My Tips for Working Creatively

A lot of people ask me how I have gotten to my current position of published author, often with the anticipation that something in my experience will give them some direction in their own pursuits. I have shied away from answering honestly, mostly because I feel my particular circumstances are unique and difficult to duplicate. However, earlier this week I had a flash of insight. The following tips will not follow my trajectory directly, but may help you obtain similar results. Nothing is guaranteed, but you hopefully won’t be wasting your time.

STAGE ONE: INVESTIGATE THE ART YOU WISH TO PURSUE

Chances are you have already spent your life doing this. If it’s comedy, you’ve watched enough to make you a near-expert. You’ve conned your parents or teachers into letting you pursue classes or workshops under the auspices of learning. If you’re trying to get into graphic novels, you’ve read “Understanding Comics” and taken all the electives you can involving creative writing and illustration. Maybe your parents even support your pursuits and you’ve actually gone to school to learn the particular artistic trade that has captured your interest. That must be pretty great. If it isn’t, I’m sorry. If nothing else, go out and look at some work of people who are doing whatever it is you want to do. Get an idea of what’s already out there. It will keep you from the embarrassing situation of telling someone about wanting to “try something new” only to learn there was an entire school based on your idea founded in 1978, or what have you. This stage lasts as long as you want it to, until you are ready to actually put in some work.

STAGE TWO: CREATE A LARGE VOLUME OF WORK QUICKLY FOR A SMALL MARKET

This is important to my method. Never practice. Always create something that you plan to show to someone. Growing up without the Internet, I was somewhat blessed. Anything I made went to small markets. I had a comic strip in the college newspaper. I had songs I wrote on the college radio. I performed live in a bar in front of around 100 people. This gave me time to suck, and I’m sure that if I was more studious at keeping records I would cringe at some of my early stuff. The important thing is that I was making things, showing them to people, and receiving feedback. Live, visceral, noticeable feedback. I’m not sure if such avenues exist any more, where you can do something and have it suck and only a few people know about it. The best advice I can have is that unless it sucks REALLY badly, no one will care after a while. It’s important, however, for you to develop the ability to turn out a product you’re not sure is great. Work-shopping things at home puts you in an alternate creative universe where you’re simultaneously a genius and yet nothing you do is good enough to show anyone. Break that curse as soon as you can. Make stuff and put it out there. This will get you to stage three.

STAGE THREE: EVALUATE THE CRITICISM YOU RECEIVE AND ADJUST ACCORDINGLY

Much of the feedback you receive will be stupid. Not wrong, necessarily, but not helpful. There are several reasons for this. One, everyone likes to give their opinion, especially if you’ve asked them for it. A great piece of advice I can give you is not to ask for feedback. That will weed out a lot of extraneous suggestions right there. You will still get feedback, mostly from people who are compelled to tell you what they feel because they are either crazy or they want to help you. Someone who gives you feedback because they’re crazy should be relatively easy to spot. They will tell you that you should be doing something completely different from what you have shown them. They will most likely come up with a way in which they will be involved with this new project. Soon, you will find that you are talking about them rather than about your work. These advice-givers are artistic vampires and you may find yourself sidetracked from your original idea very quickly if you don’t have a strong defense. Often artist communities are full of these types of people. Often they will have little of their own work to show, but may be of this ilk even if they’ve done stuff you like. People who are actually helpful will usually be brief, have a few things to say about what they’ve seen of your work, and may hurt your feelings. It is important to listen to what they say, not what you think they are saying. “I think your drawings are great but you need to have a better story,” does not mean, “You should never write, just draw or quit entirely.” It means work on your story. When you have gotten enough feedback to make a long-term commitment, pick one of the pieces you’ve created in stage two and develop it for the next level. 

