Who is Robin Conley?Posted: July 18, 2016 | |
It occurred to me that although I introduced Robin Conley as my cohort in the M.F.A. program when she first began doing guest posts for Writing to be Read, I really didn’t give a lot of information about my friend and former cohort, who happens to be a very talented writer with a sharp eye for what does, or doesn’t, make a story work.
When she was introduced in my M.F.A. cohort at Western State of Colorado University, there was one amazing thing about her which stuck in my mind. She had challenged herself and her writing abilities by writing a short story a day for a year, and called it Project 365. Not only did she challenge herself, but she took it public. She got the idea as an undergraduate at Western Michigan University in 2010. Robin explains how Project 365 came about,
“ …we were reading a book of plays called 365 Plays/365 Days by Suzan-Lori Parks… her work inspired me to try something like it for myself to help me push myself to write every day, and to try new styles of writing. There weren’t any rules except that I had to write a complete story every day… as long or as short as necessary to tell the story, but the purpose… was trying something new. I played with genres, new characters, new styles (minimalism, surrealism, literary vs. genre, etc.) In order to keep myself on track, I started a twitter account (@Jminspirations) at the same time and a blog, and forced myself to post every story on the blog and then put a link on my twitter account.”
I found this to be amazing. Talk about inspirational. Wow!
At the time, that’s how I thought of her, the amazing girl who did the short story challenge. But over the past four years, I’ve gotten to know her better and she’s become a good friend to me, and in a way, she’s become my writing partner. We are working together in some of our writing endeavors, including her guest posts here. Through our Etsy store, Writing the World, we offer critiquing and proofreading services. Robin does guest posts for us, besides writing for her own blog. In addition to her own writing, she currently does writing for hire, volunteers as a script reader, and is teaching a couple of classes in screenwriting. (I think she may do some babysitting, too.) Besides being skilled at the craft, she’s smart and witty, and a she has a wonderful sense of humor.
I wanted my readers to know a little bit about Robin, so you’ll have a better idea of who you’re getting your weekly writing tips from. There’s no better way to tell you about her than to let her say it in her own words. The post runs a bit long, but Robin’s answers were so good, I couldn’t bring myself to cut much of them. I’m hoping after reading the following interview, you’ll be able to see a little bit of what I see in Robin, who I’ve come to know and consider a friend.
Kaye: We’ve already talked some about Project 365. How has that writing experience helped shape your writing career?
Robin: Project 365 was a strange part of my life that really pushed me to be a better writer. Every time I thought I wouldn’t be able to come up with a story idea, I somehow found one. It was stressful, and there were a lot of days where I wanted to do anything but write. Sticking with it taught me more about my writing than anything else I’ve done. By the final few months, I’d learned a lot about my process and my writing and I learned how to write no matter what else was going on.
So far, at least 2 of the stories have sprung into novels, and there are at least a dozen others that I also plan to turn into novels when I have the time. Many others I’ve revised and am working on sending out to publishers in hopes of finding a home for them. Of course, there are several that are just pretty crappy and probably won’t be used for anything other than as a “learn from my mistake” sort of thing, but that’s to be expected when doing so much in such a short time.
Kaye: What works have come out of the 365 stories?
Robin: One of my favorite stories that sprung from the 365 challenge is my Tour Guide that was part of my thesis novel, Labyrinth of the Dead, which I wrote for the MFA program. The world she is a part of was a pre-existing place I’d written about before, but the Tour Guide was a new character that I decided to play with while doing the challenge. She works in the underworld as a guide for the newly dead and leads them through the orientation process, so to speak.
Another story that came from the challenge has become a mystery novel, Indecision Killed the Cat. It’s about an anxiety-riddle woman who believes her troubled brother is missing, but no one believes her because of his past history of running off, and her irrational and unreliable way of thinking.
Kaye: In what way, if any has the challenge helped bring you to the point you’re at now?
Robin: Doing the challenge helped me grow more confident in my own writing. It let me explore genres and stories that I had been thinking about, but hadn’t tried writing in.
One of my main goals with the challenge was to help me focus. Before the challenge, I often found it hard to work on longer projects because I had so many ideas in my head and I felt overwhelmed by them or distracted… Now when I go to write I know exactly what I need to do in order to get started, where before I’d waste a lot of time. It really helped me be the writer I am today.
Kaye: What kinds of things influence your writing?
Robin: I’m influenced by everything. I love learning how things in the world work: people, jobs, cultures, nature… I love learning and I love watching how things are interconnected. When I write, it’s all about taking little details and connecting them in such a way that they tell a story. Every part of my life, every little thing I’ve interacted with every day, helps me tell stories.
Sometimes the smallest thing can inspire a story for me because it’s all about perspective. The way someone holds a beer bottle can be significant and inspiring. I know, it sounds silly and dramatic, but it’s true. It may inspire me because of the attitude, or the way the person is interacting with the bottle. Are they gesturing with it like it’s an extension of themselves? Or do they carry it like it’s nothing more than object? These kind of small details can make me start to wonder about a person, and before I know it, I’m no longer thinking about that person, I’m thinking about a character. Every character has a story, and I love finding out what it is. So once I have a glimmer, I have to delve deeper. Essentially, the answer to where stories come from for me, is simple: they come from curiosity. I want to know more, so I write until I find my answers.
