First Draft, Ep. 108: Kayla Olson - Transcript
Date: May 22, 2017
The original post for this episode can be found here.
[Theme music plays]
Sarah ENNI: Welcome to First Draft with me Sarah Enni. Today I’m talking to Kayla Olson whose debut novel, THE SAND CASTLE EMPIRE, is out June 6th. I’ve known Kayla for a few years, following her online, and finally getting to meet at the very first North Texas Teen Book Festival. We shared our writing woes and in my most frustrating times, Kayla’s bright optimism helped keep me going. So, I was over-the-moon when Kayla sold her debut book and announced at the same time that movie rights had sold to Leonardo DiCaprio’s production company. Not too shabby!
Kayla was in Los Angeles to go to YALLWEST, and also to have really exciting movie related meetings. I was so happy she made time to sit down with me at her hotel, not too far from Book Soup and the famous Chateau Marmont for a very literally Hollywood interview. So, put on a pair of gigantic sunglasses, pretend you know where to park for SoHo House, and enjoy the conversation.
ENNI: Kayla, hello! How are you?
Kayla OLSON: I’m wonderful, how are you?
ENNI: I’m good. Thank you so much for making time to see me.
OLSON: Of course! I’m so happy to see you outside of Texas. I think I’ve only ever seen you in Texas.
ENNI: It’s true! Oh, my gosh. Actually, that’s funny that I’ve been to Texas enough recently to have seen you that many times. We like to start at the very beginning, which is: where were you born and raised?
OLSON: I was born in Arlington, Texas, and lived there for the first four years of my life. I grew up basically from age four through seventh grade, in Cleburne, Texas, which I loved. And then moved to hill country for eighth grade through graduation of high school.
ENNI: What is hill country? What does that mean?
OLSON: Okay, so Texas hill country is a bunch of tiny towns that are all spread out from each other. So, I moved down to Mason, Texas. Most people in Texas, I have to explain it…
ENNI: Even they don’t know it, it’s so remote?
OLSON: Right. I felt like I was living out of the universe when I moved there, because they had no Walmart, no pizza. There was no pizza.
ENNI: No pizza?!
OLSON: They had Pizza Wagon.
ENNI: Okay, wait a second. How is there no pizza in your town?
OLSON: I know! Not for the longest time. And we tried to make some and it didn’t go well.
ENNI: Kayla, what brought you guys there?
OLSON: My grandmother lives down there, and they actually have a ranch that’s been in my family for, gosh, a long time now. Since the mid-eighteen-hundreds. My grandmother was actually born in the house down there. My dad moved down there to help her out a little bit. And then my mom got a music teaching job.
ENNI: So, wait, let me just clarify. Basically, your family moved out there to help your grandparents, and to live on the ranch?
OLSON: When we moved, it was just my grandmother, at the time. My granddad died when I was seven. So, she was out there on the whole ranch, just by herself. So, horses, cattle, things like that.
ENNI: A functional ranch?
OLSON: Yes, a functional ranch. There’s a one bedroom hunter’s cabin, with four bunkbeds. And that’s where we moved for the first month of eighth grade. I remember my parents telling me, “We’re moving in two weeks.” And I said, “New York? Los Angeles?” Because I had dreams of being on Broadway, or in movies. And Mason, Texas… the opposite. It was kind of miserable. Especially in eighth grade, you know? It was rough.
ENNI: Well you had, just before we started recording, said that you related to Sara Zarr’s episode of this podcast. And now I understand why. Sara also moved at that age, and so did I. That’s intense.
OLSON: Yes, it was intense. I had always loved school, for so long. It had never been an unusual thing to love school, or to be good at it. And to love math, and reading, and music, and all of those things.
ENNI: And then they were all…
OLSON: People were good at those things, but they didn’t love them like I did. I think I moved in - and I’m also very tall, and I have very big hair - and at that time, having so many different things about me [pauses]. I was also the youngest in my grade, because I never went to first grade. It was a very quick move, and I had always had a very solid group of friends who were very academic, and very musical. And when I moved in, everybody there loved sports, and basketball. They said: “Kayla! You should play basketball because you’re so tall! And everybody plays basketball.” Well, it was true. Everybody plays basketball when you’re in a grade with fifty people, and half of them are girls, and twenty of them play basketball. It did sound like a good idea, until I tried to play [both laughing]. It was, “Kayla! Stop saying sorry to people.” I would bump into people, and just, “Sorry, sorry!” Like, “It’s just how you’re supposed to play! It’s okay.”
ENNI: That’s devastating.
OLSON: It was. I read a lot of BABYSITTER’S CLUB books that year [chuckles]. Which sure didn’t earn me any cool points, at all. But that’s what I grew up with. And the library was so small, and there was no good book store in town. And so, that’s all I had for so long. Looking back, I can see, “Oh, I had a hard time.” Because everybody was born and raised there. They knew each other from birth. And I was new and different. And they were as different to me as I was to them.
I think I had a hard time too, because I knew my mom went to school down in Houston, and it was gigantic. They had languages like Japanese, and Russian, and I always wanted to learn one of those languages. And all they had at my school was Spanish, which was useful, it has come in handy. But just knowing that there were bigger schools out there. We also didn’t get TV channels, or anything but country music stations. And that was before email, so… [laughs]
ENNI: You were really isolated.
