Friday, June 28, 2013

Tips on Experimenting With Writing

Matt sat down to the game I’ve been programming for fun last night. For as little work as I’ve gotten to do on it, there’s been a myriad of cool scripts and other gadgets I’ve been able to edit and plug in, which have made progress on its production easier. So much so, that I’ve started to get into programming the actual scenes of the story, in fact.

"Too much dialogue!" he said, and I agreed with him. I'm not a mind-blowing writer and I still draw far better than I write. But I am well-practiced and more importantly, I love learning. I write too long. Ask anyone who’s read my fanfiction. I had to learn to edit things down and to be okay with doing so, and a lot of my technique for writing today relies on typing every little thing down and tearing half of it out, later. I learned this through experiment -- writing things for fun and employing new practices that I hadn't tested yet.
Recall the series of posts that began here: Creative Writing From Start to Finish. To break it down, my writing technique looks something like this:
  • Get ideas
  • Turn ideas into breakdowns, character profiles and backdrops
  • Turn breakdowns into story beats
  • Turn story beats into a story
  • Inject themes and subtext
  • Edit the whole thing down
It's all well and good to follow this formula, but enjoying the process of writing would be impossible if I didn't switch things up once in a while and try new things. I get lots of enjoyment out of writing, but to turn the process into a formula can make for a very boring time, so I need to try new things and break some of my own rules once in a while.
Here then, are some new things I've been testing with fun-for-me projects like the aforementioned game, and some paid projects as well:
  • Working a plot around a theme without force. And the words 'without force' are the important ones, here. It's generally considered bad form to plot around a theme, because it doesn't feel natural. Indeed, your subtext should serve your plot and not the other way around. What's been working for me, however, is to write out enough of the story to know when a theme is beginning to rear its head, develop it, and not bend the plot out of shape if it's not a perfect fit. Tweaking a theme is far superior to tweaking a story, and can produce some satisfying results.
  • Inserting a plot device (or two) at random. This one is a bit tricky because it immediately registers a big fat "DON'T" from my brain when I try it. I've found that this is due, mostly, to my brain having not figured out what will come of the plot device and its intended purpose, when it shows up at a point that doesn't make any sense. But that's beautiful, too, because if I'm not expecting it then I hope my reader isn't either. I'm also forced to work with it and use ideas I hadn't been counting on using to reconcile it.
  • Writing towards one resolution and going an entirely different direction. I picked this up from Kevin Smith's experience directing Red State. In an interview I saw, he talked about having the story written to a point where the next thing to do in the progression seemed obvious, so it was decided to do something entirely different instead, to keep the audience on its toes. Like the randomly appearing plot device I talked about above, jerking your story around in new and surprising ways can be a frustrating but highly effective way to break out of your comfort zones as an author. Too, notice I didn't say 'opposite direction', here. If you do this, keep in mind that it's sometimes just as easy and therefore just as expected to take a story one way and do the exact opposite. Try to do something really wacky and off the beaten path, instead.

You may try some of these yourself, and indeed, you may try others. If you need help getting ideas, I suggest going back to my How to Write guides again and inspecting points where you can bend the rules a little (or a lot) and giving it a go.
It's important to note that when you experiment with your writing, any weird thing you're going to try has the potential to go very, very wrong. But that's okay -- this is a creative exercise, after all. You may feel more comfortable doing this type of work with your side projects, therefore.
Even if you're not getting paid to mess around with a story, it's important to take it seriously enough that it serves the highest purpose of writing: It makes for a good read.

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Why Charging More (or Less) Matters

My previous blog entry on knowing your value sent a fair bit of questions my way, and a good amount of discussion in equal measure. I thought therefore, I'd jump on some of that stuff and write a second post to cover a few of those things - most specifically questions centered around the idea of charging more over charging less.

I'll say that some people were a little angry that I didn't discuss the discount process when it comes to art, and the competitive nature of art in general as it pertains to what is sold on the internet, at conventions and elsewhere. It's true - most people you can commission on the internet for art are priced so ridiculously low that the typical layperson who only wants a pretty picture drawn will seek out the cheapest option, rather than what would suit their needs best. There's little room to specialize.

