Laine Cunningham

As the Writers Juggle Interview

Hi, welcome to another episode of "As the Writers Juggle," in which we ask writers to share their tips on balancing work, family, and the writing life. This week's guest is Laine Cunningham. Laine is a novelist whose works cross boundaries of race, culture and religion. Her first novel, The Family Made of Dust, is a brutal suspense thriller set in Australia's outback. The book won two national awards and was supported by fellowships and arts residency programs. To support her writing habit, Laine has owned and operated her own publishing industry consulting business, Writer's Resource, for fifteen years. She has been interviewed by CNN, MSNBC, and a host of other media outlets as both a writer and a consultant.

Q: Okay, Laine, 'fess up. How do you support your writing habit?
My dirty little writing habit is supported entirely by my business, Writer's Resource. Since my office is home-based, I have about a ten-second commute from the breakfast table to the office. There are times I need to travel for research, to meet with clients or to conduct seminars which averages out to a few hours every week. Despite all the moaning and groaning about the bad economy, 2008 was a banner year for my company. I've averaged about 50-60 hours per week for the business. 

Q: So your "day-job" is still writing-related. What other time-consuming responsibilities are you involved in?
As few as possible! I do volunteer for my local homeowners association but really that's an every-other-month thing. I am a member of two writer's groups and help individuals with their projects (both during the creation process and during marketing). I also meet every month with a small coalition of fellow authors for marketing sessions. We brainstorm new ideas and share information, what works, what doesn't. 

Q: You went from the corporate world to running your own business to support your writing. When did you decide to take the plunge?
I was working for a corporation in a very cushy job as a technical and production editor. The politics and the fact that I didn't have time to write was killing me. I walked out one day, cashed in my 401K, and wrote full-time for the next year. The memoir I wrote won an award the following year. Then I needed to figure out how to finance this new lifestyle, and started up Writer's Resource. So although I haven't achieved "full-time writerdom" for my own works, I do write all day for my clients. I find that it helps me learn, grown and, of course, network! Perfect solution, if you ask me. 

Q: So you write to support your writing. Were there any personal or family issues you had to worry about when you made that big leap to strike out on your own?
Nothing like that here. My only companion is my dog. He's very supportive! Every time I come home with groceries, he tells me what a great hunter I am! My friends are very supportive of me. They understand why I travel so much (in support of the writing process) and we see each other whenever we pressure or hurt feelings if I can't see them terribly often. It's really amazing how people who don't live the writing life can still be very supportive and understanding. 

Q: I hear you about the dog--the only love money can buy! What sacrifices did you have to make to take the plunge?
See 401K comment above! Also lost my health care benefits after COBRA ran out. I've rectified the insurance situation and am working toward starting a retirement fund this year.
I've also moved a great deal. While writing my first novel, which took four years, I moved...let's see...five times. From California to Minnesota to Virginia to North Carolina (with a few local moves in between). That makes for a lot of long-distance friendships and the need to spend years building new local friendships.
   I don't "go out" much in the way most people think of going out. But I do spend a lot of time on the powwow trail dancing at Native American gatherings. That connects me to part an important part of my heritage and I do get to socialize with all the great folks who come together to dance. And that's a three-season activity, nearly every weekend at the height of it. 

Q: Powwows--that sounds really exciting! What a great way to connect with your Native American heritage.

What conflicts or hurdles have you had to overcome?
The working-in-a-vacuum mode. It doesn't impact the work; in fact, it helps me focus on getting the big-concept ideas down on paper, especially when you're talking about novels. But it does lend itself to self-doubt. Is this good enough? Will it sell? Am I good enough? Yadda-yadda. Every writer has to learn how to turn off that switch! 

Q: Yeah, that working-in-a-vacuum really sucks, doesn't it? (Sorry, couldn't resist!)
About how many hours a day can you spend writing?
When the consulting workload is manageable, I average two hours a day first thing in the morning on my own novels. Production is usually about five pages. I hand-write all first drafts, enter it on the computer, then edit by hand on the hard copy. About once a year I take off for thirty days to do nothing but write. Those days I can do up to twenty pages during creation work, or about six to eight hours of editorial work. In one hour of editing, I might do as little as a page or two per hour on the initial draft. In the last stages, I can do as much as ten pages per hour. 

Q: I like that idea of taking a month off for just the writing--especially when you're in the editing stage.
What about promotion? About how much time do you spend on that?
Two hours per day average. In less than three months of pre-publication marketing, I've netted a mention on MSNBC and quotes in multiple large-circulation regional newspapers, and hundreds of blogs and book review sites. The campaign is working into the second phase, post-publication marketing (the launch date was Jan 20, 2009) so things are looking great! 

