. What I gleaned from this exercise is that a range of 50,000 words on the lower end to 80,000 on the upper end seems reasonable. If I were to split the difference, my actual target would be 60,000–70,000. This gives me a rough idea of the amount of writing I will need to do.
On looking into word counts in more detail in articles and videos from agents, I have since learned that for a middle-grade debut, the word count agents generally look for in a debut novelist is anywhere from 40,000 to 65,000 words, with the longer word count reserved for science fiction/fantasy books that require heavy world building. So, my initial estimates were not too far off. You can easily push these word counts a little if you decide to publish independently but going too high might put off all but the most advanced readers in the target age category.
Doing this sort of research up front before even knowing what the book is going to be about may seem strange. Many writers like to start with only a basic premise and a rough idea of a character, but perhaps because of my background in software engineering, I am the sort of person who likes to plan.
Book Goals and Style Guide
As someone who likes to plan, I set myself goals for the book, along with a style guide. I find making some stylistic decisions in advance helps establish a series of guard rails, so I don’t veer off target. I have done something like this for pretty much every project I have worked on in my professional career.
Middle-grade reading age: I set out to target a reading age of nine to twelve years old. While targeting a younger audience, I would like the book to be fun for adult readers too. As already discussed, middle-grade is split into two areas: upper and lower middle-grade. Lower middle-grade is aimed at younger readers and has a word count of fewer than 40,000 words. These are short, easy-to-read, fun books. Upper middle-grade books are aimed at a more advanced reader in the same age group and can sixty to 75,000 words long. These are challenging but fun stories that children and adults alike can enjoy. I started reading lots of upper middle-grade books.
Chapters presented like diary entries: The book is called Diary of a Martian as I wanted the chapters to be presented as diary entries written by the protagonist, Elliot. Therefore, the book would be written in the first person and past tense, and each chapter would take place on a particular date. However, I wanted the chapters to read as flowing prose rather than a rough, realistic diary entry. The book is very much about the world seen through Elliot’s eyes.
Minimal description of the main protagonists: I remember reading in a few books, and in some writing craft videos, that with children’s books, it can be a good idea not to describe the protagonists in too much detail as children like to imagine themselves in the role of the main character. After putting some thought into that idea, I think it’s great, and something I have stuck with in my novel. For example, I don’t describe Elliot’s appearance. We know he is a boy of average height for his age (twelve years old). I don’t describe eye or hair colour, or any other relevant descriptive details, unless required for the plot.
With my secondary protagonist, Mei, all I describe is that she is Chinese and has shoulder-length black hair, and I believe that is enough detail for the reader’s imagination. The fact that she is Chinese is important to the plot as I show the two previous rival Martian colonies coming together.
I hope that both boys and girls who can imagine themselves in these roles will enjoy the novel. I know that under-describing characters can be controversial, and there are strong opinions on it, but for me, I feel this is right for the story. My secondary characters are described in more detail. When I reach the editing and revision stage of the manuscript, I may change my mind when I read the story back in its entirety. The level of character description I use feel like it will be a topic I revisit a few times.
Short chapters for a fast-paced read: To make the book an easy read for younger and reluctant readers, I want to keep the chapters short – around 1200–2000 words. Those limits are not a hard and fast rule but more of a guideline. I want to create fast-paced, forward momentum for the reader.
Many younger readers, and I am basing part of this on my own children, read at night before bed. In my household, we have made it a habit that at 7 p.m., the children must read. This means they have around thirty minutes to an hour to read before lights out. I want the completion of a chapter to feel like a win for the child, so they feel encouraged to continue. If you complete a chapter that is short, you feel more compelled to read the next chapter, especially if there is a cliff hanger to entice you to turn the page.
I read many books on the Kindle e-reader, which tells me how long I have left in a chapter based on my reading speed. If I am reading a book and the e-reader tells me the chapter is fifteen minutes or shorter, I am more inclined to read it. When I complete that chapter, if the Kindle tells me the next chapter is only ten minutes long, I will continue. Before I know it, it’s 1 a.m.
Other books I have read have very long chapters, so if I complete a chapter and the Kindle tells me the next chapter is forty-five minutes long, I will stop reading and go to sleep because I like to complete a chapter.
This isn’t scientific advice. I am basing these observations about chapter length on my reading habits and those of my children, but that’s okay with me and forms the basis of my plan to keep my chapters short and fast-paced.
Chapter cliff-hangers to encourage forward reading: Along with brief chapters, I want to have a cliff-hanger at the end of a chapter. I don’t want to force myself to do this on every chapter, but if action is buzzing, ending a chapter when something interesting is about to happen is a great way to encourage the reader to keep going.
Cliff-hangers have been used in TV shows for decades. The main character gets into a dangerous situation, but the episode stops. You just have to tune in next week to find out what happens; or let Netflix (or your streaming service of choice) guide you into the next episode. It’s a simple and effective technique to ensure audience engagement, and I intend to exploit it as much as I can.
Main characters are twelve years old: At the start of the book, my protagonist, Elliot, is eleven years old, and he soon turns twelve. Twelve years old is the top of the middle-grade reading age range. Children like to read up in age rather than down, so a ten-year-old reader would prefer to read about children older than them and not younger. Reading down in age can feel a bit too babyish. I took this advice from R. L. Stine’s Masterclass course and talking to my own children confirmed it.
Rich and visual world building: Children are highly visual. As well as a gripping story line, fast action, and likeable characters, they need the setting to be rich and visual. However, a balance must be struck because too much description and exposition can put off younger readers, so any description included in the story needs to hit its mark straightaway.
I expect this balance will be difficult to get right, so I will rely on beta readers and editors to help me. But my goal is for the children – and adults – reading this novel to imagine a realistic yet rich world in which the story takes place.
To write an entire novel, your story needs depth to keep it interesting for the reader, even for a younger audience. What I mean by depth is seeing more of the characters world than just the main plot. Diary of a Martian has a well-defined plot. The characters go from point a to b and so on until a resolution has been reached, but at the same time, I want the readers to see more of their lives than the main plot required.
I remember watching a documentary with George Lucas, the creator of Star Wars. In that documentary he talked about the plot of the film, but he also said that Star Wars was a family drama. We learn just as much about the characters families and circumstances as we do about the direct plot and action. I wanted to achieve the same goal. Again, how I do that is a balancing act as I must keep the readers engaged, but I want the reader to imagine what it is like living on Mars.
When I started my planning for Diary of a Martian, I wanted to ground the story so that the characters and setting feel normal to the reader, even though the story is set far into the future and on a different planet.
One way to achieve this is to anchor the story in something familiar. For that, I used the humble game of football (soccer for my American friends). Football plays a large role in Martian colony life, bringing people together and making the setting feel familiar to its readers.
I enjoy the process of planning a book. I know some writers hate the idea of planning, but by putting some effort into understanding what you are writing, the genre and the readership, you can go a long way in avoiding writing a book that you need to change or abandon later.
In any project I embark on, I have also always liked the idea of putting a series of guard rails in place. These guard rails serve as a set of constraints I need to stay within, so I don’t veer off target and produce something that is irrelevant and ill-fitting for my target audience.
These guard rails don’t have to be a complete plan of the book. They’re just a guide to help keep me moving in the right direction when the writing becomes tougher later on in the project. And it will.