Everything on My Patreon is Free Right Now Because #*$& You, COVID-19

Today I relaunched my Patreon. With one difference:

Everything I post on Patreon for the near future is free. 

Welcome to my PATREON RELAUNCH BLOG PARTY, brought to you by SOCIAL DISTANCING! Here’s what you need to know.

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Why relaunch Patreon?

Two reasons. One is selfish, the other is…mostly not.

THE NON-SELFISH REASON: Right now we are, as a species, in the middle of a crisis that the vast majority of us now living have never seen the like of before. And while each of us is responding in our own way, one source of comfort and connection many of us have turned to is art.

Yes, TikTok videos and memes count.

The recent explosion of creators dumping works to the Internet for free underscores art’s importance to humanity, particularly in times of great stress. Art gives us an outlet for our feelings. It brings us together. It helps us maintain perspective.

THE SELFISH REASON: I’m going more than a little stir-crazy under this shelter in place order. I’m sure you can relate. By relaunching my Patreon, I put pressure on myself to stop scrolling Twitter or dwelling on my potential demise and MAKE ART.

After all, you’re all counting on me.

Is It Really Free?

Yes. Every post will be public for the foreseeable future. I don’t intend to paywall anything until the vast majority of us are back to work.

I’m aware this means I may be making public posts for a long time. It may be as long as 18 months, since that’s the current best estimate for a working COVID-19 vaccine.

What if I Want to Pay You Anyway?

You are welcome to subscribe at any tier, at any time. I appreciate the vote of confidence, and I’m glad you have the disposable income to help support art!

Be aware, however, that tier perks will be postponed as long as everything on the Patreon is public. I’ll get back to them once I return to paywalling work. So if you, say, join the $50 tier now, you’ll get the books listed – just not until the shelter in place order in my home state is lifted, at the earliest.

Want to send financial support, but can’t commit to a monthly subscription? You’re welcome to send me what you can, when you can via Ko-Fi.

Want to show support, but have even less money for essentials that usual? Share the Patreon link with your friends!

Does This Mean ALL Your Work Is Free Right Now?

Alas, no.

The work I post to Patreon is free. My blog has always been freely available. And you can, of course, follow my brain-dumpings in real time on Twitter.

My published books, however, still have price tags on them. That’s because the books support more than just me – they also help my publisher and editor keep their doors open and the lights on.

I do, however, highly recommend following my Patreon if you’re curious about the books, or if you’re not ready to commit to buying them for any reason. You’ll get a good look at what goes on in my published works before you decide to acquire them.

This FAQ Doesn’t Answer My Question.

Drop me a message in the comments here, or DM me via Twitter. I’ll do my best to answer between handwashing sessions.

Stay healthy. Enjoy art. Take care of your loved ones. ❤

My Favorite Creativity Tools Online, Not Ranked

I like to make things. They don’t even have to be good things. In fact, I’m often happiest when I’m churning out piles of terrible art.

Here are some of my favorite online creativity rabbit holes to fall into. Each of these is free unless otherwise noted.

creativity

Botnik

If you’re unfamiliar with my love affair with Botnik‘s predictive-text keyboard, it’s because you’re new here. (Welcome!)

Basically, Botnik is your phone’s predictive text on a much larger scale and with a potentially much larger dataset that isn’t confined to things you text most often. Botnik has dozens of pre-loaded keyboard options ranging from “John Keats” to Radiohead lyrics or The Joy of Cooking. You can also feed it your own text banks as UTF-8 encoded .txt files.

For examples of the fun nonsense you can make with Botnik, check out this list of predictive-text New Year’s resolutions or this predictive-text history of Mother’s Day.

Noteflight (freemium)

If you’ve ever wanted to write music but (a) don’t know if you can, (b) don’t play an instrument and/or (c) hate having to draw all those little dots on manuscript paper which you (d) don’t even own anyway, Noteflight is the obsession for you.

Noteflight is web-based music notation software, which does what it says on the tin: It allows you to write music. Also to play it back immediately, change/edit instruments and voices, and so on.

Check out examples of music I wrote in Noteflight in the Bad Carols series.

The full version requires a subscription, but if you’re new to writing music you can get a lot of mileage out of the free version before you make the switch.

As an occasional music teacher, I especially appreciate features of Noteflight that are annoying af at first, like its insistence on subdividing measures for you. It’s really helpful if you’re not already 100 percent comfortable with the concept of how many beats go in a measure and what that should look like.

Soundation (freemium)

If you want to write music but the previous paragraph’s mention of “subdividing measures” made your eyes cross, try Soundation. It allows you to create music mixer-style, by stacking, looping and editing tracks.

