Create an Effective Writing Routine

The cornerstone of a productive writing schedule is an effectively crafted writing routine

Serious writers keep a writing schedule — but even the most serious writer has trouble keeping a writing schedule from time to time. (If you don’t think you need a writing schedule, then read my post “Write a Lot by Writing on Schedule.”)

To help you, I’ve written a short (25-page) eBook called 5 Steps to Create and Maintain Your Writing Schedule, which is available for free if you sign up for my newsletter, wherein I reveal the secrets of life and death and time (plus some writing stuff).

Or, alternatively, you can buy it for $7. Your call …

Below, I share a section of the book — on how to establish an effective writing routine.

5 Elements of an Effective Writing Routine

Most writing schedules fail because they are not realistic and the writer becomes discouraged and quits. However, even the best schedule can fail when the routine itself remains flawed.

The most important part of a routine is its existence. The schedule, of course, is the basic element: you write at the same time every day, or the same few times every week. However, it helps to go further and approach each writing session in the same way. The more rigid a routine you have, the better.

Many writers resist establishing a routine. They feel that true creativity can only flow from unfettered process, from creative chaos. They don’t know what they’re talking about.

Literally. Ask one. Dig a few questions deep. You’ll see. Either they actually have a routine, which they don’t recognize, or they only create on occasion, miraculously. Often sporadically. And usually terribly.

There are five basic elements of a strong writing routine:
(1) Triggers (2) Focus (3) Planning (4) Work (5) Organization

Let’s look at each more closely. As an example, I will walk through my writing routine. Yours will differ — but think through each of these elements to see how they might work for you.

Triggers

Train your brain and body to get into “writing mode” by establishing a set of triggers. You can use any object, action, or environmental cue as a trigger to help you stick to your writing schedule and prime yourself to produce. You have to be as consistent as possible and only associate the trigger with writing.

I use three triggers. One, an alarm on my phone with a specific ringtone (Elvis Costello’s song “Every Day I Write the Book”). Two, the music of the band Agalloch (I listen to the exact same songs, in the exact same order, every time I write — and never listen to this band otherwise). Three, coffee (I only drink coffee on two occasions: when I am writing or after I have written … so it is halfway between a trigger and a reward).

I’ve heard of people putting on a hat or tie to write, or keeping a specific chair they only use to write. Anne Carson has two desks, one for her day job and scholarship and one for her creative writing.

Focus

Once my coffee is in hand, I shift my phone to “do not disturb” mode — I have it set so that only calls or texts from my wife and daughter come through. Then I move into Scrivener and shift to full-screen mode. Then I start playing Agalloch — and write.

The problem always is distracting myself. Writing on a computer is a bad idea, really, because computers have evolved into distraction-machines. But I’m not willing to go back to writing by hand, so I just have to be disciplined about this. If you find the computer is killing your will to work and leading you astray, then start writing by hand.

Other people use programs to block themselves from the Internet and so on. I try to cultivate discipline, which requires me to have temptation handy, but I might try one of those programs someday. At minimum, turn off or strip down your various automated alerts and notifications.

Planning

Hemingway used to stop writing when he knew he could continue, when he still had the next thing clear in his head (sometimes mid-sentence). I prefer to just spend a few minutes planning, but it amounts to the same thing: developing a clear sense of what you will do before you begin work, rather than flailing.

Sometimes this is just me sipping coffee and thinking, but other times I jot down a few notes by hand on a notebook I keep near the laptop. (I use the same notebook to keep from distracting myself — if I have a random thought like “I gotta email that dude!” or “driveway needs a shovelling” or “You know what would be cool? A rap song about Dostoevsky” then I just jot it down and get back on task.)

When I’m writing fiction or a film script, I spend more time planning. I review my outlines and I sketch out the scene I plan to write next — just hand-write a few story beats with some action or dialogue or random ideas in point form. Planning for a few minutes like this can save you a lot of time in the actual writing session, and boost the amount of writing you are able to get done each time you sit down.

At minimum, you want to decide what to write and maybe how much to write. Perhaps your goal is to write 300 words of your novel. Perhaps you want to edit a poem. It doesn’t matter. What matters is that you actually have a plan, rather than just staring at a blank page or screen and freaking out.

I actually plan my writing month in advance, so that when I sit down to write I open up my agenda and see what I’m supposed to be writing. I trust past-me to make the decisions for present-me, because past-me was thinking about the big picture and planning ahead. Present-me gets distracted by pretty lights.

Work

Actually write something. Crazy, right?

The key here is to focus on this part of the routine even if you can’t do anything else. Right now, I’m on the bus — not at home in my office, not drinking coffee, not listening to Agalloch. I was doing all of that stuff, but then I had to go catch a bus. But I didn’t get as many words as I wanted down — I had planned to write 2000 words on this project before I left the house.

Now, I’m on the bus. Still trying to hit those 2000 words. Sometimes, I wake up late, and I don’t even get to start the routine. But I try to focus on doing the work regardless of whether or not I can do the routine.

Organization

It helps to trigger the session’s end by cleaning up. Your physical space and your mental space both benefit from organization. Sometimes I set a timer, if I have to be somewhere else or do something else after my allotted writing time. Other times I just quit when I hit whatever target I had planned to hit.

Once I quit, I clear off the space where I was writing. I clean up so that it’s ready for the next day. The last thing you need is to sit down during your writing time and find your desk cluttered with junk.

Then, suddenly, cleaning off the desk is a more attractive priority than writing. I have a second, smaller desk (more like a big stand) where I keep my printer and a pile of junk that would otherwise be sitting on my desk. When I’m rushed, at the end of my writing session I just throw all my junk off the desk and onto the printer stand.

