doing it all yourself

I’ve always operated the VSCA on a zero-risk model: I’m not betting any money on this gig. And I consider the obligation of a Kickstarter a significant risk, so that’s out too. That means I do everything myself or with partners. So I need to cultivate sufficient (I won’t say professional) skills in writing, artwork, and layout. And I need to find the time.

Sometimes you need to get out the diesel-powered sand ionizer and dig your own holes.

It’s impossible to separate talent from training, so I’m not going to say that anyone can do this. But i do think anyone can learn anything to a sufficient degree if they want to. Do you want to?

Writing comes very naturally to me but in part because I type very quickly. And I didn’t write all that prolifically until I learned to type. I suspect that making the mechanical selection of letters nearly effortless is a big part of being able to write a lot of material of decent quality: your brain is not spending energy trying to make the words come off the keys. That energy gets spent creatively instead. That has to be a big factor. So if you want to write, I recommend you learn to type. Remove that obstacle at least.

And read. Read diversely. Read voraciously.

Drawing is something I used to do a lot and badly as a youngster. Then for a long time I didn’t do it because I was starting to see so many artists who are so damned good — trained artists whose skills I would never approach because I was not going to spend years in art school developing those skills. Then I decided I was going to do it anyway. I decided it would be okay to be good enough. In the past 10 years I have developed my skills substantially and not through formal training. Rather I spent my energy on good tools that make things easier (the tablet with a stylus and decent drawing software was a Big Deal) and drawing regularly. I also got over the idea that artists draw from their head. Artists uses reference photos or sculptures or people. Great art comes from paying attention to real things and paying attention to replicating them. And it comes (and here’s a secret) from convincing yourself that some or all of your flaws (and you will see all your flaws) are in fact your style.

People will tell you not to trace. Trace. Google image search changed the landscape–if I forget how a leg works I search for legs, drop one into my sketch as a reference layer, and draw legs.

People will tell you to develop your own style. Copy styles. Get comics (especially old issues of Heavy Metal for em), follow @MoebiusArt on Twitter, make friends with people like Juan Ochoa who will draw online with you if you’re nice. He is a pro; the real deal.

People will tell you that you need a talent. You need willingness, practice, and an honest eye. Talent might make you great but you can go a long way with a ton of practice and good reference models.

Layout is something I played around with since I first got my hands on a typewriter. I recall writing mission sheets for our Top Secret games and playing around with the extremes of what a typewriter can do for you as a layout machine. I tinkered with actual cut & paste and whiteout and photocopiers. And I cultivated a love for looking at books. Not just reading them, but looking at them. Looking at their arrangement, their typefaces, their balance between ink and page. And when I was done looking at them I started reading about them. There are lots of books about composing pages and choosing type. I didn’t read them all but I read a couple of good ones (Robert Bringhurst’s Elements of Typographic Style and Edward Tufte’s Visual Display of Quantitative Information are classics). And then having learned some rules I played around with breaking some.

I’m not doing high-end top of the line work. I think my work has an elegance that at least I can appreciate, but I’m not a 50-cent-a-word writer and I’m not a $500 a piece artist and I’m for sure not a $100 per hour layout artist. But with just attention and practice and some honest reading I can be good enough to make what I want to make and do it without having to capitalize the project.

And every book gets a little better.

You can do this too. I know how much work went into getting a tiny bit better and very little of it came easy. People often tell me that I can do it because I have a talent — well I’ve seen talent, and this is just practice and a desire to figure out how to do it better. What stops you from getting better is not a lack of talent. It’s a lack of genuine interest. It’s the same reason I can’t play the guitar: it’s not because I haven’t got music in my bones (I don’t but it’s not why). It’s because I can’t play the guitar by picking it up and strumming. And as soon as I start exploring how to learn the damned thing I completely lose interest. Music is not my bag. Talent might make these things easy, but enthusiasm and practice is all you need to be adequate.

So don’t tell me you can’t. You can. You might not want to bad enough (and that’s fine — when I need a guitar solo I will be paying a guitarist), but if you do, you can.

But then there’s time. Where does the time come from?

My time comes from bits and pieces all over the place. I don’t watch television. I often have the television on while I write or draw or whatever, but I pretty much never just watch the television. I’ve cultivate time-in-bed and technology that lets me work there. If I go to bed an hour early, that’s an hour of work. I used to read in bed but now I play an audio book in bed while I work. I’m pretty sure I actually get more books in this way as well as more work. And I commute on transit which gives me two hours with nothing to do except research, practice, or do the work. You can spend 90 minutes in your car completely occupied with driving (though you can get an audio book in now so do that at least) or 120 minutes in which you can get some stuff done.

It’s not the case that I’m working every spare minute. It is the case that I make those minutes available.

Again this is more about deciding what you can sacrifice in order to find the space than it is about having it handed to you. As with the necessary skills, if you didn’t get it handed to you then you have to find a way to take it. Maybe you don’t want to do that. Or maybe there’s nothing you can sacrifice to the creative process.  But this is one way it’s done.