Again, you can pay for a subscription or not, but the free version lets you do quite a bit before you decide whether or not an upgrade is worth your money.

I’ve found that Soundation is highly accessible for middle schoolers and older, whether or not they have any kind of previous music-related education. So put some headphones on your kids and let them mix away.

Scratch

Scratch is an MIT project designed to teach kids how to code, but even as an adult in my 30s I find it’s a lot of fun to put together my own animations and games.

The interface is very user-friendly and intuitive. If you’re super intimidated by anything with the word “coding” in it, though, there’s also a series of tutorials that will walk you through every aspect of Scratch.

Scratch is the kind of thing I would have killed for when I was ten years old and programming my Apple IIGS in BASIC that I learned out of my fifth-grade math textbook. It’s a lot of fun and a great way to make goofy things to share with friends.

Canva (freemium)

Canva is a graphic design tool for those of us with zero graphic design chops.  It offers hundreds, maybe thousands, of templates for social media images, blog post headers, invitations and a bunch of other things.

I use it primarily to make graphics for this blog, but there are plenty of other options for Canva use. Many of the templates and images are free, but some of them require payment or a Canva subscription to access – though I’m not sure you need one if you’re only using Canva for amusement.

An alternative to Canva is Snappa, which does basically the same things except with an arguably more intuitive (and definitely more touchscreen-friendly) interface. Canva’s one major failing is that it’s not optimized for touchscreens, so if you’re creating on a tablet, consider giving Snappa a go.

Micro Marching League (freemium)

Micro Marching League might be in the running for most nerdy niche option on this list. It’s basically Pyware but for kids.

…If you’re thinking “there’s no way you can make Pyware kid-friendly,” you’re right.

Micro Marching League (MML) allows you to design your own marching band drill and watch it play out…more or less effectively? It’s not a tool I’d actually use to write drill I would actually put on the field or floor, but it’s a fun introduction to drill-writing for anyone who hasn’t actually tried it before.

The free version offers enough scope to get started. You can pay for options like inserting your own uniform colors or creating indoor drill, but if you’re that serious about writing drill I’d recommend just switching to Pyware.

Master MML and your learning curve for Pyware won’t be any shorter, but at least you’ll have some idea what you want certain forms to look like.

Seventh Sanctum

I’ve been messing around on Seventh Sanctum since…years? The site’s biggest draw for creatives is probably its massive collection of idea generators, from sci-fi plots to made-up 1980s cartoon heroes.

It also offers a huge list of resources for creatives, including stock photography sources, publishing outlets, online portfolio hosting sites and so on. It’s a decades-old standby of the creative community, but I’ve included it here in case you’re one of today’s lucky 10,000.

Springhole

Like Seventh Sanctum, Springhole is also (a) ancient (in Internet terms) and (b) full of creativity resources. Springhole, however, is geared almost entirely at writers.

In addition to various generators, you’ll also find a wealth of writing advice, from how to know when you should write a novel to how to determine whether your main character is actually a “Mary Sue” or just being called that by disgruntled dudebros who haven’t realized that “being female” is a default state for half the population.

I used to get lost in Springhole for hours on end. It’s still one of my favorite online rabbit holes.

Zompist

Zompist is Mark Rosenfelder’s personal website, and it’s absolutely fantastic if you’re into any kind of worldbuilding or conlanging.

Rosenfelder is the author of several books on how to construct conlangs (which I also recommend). The website both provides an introduction to those books and hosts many of the in-depth examples that didn’t fit on the physical pages.

If you’ve ever wanted to build your own fantasy world/language, or having built one you now have no idea what to do with it, there’s plenty here to keep you busy. It’s where I found the format for this Niralan culture test, for example.

Lexiconga

Lexiconga is the other Extremely Niche tool on this list. It’s a dictionary compiler, which means it’s probably most useful to folks who are already in the vocabulary-building phase of conlanging.

There’s certainly nothing wrong with using an Excel spreadsheet for vocabulary purposes. I do. But I appreciate the way Lexiconga is built to manage your word hoard. My Excel sheet for Niralanes, for instance, has nearly a thousand entries currently. That’s a lot of scrolling, and it’s scrolling Lexiconga doesn’t make me do.

One of my favorite parts of social distancing/sheltering in place so far is that I feel even freer than usual to spend hours making terrible art (like this abomination my brain woke me up at 4 am to write). I cannot encourage it enough. Making terrible art is how we make good art (eventually) – but more importantly, it’s just plain fun.

