We’re excited to learn some of the things that a successful author like yourself has to offer. Thanks for speaking with us this month.
Q. Let's get started. Would you tell us a little about yourself?
A. I am a native of Gulfport, Miss., and have been a newspaper reporter and editor for almost 22 years. I am currently a features editor at the Hattiesburg (Miss.) American, and I write and record the occasional commentary for Mississippi Public Radio. I am the author of a novel, "Lakota Moon," ($16.95, Timothy Lane Press), which is the first in a three-book series about girl who is captured by Sioux warriors on the Oregon Trail and ends up living with her captors for more than 20 years. It was inspired by a true story.
My Web site is www.robynjackson.com. Each week I write an advice column about writing or publishing. You can also read the first chapter of "Lakota Moon" there.
Q. How long have you been writing? What made you put that first story down on paper?
A. I knew I wanted to be a writer when I was six years old. I've always had an active imagination and I was an only child, so I learned to entertain myself. I wrote my first short stories and novels when I was 12. I never let anyone else read them, I used to hide the notebooks under my bed. I was writing for the sheer joy of putting words on paper, and
to create stories and characters, not for publication.
Q. Do you write in a particular genre? If so, what genre is it?
A. Historical fiction and non-fiction (articles in newspapers and magazines, as well as my Web site columns and humorous commentaries on Mississippi Public Radio).
Q. What have you published? What was the first piece? Where was it published? How long did it take? What was the process? How easy was it finding a publisher?
A. "Lakota Moon" is my first published work of fiction. I decided to start my own publishing company, Timothy Lane Press, and self-publish it because I was told by major
publishers that there wasn't much of an audience for historical fiction. They were looking for the next "Bridget Jones's Diary." I had an agent for a while, but he didn't have the contacts I needed to get my novel published, so we split amicably.
There was a lot of sickness and death in my family at that time, and my focus shifted to my family and away from the book. My grandfather died two years ago on my birthday, and my mother, who was his primary caretaker, died of colon cancer just eight months later, on Feb. 5, 2003. That was the worst thing that's ever happened to me.
After the initial shock of Mom's death wore off, a couple of months later, I started really thinking about life and dreams, and I realized that if what happened to her happened to me - if I was diagnosed with cancer and had only five months left to live - I wouldn't have time to get my book published.
I had been working on "Lakota Moon" and the two follow-ups for almost a decade, and I believed there was an audience for these books. I also believed that self-publishing them was something God wanted me to do, that this was all part of His plan for my life. I decided I had nothing to lose and everything to gain by self-publishing.
Honestly, I think having something positive to work on and look forward to was what saved me, especially when my father dropped dead of a heart attack just seven months after my
mother died. Otherwise, the grief would have been too much to bear.
Q. Who's your favorite author and why?
A. Judging from the number of his books on my shelf, it would appear to be Tony Hillerman. I'm not that much into mysteries, but I love his characters, Navajo tribal policemen Joe Leaphorn and Jim Chee. I enjoy watching them grow and change with each new book. Boris Pasternak's "Dr. Zhivago" had a huge impact on me as a reader and a writer when I was a teenager. I love big, sweeping historical sagas with epic love stories. I love books that take me to another time and place and introduce me to fascinating people. I loved Ursula Hegi's "Stones From the River," which is about a dwarf growing up in Nazi Germany. But the book that has affected me the most recently is "The Heartsong of Charging Elk," a beautifully-written novel by James Welch. I was so worried about that character, a Lakota man who was abandoned in France by Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show when he got sick, hat I dreamed about him every night while I was reading the book. I've never had that happen before, not even with my own characters!
Q. How did you deal with rejection letters, if you received any?
A. My first reaction is to feel a bit hurt, then to get mad. A few days later, after I've licked my wounds, I get some perspective on it. If the agent or editor took the time to write a letter explaining why it was being rejected, I try to learn from it. Rejection is a big part of being a writer and we all have to collect our share. It's all subjective and you can't let another's opinion destroy your confidence. I think rejections just made me more determined to be successful, to prove them wrong.
Q. What, in your opinion, are the most important elements of good writing?
A. Rewriting. Doing draft after draft. Making it shine. The best writing is clear and concise, so write tight, don't waste words, but include descriptions and detail so that the reader can picture the scene. I think that's especially important when writing historical fiction because you have to recreate a world for the reader.