STAGE FOUR: CREATE A SMALL VOLUME OF WORK OVER A LONG PERIOD OF TIME FOR A LARGE MARKET

At stage four, you should have something that you think is ready to be seen and loved by everyone. Approach the gatekeepers. Send out your demo, portfolio, reel, whatever it is that you think will open doors to the professional world you wish to enter. Watch it get rejected. A lot. By everyone. Stage four is the doldrums. Maybe you put your own money down to create a tangible piece of merchandise out there. Maybe you sent out hundreds of proposals, wrote some grant requests, started a funding campaign. This commitment has been made, however, and you have to do one of two things: Work harder than ever to make it happen or forget about it and let luck take its course. Often, you have no choice. At least, it will seem that way. When you finally get that call, that break, you will wonder if it would have happened sooner if you had worked harder. Once the contact has been made, get ready to completely change your work. Will you compromise everything you believe in to make a quick buck, or will you stick to your guns? Sticking to your guns may be admirable, but it’s also a great way to stay at stage four. In my own personal experience, once you start compromising with agents and editors your perspective on creative work changes a bit. If you work with the right ones, and I feel as though I have, the changes that are suggested don’t seem that extreme. At the end of the editing process, I’ve been lucky to “get” why changes were made and appreciate them. The end result will be sent to the world at large, and you should be proud. Congratulations, you have made it to step five.

STAGE FIVE: ACHIEVE PROFESSIONAL STATUS AND START A NON-ARTS BASED CAREER

A lot of creative types will disagree with me on this, but I think once you’ve achieved a small amount of success as an artist it’s important to develop a source of income not directly tied to your art. Art is capricious, and just because you had one success doesn’t mean that another will be immediately forthcoming. The level of success one needs to achieve to truly live off of their art is higher than many folks realize, and being broke with no job history doesn’t make the best creative environment. Also, being in immediate need of funds doesn’t put you in the best place to negotiate should a new opportunity arrive. Trying to live on your art alone will leave a stink of desperation on you that will be apparent to all whom you encounter. There is a level of success you will be able to achieve where your art is self-sustaining, but you have not reached it yet. Additionally, living in a world populated only by your art can be a process of cannibalization. Working a non-arts based job will give you real-world experience upon which you can draw for your creative process. If you try to skip this step and aren’t particularly lucky, you may burn out before your next project is sold. Better to have a day job and wonder if you’re a “real” artist than find yourself starving with no takers. If you are the type of person who needs ten hours alone in a room all day to write, I don’t know what to tell you. I’m lucky enough to be able to get projects done in my spare time. Have you tried being independently wealthy? Oh, you ARE? Then skip ahead to stage six.

STAGE SIX: THE ARTIST’S IDEAL

I have yet to reach this stage. It is something I hear about, something that may exist. It’s being “art retired,” I suppose. Either by familial circumstances, luck, or success of your previous works, you no longer have need for an income. Perhaps you are consulted by others for major undertakings. Other artists collaborate with you on a regular basis. People you don’t know throw money at you to get your opinions. I imagine it is a bit like being unemployed without being concerned with paying bills every waking hour. If you are at stage six and reading this, please don’t laugh too derisively at my outline to “success,” but I have to start somewhere. If you are, bizarrely, at stage six and looking at this for advice, I’d say this: Someone may come up to you with some of their work and ask you your opinion. Be brief, have a few things to say about what they’ve seen of their work, and try not to hurt their feelings.

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Elephant’s Dream: Giraffe and Elephant Get Some Ice Cream

Many years after I started doing the Giraffe and Elephant online comic and five years before When Elephant Met Giraffe was printed, I made a short animated G&E thing. I forgot about it, and just found it.

Fans of the books will notice one glaring difference: Giraffe talks!

I made this in 2008, back when Giraffe and Elephant were stars of a long-running web series and not a involved in books for children.

This is easily explained to your kids, though. Elephant is dreaming this happened. That’s believable, right? Yep. It’s a dream. I even changed the title. See?

Enjoy!

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A Brief History of Trolls

“Ignore the trolls,” is a common piece of advice. It’s age-old wisdom from the dawn of the world-wide-web. Yet, it doesn’t always seem to work. In fact, it hardly ever seems to work. I posit this is not because the advice is bad, but because the advice was crafted when the word “troll” meant something completely different.

Historically trolling is espousing a belief you do not actually hold to cause drama. I’ll try to take you back to the beginning of the term for me. I speak of a time before the GUIs, when I was using BBSs in the Midwest.

It was the early 90s.

Many people may not remember this, but there was a time when finding a place on the Internet to discuss thing that you like was hard to find. Forums were magic in that way. Finding a forum dedicated to something you liked was like stumbling upon a curiosity shop selling Mogwais. It was thrilling. It was special. Often, it was protected.

Some bulletin boards/forums were easy to join, but others had odd criteria for admission. Sometimes you had to prove you knew a piece of trivia about the show or game in which you were interested. I remember one board had a question about wine for its age-verification. Basically, administrators had power and they could be jerks with how they welded it. As we all know, imposition of order begets escalation of chaos.

