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What I’ve Learned in Ten Years

Today marks ten years since the first time I got my writing published — an article in Pyramid Magazine that I reposted a bit ago. I feel like I should mark this occasion by sharing some of what I’ve learned so far on this journey. (Warning: some of it will not be kind words.) In no particular order…

First of all, don’t pre-reject yourself. That’s not your job. I see people often self-select themselves out of something they would love to do by deciding that they’ll be rejected, so why bother. Please don’t do that. Honestly, as much as it stings, make that someone else’s job. Hell, you might be surprised by getting the gig. And even if not, you were bolder than those who pre-reject themselves.

There’s around a yearlong gap from the first and second piece I sold, and a couple years between that piece and the next project. This is because I pre-rejected myself, and I sometimes think about where I’d be if I actually pushed myself in those earlier years.

Second, your crunch speed isn’t sustainable. What we typically call crunch time — when you’re working 60+ hours a week and struggling to get projects done — can sometimes feel like the speed you should be working at. I used to feel guilty when I wasn’t working at that speed, so I constantly pushed myself. That lead to some of my worse periods in life, when I would push myself to exhaustion for a few weeks, and then crash for at least that long, all the while feeling like shit for not being productive.

I’ve since better learned how to manage crunch and normal speed. After my 40 hours at the day job, I usually get in a couple hours some nights and much of one weekend day. In crunch mode, that becomes both weekend days and many hours at night. I conjure up a manic energy to push forward, but I also know that there will be a personal cost coming up that I can’t get out of paying: the inevitable crash and depression.

Third, get things in writing, but also know that that won’t really protect you. I don’t sit down to work prior to a contract these days, if only because a contract tells me that the other party is serious and that we have a stated agreement we can both refer back to. However, while you can technically pursue legal ramifications for breach of contract, in reality there’s so little money to it and so much energy that you’ll spend not working on other stuff that there’s little point. Which brings me to…

Fourth, at some point, you’re going to get screwed over. It happens to us all — I’ve screwed someone over and I’ve been screwed over. Most of the time in my experience, it’s not intentional; things happen that spiral out of control, sudden life changes (like having a child) get in the way of pressing deadlines, expected money doesn’t actually come through, etc. That falls into “frustrating, but it happens.” It sucks, but that’s a crappy part of they business. Many people good at making words are crappy at business management.

There’s also exploitive and callous screwing, such companies that don’t pay their people because they know those people aren’t going to make a fuss. Or those who refuse to communicate with you, especially about payment issues. There are even those who threat or otherwise shit on their freelancers. Once you get on others’ radar, people who are shitty opportunists will reach out to you with enticing projects.

If being a creative was like the Scouts, getting screwed over would be a merit badge. Sharing those stories is how many people bond.

Fifth, you’ll have more ideas than you’ll have time to work on. They’ll consume you, the shiny new ideas that seem to be effortless to work on in the very early stages. And when you’re in the middle of a hard project, starting a new one can feel like a reprieve. But don’t assume that every project you start is something you’ll “finish” — projects can be a think you cannibalize, or serve as inspiration down the road, or just be a learning experience.

Likewise, don’t think if “finished” as just “polished and published.” I “finish” things by blogging about them, exorcising them from my mind. Or I write a few notes up in Google Drive and send them to a friends, sometimes never looking at it again if those friends don’t comment. You’ll do well to develop your own strategies for closing out projects that don’t need to be published, and for keeping yourself from getting distracted by new ideas.

Sixth, your creative communities will change, and in ways you don’t like. Seeing the recent hubbubs in fictionland reminded several of us about the same arguments and divides in the story games community, the RPG podcasting community, and so on. People get into creating things for different reasons, and their reasons will change. Creative communities grow as they get popular, and there’s always a new vs. old series of arguments (often as new people try to stake a claim in the local zeitgeist, and as old people feel threatened or annoyed by that). So don’t assume the values you hold as a creative are the values that your community have; and if they are at the moment, don’t assume that’ll always be true.