OLSON: It was very isolating. I remember bugging my mom every day, “Don’t forget to go by the post office.” Because we would actually send letters back and forth… my friends from my old town. They would keep up really well. Looking back, so many things would have been easier in today’s day and age. With email, and FaceTime, and being able to keep up. But it was isolating, and certainly formative for me. I look back, and for a long time just had hard memories of all of that. I can appreciate it now, just because I think it made me a lot more grateful, and warm with people. Because I know what it feels like to be the person who is sitting by themselves, on a bench, and reading. Or, not really having anybody to sit with in the lunchroom.
ENNI: How was it formative for your imagination?
OLSON: Well, the very first book that I wrote, as tends to be the case with a lot of writers, I think, it’s “your life story” thinly veiled. So, it’s my life story, mixed with Harry Potter, basically. It’s like a portal story. It helped a lot when I was first starting to write, because it was such relatable material to put a middle school - a young person - in. I could easily recall those memories of isolation, and looking for friendship bonds.
ENNI: And the reason I’m asking is because, it seems like that’s such an important time for forming identity anyway. And you’re saying you almost didn’t even have books. You’re sort of, not abandoned, I don’t want to at all imply that, but in a way, abandoned to your own mind at this formative age.
OLSON: Yeah. I did a lot of music. I played piano, a lot. That was my outlet for so long. Playing piano. And then in ninth grade I started doing All State Choir, so I threw myself into practicing. At that point, I wasn’t really writing stories yet. I always loved to write. I was more of a journaler… feelings. But for so long, I didn’t have more than character names.
Oh! I did write some Full House fanfiction.
ENNI: Oh, my god. Stop right there! What were the stories?
OLSON: It’s basically Fuller House now. It was imagining, “Well, what if Mary Kate and Ashley were twenty?” This was so crazy to me, when I was that age. I wrote a lot of things like that, or, tried to do my own Babysitter’s Club knockoff.
ENNI: And with music, with singing, and especially piano, were you at all doing original composition?
OLSON: The period of moving, and going from a place where I was super confident, to a place where I suddenly was not related with very well, it was a drastic hit to my confidence. I remember writing songs, but I remember never telling anybody about them. And making sure that I would practice when nobody was looking.
ENNI: But you were writing?
OLSON: A little bit. I wrote more in college.
ENNI: But, it’s interesting that that’s how maybe, originally, [it was] your expression.
OLSON: Yeah, I’ve always been super into lyrics. I love Patty Griffin, for example. I love her music, and for so long I wanted to do Patty Griffin. Or Sandra McCracken, she’s a Christian artist. Her music is just gorgeous too. Patty Griffin will tell an entire story, and a powerful one, in the lyrics alone. But then she delivers it with the music, and the melody, and the chords that she puts with it. That got me really into paying attention to the poetry of lyrics. And I think that that has definitely influenced how I hear the rhythm of books and writing.
ENNI: Tell me more about that, about the rhythm of books.
OLSON: I’ve heard that some people, when they write, they can just talk it into their phone. Or, they can think about things while they’re on the treadmill. For me, I have to see them in front of me. And see the shape of them, and actually get… first drafts are just killer for me, because I have to see the shape of what’s happening. Not only on a story level, but on a prose level. Sometimes the very specific way I get from idea to idea, with the words themselves, will spark how the story should go. Or, the next line. I don’t know, it’s almost mathematical. It’s like math and poetry mixed together.
ENNI: I was gonna say, my friend will talk into her phone during long car rides, and gets a lot of traction with that. For me, I’ve always described structuring a book as Tetris.
OLSON: Oh, yes. That too. This most recent project I have been working on drafting took me so long. The way I described it to my agents was, I was trying to braid five strands – at the same time – with one hand tied behind my back [laughs]. It might be possible, but it’s gonna be slow. It might not look pretty, but it’s just a complicated set of things that can’t really be drafted without all of them happening at the same time.
I’ve never been the sort of person who can gush out tons of words, or even talk them into my phone. The words themselves look like a puzzle to me.
ENNI: Yeah! Okay, we’re way out on a tangent. I forget how we… oh yeah, I was asking about the rhythm of books. But I want to get to college, and writing, and how did it come about?
OLSON: When I decided to write, I was working a series of jobs. I can talk about this more, but I kind of skipped college there, this was actually after college. I was working a series of jobs where I was in customer service, and it was people overload. I was the drive-thru girl.
ENNI: Oh, my goodness. The unsung heroes of this country.
OLSON: Yeah, and the thing they don’t tell you about the drive-thru girl, is that once you’ve proven to be relatively consistent and fast and accurate at, “Hi, welcome to Starbucks. This is Kayla, how can I take your order?” And be able to do that, while talking to a customer out the window, punching in an order, and giving money, and handing out the drink at the same time [pauses], you have do five things at once. Once you’ve proven you can, they don’t move you from there [laughing]. I’m like: “If I wanted to hand out money, I would have stayed at the bank. I want to make coffee. I want to talk to people.” It was just person, after person, after person. Thirty seconds per person, and no depth.
ENNI: You’re just a machine.
OLSON: Mm-hmm. I think that there is definitely value to that, for sure. Because you have to be somebody who is patient, and kind, and treating every interaction as if it was lasting ten minutes. Because, I’ve been on the other end of that. When somebody is kind to you, and you’re having a bad day, a smile or anything, really can impact your day for the better. Or, for the worse on the opposite.
I felt the weight of that a lot. So, I was constantly trying to be energetic. And I think there’s so much value to that, but I wasn’t creatively fulfilled during that time. It felt monotonous to me. I love math, I love words. I love analyzing things. I have always loved music, but that’s more of an expressive, external, late-night bar situation. And very personal… when you write your own music, not that books aren’t, but it’s a different form of personal.