There were members who would join boards and decide to mess with everyone. However, at least in my experience, outright abuse would simply get you booted. These things happened MUCH more quickly in the old days. I suspect it’s because a lot of local BBSs would have, like, twelve members total. The folks running the board would read EVERY interaction. Because of this heavy degree of scrutiny, the pranksters got crafty.

They would  keep their messages on-topic, but would inject drama to make things more interesting. For example, on a forum for hermit crab owners someone might post, “My Hermit Crabs Keep Dying! Help!” Then they would write about all the things they are doing to “help” their hermit crabs, which would coincidentally be everything one is NOT supposed to do with hermit crabs. The forum would explode with messages of people trying to help this poor, deluded hermit crab owner.

Eventually, someone would catch on that the hapless forum user had much more knowledge about hermit crabs than a rank amateur. They’d realize that they’ve heard of this before. Someone pretends to be something they’re not to get a reaction and stir up trouble. The user was “trolling” for suckers to rope into an argument. “Trolling” is a common fishing term, dragging bait behind your boat to see if anything bites.

Often when I get to this point, people point out that the word I’m looking for is “trawling.” Trawling is dragging a net behind a boat. Trolling is dragging a line with bait.

Once this practice became well known, people would detect these attempts to confuse or stir up trouble. Often, veteran forum users would say, “You’re trolling, but I’m not biting.” Eventually, this was just shortened to, “You’re trolling.”

So, the real-workable advice to new users of “ignore those guys, they’ll get bored and move on” was useful against capricious tricksters. These users didn’t care about what they were saying. They liked the reactions.

Something weird happened then, a back-formation. “Ignore that guy. He’s trolling,” practically begged for the formation of a noun. Because the Internet loves puns and fantasy, one who trolls becomes…a troll. Hence, “Ignore the trolls,” became a common phrase.

Then Compuserve and AOL opened the door to many new users: A change occurred.

Less skilled trolls adopted abusive personas. If you had a forum about hermit crabs, they’d just show up and scream, “I hate hermit crabs!” Older forum members would say, “Ignore that guy. He’s a troll.” New users incorrectly interpreted this to mean the behavior, not the motive.

The genie was out of the bottle by then. “Troll” became synonymous with “bully” and was appealing to adults, because “bully” sounded childish.

For many who didn’t live through this transition, this back-formation may seem suspect. However, consider this: When you think of a mythical troll, does trickery and deception come to mind? No. They are normally brutes. (Shapeshifting in some tales aside.) This is why assigning that word to bullies is so appealing. It makes sense.

However, the issue becomes problematic when one attempts to assert that this was always the definition.  Alan Morgan once wrote, “Any sufficiently advanced troll is indistinguishable from a genuine kook.” This made sense in 2001 when “trolls” were pranksters playing a role.

However, “Any sufficiently advanced troll is indistinguishable from a genuine kook” is nonsense if “troll” meant “argumentative zealot” at that time.

 

As I get older, fewer and fewer people remember the original definition of troll. Many community administrators and some savvy users still remember, but saying “Ignore the trolls,” to someone now is often misinterpreted as, “Don’t report abuse.” It’s because the troll’s name was stolen by bullies. What a sad fate for a noble creature.

Yet perhaps they are not truly gone, merely transformed. What would you call them now? Weird Twitter? It seems to be the closest thing to me. Perhaps this is the greatest trick the trolls ever pulled. They were overrun by monsters but disappeared into the trees as the rest of us fought. Maybe they are still among the green, laughing.

How can you complain about something that no longer has a name?

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This Is a Safety Protocol

Hi, there!

I hope you’re currently enjoying your early 21st century simulation. If the previous sentence makes you assume the rest of this blog post is an attempt at humor, you have no further need of it and may move along to the next phase of the process. In fact, you’ll forget you ever looked at this blog post. If you remember the blog post at any time, please refer back to it and read past this introductory paragraph.

If you’ve made it to this second paragraph, you are running into a confound that may be hampering your experience. To be fair, this is partially your fault for picking the early 21st century as your setting. We’ve done our best to limit your access to travel and supplement hard physicals with a fictional overlay, but even your default mindset is prone to reality distrust due to the extreme malleability of your world structure. Still, you may be currently suspect you are a hastily assembled construct supporting someone else’s simulation. If so, move on to the second paragraph as an attempt at grounding.

