How Long Did That Take?

During a #SFFWRTCHT last month I was asked this question: “How long does it take you to do a piece from first line to finish?”* I responded with something vague about always being amazed at how quickly some pieces come together and how slowly others do. And that’s completely true: The time from first line to finish varies enormously depending on the illustration project. (Even more tricky to explain is why an illustration that only took an afternoon to complete may be more successful than one that took several weeks). One of my art professors used to answer:  “40 years and three weeks” when people asked how long a painting took (the sum of his painting career to that point and whatever time the specific painting required), which was a witty nod to how much more than just hours goes into an art piece. But as a freelancer, knowing how long a project took is pretty important career information. So I’ve been working on that.

Usually I have several projects all going on at once. On rare moments it all comes together like this**, but often it feels more like this. Last year I started using  kanbanpad to help keep track of my progress on various illustrations. I had queues such as “Not Started” “Ideation” “In Progress” and “Finished”. Recently it’s become necessary to revise how I keep track of stuff in order to avoid over-committing myself: I now have a Google doc with a whole year laid out month by month listing jobs already committed to, so at a glance I know if I can take on another project this month or that month. Also I’ve also started using spreadsheets to detail each month even more closely: When a job is started, when it is finished, (how many hours it took). Even things like print sales, art shows entered, (blog posts written). This is pretty new, the methods still being tweaked, but I’m interested in seeing what trends may reveal themselves.

As the at-home parent, my work schedule fits around my son’s school schedule and between general household management needs. And those work hours are not all art making: I spend a lot of time reading through the stories I’ll be illustrating, prepping digital canvases, collecting and/or shooting reference images. Not to mention just “paperwork” type stuff: keeping financial records up to date, monitoring correspondence, posting recent work, promoting projects, occasionally revamping my websites. I recently spent several hours finally writing up my own artist/client contract for new clients and it took me an entire day to prepare art for shipping to an out-of-town show.

While I have not yet started keeping track of exactly how many hours a piece will take from start to finish, I do know that I can finish about 4-5 illustration jobs per month and still be sane and pleasant to live with. (Which is really good to know.) Here’s a few other things I’ve skimmed from the webs that apply to the topic at hand:

  • And this interview with creatives talking about their time management methods:

*thank you Paul Weimer for asking the question!
**thank you Bo Bolander for lovely herd dogs.
***thank you Remy Nakamura for pointing me to Scalzi’s article.

Kickstarting Success or Failure

Monday’s general ‘blah’ has matured into full-fledged head cold, exacerbated by the smoke machines at the industrial music show I managed last night…and definitely not helped by the after party. Or the fact that I smacked my head into a wall in the act of sitting down, after successfully not dying during self-defense training. Do they teach self self-defense?

All that kind of pales against the main event today: the War Stories Kickstarter funded, so I have an anthology to create now! But because that’s fresh on my mind, I want to talk a little bit about the processes and stresses of Kickstarter and crowd-funding.

1.) Pretty much every religion says that God(s)(esses)(etc) helps those who help themselves, and Kickstarter is much the same way. Being prepared before you ever hit ‘launch’ is essential. Know your stretch goals, your reward levels, your updates, everything. It will save a lot of scrambling later.

2.) Ask for feedback. Talk to people who have run Kickstarters before, and run your projects past them. They’ll catch a lot of issues and point out weaknesses to you.

3.) Know your subject. Are you doing something that’s going to just hit all the right buttons, like Geek Love? Or something that will potentially ostracize the majority of the potential audience? War Stories was like that. We heard accusations of xenophobia, Conservative bias, liberal bias, anti-feminism, pro-feminism (as a bad thing), and more, from both sides of the aisle. We left a lot of money on the table because we flat-out said we wanted to do something provocative and new, but we knew that and spent a lot of time talking about and addressing it.

4.) Talk. Throw yourself out there. Get on podcasts, blogs, news sites, anything you can, but be sure you spread yourself out over the course of the Kickstarter.

5.) Be grateful. Engage, talk to, thank, interact with your backers.

