Three Core Elements of My Home Office

Thinking Through Your Setup

I enjoy seeing how other writers work, and what tools they use. Today, I thought I would share three useful elements from my home office setup. The idea here is not so much to tell you how to set up your office, but to show you how I’ve put some thought into my setup. I will recommend the things I use, but the real recommendation is this: Think through your setup.

Erasable Pens, Highlighters, and Markers

Eons ago, I tried out erasable pens. They were the worst. Absolute garbage. Recently, I decided to give them a try again. Now, they are outstanding.

The brand I love is called FriXion. They appear to be imported from Japan; the packaging is riddled with kanji I cannot read. I have just been ordering them off Amazon with free shipping, so I don’t know if they are stocked in any stores.

They erase using heat, so basically anything that provides friction will erase for you. I have heard that if you leave your inked-up notes or whatever in the sun too long or near high heat then they will also be erased; I also hear that you can recover your erased text by putting the paper in the freezer. I can’t testify to that, but my sources are reliable.

You sometimes get light smudging with the highlighters (if you erase), but overall every FriXion item I have used is more or less excellent. Here are the three items from my recent order:

FriXion erasable coloured pens set

FriXion erasable coloured highlighters set

FriXion erasable coloured markers set

These things have changed my life. I cannot recommend them highly enough, especially for messy writers.

Monitor Adapters

I switched from PC to Mac and from desktop to laptop at the same time, and it was one of the best decisions I ever made. The portability of the laptop is an obvious advantage — whether I’m working in my home office or in my university office or in a coffeeshop, I have the exact same computer setup.

However, I missed multiple screens. I was used to having a two-screen setup: one for my writing and one for my research. I had put my PC screens into a garage sale pile, so I still had them, and one day it occurred to me that I could probably just find some sort of adapter and plug them into my laptop.

I did, and it worked. The only catch is that my laptop has a retina display but these old monitors don’t, so they basically look like garbage, but they are functional and it beats paying crazy money for fancy retina monitors.

All I needed was two of these babies:

Thunderbolt to VGA adapter

Of course, what you need really depends on your ports.

Kneeling Chair and a Standing Desk Rigging

I found some old wooden thingamajig at some garage sale and put it on the desk to raise my laptop. When you sit at your desk to write, your computer monitor should be level with your face so that you don’t have to look down. This is proper ergonomics.

To make this setup work (since my laptop keyboard is now out of reach), I have an external keyboard and trackpad.

I use the Apple brand ones:

Apple bluetooth keyboard

Apple bluetooth trackpad

They work wonderfully but are expensive. Now, there are a lot of less expensive options. I hear that this is a great set, and it’s very affordable:

Kingear wireless keyboard/mouse combo

However, I cannot vouch for those.

When you raise the laptop up like this, you can actually use it as a standing desk (in which case you’re not ergonomic anymore, but at least you’re not sitting all the time). When I stand, I just use the laptop keyboard. I basically sit to write and stand for non-writing, paperwork-type tasks.

When I sit, I use a kneeling chair. I found mine at a garage sale. It looks similar to this one.

I am no expert in what chair you should use, but I love this kneeling chair. It has really helped my back. It takes some time to get used to it. Don’t take this as medical advice, but for me it more or less forced me to engage my core when sitting and so has been helpful.

No matter what kind of chair you end up using, heed this warning: Put time and money and thought into your chair. Don’t be afraid to pay a lot of money for the right chair for you. Your chair is the most important thing in your office. Your chair = your health.

As I say, with this setup, I can also stand when I want to change positions or when I am just sick of sitting.

A lot of other stuff in this office that I will maybe walk through another day, but those are three core elements of my office that might inspire you to plan or re-plan your own office — the key is to be intentional and think about how you want to work.

Whatever you put in the office, and however you want to use the stuff in your office, take some time to consider your setup. An office setup that works for you will encourage you to spend more time in your office, getting things done.

The Focus Form

A simple tool to quell distractions and anxiety while you work

One of the most common problems a writer faces — in fact, one of the most common problems most people face — is the question of how to focus. I’ve devised one simple, elegant answer: the Focus Form.

The Problem

You sit down to write a short story. The next thing you know, you’re on Twitter arguing with idiots about their idiocy. You wrote those tweets, but that’s not really the writing you planned to produce, is it?

