Ellen Million (ellenmillion) wrote,
Ellen Million

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How Do You Do It? And What *is* It?

This started out as a reply to a question at my Loth gallery, but I knew it was going to be too long. Hazel asked me a while back the same question, but I don't think I answered it thoroughly then. I thought about making this a Woodworks article, but realized it was all going to be personal opinion. Gette, you're rubbing off on me: now I look at everything as a Woodworks article opportunity...


I'm not there yet. But I know where I'm going, how I'm not going to get there, and I know what I've done to get where I am. I even have a pretty good game plan, I think. You are free to say, yeah, Ellen, you just don't know what you're talking about. In which case, poke holes! Poke fun! Laugh your hearts out! Laughing is healthy, and if you find anything to improve your life here, I've accomplished my goal with this post.

Figure out what it is that you want to do

Don't dismiss this section. This is the most important part of the process. Some of you have vague goals, like 'I want to write,' or 'I want to draw.' That isn't going to cut it. Those are huge, broad fields and while yes, there are a lot of things you can do with a goal that broad, there are more specific things you can do towards more exactly what you want.

I'm going to use me as an example, because that's what I have to work with.

I didn't know much about the art world when I decided I wanted to art* for a living. Hell, I knew nothing about the art world. I figured that 'being an artist' was the equivalent to going to Disneyland. We (being artists) just sat around in big comfy chairs turning out art that we wanted to without deadlines, and raked in huge paychecks.

I'm pretty sure I don't have to explain how wrong I was.

I thought about illustrating for a while, and did some research, even sent out portfolios and started doing some small press projects, some even for pay. I gave commissions a shot, too. I dabbled my fingers in making products and selling them. I wrote stories, and sent them off to publishers. (I have a very sweet rejection letter from the late MZB) I published a fanzine every other month for a year. Then I bent my brain to figuring out exactly what it was that I loved and hated about every one of those paths.

I didn't much like deadlines. I loved making things. Clients with commissions were frustrating, picky, and unwilling to pay appropriate to the time I spent on them. I enjoyed looking at numbers and compiling statistics. I liked the interactions with and the praise from customers of the products I made. I liked being in charge of my final project. I enjoyed zine layout.

I wanted to draw what I wanted to draw. I wanted to write what I wanted to write. I wanted to make stuff, and sell it directly to the public without going through a publisher or a middleman. What's more, I wanted to share this opportunity with other artists and craftsmen who didn't have the advantages I began with. I started small, I made a gameplan, I explored options, and I opened a business.

Where do I want to go with it? I want to continue giving artists opportunities to profit from their talent. I want to make the business my source of income. A comfortable, regular source of income, no less. I want to continue drawing what I like to draw and writing what I like to write. I want to get to the point where I can hire a like-minded assistant and spend half of my time arting and half of my time managing and making products, with most of my evenings and weekends free to do exactly what I want. I want to have the flexibility to travel and do convention circuits and interact with artists and writers and go to zoos. I want a house with plumbing. These are all goals I'm working towards.

Be realistic

This is the part where I recommend a day job. No, seriously. Go get a day job. Doing the things that you love will likely take time, investment and, unless you are willing to live with your parents or are independently wealthy, you have regular expenses that will have to be paid, even while you are working towards your goals. Rewards aren't immediate. Inconvenient, I know, but there it is. At the very least, having a day job will probably show you exactly what you don't want to be doing with your life.

Sometimes, getting a day job that will pay sufficiently, have flexible hours, and is even a little related to your goals, may require the ultimate in worthwhile sacrifices: a degree. This is a topic that is all its own and I'm long-winded enough without taking little side-trips.

You also have to be realistic about when it is that you can ditch the day job. Think about what it is that's keeping you chained there, and consider getting rid of it. For example, a $7/day smoking habit, or buying lots of comic books. I built a house and lived without plumbing to get me out from under rent. What you're willing to do and/or give up will make a big difference in what you can realistically put down for your goals.

If your goal is a job, know what kind of job you're really looking for. Is the job you want really going to give you the kind of income you want? Have you glamorized your dream job into something that doesn't actually exist?

The second major part of this 'Be realistic' section is taking a good hard look at yourself. Writing and drawing in particular take a certain dose of innate talent and self-control. Do you have those? I'm not talking skill; anyone can learn skills. I'm talking about that ability to do something creative and different, and to keep doing it in the face of adversity. Any monkey can draw a person. Do you have that spark inside of you that will enable you to capture what it is that makes a person interesting to look at? And do you have the self-control to develop the skills to carry that talent? There is no shame in keeping your artistic goals to a hobby, and realizing that will keep you from wasting a lot of time and effort and heartache on an unrealistic goal.

