25th Trillium Award


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Time Warp

With Corban Addison, Nancy Jo Cullen, Hazel Hutchins, Sharon McKay and Ayelet Tsabari.

This month, we asked a handful of writers to answer the question: How do you make or find the time to write?

Finding time to write is crucial. Can we imagine a plumber who is so busy with other endeavours that he doesn?t do any actual plumbing work? Or a stock broker or a lawyer or a teacher or an editor? The simple answer is ?No.? The very concept is absurd, yet the writer lives in this state of absurdity. Time is money, and unless you have been very lucky in life, the world will not deliver unto you time to write. You must take it, steal it ? from yourself, from your loved ones, from your workplace, from wherever you can get it. As I have written about previously, I wrote my first book by working nights in a bookstore and writing in the mornings. During time that others ??normal people? ? devoted to friends and family and socializing and wasting, I worked a ?day job? at night. And while others were working during the day, I was working on my book. That got the job done. It took a long time, but much of that was a steep learning curve. (As I say, it was my first novel.) For my second book, the writing comes much more easily, but my life is much more complex now. I am married and have a child. I received some grants, but when that money (ie: time) ran out I stole time from my sleeping hours, I got a real ?day job? and closed my office door at lunch time, I wrote in the evening after my daughter went to bed, I put the novel on the Google cloud so that I could work on it whenever I had spare time, which was never. I steal time in any way I can, and if you want to be a writer, and are one of the unlucky ones, so should you.

Now, here?s how some other authors make time.

Corban Addison is the author of the novels Garden of Burning Sand and A Walk Across the Sun. He lives in Virginia.

A writer does not find the time to write; he makes the time. A writer constructs his schedule in such a way that writing figures into it, however odd the hours may be. Life without writing is as unthinkable as life without eating. For a true writer, not writing is not an option.

Every writer resolves the time dilemma differently. For writers who carry on other careers, writing a book requires two things: (1) a sustainable writing plan, and (2) the ruthless discipline to follow it until the book is finished.

When I decided to write A Walk Across the Sun, I was a practicing attorney with a young family. I had to figure out how to research, write, and edit a novel on top of my legal career. I presented my wife with a plan, and we negotiated a compromise. We modified it on occasion but never strayed from the basic outline.

  • Mornings and meals were family time.
  • Workdays I practiced law.
  • Workday evenings were available for research and writing, except Fridays.
  • Weekends and holidays were available for research and writing only when necessary and with mutual consent.

I wrote A Walk Across the Sun in the law library at the University of Virginia. Some writers write at home. I don't know how they do it. I needed a nice, quiet place free from distraction to put words on the page. I went to the law school every workday after dinner?Monday through Thursday?and wrote until midnight. On Saturdays, I went to the law school before lunch and wrote until dinnertime. I spent Sunday afternoons editing what I'd written that week. It took me about four months to complete the initial draft. They were grueling months, especially for my wife, but we endured them by following our plan.

We used the same schedule during the editing phase of the book. After I found a literary agent, I worked with a professional editor to get the book in shape. With his guidance, I retooled whole sections of the novel. I didn?t realize at the time how common rewriting is in the process of building a story. Editing is at least as time-consuming as composition and often more painful. But it is essential?a mountain every successful author must climb.

After signing a two-book deal, I left the practice of law to launch A Walk Across the Sun and to write my follow-up novel, The Garden of Burning Sand. This time around, I wrote during the workday. But the business of writing?emails, phone calls, interviews, speaking engagements, and travel? required far more time than I expected. To finish my second book on schedule, I had to develop a sustainable writing plan and to follow it ruthlessly, as I had done before.

With two novels under my belt, I can speak from experience: Anyone can find the time to start a book. Only those who make the time to keep writing will finish it.


Nancy Jo Cullen, is the author of the short story collection Canary. She lives in Toronto.

Writing is a strange mix of doing the thing I love and being poked in the eye with a sharp stick by the thing I love. Because I am in the fortunate position of being able to work from home my challenge is not finding the time to write so much as it is making optimum use of the time I have available. In the past, I?ve managed to write productively while juggling jobs and family, but, interestingly enough, it has been a greater challenge to learn how to use the abundant time that I now have.

