Robin Yocum is the author of two nonfiction books on crime – Insured for Murder (Prometheus Books, 1992) and Dead Before Deadline . . . and other tales from the police beat (University of Akron Press, 2004).
He was with the Columbus Dispatch for eleven years as a crime and investigative reporter and is the recipient of thirty writing awards, including those from the Associated Press and the Press Club of Ohio. A native of Brilliant, Ohio, he is the founder of Yocum Communications, a public relations firm in Westerville, Ohio. Favorite Sons is his first novel.
He is a native of Brilliant, Ohio, and has a bachelor’s degree in journalism from Bowling Green State University.
What one issue makes you struggle the most as an author? How do you handle it?
Spider Solitaire – I should have it removed from my computer.
Beyond that, impatience. I have to work hard not to rush. It is a difficult habit to break. Sometimes, I get away from the computer and use a digital recorder to capture some thoughts. When I was a newspaper reporter, I frequently worked on deadline and didn’t have the luxury of time. An editor once told me, “It’s not War & Peace, Yocum. It’s a story for a daily newspaper, which means we publish every day. Today is one of those days. Get it done.” I’d like to blame it on being a reporter, but the truth is I’m just impatient.
What is the best writing (or life) advice you have ever heard or wished you had followed? Why?
The only ball player who never makes an error is the one who never gets off the bench. – Ronald Yocum 1934-2008.
My dad taught me that failure is not the end of the world. That was great preparation for a career as a writer. If you are a writer, you are going to fail. I could paper a wall with rejection letters. It takes a while to find your voice. Once you’re comfortable with your writing style, there is still the challenge of finding an agent and publisher. If you cannot accept failure – or criticism – you won’t succeed as a writer.
Tell us a bit about your current project.
Favorite Sons is classified as a legal thriller, but it is really a story about a secret and how concealing the truth can have ramifications for decades. It is 1971 and four teenage boys – including narrator Hutch Van Buren – are living an idyllic life in Crystalton, Ohio, when Petey Sanchez, a mentally and emotionally damaged boy, is found murdered. The four boys know the secret of Petey’s death, but conceal the truth, even when an innocent man is sent to prison for the death. Thirty years later, as the narrator is close to winning an election to be the next Ohio Attorney General, the wrongfully convicted man gets out of prison and the four learn they aren’t the only ones keeping a secret.
We are all about journeys…unique ones at that. How convoluted was your path to your first published book? Share some highlights or lowlights from your path to publication.
I have had two true crime books published, but always wanted to be a novelist. It was a brutal path. I found myself writing, but making very little effort to get anything published. A few years back, I met Susanne Jaffe, executive director of Thurber House, a literary center in Columbus. Susanne read a manuscript I had written entitled, The Duke of Mingo Junction. When she finished she asked, “Why aren’t you writing for a living?” I told her that I appreciated her support, but I had been unable to find anyone in the publishing world that shared her enthusiasm for my work. She encouraged me to continue writing and promised that I would get published. That encouragement inspired me to work harder. Ultimately, I found a wonderful agent in Colleen Mohyde, who believes greatly in my work. Her diligence allows me to focus on writing.
Do you still experience self-doubts regarding your work, or struggle in a particular area such as writers block or angst driven head-banging against walls? Please share some helpful overcoming hints that you’ve discovered.
A little self-doubt is good. It keeps you on your toes.
I don’t believe in writer’s block. Mike Harden, the late columnist of the Columbus Dispatch, used to ask, “What would you do if you hired a plumber and, at $60 an hour, he told you he had plumber’s block?” Are there days when the words just don’t flow? Of course. Take a walk with a digital recorder – something will come to you.
Head-banging? Seriously? People do that? I raised three children to adulthood. My head-banging days are behind me . . . I hope.
What is your favorite source for finding story ideas?