Or so you would think.
Hear me out -- I'm not saying making a quick twenty bucks on Deviantart for a sketch is bad business, because it's not and that goes double if you're just starting out. I'm also not saying you need to be a famous artist to warrant a higher price all the time. Rather, you have to consider yourself part of the equation when you are striking deals over your art. You have to consider what's worth your time, and what you'd genuinely enjoy doing, over the money. Don't follow the money because it'll never be creatively fulfilling and you'll never get work. Follow work you love and money will naturally follow. I guarantee it.

Let's take an example. I go to conventions a lot throughout the year. I'll often sit next to artists charging $60 and up for sketches, and most of them are worth every penny and quite often, take a substantial amount of the day for them to complete.

I however, I charge $40 max. It's not because I'm not as known -- often I have more published credits to my name than people around me charging more. It's a simple matter of supply, demand, and the worth of my time. I know that roughly half of my customers at any given show will come to me with a request for some kind of cartoony animal, which will take me approximately half an hour to draw well. Then there will be another 30% or so who want some kind of pin-up girl, which is something else I'm quite good at turning out with good quality in a short span of time. The remaining 20% will have more difficult requests which might take longer, and true I may tweak my prices for those, but I won't, often.

I charge low because it's rare that I run out of customers before I run out of time at conventions. These customers almost always want a sketch that doesn't take more than 30 minutes to complete. The math is simple: Ten sketches at $40 a pop ($400) versus three at $60 ($180) over the course of a convention is much more preferable.

The other side of the coin (no pun intended), which would be charging higher prices than a competing product, is even easier to argue for. Consider the benefits of a higher priced item, first:
  • Items set at a higher price have a higher perceived value. Again, see the previous blog entry on value for a lesson in this concept. In a nutshell, this means that people will, if the product appears to be of quality, take into consideration its overall worth as a factor when making a purchasing decision, noting in their minds that although it is more expensive than another artist's work, it must be worth more to be sold at such a price.
  • Higher-priced items attract higher-quality clients. And I'm not saying rich people are better people, here. The people willing to spend larger sums of money on things tend to view them in higher regard, take better care of them, and that means, as an artist, they're also seeing you in higher regard.
  • People who are not just looking to score a discount are more likely to call you back to do further work in the future, if you do a quality job for them. Broke people often don't call again, because they're more interested in swinging a deal. Too, if you set up a down-payment on the work you will be doing, as you should, the person requesting the commission is more likely to pay the balance when the job is complete.
  • Higher prices mean you won't be wasting your time on unfulfilling work. The fewer the people you have asking you to draw their Twilight Sparkle recolor for $5, the better, am I right?

As I said -- to command higher prices, you don't need to be famous or already established. All you need to do is make sure the job you do is an excellent one.

I hope this elaboration on the last entry has been of use to you. More posts about value are sure to follow, as this certainly is a hot topic. Remember to value yourself first and above all else, value your time, and value your art.

Friday, June 14, 2013

Getting Work You Love: Working as a Freelancer

Welcome to the last part of our three-part series on finding work you love. During the first week, we covered getting published. Last week, we touched on finding work as a creative, in-house. This week, we’ll discuss freelancing, which is a blanket term for working on your own, either at home, in-house, with a single outfit or with many. In fact, freelancing takes on so many forms, it’d be impossible to cover them all in one blog post, so this is going to be a pretty broad discussion. The good news is, you may find the tips and pointers here could also be applicable in any job situation!

So! Right off the bat, I think it’s important that we start with a few definitions of terms I’ll be using, in case any of this is new to you.

· A freelancer is a person who works on their own, usually engaged in one or several projects which benefit themselves. Freelancers do not employ others. My work as an individual artist currently falls under the category of freelance since I do the work myself as a means to make money for myself.

· An entrepreneur is someone who starts a company, usually with the intention of building it into a business. They may start out as freelancers. Entrepreneurs may also hire freelancers to help get the necessary tasks accomplished for their company, and may even have full-time staff they employ. My work with Gloryhound could be considered an entrepreneurship situation. I hire freelancers from time-to-time for one-shot projects here and there, but also take on much of the work myself.

