LV: Great question and I have two answers, one general and one specific. The general difficulty in writing anything is pushing forward. It’s too easy, especially when composing an initial draft, to obsess about a particular section, particular paragraph, or even a particular sentence. But in writing as in life, the perfect is the enemy of the good. If I don’t keep the story moving I get trapped in an endless loop of self-editing. While I acknowledge (and firmly believe) that rewriting is the most crucial part of the process, the whole story needs to be down on paper first.
The specific issue with The Scar Boys had to do with how much of the backdrop of the book—the touring rock band of teenagers—was drawn from my own experience. In the eleventh grade, my friends and I started a punk pop band called Woofing Cookies. Like the fictional Scar Boys, we put out our own record and booked our own tour, only to see our van break down, stranding us in Georgia.
When I was writing TSB, I often came to parts of the story where the reality of what had happened to me didn’t really work for Harry and his friends, and I would have to remind myself that I wasn’t writing a memoir. I was writing a novel, and my responsibility was to my characters, not some misguided sense of personal history.
Paradoxically, the easiest part of TSB was writing about the band. I had a lot of source material from which to draw inspiration. By the way, one of the fun parts this entire publishing experience has been scheduling a book tour; it’s harkened back to my days playing music. Though this time I do hope to sleep in motels and not the back of a van! http://www.lenvlahos.com/tour-dates/
TCR: What the best (or most memorable) piece of writing advice you've ever received?
LV: I have a friend in L.A. who’s a writer. She once told me about a writing exercise in which she had to write five hundred words in the first person and couldn’t use the words “I” or “me,” or maybe couldn’t use them more than once or twice. (My memory is hazy on the details, but the larger point is the same.) I loved the concept. Not because I don’t think you should use “I” and “me,” but because such an exercise makes you pay attention to the flow of your prose, to pay attention to the detail of your writing.
TCR: The often-dreaded college essay plays a large role in The Scar Boys; do you remember what you wrote your own college essay about? If you had to write one now, what would you write about?
LV: The honest answer is that I have no earthly idea what I put in my own college essay. (I wrote it when Ronald Reagan was president!) If I were to apply to college now, I would almost certainly want to do a video essay. A hobby of mine (when I have the time, i.e., never) is to create and edit videos. I have Final Cut Pro and love it. Here’s an example from my earlier in my professional career. It was a customer service training video that I directed and edited while working for the American Booksellers Association. (I was in it, too.)
What would I say in my video essay? I’d talk about my band, of course!
Heck, maybe I’d even just send this:
TCR: What YA books have you read recently that you'd recommend to readers?
LV: The best YA book I’ve read in a long time is Crash and Burn by Michael Hassan. Full disclosure, when Egmont USA (my publisher) was getting ready to finalize the cover of The Scar Boys, they solicited supporting blurbs from other authors. The only one they received was from Michael. (There’s a quote on the front cover from Peter Buck of R.E.M. (yay!), but that’s a story for another time.)
I had never heard of Michael or his book, and I kind of freaked out. I mean, what if I hated Crash and Burn? I rushed out, got a copy, and dove in. Deep in. It’s a 500+ page tome, but every word is delicious. It’s the story of how Stephen “Crash” Crashinky saves his high school from David “Burn” Burnett. Crash is telling the story after the fact, and his voice is incredible. From the day Crash and Burn meet in grade school, right through the day Burn lays siege to the high school, it’s a realistic, gritty, and gripping tale. The cast of characters—Crash and Burn, Crash’s father and stepmother, Burns’ sister, Crash’s assorted friends—are pitch perfect. Be warned though, this is full of adult content and isn’t for younger teens or the faint of heart. That said, I cannot recommend it highly enough.
Thanks so much, Len!
About The Scar Boys:
A severely burned teenager. A guitar. Punk rock. The chords of a rock 'n' roll road trip in a coming-of-age novel that is a must-read story about finding your place in the world...even if you carry scars inside and out.The Scar Boys is out tomorrow! Len will be touring, so check out his schedule in case you have a chance to meet him. Follow the blog tour my heading over to the Mother Daughter Book Club tomorrow.
In attempting to describe himself in his college application essay--help us to become acquainted with you beyond your courses, grades, and test scores--Harbinger (Harry) Jones goes way beyond the 250-word limit and gives a full account of his life.
The first defining moment: the day the neighborhood goons tied him to a tree during a lightning storm when he was 8 years old, and the tree was struck and caught fire. Harry was badly burned and has had to live with the physical and emotional scars, reactions from strangers, bullying, and loneliness that instantly became his everyday reality.
The second defining moment: the day in 8th grade when the handsome, charismatic Johnny rescued him from the bullies and then made the startling suggestion that they start a band together. Harry discovered that playing music transported him out of his nightmare of a world, and he finally had something that compelled people to look beyond his physical appearance. Harry's description of his life in his essay is both humorous and heart-wrenching. He had a steeper road to climb than the average kid, but he ends up learning something about personal power, friendship, first love, and how to fit in the world. While he's looking back at the moments that have shaped his life, most of this story takes place while Harry is in high school and the summer after he graduates.