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Practical Matters By Colleen Doran
I think the people at Slush have been waiting for this column from me long enough. I confess that, with all the assignments on my plate, I am not carving out much time to work on this and I hope what I present here will be useful and worth the wait.
I am not going to be writing a column about the State of the Industry, or which comic character is cooler, or which trend is going to save the market or anything like that because I honestly don’t pay a great deal of attention to the day-to-day workings of the comic book industry. I am entirely too centered on my own business.
That business is being a professional creator. That is what concerns me. That is the only thing I really know much about. So, that is what I will be contributing here: information and advice about how to survive and thrive as a professional.
So. Let’s talk about time management.
If there is one thing that creators know how to do, it’s waste time. We’re masters of procrastination. Freelancers working at home can imagine a thousand ways to sink minutes and hours and not accomplish much of anything and still make it to the end of the day feeling like they’ve done their bit of work. It’s easy to delude ourselves since we usually live and work at home alone and there is no boss standing over us cracking the whip.
We have friends and family who drop in any old time because we don’t have real jobs and they want to free us from the drudge of our drawing boards. That is very nice of them, but many creators don’t have the willpower to just say no to distractions. A coffee break becomes two or three hours out of the day and the next thing you know, you’ve lost eight or ten hours of work in a week just hanging out with your buddies a few times. Do that for a month, and you’ve lost a week’s work, easily.
The procrastination monster is the bane of every freelancer’s existence. Once upon a time, we wrote and drew comics for free. One day we woke up, and comics became a job. Suddenly, it wasn’t as much fun anymore. There’s nothing like the pressure of a production schedule, income concerns and the opinion of the public to take the wind out of your sails and dock the flight of your imagination for good. Writer’s Block is nothing but a creator’s special brand of procrastination. Ideas and images don’t come when they are blocked by money and deadline worries. It’s easy to create when you have nothing to think about but creating. It’s not so easy to create when you can’t pay the rent and put food on the table or get your children medical care. (There’s the “art is pain” school of thought where living in a garret seems to be the ideal and suffering for your art makes for great poetry, but when one’s goal is simply to live another day so one can write another poem, I don’t imagine getting braces for children’s teeth is likely to be much of a concern.)
Then there’s the day-to-day distractions of paperwork and the ringing phone and the office clutter in which hours of time get wasted when this paper gets misfiled or that bill gets lost. Lose only one hour of time per day to disorganization (and that is a conservative, average estimate most time management gurus agree on) and you’ve lost 365 hours of work per year. That’s nine weeks of work time down the tubes; two full months! Multiply that lost time by your hourly income, and you really see how time is money.
How many pages could you have drawn in nine weeks? How many paintings could you have completed? How many stories could you have written? How much income did that disorganization cost you?
Time is your money and time is your life. If you want to piss it away playing video games when you ought to be drawing, and hanging out with your buddies when you ought to be writing, go ahead. It’s your life.
But if you want to make the most of that time as a professional, then you’ve got to start taking a serious look at how you manage your time resource.
Aspiring professionals are true masters of self-delusion about their time management. They arrive at conventions with scant portfolios, telling editors and art directors how little time they had to create new works to show. If one is having that much trouble coming up with the time to create pages and paintings when one is an amateur, how the heck does one expect to find the time to do the work as a professional?
You’ve got time to go to the movies. You’ve got time to watch television. You’ve got time to go to a convention. Then, you’ve got time to get some work done.
Here are some time management tips for pros and aspiring pros:
Donít be on time, be early:
On time is NEVER good enough. On time almost always means that you will be late. Schedule every project as if you have days and, if possible, weeks less time than you actually have. Create a sense of urgency about the project. You never know what distractions will arise or how much time a page of art takes to draw. Itís not something you can block out into eight hours or ten hours. Every page is different. You could have a family emergency or financial crises that will distract you. Pages could get lost. The cat could drop a hairball on your script. You never know. Last month I was bitten by a brown recluse spider on my drawing arm. There was no way to prepare for that!
So, I work several days a week for extra long hours, often 14 hours a day. Then I work several days a week at a lighter pace: about eight hours. (Thatís actual drawing time, not time spent on the phone or shuffling papers.) A few days a week at extra hours helps me to get a little bit ahead each week. If I have managed to botch something and get behind, it helps me to catch back up. I donít recommend working every day at all out speed. You will burn out. Set up a simple reward system for goals that you have met, like a movie or an afternoon with friends. Record your progress on a calendar. Have a minimum daily goal you would like to meet and then strive to exceed it at least a couple of days a week. Do that for a few months, and you will find that you may have been able to get as much as one issue ahead of schedule.