The exception is anything you will need at your next writing session, which you want to keep at hand. When I’m working on editing proofs, for example, I keep them on my desk so they don’t get lost in my stacks.

Like your schedule, your routine is an ideal. Focus on actually writing even if all else fails.

A minimal routine is best. Actually writing (the work) is the core element.

You may need to experiment and add or subtract things as time goes on. See what works best for you. Be willing to discard elements. I can’t let “no coffee” be my reason to skip a writing session. Neither should you.

If you craft a smart routine, it will serve you well. Ritualize your writing sessions, and even on the bad days your body and mind will drag your flagging spirit through.

Don’t forget your free eBook!

The rest of 5 Steps to Create and Maintain Your Writing Schedule, is available for free if you sign up for my newsletter.

NaNoWriMo 2015: Why Not?

Natalee Caple talked me into joining her for NaNoWriMo 2015. I agreed for the following reasons:

  • I happen to have a new idea that is very condensed and could, theoretically, be drafted quickly. The action takes place over 24 hours and the plot features only 5 characters in less than 10 locations.
  • I have been wanting to try to draft something quickly, specifically a horror novel, the way that Tony Burgess (my horror hero) does.
  • I have had students that completed the challenge, and students often ask me about the challenge, and so it seems worth a try if only to be able to relate to or advise students about the challenge.
  • I’m trying to improve my efficiency as a writer, and one of my goals is to focus on a single project rather than jumping between projects, like Joe Hill said I should. So this will necessitate a full shift into that mindset and force me to develop and refine effective working practices.
  • I want to draft a book-length work from first word to last word in Scrivener. I have been using the program for short works and for imported longer works (that I began outside of Scrivener and am going to complete inside of Scrivener). I want to really know how it feels to start and end in Scrivener.
  • Natalee will make fun of me otherwise, and lord it over me if she does it and I don’t.
  • Chadwick Ginther did it twice and he seems to have survived mostly intact.
  • I want to really test my (relatively new) outlining process in a situation of extreme duress, to see how much of a difference it makes to have a decent/developed outline before beginning a project.
  • Back in the day, Ryan Fitzpatrick and I did the 3-Day Novel challenge. We co-wrote 27,000 words in 3 days, so 50,000 words in 30 days seems manageable.

I will put the site on hold over November while I work on my NaNoWriMo novel, which is called LEE. Can’t tell you more. Secret stuff!! But here’s a word counter widget so you can see my overall progress:

Okay, okay — I will tell you more, but only if you join my e-mail list. I won’t update the site over November, but I will be checking in with and reporting to my email list. Cuz they are cooler than you! Unless you join, in which case you will be instantly cooler than you used to be.

Sign up to keep abreast of how LEE is going, and to learn the secrets of life and death and time!



Later, gators!!!

Interview with Armand Garnet Ruffo

On Norval Morrisseau and where biography and poetry intersect

Armand Garnet Ruffo draws on his Ojibway heritage for his writing. In 2014, his creative biography Norval Morrisseau: Man Changing Into Thunderbird appeared with Douglas & McIntyre. In 2015, The Thunderbird Poems, poems based on the paintings of the artist, was published by Harbour Publishing. He currently lives in Kingston and teaches at Queen’s University.

Photo credit: Pearl Pirie

Your two most recent books, the biography Norval Morrisseau: Man Changing Into Thunderbird and the poetry collection The Thunderbird Poems, both come out of your research into and engagement with Norval Morrisseau’s life and work. Can you talk a bit about what drew you to Morrisseau and his artwork, and why you found yourself responding to his work in these different ways?

I have to say at the outset that from the very first time I saw Norval Morrisseau’s work at Robertson Gallery in Ottawa in 1982, I was mesmerized by it. Of course I had seen his work in magazines prior but I’ll never forget the first time I actually saw his paintings. Of course I wanted one! So I guess I have always been drawn to Norval’s work.

And it goes without saying that Norval Morrisseau’s best work is magnificent and a truly singular achievement. I mean he created his own style of art! And for someone of Ojibway heritage like myself, it is a profound statement about cultural survival, and beyond to rebirth.

That said, what got me onto Norval’s trail so to speak was an invitation by the National Gallery of Canada to write something for the Norval Morrisseau “Shaman-Artist” retrospective catalogue, and one thing led to another until I had the two books. I have to say though that at first I was hesitant. Like many people, I had heard a lot about him, but I really didn’t know very much. Right from the beginning, then, I knew that if I took on the project I would have to learn a great deal, everything from visual art history, aesthetic theory, Ojibway material culture, the Ojibway oral storytelling tradition, about the Ojibway “Manitous,” and I knew it would be daunting. Not to mention that I would have to learn the details of his life!

So while I was thinking about all of this, I guess you can say I had a kind of epiphany, where I suddenly realized that his life was indelibly connected to what had happened to Aboriginal people in Canada during the first half of the 20th century. (He was born in 1932 or thereabouts.) Sure he was unique because of his artistic gift, and he had an extraordinary life, but what happened to him, the abuse, the poverty, the displacement, the stereotyping, was conversely not unique to him.

Furthermore, the NGC ended up giving me carte blanche as to how I wanted to approach the subject, which also opened a door for me, and which I found both intriguing and challenging. And so, after the NGC’s catalogue came out, I continued to work on the project, and I ended up with the two books. I’m still not sure how that happened, but the poetry came naturally, if not always easily, and in the end there were simply too many poems to include in the one book.

