The real stories of young adult fiction (is it wrong to call fiction real?) are those that skirt the edge. The characters stand on the fringes of society, going along the straight and narrow path, only sideways. There is a churning grit that touches on real experiences, truthful issues. To write edgy YA fiction takes someone who understands it… a writer who has been there.
For YA author Stephanie Kuehnert, the first foray into writing started with Laura Ingalls Wilder. While hardly an edgy book, the story is real and in that, the reality bit hard at this author-to-be.
“When I read the Laura Ingalls Wilder books as a very little girl – I wanted to be her and record my adventures. So I kept a diary and wrote really silly short stories about cows living on the moon. I was like eight, mind you.”
Kuehnert moved on to poetry and short stories in high school and her early 20s. Upon realizing how empty the short stories were – as in no plot or character, but plenty of atmosphere – Kuehnert started writing longer stories. What evolved was novel material.
“I don’t think I even can write a short story anymore.”
It was at this time that Kuehnert started both of the books that went on to be I Wanna Be Your Joey Ramone and Ballads of Suburbia. The genre of YA is what she naturally fell into because she was writing the stories that she’d wanted to find as a teenager, but could not.
“I didn’t know they were necessarily YA because the reason I was writing them was that in the mid-90s when I was a teen, YA that dealt with real issues was scarce.
“Francesca Lia Block was the only one I knew who wrote for teens and was really touching on the subject matter I wanted to read about. She was my inspiration as I wrote though, so I guess I wasn’t totally surprised when my agent said she was going to shop I Wanna Be Your Joey Ramoneas a YA and I’m thrilled to be a part of the YA community.”
The path to writing I Wanna Be Your Joey Ramone took twists and turns on the way to completion. Kuehnert started writing it in 2002 when she realized the short stories she was writing could come together as a novel. What started as an idea became her thesis project for grad school. Kuehnert finished the first draft for her agent in the summer of 2005 – roughly 3 ½ years since the time she started writing it. However, this was not the first book she ever wrote.
“The first full book I ever wrote was an early version of my second book, Ballads of Suburbia. I wrote that draft really fast (for me), like in 9 months or a year, but something about it just wasn’t right, so I set it aside when I started working seriously on I Wanna Be Your Joey Ramone.”
In I Wanna Be Your Joey Ramone, young Emily Black is left by her mother, at only 4 months old, in order to follow the music scene. As a grown up herself, Emily follows her punk rock bloodline with a band of her own and a determination to find the tune that will bring her mother home. After all, if her mom’s following the music, it should lead her right back to Emily…
During this time, Kuehnert figured that Ballads of Suburbia needed a different structure (with the ballads structure giving the book its new name) and to become less autobiographical. Kuehnert went back to working on Ballads of Suburbia in 2006 and finished it – and the revisions – in a year and a half.
With Ballads of Suburbia, Kara McNaughton is a lover of ballads… the kind about punk rockers or country crooners singing to listeners of the many ways to screw up in life. In her school, Kara helps maintain a notebook called Stories of Suburbia, containing newspaper clips about strange and tragic events from the suburbs around America. The notebook also holds personal vignettes Kara calls “ballads” written by her Oak Park friends. However, Kara never gets to write her own ballad, because she has to leave town suddenly at the end of junior year. Four years later, she returns to her hometown to revisit the disastrous events that caused her to leave so that she can move on with her life.
“If you really add up all the stewing time, it took 7 years (to write everything).”
Querying was a whole other enchilada, with Kuehnert approaching the necessary evil in her own way. Being that she cut her teeth on short stories, Kuehnert submitted them to all the wrong places.
“Plus, I was still in the place in my life where I thought my first draft was perfect so I didn’t revise at all. AND I thought it was more important for the manuscript to look cool than anything else, so I put it in some awful font, single-spaced. Basically, I did everything wrong. I didn’t revise and edit, I didn’t research where I was submitting and I didn’t bother looking up or adhering to any submission guidelines.”
Not following the rules didn’t stop Kuehnert from meeting her first agent at a conference. However, when the time came to search for a second agent, Kuehnert made sure her manuscript was well-written and polished, and that she did research on agents and followed their guidelines. She also asked her agented friends for recommendations.
Today, Kuehnert has been focusing on finding balance between writing, the business of writing and her work as a teacher, freelancer and bartender. Keeping the voices of doubt at bay has been a challenge, but one that Kuehnert is determined to get through.
“Now I am working on pushing those voices of doubt and all the business stuff away (or at least into its place, like email, freelancing, etc. only gets to occupy me during certain time slots whenever possible), and rediscovering the love of writing again so I can live to write instead.”
It looks like it is working with Kuehnert plugging away on a new edgy, music-filled YA novel, as well as writing for ROOKIE, an online magazine for teenage girls. You can find her and her books on her Web site.