Project Log – Trails & Paths

Last fall, I jumped back into NaNoWriMo for the first time in several years. Really, I’d wanted to focus on a story I’d been dragging my feet on for a couple of months. But I’d ended up getting through that by the halfway mark, and so I thumbed through my Percolator for another story to play with to finish out the month.

The prompt I latched onto was one I often played with while driving between home and school on breaks during grad school – a pair of siblings, one a cleric, the other a ranger. I didn’t have many of my old notes, so it was pretty much an open playing field. I assumed I’d play with the religious differences that came with their respective lines of work, but as I started to really work with the idea, it became a different story all together, drawing in influences from other prompts I had lying around.

They became half-siblings (only a couple of months apart in age), their paladin father the common parent between them. While that alone opened the door to so many possibilities, I chose to keep it focused on just the two of them and the relationship that had developed between the siblings growing up. More than that, it became an exploration of each sibling on his or her own. I gave them a twist that the stories got a half-hearted chance to play with because I’m not accustomed to writing truly dark characters. And as I worked, it became clear I could work this into another storyworld I’ve been working on, and so that changed the setting, and in turn the story.

One of the biggest challenges I faced working on these stories is that I wanted to write a pair of parallel stories, something I’ve wanted to try for years, and I figured this was my chance. But I didn’t have the first clue where to start. Somehow, though, I fumbled my way into a process that seems to have produced a mostly coherent pair of stories. The characters and their outlines were developed together, and then their drafts were written and edited separately. Then, I went back, created the timeline for both stories to run in, and edited both stories to fit within that timeline. (It sounds backwards, but I don’t know that it was possible for me at that time to have done it differently.) and to sync them. Editing them together was also a bit of a trip. I eventually set them to different fonts so I could flip back and forth between them without losing track of whose story I was working on.

Another major challenge was handling the earthquakes that roll (pardon the pun) through both stories. Despite knowing they would be a part of the storyworld, I didn’t actually plan for them in the outlines. Or the first drafts. But it gave me time to really research and figure out how to incorporate earthquakes into the story. While it was a pain to layer them back into the story, it made syncing the stories easier, and it showed places where I hadn’t fully thought through the storyworld itself or the overarching timeline.

I’m hoping to eventually come back to these stories and pull them into a larger story, perhaps one that incorporates more action, maybe a little combat (which I don’t really write, either). But for now, the stories are out there for consideration and comment. And I’m looking  for my next project.

Marketing Audiobooks Through Product Photography

A while back, I admitted that I’ve starting playing around with Instagram. It started off as a collection of random photos of my life, that then incorporated a handwriting challenge (I think mine’s gotten worse. Oops.), and has stretched to incorporate favorite quotes and shots of the outdoors to help break up all of the handwriting posts.

In between, however, I’ve started creating pictures featuring my voiceover work that I like to call “Audio Fiction in the Wild“. (Pinterest board. Also available on deviantArt.)

Among the Instagram accounts I like to spy on, there are a fair number of publishers, book nerds, and tea houses. I followed them in part because their pictures are cool, but I also followed them to see how they use Instagram to promote their own (or favorite) products. What I noticed was that they promote their wares with a photo that features the product in an attractive setting.

And I became curious. Could I do the same thing for my audio fiction projects?

I’ve been working on the Audio Fiction in the Wild project for a couple of months now, and the short answer is, “Yes.” Not enough to fill up an Instagram account frequently enough to be interesting. (See my other account for proof of this.) But people who see the photos do seem to like them, and I have seen the smallest shift in how well my audiobooks are doing. (It is a very tiny shift, and it mostly centers around books that don’t have their own In the Wild shot.)

So, let’s get into how I’m doing things for the moment (because this is a work in progress). While I’m working on a project, I make notes on aspects of my character or the story that might make for an interesting shot. Once I have the cover art (which is fairly early on for my own projects, but has to wait until release day for projects I work on for other people), I download it to my phone and plug in my headphones. Then, I take my notes and build a scene around my phone (displaying the cover art on the screen), and shoot several pictures (because I’m compulsive like that).

When the project is released (-ish, depending on how long it took me to get everything together), I upload the picture and caption it, complete with hashtags, to Instagram, Pinterest, goodreads, and deviantArt.