How did you get there? It began innocently enough. First, you sat down to write your story. Then, you got an idea for a poem. You popped open a new file to jot down the lines of the poem, and it was going good but then you got hung up on a word. You decided to check your thesaurus for a better word with a similar meaning.

You spied a word option for which you didn’t fully remember the precise definition, so you looked it up online. While you’re online, you figure you’ll research something for that story, so you googled that. Then you got caught in the online drift. Before you knew it, you were on Twitter.

Then that idiot’s tweet caught your eye and stressed you out. People are really that stupid these days? What is going to happen to the world? You know you shouldn’t engage, but you engage anyway. You can’t help yourself — you’re wound up.

Your phone goes off — a reminder that you’ve got to leave the house in 15 minutes if you don’t want to be late. Now you’re out of writing time, and you barely did anything.

Sound familiar?


It’s familiar to me. So many things in the modern world can take your focus away, and the sad, paradoxical irony of the writer’s life is that the very device which enables your writing — the computer — is also the single largest impediment to your writing.

So what should we do? Ditch our computers and go back to longhand scribbling on legal pads? Let’s say you do that. Do you stop getting distracted? No. Your phone is still beeping. So you put it on airplane mode, and put it in the other room.

Free from distractions? No. You’re stressing out about money still. You’re getting awesome new ideas that are cool but not what you’re here to do. Your hand hurts from holding a pen, you haven’t held a pen this long since you wrote your last exam.

It’s easy to blame the modern world for our distractions, or our phones, or the Internet, or idiots who tweet. But the problem is our brains. So what can we do about it, short of lobotomies, or decades of therapy?

Try the Focus Form

My core tool in the battle against my brain is the Focus Form. You can download it here. … Let me walk you through how it works.

In the top left, you write WHAT you want to focus on and WHY.

The WHAT should be a work-session goal that can feasibly be accomplished during the work-session.

If I’m working on my screenplay for Edenbridge, I don’t write “Edenbridge.” That’s a hundred-page screenplay, and I’ve got an hour. Instead, I write what I want to do in this next hour: “Draft the scene where Sara dies.”

One easy way to lose focus is to think about your larger project and get overwhelmed, not the smaller part that’s in front of you. Focus on the part of the project that you can actually accomplish right now. The first ingredient in our recipe for Focus is to actually focus our efforts.

Writing a book seems like an impossible task, and it’s easy to procrastinate. But you can write 1000 words in the next two hours. Is that too much? Do you still feel like you want to procrastinate that? Drop it down. Write 500 bad words in the next two hours. My friend Natalee Caple and I often make weekly goals where we commit to doing bad work. Bad writing is better than not writing. At least you’re still a writer!

The point of the WHAT/WHY section is so that when you catch yourself getting distracted, you can quickly draw your attention back to WHAT you are supposed to be doing (not in the grand scheme of things, but right now), and WHY. This is the core purpose of the Focus Form — catching yourself and returning your attention to your task — and so this part is the most important.

Underneath your WHAT, you write WHY. Why am I drafting the scene where Sara dies? Usually, for me, this is a few bullet points. You want a nice mix of practical reasons and more inspirational reasons.

The point of working on my example scene is:

  • to move closer to a finished draft of Edenbridge
  • because it’s going to be an important, hard scene that needs a lot of drafts
  • I want some practice writing a death scene
  • this will help move me closer to the next stage of pre-production
  • and thus hopefully closer to some more money!
  • because my daughter is getting closer and closer to university and university tuition

You could have fewer points. As long as your WHY list is motivating — actually good reasons WHY you should complete this task — then it doesn’t matter how much or how little you write. If your WHY list is not motivating to you … then why are you writing this thing? Write something else!

(When I really have to get something done, even though I don’t want to, then I just write “to get this OVER WITH and move on to something more fun” — if the task doesn’t excite me, maybe being finished the task will. Or, I write down a reward — “so then I can eat my haunted ghost pepper chips” — and I just artificially motivate myself in that manner.)

Then you start working.

While you work, you try to catch yourself once you get unfocused. There are three things that usually un-focus people: (1) Ideas, (2) Distractions, and (3) Anxieties.

The key here is to catch yourself getting unfocused and then identify what is un-focusing you. Then you write it down in the appropriate box on the form.

Then you re-read WHAT you’re supposed to be doing and WHY. Then you get back on track, and back to work.

Let’s walk through these three categories:


You know when I get my best ideas? When I’m supposed to be doing something else. Sound familiar?

