Perhaps this question is not relentlessly asked of the thin, cute newbie authors who were clearly in middle school quite recently, but as a frumpy, bespectacled, middle-aged person, I can absolutely count on someone in the crowd asking me how I get into the head of a tween or teen.
Here are three time-honored gig answers:
1. It is a case of arrested development.
2. It is the adult mind I find baffling.
3. Minds are minds, middle-grade or middle-aged. All the same rules and minefields apply.
As any writer knows, we actually have NO IDEA how we get into the mindset of our young characters. And some of us are not actually convinced that such a mindset exists. Perhaps we adults just desperately want to believe that we’ve moved along nicely from those messy, tender years – that progress has been made and we’re safer now.
But wanting to believe something (in spite of many stories to the contrary) does not make it exist. So, when asked this question, I suggest we look not only at the cruelty of middle-school kids, but to the cliquishness of PTA moms, the social strata in the teacher’s lounge, the pettiness in any office environment, or ball team, or law firm, or government, or group of humans of any size at any age. Why is there never room at the lunch table for Great Aunt Shirley in the rest home?
My thoughts about the emotional evolution between cradle and grave is rarely what they want to hear. They want to know what tricks I use.
Luckily in this case, there is answer number four! We writers are brought back to the emotional intensity of kids with some regularity by the very nature of our business.
When we finish a manuscript we send it to an agent or editor with hearts full of love and hope and trust. Then we wait for their quick if not instantaneous response. Could it be any other way? To read our book is to love it. Agent/editor needs merely to read the opening paragraph to feel as we do about our characters. And once Agent/editor feels this way, nothing could keep him/her from reaching us to celebrate. Call? Email? Perhaps he/she will drive over, contract and roses in hand!
But hours pass since that send button clicked.
The sun sets without word. We rush to check at dawn and find cyber silence. We have a friend email us to make sure it’s working. We check the dial tone on the phone. We pretend to engage in conversation about things other than editor/agent and the pending call but we do not fool anyone.
As time passes we start making excuses for agent/editor. Maybe he/she is sick. Dead. Maybe he/she is busily sharing our manuscript with other people so they can help us make big happy plans!
We devise sneaky excuses to call or write. We stalk his/her facebook. We make promises and bargain with our gods. We don our lucky socks and look for signs in everything. We begin asking strangers in line at the bank what they make of this wait.
We re-read the manuscript, desperately trying to see it through his/ her eyes. We find humiliating flaws. We frantically re-write, and wonder if we can beg him/her not to read the horrid old version, if they haven’t already, and read this one instead.... unless they loved the first one.
Our friends and relatives don’t understand.
Yes! We are now obsessively, breathlessly, hopelessly, desperately, utterly, agonizingly in the mindset of a teen in love, waiting for Agent/editor to make a move. And we get to feel this with each new book, and each new stage of each new book.
Success! Answer number four reveals the fountain of youth! The torture of absolute powerlessness and the torment of hope. I wouldn’t wish it on anyone... but myself.
P.S. Please forgive me for re-posting this piece which originally ran in the SCBWI Bulletin.