A Balancing Act: Writing and Working

by Tom Honea

We are going to discuss a couple of things here:

  1. Some of us have day jobs—or run a business—that operate side by side with a commitment to a major writing project. Successfully managing the two is a challenge, a balancing act.
  2. Where do plot ideas come from? How do we sift through those ideas, separate the wheat from the chaff, and turn those ideas into reality?

Unless you are an Annie Proulx or a James Lee Burke, writing for you is most likely not your real life. You have to work: pay the rent, buy groceries, be sure your parents—or your kids—are okay. For most of us, there is never enough time for writing. Any time spent writing is time taken away from real life, or vice versa.

A 2014 survey reported by The Guardian shows that only 46 percent of traditionally published writers earn more than $1000 annually. Fewer than 20 percent of self-published writers top the $1000 mark.

Still, there are those of us who feel compelled—obligated, even—in the midst of real life, to write. How and when do we find the time?

For me, life comes before writing.

My novel, A Confluence Of Rivers, was seven years in the making. During that process my wife Ginny and I owned and ran a business (granite kitchen countertops, bathrooms, etc.) that employed sometimes as many as twelve people. Equally as invasive on my time was a two-acre landscape garden. I spent Spring and summer evenings  outside, leaving the garden only when forced to by darkness, too late in the evening to sit down and write. Attending to our business was not an option. The garden, in spring and summer, was pretty much the same: a demanding mistress.

Over those seven years, I wrote Rivers on winter evenings. It has been half a decade now since I typed the last page. But I don't recall, from year-to-year, there being any delay or reluctance to get back into the swing of things once the October evenings got cool and the garden called to me less and less.

A number of things contributed to that. Through the warm weather months the plot and characters were never far from my mind, especially on the thirty-minute drive to and from work every day. A lot of really good writing can be done on morning and afternoon commutes! The constructive thinking continued once back home, during long hours in the garden. Playing out scenes in my mind during those summer months was a lot of fun, and it was helpful. Without the pressure to get words down on paper, there was time to cast a scene several different ways—time to let the characters react differently to the events and pressures coming at them.

And, over those seven years, the plot changed, in subtle ways, especially during the down times. For example, I knew a lot more about the development of popular guitar music in years six and seven than in years one and two. Also, I came to realize that, for the plot to be realistic, one of the main characters really did have to die, as opposed to simply disappear. I realized that somewhere around twenty thousand words were superfluous, so they wound up on the cutting-room floor. And, to my surprise, an unexpected character walked out of the woodwork, and refused to go away. He had time to mature into the role he eventually played.

The take-away is, I think, to use down time productively. Here are some steps that worked for me:

  • An ever-present yellow legal pad and a fine point pen were my best allies during those summers. Write down your thoughts, lest you lose track of them!
  • Take time to read what you have already written. If it makes sense a month after you wrote it, it is probably okay. If it doesn't ring true, you have time to really take a look at what the problems are.
  • Find a good beta reader (the operative word is good). You have time even in the busy months to consider carefully the feedback you get, and to act on it wisely.
  • Take a really good look at the characters, making sure that they are true to themselves as the work progresses. In my case, I discovered that Wiley Jennings was not the same person in year seven of the writing process as when the project started. This makes sense considering that Wiley's last scene in the book was written seven years after I wrote the first sentence.

Real life was, for me, most important; it had to be dealt with. Down-time from writing is okay, just have a plan for productively using it!

The current working/writing situation in my world is different from when Confluence was coming to fruition.

Even as we speak, I am working on two projects: Hampton Roads '44, a WWII homefront novel set in Newport News, Virginia; and East Of Cooper, (circa 1946-1949) set on the islands across the Cooper River from Charleston, SC. I try to add words to Hampton Roads on a regular basis. For East of Cooper, I'm collecting scenes, sites, and characters and especially building a critical mass of plot ideas—story lines.

At the same time, in real life, I spend a lot of time at the local high school. We have a student body of 850 teenagers, some 300 of whom are student/athletes: girls who play tennis and boys who play basketball.

My days are filled with keeping track of their academic progress: who is failing, who is passing, who didn't turn in their English homework. There is no day in the academic school year when I am not, in some way, involved in this process. Seventy-five to eighty of the three hundred require almost daily attention.

We are demographically challenged. To get many of our kids ready to have any chance of succeeding academically at the college level, regardless of how good they are as athletes, is basically a matter of changing the culture: an everyday and time-consuming effort. Doing the things necessary to be good students is not on their horizon. My days are spent causing that to happen.