I have six hours a day, five days a week in which to write undisturbed! Well, after I walk the dog and before I work out I have four hours a day, five days a week to write undisturbed! Unless someone has a doctor?s appointment or a dentist appointment or an orthodontist appointment, and then I have, say, three hours a day, five days a week to work undisturbed! Unless we?re out of milk, and because there?s never been a trip to the grocery store that takes less than sixty minutes, I have two hours a day, five days a week to work undisturbed! And heaven help me if I (stupidly!!) look at my Facebook/Twitter feed.

This distractible nature of mine is made worse as I begin new projects and I have to leave all that embarrassing, clunky, writing on the page. I?d rather wear dirty underwear to a car accident. And yet, if I want to finish a story, or a poem, or the first draft of a novel, I have to suffer through my intolerable lack of excellence to the end so I can return to the beginning and begin the fun of making it better.

Making the time to write is as simple, and as complicated, as sitting down to write. I have two kids, my life is rife with interruption, the work is to not invite extra interruptions. So, a morning walk is a good start, it clears the brain, then between 10-10:30 am it?s tea and to the keyboard. I give myself (in first draft stage) a minimum of two pages completed. It doesn?t sound like much but it?s achievable daily and it builds. There are no rules against writing more than two pages, only rules against writing less.

In the rewriting stages I like to make myself work for a minimum of 2-3 hours, same principals apply. All things - aside from the walk, or blood gushing out of an open wound - are put off until a bare minimum is completed. Then it?s up to me, I can go on writing, or check out Facebook, hit the grocery store, or attend to one of the myriad of expensive appointments that have arrived in the wake of bearing children.

Like any other practice, writing is simply about showing up. Some days it?s magic, others it?s grueling but even a page a day is more than nothing. Small goals accumulate and, in a world filled with distractions, I?ve found small, achievable goals lead to bigger, finished projects.


Hazel Hutchins is the author of numerous books of fiction including What the Snakes Wrote, And You Can Be the Cat, Norman?s Snowball and One Duck. She lives in Canmore, AB.

?Don?t pick up that spoon!

It had gone skidding across the kitchen floor a half hour earlier when my toddler, now asleep, had been celebrating the joy of lunch. Of course I should pick it up.

But my inner voice was desperately reminding me of how the scenario would go. Spoon, sink, lunch dishes, counter, stove-top, burners, oven... Yup, an hour from now I?d have a sparkling clean kitchen but the toddler would be awake and today?s writing output would be a big fat zero.

I left the spoon lying there, grabbed my notebook and dove into my story.

It is now thirty years?and fifty children?s books?later. I no longer have to fit my writing into the small window when a young child is asleep. Or bargain with a four-year-old (I play with you for this long, you let me write for this long). Or bundle myself in sweaters and write in the basement while my wonderful husband happily cares for the frolicsome threesome upstairs.

But I still have to actively work at finding time to write.

I constantly remind myself that blank squares on my calendar are not lost days. They are writing days. I need them to be blank. I try not to get too busy with school visits or outside jobs. I do, however, add small rewards to those days?a walk with a friend or an evening course, so long as there isn?t any homework to gobble up added hours.

On every single one of those blank days, I write. Like most writers, I choose one or more specific times in the day when I have the energy to write well and am least likely to be interrupted.

The evening before a writing day, I list the other tasks to be accomplished and how to fit them around my writing times. I include office jobs (answering business e-mails, sorting out future school visits) and household jobs (fixing the leaking tap, buying groceries). I don?t want to be deep in a story and have to run out for cat food because the fur-ball is howling.

I use the full amount of writing time I?ve set aside. If this means staring at a blank sheet of paper for part of the time?so be it. But it can also mean a revival in the flow of narrative, a ?brilliant? new idea or just getting that little extra bit done because I didn?t leave my post.

No matter how well I plan, however, when the moment arrives to actually write I always seem to notice something else that really should be done. And it would only take a minute....

