Struggling to Make Art? 25 Tips for Getting Your Shit Together

Yuna Final Fantasy X-2

The news sucks. What’s more, it’s not just the news, because so many people are affected by what’s happening — and there’s a lot going on. If you’re an artist of any stripe, you may feel unmotivated right now. Why make art when things are so awful? It might even feel selfish. But, right now, we’re in danger of losing two things: ourselves and our ability to help others either through our art or by falling into depression. Here’s something I learned the hard way that I want to share with you: sometimes, the best way to help others is to help yourself first, so you have more to give. It’s hard to do that if you’re not doing well yourself, because you’ll burn out emotionally and slow down work-wise. Unfortunately, many of us cannot afford that financially, emotionally, etc. And, if you want to know the truth? If you’re struggling you are not alone. Some people can voice that frustation while others can’t. But, this current state of the world is affecting everyone in so many different ways.

So, how do you keep making art? Have a life despite this crushing social zeitgeist? Plan for the future? I don’t know your personal situation, but I’d like to offer some suggestions to help you retain your focus and stay motivated. Your mileage may vary!

1. Participate in a theme month. Inktober is just around the corner! If you can’t draw with pen and ink, don’t be afraid to modify the requirements to do your thing. Small, motivational themes like flash fiction or knitting squares can help pump up your artistic volume.

2. Set tiny goals. When you’re feeling great and everything’s rolling your way, your normal productivity might be 1,000 words a day. If it’s hard to achieve your typical goals right now, set the bar lower. What you’re looking for is consistency. After you accomplish those tiny goals, then raise them up bit by bit until you’re back up to speed.

3. Change your morning routine. I started doing this a few weeks ago, and it’s made a huge difference. First, I make the bed. Then, I go for a walk, and following that over coffee I write my morning pages. While sometimes morning pages are challenging due to work constraints, identifying things I do in the morning before work helps keep me grounded.

4. Try meditation. I tend to do this at night, and I’m not great about getting into a practice. I tend to do this during yoga, which I know I don’t do enough of. Heh. However, I have other friends who swear by this. There’s a few apps you can try that are perfect for beginners, including Headspace.

5. Maintain your creative space. If you’ve been following my blog, you know that my office has been… Well, a disaster. I get halfway through cleaning it up, and I dive into another project… Then poof! It all goes to hell. I spent a solid week going through stuff again, this time assigning smaller projects and goals to the tasks I didn’t finish. Having a clutter free space makes a huge difference! I now have a functional office and, what’s more, I don’t feel like I need to drop what I’m doing to clean it up.

6. Revisit your To-Do list methodology. Okay, so the trick I found was to have separate lists for home, work, and personal. I keep them all in a dot matrix notebook separated by tabs. What separating the lists has done, is keep clear categorizations of my tasks by generic subject. This allows me to have a visible, running track record of what I’m doing (or not as the case may be)! There are apps, too, that can help you with this including Wunderlist and a fun list-turned-game called Habitica.

7. Plan to reconnect. Are there people you haven’t talked to in a while? Friends, family, or peers? Acquaintances you’ve meant to write? Instead of putting that off, turn names into items on your To Do list and reconnect. If you’re not sure where to start, try updating your address book or use your phone to aggregative data. It’s one of the things that’s on my list!

8. Manage your social media time. There’s a couple of online tools you can use on your browser to help you limit distractions. Hard to use them if you have news to share, of course! Other methods of helping you manage your engagements: a timer (or a set time when you’ll check in), limit social media during work hours (see below), only log in during the weekends or special Q&A events, etc. You can also use tools like Hootsuite to wrangle your accounts as well. I find that this is two separate tasks, though, because one is about focusing on the time you log in, while the other is about managing your content.

9. Schedule regular work hours. This is a tip I picked up from Robin D. Laws. Freelancers like myself often taxed with working long or even irregular hours. One method of dealing with motivation is to “go to work”. A 9 to 5 schedule may be unrealistic for you, but I recommend career-minded artists to seriously treat your art as a job — because it is a job. The more you value what you do as an artist, the stronger your motivation will be to continue making art.

10. Check out pro/semi-pro organizations. Organizations like the SFWA can be incredibly valuable to you, because they allow you to connect with other like-minded individuals. While they’re not for everyone, they can be a wonderful way to feel part of your genre or field. Plus, they can help you fill in the gaps in your knowledge. Many of them have resources and downloads to help artists.

11. Schedule a mini-retreat. If you need to get away and completely change your environment, consider doing just that! Often, a retreat can be cost prohibitive so here are some other ideas: go analog and have fun camping, buddy up and visit a friend you haven’t seen in a while, check out deals in off-peak travel times (e.g. Tuesday through Thursday),

12. Take a workshop or class. Many, many authors like Cat Rambo and Writing the Other have online workshops for writing that are of variable fees. YouTube! has a fantastic selection of hands on art classes and tutorials you can dive into as well. Plus, there are workshops you can apply to, such as Launch Pad, Viable Paradise, etc. or workshops at conventions, too.