Go forth and make terrible art. ❤


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How to Practice Social Distancing Without Losing Your Mind

“Social distancing” is a way of life for me. My parents’ fondest dream was to move as far away from other people as they could reasonably get without sacrificing my education, their careers, or family relationships. I’m as introverted as they are, and for many years I dealt with health issues that kept me in my house for several weeks at a time.

So with the WHO and CDC recommending that we all keep our distance from one another as a way to control the spread of COVID-19 (here’s why that’s important), I’d like to share some of my tips for living a life of solitude in the midst of one’s fellow humans.

how to social distancing

Consolidate Your Errands

When I was a kid, my mother and I did all of the week’s errands in a single day. Typically, that day was Saturday, and the errands included the grocery store, general store, butcher and laundromat – but if one of us had a doctor’s appointment or similar errand during the week, all the other errands got done that day as well.

During the years I was stuck at home for medical reasons, I consolidated my errands to one or two trips a month, usually coinciding with my doctor’s visits.

Consolidating errands may require you to rethink how you get things done:

  • Consider an average week. How many times do you leave the house? Where do you go when you do?
  • Target multiple trips to the same location. If you’re buying produce three times a week, for instance, consolidate all of those into one trip (see the next point for tips on how).
  • Group errands together when they’re located close to one another or when you can map an efficient route from your house, through each location, and back. For instance, my childhood grocery-meat-laundry-general store run was done in that order because that order formed a convenient little loop through the neighborhood. The gas station is in the grocery store’s parking lot, so it often became part of the loop as well.

For COVID-19 purposes, consider keeping hand sanitizer, antibacterial wipes and a trash bag (to collect used wipes) in your car as well. This way, you’ll be able to clean up and/or wipe items down between errands, which can help you avoid carrying germs from place to place.

Plan Ahead and Buy In Bulk

Planning and bulk buying are essential to a good social distancing program. My family used to order through a multi-family food co-op, which meant that most of our groceries came by the case, once a month. I grew up assuming flour came in fifty-pound bags and that soymilk could only be purchased a dozen at a time.

We also grew a great deal of our own food. In summer, produce came from our garden, supplemented by a once a week trip to the local farmer’s market for items we either didn’t grow or didn’t grow in bulk (like peaches, which we bought and canned). In winter, we’d make a once a week produce run – but if the weather got bad enough to prevent it, we could go for a month or more on canned and frozen produce and other staples.

To cut your grocery shopping down to once a week or less:

  • Identify your “must-have” foods. These are the things you either use in a lot of cooking, or that help you feel food-secure. For us, garlic, carrots, and rice are “must-haves” because they feature in a lot of the dishes we make. Peanut butter is a “must-have” because I feel safer knowing we have it – it’s a cheap source of protein, but it’s also a psychological support for me.
  • Consider the meals you make most often. Which ingredients do they have in common? These are your targets for bulk purchases. Aim to have at least one item in every major food group (grains, proteins, fruits, veggies, herbs/spices, and fats/oils) that commonly appears in your cooking and that you can stock in bulk. You may not always have exactly what you want to eat that day, but you’ll likely have the ingredients to make something palatable.
  • Explore shelf-stable replacements for certain ingredients. Currently, the grocery store at the end of my street has almost no canned beans – but the shelves of dry beans are fully stocked. Why? Dry beans are cheaper. They’re more shelf-stable. They last longer, and you’re not paying for the extra water used in packing. Reach for the more shelf-stable options when you can.
  • Buy extras only of things you’ll use before they expire. Here’s where choosing the most shelf-stable version is your friend: The longer it lasts, the more likely you are to use it before it expires. Things you won’t use before they expire are a waste of money.
  • Take advantage of the weather. In many parts of the U.S., it’s still cool enough to store things like apples and potatoes in spaces like the garage or back porch. They’ll keep longer without wasting refrigerator space.
  • Repeat this process for other commonly-used items, like cleaning products, pads/tampons, toilet paper, and so on. My “staple-buy” list, for instance, includes one-subject notebooks because I write prolifically.

For me, the central foods have always been rice, potatoes, garlic, onion, carrots, broccoli, apples, navy beans, peanut butter, vinegar, basil, rosemary, and olive oil. If I have these things in my house, I know I can eat appealing, balanced meals with very little work. Work up a similar list of your own, using the foods that appear most often in your own cooking, and find ways to buy at least two weeks’ worth of them at a time.

Make Yourself an At-Home Workspace

If you’re working from home, an at-home workspace is a must. But it’s also important even if you’re not bringing your job into your house.

