Saturday, January 10, 2009

The Ballad of My Revisions Process

So I guess I owe an explanation for my absence from the blogosphere for the past few weeks. As most of you know, I was working on the revisions for my second novel, BALLADS OF SUBURBIA. It was probably the most intense writing I've ever done. The revisions were supposed to be simpler than with IWBYJR. The structure of the story is simpler, I didn't have to retool certain sections into a different point of view, and I've done this before. Also, I wasn't balancing revisions with a 9 to 5 job. So even though I had to do it over the holidays and I had 5 weeks instead of 6 like last time, it should have been a cakewalk, right?


I had two complete-nervous-breakdown days during the five weeks. One of them took place the day before the book was due because the book was 104,000 words, which was um, like 4000 words above the max. Sent a panicked email to my editor and she said to take an extra day and try to cut those words. This meant taking an extra day off work (which fortunately my boss is awesome and he covered my Wednesday night for me) and ultimately I did it. Hopefully my editor doesn't hate me and loves the finished product. I'm going to be on pins and needles and not feel like the process is truly complete until I hear back from her.

But I suppose that shouldn't keep me from telling you about BALLADS.

Here's the description we have of it now. This may not be the final back cover copy, but I think it sums the book up pretty well:

There are so many ballads. Achy breaky country songs. Mournful pop songs. Then there’s the rare punk ballad, the ballad of suburbia: louder, faster, angrier . . . till it drowns out the silence.

Kara hasn’t been back to Oak Park since the end of junior year, when a heroin overdose nearly killed her and sirens heralded her exit. Four years later, she returns to face the music. Her life changed forever back in high school: her family disintegrated, she ran around with a whole new crowd of friends, she partied a little too hard, and she fell in love with gorgeous bad boy Adrian, who left her to die that day in Scoville Park. . . .

Amidst the music, the booze, the drugs, and the drama, her friends filled a notebook with heartbreakingly honest confessions of the moments that defined and shattered their young lives. Now, finally, Kara is ready to write her own.

I have a playlist of 33 songs (it was like 23 or 24 songs when I started revisions, but much like my word count got out of control...) and one of them, "The Kids Aren't Alright" by the Offspring, basically boils the concept behind my book down to a 3 minute song. I listened to it repeatedly while writing and often grew quite frustrated that it was taking me hundreds of pages to tell a story so easily explained with lots of whoa-oh's in a punk song. Sigh. For those of you not familar with the song, listen to it and see the trippy music video on YouTube here.

So that's the concept behind the book. Perhaps you can tell from the description that it's pretty intense. The story covers roughly a year in Kara's life (with some flash forwards and some flashbacks), ages 16 to 17. Her world is falling apart around her. She self-injures. She gets addicted to heroin. And I wrote this in first person. Emotionally speaking, it was like writing a whole book from the point-of-view of Louisa, but in first person. I wrote Louisa from a distance for a reason-- I couldn't handle that kind of emotional intensity. This time around I forced myself to do it.

IWBYJR was the book I always dreamed of writing, a story celebrating women who rock that I got to live my rock 'n' roll fantasies through. BALLADS was the book I had to write. I've been trying to write it in some form or another since I was sixteen when I used to write these stark short stories about bored kids sitting in diners that were supposed to make a larger statement about I don't know, how it really feels to be those kids and what those kids are going through. When I got to Columbia at 21, I wrote a quick and dirty first novel called The Morning After. It was set in a fictional town, but basically told the story of my teenage years. I shoved it in a drawer because while I really wanted to write a book that made a statement about the suburbs and kids raising themselves, but I didn't want it to be about my life. When I write a memoir I'll call it that. The book I wanted to write needed to be larger than that. So it went in the drawer, I wrote IWBYJR and waited for the right idea to strike, the framework for my suburbia book.