And once I started thinking about it, I thought, “You know? I think I would love to sit at a desk all day, by myself, and create there. During the middle of the day… maybe in a coffee shops. Not late at night, in bars. This is definitely more suited to me.” And it takes a lot of analyzation when you revise. And persistence and diligence. And the enjoyment of doing tons of puzzles, you know? Difficult ones. [And] being self-motivated.
I started thinking about it, and I thought: “All these things feel like they’re part of me. This feels like the perfect thing for me.” I felt it also involved a lot of empathy, as well, when you’re trying to create characters. I remember working at Starbucks and thinking, “I don’t know anything about this person who just walked in the door. But they’re the main character of their life.” So, even if they’re a background character, they have a full twenty-nine years behind them… of scars, you know? It made me want to write a big world, with relatable characters, who have lots of depth. And try to do that well. So that was one of the things that inspired me to write.
ENNI: That’s really interesting, that you were like, “I need to do something creative.” And you looked at your strengths, and were like, “I think being a writer is the thing for me.”
OLSON: I was very involved in church in my college. And I’m still involved in the church, but not to that extent, because I was so overcommitted in so many ways. But, this one year, I did this year long program that was like a college level course. We had to analyze a Proverb. And I turned in a five-page excel spreadsheet… very detailed. The guy that was teaching that little session said: “Have you ever thought about writing a book? I think you’d be really good at that.”
ENNI: Interesting. So, wait. You were analyzing one Proverb, just for a short [period], not for the whole year?
OLSON: Just for a week. It was very detailed, and thorough. And thorough is my middle name, basically. My agents will tell you. My husband will tell you. I’m very thorough. He’s the first person who brought that up, and books just kind of happened. I didn’t know how they got written. And I didn’t put two-and-two together that that was something I could do. I’d always loved coming up with character names, but I never got past that. So, ever since he made that comment, the spark of it would come back. That was in 2005, and I didn’t start writing seriously until 2009. In that four-year period of time, I would start three pages. I had no story. I had nothing. I didn’t know anything about that.
I woke up one morning, and I had a speck in my eye, of some sort. And I thought, “Speck! That sounds like a good name for a character, who feels like a speck. All alone, and lonely.” And my first character idea was born. I went to Barnes & Nobel that day, and I bought a book about NaNoWrimo.
OLSON: And it had like, “Okay. You have to write about fifteen-hundred words a day, in order to do fifty-thousand words in a month.” I thought, “Okay. I’ll just do that.”
ENNI: Kayla! This is making me so happy, actually. I love this.
OLSON: I never thought about how logically I went about it.
ENNI: Right from the start, it sounds like you were really goal oriented. This was gonna fit your life and your strengths. That’s really admirable.
OLSON: It just made sense to me. And my husband – we had only been married for about a year at that point. Or, maybe two years because we got married in 2007 - he was so supportive of all of this. I quit my job pretty soon after, because I was only working eleven hours a week. They were the worst eleven hours [though], because they were at five in the morning. It doesn’t sound like that much, but then you’re tired for the rest of the day. And it just kind of kills any momentum, because you just want to sit there and recover. Plus, I wasn’t even getting benefits any more. I was taking away hours from people who needed them.
Long before that, we had gotten the advice of, “Base your budget on one person.” Just in case one of you ends up unable to work, or if you ever want to have a kid and stay home. Nothing wrong with saving and both of you working, of course.
ENNI: I was gonna say, that’s just smart, because it’s in excess of preparation.
OLSON: Right, just base your budget on one person. That way you might have extra, but you won’t be dependent if it goes away. So, I had been working since we got married. And because we had gone that route and planned, when I said I wanted to do this, he was completely supportive. So, I quit and [I] wasn’t pulling much in any way because it was only eleven hours.
ENNI: The only thing worse – I’m not sure how you were, or what your guys’ experience was at that time – but I honestly think the only thing worse than being married to a writer, is being married to a creative person that’s not creating.
OLSON: Right, yes! And he’s creative too, so he understands that need, and that drive. And how it’s unfulfilling to do something that you’re bored by, and not stimulated by. And you feel like you have potential but aren’t acting on it.
I remember back then, I would put on clothes that I would wear to the bank [laughing] to go to my desk, and treat it like a job. I had to for those first three months. I finished my first, first draft, in three months. It was the fastest first draft I’ve ever completed. I look back, and there was no [story]. It was about half a book’s worth of story. Just eighty-thousand words of it. I didn’t learn until after that that you probably shouldn’t base your ideal first book word count on J.K. Rowling.
ENNI: I think people are too hard on their first drafts. I think people are too hard on their first books.
OLSON: It was a middle grade.
ENNI: Oh, an 80K middle grade? I love that, I love that. Yeah, that’s pretty long.
OLSON: [Laughing] Which I was like, “Oh no, it’ll be fine as long as agents love it.” Well, they wouldn’t request it. I hardly queried it. I queried four people with it, until I was like, “Oh no. It really is way too long.” Since then, I’ve learned to write so much [better]. My prose is leaner than it used to be. So it’s hard for me to even get into seventies on my first drafts.
ENNI: It’s funny to talk to people about this because, even though I had devoured thousands of books by the time I sat down to write… at my first workshop class, a guy who wrote mystery novels in his spare time as a government employee, he held up my thing and he was like, “I don’t think you know how paragraphs work.” And I was like, “You’re right!” I didn’t know. That’s such a different way of writing, and you never have the chance to do that until you’re writing a book. It’s different from anything you’ve ever experienced before.
