Writing for a Living, Writing for Life
by Kate Kearns Views: 1762
Very few writers make a living on their creative writing alone, and gone are the days when Rilke could live in a friend’s castle to focus on a written work. To pay the bills, we often have to split our focus, working in order to buy time to write.
Robyn Bradley proves that you can write for a living and write for the art at the same time. She’s in the thick of it every day, she makes her own rules, and she loves every second. Bradley writes and self-publishes short stories and novels, promotes her own work, manages her own social media outreach, and takes the time to interact with her audience directly at book clubs and on Goodreads. Oh, and she owns her own copywriting business.
Bradley has published two well-received novels, Forgotten April, and What Happened in Granite Creek. Her work has appeared in FictionWeekly.com, The Breakwater Review, Writer’s Digest, and The MetroWest Daily News. The Center for the Arts awarded her short story “A Touch of Charlotte” in 2007. She earned her MFA in Creative Writing from Lesley University in 2008, and continues to publish short stories as e-books.
Robyn joined us on Mash Blog to discuss the writing life.
Kate Kearns: How do you manage to juggle all of your projects? More importantly, how do you find time to read?
Robyn Bradley: It comes down to prioritizing. The fact that I freelance and work from home gives me a huge advantage, because it allows me to be in control of my schedule. I always keep in mind the many different plates I have spinning: copywriting, fiction writing, reading, and the occasional litter-box cleaning. There have been times when I’ve turned down paid work because of my self-imposed fiction deadlines, and there have been times I’ve had to slow down the fiction writing in order to bring in more paid work since I’ve never been a fan of the “starving artist” cliché. I like food too much.
It’s also important to note how my life differs from many other writers out there: I’m single, and I don’t have kids. I’m in awe of folks with kids, spouses, and all that—those folks are the real word warriors out there.
And reading is a must, regardless. There’s always time for reading!
Kate: How much time do you spend on creative writing and “work” writing each day?
Robyn: It varies tremendously. When I was writing What Happened in Granite Creek, I’d work on it first thing in the morning, pounding out 1,000 words or so a day (including weekends and holidays) and then I’d do the paid work. I recently mixed things up a bit: as long as I can get 6,000–7,000 words down a week, it doesn’t matter when they happen. I’ve been devoting weekends (and occasionally Fridays and Mondays) to my current work-in-progress and then focusing solely on the paid work Monday–Thursday. It’s the best way for right now.
Kate: What writing techniques have you learned through your fiction that you apply to your professional copywriting?
Robyn: People love stories. This is true whether it’s fiction or nonfiction, novels or pages you read on business websites. So bringing a storytelling mindset to my copywriting work is one thing I definitely do. The other is this:
I write the way people talk. Conversational writing is easier to understand, it’s often more memorable, and it’s always much more authentic.
Kate: Do you believe in writer’s block?
Robyn: Nope. That doesn’t mean that I don’t have days when it’s not coming together or a certain section of a book (or copywriting project) has me groping around in the dark, but that’s called life, not writer’s block. What other profession can use a “block” as an excuse for not getting the work done? I’ve never heard of plumber’s block or surgeon’s block or accountant’s block. As the writer Terry Pratchett said, “There’s no such thing as writer’s block. That was invented by people in California who couldn’t write.”
Kate: You participated in NaNoWriMo in 2004. What are its pros and cons?
Robyn: For me, it was all pros. Up until NaNo, I’d been one of those writers who tried to perfect the early pages before moving forward. This resulted in me stalling on page 10 or 20.
Since I’m like a dog with a bone once I have a deadline, NaNo gave me “permission” to write forward if only to get the 50,000 words down and make that bloody deadline. It was an important lesson for me, because as any writer will tell you, that’s what drafting is all about: it’s supposed to be messy. I understood this on an intuitive level, but until I allowed myself to experience it, I didn’t fully get it.
Kate: In the past, short story writers had limited options: submit the story to magazines and wait for a book-length collection. How has the popularity of short e-books changed the way you publish short stories?
