One thing the middle grade writer hears over and over from agents and publishers and contest hosts is the importance of “voice”. Nailing that middle grade voice is vital to squeezing the most juice from a manuscript. But how does one develop the “voice” needed to make the story explode with that special middle grade magic?
As a microbiologist, I will turn to science in search of an answer to this question. No, there’s not a pill we can take to give us Kwame Alexander’s voice nor is there a pharmaceutical elixir that imparts a Rita Williams-Garcia mastery over words. And there’s definitely no available artificial intelligence we can upload to write a CORALINE-ish story at the level of Neil Gaiman. Science, though, can help us understand how an awesome middle grade author voice can be developed.
By thinking about orbits.
Yes, orbits and orbitals.
In astronomy, bodies in space orbit around another, usually larger, bodies. The two bodies are drawn together by the gravitational forces between them. Think of the Earth and the Moon or our solar system. Gravity holds the mass of the moon in orbit around the Earth. The same for our nine planets (Pluto included!) around the sun. At some point, the planets of our solar system were drawn to a relatively small star, their gravitational forces interacted, and they settled into a position with unique orbits around the Sun. The way these large, heavenly bodies move around each other is relatively fixed and highly predictable.
Astronomers can calculate the exact position of Jupiter on April 1, 2075, or the Moon’s position relative to the Earth in 35 minutes. Because of the sheer size and mass of the objects, their orbits follow our mathematics fairly accurately. Orbits for the most part, at least in our thin moment of geological time, appear relatively fixed, but that doesn’t mean they are boring or simply. They are part of a beautiful, natural system with form and function.
In chemistry, all atoms have atomic orbits, called orbitals. These orbitals are the average path around the nucleus the electron travel, a mathematical prediction of the electron shape around the nucleus. These atomic orbitals start with the spherical shaped orbit, called s and layer on the increasingly complex and beautiful p, d, f, g, h… orbitals as more electrons exist in the higher atomic number atoms. Each atom of an element has a characteristic arrangement of electron in its orbitals surrounding its nucleus. Although we can’t see atomic orbitals by the naked eye, they are also part of a beautiful, naturally occurring system with form and function.
Atoms are constantly interacting. We would not be here or be reading this without the interaction of electrons between atoms. Electrons that are moving in their specific energy state orbitals around their nuclei. The electrons in the outer orbits, called valence electrons, are the stuff atomic interactions are made of. Every one of the complex chemical reactions that takes place in our world and in our body depends on these interactions. These reactions only occur because the electrons in their orbitals are doing what they do and doing it where they’re supposed to. Atoms and elements react with each other to form new compounds because of the interaction of the electrons in their unique orbitals.
Whether atoms or planets, these orbits and orbitals are an integral part of the physical being of these entities. Planets, stars, and meteors. Sodium, oxygen, and carbon. These all have specific physical characteristics defined by their mass and their orbits/orbitals.
What does all this scientific mishmash have to do with writing and voice?
You probably have more to your life than writing, right? Family, career, school, hobbies, pets, etc. In short, a writer does have a life beyond putting words on paper. I am a husband. I have kids. I work as a molecular microbiologist, I write, coach sports, watch sports, read, draw, and tend a fairly unproductive garden. I am sure each of you has a laundry list of things you do other than write.
These are our orbitals. These are our writer’s orbits.
Each facet of our lives creates its own orbitals.
Our orbits have their own sets of people, places, things, emotions, feeling, memories, and a myriad of other characteristics.
When we write, we create those unique bits that only we can produce. This is our writer’s voice. Each writer’s voice, like a solar system or an element, is unique because it is the place where all the orbits intersect. This voice is our sweet spot as a writer. Our voice is all our experiences, ideas, thoughts, and memories whirling around in their individual orbits and interacting to make new ideas, thoughts, and memories. Just like in a chemical reaction, where the electrons in the orbitals react to make new compounds, something new and awesome is made when these writers orbits cross.
If a simple writing prompt is given to a thousand writers and they’re given 48 hours to create a 500-word story, chances are 1000 unique stories will be created. Sure, there will be similarities given such tight parameters. But each of us, carrying our personal array of orbitals, will use our writer’s voice to create unique pieces.
Those things that make me me and you you, the things that keep us happy, busy, and somewhat sane, create different orbits in our lives. The orbits created through our unique experiences become our writer’s solar system; they become our voice. They become a thing of beauty and a thing which belongs only to us.
And you didn’t think you’d use that science class for anything in “real” life.
Science in action! Even for a middle grade author.
Now go out and work on your own orbitals!
I want to hear your middle grade writer voice sing.
Mike Hays is a molecular microbiologist by day and an author, sports coach, and history nut by night. His middle grade historical fiction, THE YOUNGER DAYS, was published by MuseItUp Publishing. His short story, Last Will and Testament, appears in the Month9Books charity anthology, IN THE BEGINNING. He contributed three molecular biology science essays to the PUTTING THE SCIENCE IN FICTION collection from Writer’s Digest Books scheduled for a fall 2018 release. He belongs to the From the Mixed-Up Files...of Middle-Grade Authors blog team and is a host of the middle grade literature Twitter chat, #MGlitchat.