Save time with others:
When it comes to managing your time, your best friends can be your worst enemies. Establish boundaries. Set strict limits for who, what, where and when will enter your studio and take up your time. I once had a very good professional friend who would call several times a week and spend as much as four hours a whack on the phone. This woman was a writer. She was a constant deadline problem for her editors and it was no wonder since her entire life seemed to be spent on the phone. Even begging her to restrict her calls to an hour a week had no effect. Everyone marveled at why this smart and talented woman couldnít seem to get any work done. However, I knew that her endlessly chatty phone habits were the real problem. This woman didnít need friends. She needed therapy. And what was worse, everyone in her orbit found that their own work suffered, too. For hours a week, she called to discuss her problems and stories that never got written.
Consequently, no one else she knew could get any work done either. Her demands for attention were endless and if she heard my pen or pencil moving across the paper while she was talking to me, she became furious that I wasnít paying close attention to her every utterance. Frankly, I couldnít afford to lose the hours of time a week she demanded. A monster of neurosis, she finally found herself unwelcome at nearly every publisher and her career floundered.
She wasnít the only person I knew who didnít have a clue when to get lost. Many friends and acquaintances used to show up without invitation, wanting to have lunch, get coffee, or go to a movie. Itís not so easy to say no to someone who is standing at your door telling you that you work too much and you need to take time to smell the roses. As someone with a rose garden, I found that hilarious. I also found it disrespectful. Finally, I had to get tough. I simply stopped returning the calls of people who didnít hear me say no the first time. I put a large fish eye lens eyehole on my front door and anyone uninvited no longer gets in. I even resorted to hanging a big ďGo Away!Ē sign on the front door in real deadline crises. Extreme? Not if you know the freelancer life and how people often fail to respect your wishes for solitude so the work can get done. Itís not likely that you could go to your friendís offices and hang out there for hours at a time, sipping coffee and watching the television while they work. They shouldnít be doing it at your workplace either.
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Clean up that clutter!
Letís face it. Most creative people are disorganized slobs. I am usually horrified by what I see when I go to other peopleís studios. I once apprenticed to a world-famous artist. His studio was the most horrific thing I have ever seen, a mass of books and art and files and boxes and piles and piles of art supplies and manuscripts that filled every single room of the six bedroom house. Nothing was ever thrown away. There were six or seven tubes of every kind of paint or a half dozen of each kind of varnish because he kept losing them in the bottomless pit of his workplace and buying more. The waste of money was appalling. The waste of time was worse.
I used to be a clutterbug myself, but compared to most artists, I am an ascetic. However, a few years ago, I resorted to hiring a professional organizer service to come into my home and studio and help me get it together. It was some of the best money I ever spent. I learned some great tricks for controlling papers and keeping them under control. I will probably write a separate column about that later. But the most important and simplest thing I ever learned was to simply learn to throw things I donít use out. Learn to get rid of what you are not using or have not used in a twelve- month period. Clothes, comics, books, you-name-it, if it isnít useful or beautiful to you, then you should dump it. That doesnít mean you have to throw it away. You can give them to charity, sell them, or give them to friends, but get it out.
Clutter is a kind of visual noise. It is distracting and demoralizing. It will impede your ability to work. An inability to find important documents or file effectively will eat into your work time. Think of that seven hours a week that you are probably wasting struggling with your clutter right now. You can either use that seven hours to create more art or you can have more time to play. Itís your choice. Clean it up or live with it and live less well. Thatís all there is to it. However, donít try to clean up the whole pile all at once. Start small, with a small corner and work your way out from there. Stay on top of incoming paperwork while committing a little time every day to eat away at the old. (Your trashcan is your friend. Open the mail over the trashcan. Throw away anything you do not need, immediately!) When I finished my household/studio purge, it took several Salvation Army trucks as well as dozens of hefty bags of trash to get rid of everything I wanted to get rid of. When I was done, I had so much room in my home that I was able to move my studio back into my house and now I donít have to pay studio rent anymore.
One very poor friend got much of my old furniture and I found so many valuable books and art that I made a small fortunes selling some goodies I didnít want to collectors, enabling me to get new living room furniture and put some money into investments. De-cluttering can be very good for your spirit, but it can also be very good for your wallet.
I suppose procrastination is different for everyone, but for me, procrastination is more about performance anxiety than anything else. It has been crippling at times. I suppose that getting into comics in the 1980ís when women creators werenít very welcome had a rather serious effect on my self-confidence, and no matter how many nice things are said about my work, there is always the little voice in the back of my head telling me to go work at McDonaldís.
