Colour Swatch… By the Roadside

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I don’t keep diaries. It might seem odd for a writer, but I’ve just never been able to get into them. Occasionally, I will do stream of consciousness writing, but the main way I express my thoughts is through my books and stories. When I want to express my experiences day to day, I lean more toward the visual, through life sketches, pen drawings and colour. I feel like colour can tell someone more about a mood, a time and a place, a day in my life, than three pages of description. Perhaps it is because I feel so rooted to my own place in the world and I am very affected by my environment. The natural environment especially inspires me. It really is an inescapable character in every Canadian’s life.

When I was driving the other day, I noticed how beautiful the colours on the roadside were at this time of year. It inspired me to start keeping a colour diary to remember times and places that make an impression on me. The colours above represent the plants that I see on the roadside that are so beautiful all layered together. The green is the grass, its shady base and the yellowish burnt edges at the tip. The brown is sprigs of wild millet that provide dark counterpoints to the wildflower colours beside it. The three wildflowers are Queen Anne’s Lace, Devil’s Paintbrush and Chicory flowers. The whole thing turned out rather retro in terms of the colour juxtapositions, like a seventies living room set.

I hope that these colour diaries lead to paintings. I think it will be good to have them for later, as reference for bigger things.

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Business BFFs Blog-Along: Episode 0

So, I’m really into this new podcast that has come out from my fellow Canadian artistic entrepreneurs Samantha Beiko and Clare C. Marshall, called Business BFFs. You should go listen to it if you have any interest whatsoever in becoming a creative professional in Canada, ’cause they’re speaking some truth. Here’s the link.

I first heard about this project from the SF Canada online group, and I was immediately intrigued. So few people are out there talking about how to survive and thrive, or even make a credible attempt at making a small arts business work. When I started my small publishing company six years ago, I can count on one hand the amount of credible sources of information I could count on to help me find my way, and most of what I did was through trial and error and the generosity of established publishing professionals who gave me a leg up with much-needed critique. Working in Canada also poses unique challenges for artists, because we simply don’t have the population base or super highly-funded media machine that the U.S. does.

I knew that Samantha and Clare had come up with an amazing idea for a podcast, but as I started listening, I also felt like I had stuff to share. I wanted to join the conversation and add in my experiences for anyone who may be curious. Plus, it’s a great writing prompt. So, welcome to the first episode of my Business BFFs blog along. I’ll be covering one topic per entry. The podcast got a little ahead of me because I was hard at work doing NaNoWriMo when it debuted, so I will catch up over the next couple of weeks and then release the new blog-alongs with each new episode.

Episode 0

Samantha and Clare were kind enough to introduce themselves in this episode, so perhaps I should too. Who is this person offering her completely unsolicited experiences and opinions on small arts businesses?

Well, I’m a lifelong writer and artist who started writing and illustrating her own (construction paper) books in first grade. In fact, I refused to stop after the unit was over and made a total of thirty books before the principal gave me an award to get me to quit and move on to the next unit. That brings me to probably the most important thing about me… I am exceedingly stubborn. I am independent to a fault, and always do the thing I have in my head, even when it’s like rolling a boulder uphill every morning. There’s a story in this, about a disastrous/hilarious ballet recital, but that one really needs to be told in person. I spent most of high school as that weird kid who hangs out in the hallways, skips all her classes and does nothing but read huge novels, mostly Fantasy. I am in love with Hamilton, Ontario even though some of my friends think he smells funny. I am married to a professional freelance illustrator, who is okay with me having an affair with Hamilton. He’s cool like that.