13. Try a new medium or genre. Sometimes, to get a fresh perspective, you have to get out of your comfort zone. If the words just aren’t coming out, turn your artistic self upside down. If you design and write games, try your hand at a novella. If you normally digitally paint, try singing. New methods of making art are beneficial in other ways, too, because as you try something new it allows your core focus to rest a bit and helps shake up your creative mind.

14. Set Quarterly “New Year’s” Resolutions. One of the things I learned with my Make Art Not War 2017 Challenge, was that most participants dropped off in March. Knowing this, why not set a quarterly resolution instead? By taking that same “I will” or “I pledge” resolution and breaking it off into quarterly increments, you’ll have a better chance accomplishing it.

15. Write a Letter to Your Future Self. What do you want to do as an artist? And, more importantly, why do you want to make art? It can be hard to think of yourself sometimes, which is why I suggest writing a heartfelt letter that only you will read. Why the future? One of the things I’ve found, is that you need to give yourself something to look forward to otherwise you’ll burn out. Setting goals and resolutions do accomplish that, but a letter is about how you feel. It’s about your hope, your desires, your wishes–which are all important to making art.

16. Find an Artistic Hero. There’s something to be said for finding an author, artist, etc. whose career you’d like to emulate. Mind you, and I do say this with gravitas, do this in a non-creepy or problematic way. Finding a hero doesn’t mean hounding or expecting them to help you, nor does it mean this person is necessarily pure and perfect in their own right. All artists are human, after all, and we are flawed. What it does mean, is that you identify positive attributes of an artist who exhibits what you’d like to do. This is another source of inspiration to help you through your blocked state.

17. Identify a personal mantra. Speaking of hope, one of the common mantras I hear is: “Fake it ’til you make it.” I tend to revise that statement to: “Fake it ’til you become it.” One of my personal faves is “I got this!” Then, write that sucker down and post it above your monitor. Remember: YOU GOT THIS.

18. Make art as gifts. The holidays are a great time to give your art as gifts. Yes, I do think it’s appropriate, and yes I absolutely think it’s an awesome idea! If you’re not comfortable with this, consider making your own cards instead. It’s a little bit of “you”, and you still get the benefit of giving a piece of yourself.

19. Donate a percentage of your sales to charity. If you’re a pro artist and you’re selling your work, think about setting up a charitable donation where ten percent of the proceeds goes to charity. You could do this for an item or across the board. If you have the means, this can help you feel as if you’re doing something to help. There’s a ton of charities out there to pick from. For artist-facing, you could check out Hero Initiative or the RPG Creators Relief Fund for starters.

20. Assign Dollars to Your Time. In this list, I’ve covered emotional and mental aspects of the work. This last tip is about the financial aspects of your work, whether you’re a hobbyist or a professional. If none of the above tips help, you might consider taking a fiscal approach and assign yourself an hourly rate, rate per piece, per word, etc. By assigning a financial value to everything you do, you can get a sense of where you’re placing your efforts.

21. Use a Productivity Timer or Timesheet. Along those lines, you can categorize and track where you’re spending your time with a productivity timer like Toggl or MyHours. You may need to account for the time spent inputting data into the app, but to get your shit together give yourself three months. The first month sees how you’re spending your time, the second is to adjust for any changes you make, and the third is to see your time in practice.

22. Change your deadline visibility. If you are tracking deadlines with milestones or other dates on your calendar, try using colored lines with markers or (my favorite) Stabilo pens on a physical calendar or planner to indicate when a project stops and starts. That can help you see, very clearly, how many projects you’ve got going on at the same time. Another method that can help you, is to try your hand at bullet journaling to get a sense of how much you have on your plate.

23. Buddy up! Find someone to check in with on a semi-regular basis. The goal of a buddy is for you to help each other. This type of arrangement works great if you have boundaries and expectations clearly established ahead of time. A mutually beneficial arrangement like this works wonderfully if your goals are aligned and you’re in a similar frame of mind for your creative efforts. It can also work well if you don’t create in the same field, because the whole point of a buddy is to be a cheerleader for each other. Plus, you get to learn something new and interesting from someone else!

24. Interview other Artists – One way to break past the isolation and frustration you’re experience is to interview other artists. Interviewing other artists for your blog or social media also offers both of you content; they get to promote their stuff, and you get to highlight them for your readers. Interviews can also be tailored or small, too, you could do three-question interviews as opposed to ten or fifteen. Or, alternatively, you could simply reach out privately and ask other artists how they’re dealing with the current political atmosphere.