This is insidious. Often these ideas are great (or, at least, they sure seem great when I’m working on something else!) and I find myself tempted to work on them.

Strike while the iron is hot! But wait, I was in the middle of striking a hot iron…

You know what happens next! You keep raising your hammer above a newer, hotter, more exciting iron … and never strike.

Write the idea down, and evaluate it later … when you aren’t dying to distract yourself from working. When I’m done my work session, I look through these ideas, and if they are actually good ideas I transfer them to my long “Someday/Maybe” to-do list. Maybe I make a couple of quick notes in Evernote or something.

The idea will keep. Any author with any experience knows this: ideas are worthless. You can’t even copyright ideas, that’s how worthless they are. They will keep just fine. What is valuable is an idea properly executed. So stop not executing your ideas because you got a new idea.


You know how you are working and then suddenly you find yourself on Facebook? When you catch yourself doing this, close down Facebook immediately and write “Facebook” on the form. Then get back on task.

There are two things happening here:

  • You are catching yourself in the middle of the habit, which is the first step towards breaking the habit
  • You are listing out your different distractions

Later on, I will go through this list and see where I’m wasting my time. This gives me a more objective sense of what I’m doing and not doing during my writing session. I might think I wasted my time on Facebook, but maybe I actually wasted it reading articles that I found while on Facebook. Facebook might not be the real problem, just an enabler.

Your goal (when your writing session is over) is to figure out what you can do to prevent yourself from getting distracted in the first place. I noticed recently that I spent a lot of time checking the Facebook page of a toxic person that stresses me out, to see if I could anticipate what they might do next.

So I blocked that person. Now, I can’t check that page, and I’m getting more work done and checking Facebook less, and my stress level dropped 20% overnight. Will I be less prepared when they pull some crazy out of their hat? Not really. You can’t prepare for that stuff, you can just drive yourself crazy trying to prepare.


Ever get stressed out while you’re working, and distract yourself that way? I sure do. This ranges from anxieties related to the project (“This stuff I’m writing sucks hard”) to stressing about life (“I think my daughter’s mad at me”). Well, I’ve got plenty of time to worry about stuff later, when I’m not working. After I write that scene, I can worry about how much it sucks, or why my daughter’s not texting me back.

The core concepts here (and for the Focus Form as a whole) are drawn from Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) and mindfulness meditation. You are “practicing attention” to catch yourself performing unconscious habits. You are isolating the things that draw your attention away from what you want it to be focused upon. You are objectifying abstract thoughts.

A lot of the time, simply writing on the form what I’m worrying about is enough to stop me from worrying. “My teenaged daughter isn’t replying to my texts!” Oh wait, that’s right … she’s a teenager, not replying to her Dad’s texts, because … she’s a teenager.

If it’s a bigger thing, like a real, legitimate worry, it will still be there to worry about later. Schedule some time to worry about it. That sounds stupid, but is an actual CBT technique that a psychotherapist would recommend to you, if you paid them hundreds of dollars. You create a “worry schedule” and then you try your best to confine worry to your scheduled time. What do you do when you catch yourself worrying? You write the worry down (like, maybe, I don’t know, on this form) and tell yourself you will worry about that later, during your scheduled worry time.

With enough practice, this mostly works, or works for most worries — although it does take practice. You delay your anxiety a bit, and it lessens, and you get some limits around it. In the meantime, you can get something done, or even just have a nice lunch.

Try It for a Week

Try the Focus Form out for at least a full week. It’s a little bit of extra work, but it functionally saves you wasting a lot of time.

If all that happens is that you realize you should block that toxic person from your Facebook feed, the extra effort of the Focus Form will pay off. Try to get into the habit.

I designed this form to be simple enough that you can sketch it on any blank piece of paper, but you can also download a pretty version here.

Let me know how the Focus Form works for you!

Reframing Rejection

My Weird Tales Rejection Letter

One of my earliest rejection letters, from age 22. This rejection letter reshaped my entire thought process around rejection and in retrospect was foundational in my career.

Let me walk you through how it blew my young mind and made me rethink how I would view rejections forever. Most writers would do well to reframe rejection in the manner that I did after receiving this letter. Since this letter, rejection causes me no anxiety at all.

Let me walk through the salient features of this Weird Tales rejection letter.

First off, it was composed on a typewriter.

In 2002!

