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Success Story Interview - Linda Jackson

An Interview with Linda Jackson (ljjackson0 on QT) upon receiving an offer of representation from agent Victoria Marini of High Line Literary Collective.


QT: Can you tell us a little bit about the book for which you've found representation? What inspired you to write it?
Linda Jackson:
BECOMING ROSA is historical fiction set in 1955 Mississippi, specifically the Delta. The story was inspired by family history and a comment my mother, who was in her seventies at the time, made regarding the murder of Emmett Till: “I sure believe Mr. So-and-So [real name withheld] had something to do with killing that boy.” That was the first time I’d ever heard my mother mention anything civil rights related in my life. I also found it interesting that even though the murder occurred miles away from her hometown, my mother was familiar with it and even thought she knew someone associated with it. Her still thinking about that murder some 50 years later gave me a strong desire to write about it. Tying in family stories with research and my imagination, I merged history and fiction and came up with BECOMING ROSA.
QT: How long have you been writing?
Linda Jackson:
I submitted my first piece to Reader’s Digest when I was about nine or ten. I sent them a joke for one of their “Laughter” sections, then watched the mailbox expectantly for my $100 check to arrive. It never came. I’ve been writing for over 20 years, but I’ve only been writing toward traditional publication for the past six.
QT: How long have you been working on this book?
Linda Jackson:
I began writing the book in early 2013, then tragedy struck my family over the summer and stalled my creativity. I began writing again in late fall of 2013. I scrapped most of what I had written and started over. I finished the book during the fall of 2014, so basically a year and a half.
QT: Was there ever a time you felt like giving up, and what helped you to stay on course?
Linda Jackson:
Every night, after I’d spent the day writing, reading, and reading about writing, while neglecting exercise, cleaning, and laundry, I would ask myself, “Why?” Then I’d vow to not do it anymore. The next day, I’d do it all over again. Wash, rinse, repeat. Listening to inspirational music (mostly Gospel and Christian) and reading the success stories of others helped me keep going.
QT: Is this your first book?
Linda Jackson:
Lord, no. My first book was written 20 years ago and self-published 13 years ago. I wrote and published two novels for young readers and two inspirational books for adults before I began my quest toward traditional publication. After writing for educational publishers and Chicken Soup for the Soul, I saw the benefit of working with an editor who had a vested interest in the work (i.e. an editor who paid me and not the other way around). Even though my self-published books had a successful run, I realized I still had a lot to learn about writing. The next three manuscripts and the five years I spent querying and revising them, taught me that “lot” I needed to learn. BECOMING ROSA is the sixth manuscript (fiction) I’ve written and the fourth manuscript I’ve queried with the intent to gain representation.
QT: Do you have any formal writing training?
Linda Jackson:
No. Self-taught through the process of writing, reading, querying, revising, and working with critique partners.
QT: Do you follow a writing routine or schedule?
Linda Jackson:
No regular schedule or routine, but I know I’ll make time for my writing if it’s a story I must tell.
QT: How many times did you re-write/edit your book?
Linda Jackson:
I edited as I wrote...a no-no that worked for me. I kept a file labeled “holes in the story” to go back and fill in the gaps. I also kept a spreadsheet detailing important points in each chapter to help identify holes or chapters that needed more work. Once I completed the manuscript, I went back and filled in the holes. Lastly, I polished.
QT: Did you have beta readers for your book?
Linda Jackson:
Yes, and no. I allowed my readers to read the first seven chapters and give me feedback. After that, I forged ahead and didn’t allow anyone to read the manuscript. I knew what I wanted to write, and I didn’t want to get swayed by feedback. I actually didn’t allow my betas/critique partners to read the manuscript until AFTER I had already queried it. I didn’t do this because I thought my writing was so terrific that I didn’t NEED feedback. I did it because I didn’t want my readers to feel OBLIGATED to give me feedback, especially since all my CPs write shorter works than I do. I also did it because this story was so personal and scary for me to write that I just wanted to take my chances with folks who didn’t know me, i.e. agents. I’m still scared about its future release into the world.
QT: Did you outline your book, or do you write from the hip?
Linda Jackson:
I didn’t use a traditional outline. Because the story is based on actual historical events, I used a timeline. My story correlates with the events surrounding the Emmett Till murder. The story opens on a Saturday in July, 1955, a couple of days before Emmett Till’s fourteenth birthday and ends on a Sunday in October, a month after the trial of his murderers.
QT: How long have you been querying for this book? Other books?
Linda Jackson:
I began querying on October 31, 2014, and got Victoria’s email requesting a chat on March 18, 2015, so just over 4 1/2 months. I queried Victoria on February 16th, however, so one month and two days from query to offer. I queried over a five-and-a-half-year period on three other manuscripts. Most of that time was spent on one manuscript, which I rewrote six times—one rewrite was from scratch and four of them were failed R&R attempts. I was SO hoping for a Kathryn Stockett or Becca Fitzpatrick success story. Alas, it didn’t happen.
QT: About how many query letters did you send out for this book?
Linda Jackson:
Between October and January, I sent out 33 queries and got one full request, which was a miracle because, admittedly, the query was a mess. But I didn’t know how to rewrite it. Then, on the morning of February 16, I woke up with the letters NAACP racing through my mind. Following those letters was the first sentence of my new query. I bypassed my Keurig, went straight to the computer, and wrote my new query within minutes. I sent out 10 that same day. Then on Wednesday of that week, I sent out five more queries in response to #MSWL requests for historical fiction. I got five requests—a 100% success rate! But I ended up signing with the first agent I emailed that miraculous day on Monday, February 16. Yay, Victoria!
QT: On what criteria did you select the agents you queried?
Linda Jackson:
If the agent repped historical fiction, was with a reputable agency, and was nice to others on social media, I queried. I also checked QueryTracker and avoided agents who took months to respond to queries. Ironically, after Victoria requested the full, I began doing my “in depth” research and couldn’t find anywhere that she repped historical fiction. It’s almost as if it was meant to be.
QT: Did you tailor each query to the specific agent, and if so, how?
Linda Jackson:
I definitely tailored the #MSWL queries. (I even had the nerve to compare my story to Jackie Woodson’s Brown Girl Dreaming. Yikes!) But I didn’t tailor the query to Victoria nor to the other agent who requested the full. I simply jumped straight into the pitch.
QT: What advice would you give other writers seeking agents?
Linda Jackson:
If you know you want an agent to pitch your work to publishers, then don’t EVER stop trying. I know it sounds cliché, but it’s the truth. In that five-year period, I sent out over 200 queries. DON’T GIVE UP. Endure the pain (and shame) of rejection. After you have exhausted one manuscript, write another, then another. If there is a story burning in your heart, the story that they say “only you can write” then write it. It just might be THE ONE. This story is so personal that I dreamed that I apologized to my grandmother (who’s been deceased for 37 years) for writing it.
QT: Would you be willing to share your query with us?
Linda Jackson:
Sure! But I warn you, it’s long!