There is connection between the two books other than just the subject matter, because I included a few of the more lyrical pieces in the biography and a few of the longer prose poem pieces in the poetry collection. I like the idea that they are connected in more ways than one to each other.

What went into your decision to blur the borders between poetry and criticism, as you do (for example) when you preface the poems in The Thunderbird Poems with notes about Morrisseau’s life and art and sometimes respond to or comment on the paintings themselves?

I did that for practical purposes, because I figured that some of my readers would know little about Norval’s life and probably even less about Ojibway culture. I wrote the poems first and then went back and added the prose, but once I started doing it, I realized that it was exactly what the poems needed; to my mind, the “commentary,” or criticism as you call it, adds a kind of gravitas to the book.

I was also interested in adding another form to the book, something that would mirror the poetry. Form and genre is something that has always interested me.

What are some of the challenges of writing about a real person, either in biography or in poetry, where you need to respect them and their families but also maintain a certain distance and perhaps be critical?

That’s a tough one, isn’t it? First, I can say that I adhered to the facts of Norval’s life as I understood them. In other words, I never tried to make anything up. If I have him riding the taxi-boat from Cochenour to McKenzie Island, rest assured he took the taxi-boat! As for personal things that might be controversial, like sexual abuse, I tried not to leave anything out but at the same time I did not want to sensationalize things either.

I think that’s one of the reasons the poetry happened. I found that I could handle things in the poems that would have been difficult in the prose. I found I could say things through implication in the poetry that I would have had to spell out in prose at the risk of sounding sensational. To my mind, then, I think the two books compliment each other in that together they serve to bring all the disparate facts and events to light.

I suppose you could say they echo each other to provide a kind of dimensionality to Norval; together they plumb straight down into his life and art.

Morrisseau’s work is well-regarded and its importance is established. How might you have approached the books differently if he was relatively unknown? What benefits or difficulties does his already-existing reputation provide?

Certainly it would have been a very different book, because Norval’s fame is part and parcel of who he was; for example, the money that came with the fame allowed him to do things that most artists can only dream about. Think about it, he never had to worry about his material life. He constantly had a following of groupies, apprentices, and acolytes, whatever you want to call them, who basically worshipped the ground he walked on. No unknown artist could possibly have had the life that he led, sold out shows, everyone constantly after him, wanting to represent him, wanting to be his friend.

The most difficult thing I encountered as a biographer was that there were people who knew Norval, but, for whatever reason, they wouldn’t talk to me. Norval was a very complex person, and likewise his relationships were very complex. On that note, I was lucky — though Norval probably wouldn’t call it that — because despite his fame, mine is the first full-length book about him, and so I didn’t have to compete for the story.

Conversely there were many people who were eager to talk about him. It’s also interesting to note that while Norval has this huge reputation, few people actually know the full story of his life. People could tell me about a small portion of his life, some aspect of it, such as the “Red Lake Years,” for example, but not much else. So it was left up to me to piece all these disparate facts together.

And, yet, there are still many, many untold stories about him, and I suspect there will be other books, though probably none using the narrative and poetic techniques I’ve employed. In fact, I know a scholar who is currently writing an academic book about him.

Outside of the fact that they are generally regarded as his masterpieces, what made the paintings of “Man Changing Into Thunderbird” so important to you, so that you titled both books around them and so on?

To put it in a nutshell I think the theme of transformation is central to Norval Morrisseau’s life. As I say in the book, he was always the thunderbird man changing into someone else. For example, he had this ability to walk away from people, his family, friends… objects, his art, personal possessions… whatever, and simply move on. How many times did he start over in another part of the country? Only later to move on again.

The theme thus connects him to the idea of rebirth, starting over, relapsing, one step forward and one step backward, and I think this too is integral to who he was. And, further, I see it representing his deep-rooted connection to his Ojibway culture, the mythology and epistemology of the Anishinaabe, which informed who he was as an “Indian” (as he always said) and, of course, as you note, to his artistic practice — which, I can say with confidence, will live on as long as human-kind has a place for art and beauty in the world.

Did you enjoy this interview? Let me know on Twitter or Facebook, or send me an e-mail — and if you haven’t already, join my mailing list and keep in touch.

Support this site, Armand Garnet Ruffo, and his publishers by buying Armand’s books through these affiliate links:

Norval Morrisseau: Man Changing Into Thunderbird ( McNally | Amazon.CA | Amazon.COM )

The Thunderbird Poems ( McNally | Amazon.CA | Amazon.COM )

These are 11 of My Favourite Things

While the site is on hiatus, check out some of my greatest hits

I am in the midst of a combination of vacation and work, and need to put this site on hiatus for a few weeks. When I return, things will have changed — I am working on some cool secret projects, two of which mean BIG changes here at Writing the Wrong Way.

While you wait, I’ve selected 11 of my favourite posts for you to enjoy. You can also browse my archives and don’t forget to sign up for my newsletter to get a free ebook and notification when the site returns to regular updates (at that time I’ll send you a second cool free ebook, which is one of my secret projects).

My Top 11

1 My Interview with Frank Black from The Pixies

I’ve strayed away from interviews here, with one exception, because otherwise this would just be a list of interviews. (My favourite thing about the site is other people!) But hey, I don’t mean to brag, but like in 2002 for about five minutes Frank Black thought I was cool and thanked me for saying something. Frank Black!

2 My Visit to the set of Guy Maddin’s The Saddest Music in the World

Oh wait, you know what was cooler than talking to Frank Black? That time I met Isabella Rossellini and then got scared and ran away. Man, I kind of suck and am cool at the same time.

