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.

Using Challenges to Build a Project

One of the things I enjoy about watching hitRECord projects develop is how they handle that development. A project will be broken down into a series of challenges, arranged by skill sets. Creators then contribute to each challenge, often building off others’ contributions, exploring different visions , interpretations, and points of view. Each challenge builds on the ones that come before, until either a solid project comes out of the collaboration or the project is tabled for one reason or another.

I think there’s something very useful in that for the solo creator or for any creative team, really. Larger projects are a monster to begin with, especially when they require a number of components or skills. So, hitRECord’s method of breaking a project up into bite-sized challenges is a great way to make the monster-sized project feel more manageable and maybe even a bit more able to be accomplished.

How can you incorporate challenges into your creative process?

  1. Start by identifying what work needs to be done on your project. What assets or components need to be created? Do you need to learn any new skills to complete a part of the project?
  2. Group like assets, components, and skills into a single mini-project. Each of these groups will be one of your challenges.
  3. This is the hard part. Figure out the best order for you to tackle your challenges. Some mini-projects will need to happen before others. Use that to help find a good order. (And be open to the fact that shuffling is sometimes necessary, especially if you find a skill gap in your knowledge that affects more than one project or component.)
  4. Tackle your first mini-project. When it’s finished (or at least ready to move on from), tackle the next. Keep going until you’ve finished all of your challenges and have a completed project.
  5. Show off your hard work!

Remember as you’re developing your challenges that these should be fun, but should also push you to become better at a skill or a technique, or deepen your understanding of your craft. And also remember to keep an eye on the larger project to make sure your mini-challenges are staying on track. If you find yourself getting off-track in a mini-project, but what you’re doing is too cool to stop and get back on track, then make a note of it and make it an independent project.

Your turn: Go out and create (and complete) a challenge-based project.

Side Quest: Discovering a Hole in Your Knowledge

One of the challenges with building your own learning path is that you go in not knowing what you need to know. If you’ve taken the time to research and gather good resources, then you have a good chance of building a learning project that won’t deal you too many surprises. But as many resources aren’t created with the beginner in mind, or are created by someone who can’t remember what it was like just starting out, it’s not foolproof.

And these little surprises can manifest in a really fun way. You’ll be working on a project, confident in the knowledge you’ve gained from your gathered resources, and then you’ll come across something you haven’t thought about, haven’t read about, haven’t seen. And then you’re stuck. You may even consider quitting because things just got hard.

Don’t quit. You’re not stuck. You just have to find resources to learn how to do that one thing so you can move forward. It can feel frustrating to have to back up to the research phase, but if you reframe it as a side quest, it can make things easier. Then, you aren’t necessarily backing up. Instead, you stepping out of the main quest, the project, to unlock a new skill.

In a way, being able to take that side step is nice. On the one hand, you have this automatic frame for the side quest project because it’s part of the original project. It’s always nice to have to not make every decision from scratch when you feel like you’ve been dealt a curve ball. On the other hand, developing and creating this side quest project can create a piece of bonus material for your fans, related to the original project, but a creation all its own that can help flesh out or support the original story.

Either way, you win. Yes, you’ve had to pause the original project for this little learning project, but you can then move forward on the original project with a new skill, new content, and possibly a bit of bonus content. That’s pretty cool, and a much less scary way to look at the holes hidden in your growing knowledge of a skill.

So, always try to be as diligent as you can when you’re creating a learning project, but be open to those moments when you find gaps and make the most of those gaps. You might be truly surprised by what you learn and what you create.

Building a Project Piece by Piece

Confession time: I hate writing novels.

You wouldn’t know it to look at my NaNoWriMo involvement, but I hate writing novels. I never feel like I have that much to say, no matter how thoroughly I outline and prepare beforehand. I had this problem in school, too. The teacher would assign a ten-page paper; I would write an eight-page paper that concisely covered all of the assigned topics with the proper structure. By the time I got to high school, my teachers had given up on me ever writing long papers. My college professors were less forgiving on the first paper, but more often than not let me slide on later papers. Writing my Masters thesis was like pulling teeth, and eventually my computer gave up all hope and destroyed the original file and every single backup I’d dutifully made.

So…maybe novel (and any other long-form) writing hates me, too. Heh.