Okay, okay, on to the creds. So, I have two degrees, a Master’s in English Literature with a focus on Contemporary Fantasy and Postcolonialism from Brock University, and a Bachelor of Applied Arts in Animation from Sheridan College. I am also a graduate of the Odyssey Fantasy Writing Workshop, Class of 2006. I personally think that one is the biggest deal. It was certainly the hardest to get into. I’ve had two short stories published in Alien Skin Magazine and the Mystic Signals 3 Anthology, respectively. I worked as a writer for Hitgrab, Inc, creators of the popular online game Mousehunt. I have written a license novel in a video game universe that never saw the light of day (don’t judge me, the game tanked). I spent five years running Pop Seagull Publishing, my own small publishing company where I published myself and numerous other exciting and unique individuals, many of them Canadian indies with important things to say. I have also written a narrative non-fiction book about WWI nursing, They Called Her Canada, which was published by the Mayholme Foundation. As an animator, I have worked on projects for the University of Toronto and was a layout artist on Mike the Knight: Journey to Dragon Mountain. I have also created my own CG short film, Wor(l)d, from concept to completion.

So, you ask, what am I doing now? I’m sure you didn’t ask that, but I will tell you anyway. I work a day job. In a call center. It’s not glamorous, but one thing I’m sure Clare and Samantha will get to is that arts careers have ebbs and flows. I’m lucky that I have a schedule that fits my life and leaves most of my days free for artistic work. I have been a full-time professional artist at many points in my life, when working in animation or games. The problem with all of those jobs was that they were contractually based, and once the contract was up, well, good luck. I also had to make a hard decision at one point to keep a full time writing gig or pursue my dream school (Sheridan) and I chose school. That is a long story for another day.

Right now I am on an exciting path to sustainability with my work, where I am trying to get intermittent revenue coming in from writing and editing, and revamp my portfolio to get a sweet animation gig at a studio that gets lots of work and can keep hiring me.  I have a big, exciting animation project that I will be working on for the next year, and I plan on really knocking it out of the park. I am also producing and marketing as many manuscripts right now as I can to try and catch the elusive agent and get my work out to a wider audience. That has been… trying so far, to say the least, but I have an end point in mind and I will either succeed, or do something else. That’s business.

And on that note, folks, I will leave off. Stay tuned for the Episode 1 Blog-Along… Fitness! This is going to be interesting.

Camp NaNoWriMo Post-Mortem… It’s a Lot More Positive Than It Sounds.

So, I won Camp NaNoWrimo. I finished on Sunday, a full day ahead of schedule. My final word count was 50,378 words. The work in progress, tentatively titled The Face in the Marsh, is at a total of 60,732 words.

I have written in previous posts about my strategy for NaNo, and I think that the results have shown that it was a big winner. I set boundaries on the word count per day and time spent writing, I outlined everything I planned to write, and I did my best to make it a competition with myself and not with my perceptions of everyone else and their opinion of me. I cannot recommend these strategies enough to writers who want to become more productive. I also experimented with competitive writing sprints using the pomodoro method (short, intense bursts of around 15 minutes followed by breaks) and that was the most fun I have had collaboratively with writing, probably ever. Big thanks to Victoria Feistner for doing that one with me. I learned a lot.

My energy levels didn’t look like a lot of other people’s do during NaNo, which I found interesting. A lot of people reported the ‘week two weepies’ in a big way, hitting a wall somewhere just shy of the middle of the month. I did not hit a wall until Week 4, when the writing I was producing almost outran the area of the story I had solidly plotted for. I have a slightly eccentric plotting process for my books, wherein I come up with a general concept, themes, good characters and the overall thrust of the story, and then I just start writing. This is my way of ensuring that the book is entertaining, because I am reading it in a way as I write it and assessing pacing, tension and interest. It is common for me not to know the ending of a book I am writing until halfway through. I outline each scene or a cluster of scenes in detail before I begin writing them, and do the detailed scene outlines as I go. Usually the detailed outlines will go beat by beat in the story. My crisis in Week 4 was that I hit the tipping point where the dominoes start to fall and I needed to outline the landslide to the end of the book in detail, and had no time to do it. Luckily there was just enough material left to get me over the finish line. Of course, I also managed to make it extra interesting by working overtime at my day job to pay for consulting on another project that I’m doing right now. I did this because it’s me, and I don’t know how to do things halfway.