OLSON: It really is. It’s so different. And I remember looking up, like: “Okay, how does dialogue work? Should it go in the same paragraph?”
ENNI: Even though you’ve been reading it your whole life. It’s one of those crazy things where it is fundamentally different. Some people are really hard on themselves about it, and I’m like, “We should be talking about how you look at an empty Microsoft Word page, and it’s gonna take you a year to even know what it’s supposed to look like.”
OLSON: Right. Yes. And that first project was definitely that for me. I rewrote that thing three or four times from a blank page. Eighty-thousand words every time.
ENNI: Oh, my gosh. Amazing! Wow, that’s actually really amazing.
OLSON: So, I spent two years on that project, and queried it very briefly. I sent four queries around the time that I got pregnant. And I was so sick for twenty weeks of my pregnancy, and I didn’t write. I could hardly move, I was doing nothing. I wasn’t really too concerned, because at that point I knew that it was too long. But out of that, I got an internship reading manuscripts for one of those agents that I had met, and who had read my stuff. It was the perfect transition out of having a baby, because it was still creative, and it kept my mind going, but it wasn’t me actively creating anything. It was me reading other people’s manuscripts and giving a report on it.
ENNI: Thinking critically about them.
OLSON: It was wonderful. I read so many manuscripts. And the act of reading so many strong ones, and then so many that could use work, taught me how to analyze and hold a whole book in my head. And try to come up with fixes that weren’t on the page at all. And think: “Okay. What’s missing here? With all of these elements that are here, what’s working? And what would make it better?” It was so helpful in figuring out the structure.
That agent also critiqued a project that I had been loosely drafting whenever I wasn’t sick. And she was very sweet, she said: “You need to read a little more about plot and structure. Make your characters have truly tough choices.” And those two bits of advice really changed my work forever. Because I did read more about structure, and it totally changed everything. And giving your characters truly tough choices, if they’re ethical, moral choices, that inherently makes it a stronger book.
So, that internship was very helpful for me. It was such great practice material to take apart in my head. So, when I finally decided to write my own stuff again, it was so much easier to see it objectively.
ENNI: Did you start something brand new? What did you start on next?
OLSON: I think my little guy was about nine-months-old. And, it was again a very logical thing. I had a breakdown one night where I was like: “I’m just reading everybody else’s stuff! I’m spending so much time critiquing everybody else. And I haven’t given up on my own dream to write, but it feels like I have.”
And at that point, he was only napping for twenty-seven minutes a day, twice a day. But, twenty-seven minutes. I could set a timer, and it would be twenty-seven. Later it shifted to forty-eight. At least it was predictable. But I just felt so defeated because I had poured so much time and heart into it. I really did feel like it was what I was cut out to do.
But, yeah, he was nine-months old, or maybe a year. He must have been a year, because I remember it was the night before NaNoWrimo, one year. And I thought: “Okay, I don’t think I can finish a whole book. I don’t think I can do fifty-thousand words. But as long as I get started and work on it every day – a little bit every day – that’s what matters to me.” That was Halloween, I think, and I woke up the next day and was like, “Okay! I’m gonna do this.”
So, I got up at six in the morning, and sat at my desk in the dark. And did it from six to eight in the morning. Whenever I would be rocking him to sleep, I’d be thinking: “Okay, what scene am I writing next? Okay, I’ve got to be ready to sit down and set my timer and go!” It makes you realize how much time you spend on Twitter, or whatever. At that point, I could easily spend fifteen minutes scrolling through. And if you do that, he’ll wake up twelve minutes later. So, I was just very determined to use every spare minute.
And my husband, again, was so supportive. Every Saturday I would go up to Starbucks and work for two or three hours, and he would just hang out. They still do “Daddy Days” on Saturdays… “Daderdays”, because those are still big workdays for me. And sometimes that makes me sad because I miss out on Saturday morning things. On Sundays, I take the day off. But he is always so supportive whenever I decide I’m going to do this again and I need help.
ENNI: So, you decided on Halloween, you’re like, “I’m sick of…” did you have an idea?
OLSON: I think I must have. Whenever I get an idea, I do the first line if I have it. I try to write a page.
ENNI: Okay. Every time you have any kind of a sparkle [of an] idea?
OLSON: Yeah, just so I can get the voice down. It’s easier for me to slip back into that idea, and the mood and the tone of what I want to do if I have an opening. I think I did have that first page just hanging out for months. That was the rancher time travel.
ENNI: Oh, okay! Love it.
OLSON: That was a quick first draft too, because I was so motivated. But it was also a short first draft. I think I finished it by the end of January. So, I did three or four months on that one.
ENNI: That’s amazing, with a pretty darn new newborn.
OLSON: Yes, it was hard. I started this thing with some writer friends that I knew at the time, that I called “New Year, New Book.” And every month we would set goals. I made a website where I would update everybody’s progress bars, and so we had twelve people doing accountability. And that’s where, I don’t know if you’re familiar with MyWriteClub.com?
OLSON: It’s a website that my husband made basically for me, because I was updating everything manually. It’s basically a NaNoWrimo progress chart. You can set goals for word count for as many projects as you want. It will give you percentages, and you can change it to do how many chapters, or scenes, or words. You can customize it, and add friends, and stuff. So, he made this because I was basically doing all of this by myself while also trying to write.
ENNI: That’s so sweet.