As I said, I don’t know that these pictures are having a direct influence on my sales. I don’t have access to those numbers. But I do know I’ve seen the tiniest increase in audiobook sales, and more importantly, I know that none of the publishers I work for have given me the boot over these photos. So, I’d like to think they’re serving some purpose beyond really fun photography practice.

One of the best benefits of working on this project is that I’m gaining practical experience in product photography – thinking about staging and context. And I think that’s a pretty big benefit.

Anyway, that’s how Audio Fiction in the Wild got started, and why I will probably continue working on it as long as my schedule allows.

Sabotaging Impostor Syndrome

Lately, I’ve been hearing people saying Impostor Syndrome is a sign of leveling up. And I’ve been thinking about what that means. And it led to an interesting train of thought surrounding my productivity systems.

For those unfamiliar, Impostor Syndrome is the name for that feeling you get when you feel like a really small fish in a really big pond. Like you aren’t qualified to be standing where you’re currently standing. It’s fairly common among creative professionals, but really it affects all professions. It can be completely crippling and counterproductive. But if you can hold your own against and work through it, it can help you develop your skills.

That’s a pretty fun dichotomy, one I’ve been wrestling with for a while now. Recently, while working on a #rockyourhandwriting prompt, I realized what I’m really wrestling with is how to make my productivity systems short-circuit my Impostor Syndrome rather than allow my Impostor Syndrome to sabotage my productivity systems.

People who know me will tell you that I have one of the longest to-do lists they’ve ever seen. And it is. It’s organized into projects, activities, and habits, and it’s spread out across two different task list managers. I use GQueues to manage the master lists and any task that has attached notes and links, and I use Habitica (which has been surprisingly helpful over the last several months) to manage habit building and my immediate tasks and projects. I won’t lie – sometimes I wonder if I’ve just filled my lists with busy work, things that will let me appear to be doing something without any thought to how each task will impact me, my life, and my work.

Usually, this system works, both for keeping me on task and for keeping the Impostor Syndrome at bay. If the little voices in my head start telling me I’m a fake, I start working through a section of my task list, making sure it’s up to date, that it’s actually active (or actionable, if it’s a future list) and that’s often enough to get me back on task. The bigger problem comes when I see all those tasks I want to work my way up to, and then anxiety sets in and invites the Impostor Syndrome along for the ride. It affects both my voiceover and my writing work, and can shut me down for weeks. The overwhelm is real.

Part of what has made Habitica useful in fending off Impostor Syndrome is that it allows me to think about my projects in game terms, seeing them more as quests than these big terrifying things I’m not qualified or experienced enough to do yet. Long-time readers know I champion the idea of breaking projects down into smaller projects (or quests) that build on each other to help develop your skills in a practical manner, so you can see how this keeps coming up…even if no one (including me) understands why I haven’t just sat down and done it yet.

If going through GQueues and seeing all those future plans triggers my anxiety and the Impostor Syndrome, then Habitica is a useful tool because I only bring over the things I’m currently working on. It forces me to focus on those projects, and helps keep me from being distracted by those scary future plans.

Still the Little Kid in the Room

I studied ballet growing up, and one of my favorite things to do (when I was old enough to be in shows) was to sit at the studio door and watch the company girls rehearse. I’d watch them carefully, and then go home and figure out how to do what they did. I learned so much by copying those older girls.

Sadly, that copycat behavior did not follow me into voice acting. I suppose it can be forgiven. The little girl who spent her time away from school and the ballet studio watching cartoons never actually expected to be in a position to be a disembodied voice herself. I watched, fascinated by the optical illusion that is animation, and I listened to the voices, trying to connect them to characters in other cartoons I watched. But it was never anything more than that, because it was never going to need to be.

As I write this, I’ve been a working voice actor for five years (as of August 1), and really starting to wish I’d paid closer attention to all those cartoons. I’ve recently completed work on an audio drama where I play two of the main characters. For a girl who’s narrated over two dozen audiobooks with anywhere from a handful to nearly a hundred characters, this shouldn’t have been that big a deal. But in audiobooks, it’s understood that one person is doing everything. In an audio drama, not so much. These voices needed to be some shade of noticeably different.

