Thursday, January 30, 2014

New Voice: Len Vlahos on The Scar Boys

Meet Len on his ongoing book tour!
By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

Len Vlahos is the first-time author of The Scar Boys (Egmont, 2014). From the promotional copy:

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.

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 eight 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 eighth 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.

Looking back, are you surprised to debut in 2014, or did that seem inevitable? How long was your journey, what were the significant events, and how did you keep the faith?

The journey from the beginning of the concept behind The Scar Boys to its anticipated publication on January 21, 2014, has been long. Really long. Really, really long. Longer than the Thirty Years War. Longer than the entirety of recorded human history. Longer than the Protozoan Age, and I’m not even really sure what that is.

Okay, I might be exaggerating (a little), but you get the idea. Now let me give you specifics:

"Woofing Cookies"
I dropped out of NYU film school in the mid 1980s to play guitar in a touring punk-pop band called "Woofing Cookies." We put out our own record, booked a coast-to-coast tour, bought a van, and off we went.

Eleven days into the two-month tour, the van—a Ford Econoline that we had, for reasons now long forgotten, named Barney—broke down near Spartanburg, South Carolina. We used what little money we had left to have Barney towed to the site of our next gig in Athens, Georgia. We wound up canceling the tour and living in Athens for months while we worked to earn enough money to get the van fixed and go home.

Playing in a touring band and getting stranded in Georgia was a transformative period in my life, and I spent many years trying to tell that story. I wrote mediocre screenplays, not very relevant essays, and even one meandering novel. None of it worked and the project went on a shelf, both literally and metaphorically.

Photo by Kristen Gilligan
Flash forward to 2007. I was at a baseball game in Los Angeles with some bookseller friends (I work in the book industry). One of the people in our group was Allison Hill, now President and CEO of Vroman’s Bookstore in Pasadena. Allison, it turned out, was a writer too, and she and I spent most of the game talking about writing.

Something in me clicked, and when I got back to my hotel that night, I started writing a story, not about Woofing Cookies, but about a disfigured boy who is saved by music. The experience of the touring band became the backdrop, not the centerpiece of the story.

It was the magic moment I needed. This wasn’t my story at all, this new story belonged to Harbinger Jones and his friends. And it worked.

Sort of.

In early drafts, The Scar Boys was an adult novel. Forty year-old Harry is on his way to a reunion of the Scar Boys (the fictional band in the book) and is recalling his time on the road. The chapters alternated between past and present.

One publisher was very interested in the manuscript and for a brief moment, it looked like it might actually get published. But it was not to be. That episode was followed by a series of really wonderful and flattering rejection letters. Really. They were wonderful. And flattering!

I was getting ready to tuck the book away in the back of my sock drawer when Kristen, my wife and partner in all crimes and misdemeanors, said to me “why do you insist on jamming that forty year-old character into your young adult novel?”

“Young adult novel?”

“Yes, young adult novel.”

It took three days of me grousing at the idea to realize that Krissy was absolutely right. Harry’s story was very much a story about and for teens. I dusted off the draft, and started writing anew.

Finally, in late 2011, I had a draft for my agent, the wonderful Sandra Bond, to sell, and sell she did. And so the journey ends.

Almost.

Len's workspace
As noted earlier, I have spent my professional career working in the book industry, most of it at the American Booksellers Association, a trade group representing the interests of indie bookstores.

When Egmont signed the book in spring of 2012, they wanted to wait and launch the book at a major indie bookseller conference held each winter. It was too late for the 2013 event, so January 2014 was targeted as the publication date.

Given my relationships with indie booksellers, it was the right idea, but it also meant waiting almost two years from contract to publication. Yikes!

But now, finally, this journey that started when Ronald Reagan was still President, that started when I was still a teen myself, is finally and truly over. Almost.

As someone with a full-time day job, how do you manage to also carve out time to write and build a publishing career? What advice do you have for other writers trying to do the same?

Not being a big fan of horror as a genre, I’m not usually drawn to books by Stephen King. I do, however, love his book On Writing (Scribner, 2000). I took a lot of sage advice away from that tome, the best of all being to “write every day.”