· A business is a company or other money-making operation which can run and be profitable without the need of its owner. Businesses hire freelancers and employees alike. Gloryhound does not operate as a business, because I am still integral to its success and I frankly have no desire to turn it into such a thing until it becomes able to sustain more than myself on a payroll situation.

· Capital is money. Venture capital is money invested into a business or entrepreneur to get things started with the understanding that a certain percentage of the company will be owned by the investor until it is profitable enough to buy the investor out. If the business goes under and the venture capital is lost, unless an agreement is in place that essentially marks the money as a loan, the investment doesn’t need to be paid back. A loan is given to a business as any loan is – with the understanding that it will be paid back, usually with interest, even if the business fails.

Some of that may sound complicated, and you may be wondering exactly why someone would choose to be a freelancer at all. To most freelancers, the answer is as simple as the implied freedom, itself. To others, it’s the only means by which they can get work at all in a given field, such as consulting. Still to others, it’s the best way to earn a passive or secondary income stream, or a means to get one’s foot in the door for a career change.

Whatever your reasons for becoming a freelancer, you will always go into such work with the understanding that you’re trading stability for freedom. Stability is a relative term, of course. In our time, it’s not unusual for companies to surprise hard workers with layoffs, even during an economic upswing. Freedom, too, is relative. You may find that while you’re free to go to Starbucks at any hour of the day or night, browse the internet on a whim or simply take a week off, you’ll still need the discipline to do the work that’s necessary to eat and pay the utility bills. The long and short of it is that freelancing isn’t for everyone, but that’s okay. More often than not, a combination of steady income from a regular full-time or part-time job can help cushion a full or partial transition into freelance work.

As a creative, your first step in becoming a successful freelancer should be to gather materials together for a portfolio. You’re probably tired of hearing me say it after two other entries advising the same thing, but it really is that important. Persons looking to go 100% freelance and especially those just starting out have the most necessity to keep several portfolios, as they may be keen to do several types of work in order to make the mortgage for the month. Often, as a freelancer goes on with his or her career, they will narrow their efforts down to just a handful of things they’d like to be commissioned to do, narrowing that list down to just one or two as their reputation and list of clientele builds.

Finding work should be a near-constant priority for you, but luckily in the age of the internet, it isn't difficult to access resources which can help you. Sites like Elance and Craigslist offer "gigs" and other one-shot jobs which you can place a bid for. Placing a bid is just as it sounds - you bid to do the work in the alloted time, show them your portfolio, name a price, and wait to hear back. Most freelancers actively seeking work will start their mornings by placing several bids to projects they're interested in, each day, until they are selected. Indeed, it may take several tries and there never are any guarantees, but the more bids you put in, the more likely you'll have a callback.

Selling yourself properly, as always, requires you know and understand your own strengths. You should be cold-calling or sending submissions to places that do work similar to the work you enjoy doing, to be most effective with your gig-search. If you want to be a comic book artist, send comic book samples, not pin-up art, to companies you'd like to work with.

Local businesses often need writers, illustrators or graphic designers for one-off projects such as brochures, newspaper ads, blurbs or other promotional material. You may even find odd-jobs such as painting storefront windows. Keep your portfolio handy - have it online and easy-to-access via smartphone in case you come across a place you may like to do business with throughout your the day.

Turning things around promptly and being professional about handling the work you have coming in is as essential as landing the gig. If a client doesn't give you a clear deadline, then assume it is due, yesterday. Don't slack off just because your job isn't of the punch-in from 9 to 5 variety. Set aside certain hours of your day to get the work done. If you have an outrageous deadline but a golden opportunity with a project, don't be surprised if you have to cancel plans you've previously made to get it done.

Get money up front, always. I usually ask for at least half, depending on the work. Most businesses and entrepreneurs will lay out a cost breakdown, and some who do the same type of work over and over again will clearly display their rates on their websites -- that's a great way to present your expectation of compensation to the client and allow for negotiation.

Always, always, always have a contract in order for your work. There's nothing worse than a client who doesn't pay, excpet for a client who doesn't pay when there's no contract in place, obligating him to pay. Search online for sample contracts that lay out expectations of payment for services rendered, and tweak those to the job you are doing.

