Just One Sentence at a Time: Brandvold, Monahan, & Piccirilli on Writing Full-time

Today’s round-up includes three very different writers: Peter Brandvold, Sherry Monahan, and Tom Piccirilli.  Each of them writes full-time, whether fiction or non-fiction.  Each lives life contract to contract, deadline to deadline, sentence to sentence. 

Peter Brandvold writes under his own name and his pen name, Frank Leslie.  His recent books include The Devil’s Winchester (as Peter Brandvold), Bullet for a Halfbreed (as Frank Leslie) and Longarm and the Crossfire Girl (as Tabor Evans).  Under any name or in any series, Brandvold is known for writing violent action particularly well.  His secret seems to be his great care in developing life-like characters.

Sherry Monahan is a freelance writer, editor, and genealogist who specializes in the Victorian Western migration.  She is a contributing editor at True West magazine, as well as the author of the recent Cary, NC and the forthcoming E.M.H.: The Aristocratic Ranch Wife.  In addition to freelance writing and editing, Monahan hires out as a professional researcher who helps people not only trace their ancestry but to also flesh out the details.

Tom Piccirilli writes short fiction and novels across the genres.  His most recent crime novel, Every Shallow Cut, which many reviewers are saying is his best novel yet, is about a down and out writer.:  “It’s something of a meta-fiction,” said Piccirilli, “even though very little in the story has actually ever happened. But there’s a sense about it that it could happen at any moment.”  Piccirilli also offers a manuscript critique service.

Below, each of them talks about working in what Brandvold calls “an insecure occupation.”

How long have you been working as a full-time writer and what sort of work do you do?

Peter Brandvold:  I’ve been work full-time as a Western novelist since 1998–so, about thirteen years now.  Long enough that I’d have a really rough time working a “real” job.

Sherry Monahan:  I’ve been freelancing since 1998, but I’ve been doing it full-time since I was laid off in 2008. I write about current and historical food, travel, alcohol, and research—pretty much anything that I’m passionate about and can get paid for!

Tom Piccirilli:  I’ve been a full-time novelist/fiction writer since I started in the biz, back when I sold my first novel Dark Father in 1990. 

As to what sort of work I do, I write.  For years I wrote horror novels and short fiction with occasional jumps into Westerns, mysteries, dark fantasy, and erotica. Now I mainly focus on crime fiction.

What is a typical day like for you?

Tom Piccirilli:  I keep my own hours.  I write for a bit, then I’ll watch a movie, then go back to writing, then read for a while, then write some more.  Across the length of the day I try to get a clean thousand words or more finished.

Peter Brandvold:  A typical day starts fairly early in the morning–around 6 AM.  I get up, make coffee, and start in writing hard for about 45 minutes.  I try to hammer out 500 words before I take the dogs and myself out for a brisk morning hike in the mountains around where I live or am currently bouncing around–either Colorado or Arizona, though I also spend some time in my home state of North Dakota, as well. 

I come back, have breakfast, try to write another 500 words before noon, have lunch, then maybe read for a while or go see a movie–if I’m around a theater–come back, and hammer out another thousand words before five or six. 

I try to get a minimum of 2000 words written every day–seven days a week.  I don’t take days off.  My schedule is too packed for that, and I’m also so addicted to writing that I really have to write every day.  There’s also an irrational feeling that if I don’t write every day, I’ll lose momentum.  I guess it’s an OCD thing.  But I really love it, too, and just don’t need to take time off.

Sherry Monahan:  There is no typical day when you freelance because you never know what’s coming your way. I do, however, go to my home office every morning about 8:30 and work on something until about 5:30. It’s different from a traditional day job because I can work from home and don’t have to commute. If I don’t have any deadlines looming, I can work on what I feel like working on, which is great when you’re creative juices are flowing.

Is there anything you wish you’d known before you took the plunge into freelancing?

Peter Brandvold:  No.  I’m glad I didn’t know about any of it, because I might have chickened out.  I’m talking the lack of the usual safety nets you get in more traditional lines of work.  Freelancing is an insecure occupation.  You’re only as solvent as the contracts you already have lined up.  After you’ve fulfilled those, you always have to hustle for more.  But this has been good for me, taught me self-reliance and given me a more Zen way of looking at life–it’s one day of work at a time.  One book at a time.  When I’m really good, I’m seeing just one sentence at a time, and that’s really the best state to be in. 

What are some of the frustrations of freelancing and how do you handle them?

