KBKL Middle Grade Mysteries with: Beth McMullen!

Kick-butt Kidlit Presents_

Our new feature series (Kick-butt Kidlit Spotlight On:) is kicking off this month with a focus on MYSTERY NOVELS! Specifically middle grade mystery because MG is our jam!

Let’s give a big Kick-butt welcome to our guest author for today, Beth McMullen! 

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As summer fades away, I like to look back and gauge if it was time well spent. Did we swim and camp and hike and sail and eat ice cream and read and go to the movies?

Did someone say movies?

Sure, we did the other stuff but, in my family, we are excellent and dedicated movie goers. Popcorn and Junior Mints, air conditioning and a dark theater. Perfection! And of course, being summer, we sat through a lot of sequels: Avengers: Infinity War, Incredibles 2, Hotel Transylvania 3, Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom, Deadpool 2, Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again, Ant-Man and The Wasp, and Mission: Impossible – Fallout. (There were a bunch of horror film sequels, too, but I am just too chicken to see those.)

Now I have nothing against sequels – I had my own come out on July 3rd actually – but they tend to adhere to the formula of more of the same but, you know, more. Bigger, louder, crazier, wilder. No matter what, crank up the thrills and chills.

And this got me thinking (you can do a lot of thinking during the obligatory thirty minutes of previews shown in theaters nowadays) about the potential problems of adding action/adventure elements to a story. Because here’s the thing – if those elements are gratuitous, your readers will know. They will fall out of your story and you will lose them.

Your thrills must be relevant to the plot. They must move the story forward and not exist simply because you thought it would be cool to send your main character off a fifty-foot cliff into a raging river while being chased by an irritated mama grizzly bear with extra-long claws and razor-sharp teeth. Do not compromise your story for the sake of a short-lived adrenaline rush.

I had an editor once who was ruthless on this point of relevant action or adventure elements. My manuscripts would return to me tattooed with Does this drive the plot forward? As in, is it necessary or are you indulging yourself at the expense of your story? Boy, how I bristled at this! I hated stripping out bits of dialog and prose that felt precious and necessary. But you know what? She was right. This unnecessary material slowed my pacing, muddled the story and lost the reader. It had to go.

Kill your darlings, as they say.

But done well, action/adventure is fun! And it can add some heart pounding, page turning excitement to a mystery, or any genre. So how do you do it well? Start by asking yourself these three questions:

  1. Does the action or adventure sequence contribute to the forward momentum of your story? If it is a tangent or unnecessary side trip, cut it out.
  2. Could the action happen in the world in which you are writing? If you work in fantasy or sci-fi, you will have more leeway than if you write contemporary realistic fiction. But world builders must be careful not to stretch the boundaries of what is possible in the environment they have created. Stay true to your own rules.
  3. Can you visualize the action? I call this the ‘movie rule’. As I work through a scene with lots of movement, I have to see it clearly in my head. If I can’t, I might need to rework the sequence of events or add details to bring it to life. This is where you need to be picky about what you include. Too much description slows down the momentum the action is meant to create. Choose wisely.

Writing action is some of the best fun you can have at a keyboard. I encourage you to write it with abandon and see what happens.

After all, it’s not you being chased off a cliff by grizzly bear.


Beth McMullen is best known for the Mrs. Smith’s Spy School for Girls trilogy, middle grade spy thrillers, packed with action and adventure.  She also writes the Sally Sin series for adult readers. Beth lives in Northern California with her husband, kids, cats and a very tolerant parakeet named Zeus.


Connect with Beth on Twitter, Facebook, or through her website!

Click here to win a copy of MRS. SMITH’S SPY SCHOOL FOR GIRLS: POWER PLAY!

The final giveaway will be for EVERY SINGLE book featured in the Kick-butt Kidlit Spotlight On: MYSTERY blog series so make sure you check it out on every post! (New options to enter will be added with each post.) Draw closes on Friday, October 5th at the end of our series.

Tune in Friday for a guest post from Jill Diamond!

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6 thoughts on “KBKL Middle Grade Mysteries with: Beth McMullen!

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