Sara O'Connor - Masterclass

Emma Greenwood
'There was a hand in the darkness, and it held a knife.'

Recognise the hand?
Well you’re wrong!
It’s not ‘the man Jack’ sniffing out Bod in Neil Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book, but Sara ‘Slasher’ O’Connor returning to the Theodore Bullfrog sniffing out superfluous words.

“Slash 20,” runs Sara’s infamous line.
"Now slash 20 more."

Some groan, some mutter, some clutch their sample pages to their chests as if they were babes. I pick up my pen and slice through whole paragraphs. I’m lucky y’see. I’ve brought a first draft. Ancient.
From before my SCBWI days. Swathes of back story and description, so most of it can go. I’ve left my real baby at home: the YA (Young Adult) work in progress. This is Middle Grade (MG). And Middle Grade is fun!

Don’t underestimate the MG reader, Sara says.

She tells us:

  • MG should be lighter than YA
  • Heavier than 7-9
  • Have innocence, optimism and earnestness
  • It should not be cynical and should have a keen sense of justice.

Characters must have authentic depth. Characters drive plot not the other way round.

She refers us to Holes by Louis Sachar, Millions by Frank Cottrell Boyce, Roddy Doyle’s A Greyhound of a Girl, and Tall Story by our very own Candy Gourlay. She also insists that MG is all about character.

MG is all about character. 

Characters must have authentic depth. Characters drive plot not the other way round. Looking back through my notes, I can’t believe how much we covered.
Below are the top three things I took away, though I’m sure everyone gained something different; there was enough material to cover writers at every stage.

1. The Beginning:

First Impressions Count
There’s a lot to get into the first page of a manuscript, and it’s the most important page for getting off the slushpile. Sara reminded us to make sure every word on that page counted (the more you slash, the more words you have for vital detail). And what is vital detail on an MG first page? Character. What we learn about the MC. Physical description is not character, Sara says. Think actions. Think speech. The smallest details matter. Make those details powerful. Make everything count.

2. The Middle:

Because, because, because NOT then, then, then.
Whenever I tackle the dreaded synopsis, I find myself starting each paragraph with ‘Then’. ‘This happens, then this happens, then this.’ Sarah challenges us to ensure we have strong cause and effect: List your scenes in order, then make sure you can move through them linking them with the word ‘because’: because of that, this happened, because of this, that happened.

3. The End:

The Obligatory Scene
Sara reads us the first page of Holes by Louis Sachar (you can ‘Look Inside’ on Amazon if you haven’t read it): harsh environment, the Warden. Reading it we know in our gut (if not consciously) there’ll be a confrontation with these two before the book ends. If there wasn’t we’d feel let down and irritated.

This confrontation is the promised scene. The scene signalled from the very beginning.

Deliver on your promise or don’t promise!

Sara O'Connor is one of four writer/editors that have set up Book Bound, a writers' retreat for writers on the edge of publication, set in a stunning Kent county estate in May 2014. The application-based weekend course culminates in panel and pitch session with four top agents. More details

Emma Greenwood is currently redrafting her contemporary YA work-in-progress (long-listed for the Mslexia Children’s Novel Prize 2012) under the mentorship of Imogen Cooper at The Golden Egg Academy. Her urban teen-voice short stories have been published/listed by Cinnamon Press and her flash memoir has appeared in Mslexia Magazine. You can follow her tweets on @emmajgreenwood.


  1. This is great break down of MG. Thanks!!!

  2. This is such a good write up Emma of what sounds like and indispensable M'class. Thank you!
    And thank you, Sara!

  3. Thanks! This is excellent and lots of help for me because I'm writing a MG now.

  4. The effects of this masterclass are taking effect 6 months on - it enabled me to cut my first draft from 62,500K on 31st Oct down to 48K. On Sara's brilliant day, she recommended a book for help with editing - "Novel Metamorphosis" by Darcy Pattison has an excellent Novel inventory template for the plot and the protagonist's emotional journey - at the time, my inventory was 43 chapters - thanks, 'Slasher O'Connor', draft 2 is now 36 chapters and I'm now working on my 'BookMap' with The Golden Egg Academy and using my chapter breakdown/inventory to prepare for my next draft.

    1. so many *effects* in the beginning :O)


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