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.

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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.

Getting Back to Notebooks

Like just about everyone else in the Western world, except the cynical and the very, very confident, I tend to make New Year’s resolutions. I like to flatter myself that I stick to them pretty well, too. I mean, I might forget a few minor points, but for the most part I actually tend to follow through on my resolutions, at least until I figure out whether they’re going to be sustainable for me, or I hit a large and unexpected road block.

Most of my resolutions aren’t really pertinent to anyone but me, and certainly not to this blog. Honestly, think of the worst New Year’s resolution stereotypes, and yeah, they’re on there. Because I do need to lose some weight and make more time for self-care and craft a chore wheel that actually works.

I also have a less common resolution: I want to rediscover my passion for the writing life.

As writers go, I would say my level of professionalism is really high. I know my work back to front, I’ve got several degrees related to writing and the creative arts, and I’ve been a writer in the workplace, meeting tough deadlines with ease and delivering copy that meets and exceeds the specifications. I know how to knuckle under and get the work done, and how to tailor my work to the correct audience. Writing is not just a hobby for me. I take it seriously, and hope to be taken seriously in return.

However, as I have written here before, I have been through some tough times in the last few years, and some of my experiences have left me doing my writing and art on auto-pilot, to some extent. Somewhere along the line, creating became an obligation rather than a joy. Some people might say that this is a necessary and practical progression in the journey to artistic professionalism. To some extent, I would agree. Part of taking my craft seriously is understanding that I have an obligation and a responsibility to get work done, on time. However, I also think that the journey to getting the work done, on time, is a much more powerful and productive experience if it is also filled with joy. I have a lot of work to do in the next few months, some for other people, much of it for myself, and I would like to enjoy this time. I remember when writing was my life, and that was so amazing and exciting for me. I want to recapture the spirit of my thirteen-year-old self, toting a hard-bound notebook everywhere and secreting away stories that were so amazing to me that I wanted to live them.

I began to think about the kinds of things that influence my motivation and mood while writing. I realized that my office was a mess, due in part to it also being my bedroom, so I hauled out the backhoe and shoveled it out. That helped, but the office is always pretty much the same. It doesn’t look much like anything that used to inspire me.

I then got thinking about how I approach work. Usually, I sit down in front of the computer after a long day at the office, and spend a few hours typing out a draft, or working on the publishing business, or doing some graphic design. Something felt off about using the computer, and I couldn’t quite put my finger on what it was for a few days, but then it hit me… my writing had become completely computer-centric. Due to the ease of editing in a word processor, I had slowly shifted writing in my mind from something that you can do anywhere, that adds joy to your day, to something that is solely confined to a computer, in an office, at a very specific time of day. Freeing up my mind to see writing as an ‘anywhere’ activity again, and grabbing my hardbound notebooks when I go out, has ignited some of that passion again, and freed up a lot of creative energy that was going to waste.

Looks like I’m on my way to seeing my resolutions through.

Crazy Times…

Wow, a lot of stuff has happened for Canada in the last week or so. The shooting in Ottawa has hit us especially hard in Hamilton… Nathan Cirillo, the soldier who was cut down while on volunteer duty honouring our veterans, was from our city. I’ve talked to some lifelong residents who knew him, and by all accounts he was a lovely person and a credit to our community in and out of uniform. Everyone in Hamilton watched the funeral, whether they were on the streets or watching the live feed. That is the spirit of Hamilton… community involvement. This is a very little big city. I’m still processing this tragedy, and may write about it more when I’ve collected my thoughts, but for now, I just want to honour the people that went above and beyond that day to protect our country and our officials.

Closer to home, we’ve also had some really weird goings on. A couple of days ago, a guy down on Queenston Road spent eight hours (with cops and SWAT looking on) tossing the contents of his eighth floor apartment onto the ground below. This included knives, a fridge, wallboard, his toilet… what is happening lately? Even by Hamilton standards (and please know I say it lovingly) this is weird.

Even closer to home, there have been some changes in the Pop Seagull lineup, and a formerly very close and trusted friend and I have gone our separate ways. I’m not posting this to spread dirt or twist the knife… just to express my sadness that someone who used to bring joy to my life has changed so much. In the wake of these changes to our ‘behind the scenes’ team, I am left with a few resolutions. I want to record them here, so that I won’t go back on them when it’s convenient for me to do so.

