Saturday Spotlight- Matt Burns

Posted July 12, 2020 by stuckint in Features, Saturday Spotlight / 0 Comments

Hello everyone. It’s Saturday and today we are so excited to welcome Matt Burns to the blog. He is the author of Smooth published through Candlewick Press. Smooth is his debut. We are thrilled to share Smooth, and Marks discussion of his work with all of you!

About the Book

Saturday Spotlight– Matt BurnsSmooth by Matt Burns
Published by Candlewick Press on June 16, 2020
Pages: 368

Kevin’s acne is horribly, hideously bad. Can a risky treatment fix his face — and his entire life? A witty and sharply observed debut.
Fifteen-year-old Kevin has acne, and not just any acne. Stinging red welts, painful pustules, and massive whiteheads are ruining his life. In an act of desperation, he asks his dermatologist to prescribe him a drug with a dizzying list of possible side effects — including depression — and an obligatory monthly blood test. But when he meets Alex, a girl in the lab waiting room, blood test day quickly becomes his safe haven — something he sorely needs, since everyone, including his two best friends, is trying his last nerve. But as Kevin’s friendships slip further away and he discovers who Alex is outside of the lab, he realizes he's not sure about anything anymore. Are loneliness and self-doubt the side effects of his new acne meds? Or are they the side effects of being fifteen?
Told in a bitingly funny first-person narration, this debut novel crackles with wry and wistful insights about the absurdities of high school, longing and heartbreak, and a body out of control. A surefire hit for teen boys and reluctant readers, Smooth gets under the skin of a tenth-grader who is changing — inside and out.

About the Author

Matt Burns grew up in Alpharetta, Georgia and wrote this book in New York. He currently works as an animation producer in New York City.


What is Smooth about? What was your inspiration behind it?

Matt: Smooth is about a sophomore in high school with bad acne who goes on medicine that requires monthly blood tests, and he meets a girl in the waiting room. It’s about zits, crushes, friendships, and depression. My goal was to write an honest depiction of a fifteen-year-old boy’s thoughts. Kevin is a sarcastic, unlikeable jerk for most of the story, which I hope makes him relatable to fifteen-year-old boys or anyone who’s ever known one. But he can also be sensitive and thoughtful and as confused and conflicted as everyone is in high school. He can flip from extreme, unearned confidence to painful shyness depending on the situation, which was how most of my friends and I acted at that age.

Around the same time in 2014 I saw the movie Boyhood and read Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret. Neither have a twisty plot or world-ending stakes, but they’re engrossing because of their honesty, and that made me want to write a realistic YA novel. The basic premise that got me started writing Smooth was that a kid meets a girl who doesn’t go to his school and develops a crush on her, so how does he balance that with his friends at school who are also changing and making new friends? From there, my outline was the school calendar – picture day, homecoming, Halloween, winter break, spring break – and I wrote straight through, thinking one scene at a time, focused on explaining the situations and Kevin’s reactions to everything as honestly and realistically as possible, always leaning towards voice and emotional realism over plot. Instead of thinking of what would be the most interesting thing that could happen here, I’d think what realistic, and usually boring, thing would happen here, but what’s an interesting interpretation for Kevin to have?

Barely anything happens in Smooth. All the drama and tension exist in Kevin’s head and in small moments between him and his friends, which is how I remember being a teenager felt. There were no grand romantic tragedies in my high school experience. But there were constantly moments that felt enormous – a girl making eye contact with me might keep me up at night for a week, debating if she was into me or if she just looked in my direction and it meant nothing.

What is your writing process like?? Do you have any writing rituals? Is your process research intensive? 

Matt: The only time I can write is first thing in the morning, before work or doing anything else. Most days I go directly from bed to my computer and start writing. The trick is to write before turning on my phone or checking the internet. Once that happens, my attention span is wrecked for the day. I try to follow Stephen King’s advice from On Writing, to write every day and have a set word count you have to hit. On a good day, if I get in the zone when everything’s clicking, I may get out a few thousand words. On a not-so-good day, I’ll stare at the wall and have to force myself to type 500 words I know I’ll probably delete later. Some days it doesn’t happen at all and I’ll look through the outline, maybe make some adjustments, and hope for a better day tomorrow.

Smooth had very little research other than listening to emo music I was into at the time, reading some things I wrote when I was fifteen, and trying to get my head back into that sensitive place to write honestly about teenage emotions, especially the ugly ones.

Did you always want to write books? Do you have any advice for aspiring writers?

Matt: Your first draft isn’t supposed to be good, it’s just supposed to be done. Keep going and don’t put too much pressure on yourself. Once you get to the end, then you’ve got time to figure out what worked and what didn’t.

In high school and college, I wanted to write for TV and wrote a lot of scripts. Near the end of college I had an idea for a TV show and as an exercise before writing a script, decided to write short stories about each character to try to work out their personalities. I got carried away with it, with one short story leading into the next, and realized I was writing chapters of a book. I kept at it, just to see if I could do it, and after a few months wound up with a book-length manuscript. Nothing ever came of that, other than the realization that I could write a book, or at least a book-length Word document, and that I’d had fun getting inside the characters’ heads in a way you can’t do as easily when writing a script. I never wound up writing the script.

After that, I wrote a couple more book-length manuscripts. I’d have an initial idea and go for it, winding up with these huge Word documents that I’d enjoyed writing but didn’t think were worth sharing with anyone. I’d just make them up as I went, purely a creative outlet before going to work. After a few of those, I realized I was wasting a lot of time and should take this more seriously and try to write something for real and make an effort to get it published.

My understanding of how publishing worked came from a used, outdated copy of a Writer’s Market book I’d bought for a quarter at McKay’s in Chattanooga, Tennessee. That helped clarify the process, which I had no clue about before, of agents and query letters. It helped break down what seemed daunting into clear steps.

Roughly the timeline for publishing Smooth was: 9 months or a year of writing and revising the first draft. Several months of sending query emails to agents (I made a spreadsheet of potential agents pulled from Publishers Weekly and other sources online, and sent at least one letter out every morning before work), then I signed with my incredible agent Katelyn Detweiler (who is the author of several YA novels, go buy and read them). She gave me fantastic notes on the manuscript (giving much-needed narrative structure and an emotional arc to what was, at the time, essentially a collection of aimless journal entries with Kevin’s observations on things) and she and I spent several months revising until it was in good enough shape to send to publishers. Then about a year of getting different responses from publishers – many rejections, a few who were interested but suggested major changes that would raise the stakes but also turn the book into something I didn’t want it to be, and then, finally, interest from Kaylan Adair at Candlewick, who understood and supported exactly what I was trying to do with the story. Then there was another year and a half of revisions after signing the deal. Editing with Kaylan was a dream experience – she had plenty of notes and 99% of them I agreed with instantly. She pointed out plot holes, suggested ways to re-order scenes to build tension, and helped clarify Kevin’s long-winded emotional rants, while always keeping the story focused on the initial goal of emotional honesty and realism. Show quoted text

What About You?

Have you read Smooth? Do you have questions for Matt? Chat with us in the comments!

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