I sat there, skimming scripts for moments where the two characters talk to each other to see exactly what I was in for, and thinking back over years of voice chasing and of smarting off every time I found a voice actor effectively talking to themself (or a screen actress talking to her disembodied voice). As the horrible thought that I would be engaging in that very behavior myself started sinking in, I panicked.

Memories of my past life as a ballerina kicked in, and I started thinking back more critically over all the times I could actively remember hearing someone talk to themself. (I even did some research. It’s amazing how much Darkwing Duck you can watch under the guise of “research”.) I’ve listened to experienced voice actors doing it. (I still do, actually.) I can recall or re-watch them. In the strangest copycat crash course ever, my inner grown-up voice actor tried to connect with my inner younger ballerina to sort out how to get through the project.

But I survived. And while it took a bit of work to make sure I was separating the characters enough, it was fun. Of course, I haven’t made it to the episode where the characters have a conversation yet, but I’m ready to mock myself when it happens.

Surviving Downtime When You’re Bitter or Lost

In the last post, we talked about surviving downtime as a motivated creative who isn’t afraid of rolling up their sleeves and getting their hands dirty for the sake of rolling up their sleeves and getting their hands dirty. But it’s amazing how often it isn’t these people who are complaining. They may need a little recharge from their fellow creatives, but they’re generally good at keeping themselves from becoming bored or disillusioned.

This time, we’re going to look at the ones more likely to complain about not being able to find work, to find ideas, to find their community. While it’s easy to write off this entire group as bitter or lazy, some of them are really just lost. For whatever reason, they’ve lost sight of their craft, of their community, of their aspirations. They just need their toes pointed. Being lost in your creative journey is completely legitimate. It happens. I’d actually suggest someone in this situation go over to the other post and work through that list of suggestions, because they really need nothing more than a jump start.

Other members of this group, however, have often bought into an idea that they were going to announce they were a practicing creative, and all of the doors would open for them and all of the opportunities would fall at their feet. They’re not terribly interested in hearing how much work anyone else did to get where they are, and they’re less interested in hearing they’re actually going to have to do some learning, get their hands dirty, and face the rejections that precede the acceptances.

They might take a class or two, to be polite. They might seize a low-hanging networking opportunity that they then can’t make good use of because of lack of experience or knowledge. Doors don’t open; opportunities aren’t as abundant or as amazing as they wanted. And so they sit down and start blaming decision makers and building up a rather delusional view of their skills and knowledge of the craft. And then they withdraw from the craft and the field so no one else can tell them they aren’t ready to chase after the opportunities they think they’re ready for.

It’s hard to hear you aren’t ready. But it’s not okay to respond by sitting around gathering dust instead of rejection notes. You’re not improving your skills, and you’re not becoming familiar to (and with) others in your field, reducing your chances for networking and skill-building opportunities. Really, the best advice is to hop over to the other list and work through it like your life depends on it. If the thought of working through that other list doesn’t appeal to you, keep reading.

Some downtime advice for the bitter (or those en route):

  • Have an honest conversation with yourself. Why aren’t you putting yourself into a position to gather rejection notes? Are you maybe worried that no one will ever give you and your skills a chance? That’s perfectly normal, and is unfortunately best resolved by putting yourself out there. The first time someone says, “Yes”, it’ll give you a little boost to keep slogging through those inevitable rejections to gain the second “Yes”, and then eventually the third “Yes”. Genuine determination and persistence, sometimes referred to as grit, work better than you know sometimes.
  • Do you like the work involved? Sometimes, we try out a new skill or field because it looks fun, or because someone we admire does it, or because we think it’s going to fill some gap in our life. And then we start learning the ropes, going through the grind that comes with just starting something new…and it’s not at all what we expected. It’s more work than we expected, or the learning curve is steeper than we expected, or it’s just simply not our cup of tea. If you find this has happened, give yourself permission to walk away and find a field that makes you happy. You’ll never get anything done otherwise, and you’ll be miserable to boot. (And haven’t you wasted enough time being miserable?)
  • How many fellow practitioners do you know? This is a really good way to gauge just how interested you really are and pointing you toward what you’re really interested in. If you tell people you’re an aspiring illustrator, but the majority of the people you’ve chosen to hang out with or the groups you decide to join are focused on animation, you might want to look into becoming an animator instead.