OLSON: It’s wonderful. He’s a software guy and so, it was a fun project for him too. And now, he has ten-thousand users or something! So, it’s been cool to see our worlds collide on that. But that helped to keep me motivated around that time. So, I wrote the time travel book and revised it quite heavily for a while. And I finally got it to the point where I was writing a query, and I remember getting to the point where I thought: “Okay, I think I’m proud of this. I’ve put it through so many rounds of critique, and I’ve done my research on agents. I think these people would be a good fit.” So, I started querying, and I ended up with an R&R [revise and resubmit] from Holly and Taylor. And their notes completely inspired me. I could tell that they really understood what I was going for in the book. Their notes really resonated with me, and I thought they would make the book stronger.
I ended up revising for them, and they ended up really connecting with what I did. And that’s when I found out that Taylor had been part of it the whole time. They both saw my query at the same time, and both read my pages at the same time, and both came up with notes together. And ended up both offering to represent me, which is odd, you know? I haven’t heard of anybody…? I think there are people with more than one agent, but I don’t know of any.
ENNI: I don’t know of anyone where it’s the exact situation that you’re talking about. Usually it’s more of one’s a primary and one’s an assistant, or something like that.
OLSON: Or, you have one kind of book, and then the other agent represents like picture books, or something. But, for them, they do everything together. And I love them dearly. I’m so glad that I’m represented by both of them, because I feel like I won the lottery with Holly and Taylor.
So, I revised again for them after that. There were just a few things they wanted me to hit. I had a pretty successful querying time, and so my hopes were way up that it would also be successful on submission. And, it was dual POV (Point of view), dual timeline, and time travel… with ranchers [laughs]. Most of the rejections I got were: “We love the rancher guy. His voice is so strong. The setting is so strong. But then, in comparison, your other POV…” They all connected so well with that one part of the book. It was really hard to find anybody that connected equally to all of its unique elements.
With SANDCASTLE EMPIRE, I actually started drafting that the day I started sending queries out. I was drafting that the whole time I was querying. And then the whole time I was on submission with the time travel book. SANDCASTLE EMPIRE was born from constantly hearing no. This always was like: “Well, I’m writing this one for me. I’m writing this one because I love it. Maybe it will do something if this other book doesn’t.” And so, I worked on SANDCASTLE this whole time.
ENNI: Let’s talk about where it came from. Do you mind giving us the pitch for SANDCASTLE really quick, before we get much farther into it?
OLSON: SANDCASTLE EMPIRE, I usually describe it as a young adult, sci-fi, survival thriller set in the near future. With a setting of post sea level rise America, amid a future global war. My main character, Eden, escapes from a place where… she’s basically in a war camp. She escapes to go to what she has heard is the only neutral territory left in the world. And it’s an island called Sanctuary Island. She and three other girls that she doesn’t know end up on a boat together headed to this island in search of freedom. But it ends up being deadlier than the world she left behind.
ENNI: Ooooh, I love that description. I read a little bit about where it comes from, which is why I want to really get into it. Tell me about the inspiration for it.
OLSON: Definitely Lost. I’m a huge fan of the TV show Lost. I was going through mysterious island withdrawals in a major way, and I know you love Lost as well.
ENNI: Oh, my god. I’m obsessed.
OLSON: I read the Harry Potter series at the same time that I watched all of Lost. And that was huge worlds, and lots of characters, just creative overload. And I thought, “I want to make a puzzle like that.” It looked like a challenge. Something fun. Even before SANDCASTLE came along, I think Lost will probably always show up in whatever I write.
ENNI: What I think those two worlds share, most specifically Harry Potter, is the worlds are so robust that people can continue to live in them in this way. Even if you are thinking about other characters, or side characters, or even putting your own characters in there. That’s why it’s so ripe for fanfiction.
OLSON: Yes, and the imagination it takes to create those worlds… I think world building is not my strength, but I love people who can create it.
ENNI: I wouldn’t count yourself out [laughing].
OLSON: I don’t know. I’m working on it. I guess I always feel like I need to do more with the world. I think first about plot and setting and characters, and making all those pieces interact. And then I always end up [on the] second or third drafts expanding on the world. So, I’m not one of those people who starts with notebooks full of world ideas.
ENNI: Or maps.
OLSON: Or maps. So, I’m always expanding the world, rather than trying to condense it onto a page. I had also recently read the HUNGER GAMES. CATCHING FIRE… I loved the jungle arena in there as well. The other part that I never tell people about the inspiration… we had been playing a lot of Mario Cart!
OLSON: There’s this one…
ENNI: Peach’s Island?
OLSON: I think it might be. With the pirate ship in the background? There’s a pirate ship on one of them.
ENNI: And you’re talking about Nintendo 64, I believe.
OLSON: Maybe. We have the Wii version. There’s one of them, that it’s on a beach, and there’s a pirate ship. And my little boy also had a pirate ship craft at the library. And all of this is on the same day. It came to me like: “Creepy jungle like on Lost. Survivor-ish beach setting, with maybe Catching Fire-esque weirdness. In the jungle and some sort of piracy happening.” And that is so subtle in the book, because they are looking for a treasure, but it’s not a treasure island. They don’t look like pirates.