Once you’re stocked up on essentials, you’re ready to stay in the house for longer periods of time. Here’s the next challenge: If you’re not used to staying home, how do you do it without feeling trapped?

At-home social distancing time is the ideal time to tackle projects you’re curious about or have been meaning to get to, and it starts with having a workspace for these projects.

Set aside some area in your house to work on the thing you’ve always wanted to get to. Cover your dining table with a 5000-piece puzzle. Put a card table in the basement and stack all your cheese-making tools onto it. Park your laptop beside your favorite chair so you can work on that novel you’ve always wanted to write.

The goal is to have your project where you can easily reach it. This way, it’ll be on hand to occupy your time, and you won’t face the exhaustion of pulling out all your materials every single time you want to work on it.

My Space Is Too Small!

Not only were my parents big on introverted social distancing when I was a kid, but we also lived in a very small house – less than 750 square feet for three people. My own bedroom was 6 feet by 9 feet. There was barely space for my bed and clothes, let alone for big, sprawling projects.

In this case, your “workspace” may need to be a box or basket that holds your stuff. If you’ve decided to try watercolor painting, for instance, keep your paints, brushes, palettes and so on in a box near the space you’ll actually use when you’re painting (such as your kitchen table). It’s not quite the same as being able to spread out entirely, but it does keep your tools in your line of sight and make them easier to access when it’s time to amuse yourself.

Even in a very small space, you can find ways to divide your activities and locations to feel as if you’re actually transitioning from one to the other. In my 6 foot by 9 foot childhood bedroom, for instance, I used to do my reading and homework while sitting at the foot of my bed. This was enough to trick my brain into thinking that my reading-and-homework space was somehow different from my going-to-sleep space, even though they were literally two ends of the same twin bed.

Social Media Is Your Frenemy

Social media is a double-edged sword when you’re sequestered from the rest of meatspace.

On the one hand, social media is vital. It keeps you connected with friends, family and co-workers. You can share information, update everyone on how your life is going, and communicate with others who might need help.

We have more options for communicating with others – without sharing germs – than we have ever had in the history of humanity. Using them will help us maintain the sense of connection we’ll need to take care of ourselves and one another. Definitely use social media for this purpose.

But, at the same time, pay attention to how you’re using it.

The flip side of social media, when you’re stuck in your house for weeks at a time, is that it can suck you in. During my convalescence I would scroll Facebook and Twitter for hours at a time – a situation that turned out to be terrible for my mental health.

In COVID-19 world, there’s a fine line between “connecting with your loved ones” and “getting totally overwhelmed by all the virus-related news.” Use social media mindfully and proactively. Log on with the express purpose of updating your social circles or checking in on them.

Then, log off. Go take a nap, make a healthy meal, do some push-ups, play with your dog, talk to your family, work on a hobby, read a book or play a video game. Maintain balance in order to maintain your mental and emotional health – which you need just as much as your physical health.

It’s “Social” Distancing, Not “World” Distancing

I’ve made several references to “being stuck at home,” but the fact is that for millions of Americans, social distancing doesn’t actually require us to stay in our house/apartment.

If you don’t live in a large city (or even if you do), you can still leave your house without increasing your risk of catching coronavirus, as long as you go places that have no or few other people. In rural areas, most forests, nature trails, and the like are likely to be pretty safe, as long as there aren’t a lot of people around.

With schools and businesses shutting down over the virus, a lot of urban public places will be eerily empty as well. Parks, college campuses and the like offer an opportunity to get out, go for a walk, and stave off cabin fever without ever getting close enough to another human being to risk transmission of a virus.

Again, pack along your hand sanitizer, and wash your hands thoroughly before you leave your house and when you return. If you run into other people, smile and wave from a distance. It’s more polite to shout “How are you?!” across a park than it is to give someone COVID-19 or get it from them.

This All Kind Of Sucks

Yes, it does. But it’s doable. I’ve lived large parts of my life without leaving my house or sharing physical space with a non-family member for a month or two at a time.

Even if you’re a major introvert, though, it’s hard on the mental health. That’s why having defined spaces and projects is so important – as is getting out of the house in a safe and healthy way when you can.

Take care of yourselves and each other. It’s how we beat this thing.


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How to Find Out What the F*ck (Is Going On)

The title of this post comes from a predictive text Twitter thread I did recently that used blog post title templates. In a moment of hilarity-induced poor judgment, I offered to write any of the posts predictive text generated titles for.

This one won. For good reason! The world is full of “what the fuck?” moments. To navigate it successfully, we need skills in finding out what, indeed, the fuck.

Here is a guide to doing just that.

wtf

First: Is It F*cking Familiar?

