Deadly Ever After

The Writing Adventures of The Undead Duo–Julie Hutchings and Kristen Strassel

What I Read When I Write by the Magnificent Jen Lillis

TODAY’S BREW: It’s Mother’s Day. WHATEVER I DAMN PLEASE.

 By Julie

Jen Lillis is the most unique person I’ve ever met on Twitter. Let that sink in. She sent me stinky vintage cookbooks from a basement complete with her own personal notes. So that’s impossible to top. Want to know what else she’s reading and how it helps her write? WELL HERE GOES.

This was a great idea for a blog series (though honestly, it’s Julie, so I’d have participated even if the topic was METAPHORICALLY COMPARE YOUR NEW BOOK TO THE ZONING LAWS OF YOUR HOME STATE).
I’m so grateful to the books I read during the drafting process. All of them–even the ones I don’t connect with–either teach me something, yank me out of a funk, or help me solve a problem in my WIP.
This one’s been a bear. So I’ve been reading a lot.
My latest YA novel (still untitled) is narrated by Barrie: pop-music obsessive, dogged optimist, and super-ambitious singer-songwriter. Her number-one goal is to win an American Idol-type reality competition called Pop University–but when she’s booted off early in favor of a devious neo-folk chick with tons of natural talent, she comes up with an…ah, unusual Plan B for achieving her dream.
Here are the books that have helped me the most while I spin this weird little story:

Joan Bauer, Squashed

If you’re writing a snarky, cynical YA heroine, there’s no shortage of strong narrators you can turn to for voicespiration. If you’re writing a wildly ambitious optimist, literary role models are harder to come by. I dug deep in my vintage YA archive, bypassing a 7th Heaven novelization called Winter Ball, and decided to revisit this gem from 1992. Joan Bauer proves that goodhearted, glass-half-full narrators can still be goddamn funny, and so many of her books are master classes in writing offbeat heroines with big ambitions. She takes goals that could be perceived as silly–growing a giant pumpkin, for example–and infuses them with gravity and urgency. That’s just what I’m trying to do with Barrie, and I hope I can pull it off as well as Bauer does.

Peter Shaffer, Amadeus
Since I started this book, I’ve been joking that it’s like Amadeus with female singer-songwriters. So I picked up the play again–hadn’t read it since college–and took another tour of Salieri’s jealous heart. Barrie is in kind of a similar position: a musician with noble goals who’s toiled and sacrificed for a shot at greatness, and then gets effortlessly upstaged by a true natural. (The music is probably better in Amadeus. I’m trying.)
David Levithan, Hold Me Closer
It’s tough to write a book about music. If you describe something visual well enough, your reader can see it; if you describe food, readers can almost taste it based on past experience. But it’s harder to make readers “feel” a song they haven’t heard before–even if you quote lyrics, you’re still giving them a skeleton without flesh and blood.
I’ve been looking for good, innovative examples of how to communicate the power of song within a novel, and Hold Me Closer is a book that’s kind of emboldened me. It’s a novel in the form of a musical script, and the story unfolds in the lyrics and sharp, funny stage directions. I’m not sure it completely works, but it definitely opened my mind to creative new ways of weaving music into a narrative and illuminating its significance to a character. Tiny Cooper isn’t just in love with music–he’s practically made of music. That’s what I’m trying to get across with Barrie, and I hope readers will feel that.
A.S. King, Ask the Passengers
This is my first f/f romance, so I’m turning to a master for inspiration. I’d be thrilled if my book turned out half as good as an A.S. King; she’s one of the best YA authors around. Her MC talks to planes and Socrates and it’s awesome instead of annoying. LIKE HOW DOES THAT EVEN HAPPEN.
June Foley, It’s No Crush, I’m In Love
jen lillis post
the FABULOUS, 1982-tastic cover of one of the books I mentioned (photographed in its natural habitat on my vintage YA bookshelf
I have an unreasonable amount of love for this severely underrated treasure from 1982. Describing this book does it a disservice, because it sounds like the B plot of an old Who’s the Boss? episode (young teen girl nurses massive unrequited crush on hot English teacher), but the odd-couple friendship between reserved main character Annie and the candid, uproarious Susanna Siegelbaum is more than worth the price of admission. I reread parts of this every time I need to write snappy banter between my two MCs. It’s my aspirational blueprint. (Seriously, this book is so charming–if you ever see it at a library or garage sale, pick it up. It should have won all the prizes, including Best Cover Mustache.)
Bob Stanley, Yeah! Yeah! Yeah!: The Story of Pop Music from Bill Haley to Beyonce 
My two MCs are really well versed in the history of pop music, though they approach it from different angles. So to fill the gaps in my own knowledge, I’ve been slowly digesting this thick, engaging history of pop from 1955 to present. I don’t think Barrie would approve of how cheerfully Stanley lobs spitballs at sacred cows–he describes Talking Heads as “a bunch of male musicians trying to impress Tina Weymouth with their chops”–but she’d certainly like his passion and intellectual engagement with pop in all its forms. It’s the most fun I’ve ever had doing book research.
In the words of my favorite guitarist, the forever-underrated Lindsey Buckingham, that’s all for everyone. Hope you liked this peek at my reading list–stay tuned, ’cause when the book is finally out I’ll probably be back here doing a random interview about jello molds and my favorite hats of 1994. Thanks to Julie for having me over!
Jen Lillis is the YA author of HOW TO REPAIR A MECHANICAL HEART and WE WON’T FEEL A THING. Lover of geeks, robots, villainous queens, haunted dollhouses, & argyle socks. Follow her https://twitter.com/jclillis and http://t.co/v43Zp75D0e.
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One thought on “What I Read When I Write by the Magnificent Jen Lillis

  1. Pingback: New post up at Deadly Ever After | J.C. Lillis New post up at Deadly Ever After | Author of YA fiction and LGBT fiction

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