Pen Friends ~ I am so excited for you! In this interview you get to meet the lovely, writer mom, Pitch Wars Alum, YA Author Jessica Olson and hear about her incredible her debut, Sing Me Forgotten, out with Inkyard/Harper Collins in 2021. As you know, we are huge fans of championing author’s debut work, so click here to add it on Goodreads and enjoy all of the amazing gems she has shared in this interview!
SP: Hi Jessica! Thanks for joining us! Before we get into book stuff, we’d LOVE to know a bit about you and your writing journey?
JO: I’ve been writing books since kindergarten, and I’m pretty sure my parents still have stacks of the books I wrote and illustrated as a kid moldering up in their attic. Compelling stories about little girls that got castles for Christmas and went on picnics and ate peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. When I fell in love with Harry Potter as a young teen was when I moved on from writing (terrible) picture books to writing (even worse) novels. I was constantly scribbling stories in notebooks instead of paying attention in class during middle school and high school, much to my teachers’ frustration.
I started pursuing publication in college with a YA contemporary issue novel that I thought was the best thing ever written but was actually a pile of stinking garbage. I obviously was not able to get an agent with that manuscript, but I did not give up. I queried twice more over the next few years with two other manuscripts, slowly getting more and more interest in my stories—which showed I was improving—but no bites quite yet.
It wasn’t until I submitted Sing Me Forgotten to PitchWars in 2018 and was chosen as a mentee that things kind of took off. I received several requests from the PitchWars showcase, and I had my first offer of representation within 48 hours. After multiple offers, I chose to sign with Christa Heschke of McIntosh & Otis, and we went on submission shortly thereafter.
SMF went on to receive multiple offers from publishers, so Christa conducted an auction, which was a surreal and insane experience. I didn’t sleep or eat basically that whole week! Though all of the editors who made offers were wonderful, and they all seemed to be so excited for SMF, we decided to go with Lauren at Inkyard because she felt like the best fit for the book and shared the same vision I had for what the story could be.
SP: Sing Me Forgotten will come out with Inkyard Press/Harper Collins in 2021, and we couldn’t be more excited for you! Can you tell us a bit more about how you weaved this incredible idea together? Were you always a Phantom of the Opera Fan?
JO: I grew up listening to the original soundtrack all the time. I wanted to be Christine Daae when I grew up, and spent hours in the backyard singing opera at the top of my lungs. The neighbors used to joke with my parents that they had an opera prodigy on their hands. The phantom has always been a character that fascinated me; what would it be like to be so hated and misunderstood? I often wondered what the story might be like from his point of view.
When it finally occurred to me that I could be the one to write that story, the characters and plot came together like magic. I was so in love with the idea that I wrote the entire first draft of the novel in less than a month—a writing speed I haven’t achieved either before or since that time—and submitted it to PitchWars shortly thereafter.
Here is a blurb:
Sing Me Forgotten is a YA fantasy, gender-swapped retelling of The Phantom of the Opera.
Seventeen-year-old Isda was meant to have drowned at birth. Her demonic face marks her as one of the condemned few able to manipulate people’s memories when they sing. Cyril, the owner of the city’s opera house, pulled her from that watery grave. All he requires in exchange for keeping her safe is that she use her powers to keep his patrons returning to see his shows.
Desperate for a taste of the world outside, Isda finds refuge in the patrons’ memories, glimpsing in them what life would have been like if she had not been born deformed. And then Emeric Rodin arrives. He’s the opera house’s newest janitor, and his singing voice is unlike any Isda’s ever heard. His memories are different, too. They awaken something in her magic. Something powerful. And dark. And hungry. In them, she finds secrets about her kind, secrets Cyril kept from her. Secrets that could free her from his gilded prison.
Ravenous for the answers locked in Emeric’s past, Isda convinces him to let her teach him voice lessons. As her obsession with him blossoms into the very thing she’s craved since birth—love—Cyril discovers her disobedience. As punishment, he captures Emeric and locks her away to await execution. Isda must choose: leave Emeric behind and escape, or relinquish herself to the hungering power within to bring down the man who raised her.
He built her to be a nightmare, so a nightmare she shall be.
SP: Can you tell us how long it took you to write Sing Me Forgotten and what kind of research (if any) you did?
JO: The first draft of Sing Me Forgotten, like I said, came together in only a month. It was an INSANE month where I basically ate, drank, and slept in a Phantom-induced haze. I went on to completely rewrite the book from scratch during the PitchWars mentoring period and then did two rounds of revisions with my mentors before the PitchWars showcase, so if you put the drafting time together with the PitchWars revising time, it probably took me about 5-6 months to go from nothing to polished, query-able draft. Which I realize is INSANE. This book was special, and I definitely don’t think I’ll ever be so lucky as to have a whole story pour out of me the way this one did ever again.
I didn’t have to do much research from the book because I was able to draw from my own experience with music to write it. I play the piano and flute and I sing and dabble in the organ, so my significant background there really played a foundational role in the writing of the book. The bulk of my research was on the time period I was trying to mimic (late 1800s).
SP: As a writer-mom, when do you get in your best hours of writing?