In addition, I coach our distance runners: cross country and track, an activity that fills ninety minutes to two hours of my time every school-day afternoon. But, Lord, I love it!

So, when does writing time come? From five to six a.m., two mornings a week. A strong cup of coffee and a quiet house make for a wonderful working environment. My other regular time is the ninety minute break I get during the early afternoon every school day. These aren't long stretches of time, but over a matter of days, they add up.

I use a Hemingway trick to help with the juggling act between life and writing: in any particular writing session never write a scene to its conclusion. Why? By stopping in the middle of a scene, we know exactly where to pick up the thread at the beginning of the next session. In plain language: when I sit down at 5:01 a.m., I know exactly what to write next. And, by the time I finish that scene, I'm on a roll; ready to move on to the next.

The take-away: have a plan for when you are going to sit down and put words on paper. Furthermore, you must have the discipline to stick to that plan. Fit the plan to your life situation. For instance, you could take one day a week off from work; write at 5:00 a.m.; write an hour a day (at a specific time); create your own time and place. Whatever works for you—just do it!

Plot ideas can come anytime, anywhere. The impetus for A Confluence Of Rivers came on a winter afternoon on the way home from work, while I was stuck in a construction delay.

Seventeen-year-old Wiley Jennings flagged the milk truck down, caught a ride into town.

I knew, intuitively, when and where Wiley Jennings was when he flagged down the milk truck: rural southwest Mississippi, summer 1931. The questions were: who was Wiley, and why did he need to go to town? (I knew, from personal experience, that catching a ride on the milk truck was a not common, casual affair.) In the process of figuring it out, those lines turned into a five-hundred page novel. Three main characters, half-a-dozen supporting characters, a plot covering ten or more years; a murder (where the reader knows from the beginning who did it and why, and is sympathetic to the killer), and a love story.

Hampton Roads '44: (AKA Kentucky Straight) grew out of the lines:

It all started with a cup of sugar.

A container bound for already war-weary England had fallen from a pallet back down onto the deck of the car float below, broken open. Sugar spilled out everywhere.

“You’re a clumsy son-of-a-bitch,” somebody shouted up to the crane operator. They all laughed. Half-a-dozen men scooped up sugar, closed it up in their lunch boxes, took it home to their wives. Rationing was a bitch.

That line, It all started with a cup of sugar, first occurred to me in the middle of a Christmas day run along the James River in Newport News, Virginia. The path I was following overlooked what had been, in the WWII years, the Hampton Roads Port Of Embarkation. Those words are well on the way to becoming a WWII home-front novel filled with moonshiners, black marketeers, heroes and villains: tragically flawed characters.

“A Chicken-Wire Juke Joint, Kentwood, Louisiana, 1972.”

It was a chicken-wire juke-joint, all right.

This line came one night while I was reading about Jimmy Donley, a ground-breaking and immensely talented, but tragic figure, from the 1950s birth of Rock-And-Roll. It has become a short story, currently looking for a home.

I could add more to this list of inspiring moments, but the point is: write them down! Turn them over, these out of thin air thoughts, see what is on the bottom. Look at them sideways. There is a story in there somewhere. Our job, as writers, is to find it.

Inspiration is all around us. Fifteen of William Faulkner's nineteen novels are set in Yoknapatawpha County, an area far smaller than Buncombe County (Asheville). Mr. Faulkner was known to say, “…I am not apt to run out of stories to tell about this patch of dirt.”

Keep a notebook, a legal pad, with you always (or if you must, your smart phone or other device). Write those stray thoughts down. Elmore Leonard wrote his first several novels on a legal pad hidden in the top pull-out of his desk at an advertising agency in Detroit. (I don't recommend this tactic!) The next As I Lay Dying may nudge your elbow on tomorrow's drive home from the grocery store.

You may have a full-time job, or another full time activity involving volunteer work and/or family. Still, if at heart you are writer, consider creating some structure for your time, establishing a daily (or even, weekly) routine that includes time for putting words on paper.

Throughout much of my adult life I was apt to say, “I could do that,” referring to Bridges Of Madison County, or whatever. Some number of years ago my son said, “Daddy, either do it, or quit talking about it.”

For many of us that is the challenge.

Tom Honea has had short stories published in the online literary journal Deep South Magazine, and in the Bell Bridge Books Sweeter Than Tea anthology series. He also has written a Southern literary fiction novel, A Confluence Of Rivers.

After fifteen years of coaching, teaching, and athletic administration, followed by twenty-five years of construction management and construction related small-business ownership, rather than retire, he divides time between writing and working with student/athletes—both as a coach and counselor—at his local high school.