Fortunately, I can write short stories and novellas all day. And that’s a good thing. There are many writers who, like me, aspire to longer fiction but prefer the confines of shorter fiction, and a fair number have them have found a workaround. You look at the works of masterful science fiction and fantasy author Roger Zelazny, and you’ll find as many (if not more) short story collections than you will novellas. (He wasn’t a fan of the novel length, either.) Some of Zelazny’s collections are just that: a collection of short stories related by topic, theme, or time period in which they were written. Others are a collection of serial short stories, linking together to tell one novel-length story.

Short story anthologies by new writers are considered a hard sell at the moment by traditional publishing, but a collection of serial shorts stories can come off enough like a novel to get a foot in the door (if your writing and editing are well-practiced and implemented). But that’s not to say you can’t create anthologies and go the self-publishing route. Either way, it’s a way for the short story writer who’d like to release a novel-length book to reach that goal.

But it’s not just writers who can benefit from this approach. Video producers are learning they can produce a webseries, and then string the series or season together into one viewing experience roughly the length of a movie. Webcomics are taking their regularly released strips, pages, or panels, and pulling them together into volumes.

If you’re a creative who dreams of one day creating a large project in your field, consider creating it in pieces and then blending the pieces together into that single large project.

The Hindrance of “Aspiring”

There’s been a lot of chatter recently about the need for new practitioners of any craft to stop calling themselves “aspiring”. In a world that only a few years ago actively tried to beat down pro-am and DIY types in various athletic and artistic fields, this change is amazing and welcome.

So, let’s start by talking about getting started in a new craft. Because everyone has to start somewhere. Maybe you saw someone else doing something and thought, How cool would it be if I could do that? Or maybe it’s on your bucket list, something you wanted to do as a child but couldn’t for whatever reason. The inspiration is there. For some people, that’s where it stops. They get inspired. Maybe they do a little research. Maybe they start telling people they want to do something. For others, that inspiration is the spark that that pushes them into looking into how to get started, how to take first steps, finding learning resources and materials. And they take that momentum and start becoming more and more involved. I’m writing this for that second group, because you’re the ones who encounter this.

Something happens when you’re developing a skill on your own or in a small community of practice. You start building momentum in your work, and you call yourself a practitioner. And then it happens. Maybe someone says you can’t call yourself a whatever because you aren’t getting paid for it, or because no one knows who you are. Maybe you get a compliment from someone who is a professional or a big deal in the field, and it kind of freaks you out as you start trying to process the thought: Maybe I really am doing all right at this. And so to soften the blow or make it less scary or because you got bullied into it, you start calling yourself “aspiring”.

Here’s the thing, though. The reason you got that attention to begin with is because you did something. You started learning about that skill you wanted to have, and you used it to make a first project. You have tangible proof that you have started on a path to learn and use that skill. You’re no longer “aspiring” because you’re doing. Aspiring practitioners don’t do. They…well, aspire. And if you start calling yourself “aspiring” when you’ve really moved beyond that, you risk sliding backwards into “aspiring” territory.

What I’m really saying here…what anyone campaigning for newer practitioners to drop the word “aspiring” from their self-definition is really saying…is that once you’ve done, once you’ve taken that first tangible, time consuming step on your journey, you’re not aspiring. You’re a new practitioner. Own that. Hold your head up high, and drop the word aspiring from your vocabulary.

Transferring Skills

I recently wrote about my struggles with creating user personas in my work or in a class (where it was a required activity), and my realization that I had a skill – creating characters for stories and games – that could be transferred over to the activity of creating a user persona. It hasn’t fully solved my problem, but it’s given me a familiar starting point to work from, and that’s created more progress for me than I had previously had.

I go through this with some regularity. I want to try something, but I become obsessed with finding the right learning resources to get me going…only to find that I already had another skill that was similar enough to give me that launchpad.

Dead Bunny Guides was my first effort at producing a video, and a video series, and it ultimately came down to a combination of skills developed over years of teaching, writing, and performing. And from producing those videos, I learned how to manage files for media projects, which has been incredibly helpful in my voiceover work.

I’ve started shooting small videos for practice and for hitRECord collaborations. I’ve been terrified of trying to shoot video, only to find that a lot of my knowledge from photography and stagecraft help me avoid some of more common newbie mistakes and helped me learn the nuances and differences necessary to survive starting out in video production.

