Robin Johns Grant has been writing fiction for years. For so many years, in fact, that she crowned herself The Queen of Perseverance and celebrates that fact on her blog.
To support her writing habit, Robin has made a living in a variety of ways: writing and editing for university publications; managing an office for a firm of private investigators; and working as a financial aid counselor. She recently made a major career change, going back to school to earn a Master of Library and Information Science degree and landing a job as a reference librarian at a state college.
Robin also studied in the Master of Professional Writing program at the University of Southern California. While there, she interned with Burt Lancaster’s production company and wrote a treatment for a teleplay. Her story Glass Houses placed as a finalist in the Ernest Hemingway First Novel contest. Her short story, “The Best New Year’s Kiss,” was published in an anthology titled The Other Side of the Doorbell.
Robin lives in Georgia with her husband, Dave, and Himalayan cat, Wendy.
•Robin, when I read the title of your blog, The Queen of Perseverance, I was intrigued. Upon learning how long you’ve been pursuing publication, I was amazed and inspired. Please share with us an overview of your journey. What do you write? How many manuscripts have you started? Completed? How many ideas are dancing in your head?
You know, if I were to name my blog today, I would probably call it The Long and Winding Road. I read so many published writers who advise us, “Just study the craft and work on your writing. Bit by bit you will improve. Then you will get published.” As though there is a straight path from start to finish. At least for me, I’ve discovered there is no straight path to publication and success in writing. I veer off to one side and God nudges me back the other way. I wander off into the fields and graze for a while, I get turned around and backtrack, I get lost. But I keep going!
When I was six or seven years old, I discovered that there were actually real people out there writing those books I was learning to read. I knew that was what I wanted to do with my life, because my head was filled with stories all the time. What could be better than writing those down and sharing them—especially if you could make a living at it? I’ve been writing stories ever since.
When my cousin and I were eighteen, we wrote a novel together, packaged it and sent it to a publishing company—and waited for our publishing contract to come back! I was a little shocked to get a rejection, but that was okay. I was young, and it was my first try. Of course that was over 30 years ago, and many, many rejections ago.
I’ve written six complete novels and started several others. Divide five novels into thirty years and you’ll see part of my problem. I can’t whip a new novel out every few months like a lot of other folks do—like a lot of folks advise you should do. Part of that is because I’ve had to keep my day job. But also, I can’t just sit down with a spreadsheet and mechanically create my characters and stories. I can do those things to clarify and organize things in my mind, but it takes me time to get to know my characters and what’s going on with them. The same way I can’t go to a conference or a party and walk away with four new friends. It takes me a long time to get to know someone, and that spills over into my writing.
Every novel I’ve completed to date has a love story at the center. But right now, I’m working on my first romance genre manuscript. My agent, Janet Benrey, recommended I try doing this. At first I balked, but it’s been good for me. I tend to be long-winded and since the word count for this type of novel is shorter than I’m used to, I’ve had to learn to focus and say things more concisely. According to my agent and several editors I’ve met, another problem I’ve had in getting published is that my stories tend to stray across genre boundaries. With this book, again, I’m learning to stay within bounds.
•Over thirty years! Wow! That truly is perseverance. What have been some of the highest highs you’ve experienced on your journey? How did you celebrate them?
My highest high to date was when Janet Benrey—who was then with Hartline Literary—called and said she wanted to sign me. I was on cloud nine. I had been going through some of my lowest times writing-wise, so it came at a time when I really needed encouragement. Plus, it was my first “official” success. I had finaled in contests, had editors request full manuscripts, had agents say they were interested in me. But Janet took the plunge and actually gave me a contract. I really hope I can make some money for her someday and vindicate her faith in me.
•Writing can be a solitary occupation. We spend many hours at our computers cavorting with our characters. The support and encouragement of other writers and authors can be such a blessing, especially when we experience the inevitable lows. Who are some the people who’ve come alongside you? What lessons have they taught you? How have they inspired you?
Several years ago, I was trying to sell my first novel in the secular market. I had been to a secular writers’ conference and had a really bad experience with an editor there. I decided that was it. Obviously, if I ever thought I had a calling from God to write, I was mistaken, and it was time to quit.
On the drive home, however, I started to cool down. I started wondering about Christian fiction, and about trying to target my work to a Christian market. So I stopped by a Christian bookstore and browsed, and decided to read Terri Blackstock. I was so impressed by the quality of her writing I decided to pursue this line of thinking more. However, after a few rejections from Christian houses, I was again at the point of quitting.
Then one day my husband asked me, out of the blue, if I had ever heard of Terri Blackstock. Turns out, she’s a good friend of one of my husband’s friends. We connected, and Terri was so encouraging, even saying she thought my writing was ready for publication. She referred me to Janet Benrey, who became my agent. And that’s why I’m still writing today! I’m so grateful for Terri and Janet—but can’t you just see God’s hand in all of that?
Another dear friend and mentor is Elizabeth Musser (whose books I highly recommend!) She’s also been encouraging about my writing and helped keep me going. One year we both went to the American Christian Fiction Writers conference and she took me under her wing and introduced me to authors and editors. She didn’t just introduce me, but would say something like, “Have you met my friend Robin? She’s written such a great book!” I’m very introverted and it’s hard for me to meet people, so having that support was priceless.
•Of everything you’ve written, which story is your favorite, and why? Are there aspects of yourself or your life in this piece? Did you include a theme that has special meaning to you?
