Because I'm on Prednisone and Codeine cough syrup, which means I'm full of energy and love for the world. And I also have a major case of the munchies, so don't grab for my Peppermint Patties unless you wish to draw back a nub. :)
The usual caveats: Answers come from my personal experience. Your mileage may vary. My way is not the only way. If you follow my links to Chuck Wendig's blog, prepare for NSFW vocabulary.
1. How do you know if a book is MG, YA, or Adult?
Here's a great post on this topic from Claire Legrand and WriteOnCon.
And here's my quickie version: Who will read and enjoy the book, and how old is the protagonist?
Middle Grade, or MG, is typically for ages 9-12 but might be read by kids as young as 7, considering kids usually read up. MG will have a character in the 10-13 range and have a plot that isn't too scary, doesn't have swearing, and doesn't focus on romance, although there might be some romantic thoughts. We're talking G to PG.
YA, on the other hand, is written for ages 13 and up but might be read by kids as young as 9. The protagonist is a teen, usually 16 or over, and it's often in first person and has an immediate and emotional point of view. There might be swearing, romance, and even sex, if you're getting into the higher teens. PG, PG-13.
On the fence between MG and YA? That's called Upper MG, and lots of kids want it.
NA, or New Adult, is a new sort of age range dealing on ages 18 and over and the concept of changing from a teen to an adult. It often includes a sexual awakening, intense feelings, and adult problems. R. Maybe even NC-17, if you get into Beautiful Bastard-type stuff.
Adult is… for adults. The protagonist can be any age, but the topics are mature.
The thing is, you write the book you write, and then an agent or editor can help you figure out the best way to sell the book and where it goes in the bookstore. I believe in writing the book you want to write first, then looking at where it would fit and tweaking it to fit there beautifully.
Note: There are always exceptions, and some of the best books speak to readers of many different age groups. Neil Gaiman writes books like that. If you're worried about stating the age range during querying, just take a guess. Your query and submitted pages will give the agent the best idea of how to sell it.
2. How do you deal with pacing?
Here's a great post from Janice Hardy on plot and pacing. Her entire blog is gold.
Personally, here's how I deal with pacing.
First of all, I read a ton of books, which means my brain understands the basic layout of a story. Introduction > instigating factor > disequilibrium > go after goal > climax > denouement. So when I'm thinking about my story seed and planning out my plot, I know the basic signposts. When I write a first draft, I write it straight through, letting it happen organically. When I edit that draft, I keep a page of longhand notes on what's missing, what needs to be connected, questions I might still have. When I do the third draft, I try to incorporate all the notes. And that's my fourth draft, which is the first one I feel I can look at critically to consider pacing.
I make an Excel spreadsheet on a chapter by chapter basis, noting how many pages the chapter has, what happens in it, and how exciting it is on a scale of 1 to 10. I don't want a bunch of 2s in a row, but I don't want a bunch of 9s either. I want to make sure that the reader will be excited and compelled to read on, but also that there are small periods of rest to help them catch their bearings. And when I'm reading, if I get bored, I make a note to fix it later. If the writer is bored, the reader will be, too.
To be quite honest, my pacing has gotten better with each book. Sometimes, it just takes lots of practice and absorbing other people's awesome stories. When you read the books that make you feel like you want your book to make others feel, you can replicate how that author achieves the tension that makes you keep reading.
* End each chapter with something that doesn't allow the reader to put down the book. A question, something scary, a footstep in the silent hall.
* Make sure your characters have secrets that will be revealed. Avoid info dumps and let their backstories and secrets come out naturally, like gumdrops along a path.
* Draw out the sexual tension. Draw out blackmail. People rarely say exactly what they mean, and your reader will dwell on every word for the payoff they want.
* When the payoff comes, give the reader proper time to enjoy it. Just a few beats. Not too long. Then on to the next question.
And your genre will also speak to pacing. Literary fiction will be slower than military scifi adventure. Teen contemporary will be slower than teen dystopian. The pacing should fit the subject matter.