ENNI: I do this a lot with my books, where what’s important is that the book has undertones of what you associate with pirates. What you’re describing is so interesting and, I think, really helpful to talk about. Because I feel people who are just getting started writing, can sometimes be overly worried about ripping something off. Or being too…
ENNI: Derivative, yes. I think they whip themselves into a frenzy about needing to be fully unique and original. What I would stress is that… those are things that I love also. But, if I took all of those points of inspiration, and tried to write a story, it wouldn’t be SANDCASTLE EMPIRE. There’s just no way that it would be. Because of my lived experience, because of the way that I draft. Because of any numerous reasons, we’ll never get to the same place. But it’s okay to start with Harry Potter, meets pirates, meets Mario Kart, meets Lost [laughs]. I love all of those.
OLSON: I was in the shower, the most cliché place where people get an idea, but I really was. I was like, “I miss the beach. Hm.” And: “What if going to this beach were four girls? You never see four girls.” Maybe in Libba Bray’s series, I think there are four girls in that. But, it’s hard for me to recall anything where the main cast, that’s all you see for a long time. I remember hopping out of the shower and taking furious notes on my iPhone, with all these random bits of information. I found that I still have that note saved on my iPhone, and I went back and looked at it just recently when I was trying to clear space on my phone, and I discovered it. I was shocked to see how much of what I had in that initial note was still in the book. It’s kind of amazing to go back and see: “Wow, that’s the same structure I had in mind. A lot of the same twists I had in mind.”
ENNI: And it coalesced. I love that this seems to be a pattern. Things kind of brew, and stew, and build, and then… I feel like you’re good at recognizing when you’re ready, or when something is ready.
OLSON: I think that’s very accurate. I’m learning to listen to myself more too. I’m working on a revision right now [with] a pretty tight deadline. So, I got notes. And I knew my deadline was gonna be tight, this is for my next book. I went to the coffee shop the next day, and I stared at my computer. I realized I was trying to rush the mulling over period. The more I thought about it, the more I thought, “I just don’t feel ready to dive in.” I know that feeling, and I know that I don’t have it. And I know I will get it. So, I think I need to be patient with myself, and not freak out over my condensed timeline. I have two weeks after I get home from this trip, to work on it. It’ll be good. Because I can already feel, right now, I have a good plan. I spent all this time coming up with a plan, and I’m ready to go for it when I get home. And, I know I can turn it around that quickly. But, I couldn’t physically start early on it.
ENNI: I think that’s very real. And listening to yourself, I think that’s a really good way of thinking about it too.
OLSON: It’s something I wish I could tell myself: “You can start now.” I’m learning that I have to train myself to do things on a timeline that’s not really in line with my own. Because sometimes that is necessary, and it’s a good muscle to stretch. To be able to work when you don’t feel like it. But all this time I’ve been exercising that muscle of working when I don’t feel like it, those 6:00 a.m. mornings. I’ve learned to sit down and try to focus. [And] my thunderstorm track is such a secret for that. I’ve listened to the same thunderstorm track for five or six years now. And now it’s Pavlovian [laughs]. I put it in and it’s like, “Okay. It’s time to focus now.”
ENNI: But what you said is important, though, because it isn’t that your shirking work. You’re recognizing like, “I’m actually at the fertilizer stage.”
OLSON: Yes. And at this point I have so many things competing for my time too that are productive and that I do need to get done. Because the book is coming out soon, so I have promo things, and interview questions, and things like that. So, even though I feel like, “Oh. I should be revising.” It’s actually more productive for me to let that stew for a little bit, work on some things that I know I need to do, and then come back to it with full speed, full energy, and full brain. And ideas fully fleshed out. Otherwise, that’s just a waste of time to sit there and try to work through it before it’s ready.
ENNI: I did want to ask a little bit about… I don’t know how much Lost was a literal diving in point for you, or not. But in thinking about it, in a more literal sense, I was thinking about the show, and not only was it the world, and a mystery, but that Lost was so good at character.
OLSON: I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately, because my next book feels that way too. It’s still very sci-fi, survival, but it’s also very character-y. In a way, I feel like there is a very strong contemporary element to my books, because they are so much about relationships. And I think Lost did that so well. And, especially, I think that was their priority [both laughing]. That’s what they stand by when they defend the ending. No spoilers, but! I loved how they combined present action with past memories, and how each of those informed the story.
ENNI: Each episode. It was so key.
OLSON: It was just brilliant, I thought. And I still think. I’m a very devoted fan. I loved that element of relationships with people. They don’t know how long they’re going to be there. They’ve never met each other, they have to work together. This might be the only home they ever know. This might be the only family they ever will have again. And so, I think that definitely, literally, carried into my book. Because these four strange girls… they’ve literally lost everything. They have no home, they have no family, they’re very low in hope. They all want freedom, but have differing ideas about how to go about doing that. So, having the girl dynamics was very intriguing to me. To write girl dynamics of how to need each other, but not necessarily like each other. I wanted to see those depths mined.
ENNI: Now, you wrote a time travel novel, and you wrote this novel, which is also really plot oriented. How do you do that without losing having the main driver be a character?
OLSON: On all of my first drafts, I always have to go through and give my character more urgency. But I think the key for me has been making sure that they’re external situation challenges their internal muse and the things that they’re struggling with. And the things that they need but don’t know they need yet.
I kind of do them together. I feel like they’re inseparable for me. I’m definitely not an organized outliner, so much as a signpost person. I know what I’m working toward, but I connect the dots as I go. Those main signposts that I’m working toward, I usually try to come up with something that is surprising, and flip something on its head. Both on a plot level, and on a feelings level. And then try to up that at every twenty-five, fifty, seventy-five percent. Like I said earlier, when I was reading for that agent, and she suggested I learn more about structure, none of those cut-and-dry structure books worked for me. Because they all felt very formulaic, and impersonal. But I happened across one that was so flexible, and universal enough to work through contemporary, or any genre, because it was so emotions based, but also tied it into the plot.