Kaye: What’s your favorite genre to read? To write?
Robin: About 60% are books recommended to me by friends or family. I have several people who pretty much give me everything they read because they know I like to check out all types of stories as research for writing. If someone I know wanted to read it, I’m curious to see it for myself. My preferred genres are the classics, urban fantasy, horror, and anything involving zombies. In general, though, I’ll pick up any book that either has a character or plot that catches my attention, and I usually read several books at once. Right now I’m currently reading:
- David Copperfield by Charles Dickens
- The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Díaz
- 21st Century Dead Edited by Christopher Golden
- House of Leaves by Mark Danielewski
- The Tools of Screenwriting by David Howard & Edward Mabley
In writing, I seem to lean toward telling stories that involve some form of fantasy, or something involving horror or supernatural elements. While these types of stories are my favorite, I end up writing in a wide variety of genres because what usually draws me to wanting to write a story is the character or a particular conflict. I like to follow the story and take it wherever it leads me instead of trying to focus too much on one genre or style.
Kaye: Like me, you hold a duel M.F.A. in Creative Writing, with emphasis in both genre fiction and screenwriting. What prompted you to spend the extra year to add that additional screenwriting emphasis?
Robin: I love telling stories, and I love absorbing stories in any form (movies, music, oral storytelling, plays, books, etc.) When I took my out of concentration course for the fiction program I decided to take Screenwriting because it would help me expand my ability to tell stories. The more mediums I am familiar with, the more options I have when I choose to tell a story. Plus, when I took the Screenwriting class I just really fell in love with the visual format and wanted to know more, so I decided to add the extra year in order to learn as much as I possibly could about screenwriting before I graduated.
Kaye: What is the biggest challenge for you when writing short fiction? Or when tackling a novel length work? • What is your biggest challenge when writing a screenplay? • Have you ever played with poetry?
Robin: Short Fiction – condensing the story. I love getting lost in characters and worlds, and finding a short story is often hard for me. I really have to force myself to focus on one small part of the story and make it matter, without getting lost in the bigger story.
Novels – I think I most struggle with the outlining and preparing to write stage. I hate the pre-writing stuff and always want to just get started, but I find that the pre-writing really helps me write faster and clearer so I force myself to do it.
Screenwriting – During my first drafts I really focus on the plot and getting that to work on the page first, which means my protagonist’s personality often gets lost even though I know it well. Future drafts are often all about bringing that personality out and fixing character stuff, which is a slow and tedious process for me.
Poetry – It was my first foray into writing. It was awful stuff that will hopefully never see the light of day again. These days I simply appreciate poetry and admire those who have the skill. It’s not my strong suit.
Kaye: Which is your favorite type of writing? Short fiction, genre fiction, or screenwriting?
Robin: I’m kind of torn on this these days, because I love the visual format of screenwriting, but I also adore getting lost in the world of a novel. I think for me, which is my favorite really depends on what story I’m working on at the given moment and which medium it seems to fit best.
Kaye: Is there anything unique or unusual about your writing process?
Robin: The main thing I can think of is that in my first draft I really focus on getting my plot down first and writing the motions of the story, while drawing character out comes second. I know my characters in advance before writing, but they don’t always come out on the page well in the first draft since I’m focused on plot. Doing it this way helps me write faster, and gets the plot all out on the page so I can look at it and see what is and isn’t working, because sometimes you can’t tell until it’s written.
I look at it as being similar to drawing. First you do a rough sketch to plan the drawing (outline), then maybe you do the structure of the drawing in black and white (plot), and then you go through and add color (character and finer details). Writing this way lets me really focus on my plots and make sure they are logically sound before I really delve into bringing out the character elements and some of the smaller details that help bring a story to life. The key, though, is knowing your characters really well first so they fit the plot.
Kaye: We’re offering some proofreading and critiquing through the Etsy store. What’s your worst pet peeve when reading or critiquing a book or story?
Robin: 1. When the author writes a character doing something for the sake of getting the plot to go where the author needs it to go, rather than staying true to the characters.
2. When critiquing and someone sends me something that is clearly a first draft and I can tell they haven’t read it over. It’s one thing if we’ve talked about sending the first draft for some specific reason, but it’s another to send something to someone asking for a critique when you haven’t even done a basic revision pass. You may only get one critique, so don’t waste it by sending something that is filled with mistakes you could catch on your own!
Kaye: What do you like to do when you’re not writing?
Robin: I have a lot of random hobbies and like learning new things, so what I’m up to is constantly changing. Lately I’ve been teaching myself to knit, and relearning some Spanish. In general, I love reading, movies, anything involving animals or nature, traveling, and photography.
That’s it, folks. I hope this interview has given you a better idea of who Robin Conley is, and instilled confidence when she offers writing advice. If you have questions for Robin, leave a comment to this post.
Robin Conley offers great writing advice most Wednesdays on Writing to be Read. If you just can’t wait until next week to find out more, you can pop into her blog, Author the World, for more tips, or a weekly writing prompt.