July was a stressful but rewarding month. I feel like I have taken a step forward in the never-ending road of professional development, and tested a new skill set that will serve me well. As for The Face in the Marsh, it is far from done. Despite my hopes that NaNo would put me close to finishing the book, it is looking like it will probably top out at 100-110k. Far be it from me to comment on how a horror novel about an out-of-control swamp monster is becoming, well… you know. Any humour that others may find in such a comparison is entirely their own doing.

The Mid-point Post

Here I am.

This is a place that I have been only one other time. I have reached the mid-way point of Camp NaNoWriMo. I am on track, and have remained on track.

The last time I did this well, I was so squirrely by this point that the ‘week two weepies’ as other NaNo participants have put it, felt like a week two ‘neverending flood of tears and lack of sleep’. I was completely burnt out. This time, I can’t say I’m 100% energized and fresh, but I’m definitely feeling good, with a lot more fight left in me.

I guess it’s true; If you’re going to run a marathon of any kind, even if it’s only straining your carpal tunnels, you have to prepare. The daily work and word count that I have been putting in for the last few months has made a huge difference. In fact, it has made all the difference because I have never been so well-situated to win before.

My secret weapon is consistency. Butt in seat time. Practice and steady care for myself, my craft and my professionalism, which for me, means achieving a significant word count per day. Want to achieve it? Then live it, every day, and then the main event will be a breeze.

I could still burn out, and if I do, I won’t be too hard on myself. At this point, I have the pride of knowing that no matter where I end up in this, I will be doing better than I ever have.

Everybody Needs a Strategy…

…at least if they’re going to get through NaNowriMo.

In defiance of the gremlins in my head that tell me that writing about the process of doing NaNoWriMo will jinx things, I thought I would at least share that I plan on doing Camp NanoWriMo this July. I’ve got some delightful buddies to take the journey with: the unconventional and ever-magnetic M.D. Dragon, and Victoria Feistner, myth crafter extraordinaire, who I have published and, God willing, will publish again. M.D. and I have even made our own little cabin– the Creepy Campers.

If there is one thing that past NaNos have taught me, however, it is that cameraderie and public postings in the name of ‘staying accountable’ are not terribly great motivators for me. In fact, extrinsic motivation gets me nowhere fast. The funny thing is, I have definitely written 50k words in a month before. It was just never during NaNo. Now, that’s easy enough to write off in November because Christmas is coming and things are getting busy. But July is nothing but time and sun and watching people’s dogs while they go on vacation. It’s prime writing season.

The good news is that I have figured out a strategy that works for me. Over the past six months or so, I have been working really hard at reclaiming my professional work ethic and getting consistent daily word count in. That has meant a lot of trial and error, listening to myself and my motivations, and learning how I actually work best rather than how I tell myself I work best. And the answer I came to, is that

I work best in a total vaccuum.

That’s right. No critique. No discussion of how things are going. No comparison, and absolutely no scrutinizing my word count every two seconds to figure out if I have made the goalpost for the day. I set down a time to write, and then I put my butt in the seat and write until that time is done. I do not criticize what I write. I do not compare how I write or how much I write. I get totally short circuited by comparison with others and outside opinions. I have to set aside a time, be quiet, and listen to the little voice that sings in my heart.

In my life, often listening to my own heart was let’s say, heavily de-incentivized by those around me. I think a lot of people have the same experience growing up. In my case, I responded by becoming a perfectionist and an approval addict. But my inner writer cannot be an approval addict. She has a voice to speak with, and because I have not always given her the time and attention she needs, she cannot yet compete with other voices speaking over her.

For me, writer’s block is the paralysis of ‘everyone is doing better than you so why try’ and ‘if you write this people will see how terrible you really are’ and ‘nobody really wants to listen to someone like you anyway’. I kick the butts of those overly loud voices in my head by cultivating quiet. I play flowing, meditative music to carry all of those thoughts away so I can focus. I ground myself and remember that no matter what gets done or remains undone, no matter whether I am a success or failure, I am enough.