ENNI: Which book was that?
OLSON: Oh, gosh. It was by Larry Brooks. I actually haven’t read his book, as much as a friend sent me notes on a YouTube video that he did. So, I read all of the notes, and I’ve heard that the notes are basically the same as in the book, Story Engineering. That’s been such a part of my system for so long, that it feels natural now to do it. But, it was really helpful in helping me hold the whole book in my head, and challenge both the external and internal things, and make them move together so that they be cohesive.
I think that’s the other thing too, is just trying to look for what’s not there. What’s the perfect piece of the puzzle that moves the emotions and the story forward at the same time.
ENNI: It’s so interesting to me that you are talking about writing SANDCASTLE EMPIRE, while you are having this… I love how you even said that you were writing it all under this hailstorm of “no” that you were hearing. There was an interview that you had online, where you wrote, “There’s a lot of fear in this book.”
OLSON: Mm-hmm. There is.
ENNI: And that seems tied to me.
OLSON: I think you’re absolutely right. There was a lot of fear, probably coming through subconsciously. I’m connecting that right now, even though I knew that there was a lot of fear. I think I personally, I fear a lot. You know? A loss of family. I was going through an anxious personal period, but yeah, fear of: “What if I put all my time and effort into this, is it worth all of this time and effort, if all I ever hear is no? Is it worth that?” Maybe.
Ultimately, I came to the conclusion, and my husband – again, so supportive and sweet – we talked about this. And it was fortunate that we weren’t relying on me for income. We were still a one-bedroom, two-bedroom apartment, you know? He never pressured me, but I feared – not financial instability – but losing time. Losing my Saturday mornings, while he spent time with our little boy. What would make it worth it for me? And when we talked about it, I remember him being so supportive, and like: “No. It’s something you love. It’s creative. You’re using those parts of you.”
And that seed that I started with that made me want to write, that made me feel like I was wired to do it, has been the thing underpinning everything. From when I was hearing “no”, to when I eventually heard “yes.” It’s that core of whether I hear “yes” or “no”, I’m writing. It really forced me to come to the conclusion of: I do this because I love it. I do this because I feel like I’m wired to do it. All I can control, is what I put out there. I can only write a book that I love, and that I’m proud of. And I can’t control if somebody connects with it. I can’t control who connects with it. I can’t control if they’re offended, or if people like it. All I can control is the time, and heart, and empathy, and integrity, and thought that I put into it. And be happy with myself for creating and completing a puzzle from scratch.
ENNI: So, over the course of writing this book, and sort of having these almost probably literal “Come to Jesus” things…
OLSON: Yes, and they didn’t come to a head until I let Holly and Taylor read this for the first time. The SANDCASTLE EMPIRE for the first time. Because I had been hearing: “No, but we love her writing. No, but we want to see her next book.” And so, all the time, I was writing this next book. I think I had deferred my hope into this project. Hearing “no” so often, on the first project, was easier to handle, because I had something else that I thought might be the one.
When I sent it to Holly and Taylor the first time, they loved it. But, they said, “Kayla, we feel like this is way too dystopian.” And I was like, “Oh?!” It had not even occurred to me that there might even be a hint of dystopia in it.
ENNI: You’re like, “What? My pirate Mario Kart book?”
OLSON: Exactly. I thought about it, firmly, in sci-fi, because of Lost and all that inspiration that went into it. And dystopian… it was at a point where if there is even a whiff of that…
ENNI: Yeah, it was saturated beyond…
OLSON: Yeah, I saw what they meant after they said it, and I wasn’t unwilling to change it. It was just very disheartening to hear, because at that point I thought, “Oh, my goodness.” I thought they wanted me to take out my entire war, which would have changed eighty-five percent of the book, and been a complete and total re-write. I had already done three drafts at this point. And I liked it, was the other thing. It was so disheartening to think about ripping it apart after all that time, without knowing like: “Maybe I should prioritize a different project. And, even if I do, who’s to say I won’t just end up right back here.”
ENNI: That’s around the time that you were having all of these feelings about, “Why am I doing it?”
OLSON: Yes, that’s the closest I’ve ever come to quitting. We’d been on sub with the first book for ten months at that point, which is not a short time. It was pleasant feedback. It was good feedback. It just wasn’t a yes. I had just put so much hope into this project. So, I think all of the weight of that first project…
ENNI: It was double-down.
OLSON: Yeah. So, that’s when I truly… it all hit me at once, at this point. And I thought: “Oh, my goodness. Okay. Maybe I need to just not, you know?”
ENNI: Why I’m casting it in that light, or looking at it from that angle, is that this is maybe the third or forth interview in a row where I’ve talked to people who have this sort of… I mean, it’s almost cinematic, and narrative, when you think about it this way. But people whose best work came when they were like, “Well, it’s either this, or I’m gonna go be a sheep herder in Mongolia.” People get to the end of their rope and that seems to be when, at least in the case of the people I spoke to, they came to a point where it was like, “All I can do is the stuff that feels most authentic to me.” And once they sort of let everything else go, and just went with the most true-to-themselves thing, then all of these doors opened.