Query Letter:

Dear Ms. Marini,

NAACP. Fifteen-year-old Rose Lee Carter’s grandmother has warned her if she even utters those letters in her house, it would take a year to wash the taste of lye soap from her mouth. The year is 1955. The place is the dirt clods of the Mississippi Delta. And because of the Supreme Court’s ruling in Brown versus the Board of Education in Topeka, Kansas, Black people in Mississippi are being gunned down simply for registering to vote. And according to Big Ma, them NAACP people ain’t making things no better.

But Rose Lee is fed up with Mississippi and its Jim Crow way of life. Like her mother and many others before her, she can’t wait to flee the South and head to Chicago. Education is her only way out, even if the education comes from the Colored high school where everything in it is junk White folks no longer wanted in their children’s school. But with Big Ma’s announcement that Rose Lee won’t attend high school in the fall because she is needed to work the fields, Rose Lee becomes even more determined to figure out an escape from the South.

Then, a week before school starts, a fourteen-year-old Chicago boy named Emmett Till is brutally murdered in nearby Money, Mississippi. His crime: Whistling at a White woman in her grocery store. At first Emmett Till’s murder frightens Rose Lee, making her want to keep her thoughts and her right to vote to herself. But with the acquittal of the guilty-beyond-a-reasonable-shadow-of-doubt murderers, Rose Lee knows she must stand up for her rights even if it may cause her her life.

BECOMING ROSA is a 66,000-word historical novel set in the fictitious town of Stillwater, Mississippi, and it is loosely based on my own family’s Mississippi Delta history. The Mississippi Arts Commission recently awarded me a Literary Arts Fellowship for BECOMING ROSA based on the following criteria: The writing was presented in a way that it gave the reader a clear interest in the characters as characters in their own right; The description of early African American life was evocative; The writing was presented in a warm narrative voice; It was interesting to see the writer’s use of a teenager as storyteller; The warmth and humor exhibited in the writing is to be commended.

My writing credentials include years of writing reading assessment passages for educational publishers as well as publication in multiple Chicken Soup for the Soul titles. I would love to hear from you, Ms. Marini, if BECOMING ROSA is a manuscript you would like to further explore.


Linda Jackson