Ultimately, your goal is to find the field that you can’t stop doing. It may take a few tries. It may take mixing and mashing up different parts of different field. But you’ll only find it by taking action, doing things, and taking the terrifying step of putting yourself and your work in front of someone. You can do this.

Surviving Downtime When You’re Hopeful or Determined

I feel like I’ve been party to conversations around the struggles of chasing creative work a lot lately. This isn’t an entirely uncommon conversation when a group of people at various points in their creative journey hang out. And the people starting the conversation are at different stages in their career. Some are experienced, but not where they want to be (sometimes not getting anywhere). Others are new to the field, trying to figure out how to break in or at the very least determine what steps they can start taking to get into the game. At some point, all of us who do creative work find ourselves in this waiting space.

Something I’ve noticed in these conversations, and just in watching fellow creative types in general, is that people facing downtime tend to react in one of two ways: They either work on their craft and find ways to get themselves and their work out into the community (where they may or may not get noticed as much as they’d like), or they sit quietly and wonder why no one notices them and the work they’ve done. The thing is, it’s what you do when you have that down time that shapes how your career moves forward.

Those who spend their downtime working on their craft have it a bit easier. They’re taking action, they’re doing the legwork, and they’re finding (or making) opportunities. They’re doing a lot of things right. They may still be gathering rejection notes or making connections that don’t work out the way they hoped, but they’re getting their name and their work in front of people, which puts a possible light at the end of the downtime tunnel.

Some downtime advice for the experienced or the driven who aren’t as successful as they’d like to be (according to their own definition of success):

  • Take a class. This might be nothing more than putting together your own set of resources if your funds are tight, but do it. Work on a skill that’s been frustrating you. Maybe learn a new technique to increase your versatility, or pick up a complementary skill and see what doors that opens for you. You really never know what’s going to click until you try. (Classes are also a great way to meet others in your field and make connections.)
  • Create your own projects. Regardless of your medium, you can probably develop and create your own projects. If you’re a visual artist, set up a profile on one of the creative repositories and create for that profile. If you’re a writer, same thing. If you’re an actor or a video producer, same thing. It’s much easier to prove your skills when you can point to something and say, “Look at this thing I made with my own skills.” Developing your own projects while searching for other work also shows  just how dedicated you are to your craft.
  • Start working on the next project. While you’re auditioning, interviewing, submitting, pitching, always keep a personal project in development. It helps you stay in practice, keeps you focused on what you’re ultimately trying to accomplish, and creates a body of work that demonstrates your passion and your skills. You might even create something that you can sell (or sell access to).
  • Experiment and innovate. If you’ve been marketing your completed projects for some time without success (or with minimal success), find new, creative uses for your product or find ways to extend it with those new complementary skills you’ve been developing.
  • Meet people in your field and related fields. We live in a pretty exciting time where we can, with nothing more than a connected piece of technology and a basic understanding of how to search for things, find and connect with other people pretty easily. Power up your favorite search engine and search for your skill set. Go to your favorite social media platform and search for your skill set. There are very few creative industries that don’t have places where their practitioners can gather, and many of these groups are often newbie-friendly. Just remember your manners. If you’re introverted (like me), start small. Find one or two people to connect with and grow from there.

If you really enjoy what you’re doing, there are ways to find your path. But it’s up to you to take charge and shape that path.

Nest time, we’ll talk about those who are claim to be thirsty but are more inclined to sit and wait for rain.

Learning to Play With Instagram

I’ve had an Instagram account as long as I’ve had my smartphone, and just really never known what to do with it. In fact, I kind of forgot I even had it for a while. But I dragged it back out a few months ago to follow a couple of now-closed accounts that sounded cool, and discovered Instagram is more than just photos of life and landscape. After stealing some great ideas from other Instagram users, bloggers, and social media marketers, I thought I’d pay it forward with a post on how I’m using Instagram these days in case someone else finds any of it interesting enough to steal.