3. How do you deal with writer's block?
For a long answer, read Chuck Wendig's post on 25 Ways to Defeat Writer's Block.
Personally, I haven't had writer's block since I started writing books. Once I became open to possibility, the problem became having too many ideas jockeying for attention. I think writer's block happened to me, when it did, because instead of hunting around for something fun to play with, I had this idea that there was a PERFECT IDEA that would yield THE PERFECT STORY that would appeal to EVERYONE ON EARTH and make A BAJILLION DOLLARS. And no idea was ever THE ONE. So I would find fault with every little weird idea instead of properly studying it and discovering what it might become.
I really saw this idea in action at my writers group, where we're given a story prompt and equal time to write before presenting to the group. From a broad prompt like "it's midnight" to a very narrow prompt like using the same first line, it's amazing how vastly different our resulting short stories were. What makes a story or book special isn't the beginning idea; it's your unique take on it, the story that sprung from you instead of any other person in the world. So when you see something that sparks you--a pic on tumblr or a snatch of conversation in a coffeehouse-- give it time, energy, and open-minded space to bloom. It doesn't need to be perfect; it needs to be interesting.
My YA, Servants of the Storm, (out next August) was entirely born of a photo set of Six Flags NOLA after the hurricane. I tag things that whisper about story ideas on tumblr with YOINK so I can find them later. There are ideas everywhere--you just have to settle on one and let it obsess you.
And then you have to pick one thread and write a story without thinking about all the stories you aren't writing or worrying if you're telling the wrong story, because there is no wrong story. Set a timer for 15 minutes and sit in front of your document. You're either writing, or you're thinking about your story. Don't do anything but write or think in that time. With enough time on task, you'll have a book. Sometimes, it doesn't feel magical, and the words don't come, and that's okay. Because sometimes, it will be pure magic. You just have to push through the times that writing feels like work.
4. How do you find beta readers?
When I was first starting out, I used the Blueboard (for picture books, MG, YA) and Absolute Write forums to find critique partners. Now, I have a stable of trusted friends who don't mind reading. You can also ask around on Twitter, Facebook, or on the Critique Partner Dating Service. What's important is that you're specific in what you're asking for and what you expect from them. And what you're willing to give back.
"Agented author seeking critique partner for a YA dystopian, full ms swap" is vastly different from "Need quick beta reader for MG, first book". A critique partner should be at the same writing level as you and willing to provide knowledgable criticism of plot, pacing, characters, timeline issues, grammar, and you must be willing to do the same for them. A beta reader, for me, is someone willing to read for free and out of the goodness of their heart, and I ask for any feedback they're willing to give. Which means sometimes I get an "It's good!" and sometimes I get a Word doc smothered in red, comments, and changes. And you never, ever complain to your beta readers. You thank them for whatever they give and use only what will level up your writing and your story.
So: find someone at your same level or a little bit above where you are, ask for specifics regarding what information you need from them, and be sure to be grateful and to return the favor.
5. How do you find the right opening line?
This one's tough! Sometimes, I know the opening line from the very start and it never changes. Sometimes I realize what it needs to be halfway through the first draft, or while editing another draft, or after my agent and I have talked over revisions. Sometimes it comes to me in the middle of writing, and sometimes I pop awake in the middle of the night. I know it's the right one when the urge to change it leaves. I know it when I see it.
Which means that when I don't see it, I know. But I don't let that stop me. I just start the story where it needs to be started and keep writing. You can always go back and change the first line, and it might come to you more naturally after you've gotten deeper in the story. What you utterly, absolutely cannot do is stare at a blank page and wait for the perfect first line to be whispered into your ear by the spirit owl of Anne Lamott as if the book can't happen until you unlock it with just the right words. The story is more important than the first line. It'll come when it's good and ready.
Hope that helps! Any other questions? Need further clarification or links? Ask in the comments.