Because I am enough. And this month, I am going to kick NaNo’s butt. I’ve already done the rehearsals, and now it’s time for opening night.

All the News That’s Fit To… Keep in a Drawer and Submit to Agents.

In my previous post, about what’s going on with me and Pop Seagull, I alluded to something else. If you were wondering, the answer is yes, I have temporarily returned to the ‘dark side’ (said with a healthy dose of humor). I am trying the traditional publishing route again for my own work.

I think my post on the parts of this decision that have to do with Pop Seagull were elaborated quite well, so I won’t go into them again here. But, I think another post about my decision to return to traditional publishing is in order. I was a very staunch member of the indie camp for a long time, but I now feel, after all of the experiences I have had, that I have a foot in both camps. I thought it might be helpful for other people to hear my story, as I have found a balance between the two that is quite wonderful.

It is all a classic story of age and experience, really. I came into my twenties, all full of piss and vinegar and ready to start my career NOW. I had a lot of ideas, a lot of confidence (most of it warranted, some of it not so much) and some newfound professional writing experience under my belt that had proven to me that yeah, I was actually that good. I am also a very entrepreneurial sort, and not the type to let conventional thinking or the fact that something hasn’t been done much get in my way.

I was also, truth be told, a little frustrated with the traditional publishing industry. Despite it being the late aughts, most submissions were still snail mail, and it seemed like venues for publishing were shrinking all the time and becoming more and more dependent on the kind of ‘platform’ that no normal broke person has any chance of amassing. Furthermore, I had a strong feeling that most publishers, especially the big ones, were just not releasing or buying the kind of work that I wanted to read and write. I have always had a driving interest in seeing my place in the world represented, and encouraging works that are essentially fun and interesting before they are literary or preachy. I have a very punk rock sensibility about things that not everyone gets.

Enter a perfect storm of summer unemployment, a wonderful grant program looking to give money to young entrepreneurs employing new technology, and a lot of ambition, and I found myself in the shoes of a publisher. I had so many teachable moments and setbacks in those first one to two years as I navigated an industry that, at the time, was very opaque and hard to learn. Most of those adventures are documented on the Pop Seagull blog. There were so many times that I thought I could not go on, and then did. I begged and borrowed, never stole. But the most important experience for me personally was when I began releasing anthologies and put on my editor hat.

You see, a side effect of ambition and drive and outside-the-box thinking is often the propensity to be extraordinarily hard on yourself. When you see everything as your responsibility and within your control, rejection is especially hard. You see a rejection and think ‘I should have been so good they couldn’t say no. I didn’t do this well enough and that is why I failed.’ The equation of rejection with failure is a mental morass worthy of its own blog post, but I digress. It is also really easy to think ‘I know this was good. Good=Acceptance and Bad=Rejection, therefore they just don’t know what the reader wants’.

I know now that this thinking was absolutely wrong, and I want to tell every writer out there that is dealing with rejection: It may be about you. But it is far likelier that it’s not. Reasons I rejected things included:

  1. There was something just like it that I had already accepted, and the other story was only very slightly better for a very aesthetic reason
  2. I really really reeeeally liked it, but it did not fit with the theme
  3. I saw the merit in it and hoped someone else would buy it, but the style was not for me
  4. It was too long and I couldn’t afford it
  5. It was too short and I was trying to limit the number of authors and vary the pacing in the overall book
  6. The message did not resonate with me as a person
  7. It verged too far into a sub-genre that I’m not a fan of
  8. There just wasn’t any more space or budget, and the rejected story was #16 of a possible 15.

As an editor, I finally saw what the submissions process looked like from the other side, and the empathy and knowledge I gained finally killed my fear of rejection. I finally got the message that it is just part of the business. Suddenly, going back to traditional publishing did not seem so scary anymore, if it ever suited me to do so.