Me, I decided that I had the guts and drive to do something big. I've been ten years getting to where I am now, and I'll probably be ten years getting to where I want to be, but I can get there. My dose of realism was to accept the fact that I wasn't going to get where I was going all at once. I may have been able to secure a loan and try jumping right into the business as I envision it becoming, but I chose the slow and steady build-up towards my goals. I'm cautious that way, perhaps. I wanted to have a place to live that was my own, and a good backup plan. I highly recommend both of these things.

That 'plan' thing

I've mentioned having a plan a bunch of times now. This is the meat and potatoes of getting where you want.

Getting from point A to point B requires a fair amount of trudging and it's a shame to spend a lot of drudgery just to find out that you were working towards point C the whole time. Make a plan!

First of all, learn the skills you'll need. If you're going to be an illustrator, you'd better ink beautifully and understand composition, emotion and anatomy of darn near everything. If you want to be a painter, you'd better know which end of a paintbrush to use. If you're planning to write novels, you'd better understand the language you plan to write in, as well as grammar, spelling, editing, and story structure. Learning these skills will often help you refine your goals, as you learn the specifics of your chosen field.

Got the skills? Next you'll need to learn to sell yourself. If you're doing freelance, you have to pimp those skills without shame. If you're looking for a job, you must be able to show a potential employee why you are The One. If you, like me, want to start a business, you'd better immerse yourself in advertising and marketing and product placement and the thousand little details involved in managing a business. Brush up on your knowledge of taxes and licenses and laws.

Pace yourself. If you can't afford to grab for your goals right now, you can't afford it. Make a plan that will fit in your budget. Figure out how you can get where you want to be going and base your schedule on that.

Have a back-up plan. You cannot say for sure 'I will get a job at Disney in the year 2010.' Disney might go under between now and then. Don't throw away your life savings on a business. Don't burn your bridges. Explore side-routes along the way to your goals; you may discover happiness at something that was only supposed to be a temporary pause in your plan.


Going to school and/or having a day job will suck the energy out of you. You have to be disciplined enough to get home from that exhaustive torture and keep working. You have to keep going after someone has told you how unrealistic your goals are. You have to keep drawing when you're feeling unskilled and hopeless. You've got to be able to take setbacks and rejections in stride and still come up fighting.

There is a balance to be attained, and you'll have to figure out that balance on your own. You need food and shelter, which requires income. Steady income generally requires a job, at least at first. A job requires time. Reaching your goals, that's going to require time, and probably investment, too. Which requires income. Which requires that damn job that's sucking your time away. Add to this the fact that your kitchen needs cleaned, your husband wants company and your cat wants attention, and you have a lot of demands on you. Add kids or other related responsibilities to this mix. Hah! To get everything done, you have to sit down at your workstation and work, not hang out playing computer games and reading books for fun, but work. You can't let yourself screw off and have fun, no matter how tempting it is.

Or at least, you can't often allow yourself to screw off. You don't have to work every single second. Part of discipline is also realizing when you need to take some time off. You will go crazy if you work too much. I know this from experience, too. Make a plan that allows you some free time and some work time, and balance what needs to be done with what will keep you sane. Then use self-discipline to stick to that plan.

Maybe your goal is to have a job. I've been pretty business-centric with this collection of words so far, but most of this applies to getting the job of your dreams, too. Chances are that you won't graduate from HS, apply at an animation studio of your dreams, and be automatically accepted. It could happen, but it's more likely that you'll have to take a bunch of classes, hold down a retail job in the meantime, and work your ass off to train your fingers to do exactly what you tell them. You'll also have to apply for the jobs, and look for them, all the time. If a job is cool enough that you've made it your goal, it's probably cool enough to be a goal for a lot of people, and you're going to be competing against all of those people. You have to be better than they are, work harder and faster and be a better employee. You may even have to start low in a company and work up. All of these things are going to take discipline.

In lieu of having a lot of self-discipline, consider marrying rich. Money solves a lot of problems.

Doing what's Right

I found a very old email the other day that asked basically this same question: "how do you get to the point of having a business like yours?" My equally old reply cracked me up, but loses nothing in truth for its humor: "When I started my business, I was young and stupid. Mostly, I recommend not being young and stupid."

You're going to make mistakes. Believe me.

Every one of them is worth making, and you'll learn more that way than five thousand words from me telling you how to do things.