I have a vivid imagination. Also, I spent 13 years as a newspaper reporter. I grew up in the Upper Ohio Valley, a gritty area of steel mills, coal mines and railroads. It is a unique part of the country and I enjoy using it as a backdrop to my stories. Favorite Sons started out as a story about a prison guard and his relationship with a Death Row inmate. However, when I created the crime for which the inmate was wrongfully convicted, I liked the characters I had created. I wanted to see what happened to them and their secret as they got older.
With the clarity of experience what advice would you offer up to the wet-behind-the-ears you if beginning this writing journey today?
I would have taken more literature and creative writing courses in college. Actually, I should have taken a literature or creative writing course. I subscribe to the theory that writing is hard work. Grind away. Polish your stories. Don’t give up. To use another of my dad’s sports analogies, “Keep hammering the line.” Too many people want to talk about being writers. Too few actually want to do the heavy lifting.
What event/person has most changed you as a writer? How?
My writing has been evolutionary. I look back at some of my early attempts at fiction and I’m grateful for the paper shredder in the corner. Life, the culmination of all your experiences, provides the best fodder.
Share a dream or something you’d love to accomplish through your writing career.
My dream? Well, it has to do with Jennifer Aniston, but I’m not going to get into that. Besides, I heard she’s not into writers.
What is one of the more unique or strange life experiences that has really given you an extra oomph in your writing?
The experience that gives my writing extra oomph occurred in Wheeling, West Virginia, in 1977. It was 2 a.m. and I had just left the Merrimint Bar and was in the alley on my way to the car when his shadow crossed my path. He was a Goliath of a man with a scar running away from his left eye. “Leaving the party so soon, sonny,” he sneered. The blade flashed in the light dim light of the alley as he stepped toward me. I grabbed the brick at my feet and . . .
Wait, I’m not sure what the statute of limitations is in West Virginia. Let me get a hold of my lawyer before I go any further.
Describe your special or favorite writing spot.
I have no favorite place to write. Because I have run my own business, I write when time permits. I use a notebook, a digital recorder, my laptop. I take advantage of travel time – the digital recorder while driving, on airplanes, waiting between appointments.
What aspect of writing was the most difficult for you to grasp/conquer? How did you overcome it?
Finding the right voice. As I was writing Favorite Sons, I found that I was comfortable with the voice of the narrator, Hutch Van Buren. To me, it was easy to hear Hutch tell the story. I’m not sure there is any easy way to conquer that issue, other than working through it. When you find a voice that works for you, you’ll know it. From Favorite Sons I learned that I am more comfortable writing in the first-person than third-person.
What is the first thing you do when you begin a new book?
Create a scene that gives you a visual image of your environment. I am currently working on a book that begins:
It was never easy being the class dirty neck, the derisive term used for those of us unfortunate enough to have grown up along Red Dog Road, a dead-end strip of gravel and mud buried deep in the bowels of Appalachian Ohio.
From that sentence, I could envision my main character and the dirty hovel in which he lived. The book moved forward from there, again in the first-person.
Writing rituals. Do you have to sit somewhere specific, complete a certain number of words, leave something undone to trigger creativity for the next session? Some other quirk you’d like to share?
I don’t think word counts are a bad idea. When you’re working full time – I run my own p.r./marketing consulting business – you have to discipline yourself to sit down and write. Set goals of 500 words a day. If they’re not good words, you can edit them down. However, if you write 500 a day, some of those words will be keepers.
Plot, seat of pants or combination?
If I know where my story ends, my characters will take me there. I find it easy to fill in the middle, create and recreate along the way, if I know how it ends. Another writer once told me not to constrain myself with a defined plot. He said, “Your characters will tell you how the books ends, and where.” That manuscript is now about 300,000 words long and no end in sight. The main characters are currently at a dinner party. I’m thinking of having an out-of-control semi blow through the dining room. The End.
Have you discovered any successful marketing/promo ideas that you’d share with us?
Yes, hire my daughter to do your social media. Have you heard about this Facebook thing? It’s amazing.
Okay, I’m not that inept. However, my daughter, Jaclynn, has taken on the task of handling social media for me. If you want to focus your time on writing, hire someone to handle local publicity and social media.