Q: That's great! Sounds like you're a promotional dynamo! How do you organize it all? Can you describe an average day-in-the-life-of-Laine?
First two to four hours of the morning are always writing time. Whether that's for myself or a client depends on my workload. Consume one pot of coffee during this time.

Q: Note to self...caffeinate before writing...
Then I spend a half hour to two hours answering email and checking internet analytics, doing quickie research on potential new marketing ideas, blogs, reviews, etc.
Lunchtime! 1/2 hour
Wrap up any small details - 1/2 to one hour.
Post office run/groceries/whatever - 1/2 to one hour
Make a cup of tea (or two) and work on client research, editorial projects, and similar tasks - two to three hours, sometimes four
Exercise: walk or hike with dog - one hour
Check email, begin novel marketing - one to two hours.
Final email, any administrative duties (invoicing, filing, shredding) - one or more hours
Yes, by now it is about 8 p.m. or so. Shut down office and do household chores - one hour
Cook dinner, watch news, do some yoga, read newspapers/magazines - one hour
Bed by 11 p.m. or 11:15. Up at 7 (OK, alarm goes off at 7. Sometimes I hit the snooze button more than once. Usually up by 7:30 a.m.).
For the past year, this schedule has been seven days a week to keep up with client projects and still be sane enough to write fiction. Often the schedule on the weekend is less client work and waaaaaaay more novel writing, plus sleeping late on Saturday morning to catch up from the week's efforts. When I'm not at a powwow, of course! 

Q: That's definitely a full day. What are your best places and times for writing?
First thing in the morning. Access the subconscious better than later, after I've dealt with a million details and my conscious brain is in full control. 

Q: How do you keep from losing your momentum?
I keep my eye on the prize...that big book deal that will allow me to stop consulting and free up more time to travel, research, write, write write!
Plus, I've lived the other side of the American dream. It just about killed me. There is nothing else I can do in this world and live well, healthy and happy. 

Q: What do you do when you get blocked? (Or do you get blocked?)
I don't get blocked, not really. I go for long walks whenever I'm trying to figure things out. Move the body, I always say, and you move the mind. 

Q: Do you find it difficult to make the transition between your consulting work and your own writing? How do you handle it?
Always put the most important things first. The little things always get done whenever. Writers must understand that they need both sides of their different write well. The intuitive side is all about the first draft, accessing the flow. The judge must be silent at that time! Then you have to switch gears for editing, to bring the judge in to work through problems. To solve the problems the intuitive side must come back with the flow for revisions.
    Switching can be done by changing locations. For example, I have two dedicated spaces in my house. One room is the office; the other is for writing only. The spaces are decorated differently, each has its own supplies so I don't have to walk back into the other space for paper or pens, and each has different lighting. Everything about the spaces triggers my mind to do one thing or the other. 

Q: I like that idea.
What helps motivate you and keep you on track? Are you self-motivated or do you need outside naggers to help?
Self-motivated, obviously. I'm motivated, again, because I've had the corporate success and found it to be deadening. This is what I must do; no choice. 

Q: How do you deal with distractions-either outside or inner procrastinatorial/avoidance issues?
Turn off the phone! Only check email at certain times of day! Can't stress those enough. 

Q: Yeah, email is a real time sink! Do you feel you have enough time for non-writing hobbies or activities you'd like to pursue?
Clearly, the answer is no. However, I'm willing to make the short-term sacrifice for the benefit of the rest of my life. 

Q: What advice would you give to others struggling with writing/job/time management issues?
You'll never "find" time to write; you must make it.Thirty minutes a day is enough. Really! The more you write, the more brain cells become involved in the writing process. It's like any other skill...playing piano, working the stock market, whatever. The more consistant you are about your practice, the easier it becomes. 

Q: Any other issues or ideas you'd like to mention?
You know, I walked out of that corporate job because I was working about sixty-five hours a week. My schedule now is the same but it's different. Yes, I get tired. But I couldn't be happier or healthier. I'm doing what I want to do...helping others and helping myself in a very, very tough industry.
    One of my goals when I reach "full-time writerdom" through my novels is to set up some sort of program where authors can come together and help each other. It's so tough doing this on your own...and even if you're married and have a house full of kids and extended family, if they aren't artists or writers themselves, you're still very alone.
    I have been able to take a first step with this. I'm sponsoring a novel award through a regional literary magazine. We haven't worked out the details yet but writers can go to The Blotter Literary Magazine's website to check for dates. I think we'll be offering the first award at the end of this year, perhaps as early as the fall. I don't have the infrastructure to do it myself yet but the magazine's going to handle all the details...I'm just putting up the cash! 

That's great that you're able to give something back to help your fellow writers. Thanks for the inspiration, Laine!