John Olsen

John B. Olson is a full-time novelist who lives with his wife Amy and two children in San Leandro, CA. John earned a Ph.D. in biochemistry from the University of Wisconsin at Madison and did postdoctoral research at the University of California at San Francisco. His books have won several awards, including a Christy Award, a Christy finalist, a Silver Angel award, and placement on the New York Public Library’s Books for the Teen Age. For more information see John’s website at

Writing in the Shade

...that my manuscript was a sixty foot pole’s length outside that circle....

It was the spring of 1998, and I was totally clueless. Okay, I know what you’re thinking. I’m still clueless, but back in 1998, I was even more clueless. I had this dream of becoming a great writer like my hero (please stand and remove your hats), C. S. Lewis. I wanted to stand out in my generation, to have a distinctly Olson-shaped impact on the world. I hadn’t yet attended enough writers’ conferences to learn the fine art of writing, so I had this naïve notion that novels were supposed to be novel—that originality and innovation and boldness were actually good things. Armed with such ignorance, I started working on the most original, compelling, innovative romantic adventure I could think of: a vampireless vampire story in which a highly trained scientist falls in love with a homeless throwback to the seventeenth century.

I poured my heart and soul into Shade. The harder I worked on it, the more novel it became. I developed my unique surrealistic voice. I filled the manuscript with poetry and mythology and literary allusions galore. God had created me to be uniquely me. He’d called me to a unique calling. If this story was part of that calling, didn’t it have to be just as unique as I was?

That spring I decided to unveil my masterpiece at the Mount Hermon Christian Writers Conference. I submitted Shade to two editors, Steve Laube at Bethany House and Lisa Bergren at Waterbrook. And wouldn’t you know it, at the very first dinner of the conference, I walked in and found an open seat next to Steve Laube! That, in and of itself, should have made me a little suspicious, but as I already said, I was clueless back then, so I plopped down right next to Steve and turned to give him a big eyeful of my nametag.

Steve showed an amazing amount of self-control. I could tell he was a professional, because he didn’t pull out a contract and beg me to sign it. He didn’t even drool. He talked to the others at the table as if they were just as important as I was. I was very impressed by his egalitarian generosity, but time was running short, so I subtly mentioned my manuscript and asked him what he thought.

Ever the savy negotiator, Steve pretended at first not to know which manuscript I was talking about, but after I’d given him a few hints, he finally seemed to remember. “Oh! You’re that John Olson. I wouldn’t touch that book with a sixty foot pole! It was terrifying.”

So much for the idea of being unique. Needless to say, I was crushed. He went on to explain that the circle on his napkin was called the market, and that my manuscript was a sixty foot pole’s length outside that circle. I guess he was trying to tell me I should have written my manuscript on his napkin, but all that fancy editor talk was lost on me at the time. My baby had been rejected. I had been rejected.

The rest of the conference was a blur. By the third day, I was a bacterium infecting the toe jelly of a flea on the belly of a pregnant dachshund. I sneaked into the fiction editors’ panel discussion and sat in the back of the room to let the real writers get their dose of face time with the editors.

One of the editors on the panel, a spunky redhead with enough charisma to make an empty football stadium feel claustrophobic, started talking about a manuscript she’d received. The more she raved about it, the farther down in my seat I sank. If only she’d give the author’s name maybe I could get some pointers from him. Funny thing was, the story sounded a lot like mine. But I knew she couldn’t be talking about me. First, she said the author understood women, which ruled me out right away. And second, I hadn’t sent her my manuscript.

Then she quoted from the author’s proposal:

Women don’t want sexy or erotic; they want intense and interesting. They don’t have much time. They want something that grabs them on page one and drags them screaming and kicking all the way to the end. They want a workout. When they finish reading, they want to be sore from tension, dehydrated from crying, and ten pounds lighter from . . . well, it would be nice, wouldn’t it?

Wait a second! I’d written all that stuff in my proposal. Karen Ball’s goody-two-shoes author had stolen it from me! I marched up to Karen after the discussion and learned to my horror that I was the goody-two-shoes thief. Apparently Lisa Bergren, knowing Karen’s passion for the weird and unusual, had passed my manuscript to her good friend.

By the end of the conference, it seemed like everyone was talking about my “vampireless vampire” story. The hype from that one conference literally launched my writing career. The next year Steve Laube acquired Oxygen and became my editor. A few years later he acquired me and became my agent. But even with all the hype, it took over ten years for the circle on Steve’s napkin to get big enough to include Shade. After years of trying at other houses, Karen was finally able to convince B&H to take a chance on a weird and distinctly Olson-shaped novel.

Even though Shade had to wait ten years to see the light of day, I firmly believe that if I had started out trying to be like everyone else, I’d still be trying to break into the business today. Ephesians 2:10 says:

For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.(NKJV)

If we’re so busy following the market and trying to write like everybody else, who’s going to write the works God prepared for us to write?

Fossil Hunter