It's hard to admit failings, just like it's hard to take risks because of the possibility of failing. There are going to be a lot of mistakes that must not only be admitted, but also made up for. There are going to be times when you end up treating your client poorly. You've probably been there, if you've dabbled your toes in the art business at all. The commission that just won't listen to your muse, and has you cowering in the corner with dread as you look at the calendar and realize it's been eight months since you promised to finish it. Or the order that you mail a week late and find out later got to the customer with payment due. Or you manage to email your customer list a virus. Or you mail that illustration on the day that it's supposed to get to your editor. I've done all of these things.

Let them know. Every single time. If you're running behind or have no muse, tell your client before they write to you wondering what's up. If you're mailing the illustration the day it's due, drop your editor an email and offer to post a high-resolution copy to the web so that they aren't wondering if you're going to be a no-show, and you absolutely aren't holding up publication. It's tough. I still have trouble admitting when I'm running behind and have to whip myself regularly to do this.

Make things right. Every single time. Whatever it takes to make it right, do that. Offer a partial refund. Enclose some little goody with that late order. Send postcards to all of your initial clients letting them know that some packages arrived with postage due, but you'll cover any of those costs and give them free shipping on their next order. Enclose a little sketch or ink drawing with that overdue commission. If you churned out a mediocre illustration for the deadline, consider re-doing it and replacing it if you still have time before publication. I've done all of these things, too. The editor loved that I cared enough about my work to send a re-draw. The customers love the extra goodies. Not one of my customers took me up on that free shipping offer, though some of them told me how much they appreciated the offer, and nearly all of them ordered again. One client sent back my refund check, telling me that she couldn't accept it. It's always, always been worth it to do the right thing, no matter how hard it's been to actually do it.

Know when to say no. If you can't do it, say no. If you get halfway into a project and realize it's going to be a bust, say no, issue a refund if applicable, and get on with your life. Dragging it out, taking on work that you simply can't do... that's going to screw you. I still haven't mastered this, so I haven't got much to say on the matter. Do better than I have, that's my advice.

Relying on others.

Be wary. Be very, very wary.

It's fun working on projects with other people. Unbelievably fun! But you may not have the same goals as they do. They may not have the same priorities that you do. They may disappear from the face of the earth, or get married and start popping out babies, or turn out to be lamentable flakes, or you may quarrel. Do not base your goals on anyone else. If you can pull people into your projects, do. But make sure that your relationship with them in a professional sense is clear-cut. There are roles to be played, and you must know what your roles are, and what you are going to do if someone suddenly cuts out on you.

Working with your husband or wife... that's tricky ground. My husband is willing to help when I need it, but the business is very clearly mine. My responsibility, my dream, and my liability. He is supportive and helpful, but he is clear about the fact that the business cannot depend on him unless I get to the point of hiring him as an employee, which he would resist anyway, because the business is my goal, not his. We are financially entwined because the business is a sole proprietorship and we are married, but we have very clear distinctions on the professional front. Our finances are completely, utterly and consistently kept separate from the business finances. I wouldn't suggest having it any other way.

Re-evaluate often

'But Elllllen,' I can hear you complaining. 'This is a lot of work. I don't know if I want to do this much work!'

You know what? That's okay.

There's no shame in getting a good-enough job and being happy with your life without attempting to change the world and dominate a market. The game plan I've chosen, that's a tremendous undertaking. I'm happy working that hard, but I realize that many, many people wouldn't be. Or that they have other equally important callings, like family. You don't have to be ambitious, and you aren't any less of a person for wanting to keep your life simple and your artistic career to a hobby.

I find more to admire in a person who can be happy working minimum wage retail everyday and playing Internet games every night than in any multi-millionaire who isn't content with his life. I don't care what your life's list of accomplishments is, and I don't care what your bank account says. Being happy, that's the ultimate goal, and if you can do that, you've made it.

Your goals, they should make you happy. And not just reaching those goals, but getting to them. If you look at yourself and you can't like where you are and what you're doing, you're probably doing the wrong thing. Maybe your goals aren't worth what you have to invest in them. Maybe your goals now aren't the same as when you started. Things like family and security start to be more important as you grow older.

My goals aren't exactly the same ones I started out with. They're flexible. You can change your goals, and you should, as you learn more about the path you thought you wanted to follow, and things that you can't anticipate or expect happen to you.

So I've got six-odd pages of words here, and you're wondering what my point is? My point is this: Know what you want to do, what will make you happy and feel good about yourself, and then go do it.

*Art is a verb in my vocabulary. To art: to draw or paint or sculpt or create. Often used to cover creative writing, as well.

I'd love to know if you found this helpful interesting.

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