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BYU Alumna Jessica Olson Celebrates Release of Her Debut Novel

Olson’s first novel, Sing Me Forgotten, was published in March of 2021 by HarperCollins and is a testament to her perseverance as a writer.

The path to publication can be long and arduous. We sat down with BYU alumna Jessica Olson, who graduated in 2013 with a major in English and minors in both french and editing, to talk more about her recent debut Young Adult (YA) novel and to hear what advice she has for aspiring writers.

Q: Tell us a bit about your recent book and your journey to writing it.

A: Sing Me Forgotten is a YA fantasy gender-swapped Phantom of the Opera retelling. It tells the story of a young woman born with the ability to manipulate memories through song who must fight against both the outside world that fears her and the inner darkness that tempts her in order to save the young man she loves.

The inspiration from the book came, obviously, from a deep love for the story of The Phantom of the Opera. I grew up on the music and the book, and when I finally saw the Broadway production as an adult, I fell even more in love. The thing that surprised me the most about it, though, was just how much I connected to and saw myself in the Phantom character. I grew up with a medical condition that affects my appearance, so I recognized much of my pain in his experience. I knew as soon as I had the idea to write a Phantom book that I wanted to tell that story—the story of the person who was forced into villainy by a hateful and cruel world. I wanted to show that the true villain of the Phantom story was not, in fact, the Phantom, but the society that told him he was a monster from childhood.

The most challenging part of writing for me is always the first draft, and this book was no different. It is the point at which the story is at its roughest, when the words don’t flow and the story feels shallow. I love revising because that’s when I get to take the rough draft and deepen it, shape it, grow it into the fully fleshed-out idea I imagined in the beginning, and that is so exciting to me!

As far as what the publication process was like, Sing Me Forgotten was not the first book I tried to get published. I tried to get an agent for almost a decade with three other books before I finally was offered representation for this novel. However, I am so pleased that this is the book that became my debut. While it was disheartening at the time to face rejection, I grew so much as a writer over those three books. They paved the way to me becoming the writer that I am today.

Q: How did your work on this book change you?

A: The process of writing, editing, and publishing this book taught me so much about my own process as a writer and what works best for me. It was the first book where I really learned about story structure and story beats, and I also learned how to outline, which leveled up my writing in a huge way. Now, although every book is hard to write and demands new things of me, I at least have a firm foundation for where to start and how the process works.

Q: Do you read your book reviews? How do you deal with bad or good ones?

A: I did read my reviews initially when the Advance Reader Copies were first making their way out into the world. I think it’s impossible for most first-time authors to resist at least looking! But after a while, I realized that reading the reviews for my book wasn’t helping me, and in many cases, doing so was hindering my ability to work on new books because I was so wrapped up in what people might think. It can be a tricky balance because as authors, pleasing our readers is what makes us successful. At the same time, however, there is no book out there that every single person in the world enjoys. Reading a book is such a personal experience for every reader, so no two readers will react to a book the same way, and that can drive a writer batty if we focus on it too much! So now, I avoid reviews as much as I can—good and bad—so that I can keep creating. Occasionally, I’ll be tagged in a less-than-positive review, and it’ll feel like a punch in the gut, but then I remind myself of all the other fantastic, glowing reviews I’ve received and how subjective it all is, and I force myself to move on. It’s been working for me so far!

Q: What is the most difficult part of your artistic process?

A: Like I said earlier, the first draft is the hardest for me. I have such big, ambitious ideas, and it is 100% impossible to be able to execute those stories in a way that resembles the original big ideas, with all their nuance and depth, in one draft. The mantra I repeat over and over to myself while in the midst of a first draft is “It doesn’t have to be good. It just has to exist. You cannot edit a blank page.” It also helps that I have written several books now, so I know that first drafts are hard for me and I just have to push through. When I get upset and feel like the story I’m working on is a pile of garbage, I remember that I have felt that way with literally every first draft I’ve ever written, and it always always ALWAYS improves during revisions.

Q: Do you believe in writer’s block?

A: I do believe that there are periods of a writer’s life where writing can be more difficult, like when the author is facing stressors or periods of emotional turmoil. However, I don’t believe in waiting for creativity or “the muse” to show up. It’s part of why I love having an outline ready to go when I write a book. It makes it easier for me to sit down and write the words required whether I'm feeling creative or not. And once you’re a published author with deadlines, you have to turn in your books on time, whether you’re “inspired” or not. So, to me, it doesn’t matter if I’m feeling blocked. I have to get my books to my editor because I signed a contract and they’re paying me to do so. It’s a job, so I treat it like one and do it even when I don’t feel like it.

Q: What does literary success look like to you?

A: For me, success is having my books find the readers they were meant for. The readers who love the story, who see themselves in the characters, and finish the book feeling changed.

Another part of success for me is just having my books do well enough that I can continue writing and selling books. I don’t need massive accolades, awards, or titles. As long as I can keep doing what I love and reaching readers who connect with my work, I’ll be happy!

Q: What’s your favorite under-appreciated novel?

A: One YA fantasy trilogy that doesn’t get as much love as it deserves is The Winner’s Curse trilogy by Marie Rutkoski. It is so smart, well-plotted, and engaging. I don’t usually finish whole series unless I am really invested, but this series sucked me in and wouldn’t let me go! It has romance, court intrigue, and immaculate world-building. I highly recommend it!

Q: What are common traps for aspiring writers?

A: I think a lot of writers get caught up in the weeds of a story and end up editing the opening chapters of their novel over and over and over trying to achieve “perfection” and never finish the book. Here’s a tip for writers falling into that rut: Always look forward. Write until the book is done and THEN go back and fix it. A “perfect” first chapter is useless if nothing comes after it. Also, it’s impossible to know exactly what that first chapter needs to be until you have a complete story. Oftentimes, I end up rewriting the whole first act or deleting the first few chapters and starting in a new place once I’ve finished the book and discovered what exactly the story needs. In that case, it would have been a waste of my time to perfect the first chapter because it had to be deleted anyway.

Q: If you could tell your younger writing self anything, what would it be?

A: I would reassure her that the rejections and the hard times are so worth it! And I would tell her it’s okay to fall down, to feel broken, and to take breaks every now and then, but it’s not okay to give up on something if you really want it! Publishing rewards perseverance, not perfection. And it was the trials and difficulties and setbacks that built me into the writer I needed to be to get where I am today. I would also tell her to try not to take the rejections so personally, but I know she wouldn’t listen because I still struggle with that now!