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!

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.

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.

Writing is nothing if not carrying the hopeless, backbreaking burden of decisions devoid of consequences.

Aleksandar Hemon
The Making of Zombie Wars (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2015), 5

How LEGO Bricks Have Sex

derek beaulieu edited a chapbook anthology years ago (Lego 50-15, Calgary: No Press, 2008), in which a number of writers celebrated LEGO.

For my contribution, I snuck back to the source: the original LEGO patent application. Stealing a image schematic from the forms, I reworked it as a page pulled from a fictional encyclopedia, as if some sort of biology textbook from an alien world.

This approach was inspired by the Codex Seraphinianus, my favourite book of all time.


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

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.