3 The Haunted House

Ever want to read the first poem I ever wrote? No? Well, never mind then.

4 Write a Lot by Writing on Schedule

The most popular post ever on this site. Elisabeth de Mariaffi liked it, so you should like it! Peer pressure!!!

5 4 Simple Editing Tricks That Are All The Same Trick

I wrote this for my daughter, Jessie Taylor, because she asked me for some editing tips that would help her on her high school exams. And she got, like, an A+ and is the coolest and you should be more like her! She helped me make the cool green mug in the photo up top (it says “VENOM” on the side and has a snake on it).

6 Advice to Graduate Students

Another reader favourite: survival tips for graduate students. I did my PhD in 4 years, and also wrote 5 books in that time, which is maybe your goal?

7 Read 95 Books This Year

Ryan Fitzpatrick and I created the #95books hashtag, which you may have seen, and anyway here are my tips on how writers (and less deviant dudes and dudettes) can read more.

8 Don’t Attribute Dialogue

A reader non-favourite. Lots of people think I am the devil for writing this. I’m not the devil though! I just wish I was.

9 How I Wrote Clockfire

My favourite post about the idea development part of the creative process, using my favourite of my own books, Clockfire as an example.

10 Introduction to Why Poetry Sucks

Ryan Fitzpatrick and I co-wrote this lengthy and hopefully not too dry introduction to our anthology Why Poetry Sucks: An Anthology of Humorous Experimental Poetry.

11 Introduction to Tony Burgess’s The Bewdley Mayhem

I say it all the time: Tony Burgess is the best writer in Canada, and you probably never heard of him. One day, I will write a book about this dude. In the meantime, here’s an introduction to his three-book omnibus edition.

By the time you read all that, I’ll be back in the saddle of evil! Later, gators.

Angie Abdou on Research for Fiction Writers

Angie Abdou is the author of four books of fiction, including 2011 Canada Reads finalist The Bone Cage (NeWest, 2007). Her most recent novel, Between (Arsenal Pulp, 2014) is about working mothers, Filipina nannies, and swinger resorts. She lives in the Crowsnest Pass and is an Assistant Professor of Creative Writing at Athabasca University.

Angie Abdou is the author of four books of fiction, including 2011 Canada Reads finalist The Bone Cage (NeWest, 2007). Her most recent novel, Between (Arsenal Pulp, 2014) is about working mothers, Filipina nannies, and swinger resorts. She lives in the Crowsnest Pass and is an Assistant Professor of Creative Writing at Athabasca University.

Ryan Fitzpatrick on Editing a Poetry Book (Interview)

ryan fitzpatrick is a poet and critic living in Vancouver. He is the author of two books of poetry: Fortified Castles (Talonbooks, 2014) and Fake Math (Snare, 2007). With Jonathan Ball, he is co-editor of Why Poetry Sucks: An Anthology of Humorous Experimental Canadian Poetry (Insomniac, 2014). With Deanna Fong and Janey Dodd, he works on the second iteration of the Fred Wah Digital Archive, originally spearheaded by Susan Rudy. He is a PhD candidate at Simon Fraser University where he works on contemporary poetics and the social production of space.

The Interview

Highlighted Pages from Fortified Castles

In the video, Ryan talks about using highlighters in his editing process. Here are a few examples, up close:

More with Ryan on This Site

Two poems from Fortified Castles (McNally | Amazon) in various drafts, so you can compare the early versions with the later versions.

Ryan and I co-edited *Why Poetry Sucks: An Anthology of Humorous Experimental Canadian Poetry.

You can read the introductory essay for Why Poetry Sucks or read a negative review of the book that we also wrote (yes, a negative review of our own book written by us). Ryan also made a few comments as a follow-up in this short video.

Also, check out “Join the Wrinkle Resistance,” a great poem from Ryan’s first book, Fake Math (McNally | Amazon).

And of course, an interview from 2008 about the early stages of Ryan’s Fortified Castles project.

ryan fitzpatrick is a poet and critic living in Vancouver. He is the author of two books of poetry: Fortified Castles (Talonbooks, 2014) and Fake Math (Snare, 2007). With Jonathan Ball, he is co-editor of Why Poetry Sucks: An Anthology of Humorous Experimental Canadian Poetry (Insomniac, 2014). With Deanna Fong and Janey Dodd, he works on the second iteration of the Fred Wah Digital Archive, originally spearheaded by Susan Rudy. He is a PhD candidate at Simon Fraser University where he works on contemporary poetics and the social production of space.

Highlighted Pages from Fortified Castles

In the video, Ryan talks about using highlighters in his editing process. Here are a few examples, up close:

More with Ryan on This Site

Two poems from Fortified Castles (McNally | Amazon) in various drafts, so you can compare the early versions with the later versions.

Ryan and I co-edited *Why Poetry Sucks: An Anthology of Humorous Experimental Canadian Poetry.

You can read the introductory essay for Why Poetry Sucks or read a negative review of the book that we also wrote (yes, a negative review of our own book written by us). Ryan also made a few comments as a follow-up in this short video.

Also, check out “Join the Wrinkle Resistance,” a great poem from Ryan’s first book, Fake Math (McNally | Amazon).

And of course, an interview from 2008 about the early stages of Ryan’s Fortified Castles project.

GMB Chomichuk and Jonathan Ball (interview), Part 2

GMB Chomichuk (writer, teacher, mixed media artist, graphic novelist and proud Winnipegger) agreed to an interview only if I allowed him to also interview me — so this is Part 2 of a two-part, twinned interview (the first part was posted last week).