This one’s a no-brainer. I told you my characters and stories grow over time! When I was a child, I came up with two characters: Jamie, who is a celebrity, and Jeanine, who dreams of meeting him—and does. I wrote stories about them when I was an adolescent. During my college years, I wrote a novel about them. I’ve rewritten their story several times. The latest version is called Glass Houses. It’s the book Terri Blackstock read a sample of, and the one Janet Benrey read when she signed me. It was a finalist in the Ernest Hemingway First Novel Contest several years ago. It’s also the novel the editor at the secular conference blasted so badly that I almost quit writing! Go figure.
As for whether it contains anything of myself or special themes, well, I’ve had my own crushes on celebrities through the years. Even as an adolescent, I thought it was so interesting, how I could feel that I knew someone so deeply because of seeing their movies or television shows—and yet, I really didn’t know them at all.
I loved Bob Crane in Hogan’s Heroes when I was a child. (Yes, I’m really dating myself!) Then he was murdered, and all sorts of ugly things came out about him. Another TV star I loved, Pete Duel, seemed so good-natured and happy. And he committed suicide.
Both of those experiences affected me deeply, and I started writing a story about a little girl who becomes obsessed with a fourteen-year-old movie star, to the point of being convinced that God has intended them to be together. He’s going to be the knight in shining armor who sweeps her away from rural Georgia and saves her from mundane life. Then, when she’s twenty, he does indeed come into her life. And it isn’t at all what she pictured. He has all kinds of nasty secrets, including a girlfriend who just died under mysterious circumstances. God may have intended them to be together, but it turns out, she has to save him.
•I noticed in reading your blog that you, like me and many other not-yet-published writers, wrestle with the aspect of following the “rules.” How do you balance the need to adhere to the generally accepted guidelines with the desire to remain true to your voice? What guidance have you received in this regard from those in the know, such as your agent and published writer friends?
This is a huge struggle for me. I don’t know that I have the answer yet. Most of the guidance I’ve received, from almost everyone, has been that my lack of rule following is what’s keeping me from being published. The big one is that I don’t adhere to strict genre guidelines, and my novels don’t pigeonhole into one genre. Then there are the usual things, like I should stop using omniscient p.o.v., show more and tell less, use simpler sentences, on and on.
I have tried very hard to listen to the advice and adjust my writing. Interestingly, though, the more I change to fit the rules, the less success I seem to have. The less excitement I generate in my work. I know my voice is not as unique as it used to be, and I think I’ve lost a lot of the rhythm and poetry of the writing itself.
At a conference recently, I pitched a novel to a well-known agent, who told me, once again, that I couldn’t use a certain plot development because it would make the novel “cross genres.” Instead, he suggested another plot turn, which has been used many times before and therefore would be familiar to readers of that genre. I came away dazed and confused. I frankly want to surprise my readers, to leave them wondering and breathless. Why would I want to give them the same thing they’ve read over and over?
My own conclusion I’m reaching is to try to listen to the experts and be flexible with your writing. But then, look at the results. Look at the feedback you’re getting. Not all advice is good advice. Not every rule is set in stone.
•And now a question just for fun. I noticed you’re a huge science fiction fan who has attended some big conventions—in costume. Cool! If you could be transported to the world created by a sci fi author or screenwriter, which would it be, and why? What character would you portray? Given the chance, would you change the outcome, or would you be content to experience the adventure as written?
My favorite over the years has been the Star Wars series. But would I want to actually live in that world? I don’t think so. Being a rebel and being hunted by the Empire is not for me! Definitely more fun to live vicariously.
It might be fun to be Elizabeth of Pirates of the Caribbean—but I would definitely make sure that when Will Turner comes home after ten years at the end of the last movie, the curse is broken and he’s home to stay for good! (Which is what the writers intended in the original script, but that got cut in the edited version of the film. One of the reasons I don’t want to be a screenwriter. Too many people can alter your story without your permission.)
It’s been great having you as my guest, Robin. And now, in closing, is there a final comment you’d like to make or a question you’d like to ask?
Since I’ve been on my soap box about “the rules,” I’d like to ask the writers and readers out there—have you read a novel that blatantly broke some writing rule and was all the better for it?
Learn More About Robin: Visit Her Blog http://queenofperseverance.blogspot.com/
Leave a Comment for Your Chance to Win!
I’ll choose a winner from those who leave a comment for Robin on 1/29 (and include an email address when prompted, which I don’t share), and will post the winner’s name on 1/30.
Jodie won and chose a Taco Bell gift certificate:
1) A $5 gift card from either Borders or Taco Bell (Keli’s Hangout 🙂 ),
2) A Hallmark motivational bookmark made of metal,
3) A set of 8 personalized note cards handmade by your blog host, Keli Gwyn.
You could also win a First Sale Scrapbook!
If you’d like to have a chance at winning a First Sale Scrapbook created by your blog hostess, Keli Gwyn, leave a comment on any post between now and January 31, making sure to include your name and email address when prompted if you want to be entered in the drawing. (Your information will not be shared.) You may enter once per post.
On February 1, Keli will choose one person who will have her choice of four covers on an 8×8 inch, twenty-page scrapbook in which s/he can document that long-awaited first sale. The pages will cover various milestones including The Call, signing the contract, receiving the first advance payment and holding your “firstborn” in your hands.
(No scrapbooking skills required. You just add your photos and journaling.)