25. Get Professional Help – If you’ve tried everything there is to try and you’re still not able to produce art, please consider getting professional help. Be kind to yourself! It matters! That may be a sign something else is wrong, and I encourage you to get the care you need.

Mood: Hovering in my chair.
Caffeinated Beverages Consumed: A LOT.
Work-Out Minutes Logged Yesterday: Pokewalk.
In My Ears: Air conditioner
Game Last Played: Final Fantasy VIII
Book Last Read: Loads for work.
Movie/TV Show Last Viewed: Last Week Tonight With John Oliver
Latest Artistic Project: Make Art Not War 2017 Challenge and Rules
Latest Releases: Over the Edge for Dungeons & Dragons 5th Edition, Dagger of Spiragos for Scarred Lands.
Current State of Projects: Read my latest project update. New project update coming when I get time.

MANW: April Month-End Recap

Wonder Woman Avatar

This month was unusual on multiple levels. For starters, I went on a writer’s retreat to catch a break, and I decided to pledge for CampNaNoWriMo. Then, life happened and all the things I didn’t plan for that were above and beyond the norm. Travel. 99+ Notifications. Emotional upheaval. Problem-solving. Friends and family. And then, the little things started to slip, because deadlines don’t stop for anybody. I did make art, and I had a lot of fun painting, lettering, and diving into my original stories. It remained a priority for me, but I wound up making up for lost time. This, to me, was a sign that Make Art Not War was working, because I treated it like a commitment that I couldn’t ignore.

Now, on the other side of this, I just want to make art and get myself sorted. In May, I am taking a break from Facebook and Twitter. Work-related announcements and posts will still go live, but I’m not and can’t check in for personal use. I really need the silence right now, and am looking forward to diving into the pile.

With that in mind, here’s how I did:

My Make Art Not War 2017 Challenge pledge:

  • I pledge to devote one hour a day to my original art.
  • If I don’t feel motivated, I pledge to write down the reasons why I wanted to take this challenge for fifteen minutes or one-to-three pages whichever comes first.
  • I pledge to mark down on the calendar whenever I complete a day’s efforts.
  • As the challenge creator, I pledge to create a weekly accountability post every Wednesday beginning on January 9th. Comments will be open. Hashtag #makeartnotwar2017 #manw2017
  • I pledge to check into social media twice a week for personal use, and once a month with my local community of artists and writers.

April 2017 Challenge Recap

  • Due to unforeseen events, making art every day was a challenge. I did add extra hours on a couple of Saturdays, but there were a few points when I didn’t feel like making art at all.
  • Motivation was a problem for part of this month. I was willing, but that wasn’t enough to close the loop between “Here’s an idea!” and “Here’s all this shit going on!” So, I treated myself to one or two days off where I did nothing but play Pokemon Go and wander around. Following those short breaks, that drastically helped my motivation. Self-care is crucial to
  • Tracking didn’t happen. In fact, I’m realizing this is the first thing to go.
  • Social media time wasn’t managed, but I don’t feel that impacted my motivation or my mood. Monitoring it was a distraction, tapped into my need to remain informed, and an emotional release when the ending was in sight.

I did feel another shift when I started working out more, and that helped to turn things around as well. I don’t feel this month was a loss, and I do think I did just about as well as I could have.

SPEED Theme Recap

April’s theme was SPEED. As an optional theme, I thought this was fun when I needed a boost. Where the theme didn’t work, however, is when I was unfocused or didn’t have a clear image of what I was making in my mind. The increased rates of production worked out great for me when I knew what I was doing, and I feel this is something to keep in mind for the future. While word sprints can help get past writer’s block, the main issue with them is that, for me, a clear lack of direction results in wasted words.

That’s it for April. May starts tomorrow, and I’ll reveal the new theme then. Thanks for reading!

There’s No One True Path For Artists

The Hobbit Gandalf Avatar

In place of today’s Make Art Not War 2017 check-in, I wanted to talk about something I’ve seen pop up recently among new writers. It’s about the idea that if you don’t get a prestigious opportunity you’ll never make it.

When you’re just starting out, you are full of enthusiasm and passion. Maybe you’re a writer or an artist or a musician. You’re doing your thing, grooving along, but making art isn’t enough for you. You want to do more, so you do some research and talk to your friends. Maybe you find a mentor, or maybe you model your next steps after someone who’s already made it. You go to school, audition, apply, set up shop, enter a contest.

Failure isn’t an option, because you’ve internalized that the path you’ve chosen is the only way to get what you want. It’s the most prestigious contest, school, publication, venue, or internship but, while you know you’re up against stiff competition, you are shocked to learn you’ve been rejected. Now, you’re crushed. You will never be a professional artist. You’ve failed. That was the one path, the only option, and now you’re totally screwed.

