This month we spoke with Jennifer Robinson to learn her secrets to success. Here's what she had to say:
Q. Hi Jennifer. Thanks for taking time to share your thoughts with our readers and contributors. Would you tell us a little about yourself?
A. I live in the suburbs of Southern California, where soccer moms in minivans cruise the streets and everything is closed by 8:00 p.m. I've lived in California my whole life. I think my sense of place and my surroundings has really been crucial in my writing and how I view the world. I majored in journalism at California State University, Northridge, while simultaneously interning at a local newspaper. After graduation, I worked in a variety of jobs that revolved around writing in some fashion--editing, public relations, marketing. All the while, I was constantly writing short stories, taking classes, and trying to connect with as many other writers as I could. Today, I work at a hospital in the community relations department doing a lot of health-related writing.
My short stories and articles have appeared in Long Story Short, Writers Monthly, Full Circle, A Journal of Poetry and Prose, Poetry Midwest, Muse Apprentice Guild Magazine, The Readerville Journal, Living Well Magazine, and Plum Ruby Review. My story, "That's How It Is With My Mother" was published in the anthology, "Looking Back: Stories of Our Mothers and Fathers in Retrospect" (New Brighton Books, 2003). I have also completed my my first novel, "Wildflower Blues." which is being reviewed for publication as we speak. Wish me luck.
Q. How long have you been writing? What made you put that first story down
A. I have always loved to read. As a little girl, I was such an avid reader that my parents actually bought me a desk that had a little shelf underneath where I could put all of my books because I had so many of them. That love of reading turned naturally into a love of writing. For me, writing has always been a little like my own personal therapy. When I sit down to re-read what I have written, a day, a year, or five years ago, I can see where I was in that place when I wrote the piece. My characters are like parts of myself transformed into other people or other experiences. Kind of like symbols in a dream.
One of the things I especially like about the writing process is dialog. I love getting inside people's heads or participating in a conversation or situation I never would have been in as myself.
Q. Do you write in a particular genre?
A. In my teenage years, I used to always write about being older. My main theme in those days was about a girl who ran away from everything, got pregnant, and raised the baby by herself. It seemed romantic to me. Now, as I approach thirty, things have changed slightly. I still write about female situation and problems primarily, but now in so many other situations. My novel and most of my short stories center around issues such as loss, heartache, break-ups, misunderstandings. A friend recently told me that all of my stories seem to be about really messed up women. It's true. What is life without drama? Problems? If life were always perfect, things would be boring. So, if I had to describe the genre I gravitate toward, I would say contemporary fiction for women.
Q. Have you been published? What was the first story? Where was it
published? How long did it take? What was the process? How easy was it finding a publisher?
A. Within the past couple of years, my writing credits have grown significantly. It's an interesting process. Once I got a couple of them published, I was able to build up my resume so that more editors were interested in my work. One of the first published stories was called "Night Visions" and published in Full Circle, A Journal of Poetry and Prose. I was thrilled because I felt really close to the narrator in the story and that my work was good enough to get published. It was thrilling to know that other people were reading my work other than my mother!
Writing my novel, however, was a learning process. It took me about a year and a half and required a lot of re-writing. One of my major obstacles with writing a novel was focusing on timing and details. A little thing as simple as remembering that your main character is a vegetarian and can't be in a scene eating a hamburger in chapter ten is an example of those little details. Keeping track of your characters, making sure there was a story, and developing them properly is a real challenge, especially for a first-time novelist. In a short story, you still need to be detailed, but a novel is much different because it's a lot longer, and the characters have more time to develop and more situations to experience.
Q. Who's your favorite author and why?
A. It's hard to name a favorite because I admire many authors for different reasons. Some of my favorites, however, are Caroline Leavitt, Tom Perrota, Natalie Goldberg, Jo-Ann Mapson, Jennifer Belle, and Elizabeth Berg. When a novel is good, all I want to do is stay home and read all day. And every single one of these writers' books has made me want to do that. They write about simple, human, day-to-day experiences in such a way that I really feel like I am in that situation, rooting for the characters. They have ways of taking a character and making him or her real. That's truly admirable.
Q. How did you deal with rejection letters, if you received any?
A. This has been a huge issue for me. The first time I received a rejection letter, I panicked and literally stopped writing for some time. But, as time passed, and I realized that I couldn't NOT write, I spoke to other writers and realized that rejection is simply part of being a writer. It's just another part of the whole process, but that's hard to understand when you first start sending work out. I learned that nothing is personal. If an editor or publisher doesn't like your work, then it's simply not right for their publishing company or magazine. It's not to say that another person won't fall madly in love with it. Everyone is different, but writers need to develop extremely thick skins. I once heard of someone who took all of her rejection letters and posted them on her wall so she could have a good laugh.