When your reaction is “What the fuck is going on?,” start by looking for familiar elements.

Do you know who the fuck is involved? Do you recognize the setting or tools used in this fuckery? Do you have an odd sense that you’ve been in this fucking place before?

When we cannot quickly identify or categorize an event, process, person or object, our brains trip the “What the fuck?” circuit. By looking for familiar elements, you help your brain categorize what it’s perceiving more quickly – shortening the time between “What the fuck?” and “Oh, this fuckery again.”

Second: Can You F*cking Ask Someone?

When encountering fuckery, your first instinct may be to ask someone else, “What the fuck is going on here?”

This is natural! Humans are social creatures; we rely on one another for advice, perspective, and guidance all the time. Relying on others’ perspectives is one way we turn the unfamiliar (“What the fuck?”) into the familiar (“Oh, this fuckery.”)

If someone is present who might know what the fuck is going on, don’t hesitate to ask them.

Do, however, take a deep breath and consider other options for phrasing the question. While “What the fuck is going on?” might be the most emotionally honest statement in the moment, it’s not always the most effective for eliciting answers. Try “What’s going on here?” or “Can you tell me more about this?”

Third: Where to Get More F*cking Information

If it’s fucked up but not urgent, seeking information from an additional source can help you unfuck it.

Here are several common sources of fuckery and a few resources for dealing with them.

Household Repairs

For large household systems (HVAC, plumbing), look for a phone number on the unit for the manufacturer, installer or maintenance team. Household appliances like refrigerators may have a hotline you can call for advice. Some people like to invest in coverage like home warranties, which can help ensure your household stuff gets fixed quickly after a “what the fuck?” moment.

Auto Repairs

Once upon a time, having access to the Chilton manual for your vehicle was the gold standard in addressing vehicular what the fuckery. You can still access many Chilton manuals online today. Also, consider investing in a code reader if you want to find out what the fuck your car’s latest blinky light means without having to take it all the way to the fucking dealership.

Children

What happens if you mix glitter into cake batter? Would the baby look better covered in Sharpie? Can goldfish survive in hot water?

There’s nothing like young children to generate a lifetime of joyful “What the fuck?” moments. Keep a first aid kit and a fire extinguisher handy at all times. Place items you don’t want children to access out of their reach, such as on a high shelf in a hut halfway up Mount Everest. And take lots of pictures. Someday, you’ll miss this fuckery – and you’ll need the photos to remind yourself why the fuck your nostalgia is misplaced.

Politics

I know, right? What the actual fuck.

There’s actually an answer for this one, and I’ve been relying on it since the 2016 election. What the Fuck Just Happened Today? aggregates the biggest political stories daily, draws connections between events, and so on. It also aggregates links to news sources covering those stories, so if you’re convinced that only your favorite news outlet of choice can be trusted, you can find and click the link to its coverage.

The next time you need to find out what the fuck, take a deep breath and keep your head on. You got this fuckery.


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A Ten-Step Creative Process That Absolutely Works

Today in my Quora inbox:

What sort of approach or strategy do you most often use in your creative work as a writer, from the very early beginning stages and onwards?

I found this question baffling at first. Asking about “process” seems antithetical to creation itself. I don’t have a process! I channel the inspiration of the gods themselves!

Except I do, of course, have a process. All creatives do.

I can’t guarantee my process will work for anybody else. (Notice that the headline doesn’t say who “a ten-step creative process that absolutely works” works for.) I frequently disappoint aspiring creatives by regaling them with a discussion of my methods, only for them to list 5,000 ways those methods won’t work for them.

So your mileage may vary. Please consult the manual before driving. Do not feed this advice to babies or small children.

blog post image with title of post and url

Phase the Early: Ideas

Perhaps the most queried-after item in the whole “creativity” topic. Where do you get your ideas? How can I have more ideas? 

Step One: GET BORED.

Boredom is my friend. Boredom is where the really juicy creative nonsense comes from.

I took up running on the elliptical in order to get bored. I put a stationary bike in my basement so I can get bored. I’ll put my phone out in my car in 0F weather to force myself to get bored. I show up to dentist appointments an hour early to get bored.

It only takes a few minutes of boredom for my brain to start making up the most bizarre nonsense in order to alleviate its own boredom.

Step Two: MACBETH HATH MURDERED JUDGMENT.

All ideas at this stage are worth entertaining. No matter how truly terrible they are. In fact, the worst ideas are the most worth entertaining.

Last summer, I took several dance classes at the Music for All Summer Symposium with Vincent Thomas, who teaches at Towson University. We started every session with four agreements, the first of which was “To be full of my own value and free of judgment.”