I got the idea in the midst of writing IWBYJR while I was still in grad school. I was taking a class taught by Joe Meno, who is just one of the best writers and teachers on the planet IMHO. One day he brings in a boombox and plays us Johnny Cash songs and starts talking about ballads and songs as a form of storytelling. I immediately thought of punk rock counterparts to Johnny, like Social Distortion's Story of My Life (YouTube link in case you aren't familiar) and The Distillers' The Young Crazed Peeling (again, here's the YouTube) and how I always thought songs like those expressed my feelings and told my own story better than I could when I was a teenager. Then I thought that my characters in my suburbia novel would probably feel the same way and what if they all wrote their own "ballads" (ie. told the story of the moment that profoundly changed them and their outlook on life) in a notebook. I even came up with the title, Ballads of Suburbia, then. I wrote all of this down, but I was focused on IWBYJR and also knew I'd need to be a more experienced writer to tackle this project if I really wanted to do it justice, so I set it aside until 2006 when IWBYJR was done and my agent was shopping it.

Now that I had ideas for a plot for BALLADS that had nothing to do with my life, I decided I could set it in the town I grew up in during the time I grew up. Of course I know this is risky and people will probably think Kara is me, but I don't care. Even though I hated the town I grew up in so much while I was growing up in it, there were so many places I loved and am nostalgic about. I could also write with authority about the Oak Park/Forest Park/Berwyn area, paint it as vividly as I did my fictional town of Carlisle in IWBYJR. Vivid place is just as important to me as vivid character. This is the official explanation of why I wrote about a real place: I love reading about the Chicago area during different eras and wanted to capture my corner of Chicagoland in the era I came of age in, the early nineties. The landscape is forever changing: the car spindle in Berwyn is gone, Ambrosia’s has long-since closed, the Fireside Bowl doesn’t hold punk shows anymore, and even Scoville Park looks different. But now these places will always exist the way I remember them in this book.

So I wrote a first draft of BALLADS in about 9 months. The best part was when I got to go to The Writing Retreat in St Andrews in New Brunswick Canada with my writing BFF Katie. 10 days of writing in a quiet house on the coast. Sigh. Got back, spent a couple months revising, sent to agent in early spring 2007, then IWBYJR got picked up and chaos ensued. My agent and I didn't get to look at BALLADS again until the end of 2007. There were things we both weren't happy with. I had a complete nervous breakdown around Christmas last year trying to fix it. It ended up taking until February 2008 and admittedly there were things I still wasn't quite happy with. But MTV Books liked it enough to buy it and I knew my editor would give me the push I needed to make it perfect, which of course she did.

Her biggest concern was that the writing felt a little bit emotionally distant. Definitely true. It's not easy to get into the head of a self-destructive sixteen-year-old, especially when you were a self-destructive sixteen-year-old so you have to tap feelings that are very painful and took you years to get past. One thing that I will be very open about is that like my main character, Kara, I cut myself as a teenager. I've talked about it a little bit before and am sure I'll be talking about it a lot more when this book comes out. I haven't cut since my early twenties. Describing those emotions that cause you to cut and that mindset, it's hard. But I went there. That's the main reason I'm so exhausted right now and still caught up in the mood of the book. I continue to listen to the soundtrack constantly. It's hard to snap out of it.

I put a lot of pressure on myself with this book. I want it to help people. I want it to be taken seriously. I want it to be better IWBYJR. I want to live up to the expectations of the people that loved that book, meaning I needed characters that felt just as authentic and multi-dimensional. But I also definitely took some of the criticism of IWBYJR to heart. I was repeatedly accused of being melodramatic with that book. For the most part, I'm like whatever. The melodrama was appropriate for the story, life is really melodramatic sometimes. And I like melodrama. Hello, I watch soap operas. But I didn't want BALLADS to be melodramatic. I wanted it to be filled with those moments where things get screwed up because the people can't communicate. Terrible things happen because of mistakes that could have been avoided. Life is that way a lot of the time, too. Basically, I just wanted to explore a different way that bad things happen to people than I did in IWBYJR.

