Two flawlessly beautiful teens meet and instantly fall in love. Many readers would consider that a hackneyed formula around which to develop a plot for a novel or a movie, and Olivia Bennett, 17, of Washington, would agree. When she began writing her novel, “A Cactus in the Valley,” in 2014, the summer before her freshman year at Washington High School, she made a conscious effort to avoid that literary cliché. She wanted to present her readers with flawed characters who were not necessarily enamored of each other upon their first meeting, but gradually form a bond through surmounting challenges together.

“I think the aspects of the book I’m most pleased with are the characters and the character arc,” said Bennett. “It’s a character-driven story, so character development was especially important.”

Bennett completed the first draft of “A Cactus in the Valley,” in October 2015. For the next two years, she had beta-readers reviewing the book for content and character development, she edited the novel, and then she self-published it.

“The biggest challenge was probably getting the idea that was in my head onto the page and getting it to read the way I imagined it,” said Bennett. “Characters and elements of the plot had to go through several versions in order to be interpreted the way I wanted it to be interpreted.”

“The thing that impressed me most about Olivia’s work on this novel was her ability to stick to it,” said her father, Robert Bennett. “It was a pet project of hers that she enjoyed working on very much. It took a lot out of her, but she gave everything she had to it. Her ability and willingness to do that impressed me very much. I have read the novel from cover to cover, and I have been very impressed by the structure of the book, the style of writing, and the development and depth of the characters. It is obvious that a lot of work went into the project.”

“A Cactus in the Valley,” is the story of two teenagers: Tara Lombardi and Wyatt Hartman, who are the sole survivors of a plane crash in a remote part of the Arizona desert. They are forced to work together to survive a hostile environment and make their way to civilization. Bennett tells the story through alternating character perspectives and intermittent flashbacks.

“The project was sort of a culmination of my enjoyment of the survival genre and my appreciation for the desert,” said Bennett. “It is such an arid landscape, and I think it parallels the journey of life. We have to find good things even in the roughest places.”

Because Bennett has never visited the desert or survived a plane crash, she had to devote a great deal of the three-and-a-half years it took to complete her book to research. She studied photographs, read about the landscape and the flora and fauna native to the Arizona desert. She also studied firsthand accounts from plane crash survivors to get a feel for the experience. She ordered 75 hard copies for the first printing, and “A Cactus in the Valley” is also available on

“I’m most proud of Olivia completing this book,” said Bennett’s mother, Cathy Bennett. “She wrote what was in her heart. As it grew, she pursued it until she was able to let what was in her heart come out.”

After she graduates from Washington High School next spring, Bennett plans to attend Illinois Central College for one semester. Ultimately, she wishes to attend the Savannah College of Art and Design in Atlanta.

“I have heard that Iowa State University has a great creative writing program, but I don’t want to take a creative writing or journalism program,” said Bennett. “What I like about SCAD is that they have so many different writing classes and teach so many different genres. I think that will make me more marketable when I go out into the world.”

Bennett is currently planning to write a spin-off of “A Cactus in the Valley,” focusing on a character from the novel.