Writing Personal Stories For Teens, by Stephen Emond (graphic novelist)
I would never say that I write autobiography but I like to say that I write personal stories, because I do cull a lot from my life and from people around me and things that I see, as I imagine most authors do. It gets more difficult with each project because writers look for new aspects of their personality to mine, and usually it’s that first book that is the culmination of a life’s worth of experiences.
I was no different, as my book Happyface definitely felt like a look back on everything I’d lived before. It really wasn’t intentional. It would have been bold of me to say, “I plan to write a book about me, and the people shall love it.” Although, I may have pitched that at some point. It was an organic process, and when you’re sitting there asking, “What would this character say? Where can they go?” it’s definitely easy to answer with what you would say and where you’ve been.
In case you haven’t read it, Happyface is about a boy who suffers an unnamed family tragedy, moves to a new town and decides to start life over for himself. It becomes a social experiment and he uses it to bury pain and escape his reality. It’s a “downward spiral” story.
The genesis of the book came from a title I’d just written it down in a sketchbook. Later I wondered who Happyface was, and the idea of a kid smiling through a lot of inner pain seemed like a great character to dive into. I had his parents divorced, because my own parents were divorced. I made him kind of shy, a little geeky, because I could definitely sell that. He was an artist. That pretty much clenched it -this was going to be a personal story.
I spent a lot of time thinking about my high school years when working on Happyface. I often wished I’d kept a journal of some kind, something I’ve always felt through life but never actually did. It would have been a goldmine for material! I had moved to a new town my sophomore year of high school when my parents divorced, and I viewed it as a chance to be a new person, but this was honestly lost on me as I wrote and only after did it dawn on me that I had actually lived through that experience. I thought I’d just been coming up with interesting story points. Other things I did intentionally use. I pulled a lot of details and banter and relationship tics from my first girlfriend. I thought about the kids that reached out to me when I first moved. These girls Leslie and Emily would always talk to me in French class. They didn’t seem to realize I was an unpopular hermit, so they inspired the Moon sisters. A kid I sat with at lunch with a strong affinity for Married With Children inspired the character Mike. Much later in life, after a breakup, I met new people and had a new group of friends, and that inspired a chunk of the story as well.
This all sounds like autobiographical fiction but it really isn’t. A book starts off as an idea and usually for me it has little to do with anything going on in my life. The arc of the story, even when it involves real events, usually needs to be fictionalized. It needs closure, it needs structure, a lesson to learn, a theme, things a little more tidy than life ever offers. As I flesh it out, personal details tend to fill in the spaces, and round out the characters, and provide the little bits of wisdom and insight. Eventually, though, it also goes through my editor, and a much wider audience than myself or my friends is considered. It goes back to telling a story the right way, giving it a real structure, adding drama and taking away fluff. This is when we get rid of the 90s nostalgia, the Super Mario references, the old sitcom references. I keep adding those in, I can’t help it. This is when we search the story for those universal truths, where we find the pieces teenagers will really relate too, and we strengthen those and bring them to the front. That’s the stage where I stop writing for me, and start writing for an audience.
In my next article, I’ll talk a bit about how I use art in books – thanks for reading!
Stephen Emond’s author website: www.stephenemond.com
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