Like many debut novelists, L.K. (the initials stand for Lisa Kay) Madigan has a day job. Unlike most, hers involves math. She works for a money manager.

“I don't pick the stocks, so I don't have to suffer, but I do sit there with a calculator all day,” says Madigan, who lives in Portland, Ore. “It actually frees up whatever part of my brain is working on a story. You could reconstruct my entire novel from the scraps of paper on which I scribbled notes while at the office.”

Whatever works: Flash Burnout (Houghton Mifflin) is among five finalists for the William C. Morris YA Debut Award. In a starred review, School Library Journal called Flash Burnout “an exceptional novel,” praising its “sensitive dialogue, beautifully developed, diverse characters, unblinking pace, and intelligent humor.”

Madigan's hero (though not everyone would call him that), Blake Hewson, came to life as a minor character in an as-yet-unpublished YA novel. That manuscript “kept getting close and then it would get rejected, so finally, I shelved it,” Madigan says.

Blake, however, would not go away. A friend of Madigan's, who works as a medical examiner, gets credit for exhuming him. “[The friend] told me he was seeing a lot of meth[amphetamine] deaths and asked if I had ever thought of writing about the meth problem,” says Madigan, who at the time had a line stuck in her head—“She had the most heartbroken eyes in the world”—in search of a story to go with it. “After this conversation I realized this girl's mom was a meth addict.”

Madigan initially considered writing the novel from the girl's point of view. “But then I remembered Blake.” Wisecracking, girl-crazy Blake provides comic ballast in a story with heavy aspects. It was also Blake who won over Margaret Raymo, editorial director at Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, who acquired Flash Burnout and Madigan's next novel.

“Definitely it was his funny, funny voice,” says Raymo. “He sounded like a real kid who screwed up, cheated on his girlfriend and got caught, but who you would still want for your own son.”

Madigan says the question she's been asked most frequently since the book's release is about how she created such an authentic characterization of the randy teenage male. She has a son, but he's only 12. “My answer is that I've been boy-crazy since the age of 12 myself. I've spent a lot of time thinking about them, observing them, obsessing over them. I don't mind stooping to eavesdropping on boy conversations. You pick up a lot from paying attention.”

Her own son was very interested in the book, which she read aloud to him, including the scene in which Blake's father gives him the “sex talk.” “Twelve-year-olds aren't ready for this book, but he really wanted to read it, and he talks about it all the time,” Madigan says. “It's very sweet.”

She was more nervous about her mother's judgment. Madigan did not send the novel to her parents, who own a coffee farm in Hawaii, until her mother “ordered herself a signed copy.”

“Then I didn't hear from her, which I figured was her polite way of not telling me she didn't approve,” Madigan recalls. “But finally she called and the first thing she said was, 'That Blake is a stinker,' before telling me in detail what she liked about the book, and which scenes made her laugh. She said she was very proud.”

Next up for Madigan is The Mermaid's Mirror, due in fall 2010, which mom has already read and praised.