Hopefully, most of your clients will be good ones! You should keep a book of references from these, with letters of recommendation from each one if you can get it (and most are happy to write one). Have your happy customers send a short letter talking about the excellent service they received from you and the job you did. Use this to promote or take it with you when talking to business prospects and scoping a new gig.

You will of course, have to deal with taxes at the start of every year, just like everyone else. You'll fill out a 1099-Misc form, which will require itemizing each and every dollar you made and the things you spent money on for your freelance or business endeavor. Entrepreneurs and businesses will, throughout the year, issue W9 forms to the freelancers they employ, to show the IRS that money was given to a person to perform a task, and they in turn will fill out the appropriate tax forms when April rolls around. Taxes can be pretty hard on freelancers, and especially new ones. I advise people that the safest way to assure you've got enough in the bank to pay "the man" is to hold back one-quarter of what is earned for each gig, for tax purposes. Depending on your state and your tax situation, you may wish to hold back more. I have heard some people advise that half is optimal, though from my experience it seems a bit excessive.

When your freelancing endeavors become profitable enough to warrant employing others, consider seeking out freelancers to join your team. Delegating tasks you yourself don't enjoy doing, or those you know that someone else can do better, is a great way to run a small business.

I hope you've enjoyed this brief look into the various jobs available to creatives in the working world and how to break into them. I will be doing more entries like these in the future, and hopefully in greater detail. For now, love what you do, and get out there and work in what you love!

Friday, June 7, 2013

Getting Work You Love: Working In-House

Last time we touched on the things you must do in order to pursue a published gig as a creative. This week, our three-part series continues with explanations on what it takes to make it in-house.
This entry is all about getting an office job as it were – an in-house job is one where you go in, 9 to 5 to do some creative work. I currently have a job like this and as head of the design department, I get to look at all the candidates who hope to get work of this type. Some are exceptional, but many are lacking in some very basic but very key components.
To start, let’s look at some job titles usually carried by in-house creatives. They are:
·         Designer
·         Illustrator
·         Photographer
·         3D Modeler
·         Concept Artist
·         Art or Creative Director
·         And the list goes on…
Now - to reiterate what was said in our last entry - if you want to work in jobs like these, you need a portfolio. I’ll say it again. Artists. Need. Portfolios. I don’t care if you’ve never worked as an artist before in your life – if you have a portfolio, you have 90% of what is necessary to be hired as one. If you don’t, then you basically have nothing. You may laugh or you may cry, but 9 times out of 10, when it comes to immediate rejections, the reason is always the same: the person failed, in their introduction letter or resume, to provide samples of their work, be it a link to an online gallery, a disc, or prints.
As a person considering you for a job centered entirely around your ability to create and to do it well, I simply must see what you’re capable of. Goes without saying that I’d rather see you send a portfolioand no resume than vice versa. And I want to see your best stuff, only. Look again to our first entry for some basic tips on creating a great portfolio.
What goes into your portfolio for an in-house job is, as always, up to you but you would serve yourself best if you had some work that was similar to the type of stuff you’d be doing for the company.  As an example: an employer may be impressed by your show-accurate rendition of Sailor Moon, but if you’re applying for a graphic design job for a healthcare company, you’d be better suited bringing some brochures you’ve laid out and leaving the illustrations at home. Competition for these jobs, especially when advertised in papers or online, can be pretty fierce so don’t think you can get away with bringing your C-game.
If you don’t have anything that would fit, then instead of creating something specifically for that company, you should first take inventory of what your portfolio does show, and question whether or not you’d want a job within that particular industry. Be honest with yourself. If you’ve got a portfolio crammed with illustrations of motorcycles and edgy ads, then a position at Harley-Davidson might be a great fit for you, whereas a job in-house with a vacuum cleaner company, might not. It’s worth your time to seek out a job you love because unlike published and freelance gigs, you can count on spending loads of time within the company’s walls, and that means immersing yourself in their brand. Want to be happy as a creative person? Remember to seek out work you love, and not just work you “can do”. Always and in any economy.
Too, you’d do well to understand the hierarchy of jobs within the design/creative fields. Generally speaking you have: Entry-level or junior designers (jobs for people right out of college or new to the field). Designers and senior designers (both for people with some experience), art and creative directors (the management), Marketing Managers, CMOs, COOs and Presidents (the bosses of the bosses). Feel free to apply to any job, but make sure you have had experience in the field before you expect to break into anything above the basic “designer” level.
You should know basic business etiquette – dress well, not too much perfume, flat shoes, etc. Even if they say the initial interview is casual, dress smart. Again, you’ll be spending a lot of time within the company, and the people in charge want to make sure you’ll fit in with them during those hours.  Oh – and please… Don’t bring your cellphone to the interview, or at least shut it off. Don’t bring your mom, either.
So, what about the resume? Do bring a resume. Simply show that you’ve had a good working history. Try to avoid gaps - If you’ve freelanced, then make sure that’s in there, too! As I said, this isn’t as important as the portfolio, but some firms put a stupid amount of emphasis on college and previous work – and frankly, companies like that are often clueless about hiring a good designer, so don’t feel bad if you don’t get a job there because of these things. Speaking for myself, I mostly use resumes to keep tabs on contact information for candidates I’m interested in, so make sure a working phone number and email address are both present on your resume. Oh – and answer your phone if you get a call or at least call-back in 24 hours!
See you next week, where we'll discuss how to get work as a freelancer!