When I first started using Instagram, it was to capture moments of living here in San Antonio. And I still do that to some extent, although my interests have become more focused on my gorgeous rustic backyard and nature-related discoveries traveling around town and the surrounding area. I’m just going to put this out there: The Texas Hill Country is one of the most beautiful places on the planet. No bias. *wink*

But a couple of months ago, I was getting bored with my own images and with the general lack of knowing what to do with Instagram, so I started combing favorite geek and design blogs looking for inspiration. I ended up jumping down the Bullet Journaling rabbit hole and joined the #rockyourhandwriting monthly challenge. It’s been fun, and I’ve connected with some interesting people. I may join other challenges as time permits, but for now I like this one.

While perusing those geek and design blogs, I started noticing how different accounts (especially book publishers) were using Instagram to showcase work. So, I’ve recently started experimenting with creating promotional shots of my audiobooks and audio dramas, and they’re doing all right. Instagram doesn’t allow active links in their captions, which presents its own challenges, but I think it’s going to be far more challenging to figure out how to stage some of these shots. I’m looking forward to it!

I’m also playing with taking favorite or inspiring quotes and brief notes and turning them into cards that post to the studio’s account. (I post the promotional shots to my deviantArt account, and am considering posting both the promotional shots and the quotes to Pinterest, but I haven’t decided yet.)

But these are just the tip of the iceberg. Moving forward, I may create promotional cards that feature a favorite non-spoilery line from the audiobook or audio drama I’m promoting. I’m also considering posting the occasional behind-the-scenes picture, but my workspace will need a lot of work before that can happen. And who knows what other crazy uses I’ll come up with between here and there!

Working with Instagram has been a really good lesson in not getting locked down into expectations. If I had, I wouldn’t be playing with all of these ideas, developing my visual communication skills, and having fun. If you’ve avoided Instagram because you’re just not sure what you can do with it, look around, play around, and just find ways to be visual.

Creating Content: Publishing Writing vs. Publishing Audio

As we’ve been looking at each stage of the creation project in terms of my two primary creative activities, I’ve been able to break down activities into writing-specific activities and voiceover-specific activities. Publishing is a little bit different, because publishing is just publishing more often than not.

When you’re preparing to publish or release a project, you make sure the project is in the right format and the right file type, that all of the little technical issues are in order. For writing, this might be checking margins, fonts, appropriate conventions and style use. For voiceover, this might be making sure you meet all of the specs for the project (bit rate, noise floor, limits), that you’ve included the designated quiet spaces (commonly, the head and tail on the track), and that you’ve included sufficient room tone if required. Whatever you’re preparing to release, always, always, always make sure it meets the rules of the platform you’re publishing to. You’ll save yourself a lot of grief later.

For some projects, you also get to do fun things like create cover art, sales copy (be it a blurb or a project description), and metadata (creator, publisher, participants, genre, subgenre, category, etc.). Having had some experience with all of this as a writer and a museum/library girl came in very handy when I suddenly found myself doing this for voiceover projects (something to keep in mind when you’re looking for transferable skills as you’re changing fields). Again, as you’re preparing these additional materials, make sure it meets the platform’s rules, because having to re-do things when you misread the rules the first time around is a pain.

Finally, you announce to the world you’ve done a thing. Maybe you post it to social media. Maybe you announce it on your blog or in your newsletter (if you have one). Maybe you announce it everywhere you have access. When it’s your own project, you’re responsible for getting the word out into the world. When it’s a project you’ve been part of, there will probably be some line in the contract that says everyone involved has equal responsibility to promote the finished product. Either way, do your part.

This last bit is challenging because you’re going to run into all kinds of things as you start to promote a project. You’re going to come across people (some who really ought to know better) who think all of the marketing should fall on your shoulders. Don’t fall for it if that shared responsibility bit is in your contract. You might also run into people who believe just releasing something into the world will attract readers and listeners, and will suggest that promoting it will violate some rule. Don’t fall for that, either. If there’s a link to the publicly available project, get that puppy out into the world to help people find the project.

Okay, I think that’s everything I can think of about creating as a writer versus creating as a voice actor. If I’ve left anything out or not been clear, please feel free to ask me questions.