The typos aren’t worth correcting … it’s too difficult, on a typewriter, to correct them. Check out the strange, seemingly fake address in the top right … this rejection letter has personality.

It was the first rejection I ever received that felt like it was a “real” rejection in the sense that it appeared unreal. It conformed to all of my ridiculous, preconceived, stereotyped, Hollywood notions about what a writer’s rejection letters should be.

“Alas — not for us.”

Succinct and so neutral!

My 22-year-old self saw these words as a revelation. There are stories for them, and stories that are not for them. If they are rejecting my story, maybe it isn’t the story’s fault, or their fault, or my fault.

Maybe it just isn’t for them.

They offer no less than three concrete examples of how the story is flawed and could be improved.


They said something nice.

“We did like the throwaway details.” I don’t need my ego soothed now (maybe I did then) but it’s a nice touch.

They sent me their guidelines…

… because I didn’t follow them properly. Obviously, I look like an absolute amateur to them. They can smell how bad I am, and how new I am at this.

This point is important to press for a moment. From my submission, they knew immediately that I was not worth their time. But they gave me their time.

They gave me a lot of their time.

They read the entire story, wrote a detailed letter to reject it — on a typewriter — and then sent me a copy of their guidelines.

They even asked me to comment on whether or not their guidelines were clear and made sense to novice writers! Included in that last sentence is the assumption that maybe, just maybe, I had read their guidelines … but they had made some mistake in writing the guidelines and they were not plain enough for novices to comprehend.

Since this rejection, I went on to work as an editor at a number of places (most notably as the editor of dANDelion) and I will admit right now that I never put this much thought and time into a rejection, even when I had to reject the work of my friends!

All in all, they took me seriously.

When I received this letter, I was 22 — a “grown-up” despite still being in that period of adolescent brain development that neuroscientists say continues until around age 25.

It also wasn’t my first rejection. I had received a number of form rejections by this point, and even some kind, hand-scrawled comments. In fact, I’d even published a decent amount by this point.

I immediately saw everything they had done and I thought to myself, I’ve been looking at rejection all wrong. They are taking me seriously.

They are rejecting the work, but they are taking me seriously. A rejection is professional correspondence. They are treating me like a professional.

Rejection doesn’t mean I’m not a “real writer.” Quite the opposite. Only “real” writers get rejections. Even a form rejection — in fact, especially a form rejection — means that they are treating you like everyone else — and everyone else is a real writer too.

That reframing of rejection changed my entire writing life.

If you struggle with rejection, try to reframe it. Look forward to your next rejection.

My friend GMB Chomichuk makes it his goal to collect one rejection every week. That’s right — he’s seeking the rejection (if he “fails” and has his work accepted, then he just gets back to the hard work of being rejected).

It’s easy to forget that having your work accepted isn’t your job. Your job is writing. The editor’s job is to accept or reject your work. Stop trying to do someone else’s job, and most of all don’t stress out about a job that isn’t yours. Focus on your job.

A final thought from the stellar Ursula K. Le Guin:

Let me wrench this quote out of context to conclude — it’s a good quote to keep in mind amongst the nightmare of the social sphere, but it also has a nice, narrow applicability here:

Go on and do your work. Do it well. It is all you can do.

8-Ball Interview with A. P. Fuchs

A. P. Fuchs is the author of many novels and short stories. His most recent efforts of putting pen to paper are The Canister X Transmission: Year Two, Axiom-man Episode No. 3: Rumblings, The Dance of Mervo and Father Clown, and Mech Apocalypse. Also a cartoonist, he is known for his superhero series, The Axiom-man Saga, both in novel and comic book format.

Fuchs’s main website is

Join his free weekly newsletter at

I met A. P. Fuchs way back when we were all young and foolish and driven. He stuck around while others fell. My warrior-brethren!

1. What do you want to talk about, but nobody ever asks?

Why the mid-listers who bashed self-publishing and the writers who also did suddenly started doing it themselves. Seems extraordinarily hypocritical and I don’t buy the answer you can now make money self-publishing. You could make money self-publishing before the eBook boom — I did — so a better answer is required.
My whole take on what happened is simple: their market dried up so out of desperation to keep things afloat, they self-published their backlist when they either got dropped by a publisher or the publisher closed its doors. The irony is, back in the day, they called us self-publishers desperate and not real writers, and eBooks weren’t real books, etc. My, how the tables have turned. But no one will ever admit to this because it’ll make them look bad and/or foolish and/or desperate. Which is a shame because writing and publishing is supposed to be about honesty and telling the truth (even truth veiled in fiction).