1: I will pay everyone who is not already a beneficiary of my company for their time. I will not allow any more volunteers, no matter how well-intentioned they may be. Depending on what the service rendered is, the payment may be in the form of goods, a trade, or some amount of money, be it large or small. But my associates will be paid if I have to sneak the money into their purse when they’re not looking, even if it’s just ten dollars. This was something that was presented to me as a sound business practice when I began this journey, and I saw the sense in it, but I allowed myself to be overridden by the good intentions of others. The thing I didn’t count on was that when times get tough, good intentions are pretty thin on the ground. Also in this vein, I will never again promise references. References will be given out on a case-by-case basis. They will not be something you can earn by time spent or payments waived. I compromised my integrity without realizing it, but I won’t make that mistake again.

2: I will no longer work with friends, and especially friends who won’t understand why I need to treat them like an employee when we’re working. It is so tough to go back once you’ve mingled those two things, and it’s just not worth it. I never want to feel like my friendship is secondary to my position as a business owner ever again. I don’t know how real celebrities do it.

I think, sadly, that problems like these are very common in the arts, due both to small budgets for indie artistic professionals and the tight-knit nature of our communities. Just look at all the bands that break up in spectacular ways. I still want to collaborate, but I’m going to be a lot more careful about how I do it from now on.

The sad thing is, though, I don’t think anything could have been done to prevent this from happening. I was inexperienced, and didn’t know better, and neither, I think, did the other party in all this. Then they went one way, I went another, and… snap. I really wish there was a tried and true way in life to keep our valued relationships happy, but people just change, and have differing values and goals, and then it’s not as simple as when we were in Kindergarten, and it was all ‘share your toys’ and ‘don’t hit’. I think a lot of people find it comforting to oversimplify and try to find a bad guy, but often times, drama, fights and relationship breakdowns are completely and utterly unavoidable.

If anybody reading this is interested in indie publishing or owning a business, I hope they learn from my mistakes. Sometimes, the things that, at the time, seem like common sense just aren’t good business sense.

 

Happy Birthday, Laura!

This blog is partially about Canada, and for me, one of the things that makes me proud to be Canadian is the story of Laura Secord. Laura was a young married woman in the war of 1812, when the US decided that we would be better off under their rule (without our consent) and attacked the settlements at Upper Canada, the centre of which became Niagara Region, where I grew up. The area that Laura lived in was taken by the Americans, and her house was occupied by American troops. With her husband wounded, and nobody else around, the American soldiers disregarded her, speaking openly of their plans to ambush defending British forces.

But, Laura would not be discounted so easily. She had information that could help the British take back the area, and her husband could not carry it, so she stole away from her home and walked 20 kilometers, through swamps, ravines, and all manner of wildlife to get to where General Fitzgibbon and his troops camped. This area is very hilly, has a lot of unexpected drops and erosive soil conditions, and was wet and mucky at the time due to continuous rain, which is common here in the summer and fall months. I should add that Southern Ontario still had large predators and poisonous snakes in the area back then, as well, so it would have been even worse that most people think. Laura fought her way through the wilderness, wearing a thin house dress and slippers meant for indoor use (think something a bit thicker than a dance slipper). When she finally got to the general, she was dirty, and bruised, and cut… but she made it. With her information, the British mounted an ambush on the Americans, and wiped the floor with them at the battle of Beaver Dams.

What I like about this story isn’t the whole Canadian versus American thing. Today’s Americans are fine with me, and they usually only come over the border now to sample the maple syrup and check out the casinos. 😛 What I love about this story is that it says something about Canada’s spirit. Everyone else would have disregarded Laura. We didn’t. In many countries, in that time period, women would not have felt empowered to do what she did, but Canada is a nation of pioneers. Women routinely built houses, shot bears, and generally engaged in all the survival pursuits that the men did, as a matter of necessity. It is this necessity, the bridging of gaps that comes with hard winters, hard knocks and hard lands, that makes Canada, and its people, great. We were also one of the first countries to promote women to high ranks in the army. Canada had a woman colonel, in charge of the nursing corps, in the early nineteen forties, while England was still debating granting nurses military rank at all.

I hope that Denny, the main character in my upcoming novel Distant Early Warning, who braves the wilderness with nothing but a shotgun and a dog, can in some small way channel Laura’s bravery, and the truly Canadian essence of her story.

Happy birthday, Laura, and may you keep on inspiring generations of spirited little girls, as you did for me.

And, without further ado, the most badass song ever written about Laura Secord, by the late, great Tanglefoot.

Lemons… A Big Pile of Lemons.

         So, you may have noticed that I haven’t been around here in a while. In previous years, that has happened during crunch time at school, which, at Sheridan, was pretty much the last two months of a three month semester.