OLSON: That has definitely been true for me. And with this project, I remember coming to the conclusion that, “You know? I do it because I love it.” I also read the book THE WAR OF ART by Steven Pressfield. Sara Zarr had recommended that to me years ago. And it actually has a lot of that in it too. Those kinds of themes of: “Don’t do this for approval. There’s always somebody else’s approval that you’re gonna get. Feedback, good and bad, has the power to sway you, so don’t let it. Listen… there’s a time to listen. But, those things can paralyze you in fear, or insecurity.” Or, “If you’re only going for the rewards, the visible, tangible rewards. That’s not, ultimately, gonna be satisfying, because there’s always something else.”
I think it was very needed and very necessary, much like when I was in eighth grade. It’s not something that I would like to repeat, but it was a time that I think I needed to form me. And that’s how I feel when I look back on the hard year of being on sub with that first book. And then writing this one. And having so much hope, and then feeling so much despair and angst over whether I should continue. It ultimately affirmed that, you know what? I do this because I love it. I don’t know if I can stop.
And that has proven very helpful in light of all the cool things that have come about. Because I’m grateful. Even more grateful for every “yes” that I’ve gotten with this book. Because I didn’t get them for a really long time. And also because my goal for so long has been be grateful for every step of the way. It’s made it a lot easier to have clear expectations, and not heightened expectations, especially when things like film are on the table. When I heard that a film agent had been in touch with Holly and wanted to send it out, that was not even on my radar. And every step of the way has been like: “Okay, cautious optimism. Cautious optimism. I’m hopeful, but not too hopeful.”
ENNI: Not taking anything for granted.
OLSON: Right, and that way I can be grateful for what has happened, but not expect, or hinge my happiness on anything that may not. So, the rough spots definitely were not fun, but have played important parts in preparing me for all of this.
ENNI: That’s incredible. That’s such an important part of the story to share. That’s really cool. You have been so gracious to give me this much time. So, as you know, I would love to wrap up with… you have given an amazing amount of advice already, but I’d love to hear your advice for new writers.
OLSON: I think my advice is as a writer who has had to carve out time when there was none. And there’s a bunch of responsibility that you have on yourself – whether that’s self-imposed or not – [when you have] a family to take care of, and sleep for myself. Self-care is very important. So I think learning how to say no is a good thing. And also, just believing in the value of your work before anybody else has expressed that they believe value in your work. It goes back to being grateful and proud of the process, and the work that you’ve put in. Whether you have material proof of that, do it because you love it, not because you want everybody else to love it.
ENNI: Mm, I like that. That’s also an amalgam of a hundred different things I’ve been thinking about lately.
OLSON: That’s why it’s so hard to put into words. I’m like, “It’s all of this!”
ENNI: Yeah, a lot of different threads.
OLSON: I think there’s a tendency to feel like, “Oh, I’m struggling so hard because I don’t have an agent yet.” Or, “I don’t have a book deal yet.” Or, “If I could just. If I could just. If I could just.” And those things are never gonna… they might be nice, but they’re not ultimately satisfying. The thing that’s satisfying is creating good work. And having people to share it with, who will support you, and be happy with you.
ENNI: I really like that. That’s a really good reminder.
OLSON: A lot of thoughts in a nutshell.
ENNI: Yeah, I love that. Thank you so much. I know that’s exactly how I’m feeling too, where I’m like, “God that’s a hundred different….” And that’s a lifetime of self-examination. So, it’s hard to get that into one sentiment.
OLSON: Sorry, I went on five trails in my head.
ENNI: No, I think that’s fantastic. I like having these conversations. [They] don’t have to really have a point, they just have to be encompassing, and people will engage with them how they find their way in, you know?
OLSON: Yeah, I heard Courtney Stevens say once, did you interview Courtney?
ENNI: Yeah, holy shit, she’s incredible [listen to her First Draft interview here].
OLSON: That interview has stuck with me for years. The part where she says that her goal is to have her name in more acknowledgements than on the spines of books. I took that to heart, and I thought that was so wise. So, basically, my word of advice is listen to the Courtney podcast!
ENNI: I love that. I think Courtney’s interview was amazing.
OLSON: And anything with Sara Zarr [listen to her First Draft interview here].
ENNI: All of her This Creative Life [podcast]. Yes, I could not agree more. My desperate hope for these is that they are imperfect conversations that will help other imperfect people.
ENNI: Thank you dude, this is incredible!
OLSON: So much fun. I’m so glad we got to sit down, instead of just standing at a conference.
ENNI: I know! In the Irving Convention Center, which is a wonderful place, but not really conducive to long conversations. This is so fun. Thank you so much.
OLSON: Thank you!
[background music plays]
SUBSCRIBE TO FIRST DRAFT WITH SARAH ENNI
Every Tuesday, I speak to storytellers like Veronica Roth, author of Divergent; Linda Holmes, author and host of NPR’s Pop Culture Happy Hour podcast; Jonny Sun, internet superstar, illustrator of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Gmorning, Gnight! and author and illustrator of Everyone’s an Aliebn When Ur a Aliebn Too; Michael Dante DiMartino, co-creator of Avatar: The Last Airbender; John August, screenwriter of Big Fish, Charlie’s Angels, and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory; or Rhett Miller, musician and frontman for The Old 97s. Together, we take deep dives on their careers and creative works.
RATE, REVIEW, AND RECOMMEND
How do you like the show?
Please take a moment to rate and review First Draft with Sarah Enni in Apple Podcasts, Google Play, or wherever you listen to podcasts. Your honest and positive review helps others discover the show -- so thank you!
Is there someone you think would love this podcast as much as you do? Please share this episode on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, or via carrier pigeon (maybe try a text or e-mail, come to think of it). Just click the Share button at the bottom of this post!