Step Two is my “full of my own value and free of judgment” stage. If an idea comes up, I’ll play with it. The kookier the better.

Phase the Middle: Not-Terrible Ideas

The transition from the early to middle stage occurs when a single idea recurs enough times that I realize I’ve been thinking about it more than once. It doesn’t want to let go.

And since it won’t let go, it gets to move on to Step 3.

Step 3: JOT IT DOWN.

If an idea won’t go away, I write it down.

Writing it down tricks the idea into thinking I’m actually going to do something with it. The vast majority of ideas fall for this scam. They then get shoved into a closet, where I look at them once every 20 years.

The most persistent ideas, however, are too smart to fall for it. They keep coming back even after I’ve written them down. These ideas get to move on to Step 4.

Step 4: A LITTLE JUDGMENT IS OKAY.

I say “judgment,” but I mean “discernment.” This is where I start thinking about how the idea would work in practice.

What would the end result look like? What are the practical steps required for me to make it work? Is it worth the time and effort required?

Some ideas aren’t worth what I’d invest to do them. For instance, I have a long-pestering idea for some bathroom wall art made from repurposed pages of Moby-Dick (to do with my kraken shower curtain). But learning the skill to execute what’s in my head will take time and effort I’d rather spend on other things, like getting these novels out of my head.

Phase the Late: Making Art

If an idea survives steps 3 and 4, it gets one free ticket into the late stage.

Step 5: RESEARCH.

Step 4 is about whether the idea is feasible for me, personally and individually, to execute. Step 5 is about whether the idea is feasible within a broader social and economic context.

Is there a realistic marketable version of this idea, and if so, what does it look like? Is there some related topic or idea out there that is way cooler and more interesting? Are there 500 other artworks on this idea (hint: Yes! Always!), and what do they look/sound/feel like?

Step 5 is Wikipedia rabbit hole o’clock. I cram related creative works until I just can’t hold any more.

Step 6: OUTLINING/SKETCHING/NOODLING AROUND.

Now that I know WAY TOO MUCH ABOUT EVERYTHING related to this idea, what will my iteration look like for reals?

This is where I generate a bunch of really terrible proto-versions of the idea. Once again, judgment is locked out of the room. Quantity, not quality, is the goal here. 15 different marching band show ideas on the theme of “Angels”? 20 sketches of the same sleeping cat? Hell yeah, you can never have too many of those.

Step 7: REFINEMENT.

Write, draw, dance, polish, edit, repeat, repeat, repeat, whatever.

Blood is sweated, sweat is cried, tears are bled.

I become convinced that creating art in the first place was the worst idea I have ever had. Seriously, why can’t I just be a nice, boring insurance adjuster? O Muse, why dost Thou torment me so??!?!

This is the phase in which I start to question why I haven’t taken up a less self-destructive habit. Like skydiving. Or smoking opium.

Step 8. TENTATIVE PRESENTATION.

After blood, sweat, tears, and not nearly enough day drinking, a draft is born! And like someone who has just given birth, I’d be more excited if I wasn’t utterly exhausted.

I show the draft to people who love me, who love the art, and who have zero fear about telling me exactly how much the work sucks. They tell me exactly how much and in what ways the work sucks. I can’t believe I’m friends with these people.

I get spiteful: Oh yeah, well, I’ll show YOU whose book needs to explore its themes in more depth! I tear into revision with a vengeance, and I question why I ever thought I’d ever do anything else with my life except creating art.

Step 9: ABANDONMENT.

As they say: A creative work is never finished, only abandoned.

Eventually, I kick the piece out to its final destination – my publisher, a marching band director, my bathroom wall, whatever. I promptly forget it exists. Months later, when I get an email informing me that my short story was accepted or that some band director wants to give me cash moneys for making their 150-piece ensemble imitate starfish, I wonder how the heck it got addressed to me.

I’m not into short stories or starfish dancing anymore, see. I’m onto something new.

Step 10: REBOOT.

I find the most mindless activity I can (Sims, anyone?) and do it until I start to get bored. Boredom is my friend. Boredom is where the really juicy creative nonsense comes from….


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How to Get Better at Art By Producing Fifty Pounds of Crap

Art & Fear, by David Bayles & Ted Orland, has been one of my favorite books of creativity since my now-spouse introduced me to it in graduate school. In particular, I’ve come back to this story again and again:

The ceramics teacher announced on opening day that he was dividing the class into two groups. All those on the left side of the studio, he said, would be graded solely on the quantity of work they produced, all those on the right solely on its quality.