Let’s get positive. Seventh, when you find amazing collaborative partners, cherish them. Leonard Balsera, Cam Banks, and Josh Roby are three of my most favorite people to work with. I miss jamming with Paul Tevis, as we made something really amazing together. And of course, my life partner, Lillian Cohen-Moore, is also a creative partner that I cherish.

Seventh, don’t get overwhelmed by others’ excitement. You might shoot a random tweet out, and get a tide of folks saying the now-classic “shut up and take my money!” It’s easy to get caught up in that energy, and go off on some tangent! Check that, keep to some discipline, and know that if you pass on that idea because you don’t have time, there will always be another idea or another time.

Eighth, you don’t always need that third taco.

Ninth, finishing one thing is better than starting five things.[1] This isn’t just from a selling-products perspective. Finishing things is how you make a mark, and it’s how others separate the wheat from the chaff. This dovetails into some other things already mentioned here, so I won’t dwell further. (After all, I have to finish this post!)

Of course, above I imply “hey, maybe you should start something new if it’ll help you.” There’s a balance that we’ve all got to learn: when playing with a new, shiny thing is good for the mind and when it’s procrastinating or even toxic. And also as I say above, weigh what you mean be “finished” with each project. If nothing else, finishing things means you’re allowing it to stand on its own as you tackle the next thing.

Tenth, crowdfunding and big conventions can bury you if you aren’t careful, and you don’t always need them. We read about this often, at least with crowdfunding failures, and those who have been doing micropress stuff at Gen Con can tell you that Gen Con is a money and energy sink that isn’t wholly necessary to do, certainly not year-after-year.

I have learned more than that. I cut out some of the really depressing bits, and I have certainly learned things that I’m not even conscious of. You can’t really do something for ten years and not. But these are the ten things that come to mind as I decided to write this post. I will, however, leave on an eleventh thing — something I still need to internalize:

Be less of an asshole butterfly. It’s very easy to fall into the trap of “if you aren’t pissing someone off, you aren’t creating art/doing your job as an artist/whatever.” Maybe that’s true, but it doesn’t mean that I have to invite and project assholism.

Be well, folks.

– Ryan

[1] Behind the scenes: I tend to write these before I have much coffee. Looking back, I totally should have had this be the tenth point, since that would be finishing the list. :) Ah well.

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6 Responses to What I’ve Learned in Ten Years

  1. Dave Chalker says:

    Congrats! I also got my start in a Pyramid magazine article, as it turns out.

  2. Jim Groves says:

    Brilliant Blog Post, will share on the Book of Face.

  3. Cam Banks says:

    It’s very nice of you to mention me, you flatterer.

  4. Travis Young says:

    One note on points 3 and 4: I have found that one of the very, useful things about a contract is that it can help point out to you when you’re in the process of getting screwed. If it’s down in writing that you’re supposed to get paid on some milestone, and you meet it and they dick around with paying you, then it’s pretty clear it’s time to stop working on that project (or at least lower the priority of that work). But, if it’s just a verbal “yeah, we’ll pay you at some point” then it becomes a fine line of getting paid and acting greedy.
    And on the flip side, if things like dates and milestones are in writing, you can realize that you’re not meeting agreed upon goals that may be holding back others on the project, and help you communicate those to the rest of the team, as opposed to “Yeah, I’ll work on that at some point”, which means that your stakeholder has to walk a fine line between getting work done and being an overly stern taskmaster.

  5. Wolf Munroe says:

    I enjoyed reading this. I’m not a professional in the industry, or in any industry, really, but it’s good advice for any type of creating, I think, especially commercial creativity.

    Regarding these eleven points, there are actually twelve points in the post. (There are two seventh points.)

    • Ryan Macklin says:

      Hah! Sometimes I do an intentional error to see if people catch it. This…is most certainly not one of those times. I’ll probably leave it as it stands, though. We’ll call it “accidental bonus content.”

      I wasn’t a professional during many of those lessons. I have heard “the only difference between an amateur and a professional is a paycheck,” and that seems close. To me, the only difference is deciding you’re going to keep chasing checks doing this thing.

      – Ryan