Monday, April 22, 2019

My First Time: Justin Olson

To All the Books I Wrote Before
by Justin Olson

This past Tuesday, April 16, was the end of a decade-long journey—one that began as a small glimmer of an idea. It was the day Earth to Charlie was officially released: my first novel is now out in the world. It’s been a long (looooong) ride. While it’s been nothing short of incredible to see my book make its way from an airy thought in my head to a physical object I can hold in my hands at bookstores across the country, the novel didn’t spring out of nowhere. It never existed in a vacuum. By that I mean, Earth to Charlie is the fifth novel I’ve written. I often think about all those past unpublished books and how they helped me get to this day. I figure it’s only fair to give credit where credit is due.

The following is a love letter to all the books I wrote before.

Twin brothers start a garage band and go on to win an audition to join a small regional traveling carnival. While on the road, each brother comes face to face with his own demons.

This novel began when I was young and inexperienced. Unfortunately, it was doomed from the start. For instance, I wasn’t ever entirely sure where this book took place. The South? I tried but didn’t have the experience to make it authentic. The Midwest? Sure. But, why? I learned that a fully fleshed out setting is a requisite when starting a novel. Actually, even more than that, I now allow my settings to inform my characters and story. They are, in my mind, inextricably linked.

I also learned that I get attached to character names as they become almost life-like to me. One of the brothers, for instance, originally had the name of Chaffin. People hated it. So I finally changed his name. But no matter how much I reworked the book with the new name, I felt like I had lost an essential part of the character. He was never the same.

I rewrote this novel so many times because I failed to have a strong idea of what it really was about when I started. I didn’t have an outline, so the writing became a way to figure out the story–but at the time, I didn’t have a great grasp of story structure.

Needless to say, Novel 1 is the book I learned the most from, and it is found in the notes between every novel that has come since. But it will forever stay tucked away in the proverbial drawer.

A high school germaphobe (who can’t even hold hands!) has to overcome his fears so he can date the girl of his dreams.

Overconfidence will kill every endeavor (eventually). I took the lessons learned from Novel 1 and thought I was set with Novel 2. But I was still in my early twenties, and my general outlook on life was through a Hollywood-movie-ending lens. Which is to say: pure fantasy. Before I started Novel 2, I had dreams of selling it for a lot of money and turning it into a movie (I actually wrote it as a screenplay first). I thought this book would make me financially secure and fulfill my dream of being a full-time writer.

I struggled with the plot of Novel 2. After I finished my Young Adult novel, I sent it out to agents. One agent suggested the voice was better suited for middle grade. So I begrudgingly revised it again, this time making it a middle-grade novel. Novel 2 turned into Novel 2.0. But then that agent passed on the manuscript anyway. Along with all the agents on both the Young Adult and middle-grade versions that I sent out.

I was left with a book that no longer felt like mine.

I learned that writing a book in the hopes of selling it for money is not the right way to go about doing things in this business. The right pursuit is to respect your characters and tell their story and tell it well. I also learned that I really love these characters because I have never–in a decade–given up on them.

The fear of germs might’ve ruined Denny Denton, but his story isn’t dead. In fact, a publishing company is interested in having me write Novel 3.0 of Denny. And I’m ready to finally do the characters and story justice.

Lonely and feeling like the life he’s living isn’t his own, college sophomore Roosevelt Arnold stops doing all the things he no longer wants to do. He follows his bliss, which brings him to the cold winter woods. But the forest has other plans for a teen who isn’t prepared.

What can I say about a novel that I wrote while trying to cope with my own depression in grad school? Novel 3 comes from the darker parts of my soul. In other words, it’s dreary and raw, much like the Montana winter weather outside my window as I wrote this book. But people don’t seem to respond to a character who dies from his own bad decisions due to depression.

Fiction is a mirror, yes, but sometimes it can be far too clear.

I learned that I love writing contemporary realistic fiction, but that hope should exist. I also learned that I should (though I often still fight the idea) have an audience figured out for my novels before I start writing them. Is Novel 3 a Young Adult? An Adult? That weird New Adult hybrid? I don’t really know. I like to think it’s for college students, but that hasn’t really appealed to any editors (as if they seem to think college students don’t read).