So, in my opinion, they’re dropping the ball in that regard and need to step up their game because publishing goes beyond simply writing books and releasing them. I like the idea that writers — sorry, “authors” — should also be journalists. Again, the idea that truth is prevalent in whatever they’re concocting. I just don’t see it happening and the almighty dollar is part of that reason. Writing should transcend money despite publishing being a business. Art should come first, then the check. I also realize I’m in the minority on this one.

2. What advice do you wish you’d received, but didn’t, when you first started to take writing seriously?

A lot, but if I were to pick just one thing, it would be the importance of point-of-view in a narrative. I didn’t know about point-of-view on my first two books — the first was published by a vanity press, the second one is unpublished — but I wish I did. I hired an editor to edit my second book and what I got back was a manuscript that looked like someone spilled red paint over it. It was the best monetary investment I’ve ever made in my career and I learned so much from the editor’s notes.
Nowadays, I’m a massive stickler on point-of-view and any time it strays I get mad. It’s such a simple concept yet writers don’t seem to understand it. You can explain it to them this way: be one with the character. You can only know, think or feel what the character knows, thinks or feels, and you can only know what they perceive through their five senses. Anything beyond that is a breach of point-of-view. It’s the same in life. I only know what I know, feel, and think, and I only perceive what I perceive. I don’t know or feel or think or perceive what you do, Jon, unless you tell me.
I also want to take this opportunity to share the greatest piece of writing advice/perspective I’ve ever received, and it’s this: It’s only a book. Kingdoms won’t rise and fall because of it.

3. What are your regular habits as a writer?

Getting shit done every day, whether a little or a lot. My first book took a total of eleven months to write, nine of which were actually writing it. Two of those months were the only time I had writer’s block until I realized writer’s block is horseshit and only an excuse not to write. There is no reason a book should take eleven months to write unless you’re writing an obscenely long fantasy epic or are writing every third or fourth day or something. Case in point: I’ve written a book in a week, and wrote two books in three weeks. The readers loved them. Speed doesn’t mean poor quality so long as you’re invested in the project.
I also drink a stupid amount of coffee like most writers and vape and smoke a lot. I’m also on medications to keep me stable so I can work without worrying about falling apart.
I keep notes, but not a whole lot. Sometimes I outline, if you want to call it that, because it’s more a point-form list of this happens, then this, then that, then this, each point on the outline — which are no longer than a sentence — the core of a scene.
There’s more, but I don’t want to give away all my secrets.

4. What is your editing process?

This will be a short answer because there is not much information to give. My book goes through six stages and then it’s press time.
1) Write the first draft
2) Write the second draft (content editing, proofing, expanding or shortening scenes)
3) Write the third draft (which is basically the same as number 2)
4) Book goes to my editor who does a thorough edit for the same stuff I do.
5) Get the book back from my editor and go through his edits to accept or reject them. I accept, on average, about 95% of his edits. The remaining 5% are matters of taste and opinion and I typically stick with what I originally wrote.
6) Partially format the book for press then go through it one more time. After that, it’s press day and I don’t sleep for 24 hours while I finish the formatting and do the remainder of the work to turn the galley into a published book.

5. What is your greatest difficulty as a writer?

Sometimes I can’t get into the story as much as I would like. It’s a dream when you live and breathe a book during it’s writing process, but when your heart is not completely into a project — even though you want to do the project — it takes discipline to hit the keyboard anyway and punch out 500 words as a minimum. However, I’ve been fortunate in that the books I’ve found the hardest to write and are the ones that come out the best. No idea why. Maybe some sort of subconscious fuck you to myself to show myself up. I don’t know.

6. How do you decide which book to read next?

Either whatever’s next on the TBR pile, or whatever one speaks to me. It’s like browsing your DVD collection. Oh, sorry, Blu-ray collection. A movie just jumps out at you. Same with books.
Nothing complicated or over thought here.

7. What is your greatest single ambition?

To be a popular writer and artist, and to finish The Axiom-man Saga, my fifty-book superhero epic. I know you only asked for a single ambition but those two are tied together.

8. Why don’t you quit?

Because I suck at everything else in life so might as well stick with what others have told me I’m good at.

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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.