Using deviantArt as a Writer and Voice Actor

I’ve used deviantArt over the years, constantly trying to figure out how to best use it for my various creative interests. It hasn’t always been easy, and I’ve reinvented that account probably close to half a dozen times over the last ten years just trying to figure out who I was and what I wanted from the site and then again trying to figure out how to use it to show off and highlight the creative directions my life has taken.

deviantArt is a site dedicated primarily to visual artists. Photographers, sketchers, painters, sculptors, costume and jewelry designers – They can all find a home on deviantArt. There is also a corner set aside for writers and poets, but vocal artists have to be a little more creative.

Being a writer on deviantArt is really the easier part. While deviantArt isn’t necessarily geared toward writers, especially those who write chaptered or serialized stories,  it does offer a space to play and get feedback. I like to post stories, vignettes, and even scraps of an idea I was playing with that I can’t find a good home for among my more serious work. Sometimes, it’s the only writing I get done in a week (or a month, as has been the case more recently), and sometimes those bits of story become the basis for voiceover and sound design practices. (I’ll post the audio to SoundCloud and then link the two together so someone finding one can check out the other.) I also like to back up writing from classes and other sites, just in case.

I also find the Journal a useful place to share posts on writing-specific topics from my blog along with craft-agnostic productivity and creativity topics. (You may have noticed I’m currently on a bit of a transdisciplinary kick. How unusual, right?)

One of my better ideas, though, came when I had to start creating covers for my stories and audiobooks. I’ve read so many books and articles on how to create a brilliant book cover, but I find it’s almost always more telling to get them out in front of people and see what the actual reaction is. So, I’ve taken to sharing covers for completed projects, giving them their own gallery so I can see my own progress (and catch any ticks I may be relying on). It’s one of the few ways a voice actor can really use deviantArt, even when she forgets to post the track covers she designs for projects headed to SoundCloud, and it’s a great way to get in some graphic design practice.

My other favorite way to use deviantArt as a voice actor, and I’ve only just started doing this recently, is to create promotional shots for my audiobooks and the audio dramas I perform in. These have really taken off on Instagram, but I back them up to a gallery in deviantArt, again so I can see my progress in developing these and to make sure I’m not getting stuck in ruts. Plus, it’s a great way to get in some photography practice.

What makes deviantArt a great place to store all of these stories and images is that you never know when some random deviant will come by and offer just the right piece of advice or well-timed supportive word on your work.

Creating Content: Editing Writing vs. Editing Audio

Some creators look at the blank slate of the creation stage and panic. Others look at the editing stage and go into hiding. We all have our own relationships with our craft and our work. In my case, I hate being asked whether I prefer creating or editing because both have their charms and their detractors. And I really don’t like being asked if it’s easier to edit written material or audio material, because it’s like comparing apples and oranges.

As a writer, this is where the fun begins. The manuscript is a lump of play-doh waiting to be twisted, rolled out, and otherwise abused until something hits the “Well…it doesn’t suck…” phase. Notes are made, outlines sometimes drawn back up, holes or otherwise weak points in the story are identified. Sometimes, scenes are completely rewritten. Sometimes, the story itself is completely rewritten. Characters are fleshed out or dropped, world details are added and removed (sometimes in the same editing session). Huge tracts of text are mercilessly cut. In one last step to guard against the trolls and grammarphiles, you then read through it a couple more times looking for those tiny details – spelling, punctuation, etc. – that can throw the more eagle-eyed reader.

As a voice actor, this is the tedious (and sometimes hilarious) part. This is where things like quality control (known in some corners as prooflistening) happen. You sit there and listen to everything accelerated to chipmunk speed (my tracks actually sound more like a little kid), waiting to hear what you actually read in comparison to what’s on the page. The mistakes can be kind of adorable sometimes, especially when your voice sounds like a seven-year-old girl. Then, you go through and clean up the file for any extraneous noises that could throw a listener. And then you get to see just how much your voice changes from day to day as you try to match yourself to fix the lines you misread the first time around.

Regardless of which medium you’re in, this phase is about building the best story you can. It’s very detail-oriented, and leaves you spending too much time wondering what’s “good enough”. It’s also a lot of time spent with your inner critic, which can be debilitating if you let it really get to you. But I’ve found that really good mistakes (and someday I’ll actually think to start creating project blooper reels) are a great way to shut down that inner critic because you remember that the work is fun.