His procedure was simple: on the final day of class he would bring in his bathroom scales and weigh the work of the “quantity” group: fifty pound of pots rated an “A”, forty pounds a “B”, and so on. Those being graded on “quality”, however, needed to produce only one pot – albeit a perfect one – to get an “A”.

Well, came grading time and a curious fact emerged: the works of highest quality were all produced by the group being graded for quantity. It seems that while the “quantity” group was busily churning out piles of work – and learning from their mistakes – the “quality” group had sat theorizing about perfection, and in the end had little more to show for their efforts than grandiose theories and a pile of dead clay.

Which brings me to a seemingly unrelated topic: Why do I keep spamming my blog audience with terrible Christmas songs?

Simply put: I’m trying to make fifty pounds of terrible pots.

Beginners are frequently the loudest about their struggle with “perfection paralysis,” but it can plague creators at any stage in their learning curve. For those of us in the performing arts, attempting to switch from performance to choreography or composing can cause a mental Blue Screen of Death. We’ve always executed what we were told to do; what should we do when there’s no one telling us how?

I became interested in composing back in high school, but it wasn’t until recently that I had both the tools and the time to try my hand at it. I’ve been playing music since my mother taught me how to plunk out the chorus to “Jingle Bells” on the piano when I was five, but except for a brief course in blues improv in high school, I’d never tried to write any.

And the sheer volume of my knowledge of music served to stall me out – big time. With thousands of hours of playing and hundreds of hours on music theory behind me, I should be able to produce something good on my first try, right?

…If you believe that, go listen to the Bad Carols, in order.

They get consistently better as you go down the list. The first one, in fact, is crap compared to any of the others. I didn’t really hit my stride until “Skin Carol” at the earliest, and I wasn’t close to happy with a piece until the melody of “By Candlelight Swans Three.” Halfway through “In Christmas Hot Damn” I switched gears to writing an arrangement of “Riu, Riu, Chiu,” which I also currently hate.

I had to get past my belief that I had to produce something good. I had to produce just anything.

And I was getting bored with just asking Botnik’s predictve-text keyboard to generate histories of various holidays. I wanted to do something more involved with the tool.

Hence “Christmas Carols Nobody Asked For.” They didn’t have to be good – in fact, limiting my lyrics to those generated by predictive text pretty much guaranteed they wouldn’t be good. They just had to appear regularly. And the automatic deadline of December 25 made it fairly easy to ensure they’d happen on time.

I generate a lot of creative work, every day. It’s literally my job. And I recommend this method for improving in any creative genre.

Want to be a better writer? Assign yourself half an hour a day in which your only goal is that your pen/fingers never stop moving across the page/keyboard. If you write “I’m a terrible writer and I should go walk into the sea” fifty times in that half hour, so be it. Eventually, you’ll learn what you need to know from that and try something else.

Want to be a better choreographer? Write 32 to 64 counts (4-8 sets of 8) at every rehearsal/practice session you have. If you can’t decide on a piece of music, set your playlist to random. If all you do is plies for your first 32 counts, fine. Eventually, you’ll learn what you need to know from that and try something else.

Want to create a better vlog, host a better podcast, draw better Lovecraftian horrors? Generate five new ideas every single day. Hell, make it ten. Make it twenty. If the first hundred are all variations on “Interview [insert Lovecraftian horror here],” fine. Eventually, you’ll learn what you need to know from that and try something else.

A lot of beginners, in particular, fear that if they just start with the basics – simply writing “My mind is a blank and I suck at writing” over and over, or drawing the same anime characters again and again – they’re wasting time. They’ll never move past those basics. Their masterpiece novel/manga/interpretive dance will never materialize.

As the ceramics class proved, however, the masterpiece won’t materialize if you don’t make fifty pounds of crap first.


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How to Start Freelance Writing With No Experience

One of the most common questions I hear as a freelance writer is “I want to start freelancing, but I have no experience. How do I break into the industry?”

I’ve thought about this question a lot. I’ve written about it a lot as well. And the more I think about it, the more I think “How do I start freelancing with no experience?” is the wrong question.

Here’s why it’s the wrong question, why we ask it anyway, and what to do about it.

Here’s why “how do I start freelancing with no experience?” is the wrong question.

Many – probably most – people come to freelancing with experience having been an employee, but not having been a freelancer. As a result, these people tend to think of freelancing as employment, just with lots of different employers.

This is totally understandable! It’s normal! But it’s also doing the new freelancer a disservice.