Q. What, in your opinion, are the most important elements of good writing?
A. A plot, good dialog, and characters that are real and flawed. I don't want to read a dry book about boring people. It should also be captivating and have a good introduction. If not, why stick around to read the whole thing?
Q. How do you develop your plots and characters? Do you use any set formula?
A. I usually have an idea of a character in my mind and have a desire to write about him or her to see what happens. Sometimes, I don't know what's going to happen until I start writing. Other times, I have it mapped out loosely in my mind--and even then, the story might not turn out the way I thought it would. For me, set formulas don't work. They limit me and pigeonhole me into one idea, and I end up ultimately hating what I'm writing. If I let my mind really get into the character or story, I can create a story that's meaningful to me as the writer, and I also always hope to the reader as well.
Other times, if there is an issue I'm having in my life, I might fictionalize it a little or make it turn out the way I would have liked. That's the great thing about fiction--you can make things happen the way you want them to happen. You can control the outcome.
Q. What does your family feel about your writing? Are they supportive?
A. My family has always been really supportive and encouraging about my writing. My mother, in particular, is one of my biggest fans.
Q. What inspires you? Who inspires you?
A. People who are genuinely happy with their life and the choices they have made inspire me. I'm even more inspired if they have had serious issues in their lives and have been able to move on and be content with how they have handled it.
Q. Are you working on any projects right now?
A. I'm currently working on a few short stories, and I recently started a new novel. I'm also a part of an online writing group with a group of women who are extremely creative and great writers, and I like that constant interaction.
Q. How do you handle Writer's Block?
A. I think Writer's Block is all in the mind. For example, if I get stuck on something, I usually put it away and work on something else. Then, I'll come back to it at a later date. If I still can't make sense of it and find myself stalled, I'll probably stop the project and just focus on something else. It's funny, psychologically, about being stuck--I've always thought it's because there's something you aren't ready to write about or face. Or, it could just be that the story isn't yours to tell.
Q. What is most frustrating about writing? Most rewarding?
A. Frustrating: Trying to portray realistic people in realistic ways. Other frustrations: Not having time, not being motivated, tired, hot, hungry--you name it. It's easy to find an excuse not to write, just like it's easy to find a reason not to exercise. Rewarding: Re-reading what I have written and feeling genuinely proud of what I have accomplished.
Q. Do you have any kind of writing schedule?
A. I try to write early in the mornings before work or on weekends. If I am really into a project, I'll write before work, after work, on the weekends, and in every other spare moment I have. Sometimes, I dream about writing--when that happens, I feel like I'm writing the Great American Novel, which sadly vanishes when I wake up and can't remember anything! But, I've found I do my best work when I just get into what I'm doing and have the desire to see how it turns out.
Q. What is the best piece of advice you've been given as a writer? What's the worst?
A. The best has been when it comes to rejections. Many writers have told me to simply let rejections fall off my shoulders and move on. That has been a hard lesson to learn, and I still feel like I am learning, but I am definitely able to process it a lot better than I did five years ago. The worst has been about sticking to a writing schedule. If I try to sit down, for example, every day from 7:00 p.m. to midnight, I just won't do it. I don't like structured time--I tend to run away from it.
Q. If I were sitting down to write my very first story, what would your advice be?
A. Try not to get overwhelmed. Imagine your characters. What are they doing? What do they look like? Where do you want them to go? Start off with writing a really short story, maybe about 500-1,000 words. Most importantly, have a direction. Don't stress yourself out writing exactly to set plans, but have an idea about where the story is going. Another thing I would recommend is not rushing the ending--don't have everything suddenly summed up in one final paragraph because you don't know how to end your character's story. Relax. Listen to your mind. Free-write if you have to, and turn it into a short story later. Most importantly, don't write for an audience. Write for yourself.
Q. What advice would you give to writers just starting out?
A. Reading, to me, is one of the most important elements of being a writer. Read everything you can get your hands on, especially by authors you love. Think about why you love them. Could you write in a similar way? Why do you like them? What is it about their style or tone that appeals to you? Writing is all about your own individual voice. If you cultivate that voice, organize your ideas, take writing classes, and surround yourself with other writers, you are off to an excellent start. When you finally face that page for the first time, don't have high expectations. Most likely, your first story will be a good place to start, and with practice, you'll only grow.
Q. Any last comments or advice?
A. It's also hard for new writers to get themselves out there. They may have written something, polished it, and refined it until they think it is the best it can be. The submitting process, whether it be for a short story or a novel, can be very frustrating and discouraging. I started slow. There are hundreds of online publications that are always accepting work. Start with them, or smaller journals, and then start submitting to bigger publications once you build up your resume. Believe in yourself, and market yourself.