Luckily, my inner voice is still alive and well.

?Don?t pick up that spoon!?


Sharon McKay is the author of numerous books of fiction including War Brothers, Enemy Territory and Thunder over Kandahar. She lives in P.E.I.

I don?t. I dither. I watch Aljazeera, BBC, and MSMBC. I talk to my family, friends, and any poor sot who still has a phone and answers it! (I can, and have, talked to a wrong number for twenty minutes about the pros and cons of using a raw egg in a Caesar salad. I have kept friends who dislike chatting on the line for hours?Kathy Kacer, Linda Bellm, Barbara Berson. I consider it a challenge.)

But? I digress?.

I wash the kitchen floor. I go to lunch. I spend the advance money on a book contact immediately. And one day it occurs to me that I have to write something down or give the money back.

When the boys were young, I wrote when they were at Montessori/home care. I wrote when they napped (never). I wrote when I could bribe them with candy, money, and false promises. (My topic back then was ?Good Parenting.?)

Linda Holeman (The Lost Souls of Angelkov) writes to a word count every working day. Good idea. Wish I could do that. Eric Walters (too many books to mention) seems to be able to write while perched on a church steeple. Kathy Kacer (To Hope and Back) divides her time between school visits and writing hours. For heaven?s sake, Art Slade (Island of Doom) writes while walking on a rigged up treadmill!

Everyone seems organized, driven, focused. Clearly I am the wrong person to answer this question.

Yet I find time to write because I care about the characters I create. I want to see what happens to then. So, I get up in the middle of the night to check on them. I write until the sun comes up and then I try and sleep but I can?t because the day has begun and I want to call someone.

I write because sometimes there is magic and so I find the time.


Ayelet Tsabari is the author of The Best Place on Earth. She lives in Toronto.

I used to work evenings as a waitress, write at night, and sleep late into the day. Or at least I liked the idea of writing at night: the image of myself tapping on keys while drinking scotch and smoking cigarettes satisfied some immature, romantic notions. In reality, I didn?t really do much writing at all because by the time I came home from work I was tired and was more into wasting time on Facebook or watching TV.

Eventually, someone challenged me to reconsider my patterns, suggesting that we are most productive during the day. ?Not me,? I said. ?I work best at night.? ?Really,? he said. ?Because you?re just so special.? Around the same time, a writer I knew gave me a simple and effective tip. He said, ?You?ll have an extra hour for writing if you wake up an hour earlier every day.? I thought I?d try it. I slowly began to change my schedule and sleeping patterns. I went to sleep a little earlier and set an alarm clock for seven hours later (while before I used to sleep for at least eight). I found, to my surprise, that it did not make a big difference in how rested I felt. I discovered that mornings were in fact more productive for me and by noon I usually got a lot of writing done.

Now that I?m no longer a waitress (though on some days I teach evening classes), I have more time to write and I try to write every day. I still prefer to generate material first thing in the morning. If I can bring myself to do it before checking my email I?m golden, but that?s pretty difficult for me. I?m not that disciplined, unfortunately. If I get anywhere from two to four solid hours before lunch I?m happy. Then, I break for lunch, exercise and errands, and usually I write some more in the afternoon or in the evening. I found I edit and revise better later in the day. When I?m writing I don?t answer the phone and I don?t talk to anybody. I?d like to say I don?t go on the internet either, which would be wise, but I?d be lying. I?d love to be one of those writers who work on computers with no internet access. I guess there?s some room for improvement in my routine.

I always carry a notebook with me so I can write notes and sketches anywhere and anytime, which does happen quite often. I have written some great lines and scenes while waiting at my doctor?s office or on the subway.



SHAUN SMITH is a novelist and award-winning journalist in Toronto, Canada. His young-adult novel Snakes & Ladders was published in 2009 by the Dundurn Group. His book Magical Narcissism: Selected Writings on Books, Writers, Food, and Chefs is available on Kindle and is forthcoming in paperback from Tightrope Books in spring 2013. shaunsmith.ca

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