With this new revelation in mind, I picked up my manuscript for Distant Early Warning, my super Canadian, scary/emotional/adventurous ride through the wilderness with monsters at every turn, and submitted it to the Gollancz open submission contest last year. I waited a very long time, until I almost forgot about it. And then, two months ago, I got something incredible in the mail that I intend to frame.

It was a hand written rejection from the editorial team. I had been in the final 20 or so submissions, out of many thousands. Maybe, I thought, it might just be time to start producing more manuscripts, and getting those manuscripts out to some agents.

I guess, in the end, I’m still a little punk rock at heart. I encourage anyone to take the indie route if they feel it would be best for them, because I learned so much, and it was so good for me in so many ways as an artistic professional, that I could never tell someone not to do it. Hell, I built a business that I fully intend to turn into a phenomenon in good time. People learn and grow in different ways, and sometimes you just have to take the bull by the horns. But I would also say that if you ever change your mind, it doesn’t mean it was all a mistake. Both indie and traditional publishing can live in harmony and be fruitful parts of someone’s career, and sometimes, as in my case, one even turns into the other.

*Walks Back In, Takes Off Shoes*

Well, it’s been a while for this blog.

I’m sure you’ve been waiting, breath held in wordless anticipation for an explanation, so here goes.

I got busy. Busy with Pop Seagull Publishing, busy with trying to find a full time job, busy working on me. Blogging was not top priority during that time, especially as I was trying to get my personal writing word count up and could not justify writing 1000 words on non-paying material. Sometimes, I think we can all agree that you just have to re-focus on what’s important, and re-orient yourself in the right direction.

So, why am I back, and why this blog, instead of Pop Seagull?

I have been resisting putting this on the internet too much, because I don’t want people to see the company as ‘out of business’ (which it most certainly is not) but Pop Seagull is now on hiatus, possibly for a few years. We are not accepting submissions, we do not have any new publications on the docket, and all accounts are settled with our current authors. I am still planning on printing new runs of our existing titles for the benefit of those featured in them, and all titles are still available for sale online. I am simply choosing not to actively promote and build the company for the time being. I do fully plan on bringing Pop Seagull back, better than ever, when I have a few things in my own life in better order.

Before I go on, I want to clarify a few other points. Pop Seagull was never in financial trouble, and in fact was doing quite well for an arts business of its size. I have been honoured by the welcome that we were given in the Canadian publishing community, and I plan on being a part of that community for a very long time. There were a few reasons that I decided to slow things down a bit on a temporary basis.

  1. When I founded the company, I planned to make it a ‘hybrid’ publisher where I published myself and others. This can work for many people, and is not necessarily a bad model, but over time I found myself falling more and more in love with building other authors up and found that there was too much conflict of interest. I want to be in a position to put my all into the people I represent. I want the company to be eligible for grants and other forms of funding that will make it more sustainable for everyone, myself included. Which brings me to…
  2. Being a micro-publisher who wears many hats is a huge amount of work, especially when you have a full-time day job, and may experience job insecurity. I spent much of my time with Pop Seagull also working as a temp in offices, and although I now have a good full-time job, it was pretty rough there for a while and did not leave any time for my own work. I concluded that for now, I need to use what time I have to focus on getting good work out there and finding ways to market my work independently of Pop Seagull. I also need time to re-do my animation portfolio to get more work in that arena. Once money is flowing in for my artistic work, I will be able to focus on getting back to running the company.
  3. I run Pop Seagull as a business, first and foremost. I have that mindset, and I am willing to look practically at what is making money and what isn’t. I took a good long look at the finances for the business and realized that the only writer in the stable not being compensated for their time was me. That will not be the case when Pop Seagull starts up again. I have a plan, and it is going to bring the company back bigger and better than ever… eventually. Just bear with me.

So what am I doing now? Well, more about that in the next post. But in short, I am writing books like crazy, knocking on agents’ doors, and planning one hell of an animation project. Oh, and I bought a really sexy mouse. It is so sleek it’s making me want to clean my office. Because my current office is not classy enough for this mouse.

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