Saturday, June 1, 2013

Getting Work You Love: Getting Published

Welcome to part one of a three-part series on getting work that you love! The first chapter I'll be covering today will be good for writers and artists alike who want to get their work in front of the masses in a publication of some sort, a book or other media of their own creation. Next week, we'll explore working in-house for a company as a staff creative on salary. After that, we'll dive into going freelance, where these two worlds are more or less combined.

If you're an artist or writer, then one of your big goals may be to see your work in front of the eyes of millions. To get published nationally or even internationally is an aspiration of many, and in this day of the Internet, instant feedback and endless avenues for exposure, it's something which can be achieved far more easily than in years past. Of course, competition is still fierce and not everyone has a spot available to test-drive a new talent, so preparation and all-around excellence must be expected of anyone wanting to get into the game.

That first bit about preparation and excellence starts with having a portfolio you can be proud of. To those of you who do not have a portfolio which is either online, in a book, or preferably, both, pay very close attention: You. Must. Have. A. Portfolio. This is true not only of this first exploration into the world of the working creative seeking to be published, but those looking to become in-house and freelance artists as well. Nobody will care that you're an artist or a writer until you have a portfolio together.

So how do you go about making a portfolio? Simple! Follow these two rules:
  • Fill it with your best work.
  • Fill it with works that showcase the type of stuff you'd like to be doing.
And that's it. How many pieces you include, what they are, diversity amongst them and all of that is up to you, so long as whatever is going into the thing, follows those two rules.

Now, if you are looking to get published somewhere, I assume you've done your homework and have pinpointed a few publishers which already do work you'd either like to be a part of creating, or which publish things similar to the idea which you'd like to have published. If not, you simply must do that.

Too, you have to research who's hiring. Some outfits aren't actively seeking new talent, and you very likely won't get anywhere with them by sending blind submissions in. And I'm not saying that if it's a dream of yours to work for a company of this type that you shouldn't send things in, but you certainly shouldn't feel discouraged if, in doing so, you don't hear back from them. Save the "not hiring" crowd for last or skip them until they are hiring.

Most publishers have strict guidelines when it comes to how, when and where they accept submissions. Some comic book companies only accept submissions from artists attending conventions and stepping into their portfolio reviews, while others want small files to be emailed to them, and still others have long, extensive processes which artists and writers need to follow to a "t" if they want in. Of these, I personally prefer the portfolio reviews. Not only do you get to meet people in the industry, face to face, but you get instant feedback on your work -- so even if you don't get hired, you'll very likely walk away knowing what needs fixed in order for you to do so. Especially if you're just starting out in comics, go to these whenever possible.

