Writing Tips

Daniel Kalla: Time and momentum

The author of The Far Side of the Sky and Pandemic explains just how a practicing doctor can write seven novels in seven years.

When it comes to my approach to writing, two issues are dear to my heart: time and momentum.

I have had seven novels published in seven years, and I still hear the same question posed by readers, interviewers and, especially, aspiring writers. Sadly (for me), it is not: "Where do you get such inspired ideas?" or "Why do your characters seem to spring off the page?" No. The one thing everyone seems to want to know is: "Where do you find the time?"

Aside from being a writer, I am still a practicing emergency physician with two school-aged daughters. Some people seem to find it inconceivable that I can complete novels while holding down a full-time job and raising a family together with my working wife.

The truth is that writing and time do not necessarily correlate for me. In fact, often the inverse is true. Two or three unscheduled days can be paralytic to accomplishing anything, while at times I do my best writing in the midst of my most hectic schedule.

I have no specific routine or ritual to my approach. Sometimes I write daily while other times I take weeks between sentences. I write morning, noon and or night. I can write anywhere. All I need are ideas and a keyboard (I can't read my own handwriting!), but I never set out to reach a certain word count or number of pages in any one session. That is a recipe for disappointment.

I believe in that old adage: if you want something done, give it to a busy person. But I also am convinced that writing has to be a labour of love. I hear people complain that their lives are too frantic to sit down and write the novel or memoir that has been bubbling inside them for years. That might well be true. However, if you can find time to watch TV, to read, to exercise or to golf (especially to golf!) then you can also find time to write. Even if only for an hour a day, you will be surprised by what you accomplish.

One other mistake I think aspiring writers often make, apart from being too intimidated to start, is to focus too much on those first pages of a manuscript. While they are vital, I know from experience that you can over-polish a rough gem of an idea down to a nub of nothingness. When I write a first draft now, I try to turn off that self-editor and allow the story to carry me, often in directions very different from where I thought I was heading. And nothing inspires me more than momentum gained from completing a few chapters.

You don't have to write War and Peace in three months. I doubt Tolstoy did (then again he might have, he was awfully prolific.) But you need to commit time, thought and energy to your writing. And accept that despite your natural talent you might not write War and Peace on your first go, but like playing violin, tennis or bridge, only practice will make you better. And only then will you know how good you can be.

Daniel Kalla is the bestselling author of seven novels. His latest, The Far Side of the Sky, focuses on Chinese, Japanese and Jewish Second World War history. Daniel has also written five scientific/medical thrillers - one of these thrillers, Pandemic, has been optioned for film. His books have been translated into ten languages. Daniel lives in Vancouver, where he currently practices emergency medicine.

Photo credit: Michelle Moore

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