Chomichuk won the Manitoba Young Writers Award when he was 15. He won the Manitoba Book Award for Best Illustrated Book in 2011, and again in 2015. His graphic novel series The Imagination Manifesto was nominated for Best Canadian Graphic Novel in the 2012 Aurora Awards. He is the founder of Alchemical Press and is always on the lookout for literary oddities. You can follow him on twitter @gmbchomichuk and see some of his work in progress at www.comicalchemy.blogspot.com.

His latest books are the picture book Cassie and Tonk (McNally) and the graphic novel Infinitum (McNally | Amazon).

Ball: One of my favourite stories is how you asked Lovern Kinderski, a local legend in the larger comics industry (having working with Neil Gaiman, among a host of others) to assess your artwork, and he basically told you that you sucked and should give up. Yet now you are illustrating a book he’s written. Tell me again how you bridged that gap.

Chomichuk: Hahaha. 

What had happened was that I was working as an art director on an ill fated science fiction project. ( Sad because it was a great property written by Steven Erikson.)  The screening was done and were sitting around having a laugh.  Lovern shows up and I think “perfect, I’ll get the insight of a true comics pro.”

Which is what I got.  I asked him what he thought and, well if you know Lovern, you know he won’t hold back if you ask for the truth. He said , “this is amateurish.  I’d think it was student work except it is so consistent.  You’ve got a long way to go to work in comics.” Which  some might think of as harsh but I asked the important follow up and listened closely.  What should I do to get better? At which time he gave serious and considered critique. Every failing he found in that work was true from his point of view and I had to learn to improve from my point of view. 

Fast forward a few years and five hundred or so finished pages of illustration and Lovern approached me to illustrate Underworld, his book with Renegade Arts Entertainment. I like to think that it had more to do with him knowing that he would be able to give honest feedback and that I could take it than anything else. Once we got to work on it I saw that it was meant to be, but that’s a much longer story. 

So, Dr. Ball: film, poetry, journalism and prose all seem to be in your wheelhouse. Are they all the same voice in different conversations or if not, how do you change your “writing mode”?

Ball: I don’t believe in developing your own “voice” and “style.” I think that’s death for serious writers, who want to have long careers — it helps make you marketable in the short term, but it dooms you to irrelevancy in the long term, since you inevitably become trapped in your style and self-parody.

I approach everything as a new project, and I work to develop a new style for that project. I work like a technician. I’m analytical and obsessive about the work, and able to emotionally dissociate from it, although I also throw myself into it as much as possible because I want it to stay visceral.

My primary concern is to master modes and then blend modes. I create a lot of work that is what I would consider a technical exercise, and then I see my main work as projects that draw on what I have learned to construct odd hybrids — that’s why I say things about my work that seem odd at first glance, like my poetry books are really fiction, and I’m really a horror writer, and so on. That’s why I have never published a collection of my poetry — most of my poetry consists of technical exercises and I publish those in journals just to prove to myself that they are of publishable quality, and then I throw them away and develop a larger project.

Things like the journalism and much of my (non-book) poetry and prose and even a film like Spoony B — while I obsessed over these projects and strived to master their forms as much as possible, I see projects like this as technical exercises, and precursors to what I consider my real work, which is to dissect and then blend these genres and modes into strange hybrid forms.

Right now, for example, I am focused on a short story collection that contains a range of works, a lot of diverse stuff, from relatively “normal” stories to stranger fare like “The War with the Dead,” which is like an essay that is also a short story (the way that “Psycho” from The Politics of Knives is a blend of an essay on the Hitchcock film Psycho and also a short story and a poem at the same time). An earlier version of “The War with the Dead” appeared in Poetry Is Dead recently. It reads like a weird Baudrillard essay:

Art, like all else, is a weapon employed by both the living and the dead. The living use art to comprehend dead objects, to imbue them with a living mystery, and in this way exorcise the demons that the dead trapped in these objects. The dead laugh. The dead use art like any other dead object. They take it from the living, draw it into the past, and cast it forward to the future, so that it ends up in the present to destroy.

Thus the art of the living becomes the objects of the dead, alien documents, incomprehensible. The dead imbue these things with death, and then return them to the living. The living, not understanding the nature of art, and of death, make the same mistake that they make when approaching all dead objects. They attempt to enliven them, to incorporate them into the realm of the living. They interpret, analyze, over-interpret, study, proclaim the undying, universal, classical nature of the dead’s art.

All of these actions are designed to defuse this art, to dampen its disruptive power. To cut the red wire, to stop the bomb. But the bomb has already gone off. Life crosses into its continuing explosion.

Tell me about creating your forthcoming book Infinitum (McNally | Amazon). As you know, I read it in manuscript, and was impressed at the number of narrative challenges you took on with this book. How did you approach tackling the difficult terrain of the time-travel story, and why did you choose to publish with ChiZine rather than with your own press?

Chomichuk: I love time travel stories and I’ve always been terrified by them as a writer.

They are impossible to get right. But my father always says “I didn’t know it was impossible until I had already done it.” I wanted the challenge and I had the idea so I kept at it until it had the shape I needed.

When I set out to work on Infinitum I looked at most of the tropes and rules of time-travel stories and all of them got hung up on paradox. I said to myself, I’m going to make a time-travel story that puts that out front. The machine runs on paradox, it isn’t bad, and all of spacetime doesn’t unravel if you change it. It just changes. The idea I had was this: A time-traveler would have no more affect on a culture or society than a traveller from another country has when they land in Paris. They might be able to alter localized events around themselves, but French society and culture as a whole could not be affected. It would take a society of time-travellers to really mess with things. That what the Infinitum are, a diaspora of time-travellers.