Peter Brandvold:  Honestly, there are very few.  I wish I had better health insurance, but I’d rather be my own man than be someone else’s hammer in return for a steady paycheck and an insurance plan.  Now, if I had kids to support and provide health care for, that might be a different story.

Sherry Monahan:  The biggest frustration is not knowing how much work you’re going to get. That makes it hard to pay the bills. I know I have one consistent monthly job, so I use that as my constant.

Tom Piccirilli:  The frustrations of being a full-time writer of fiction (“freelancing” is a term used to describe writers who do non-fiction articles for pay, which isn’t what I do) are many and varied. No real stability, no health-insurance, no 401k plans, no retirement benefits.

What’s the best part?

Peter Brandvold:  Freedom, freedom, freedom.  As long as I get my 2000 words in each day, I can pretty much do what I want.  Sometimes I get those words in really early, and can take a long, long hike in the mountains, head off on some exploration in my pickup, or I can just sit out on the deck and watch the clouds go by.  Or watch a good movie on the Westerns channel! 

Sherry Monahan: The best part is being able to work from home, balance my projects as I like (as deadlines permit), and work on my book writing and genealogy research business. I love having the freedom to choose and be creative.

Tom Piccirilli:  Nobody tells me what to do.

Is there a project that you simply couldn’t have pulled off if you’d been working at a full-time day job?

Peter Brandvold:  I wrote my first three books while I was teaching.  I wrote during office hours, just before and just after class, when I probably should have been preparing for class.  So I was pretty distracted.  But it worked, though I’m sure my teaching suffered.  I wouldn’t want to do that for every book. 

I’d have to say I couldn’t have written a third of the books I’ve written if I’d had a full-time job.  I’d probably have had to write them on weekends or over the summer, and that would have been frustrating.  Writing is something you need a quiet mind for, and working another job isn’t conducive to a quite mind.

Sherry Monahan:  A few of them. I had a full-time job until 2008 and it was difficult trying to balance my life and my writing.

A salary… is it friend or foe?

Peter Brandvold:  Foe.  You become a slave to it.  It’s wonderful and deadly to the freelance writer.  It makes you too dependent.  You’re a dog howling at a nasty old farm-woman’s kitchen door.  I like the challenge and excitement of having to scramble for new assignments.

Sherry Monahan: Salary is always a friend. I have to pay my bills, travel to promote my books and do research, so without it, I would have to give up my dream.

Any parting words? Words of encouragement or caution?

Peter Brandvold:  Someone told me early on, when I’d had only a couple books published, not to quit my day job.  I didn’t listen to them though they easily could have turned out right.  But I made it work and thank the Four Winds I continue to make that work.  But it could stop at any time.  If you can handle that hard bit of reality, and have enough confidence in yourself in your abilities, then I say cut the safety net and freefall and try to make your living as a writer.  I can fairly confidently say, though, that it probably would not work for about 98% of the people out there–because they either lack the writing ability, the genuine obsessive-compulsive love for writing and reading, self-confidence, and lifelong focus and determination–I wanted to write since I was 12 years old, and that idea, that love for reading and writing, was in my head every day right up to now–or they won’t be able to make enough money to support themselves and their families.  That said, if you know it can work, then it will work.

Sherry Monahan:  Trying to earn a living as a freelance writer can be both fun and frustrating. You may want to keep your day job if you want to keep a roof over your head. It’s a very competitive market, so pick a subject that’s interesting and one you’re passionate about.

Tom Piccirilli:  Writing is the hardest thing you’ll ever do.  It will give you a satisfaction you’ve never known before, and quite possibly break your heart along the way.


Jeremy L. C. Jones is a freelance writer, editor, and teacher.  He is the staff Interviewer for Clarkesworld Magazine and a frequent contributor to Kobold Quarterly.  He teaches at Wofford College and Montessori Academy in Spartanburg, SC.  He is also the director of Shared Worlds, a creative writing and world-building camp for teenagers that he and Jeff VanderMeer designed in 2006.

2 thoughts on “Just One Sentence at a Time: Brandvold, Monahan, & Piccirilli on Writing Full-time

  1. Pingback: Guest Post: Just One Sentence at a Time: Brandvold, Monahan, & Piccirilli on Writing Full-time

  2. Is this something that’s teachable, or learnable? I don’t know, exactly, and unfortunately that, like a lot of writing advice, is spectacularly unhelpful to you if you don’t work that way. There is no “right” or “wrong” way to write, as it turns out, only the way that works for you. So, the best I can offer is this: if you’re a writer and your world is a kaleidoscope like mine? You’re not the only one.
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