         This year, it’s a little different. I’m enjoying a larger share of freedom than I once enjoyed, having left school behind me. I had a very nice Canada day, roasting marshmallows and hot dogs over a fire pit and watching other people’s fireworks from a safe distance that did not involve either boozers or traffic jams. Plus, it seemed like Rush was all that got played on the radio that day, and it only made the fun times all that much sweeter. I’ve taken walks in the sunshine, and gone to the park and taken pictures. I’ve read a good history book under an even better shade tree. These are not pleasures that I take for granted after being put through the wringer for 5+ years.

         I’ve also been scrambling to find a better job, and the chaos has been affecting my life’s work significantly.

         I have always considered my foremost calling to be art and literature. I believe that they are what I was put on this earth to do. To that end, I have tried as hard as I can to be recognized for what I do and make a steady living at it, by going to school and working toward the right degrees, and attending important workshops and development opportunities like the Odyssey program. However, as anyone who is familiar with the arts can tell you, none of those things are a guarantee, however prestigious they may be. So far, I’ve had periods of luck, when I’ve been employed doing the things I love and been compensated well for them, and periods of ill fortune where I’ve been forced to stick it out with jobs I’m neutral on at best. I have come to accept this reality most days, and I know that even if I never received another penny for my work for the rest of my days, I would continue to create it and try to bring it to the public with whatever means were available to me.

          Having said all of this, however, the last eight or nine months have just felt like I can’t catch a single break. Last summer, I was on a professional animation contract, and I was having the time of my life. Not only had I scored a job right out of school, but I had done well at it, met every deadline, and made many wonderful friends. When I left, I was told that I would have another contract from the same studio within three months. Although in retrospect, it may not have been the wisest decision, I trusted, and I waited. I needed more than three months’ experience to convince another studio to invest in me, and this was the only studio that knew my work. I looked for other jobs, but didn’t find any. Then, in November, with my credit card debts mounting, my reserves depleted and my student loans coming due, I found out that the new contract had fallen through, three days before I was supposed to start work. I went into panic mode, scouring every available resource for a job, and eventually, I found one that would work (barely) in retail.

          When I started at this new job, it was on a probationary basis. The owner was willing to hire me for a few months, but said he couldn’t afford me in the long run if I didn’t produce an improvement in the business. I had no experience beyond customer service, and no previous knowledge of most of the things I was asked to do. I threw myself into it, needing the stability it offered financially, and ultimately raised profits dramatically, improved the store’s policies and procedures, and was promoted to assistant manager. Despite all of this, my boss continually refused me a raise, citing impossible sales goals and long-distant milestones as carrots to keep me thinking that things would eventually improve. I reached the end of my rope with this job when by boss threatened to fire me, after months of exemplary work, for a single typo in an online listing. My work there has become chaotic and stressful as I constantly have to fight the stupidity of the management to preserve even the poverty-level wages I earn.

            I’ve been looking for a new job, but it’s been rough going. I’m good at getting interviews, because I present well and have a lot of obvious skills, but am passed over more than others because people see my list of previous employers and decide that my wide and varied work experiences, which I have been forced to take because I have to do whatever will keep food on my plate, mean that I won’t be loyal enough to their business or have enough of what they want. And it’s not as easy as just leaving jobs out on my resume, because if I leave too many of my experiences off the list, I’ll have no chance of convincing employers that I have any skills at all. I would love to quit this job outright and have more time to pursue other avenues, especially since it is no longer making me enough to cover my monthly expenses, but I fear that I’ll get even less interviews and opportunities if I don’t already have a job.

           All this chaos and hardship has taken a toll on my work, despite my best efforts. I find myself getting behind on emails, vegging out at night when I should be revising and boarding and animating, and constantly apologizing for not being more present with my business. I feel, right now, like I am fighting a losing battle. Most of my day is taken up with things that I don’t even remotely want to do, and when I do have time, I feel drained and angry. I hate how unstable things have become for me when I’ve worked so hard all my life, and still don’t have many of the basic things many people take for granted: a dependable job, the ability to buy new clothes or get my hair cut at the salon, the hope of having a starter house… I feel like this stress and the crap that is thrown at me just to survive is killing the most vital part of me, and it breaks my heart.

          I’m working on new stuff, gradually. I’m going to be writing a history book soon for a local charity that I believe in, for which I’m currently doing research in conjunction with the historians there. I’ve got a deadline set for myself to have a new book out in early October, and the book trailer at least past the rough animation stage by the launch. I’m trying to get back on my feet, and back on track, but it still feels like I’m making compromises that I didn’t want to make, all because my boss decided to have a few mood swings. I hope that someone takes a chance on me soon, and that this past nine months doesn’t turn into a full year. We only have so much time on this earth, and I refuse to waste it wandering further and further away from what I really want to do. I don’t know how I’m going to address this issue in my life, but over the next little while, I’m going to be doing a lot of thinking.

         Hopefully this time, I think of something that works.