JO: After the kids are in bed. I much PREFER to write during the day, but most days that doesn’t happen because my kids are still quite young (I have three and none of them are old enough to go to elementary school yet). Luckily, I have a very supportive husband who makes a special effort to take the kids out of the house when he gets home from work so I can at least get an hour or two of daylight work time in, and those daytime hours are usually much more productive than the nighttime hours.
SP: Querying & Agents–what was your journey like?
JO: PitchWars kind of put everything into hyperdrive. I got quite a few requests during the agent showcase, and had my first offer by the second day after the showcase ended. When I got the email from Christa offering representation, I screamed and then burst into tears and blubbered incoherently for probably an hour. My oldest son got so scared he went and hid in the other room. I tried to call my husband to tell him that I’d received an offer of representation, but when he answered the phone I was crying so hard I couldn’t talk. He thought someone had been hurt, and was really relieved when I finally calmed down enough to tell him the news.
SP: Submission & Publishing world. What was entering this sphere like for you and what is something you have learned long the way?
JO: Going on submission is so tricky! I’d spent so many years querying and trying to figure out how to navigate that whole part, so I felt totally blindsided by how little I actually knew about what comes after you have the agent! And there’s no querytracker for being on submission! Luckily, my agent was there to guide me and reassure me every step of the way, which was so helpful.
One thing I’ve learned is that it truly all is just SO subjective. After a couple of months had passed with only rejections, I became convinced that there was something wrong with my book and that my agent must have been crazy to offer on it because I was just SURE no one was going to want it.
And then I got an offer. And then another. And then we went to auction. And I just kept pinching myself because literally the day before I got that first offer I was absolutely CONVINCED I’d toil away writing manuscript after manuscript that would never sell. Just because some editors or agents didn’t fall in love with your writing doesn’t mean that no one will! What one person hates, someone else might love. Hold out hope for that, because every single book in bookstores was rejected by someone.
SP: Writing style–are you a plotter/pantster? How do you go about writing your first draft?
JO: I’m definitely more of a plotter nowadays. I used to pants things, and those drafts turned out terrible. Once I learned how to do the Save the Cat beat sheets, everything changed. That’s where I start every time, now. I go through and outline everything according to that. Then I try to get at least to the midpoint plotted out on a scene-by-scene deep level.
As I start writing, things definitely change, and I don’t stick to my outline 100%, but it serves as a great guideline for me and helps me make sure to keep my writing sessions as productive as possible. Since I do have three young children, my writing time is very limited. I just can’t spend it writing words that don’t serve to propel my plot forward, so I have to make sure that I know what words I need to write before I write them. I’ve found that plotting has been very freeing for me because I can do all the creative work while outlining, and then when it comes time to write, I don’t have to think anymore. I just TYPE and let the words flow. I love it.
SP: Revision tips & motivation. Any thoughts?
JO: Revision is my absolute favorite part of the process. My biggest tip is to try to give the manuscript time to rest once you’ve finished it. Don’t just dive right into revising right after finishing the first draft. Work on something else for a while. Read some books. Do other things. Come back to it when you’ve gotten some distance and can see the book and all of its flaws. Then sit down and read through the whole thing like a reader would, taking notes (but not changing anything yet!) so that you can get a thorough view of the book in its entirety. THEN go back and fix it!
Also, one of my favorite tricks is to print out the manuscript and go through it with a red pen. There’s something different about reading your book on a screen vs on paper. It uses a different part of your brain, I swear. I don’t usually do this for the first time or two through, but usually when it’s getting closer to polished. Plus, a bonus of doing this is that it’s really satisfying to see your book all printed out—a huge stack of papers filled with your words that you can heft in your hands. I always feel so proud of myself lugging that around.
SP: Now to lighten things up: (optional)
Last book you read?
To Kill a Kingdom and I loved it! Enemies-to-lovers? Pirates? Magic? Yes please! It’s totally up my ally.
Current dream vacation spot?
Ever since my husband and I took a Bahamas cruise for our honeymoon, I’ve been dying to go back. That water… those beaches… that sun… Ugh I can’t wait til I can return one day.
Would you rather be a professional: Marine Biologist? Opera Singer? Brain Surgeon?
Haha check out my book and see if you can guess. 😉 Definitely opera singer. I’ve done quite a bit of musical theater, and I love singing and being onstage.
Current fictional crush?
Ooooh this is a hard one because there are so many to love! I really liked Prince Elian in TKAK, but I’m also a sucker for Nikolai in Leigh Bardugo’s Grishaverse series. So I’m kinda torn, honestly.
Favorite childhood book?
Other than Harry Potter (which I’m sure is what most authors of my generation would say), Ella Enchanted by Gail Carson Levine was hands-down my favorite. I had the biggest crush on Prince Char, and I loved the magic and the world and the romance. SO good.
SP: Please don’t be shy– connect with this lovely human, you won’t regret following her journey with raw honesty and advice and inspiration, and of course, BOOK NEWS!
Add it on Goodreads! https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/47808280-sing-me-forgotten
Nova McBee (YA author of the Calculated Series & The Never Vows