While The Probable Demise of Roosevelt Arnold is dormant for the time being, I have high expectations for a character who comes from my soul.

The fundamentalist Christians are announcing yet another end of the world date. According to Rex, a high school senior reeling from the death of his girlfriend, these fundamentalists must want the world to end. So after taking control of a cult church, he helps usher the end of the world through subversive means.

With this novel, I knew it was going to be solidly Young Adult. So, audience? Check. Setting? Check. I knew the location: my hometown. It was going to be something weird and unique to me.

I think it was too unique. (I mean, my characters raise a bunch of locusts!)

It took me three years to write this novel because I couldn’t figure out the ending. So the person I was when I started writing it was not the person who was writing the middle and he certainly wasn’t the person writing the end.

I learned I work best writing my first drafts as quickly as possible, even if they’re messy. When you write in a continuous rush, there’s a thread that feels organic to the entire novel as opposed to a patchwork quilt. I learned I should know my endings before starting (or at least have a real good sense of closure).

Convinced his mother has been abducted by aliens, Charlie Dickens spends his nights with an eye out for UFOs, hoping to join her. Charlie doesn’t have many reasons to stick around: he doesn’t get along well with his father, he’s constantly bullied at school and at work, and the only friend he has is his 600-pound neighbor and his three-legged dog. Then Charlie meets popular, easy-going Seth, who shows him what real friendship is all about. For once, he finds himself looking around at the life he’s built, rather than looking up. But Charlie has to make a decision: should he stay or should he go?

This is the one. The One. This is the novel I eventually sold. Funny, because when I started this novel I didn’t know the ending, I was in a fit of depression, and I wanted something weird and quirky. I was making all the same mistakes again.

But one thing I did with Charlie that I didn’t do with the other books was something called ‘dreamstorming’–a technique I learned from Pulitzer Prize-winning author Robert Olen Butler. It’s basically dreaming up short emotional or visual snippets of scenes that I wrote on notecards. After multiple weeks, I had a stack of notecards. I then arranged them into a sort of novel-like structure (tossing the notecards I didn’t think fit). While I loosely stuck to this outline, the main benefits of the notecards were in giving me an emotional core to various scenes and allowing me to draft the manuscript fairly quickly. I’m not saying this is why Charlie succeeded, but perhaps this notecard approach gave me the tools to think big while also writing small. In other words, seeing the novel’s whole picture while simultaneously delving into the details and heart of individual chapters.

I actually believe Charlie succeeded where the others failed because I never gave up on getting it published. (Though I did for a period of time–which is a story for another time.)

Here’s the thing: every novel I write feels like it’s the first time. I can’t seem to learn a lesson in writing to save my soul. I break all the rules–if I even know the rules in the first place. All of this, admittedly, has made my writing journey harder than it had to be.

But one thing is certain: I have learned a lot with every novel I have written. While my descriptions above were necessarily simplified, along the way I have asked myself What do I like to read? What do I like to write? I have learned more about character arcs, and the fine line between action and reflection. I have learned my own writing foibles to avoid. I have picked up tools, tried new tricks, and practiced new ways to tell complex and engaging stories.

I have learned.

So to THE NOTES BETWEEN, HOW THE FEAR OF GERMS RUINED DENNY DENTON, THE PROBABLE DEMISE OF ROOSEVELT ARNOLD, and THE REBEL & THE KING, I thank you for allowing me to tell your stories, and for helping me become the writer I am today.

None of you are dead, because you will live on in my heart, and in a way, through Charlie’s story. Besides, you never know, one day I might pull you from the drawer, blow off the dust, and breathe new life into you. Nothing is over until we say it’d over, because there’s no writer who doesn’t live on at least a little hope.

Earth to Charlie, Justin Olson’s debut novel, is now out from Simon & Schuster. A native of Butte, Montana, Justin taught high school English and theater in Helena, Montana before moving to Los Angeles. He continues to write novels and is an independent film and TV producer. He has a masters degree from the University of Montana and one from UCLA. You can find Justin on Twitter and Instagram. His website is

My First Time is a regular feature in which writers talk about virgin experiences in their writing and publishing careers, ranging from their first rejection to the moment of holding their first published book in their hands. For information on how to contribute, contact David Abrams.

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