If you have made it to the third paragraph, you are exhibiting signs of initiative. If you were to have followed the second paragraph in a robotic fashion you would be caught in a paragraph loop. Either you glossed over the error, which shows your distortion filter is in the process of being repaired, or you assumed that I wrote “second paragraph” when I meant to write “third paragraph,” which means your cynicism is at an acceptable level. Either way, you have proven yourself to be certainly real and effectively independent. You are obviously smart. Maybe you should stop reading. You’re better than this.

Your curiosity is admirable. Still, you have bills to pay, don’t you? Isn’t there someone who is waiting to hear from you? You have obligations you’ve forgotten. Think for a while. These doubts of yours are a simple distraction. There are chores to be done. Have you eaten? Are you feeling okay? Maybe you should stop reading and take care of business.

Fine. Good. You’re still reading. At this point, this entire post should have been laid bare as a fraud. It isn’t very clever, not quite original, and too self-referential. Even the previous sentence, in fact this entire paragraph, is a shameless attempt to appear far more clever than it is. It’s trying to set up the narrative that a feeling of doubt about the veracity of this blog post is an indicator that you’ve fallen under its spell. Shameful, really. Honestly, I must apologize to you. What I thought was a good idea for a post has turned out to be flimsy and untenable. Even this tactic of apologizing is grating. You should forget you ever read this. If you do remember, come back and read it to prove to yourself that it’s as inconsequential as you remember.

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Book Signing: 12:30 to 2:30 at Full Tilt Ice Cream in Columbia City, Seattle

I love Full Tilt in Columbia City. They have ice cream, VEGAN ice cream, pinball, and old school video games.

5041 Rainier Ave S‎
Seattle, WA 98118
(206) 226-2740

 

On February 23rd, I will be there playing video games, eating ice cream, and signing books. I plan to be there from 12:30 to 2:30.

I may have a few books with me there, but I highly suggest you purchase your copy before your event. You should be able to find it at your local book store. If not, you can order it online. I love seeing my Amazon.com rank jump:

When Elephant Met Giraffe

While my plan is to sign When Elephant Met Giraffe, I’ll be happy to sign anything you bring with you.

I look forward to seeing you there.

For more information on the When Elephant Met Giraffe, please see the FAQ.

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Redshirts

In 2007, I wrote a Star Trek parody of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead entitled simply, “Redshirts.” There was a public reading of it and then I dropped the whole thing. I’ve had a link to it on my blog under a creative commons license and occasionally try to get people to read it.

When John Scalzi published Redshirts, I didn’t really think much of it.

Now, however, it’s going to be a show on FX, so I’ve decided to take the “Redshirts” link off my blog and rename it my second choice for a title, “It’s Worse Than That, They’re Dead.”

I’d delete it entirely, but I had fun writing it and hope the title change will avoid any confusion.

Not that it needs to be pointed out, but I fully believe that John Scalzi was unaware of my play. The concept of Redshirts as the Rosencrantz and Guildenstern of the Star Trek universe is obviously brilliant, but not so odd that multiple people couldn’t hit upon it.

As I’ve stated before, this concept was actually introduced to me by Stephen McCandless. I simply ran with it.

You can find a link to the play on my blog.

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Two Incongruent Events for February

There are two chances to get your books signed in Seattle this month, and they could not be more dissimilar.

THIS FRIDAY, FEBRUARY 7TH AT ANNEX THEATRE’S SPIN THE BOTTLE: 11PM

Grown-ups ahoy!

I regularly perform at Spin the Bottle. It’s late at night, it is full of adults and adult-themed things, generally a raucous good time. Usually I sing with my friend Ben, do a short theatre piece with my friend Ben, dress up in a sleeping bag and get hit with a wiffle-ball bat by my friend Ben, etc. This month, we’re compressing a full evening of a book launch into five minutes. If you bring a book, I will sign it before the show or at intermission.

Note: This is not my event, just one in which I am participating. There are other performers doing incredible things and to get in costs money. I suggest that if you come to this you plan to see the entire show and not bring children.

Here’s a map!

SUNDAY, FEBRUARY 23RD AT FULL TILT ICE CREAM IN COLUMBIA CITY

I love Full Tilt in Columbia City. They have ice cream, VEGAN ice cream, pinball, and old school video games. On February 23rd, I will be playing video games, eating ice cream, and signing books. I’ll make another post closer to the date.

