Review & Giveaway: Emma Walton Hamilton's Just Write for Middle Grade Course

Are you looking for a holiday present for an author in your family? Give him or her the keys to writing a middle grade novel: Emma Walton Hamilton's Just Write for Middle Grade online course. Be sure to enter into her giveaway (below) for a free subscription to this class.

In the Spring, I was given the opportunity to try out Emma Walton Hamilton's Just Write for Middle Grade online course. I had taken a couple of writing courses and had written a first draft of a middle grade novel the year before, so the course came at a perfect time for me.

I followed her 14-week self study course (which I spread out over more than 14 weeks) and basically took an in depth college-level course on novel writing. The amount of information that was packed into this course was staggering. The weekly lessons and assignments covered the gamut of writing chapter books and middle grade books (and any novel, really) from page 1 to The End and after.

Structure of the Course

The fourteen units of the course (and some goodies in each unit) are:

1. Overview/Intro to Middle Grade
  • basic info (word counts, characteristics, themes)
  • how MG is different from chapter books, picture books, and YA
2. Character
  • four major character questions to consider when developing characters
  • considerations for anthropomorphism
  • assignments include developing character bios
3. Plot
  • nine different ways/approaches to develop your plot
4. Beginnings
  • importance of first chapter
  • 5 things the beginning of your story must accomplish
5. Theme
  • what is theme and how to reveal it in your story
  • narrator v. character voice
  • techniques (POV, unreliable narrator) and exercises
7. Settings and World-Building
  • 10 considerations for creating settings and world-building
8. Chapters
  • how to break down your novel into chapters, including detailed worksheets
  • following the assignments will result in having a nice outline of your novel
9. Scenes
  • Elements of a good scene and 7 tools to help create them
10. Subplots & Secondary Characters
  • how to most effectively introduce secondary characters and subplots
  • roles & archetypes
11. Dialogue
  • nitty gritty on how to write dialogue, including attribution, tags, punctuation
  • traps to watch out for, tips to follow
12. Pacing, Tension & Other Narrative Issues
  • ways to assess and improve pacing & tensing
  • backstory & foreshadowing assignments
13. Endings
  • purpose of endings and ways to resolve your story
14. Revision & Editing
  • questions and considerations for revising & editing
  • a bonus of the course is an amazing editing checklist

The course comes with some great add-ons, such as the editing checklist, a list of online and in person resources for writers, and a guide to manuscript revision. Also included is a one-month membership to the Children's Book Hub, a forum of information, webinars, networking, and more.

My Review

I've taken many online courses, and this one really stand out. The reasons I loved this course are:
  • The worksheets made me work through all the major elements described above, which taught me so much about my characters and story. 
  • The plot and chapter assignments basically wrote the outline for my story. If you are an outliner, this gives you a methodical way to plot your story. If you are a pantser, this gives you a methodical way to plot your story. 
  • I had taken writing classes before so I was familiar with concepts and techniques like POV, dialogue, the Hero's journey, setting, etc. but this was a great way to synthesize all of the information in one place. I always learn something from the courses I take, and in this course, I learned a LOT of new things.
The one drawback to this course, and it would be the same drawback for many online courses, is that there was not an opportunity to workshop one's novel. Because I have a critique group and take in person writing workshops, I was able to get feedback and critiques, which is a critical part of writing a novel.

Emma Walton Hamilton does offer a Facebook page for Children's Book Hub members and others interested in children's literature which provides great information and opportunities to network with others.

The price of the course can be daunting ($497), but it is a fraction of what a comparable college course would cost, and provides full value.

Mini Interview

Emma Walton Hamilton graciously answered two of my burning questions:

What is the one or two top things you recommend for aspiring authors to do to improve their craft?

I know I’m not alone in saying that the single best way to improve one’s writing, regardless of genre or format, is this: Read.