Okay, I think I'm starting to get too heavy here. It's really difficult to explain what goes on in my brain when I create a story, but basically with BALLADS, I wanted raw, painful, and real and I wanted to write it on more real-world scale than IWBYJR. Kara's just a girl that could be you or your best friend or that girl that sits in the corner of one of your classes that you wonder about. Her story is definitely sad, but there is so much to learn from it, not in a preachy way, that's not my thing, but I don't know. She's a survivor. I'm all about survivor girls because I am one.

I'll stop babbling and just leave you with my playlist. Hopefully I've peaked your interest in the story. I'm proud of it. It's the book I've needed to write for 13 years and I did it justice.

These songs capture the mood and in some cases, precise moments from the book:

Little Boxes by Rise Against
Hey Suburbia by Screeching Weasel
Tonight, Tonight by Smashing Pumpkins
Story of My Life by Social Distortion
Cut My Skin It Makes Me Human by The Gits
Radio by Rancid
Had a Dad by Jane's Addiction
50ft Queenie by PJ Harvey
Christie Road by Green Day
Girl by Tori Amos
Serve the Servants by Nirvana
The Ballad of Jimmy & Johnny by Rancid
Cocaine Blues by Johnny Cash
Is That All There Is by PJ Harvey
Bastards of Young by The Replacements
Down In It by Nine Inch Nails
I Wanna Be Your Boyfriend by The Ramones
Sweet Young Thing Ain't Sweet No More by Mudhoney
Breaking the Girl by Red Hot Chili Peppers
Heroin by The Velvet Underground
Sober by Tool
What Is Truth by Johnny Cash
Mr. Brownstone by Guns N' Roses
Asking for It by Hole
The Kids Aren't Alright by The Offspring
Dying Days by Screaming Trees
Hurt by Johnny Cash
The Park by Slapstick
A Place Called Home by PJ Harvey
From Heads Unworthy by Rise Against
The Young Crazed Peeling by The Distillers
Campbell, CA by Lars Frederiken and the Bastards
Suburban Perfume by Office

Now I'm working tonight and Sunday and going on vacation with my fiance for a couple days, but I'll be back to babble about engagement and wedding stuff and perhaps more book stuff soon.


chris lempa said...

I want to be a kid again, I want to play in the park! Congratulations future Best Friend In Law! That is such a big accomplishment. I can't wait to read my new favorite book!

Oh yeah, the Fireside Bowl is so no longer punk. Fitzgerald's would be a great choice.

Liviania said...

I want to read this book.

In the strange synchronicity of the world, I was dancing around in my living room to The Kids Aren't Alright yesterday.

Authorness said...

Hey, Steph! Congrats on finishing the revisions on this incredible book.

~ Vanessa

Anonymous said...

This novel sounds AMAZING.

I can't wait till it comes out.

Stephanie Kuehnert said...

Thanks for all the support, you guys! I'm glad you are excited about it :)

The Book Obsession said...

I'm so excited about your new book!
I have a blog and just recently reviewed your book I Wanna Be Your Joey Ramone and wanted to know if you would be interested in me interviewing you. If so please contact me at A7Xlvr0440(AT) aol(DOT)com
Thank you =]

jocelyn said...

Have I told you how much I'm looking forward to reading this? No? Well...a lot. A lot a lot. Very, very much.

Also: since I think you're awesome, I nominated your blog for an award at

Melissa Walker said...

Happy engagement! Hadn't gotten to say that yet.

AND, I love how you put your heart out here, for us to see, and tell us your motivations, your hopes and your aspirations for your writing. It's brave and very cool.

Can't wait for BALLADS.

Annika said...

In my opinion, IWBYJR was melodramatic but it fit the characters and the story perfectly. I can't wait to read this one!

(BTW, my mom, who runs the youth program at a library, just ordered IWBYJR.)

Annika said...

P.S. That playlist is so amazing.

simmone said...

wow. well i'm excited about reading it. i can sort of feel it, if that doesn't sound too creepy. happy holidays and congrats on getting through revisions.

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