As a freelancer, you’re not at the mercy of one employer. You don’t have to convince one company to take you on, throw a bunch of resources at you and hope it works out. As a freelancer, you are a business approaching other businesses with a value-add proposition.

That’s really important, so let me repeat it:

As a freelancer, you are a business approaching other businesses with a value-add proposition.

So the question isn’t “what do I do if I have no experience”? It’s “what value do I bring to the table”?

Here’s why we ask it anyway.

Experience on past freelance projects is a form of value. In fact, it’s a nicely-packaged form of value. That experience becomes shorthand for reassuring value-add concepts like:

  • I know what I’m doing.
  • I understand this topic area.
  • I can employ the conventions of projects like this.
  • I speak the jargon of this topic area and/or industry.
  • I know how to meet deadlines.
  • I add enough value that other people think my skill worth paying for.

That’s why a lot of places looking for freelancers seek experience. It’s why freelancers that have experience make sure to mention it. “Experience” is a way to communicate a lot of different aspects of value in four syllables.

It is also wildly misleading.

Packing down any set of complex concepts into a single word leaves out a lot of detail. It leaves that single word open to misinterpretation by both parties. For instance, “experience” can cause client misconceptions like:

  • This person just knows exactly what I want.
  • This person has done progressively more difficult projects.
  • This person has a well-ordered system for dealing with upsets, mistakes, third-party fumbles, deadline miscalculations and a host of other problems.

While experience makes it more likely you have (some of) those abilities, experience does not guarantee you have any of them. For instance, your “ten years of experience” may involve having done the same type of project over and over for ten years. You didn’t gain ten years’ worth of learning or development; you simply repeated one year of learning and development ten times.

In other words, “experience” isn’t a land-a-new-client free card. In fact, if you understand what that word stands for, you can beat out experienced freelancers to land a client.

Here’s what to do about it.

“Experience” is a small word that packs a lot of expectations into it. By unpacking the word, you can demonstrate that you offer a client value worth paying for.

Start by asking yourself these questions:

  • When have I been responsible for similar projects in my life? Can I show the results, such as by uploading them to a digital portfolio?
  • What’s my knowledge of the client’s topic area? If I don’t have any, what experience do I have learning new topic areas quickly?
  • Do I know the jargon of this type of freelance work (writing, graphic design, coding etc.) and/or can I speak the jargon of the client’s industry (SaaS products, law, dentistry, etc.)? If not, how can I demonstrate my ability to learn that jargon quickly?
  • When have I had to meet deadlines in the past, and what were the results? Can I show the results (for instance, with that digital portfolio)?
  • How have I been “paid” for exercising this skill in the past? Payment isn’t always about money. For instance, have you received a high grade in a class on graphic design? Did you create a brochure for a local charity that got lots of praise? Has your fanfiction been upvoted a billion times?

If you have nothing whatsoever to show in your answers to these questions, you’re not prepared to freelance, full stop – because you have zero skills to show in these areas.

For instance, while I’ve been a freelance writer for a decade now, I wouldn’t even begin to seek out freelance work in graphic design. I rely on Canva templates for my featured blog images; I don’t compose those myself. I can talk about graphic design; I can resize and lightly edit photos in Photoshop; I can talk about basic color theory. But ask me to design your logo or branding color scheme from scratch, and I’m going to shake my head.

I don’t have the skills to do graphic design projects well – so I don’t offer that service to clients.

However, if you know graphic design software, concepts and lingo well, and if you’ve had enough exposure to a client’s line of work to have some idea what it’s all about and why good graphic design would matter, you may be equipped to look for freelance clients, even if you’ve never had a freelance graphic design client before.

If this sounds familiar, it’s time to move on to the next set of questions:

  • Can I talk to clients about my ideas, listen to theirs, and find ways to meet in the middle?
  • Can I show growth in my skills over time?
  • Have I thought/read/learned about the most common roadblocks in a freelance project, and do I have a plan for addressing them?

The first one is a matter of confidence. As a brand-new freelancer, you may just have to “fake it till you make it.” If you love the kind of work you’re doing, however, you’ll find it easy to get enthusiastic in conversations about it.

The second one can best be done by setting up a freelance portfolio, which is easy for writers to do on sites like WordPress (see mine above). For graphic designers and coders, there are sites that specialize in showcasing visual works and/or code.

The third one is something you can learn, often from online sources like this one. You can’t be prepared for every weird eventuality, but you can learn what the most common problems are for freelancers and prepare for them. You can learn what should go in a freelance contract and how to read contracts that clients offer to you.

If you can express your value and understand how to interact with clients as another business, you can freelance. Yes, even if you have no freelance experience.


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