Robyn: It gives short stories a longer shelf life, that’s for sure. I came to self-publishing (kicking and screaming, I might add, because I used to be a real snob about it) because I thought it was a shame that the short stories I worked so hard on and believed in so much and that got published in small journals read by barely 100 people would never reach any readers beyond that. Self-publishing is an innovative way to reach more readers.
A buzzword I’ve been hearing a lot lately is “discoverability”—this plagues all writers, self-pubbers and traditionally published alike. If there were a formula for getting your book discovered—one that actually worked every time—everyone would be doing it. Sadly, no one knows this formula (or if they do, they’re not telling).
Kate: Are you working on a new novel?
Robyn: Yep, and it’s a beast. I had a completed manuscript back in February 2014. Completed, polished, I-thought-it-was-ready. I thought wrong. I started over in the summer. Threw out 100,000 words. Started from a completely different point in the story, with a different character. Got rid of ten million unnecessary sub-plots. Right now, I’m in that messy stage of researching and trying to figure out some sort of goddamn structure. And I absolutely adore every frustrating moment of it.
Kate: How did you know it wasn’t ready? What does the process of choosing a new tack entail?
Robyn: I knew it wasn’t ready because I hadn’t inconvenienced my readers.
My goal is to write a book that causes you to stay up way past your bedtime, that leaves you saying, “Just one more page, just one more chapter,” that makes you wonder if you remembered to feed the kids and cat.
I gave my manuscript to nine beta readers. Only four were able to get through it (and their reviews were mixed, at best). The other five kept putting it down. I hadn’t inconvenienced them. That was my first clue. So I put the thing away for three months. Didn’t touch it once. When I finally read it, I experienced the same thing. I was bored. I wanted to put it down and go do something else, anything else, like clean the toilet and balance my checkbook. I pulled the plug after that.
As for the new direction, I wasn’t sure if I could revive it. What I did was start asking myself off-the-wall, what-if questions, like what if the hero became the bad guy and what if this character were an old woman instead of a young guy and what if this person died. Basically, I was giving my brain permission to unlock some doors and lurk in some places it hadn’t considered. From there, I glommed onto a story, a thread I pulled from the original manuscript, even though I’m still wrestling with how to tell this story. I’ve resigned myself to the fact that I might need to put this away and work on something new until I can figure it out, until I can make it a story that inconveniences my reader. Even if it takes six months, six years, or never. I’d rather never than publish crap.
Kate: What authors are your mental mentors and why?
Robyn: There are so many. As a kid, Judy Blume was a rock star. She still is. She was fearless with her topics, and she wrote about them in such a real way that resonated with me. I loved short stories, too. I remember reading “The Veldt” by Ray Bradbury. I was probably in fourth or fifth grade. And I was just floored. I didn’t know stories could be like that, could make me FEEL like that.
When I read Jodi Picoult‘s My Sister’s Keeper, it was my first time reading a book from several characters’ POV. That had a profound influence on how I came to think about the structure of novels. There are no “rules,” not really, anyway, and as long as the reader can follow what you’re doing, have at it.
As for writers and books that just wow me: Lionel Shriver‘s We Need to Talk about Kevin was so brave and well written, it took my breath away; Elizabeth Strout‘s Olive Kitteridge might just be one of my all-time favorite books because the characters and situations were so real, my heart ached; and Cormac McCarthy‘s The Road is stripped down and brilliant because of it.
Kate: Thanks for sharing your experiences with us, Robyn.
Robyn Bradley has found a way to live the writing life without selling time to uninspiring pursuits. As evidenced by her process in writing “What Happened in Granite Creek” and her approach to her current project, she allows herself to be inspired by her readers. Bradley writes like a reader, and she isn’t afraid to spread her work on her own terms.
Kate has a Master’s of Fine Arts in Creative Writing from Lesley University. She enjoys all the equipment on the writing playground, evidenced by her many simultaneous projects. She is a freelance writer and editor, author of the poetry collection How to Love an Introvert, and is working on a piece of non-fiction while dabbling in children’s books and flash fiction. She’s the Platform Manager at Mash Stories and the owner of Black Squirrel Workshop LLC.