Next month, I will have my art at a gallery in Vienna which should give me a fat head, but when you are insecure, you just sit around and worry about whether anyone will like what they will see. Every piece of blank paper is an enemy. Every deadline is terrifying. For someone who absolutely loved to draw and was winning awards for it from the age of five, performance anxiety is a learned behavior and like any learned behavior, it can be unlearned.
I went to great lengths to learn how to control the anxiety even going so far as to do one of those motivational fire-walk seminars where a stroll across a bed of hot coals was the graduation ceremony. All procrastination is linked to some kind of anxiety or discomfort. In other words, the pain of producing the work becomes greater and more real than the reward of doing the work. This can simply be knowing that you are working with a difficult creative team, or having a really tight deadline that makes the job unpleasant. Whatever, the trick is to learn how to make the pain of not doing the work more real than the pain of doing it.
I use a simple two-step process. First, I recreate the feelings and circumstances that enabled me to work at a time when work was pure pleasure. The best time for drawing and writing for me was when I was a kid in my room and I spent hours and hours working on my stories or drawing pictures simply for the fun of doing it. The work was not meant to be seen by anyone. It was just for me. I sat on my frilly canopy bed with a lapboard on my knees and worked for hours every single day and it was heaven. Whenever I hit a snag, I go right back there. I get away from the drawing board, I grab my lapboard and I go to my room. I put up the frilly pillows, put something silly into my DVD player, and get something to eat or drink that is bad for me. It takes me back to the time when I was a kid drawing for fun and it never fails to work for me.
If you are having a procrastination problem, try to visualize and imitate a time in your life when the work was going great. Then recreate that moment. Itís the same technique that athletes use and it really, really works. Try it for yourself. It might take a little practice to visualize, but youíre a creative person, so it should come to you eventually. Try to recreate the mood with some old music or even get something to eat that you used to like as a kid.
Second, try a technique called ďThe Dickens ModelĒ. This is a great one for visualizing the consequences of bad habits and behaviors. Close your eyes and visualize what it is about your life that is not working. Think of the things you are doing that are working against your goals. Make a strong picture in your mind about it. Then think of how bad things are going to be in five years if you donít change those behaviors. Give yourself a strong picture and be honest with yourself. Then picture the consequences of your behavior in ten years. Then in another fifteen. Pretty grim, hunh? Now, roll that mental image in your mind like a movie going backwards, until you are in the here and now. Then, carefully picture yourself changing those bad habits and self-defeating behaviors. Project that image ahead another five years. Youíve made some great changes and your life is much improved. Roll it ahead another ten years. Then fifteen. Now hold onto that positive image and take it back with you to the present. You now have a strong mental image of your life with two very different outcomes.
In the first picture, you never made the changes you should have made. In the second, you got your act together and you turned your life around. If the comparison between the two images doesnít cure your procrastination, nothing will.
Learn to turn tasks over to others. If youíre a control freak like me, even letting someone else vacuum your floor is a major issue. If youíre not, this advice will not be any problem for you. The advice is simply to let other people take on some of your workload. Whatever is not essential to producing and creating, try to hand it off to others, either family members or someone that you hire.
There are a lot of things that you can delegate. For me, I broke down and hired my mother to be my assistant some years ago. She lives a half hour away, likes the work, and is very handy for doing things like spotting blacks and picking up the mail, little tasks like that can eat up hours every week. When money is very good, I use a maid service. For some reason, the maid cleans the house much faster and more efficiently than I do. I would spend the weekend getting the house together. She does it in about two hours and that is a big time and money saver, especially while I am on deadline.
My years self publishing convinced me that trying to do everything myself was not only impossible, it was going to kill me, so learning to let others do the ephemera freed me to do the important things like writing and drawing. The only warning is that hiring friends can be a problem, especially if some of your friends are fans that may not be as keen on respecting your privacy as they ought to be. Many pros have had books and art filched by fans they have let in their homes. Most fans are great people, but some are not. Be careful whom you let in your life.
Well, thatís all my sage advice for now. Hope it helps.
Colleen Doran is the creator, writer, and artist behind the popular series, A DISTANT SOIL, published by Image Comics. Having cumulatively sold over 500,000 copies of ADS, Colleen has been featured in such books and publications as Comic Book Rebels and Sassy. Colleen's work has also appeared in X-FACTOR, CAPTAIN AMERICA, WONDER WOMAN, and X-MEN UNLIMITED.