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.