The other main thing other time-travel stories try to avoid is a character meeting themselves. This is also essential in Infinitum. 9 is able to do what he does because when the going gets tough he goes back into his past to help himself solve the problems he now has prior knowledge of. He’s his own back-up from the future.

My early draft was a mess of tangled causality diagrams. A total f**kshow of this then this then this then this before that, that before this, this cancels that and so on. At first I was caught in the mechanics of the science fiction. To bust out of that trap I remembered that the time travel alters the moves of the story, but it doesn’t change the need for moments. Stories are about the character’s interactions with each other, their moments, that’s the drama. Once I convinced myself of that, the rest was much easier.

The bigger challenge for me was making the story noir without making it totally misogynistic. Noir film has a wonderful twisted narrative structure, a dystopian bent, wonderful visual style. Noir film has a lot of good stuff in it. It also has an unhealthy in-balance of ‘woman as object,’ ‘woman as victim,’ ‘women without agency’. I didn’t want to follow that as a guideline as I had followed the other noir elements.

Technically Infinitum fails the Bechdel test, but I feel that no one can read it and feel that my main female character is just a plot device or sexual outlet. I had a scene that would have allowed me to pass the test, but I cut it for pace. Which is the hard lesson of creation verse conscience; sometimes despite your noble intentions, the story has to go it’s own way.

I wrote about whose ‘fault’ I think that Infinitum is in the foreword to the book so I won’t retread that. I will say that I chose to publish with ChiZine because they are doing great things in genre publishing and bending plenty of “rules” for Canadian publishing and I knew I’d have things to learn there. Every new project should give you new perspective, new friends and new ideas about how to do things differently or better. I pitched ChiZine two graphic novels and they took them both. Infinitum is out June 2015 and Midnight City will be out in 2016. They’ve since added Ghost Doctor Thirteen to their roster as well and the first comics short of that will be available at TCAF [Toronto Comic Arts Festival] in May.

I’ve got projects in development or placed with traditional book publishers, comic book publishers, self-published work, co-published work, work in theatre, film and television, and every new avenue or business model I try is about what is needed to get the work out there. I’ve many stories to tell and I’m always looking to collaborate. Things we can place with another publisher for mutual benefit is great, and sometimes to make something exactly as you want it, you do it yourself, which is freeing.

Some creatives need to do one project at a time. I admire that in them, that focus and self-restraint is admirable. I need to have multiple things moving to keep the momentum up. The more I work with people the more I find that it seems to be one way or the other with creatives. Which sort of creative are you and why?

Ball: It occurs to me that a lot of my stories would fail the Bechdel test simply because there are no human characters in them (often no characters at all) or only one character, which is an oddity I had not considered before.

To return to my distinction above, I can work on a lot of what I would consider “technical exercises” at a time, but I can only work effectively on a single major project at once. I used to work on a lot of different projects at once, jumping to another when I was stuck on one, but I found that I was not finishing projects. I just bailed when the work became difficult, while fooling myself and thinking that I was accomplishing something.

Then I instituted a personal “rule” — I could only work on one major project at once, and in fact I had to work on the one that was closest to being completed. Or abandon it forever. After I instituted that rule, I finished three book-length projects in short order (and abandoned many others). I actually dislike this rule, but I can’t argue with results.

Imagine you could have 10 projects that were 80% complete, or one project that was 100% complete. Which is better? The one at 100%. Imagine the perspective of the world outside: nobody knows or cares about the 10 projects that are almost done. They can’t. They can only know and care about the one that they see, the one you can pass along to them. You need to have that one thing at 100%! Working on a lot of projects is better than not working on any, but it’s not as good as working on one project. We’ve seen study after study that shows multitasking doesn’t work, and I think the same is true of multi-project management.

As well, my temperament is that I have to focus and dig down on a project to take it where I want to go. Sometimes I need to rewrite a single page for two weeks. Not always, and thankfully not often, but if I allow myself to jump to another project then I will do that instead of finishing the stupid, stubborn page.

One thing I do allow myself, from time to time, is to break up large projects into smaller sections that stand alone in some way and then move from one to the other. It’s a way of jumping between projects that is more structured and allows for more flexibility while still letting me stay focused. The reality is that it’s not realistic, for a lot of reasons, to just work on one thing all the time, even though that is the best. But even then I try to stay focused on a single major project and just work on preliminary material like notes or technical exercises and so on.

For example, my main project right now is a short story collection. I am focused on the smaller part of this one story called “Judith.” Then I will finish rewriting a treatment for a forthcoming project, a screenplay called Edenbridge. Then I will work on a short story called “The Lottery,” also for that same book, while the director reviews my treatment. Right now, the treatment is a “minor” project but when I am actually in the scripting stage then Edenbridge will be a major project and I will basically just stay focused on that.

I might take a break from the major project sometimes too, maybe I will just write blogs for a week, which are sort-of how I do my class prep now. When I do stuff like that I don’t delude myself — I am taking time off from the major project, the book. I’m being unproductive on that, which is fine from time to time. Just as long as I don’t fool myself into thinking I am accomplishing something important. Sometimes you need a break, but I like to just write (relatively) unimportant stuff during my breaks, because you always have to keep writing. So my “breaks” are me writing things for money or other task-like writing, things that don’t take a lot of energy, like this interview.

I cried when I read your latest book, the picture book Cassie and Tonk (McNally), which I never do. I think the last time I cried with a book was reading The Road (McNally | Amazon). Why did you make my cry, Greg?