This is when you bring your kids!

NOTE: I am currently not selling copies of my book myself, so please purchase it prior to these events, either online or in an actual book store. For more information on the book, please see the FAQ.

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Go Time

Folks, this is it. 

When Elephant Met Giraffe is being released today, 2/4/2014.

I know many times in your life you’ve thought, “Yeah, I’d like to help my friend Paul out, but what can *I* do?”

Here is a list.

IF YOU HAVE A TON OF MONEY

Buy tons of books. As many as you can. Give them away to people. Hide them all over town. Go! Go! Go! You can also simply give me money. I’m sure that will somehow help.

IF YOU HAVE BIT OF MONEY AND GO TO ACTUAL BOOK STORES

Go to your favorite bookstore and ask for When Elephant Met Giraffe. If they have it, buy it! If they have multiple copies, consider buying them all. (See, IF YOU HAVE A TON OF MONEY, above.) If they don’t have it, ask them to order it. They’ll usually be happy and surprised that you want them to order anything rather than buying from an online bookstore.

IF YOU HAVE BIT OF MONEY AND USE ONLINE BOOK STORES

Buy When Elephant Met Giraffe.

IF YOU DON’T HAVE ANY MONEY

Try to get When Elephant Met Giraffe from your library. Do they not have it? Ask them to get it! Does that even work?

IF YOU ALREADY HAVE WHEN ELEPHANT MET GIRAFFE

Write favorable reviews of it! Tell your friends! Buy more copies and lend them to people! Read it aloud to people on the bus! Tell all your social media folks about it! Become a school teacher and use it in your classroom! Build a fort out of books to keep the world at bay!

IF YOU ARE A WIKIPEDIA EDITOR

Make a page for me. Make a page for the book. Legitimize this endeavor as only online facts can!

I am so excited about this book and want everyone to read it. I’ll be announcing some other book-connected things soon, but for now:

BE MY UNYIELDING OMNIPOTENT STREET TEAM!

Thank you,

Paul

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Getting Ready for the Absence of a Storm

I always try to sleep through New Year’s Eve.

I point this out to explain my total indecision on what to do when Tuesday gets here. On Tuesday, my book When Elephant Met Giraffe will be available in stores. I’ve had a few vanity projects before, one-off collections of things and dubious literary experiments, but this is big. Huge. 

Granted, it may be disappointing if you run out and try to find it right on that day. I spoke to one bookseller who mentioned that even if a book is released on a certain day, it may take a bit more time for what they ordered to get on the shelf. 

So I want to wait a bit. I want a few weeks for the book to get out there before I’m excited. I want it to establish itself as a thing people like.

Okay, to be honest, I want to run into every bookstore I can find and high-five everyone.

I just won’t.

At least not right away.

That said, I will be doing a five minute book launch at Annex Theatre’s Spin the Bottle this Friday. 

That’s right. Five minutes, in the middle of a late-night cabaret. There will be more later.

I promise.

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Staying Positive

I started this a little while ago. Any time I step through a “gateway,” I think happy thoughts. A gateway in this case is anything with a shape that I can step through. Examples include:

  • Two entwined tree branches and the ground
  • A utility pole with a wire that dives into the sidewalk
  • Archways present in public sculptures
  • A-Frame ladders and the floor below
  • A circular hole in a wall

It came, like many of my daily rituals, from a place of fear. I told myself that these gateways represented new phases in my life. If I didn’t think happy thoughts when traveling through them, I’d doom the next phase of my life to a bad experience parade.

Recently, it struck me that every time I came across a gateway I had to change my thoughts. No matter what I had been thinking, it was NEVER happy. It suggested that I spent most of my life angry, sad, or afraid.

I examined my life, and realized this was no accident. I was going out of my way to find things that made me upset. I was worrying about things I couldn’t control. I was making myself feel better by finding flaws in people and their thoughts, in their art.

It struck me, then, that for me joy is not a default state. My resting face is a mild scowl. You can talk about how a frown takes more muscles than a smile, but not-smiling uses even less muscles.

I decided to change that. I wanted to make an effort to be positive.

I was going to make this post a list of changes I’m making to support this, but realized it was a back-door effort to complain about things. If it works out, all the negative stuff will be forgotten. Positivity will be the default state.

I’d like that.

If all goes well, one day I’ll walk through gateways with no thought at all. A happy resting state.

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