As for writers, the process is much the same, but I've not heard of a live portfolio review for writers happening anywhere, so you may be relegated to sending your stuff in, only. It's a little tougher for writers to break-in to comics, as well. Many places simply aren't looking for new stories as much as they're looking for artists to help bring existing stories to life. That should not discourage you, especially if you're good. Here again, pinpointing a handful of publishers you really want to work for is key, and follow-up as well as persistence is too. It doesn't hurt to get to know the people you'd potentially be working for either, by seeking them out at conventions and taking genuine interests in the kinds of things they're working on at the moment, and the type of things they're looking for in a writer for that series.

One of the other avenues writers take, and artists too (though I'll say, to a lesser extent) is to find an agent. Especially if you're looking to write a novel, you should seek out the most current volume of literary agent lists, such as "The 20XX Guide to Literary Agents" which is published each year and available on An agent will take a look at your work (your portfolio) and if you're marketable, match you up with a publisher. In exchange for this magical service, they'll then take a fee out of your book sales once it's on the market. It's oftentimes a lengthy process, and agents aren't quick to accept just anyone so several inquiries over several months or even years are often necessary. But again, if you're persistent and the quality of your work continues to improve with each submission, you'll eventually break in.

One final note for writers of novels especially, here -- there are several scam publishers out there. They're easily recognizable by the copious amounts of money they require you to sink into them supposedly publishing your book, before publishing it. Be aware that the majority of real publishers have the money to front the costs for a book they believe will sell, and unless you're self-publishing, the amount of money spent to publish your work should be no more than the cost of postage to send your submission in.

No matter what avenue you've taken to get published, and no matter your skill level, preparedness, or how long you've been working towards your goal, you can pretty much count on one thing, only: Rejection letters. And that's hardly a bad thing!

Most rejection letters will leave a sting the first time you read them. Don't worry, though, as the sting gets duller the more you see them. Too, most won't be particularly helpful in terms of what's required for you to break through the red tape and get your work published. Editors usually have their desks cluttered with submissions on any given day, and a detailed response to each creator about the particulars of their work -- what works and what doesn't -- would be impossible. Those that do point out what needs to be fixed should be cherished, saved, even framed. A thick skin may seem necessary when an editor criticizes your work, but it isn't. Seeing their critiques for what they really are, is.

Here's the biggest secret about editors that practically nobody will share with you: Most of them aren't talent-hating-know-nothing-jerks. Almost all of them want you to succeed, and they want you to do better. If an editor has taken the time out of his or her day to tell you, specifically, what you missed the mark on, it's because you're so very close to being someone they'll hire, fixing these nuances, big or small, will put you over the edge.

And now it's time for a breakdown.

In review, here are the main points to getting published which you should remember. Feel free to copy and paste these, and stick them on your wall, next to your rejection letters, until you're published:
  • Put a portfolio together.
    • Put things in your portfolio which are awesome.
    • Put things in your portfolio which are of the type of work you'd like to be doing.
    • Don't be afraid to cater your portfolio to a specific publisher by tweaking the body of work you showcase, relevant to the work you see yourself doing for a given publisher.
  • Send your samples to everyone who is hiring.
    • Send samples to a few places who aren't hiring, but don't be discouraged if you don't hear back from them.
    • Follow the rules when sending submissions. Even if they're tedious.
  • Take your stuff to a convention portfolio review and get a professional opinion.
  • Seek out several agents and submit your works to them.
  • Expect rejection letters. Even if you're the best artist/writer in the world.
    • Don't take rejection letters personally.
    • If you get critique, take it as a compliment to your potential, not as an insult.
  • Improve
  • Keep sending things in and don't be afraid of rejections
  • Understand that breaking-in is hard work.
  • Take reality checks in stride. Remember - if someone "you're better than" is doing work and you're not, it's very likely they worked harder than you did, faster than you could, or they actually are better at art or writing than you are. Don't get discouraged. Just improve.
If you've got talent, eventually someone will take a chance on you, and you'll get your first published gig. You've gotta want it, and you've gotta be persistent, but if the first is true, then the persistency should come naturally for you. Keep at it!

See you next week, where we'll discuss the ins and outs of working in-house!