Chomichuk: For me, I look at the day as total possible creative output in the given circumstance.  I’m a teacher and a father and a husband as well as being a writer and and illustrator.  Each piece of the creative things I do fits into a corresponding shape of time in the day.  

I keep a writing schedule.  You must.  But the day is full moments that other fun things can fit into.  So I work on lots of things.  I use my schedule to finish things, and my moments to create them. 

I’d also like to say what an absolute creative partnership Cassie and Tonk became.  Justin and I have recently made Butterfly Collection (not for kids) and have a few other all ages projects on the horizon. Justin has a dozen creator-owned projects he’s got in various stages of development and I’m very happy to be partnered with him on a few of those.  

Cassie and Tonk was intended to make you cry.  We aimed for it, so to speak. Justin and I sat down and actually said, “How can we make the parents cry?” and tried to come up with pacing and beats that would make the emotional temperature.  

We wanted to make a story that addressed something everyone would have to go through and try to make the story have a simple but meaningful message.  Justin had an idea for Cassie and Tonk that spun up out of a drawing he had done. We shaped it into a story by working up the storyboards together and talking over the metaphors and he pacing. 

It was originally going to be a “silent” story. We were just going to do the whole thing with images. But as the story came out, the desire to add a layer to the narrative was too strong. We wanted the perspective from someone looking back on an important event in their childhood with a more mature understanding. I wanted a way to soften the ending with wisdom.  
  
What I am still grasping is how Cassie and Tonk has turned into a letter to myself when I would need it the most.  During the making of Cassie and Tonk my mother was diagnosed with cancer and within only handful of months, she was gone.  She got to see the book, which remains a comfort to me, but her decline followed Cassie and Tonk‘s premiere at the Toronto International Book Fair. 

It’s a story that faces a hard truth: We all have someone we love who we may lose.  My mother’s death was sudden in one sense but also painfully prolonged. Working through that last draft was what I think honest writing can be; healing and resonant.  

Some of that experience also made it into Infinitum.  I could say that the parts I needed to face as an adult are in Infinitum, and the parts I need to hear as a son are in Cassie and Tonk

The experience with my mother underlined my desire to do my own thing, my way, for my own reasons.  Plenty of people don’t know how I can write scary books and serious books and books for kids and teach in a high school and do live art in gallery shows.  I don’t need anyone to “get it”. Life is too short for that.  

I’m off to TCAF this weekend and bringing Ghost Doctor Thirteen into the spotlight there along with a preview for Infinitum.  Once I get back I have a few more questions for you, Dr. Ball.

GMB Chomichuk and Jonathan Ball (interview), Part 1

GMB Chomichuk (writer, teacher, mixed media artist, graphic novelist and proud Winnipegger) agreed to an interview only if I allowed him to also interview me — so this is Part 1 of a two-part, twinned interview (the second part will post next week).

Chomichuk won the Manitoba Young Writers Award when he was 15. He won the Manitoba Book Award for Best Illustrated Book in 2011, and again in 2015. His graphic novel series The Imagination Manifesto was nominated for Best Canadian Graphic Novel in the 2012 Aurora Awards. He is the founder of Alchemical Press and is always on the lookout for literary oddities. You can follow him on twitter @gmbchomichuk and see some of his work in progress at www.comicalchemy.blogspot.com.

His latest books are the picture book Cassie and Tonk (McNally) and the graphic novel Infinitum (McNally | Amazon).

Jonathan Ball: Why did you decide to start Alchemical Press?

GMB Chomichuk: I had been getting serious about the idea of visual story telling. I had a conversation with a friend who said that a people need to sell their strengths and buy their weaknesses, and on the same day got a call from a producer asking me to come and talk about doing a comic adaptation and some set design. When I was asked to use the likenesses of the cast for the comics, I figured doing so under the umbrella of a legal entity would be prudent. It just seemed the time. All ideas have their time, and I guess this was the time for Alchemical Press. Lots of things were changing in my life, and alchemy is change.

How does a poet/horror writer make a movie and sell it to The Comedy Network?

Ball: Don’t say horror, or I’ll never get published again. I used to say something else, like my work is “struck through with Gothicism” or “darkly fantastical” (I owe Hiromi Goto for that one). Since I am what people call, redundantly, a “literary writer,” I have to feign a pretentious investment in the marketing term “literary fiction.” Although to be honest I have gotten bored with that stance and started to call myself a “horror writer” in the press recently, even when not talking about horror.

I believe in the value of always doing something. I’ve been writing seriously for about 15 years at this point, which is about how long you have to work in order to reach Square One. The film you’re referring to, Spoony B, I decided to make a number of years ago, in order to learn the basics of filmmaking. I figured if I wanted to do some screenwriting, I should learn to think like a director, and the best way to do that was to become one. So I cobbled together about $500 and thought, “What kind of film can I make with only $500?”

I knew I couldn’t afford lab fees, so I developed all the film by hand in buckets and transferred it from my kitchen wall with a digicam. I put my friends in it and shot it as a silent film, like an old Keaton or Chaplin film, so that I didn’t have to record sound, because I couldn’t afford to record the sound well.

It turns out I have a small bit of talent for being a director (very small!), because The Comedy Network bought it almost immediately. Really, it was a happy accident that the film ended up being any good, and then Matthew Etches, who was the distribution coordinator for the Winnipeg Film Group managed to sell it, it was one of the last things he did before he quit that job. In many respects, I don’t know how it was sold, basically it sold because the Winnipeg Film Group sold it for me. The rights are available again now, if somebody wants to license it from the WFG!

What are your goals for Alchemical Press, and how do you see it as different from other presses?

