Bunky? You say you’re already failing six courses and you’re only
taking three? You say your P.O. Box is always empty even though you’ve
already mailed yourself three letters? You say your English teacher
told you to write an SA and you don’t even know what the two initials
Thus began my writing career
. . . a short blurb on a flyer advertising our college fellowship
group. Two hundred Xeroxed copies slipped under dormitory doors. I
don’t know that a single bleary-eyed freshman ever read the blurb
before wadding it up and throwing it into the trash, but it was the
most important paragraph I’ve ever written. It was a beginning.
From that first paragraph
came more paragraphs and then even some sappy hyper-emotional doggerel.
But it wasn’t enough. I wanted to change the world—to write what I
loved the most—fiction. Ever since CS Lewis first reached beyond the
grave and touched me with The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe,
I couldn’t imagine a higher calling than to be a fiction writer. I had
only one problem: I was terrible at it.
I started book after book,
story after story, but I couldn’t get beyond the first page. No
sentence was ever good enough. I couldn’t seem to turn off the
self-loathing editor in my brain. I wrote for years, but still I had
nothing to show for all that hard work. Finally, in an act of extreme
desperation, I managed to force myself to keep writing. It was like
chewing glass, but I finally got to page two and eventually to page
three. I ended up writing sixty-seven pages in all. It was my
masterpiece. My magnum opus. It was the story of a young college
student standing in line in an airport.
Yup . . . That’s right.
Sixty-seven pages of a guy standing in line at an airport. I know, I
know . . . But a pretty girl was in line ahead of him, and I couldn’t
get him to move on!
Then I had my first
breakthrough. A dear friend of mine mentioned a brochure she had gotten
in the mail for a writers’ conference. A conference on writing? I had
no idea such a thing even existed. I went to the Mount Hermon’s
Christian Writers Conference and was blown away. Authors were there who
actually taught us how to write. Imagine that! In all the years I’d
been trying to write stories on my own, I never realized there was a
craft to learn—that writers planned and thought about what they were
doing. Call me stupid, but I had always assumed authors just sat down
and wrote whatever was projected on the movie screen of their minds. I
don’t know about other authors, but my brain is way too good at getting
stuck in airport lines.
Once I realized I could
engage the analytical part of my brain, my writing took off. I wrote a
contract with my best friend and committed to writing eleven and a half
pages per week. If I failed, I would owe him $50. Not only did the
deadline pressure get rid of that nasty little editor in my brain, but
also almost immediately my wife was just as motivated as I was. I was
able to write my first novel in record time.
The next year I went back to the
conference and submitted my baby for editorial review. That very first
night I sat down with one of the editors to whom I had submitted my
manuscript for review, and he asked the dreaded question: “Did you send
me a manuscript?” I nodded my head. Frowning, he studied my name tag.
Apparently he didn’t remember my name. That was a good sign, right?
“Wait a second . . . you’re that
John Olson? I wouldn’t touch that book with a sixty foot
pole. It was terrifying!”
That was my first introduction
to Steve Laube, the man who would become my editor, agent, advisor, and
Of course, I didn’t know all
this at the time. I just knew a circle was on Steve’s napkin called the
market and that apparently my manuscript was a sixty-foot-pole length
outside that circle. By the third day of the conference, 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 further 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
When she quoted from my
proposal, I about jumped out of my chair. Karen Ball liked the book? I
couldn’t believe it. Shade had been discovered!
But being discovered and being
published are two completely different things. Remember that circle on
Steve’s napkin? Shade was still sixty feet outside
the circle. Try though she might, Karen couldn’t get publishers to
touch it. So I started working on something new—something that wasn’t
as terrifying. Something that never mentioned the “v” word (vampire).
I decided I wanted to write
about the first manned mission to Mars and asked my good friend Randy
Ingermanson if he wanted to coauthor the book with me. We had a great
time working on it. It was the most fun I’d ever had writing a book.
The next year at Mount Hermon, we pitched it to Steve Laube, and
Bethany House decided to take a chance on us. Part of their decision
was based, I’m sure, on the brilliance of Randy’s writing, but part was
also due to the notoriety I’d gained as a result of my “vampireless
vampire” novel. God is the ultimate environmentalist. He doesn’t waste
anything—even when we miss the circle by sixty feet.
on to win a Christy Award—which opened the door for The Fifth
Man, Adrenaline, and Fossil Hunter. I don’t know if the
circle on Steve’s napkin will ever be big enough for Shade
but ready or not, it will be released this October. It’s an amazingly
weird story. How it will do is anybody’s guess.
When I look back on my
career, I’m amazed at how much my writing was influenced by that one
story nobody wanted to touch. I thought I’d missed the target by sixty
feet, but God never wastes anything. In fact, remember that flyer?
One day as my wife and
I were talking about the critical events that shaped our lives, she
mentioned a flyer she’d received when she was a freshman in college.
She commented that if it weren’t for its humor, she might never have
gotten involved with the Christian group that had such a profound
influence on her life. And without that group, she and I never would
Now I know what you’re
thinking, but I graduated the summer before her freshman year. It
couldn’t have been my flyer. . .
“Wait a second. I still
have it.” She ran to the small cedar box she keeps her treasures in.
There, folded carefully on the bottom of the box, was Bunky.
God doesn’t waste
anything—least of all words.