Kody Keplinger is a New York Times and USA Today bestselling author who has published four young adult novels, a middle grade novel, and two novellas, and her novel "The DUFF" was made into movie starring Mae Whitman and Robbie Amell. The truly impressive thing is that Keplinger has achieved all of this at the ripe old age of 24.
Well, surely all this success so early in life has gone to her head? Not at all. MTV News had the chance to sit down with Keplinger at YALLFest, and she is utterly charming and delightful.
Since selling a book while still in high school is a rare accomplishment, we wanted to know all the deets. Keplinger graciously shared her path to success and offered advice to aspiring teen writers.
MTV News: Since you wrote "The DUFF" while still in high school, had you taken any writing classes at that point?
Kody Keplinger: No, I’m actually from a really tiny town in Kentucky. There’s one high school in the entire county, so everyone goes there, and there’s still only about 100 students in each graduating class, so it’s really small. We had our basic English classes, and we had an advance English class, like the honors English class and the AP class, but that was it. We never had a creative writing class or anything like that. So the only writing I ever really did, for school anyway, was in regular English classes.
MTV: That makes it even more amazing that you wrote a hit novel while in high school.
Keplinger: Well, I loved to write. I always have. I think I really started loving to write when I was in second grade. We had an assignment where we had to write something for class, and I remember being so excited because to me that sounded fun. Because I was always making up stories anyway. I would draw pictures all the time, and I would tell these crazy, soap-opera level dramas for the people in the pictures I was drawing. Like I would talk to myself as I drew, saying the dialog – it was really weird. So when I got an assignment where I had to get a grade on writing something, I was excited, and I think that’s when I kinda realized, "Oh, I really love doing this." And I’ve been writing ever since.
MTV: Once you finished writing "The DUFF," did you have critique partners or betas to offer feedback?
Keplinger: I had a couple of friends who wrote fan fiction along with me – I wrote a lot of fan fiction when I was in middle school and high school – and we were used to sharing our stories for fan fic. So when I started writing original stuff, I knew I could go through a couple of them.
But I also started looking into online writing communities, and I met several people online that would read for me. And it’s actually funny – I’m still friends with a lot of those people I met then, and now we all have published books, whereas we were all still aspiring at the time.
MTV: That’s so cool that all of you who started out together are now published. So when you were ready to start querying, did you tell agents how young you were?
Keplinger: No. I had another book that I had briefly queried prior to "The DUFF" that I had written when I was sixteen, and the query letter was so terrible. I do believe I wrote a whole paragraph in my original first draft of that about how "I’m sixteen so I know what it’s like to be a high schooler." It was bad. It was terrible. I only queried very, very shortly – no one had any interest, for good reason.
So I started writing "The DUFF," and I really worked on the query, and I made the decision that I wasn’t going to mention my age or anything about me. There’s no bio in my query letter. It was just, "here’s the pitch for the book, it you’re interested, here’s my contact info." That was it.
The agent who signed me had no idea that I was seventeen until she called me. At the end of the phone call, she asked if I had any questions, and I was like, "Not really a question, but ... umm ... my mom’s going to have to co-sign everything." And she goes, "Why?" and I said, "I’m seventeen. Is that okay?" And she goes, “Yes. Uh ... can I talk to your mom?"
So, no, I didn’t include my age. I wanted my work to stand on its own. I wanted to get someone’s attention on my own.
MTV: Your youth wasn’t an issue while querying, but were there any problems later during the publication process because of your age?
Keplinger: Not particularly. The only real thing is that occasionally I would go to a book signing and people would get together at a bar or something after. I will fully admit that I totally went to a bar after BEA, but I didn’t drink anything because I didn’t want to push my luck. And occasionally there were writer meetings or writer parties at bars. That was the only awkward thing in that I was younger than everybody and sometimes people would forget that.
But as far as publishing-wise, my age was never a big issue. My editor did call me before actually buying the book – she wanted to have a conversation with me – and I have a feeling it was “I just want to make sure you’re not a bratty seventeen-year-old.” And then right after I got off the phone they were like, “Yeah, so we’re gonna offer on the book.” So overall I haven’t had an issue with it except the bar thing.
MTV: Was it weird to take creative writing classes in college after you were already a NYT bestseller?
Keplinger: Yes and no. I wasn’t a NYT bestseller at the time. I didn’t become a NYT bestseller until this year. And my book didn’t come out until my sophomore year of college even though I sold it right before I left for school. They didn’t have a specific young adult class, so I was taking essay writing and poetry and things like that that weren’t in my field.
Now it was slightly weird taking a fiction class because the emphasis in college was so heavy on literary and short story kind of fiction. And there is a weird stigma in a lot of academia against young adult writing. I was asked by many people, "So when are you going to write for adults?" And I was like, "I don’t know, I'm probably not." But I had some professors who were incredibly supportive, incredibly kind. And then I had others that were, ya know, a little snobby about it. And that played a big part in me ultimately, after two years of college, realizing I’m already doing the thing I’m majoring in so I’m going to move to New York and focus on my career. It was also really difficult because I was writing like five papers a week for college and trying to meet book deadlines. There was a lot of Mountain Dew in my life.
MTV: Do you have any advice specifically for teen writers?
Keplinger: The first thing I’d say is don’t give yourself a deadline. I get letters so often from teenagers saying, "I want to be published before I’m eighteen or I’ve set myself this goal," and I always have to kind of discourage them from that and explain that there are a few reasons why.
Number one, you can only control your writing. You can only control yourself and your abilities. You cannot control publishing. You can write an amazing book and it might not be the right time or there might not be the right people for it at that moment. But number two, publishing takes a long time. So even if you sold the book today, it might not be on shelves for two years.
So I always tell them: don’t give yourself a deadline as far as when to be published because you have no power over that, instead set yourself goals that you can control. So maybe it’s "I’m going to finish this draft by the end of the semester" or "I’m going to have this book completely revised and sent out to some friends who are going to read it by December" or whatever it might be. Something that you have the power to control. "I’m going to be querying agents by this date." You have the power to control those things. You don’t have the power to say when you get an agent or when you get published, and you’re going to drive yourself crazy if you try to make yourself goals of things you actually have no power over.
So instead I say take your time. Enjoy it. Right now writing is fun. Don’t rush it because the thing that I think a lot of teenagers don’t realize is once you start getting published, it’s your job. You know, I had a full-time job at the age of seventeen. And I’m still doing that, and I’m very happy about it, but it is very different being on deadline and writing for a publisher than it was when I was writing for my own pleasure in high school. And that’s something that you can’t go into lightly.
MTV: I think that’s excellent advice for all writers! Since you’ve already had many successes at such a young age, what are you goals and dreams now?
Keplinger: I really would like to eventually write for film and television. That’s like a long-term goal of mine, and it’s something that I’m hoping to pursue in the next few years. You know, kind of stretch my wings in that area. I love TV, particularly, because I love characters. I think TV is a really interesting medium in that you get to explore the same characters for a prolonged time period and really watch them grow in ways that you can’t do in books or movies. And so I would love to do that.
For my book writing, I just want to keep writing my own books. I’ve got a book called "Run" coming out in June that I am so excited about. It’s very different from my other books. It’s kind of a new adventure for me. I’m hoping to expand my horizons and let my career go in a new way. My last four books for young adults have all been on the romantic comedy side, and my next book is a lot more serious. It’s not a romance; it’s about best friends. Sort of a "Thelma & Louise" type of story. I’m hoping I can broaden my audience and my strengths and challenge myself with it.