Chomichuk: Alchemical Press is not a traditional press, it’s a story engine. We are a mercenary strike force of creative people that use art and words to fight our battles. We are a collective of innovative storytellers. We publisher the work of others, and we publish our own in collaboration with Absurd Machine Films and Vagabond Brigade, and Electric Monk Media web services, which allows us to be peer-reviewed while retaining creative control.

Too often peer review means “Give someone else the rights and revenue potential but keep the credit.” Don’t get me wrong, I love the book industry, but they do their thing, we do ours. Alchemical Press is a hybrid model that works with the direct sales market of the comic stores and the returnable market of the book seller, and the online make-it-up-as-you-like markets of the Internet.

Poetry, Prose, Pictures, Collage, Video, Digital Art. We aren’t interested in you doing things our way, we’re interested in getting things done.  If people have an idea worth sharing, we want to help.

Our goals are to get talented people the exposure they deserve. To allow those who are working with the medium of story for the medium of story, (Guys like Dave Ryan and his War of the Independents) to get their ideas out there and inspire people.

What’s your creative process, from idea to gestalt? Concept to page? Tell me your secrets I’ll tell you mine.

Ball: I never go out in search of ideas, because I have so many, a huge backlog of projects I will never have time to complete. Some of them are great projects too. But when I get an idea I stop whatever I’m doing and roll the idea around for a while. I make a note or two if I’m concerned about forgetting something, just a good sentence or two. Then I just let the idea retreat and go back to whatever I was doing.

The idea has to compete for survival amongst the thousand other ideas. If I find myself sticking with it, turning my mind to it over and over again, making more notes, and not letting it go, then eventually I’ll schedule some writing time to work on it. It might be years from when I think of an idea to when I write word one.

After I have a first draft, I produce a summary/outline based on that draft. Then I make all my major editing decisions based on this outline. I’ll cut pages, note where to add things, restructure, and so on, based on the outline. Then I’ll retype the entire document, rewriting as I go. I don’t go back and edit the original computer file, I type a new one so that I don’t feel bound to the first draft in any way and feel freer to rewrite rather than merely revise.

I hope to abandon this practice soon, because it is so time-consuming, but it works great so I can’t. I’m getting close to where I think I can let go of the practice, however. I started using Scrivener (Mac | Windows), and it separates the formatting from the text in a sense (because you have to output and finalize the formatting in Word, since the publishing industry uses Word). So far, I feel like mentally I’m not bound to the text when I play around in Scrivener, so maybe it will finally let me kill off this unproductive but useful practice.

After the second draft every draft is a revision unless there are some major issues. A structural edit might also entail changing things entirely, like turning it from a poem into a short story, or cutting out whole scenes and chapters and characters or whatever. Unless somebody has requested the manuscript, I think about where to send it when I start the revision process (usually with draft three, although I often complete up to eight or ten substantial drafts). Then it’s just a matter of finishing it, sending it wherever, and getting started on the next thing.

I used to work on a lot of projects at once but wasn’t accomplishing much. Now I try to stick to no more than two, switching when I get stuck on one.

What about your process? If I remember correctly, The Imagination Manifesto was at one point a novel called Strangeseed. So how did the idea develop, and go from being a prose work to a graphic novel?

Chomichuk: The Imagination Manifesto (McNally | Amazon) began as a prose novel that was just too visual to remain as text alone. Because my writing style often references allusion and mythology as a literary device, but sometimes I’m talking about figures from mythology, I realized that the book contained too many things that seemed like metaphors, and too many things that seemed like descriptions which the reader can misattribute.

If someone is described as like a snake, but they look human, you know it’s just an adjective, but here the women who looks like a snake is a snake-woman. I had started getting a bit of work in film, and the storyboard needs of some projects really solidified, at least for me, that this part of the tale had to be illustrative. There are many chapters of the tale that will contain long bits of prose, but only when words say it better than pictures and vice versa.

It sounds a bit silly as I write it, but most of my ideas come from dreams. I believe firmly that we can go looking for things when we sleep. Our memory is built up from patterns, but dreaming really lets one experience their own lives in a unique way. If something follows me back from a dream, I take notice, and try to give it somewhere to live. Sometimes as a character, sometimes as a setting, sometimes as a line of dialogue. I do my best to give my dreams a good home.

Ball: I’d like to hear about your process also insofar as how you choose or develop projects. I know you’ve turned down work in favour of edgier fare, and have often turned offers to “work” into offers to be a creative contributor — what’s your attraction to edgier, unconventional work, and why does having some degree of creative control mean so much to you, even when you’re working as a gun-for-hire?

Chomichuk: Collaboration is the point for me. The whole idea of alchemy is the process of mixing strange ingredients and intents and creating something new and vibrant.

When I do work-for-hire art I offer different pricing. One price is for the work I do with the understanding that I keep and control the original art and the right to remix the original images into new work as I see fit. The other price (much higher) gives the client control of the original art. What this usually does is open a dialogue about what art should be and the strengths of collaboration versus outright control.

When everyone is invested in a project, both creatively and financially, the discussion orders itself around the work, and the story, rather than who is in charge. There is a lot of ego floating around in this business, and I find that if/when I set the terms like this, then people I would not enjoy working with for the long haul aren’t the ones interested in working with me anyway.

A person’s portfolio should reflect the work they want, not just the work they’ve done. We all start somewhere, but you need to be assertive about what you want for yourself from any creative endeavour. I want creative autonomy when I work with someone, and I’m interested in working with people who want the same things.

Read Part 2 of my interview with GMB Chomichuk!