Let me say that again. Write. Every. Day. It is, for me, the second most important principle in the craft of writing. And it’s easier said than done.

When I was writing the original draft of The Scar Boys, I was getting up early in the morning and writing before work. It was a regimented, predicable schedule and I followed it religiously.

I have a lot of writer friends who work when inspiration hits, what I think of as binge writing. I’ve never understood that. If I don’t write on a schedule, I feel too much pressure to produce when inspiration finally finds me. Working at the same time every day seems to tune my brain to a kind of literary, temporal harmonic. I am the writing analog of Pavlov’s dog. (Woof woof.)

After my kids were born, and my mornings were no longer my own, I floundered for a bit. I tried writing late at night, but too often I fell asleep with my computer on my lap. That’s when I discovered the commute.

I take a train every day from Stamford, Connecticut to New York City for my day job (which is still in the book trade). The ride is about an hour. It’s quiet, I have no access to the Internet, and no one calls me. My time is completely my own. At first I was self-conscious about people looking over my shoulder, but that anxiety was short lived. I now write five days a week on the way to work, and I love it. It’s an incredible way to start a day. (In fact, I’m writing the answers to these questions on the train! We just passed New Rochelle.)

Will this work for everyone? Am I saying you should write on a train? No. Well, not unless you want to. The point is that you need to find the time and environment that suits you best. And whatever that environment is, write every day.

As for weekends, I tend to edit when I can find time, and truth be told, it’s not nearly as productive. And that brings me to number three on my no longer secret list of writing principles: “Don’t look back.”

When I sit down to write a story, I try very hard to push forward without looking back. If I try to make every word perfect, nothing ever gets done. At the start of each new day, I may re-read the last few hundred words, just to reacquaint myself with how the story was flowing, but even that small indulgence can pull me off track if I’m not careful; it’s too easy to spend too much time wordsmithing. One of my favorite bosses, who was really more of a mentor than a boss, once told me that the “perfect is the enemy of the good.” I subscribe that theory.

“But Len,” you might be asking, “shouldn’t you want the work to be, well, you know, perfect?”

Yes, which takes us to number four: “All good writing is rewriting.”

Once I get through a draft, I go back to the beginning and start editing. I take two or three passes on the computer, then I print out a copy and edit it on paper. I rework parts of the story wholesale—the ending may change (beginnings are easy, endings are hard!), old characters are abandoned, new characters are born, timelines are examined. It’s an invigorating and sometimes excruciating process. But it’s where a story really comes to life.

So that’s when and how I write. As for all the other things one needs to do to build a career as a writer—and holy crap there are a lot of them!—thank God for evenings. After Kristen and our kids have gone to bed, I answer email, work on my author website, engage in conversations about books, write for blogs (like this one!), and play the guitar. Play the guitar? Yes, play the guitar. The Scar Boys is a rock and roll coming of age story, and my guitar is coming with me on the book tour.

The bottom line is that writing and all that goes with it is a time consuming endeavor. And it’s hard. If it were easy, everyone would do it. (Cliché alert!) Unless you know something (or someone) I don’t, if you want food and clothes and health care and a place to live, you’re going to need a job while you’re starting your writing career. But fret not, you can do both. It’s all a matter of discipline.

So thanks for reading—

Daddy's groupie
“Len, WAIT!”

Yes?

“Okay Mr. Smarty Pants, we’re on to you. You told us your second, third, and fourth principles of writing, but what’s number one.”

Good for you, Grasshopper, give yourself a point for paying attention. No, give yourself two, because the number one skill for any writer to master—for any human being to master—is to listen.

That’s it. Just listen. Stop talking and listen. Hell, stop writing and listen.

Listen to the people you know and really try to understand what they’re saying. If you and they disagree, listen harder.

Listen to people you don’t know, and try to hear the rhythm in their conversation.

Rhythm and music are hidden around every corner and if you listen hard enough, you can hear them.

Listen to the ambient noise of the world—trains and traffic and wind and helicopters and seagulls and air conditioners and everything else. Stop, open your ears, and let the world come to you. It has a lot to say.

Cynsational Notes

Check out Len's current tour cities, dates and details.

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