Q: How did you decide to write for younger kids after having written for teens in your Gone series?
A: I've actually gone back and forth a lot of times. My wife (K.A. Applegate) and I started in kidlit by ghostwriting for middle grade series like SWEET VALLEY TWINS. Then we wrote three YA series in a row. Then we did the ANIMORPHS series, which was middle grade. Most recently I've been writing the GONE series, which is YA. At each step people would ask whether it was hard to make the change. The simple answer is: nope. It's all just making up stories. That's what I do: I make stuff up. And amazingly, I get paid to do it.
Q: How do you balance being relatable to kids with being an adult writer? There were a couple things in the book that I wasn't sure a 12 year-old would really get.
A: The truth is I almost never think about genre or age level. GONE is dark and intense, THE MAGNIFICENT 12 is funny and less intense. But when I'm writing MAGNIFICENT 12 books I never, for example, dumb-down a joke because I think readers won't get it. I write whatever I think is funny, and some kids will get it, and some kids won't, and some adults will get it and others won't. I never condescend to readers, and I never make assumptions about readers that just because they may be 10 or 14 or 25. No offense to adult readers, but they miss a lot of things that kids get.
I suspect a lot of adult readers think they have an edge over younger readers. It ain't necessarily so. Adults read an awful lot of Dan Brown or The Secret, while their kids are reading (Phillip) Pullman or Lois Lowry or Louis Sachar or (J K) Rowling. As a writer for kids I have the advantage of working for an audience that still has imagination and passion and a degree of idealism -- attributes in somewhat shorter supply in the adult readership. Sometimes adults back-handedly deride what kids have as "innocence." It's not innocence, it's imagination.
Q: What do you think is the key for creating a likable character? And what parameters do you use for the "bad guys" so they're not too scary?
A: I think the key to a likable character is that he or she be real. Which may mean not being obviously likable. In THE MAGNIFICENT 12, Stefan Marr is a bully. And not terribly bright. But readers like him. Probably because he's not working at being likable. In the GONE books people like Caine and Diana -- two rather horrible people -- precisely because they aren't safe and predictable and likable.
I don't pull my punches with evil characters who I intend to be genuinely evil. In the GONE books Drake is an absolute psychopath. He enjoys hurting people. He's a murderer. Not nice. Not even a little. But of course in MAG 12 books, I'm doing humor. I'm not looking to give anyone nightmares.
So I guess the answer is that I try to do exactly what I set out to do. If I set out to scare the reader then that's what I do, to the best of my ability. If I'm creating a more comic villain - say, Risky from MAG 12 - well, then I signal that she's evil, but she's not evil evil. Evil evil wouldn't be funny.
Q: Any advice to writers just starting out?
A: Write. Look, everyone will tell you to read a lot, and that's excellent advice. And you may want to read some of the books on writing, or take courses. But the best way to learn how to do something is to do it. Sit down and write something. Read it back, realize it sucks, and rewrite it until it doesn't. Unless you're some kind of prodigy your writing will be pretty lousy to start with. Your job is to "hear" what's lousy and figure out how to fix it. Do that over and over again. Keep writing and rewriting until you start to notice that your writing isn't entirely awful anymore. It's kind of like learning to ride a bike: you fall down a lot until you don't.