My point here is: We all have a collection of skills we bring with us every time we are faced with (or decide to try out) a new skill, even when it seems that skill has no relation whatsoever. But if we take a minute and honestly survey what we know, we might just find that we have the right skills to tackle the new challenge with a little less fear. It’s just a matter of knowing what we know, recognizing that skills can often be applied to a wide range of activities, and then giving ourselves the chance to explore those related skills.

Friday Five: Learn About Voiceover Edition

Since I’m sharing things about my own studies and work, I thought I might share some of my favorite resources for learning about voiceover. I’ve done voiceover work for a few years now in a few different genres, and so my collection of preferred learning resources has changed accordingly. These five are the ones I’m currently hooked on. The list may be completely different a month from now.

1. Voice Acting Mastery – Veteran voice actor Crispin Freeman started this podcast as a resource for those wanting to learn about voice acting. He covers not only tips, but also his own journey as a voice actor, things he is learning, and interviews with other veteran voice actors to give different perspectives on the industry.

2. Bill DeWees on YouTube – In what he calls “DeWees Directives”, Bill DeWees shares great tips with the charm and ease of someone who has been teaching forever. The tips are simple, and presented to encourage viewers to try them out to see how they work.

3. Audio Drama Production Podcast – I don’t have any burning desire to create my own audio drama, but I have always found it useful to know how all parts of a system work so I can better understand and execute my role in it. ADPP, based out of Scotland, has given me just that. Audio Drama veterans Robert Cudmore and Matthew McLean share tips and anecdotes from the trenches, and periodically interview other audio drama producers, again to provide different perspectives on the field.

4. VO Buzz Weekly – Once locked up in their own app, Chuck Duran and Stacy J. Aswad now have a YouTube channel (that is filling up with all of the back episodes) where they interview veterans of all different aspects of the voiceover world. The interviews are fun and informative, and well worth catching up on. (I still have to figure out exactly where I stopped on the site and start watching the ones I’ve missed.)

5. The Readaloud Archive – Author and puppeteer Mary Robinette Kowal created this archive of blog posts a few years ago where she shares her training and experience as a performer and narrator to provide tips and tricks for reading written work aloud. (I still have some of them bookmarked because I’m working on those skills.)

I’ve found all of these invaluable, and hopefully you will, too.

Friday Five: Learn to Write Edition

As part of encouraging you to develop and work on your own learning paths, I thought I would share some of my current favorite learning resources. I’ve been writing since I was a little girl, so it’s been hard for me to find writing resources that aren’t covering topics I’ve learned before. The five resources listed below are ones I have learned from and continue to learn from.

1. Writing Excuses – SF/F authors Brandon Sanderson, Mary Robinette Kowal, and Dan Wells and webcartoonist Howard Tayler spend fifteen to twenty minutes a week discussing a topic important to the craft and business of writing, including outside experts to really shine light on topics the panel feels they can’t adequately cover between them. This year, the podcast is devoted to a master class format, turning their normal writing prompts into homework assignments intended to help you develop a story from idea to finished.

2. Write About Dragons – A couple of years ago, BYU gave its professors permission to start recording their classes and making them available online. Fantasy (and now science fiction) author Brandon Sanderson worked with a film student to produce not one, but two semesters of his lectures, and they’re pretty much just as fabulous as you would expect if you’re at all familiar with Sanderson’s work. Watch them. Take notes. Re-watch them. Take more notes. Just don’t forget to write your story.

3. Dan Wells on Story Structure – Dan Wells presented a workshop on the seven-point storytelling structure he uses when he constructs his stories. It’s a great method, one that’s been tested repeatedly, and it’s fairly easy to work with.

4. Self-Editing for Fiction Writers -This is a great resource when you have to edit your own work. My copy is well-worn, marked up, and bookmarked, and I still refer back to it when I need to.

5. The last is advice attributed to Stephen King, but is really necessary for all writers. Read. Every day. Various genres, age bands, materials. Read novels. Read short stories. Read scripts. Read fan fiction. Read traditionally published and self-published material. Just read.