Q. How do you develop your plots and characters? Do you use any set formula?
A. I cannot write from an outline, I like for the characters to come to life and drive the plot. But I think it's vital to draw the reader into the action as soon as possible, and to write relatively short chapters that end with cliff hangers of some sort to keep the reader turning pages. Before I start to write, I decide who the main characters are and make some notes about them, and do some historical research to get started. I continue to research as I write. I know how the story begins and ends and some of the events in between, but I don't always know exactly how I'm going to get to the end. The journey is what I enjoy.
Q. What do you do to unwind and relax?
A. I love to read, of course, and write when I can, and I am addicted to Turner Classic Movies and HGTV. I also spend a lot of time with my dog, Ginger, and enjoy meeting my friends for lunch whenever possible.
Q. What does your family feel about your writing? Are they supportive?
A. They were always supportive. I think they were very proud that I was a writer, whether it was for the newspaper or as an unpublished novelist. They believed in me. My step-father has emerged as my biggest supporter, actually. He sold the house in Mississippi after Mom died and moved back to Texas to be closer to his family, but I see him every couple of months, and he buys books from me at a discount and sells them to people he meets on the road as he travels in his van.
Q. What inspires you? Who inspires you?
A. Beauty inspires me, whether it's a piece of art, a love song or a good movie. I love creativity that comes from the heart. I am inspired by nature, the mountains and the sea.
Anyone who overcomes challenges and fear to make their dreams come true inspires me.
Q. Are you working on any projects right now?
A. Just the weekly columns for my Web site and the radio commentaries. I have ideas for a couple of novels, but no time to write them.
Q. How do you handle Writer's Block?
A. As a journalist, that's never been a problem or an option. You write whether you feel like it or not. As a novelist, I haven't really had writer's block. I always think about what I'm going to write before I sit down at the computer. First, I read back over the last chapter and revise it. That gets me into the rhythm. Then I'll start on the next chapter. If I get stuck, I take a break and just work it out in my head. It might take a day or two, but eventually I find the answer. The solutions come most easily when I am sitting on my deck late at night listening to the crickets and frogs, or when I'm driving.
Q. What is most frustrating about writing? Most rewarding?
A. The most frustrating part about writing is trying to get your work published. The most rewarding part is knowing that something you wrote meant something to a reader.
Q. Do you have any kind of writing schedule?
A. Weekends, mostly late Saturday night. I'm a night owl. I can't write fiction on a weeknight and then go to the work the next morning, I feel like I've been kicked in the head if I do.
Q. What is the best piece of advice you've been given as a writer? What's the worst?
A. Best: Don't spend a lot of time writing the "perfect" first chapter. Write something to get started, then move on and write the rest of the book. You'll go back to the first chapter and revise it anyway, so don't get hung up on it. Tony Hillerman said that in an interview I read years ago and it helped, because I wrote the first chapter of "Lakota Moon" last.
Worst: Only write for money. If you truly are trying to make a living as a writer, this is probably good advice, but if you're just getting started, there are times when you have to
write for the experience or the exposure. If writing a free column for your local newspaper will get you a byline and make you a published writer, why wouldn't you do that? You
might not be paid cash, but you're getting something in return.
Q. If I were sitting down to write my very first story, what would your advice be?
A. Write about something you love, because it's a long process. You might spend years working on a novel, so you have to really love the story and characters. Take your time
and make it the best it can be. Writing is mostly rewriting. Challenge yourself to become a better writer.
Q. What advice would you give to writers just starting out?
A. You have to write because you love to write, not because you think it'll make you rich and famous. That happens for very few writers. But you should also do your homework. If
you're really serious about getting published, study the market and find out what's selling. Romance novels account for more than 50 percent of all paperbacks sold in the U.S. each year, so don't turn your nose up at them. Find a genre and write for it. Write a little of everything - poems, short stories and novels, true-life stories for anthologies, newspaper articles - and look for opportunities to get your work published. Writing is something we do for pleasure, but to make a living at it, you have to treat it like a business. It's not easy, but if you are truly a writer, nothing will stop you.
Thanks so much, Robyn, and good luck with Lakota Moon.