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On The Table Read, “the best book magazine in the UK“, author Brieanna Wilkoff talks about her debut YA novel, I’ll Be There For You, and what inspired her characters.
Written by JJ Barnes
I interviewed YA author Brieanna Wilkoff about her life and career, what inspired her to start writing, and the story of her debut novel, I’ll Be There For You.
Tell me a bit about who you are.
I’m someone who loves words. I’ve always been an avid reader, and I’ve written stories since childhood. Professionally, my 15-year career has centered around editing within advertising and marketing. And after pursuing book publication on and off for almost 20 years, I finally achieved my dream with my debut young adult novel, I’ll Be There for You, which was published in October.
When did you first WANT to write a book?
As best as I can recall, my first attempt at writing a (sort of) book-length story was around fifth grade. For many years, I wrote a wide variety of things—short stories, poems, screenplays, horror novels, essays, picture books, middle grade novels—but pretty soon after trying my hand at young adult novels a decade-plus ago, I knew I had found my sweet spot.
When did you take a step to start writing?
I was pretty serious about it from a young age. Throughout middle and high school, I read craft books and entered contests. In college, I majored in English with a concentration in creative writing. Since then, I’ve attended workshops and conferences, taken classes, worked with critique groups and partners, and continued to read, write, revise, and learn.
How long did it take you to complete your first book from the first idea to release?
About 5 years. There was a lot of empty time in that period, though—after having the initial idea, I wrote a little bit, then set it aside for a year. Then I picked it back up and wrote a third of the novel before deciding to change it from women’s fiction, which is what it was originally, to young adult. I took another break of 6 months or so, then came back again and started over with it being YA. From that point to submission was about 6 months, but it took almost two more years before the manuscript was acquired by a publisher. The book was released 7 months later.
What made you want to write I’ll Be There For You?
The seed of the idea was to write a story about the healing power of kindness. Kindness is important to me and my family—once we even performed 100 acts of kindness in a single day—and I thought it would be fun to explore the effect it can have in a novel.
What were your biggest challenges with writing I’ll Be There For You?
I initially wrote this story from the mom’s point of view, but it was missing an engaging voice, which is one of my favorite things about YA, so I decided to rewrite the book with the daughter as the main character. Another challenge came toward the end of the process. I’m a big fan of the craft book Save the Cat! Writes A Novel by Jessica Brody and the story structure it suggests. But I read that book after writing I’ll Be There For You.
So when my editor and I started working on my book, I had to make some fairly sizable changes—writing a whole new chapter and several new scenes, rearranging multiple scenes, and cutting other parts—to strengthen the structure and make it more closely align with Save Fhe Cat. It’s probably the most significant revision I’ve done on a novel, but the book is so much better for it.
Who or what inspired you when creating your Protagonist?
Rae is a theatre girl, and that definitely comes from me. While I haven’t suffered a loss like Rae has, I’m very close with my parents, and I used that closeness to imagine what Rae feels after the loss of her father. Much of the kindness aspect stems from things my family and I have done.
Who or what inspired you when creating your Antagonist?
I would say Rae’s mom is the antagonist, and her character was pretty easy for me to write since I’m a mom to a 10-year-old girl. My daughter is reaching the age when she sometimes pushes back or needs her own space, so I try to balance giving her what she wants with protecting her and doing what I feel is right as a parent. There’s a lot of that in the relationship between Rae and her mom.
What is the inciting incident of I’ll Be There For You?
There are two—a woman doing something kind for Rae when she really needs it and telling her to pay it forward, and Rae deciding to be a part of the school play. Without the play, she wouldn’t meet the characters who are so influential in her healing, and without the kindness nudge, she wouldn’t find the acceptance and forgiveness she needs.
What is the main conflict of I’ll Be There For You?
Rae is struggling to process her grief over the loss of her father, and she’s trying to cope alone. Becoming friends with Mac gives her an outlet for her pain, so when they have a falling-out, she feels that loss even more keenly.
Did you plot I’ll Be There For You in advance, or fly by the seat of your pants and write freely?
I didn’t have everything planned out, but I had a pretty good sense of where I wanted to the story to go. However, after researching what was in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame the year Bon Jovi was inducted, I learned about Jon’s efforts to fight hunger and homelessness with the Jon Bon Jovi Soul Foundation, and that changed a key part of my novel.
Did you get support with editing, and how much editing did I’ll Be There For You need?
Before I started submitting, I had family, friends, and critique partners give me feedback. Once I was working with my publisher, Winding Road Stories, I talked with my editor about changes I thought the story needed and made those. Then she and I went through the manuscript, about 30 pages at a time, to tighten the language, flesh out characters’ reactions, and delete anything that wasn’t necessary. While the basic story didn’t change, the final book is noticeably different—and much improved—from the version I submitted.
What is the first piece of writing advice you would give to anyone inspired to write a story?
Embrace revision. It’s hard to get words on paper, especially if you’re trying to write something that requires tens of thousands of words. If you accept that the first draft isn’t going to be great, it helps take the pressure off. You can always change, add, or cut words later. That’s a necessary part of the process—revision is what turns a good idea into a great book.
Can you give me a hint about any further books you’re planning to write?
I’d love to! My next novel (also contemporary YA) is about a high school English class that’s reading Romeo and Juliet. They’re given an assignment to write a letter to “Juliet” asking for love advice, but the letters are anonymously posted online for everyone to see. As people try to figure out who wrote which letter—and who’s crushing, who’s gay, who’s in love, and who cheated—“Juliet” starts responding….
And, finally, are your proud of your accomplishment? Was it worth the effort?
One million percent YES! Having a book published has been a dream of mine for many, many years. I’ve put a lot of effort, time, frustration, tears, hope, joy, and love into this passion, and everything about this publication/launch experience has been wonderful. I’m tremendously proud of the book and grateful to my editor, Vanessa Lanang, and my publisher, Michael Dolan, for helping me get here.
Pop all your book, website and social media links here so the readers can find you:
My website is brieannawilkoff.com, and various purchase links for the book can be found there.
I’ve also started a kindness initiative aimed at inspiring 50,000 acts of kindness, which you can learn more about at kindnessdominoeffect.com.
The rest of my links are below:
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