It’s funny, but working on these resource-based Friday Fives has caused me to clean up a lot of my subscriptions on social media and my feed reader. It’s mostly been accounts that are no longer active, but it was quite the spring cleaning.

Building a Training Program on the Fly

Chances are, it’s been a while since you were in school. And even if it hasn’t, it’s probably been a while since you had the chance to design your own learning project, simply because it’s not something encouraged in traditional schools. But I hope if you’re reading this, you’re working on a project that’s challenged your current skills and you’re trying to figure out how to best learn what you need to know.

Fortunately, gathering your own learning resources is a pretty easy skill to pick up, mostly because it’s something you’ve probably been doing without even realizing it.

Start by thinking about what you prefer to do. Do you prefer to read, to watch, or to listen? If you can answer that question, then you can get started. If you prefer to read, find books, websites, and blogs related to the skill you want to learn. If watching is more your speed, YouTube and Vimeo have a lot to offer. But there are also some real gems among reality and documentary-style shows, so keep an open mind as you’re considering your options. For those who prefer to listen, you can augment YouTube, Vimeo, and television with podcasts and audiobooks. You can even find blogs and websites and have your computer’s text-to-speech tool to read it to you.

Once you have your pool of resources, don’t be afraid to change things out as you go. Maybe a podcast wasn’t what you expected, so replace it with something else. Maybe you’ve learned all you can from a blog. Find another resource to take its place. Don’t feel overly committed to your resources – They’re there to help you learn what you need to know. When you’ve outgrown them, let them go.

One more thing: While you’re working on growing and using your resources, keep an eye on that tickler file you’ve been building. It’s amazing what you already have and can use while you’re focused on a certain project or skill.

All right, that’s it for now. If you have’t already, start building your learning resource library, and then start using it.

Building a Platform on YouTube

I think it’s fair to say most of us use a decent number of social media platforms. But how many of us have really sat to figure out what we can do with that platform to get us where we want to be? I used to be teased for treating my computer and my digital spaces as something other than a toaster or a television. It’s a valid description. I tend to figure out what I can do with something and then try to use as much of it as I can. That’s what the developer intended, right?

Because we’re all on it more than we really should be, and because we can use this platform in a variety of ways, I thought I’d start with YouTube.

So…what is YouTube? YouTube is essentially a content management system dedicated solely to video posts. As a regular user, you can upload your own video content as long as your videos are under fifteen minutes long. Partners can upload longer videos and schedule when their videos are released. All users can host and archive live events, built on the Google Hangouts platform.

YouTube is also the second most active search engine; it’s amazing what you can find on there. Even better, you can bookmark them to a Watch Later playlist so you can watch them when you have time. You can tailor your viewing experience on YouTube by following other YouTubers or just a selection of their playlists, allowing you to really focus on what’s important or entertaining to you.

But you don’t have to settle for just watching. You can find like minded people or people who want to learn the skills you have by producing and uploading videos that show off your knowledge, skills, interests, and opinions. You can build playlists around topics you’re interested in, pulling in videos you and others have produced. Then, you arrange the videos in that playlist and annotate them, really creating a curated experience for viewers. Playlists have their own privacy level, allowing you to control who sees them. (I find playlists rather helpful when I’m developing my learning resources for a skill I’m working on.)

YouTube also offers specialized services for certain industries. Teachers who create a channel of educational videos can apply to YouTube EDU, enabling their videos to be more easily found by other teachers and those looking to learn something. YouTube has also recently piloted a programs for musicians to help them connect better with their fans. While some larger acts are trying it out, many of the artists finding success with the program are indies.

YouTube is a comprehensive education and entertainment platform. It’s a great way to find and connect with people with similar (or even contrasting) interests and opinions. For those interested is getting involved with film production, animation, acting, or anything that lends itself to a video format, producing YouTube videos is a great way to get your feet wet. figure things out, and connect with other creators in the process. YouTube also offers a free Creators Academy, a pretty solid program for helping producers move from total newbie to seasoned creator. We’ve all seen the opportunities that can come with producing and managing great videos and programming, even if all you’re doing is curating playlists.

So stop watching videos for a bit and play with the site. Figure what you want to do, be it create your own videos or pull together playlists of other people’s videos on a certain topic, and then do it. And then do it again. Become an active user.