By Britt Gambino
When Gotham teacher Kody Keplinger declared that she wanted to be a writer, her mom was supportive but cautioned her to have a back-up plan. Kody chose acting as her more “realistic" goal. She never had to resort to it, however, because she wrote and sold her first young adult novel The DUFF
at the age of seventeen.
So, how did she do it? Kody’s answer: “Research. Do your research.” She made a list of literary agents that she thought might be a good match for her book and started sending out query letters. The agent she acquired didn’t know Kody was seventeen until they spoke on the phone. “My mom had to cosign everything because I was underage,” says Kody. Once the book sold to Little, Brown, Kody’s mom had to be present on all phone calls for legal reasons. Kody says, “My mom was like, ‘I don’t know anything abut this stuff, so you can make your own decisions.’”
Kody, like all writers, also exercised trial and error. Before she wrote The DUFF
, Kody wrote A Face in the Crowd
, her first attempt at a novel. She says it was a badly written story about a girl who believes she’s invisible. “I think part of the reason it wasn’t good is because I wasn’t writing true to what I wanted to write,” she says. “The themes were all there, but the execution just wasn’t me.”
But Kody learned that young adult fiction could be different and even edgy—you could use profanity and discuss sexuality. She says this often comes as a surprise to her students at Gotham. “I had one student who came in, dropped a few f-bombs in her YA novel, and everyone was shocked,” Kody says. “But a lot of students find it liberating that you can write that way for this audience.”
In addition, pacing is extremely important to children’s literature (for all ages). “You have to remember your audience is young and doesn’t have the same attention span that you do,” Kody says. “I tell my students I’m the perfect reader for their work because of my own attention span.”
And her final secret? Optimism. “My attitude was that I couldn’t lose anything by trying,” says Kody. And it worked out even better than Kody could have imagined. She has since published three more YA novels (Shut Out
, Midsummer’s Nightmare
, and Secrets & Lies
), plus a new middle grade novel, The Swift Boys & Me
, just released this past May.
, which stands for Designated Ugly Fat Friend, was released when Kody was a sophomore at Ithaca College. A lot of readers think Kody invented the term, but, in fact, it was something she overheard when she was still in high school. “I had three reactions when I first learned about the DUFF,” she says. “One, it’s hilarious; two, it’s really offensive; and three, I’m the DUFF!” It sort of became a joke between Kody and her friends once they all realized that one time or another they all felt like the DUFF.
At the time, she was stuck on another story, unsure of how to make it work. Then, one day, when she was in the shower—“where all of my good ideas come together”—Kody had an epiphany: merge the current story and the idea of the DUFF together! She immediately jumped out of the tub, wrapped herself in a towel, and raced to her laptop where she wrote the first paragraph.
In the midst of her book deal, Kody decided to withdraw from Ithaca where she had pursued a Writing major. She realized it didn’t make much sense to study a discipline (writing) in which she had already carved out a career. And Kody knew she wanted to teach, but she wasn’t interested in getting her masters. One of her writing professors pointed her toward Gotham. And the rest, they say, is history.
A film adaptation of The DUFF
is set to be released sometime in 2015, but Kody can’t disclose anything further. Stay tuned for more.