6.) Budget time every day to deal with your Kickstarter every day. Go through your backers, check what levels are most popular, and make sure there aren’t any questions in the comments section that need to be answered. At the end of the Kickstarter, budget some time to push through the last couple of days. Use that extra excitement as an excuse to post a little more often.

7.) Budget time after the Kickstarter, to take some time off from the promotional grind. Let your backers know that you’re going to be gone for a while, and then just sit back and get out of the madhouse of constant promotion. Don’t let the momentum die off, just enough time to take a deep breath.

8.) Know your needs and limits. Every project is unique. For Geek Love, we were only doing as many books as our backers pre-ordered. War Stories will be available for sale long-term through our publisher though, so it’s a totally different sort of push. People can wait for the reviews to come out to make their decision. That means we don’t get as much money, but also that the project has a longer life.

9.) Deadlines deadlines deadlines. Don’t set hard and fast deadlines unless you know you can hit them, but don’t just say ‘hey, it will happen when it happens’. Give your backers an idea of when to expect things, and then stay in touch with them so they feel connected and engaged.

10.) Know your audience…and your money. Kickstarter is, in a way, the ultimate in social media roulette. You’ve got plenty of opportunities, but you have to leverage them, too. Your reach is a complicated algorithm of social capital, reach, professional history, reputation, project, and half a dozen other things. Some creators have a few hundred dollars available to them, others have a few hundred thousand. So spend time researching projects similar to yours, and pay attention to whether their creators are fan favorites or completely unknown.

11.) Prepare for success, be ready for failure. The odds are against you. Most Kickstarter projects fail, so every single success is against the odds. I’ve been fortunate, and every project I’ve been involved with–as project lead or advisor–has succeeded, but that’s entirely because of hard work, luck, and knowing the audience the project would appeal to. Youth boxing gives the kids self-defense skills and confidence to conquer any challenge!

So, there’s that. I can’t tell you how to create a successful project. I am more cognizant than ever of how amazing my friends are, and how lucky I am. Tomorrow, I’m going to spend part of the day talking to Andrew about the next steps of the project, and then I’m going to take a couple of days off of promotional things. Beer and football with my boyfriend and his buddies on Monday, maybe, and my first Brazilian Jiu Jitsu class later in the week. Stuff away from the computer, you know?

Oh, yeah, that’s the other thing: just admit now that you’ll just be sitting in front of the computer and compulsively hitting ‘refresh’ for however many days the thing is running. So lay in supplies, and plan for carpal tunnel, insomnia, and weight gain.

Space Unicorn Zombie, or “How to build a good industry/community”

If I listened to the advice* of my Facebook ‘friends’, the beginning of this post would read:

“The Space Unicorn Zombie Erotica Anthology beginning is a very delicately timed story of an editrix living in a hole in the ground…”

Of course, those were all separate suggestions—and some of them led to threats about the perpetrators getting their hands duct-taped to chairs—but they all added up to a preposterous, if entertaining, premise for a blog post.

Taking random suggestions from the internet for a blog post topic sounds silly, doesn’t it? But it’s something most beginning writers do every day. There are hundreds, if not thousands of writing advice blogs, books, and programs out there, written by everyone from best-selling authors to the kid down the street who published the first short story he ever wrote on his blog yesterday.

I remember when I was a newbie writer. If someone had actually published something, I considered them something like a minor god: they’d done something incredible. I read all those things, went to panels, listened and soaked everything in. If you’d told me that sacrificing blue chickens gave me a higher chance of publishing, I’d probably have done it.

And then I learned that not everyone who said ‘this is how it’s done’ actually knew what they were talking about.

Now I’m the one writing blog posts, sitting on panels, running workshops, and I’ve realized just how much bad advice is out there, and how many people don’t know how to tell the good from the bad.

There’s no way to root out all the bad advice. Writer Beware, Preditors and Editors, and other watchdog organizations do their best to keep an eye on the business and keep the worst sharks out of the water, but that still leaves a lot of self-help gurus, get-rich-quick schemers, and just over-eager amateurs out there.

We talk a lot about keeping ourselves safe from predators and bad advice, and about keeping the industry safe. We don’t talk enough about nurturing the newbies, bringing up the next generation of writers. Clarion, Shared Worlds, and other workshops set the foundation of a professional career, but there needs to be support for the writers around the structured programs, too.