But I’ll take it a step further. Read everything you can – not just books in your genre, or books on writing craft, or what’s currently selling (though those are all essential, since children’s publishing has changed so much in recent years and is continuing to evolve at lightning speed.) But read poetry. Read novels. Read essays and short fiction, plays and screenplays. Read the newspaper. Only by immersing ourselves fully in the world of words, images and ideas can we truly hope to grow our own talents and our ability to contribute to that world.

A couple of years ago I was fortunate to take a workshop with the great American poet Laureate Billy Collins. He said that if we wanted to write poetry, the key was to read the work of great poets and realize that it's an ongoing dialogue. Throughout the centuries, poets have been elaborating on and informing one another’s work through their words . . . and anyone who aspires to write poetry needs to listen closely to that conversation, and then figure out what they might have to contribute to it.

I think the same is true of children's literature, and of all forms of writing for that matter. Anyone who aspires to write would do well to immerse themselves in the history and the culture of the craft, in order to understand how the discussion has evolved over the decades. Then can we can figure out what we might have to add to the conversation.

How does an author know when her manuscript is ready for submission?

This is a tough one – and there is no pat answer I’m afraid. Most writers never feel totally ‘done’ with a manuscript. I know many who have jumped at the opportunity to do yet another rewrite for an anniversary or new edition of a book, even if it was published years ago.

That said, there are steps every writer can - and should - take to review and revise a manuscript before submission, in order to make sure that it is in the very best possible shape it can be. In today’s publishing environment, we only get one chance to make a first impression… and if a manuscript is over-written or underwritten, has structural issues or contains typos or grammar gaffes, most agents or commercial editors will toss it aside after the first few pages.

The best way to ensure your manuscript is submission-ready is to hire a freelance editor for an evaluation, or even a line-edit before you submit. There are a number of terrific ones out there – SCBWI maintains a list on their website of freelance children’s editors they endorse. Of course, critique groups can provide valuable feedback as well – but it may be subjective or opinions can be divided, which can get confusing. Taking a workshop or course can be another great way to not only draft a manuscript but to obtain professional help in polishing it.

Ultimately, I recommend developing a specific and personal revision strategy – a checklist, of sorts, that takes you through all the key elements of your manuscript, from story structure to character development to narrative details and even grammar checks, and which can be referred to again and again.  I actually created this for myself, and have since transformed it into a resource for other writers… it’s called Editor in aBox, and it provides a comprehensive 6-step revision process, with specific recommendations and tools for revising story as well as storytelling, including structural assessment exercises, lists of commonly overused and unnecessary words, basic grammar and punctuation rules, commonly made errors to avoid and more.  There’s a version for picture book writers and one for novelists, and both can be found here:

EMMA WALTON HAMILTON is a best-selling children’s book author, editor and arts educator.  With her mother, actress/author Julie Andrews, Emma has co-authored over twenty children’s books, seven of which have been on the NY Times Bestseller list, including The Very Fairy Princess series (#1 Bestseller), Julie Andrews Collection of Poems, Songs and Lullabies, the Dumpy the Dump Truck series, Simeon’s Gift, The Great American Mousical, and Thanks to You – Wisdom from Mother and ChildEmma’s own book, RAISING BOOKWORMS: Getting Kids Reading for Pleasure and Empowerment, premiered as a #1 best-seller on in the literacy category and won a Parent’s Choice Gold Medal.

Emma is a faculty member of Stony Brook Southampton’s MFA in Creative Writing and Literature, where she also serves as Director of the Children’s Literature Fellows program, and Executive Director of the Young Artists and Writers Project (YAWP), an inter-disciplinary writing program for middle and high school students.  

Emma also works as a freelance children’s book editor, and hosts the Just Write Children’s Books home-study courses in writing picture books, chapter books and middle grade and young adult novels, as well as the Children’s Book Hub – a center of resources and support for aspiring children’s book authors. 

Thank you so much, Emma. And here's the giveaway. Enter for a chance to win one free subscription to her Just Write for Middle Grade class (a $497 value) (You can get extra entries by doing the first two items once each day):

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