I firmly believe that anyone who wants to break into a business needs to set themselves up as well as they can. Do the research, read the trade magazines, attend the right panels and shows.

I also believe that we should make an effort to support, mentor, and encourage the writers around us. This isn’t a competition. As small and connected as the writing community is, the person you’re mentoring today might be acquiring your book for a publisher tomorrow, or writing the book that changes your life.

As professional writers, we have responsibilities:
Support our colleagues.
Look out for each other.
Educate ourselves.
Commit to spreading good, solid advice and calling out the bad.
Remember we aren’t in a competition here.

*I am either coming down with a cold, or suffering from nasty allergies, so I make no promises about the coherence of the above, as evidenced by the fact that I have the phrase ‘Space Unicorn Zombie Erotica Anthology’ in a professional post.

Wonderbook Winners and Select Comments

We had a great turnout for the Wonderbook contest last month, and I’m happy to announce our three winners: Sarah Hendrix, Dylan Fogle, and Connie (we still need your full details—check your email).

Sarah Hendrix:
I’m currently running back and forth between the Oasis of Malaise, the Fortress of Distractions and the Bridge of Certainty. Although I think I left my muse at the Desert of Pointless Writing and Writing… I am nearing the completion of this draft and am ready to spend quite a bit of time exploring the Lake of Endless Revisions.

Dylan Fogle:
I seem to be perpetually stuck at the Start. Always on the verge of going. But somehow getting stuck in not doing it.

I can’t start because of an Encounter With Self-Doubt :)

While the contest winners were chosen randomly, I would have loved to give prizes for the most imaginative answers. Here’s a small selection that were submitted (you can read them all at the bottom of the contest page—and you should, because there’s far more than can be included here).

Did you know: if you scuba dive deep into the Lake of Endless Revision, you can access a system of submerged caves that you eventually exit right near the loops of procrastination? Yeah, I found that out by accident.

Annie Thompson
I am in a turnabout between encounter with self doubt and fortress of distractions. It seems that every time I wade through one, I find myself right in the middle of the other!

Daemon Hoskin
I laid siege to the Fortress of Distractions, won the battle, stormed the gates and locked myself in. From the arrow slits, I watch the line of figures marching towards the True Ending, and just when I am about to lower the drawbridge and ride out – ooh shiny!

Dave Versace
I’m definitely on the plains of distraction, but I think maybe these bites I picked up in my various encounters with self-doubt are beginning to fester.

I thought I’d made it from the Loops of Procrastination to the Desert of Pointless Writing and Writing, but instead realized yesterday that I was somewhere in the Plains of False Inspiration. The Story shook off my hand, dove into the ground ,and disappeared. Looking off to the west, I see the same blasted Loops of Procrastination and I have…um…dusting to do. And the pantry to reorganize. And I should fold all the laundry. Also knit another five pairs of socks. Then there’s the music to learn. Piles of papers to be sorted. The tack room’s a mess. I need to get back to riding the bike, but the refrigerator has gunk in the vegetable drawers…maybe a nap is in order.

I’ve been swimming in the Lake of Endless Revisions for a few weeks now. Someone please send a boat to fetch me!

I’m stranded on the Lost Coast of Shipwrecked Endings. Please–someone send a map that includes the correct ending and a lovely rum drink inside a coconut.

Stephanie Bogart
Two suits of tragedy in action
Beguile blocks the Bridge of Certainty
Keeping purpose from gaining traction
A hollowed voice echoes through eternity
Chastising for the infraction
Another day gone to ignored opportunity
A creation so near to satisfaction
Maybe a Wonderbook filled with diversity
Will lead me out of The Fortress of Distraction.

Took me all day but, this is what floated around my head after I saw the map. However, this is the first time I have actually spent any time writing anything for the past month. I thank you for the inspiration.

You can find out more about Wonderbook: The Illustrated Guide to Creating Imaginative Fiction here at the official site. I’ve had the book for a couple of weeks now and it truly is beautiful, and full of great information. Every writer should have a copy, and should give a copy the budding writers in their life.