I cannot tell you how incredibly damaging this mentality is to you and your inner artist. There is no one true path, because there are literally thousands of ways to be an artist, sell your work, and connect with an audience. Besides that, there are hundreds of things outside of your control. Sometimes, for example, you could take all the “right” steps and wind up with a crappy editor or a book launch that happens to coincide with a natural disaster or glaring headline. Other times, your venue could have awful acoustics and your mic could go out (1) and yet the show must go on.

Hanging your entire career as an artist on one path or one opportunity is all but guaranteed to crush you. Maybe not the first time, but what about the second? Or the third? Making art is what lays the foundation for being a professional artist, but having a career isn’t that cut and dry. You will have success, you will have failure, and you will have varying degrees of both. No doubt, you’ll learn this as you continue to build your career and have a life, because the unexpected can turn you sideways. You crash your car, watch a friend die, get pregnant, are laid off from your day job.

The bad things that happen to you are normal. They can happen to anyone, and they are not a sign of your failure. There are so many things that make up the story of a life, and there’s no possible way to predict everything that can and will happen to you. This, dear reader, is why I feel learning how to be resilient is more important than pinning all your hopes and dreams on one action. People who aren’t, who have internalized the lie that success is granted via a linear, uphill climb, tend to look down on other artists who haven’t made “it” in their minds.

To be an artist is to walk your unique path. It may not be exactly the same as anyone else’s, but it is yours. Sometimes, you’ll get stuck at a crossroads or you’ll trip and fall. Sometimes, you’ll go really, really fast and the wind will be at your back. Enjoy it. This is your journey.

(1) Mic problems? This has happened to me more times than I can count.

MANW Week 13: Month-End Recap

The Tick Weapons Lab Avatar

Good morning, challengers! If you’re just joining us, you can check out the full set of rules for my Make Art Not War 2017 Challenge. As always, this challenge isn’t about me–it’s about you. Hopefully, these posts are motivating you to make art and find your light.

Time to revisit my pledge!

My Make Art Not War 2017 Challenge pledge:

  • I pledge to devote one hour a day to my original art.
  • If I don’t feel motivated, I pledge to write down the reasons why I wanted to take this challenge for fifteen minutes or one-to-three pages whichever comes first.
  • I pledge to mark down on the calendar whenever I complete a day’s efforts.
  • As the challenge creator, I pledge to create a weekly accountability post every Wednesday beginning on January 9th. Comments will be open. Hashtag #makeartnotwar2017 #manw2017
  • I pledge to check into social media twice a week for personal use, and once a month with my local community of artists and writers.

March 2017 Challenge Recap

  • I had no problem making art every day.
  • Motivation hasn’t been a problem. Sometimes, I do feel out of the loop because I haven’t been online as much. The only way forward, however, is to make art. Can’t sell a blank page!
  • Tracking? Eh, I fell off the wagon there. House guests, trip/con planning, and the pain and agony of adulting really soured my mood. More on this shortly.
  • Social media? TOTALLY MANAGED. (Finally! YAY!) Future community time? Also planned.

All in all, I think this was a fairly productive challenge month. I felt my priorities shifting 100% to work (which is good) and more reading (which is very good). Doing that, allowed me to better spend my free time knowing I am doing everything I can to get shit done. That’s a good feeling!

Adulting blows, because it’s boring as hell and it’s not as exciting as writing a new story or making a gift for someone. But, it is part of being human on planet Earth, unfortunately, which means that it’s necessary to offset that filing/appointments/life, the universe, and everythingTM decision-making crap with a reminder of the good stuff. That can be hard in today’s climate, but no matter what age we’re in that little bit of light can be found.

PLANT Theme Recap

March’s theme was PLANT. I decided on this theme to ease off of “big picture” planning and focus on the small stuff–especially after February’s ORGANIZE theme. PLANT encouraged you to spend this month accomplishing small, mini-goals. Even if you did a handful, that adds up quick! And, knocking off a few minor to-do list items can help build your confidence as an artist, too.

To tap into PLANT-ing the seeds for my future, I focused on outlining–which isn’t something I normally do. Then, I started working on a few scenes for each story just to get started in preparation for Camp NaNoWriMo. I also revisited my “morgue”, which is where my stories go to die, and the 100s of e-mails I have filled with story ideas. From there, once I grab ideas from the dozens of journals I have lying around, I’ll probably put together a spreadsheet. I’ve also marked down two settings I need to create setting bibles for; they are massive, massive lumbering beasts that can populate games, stories, comics, etc. Additionally, I did focus on spring cleaning, organizing my art supplies more, and I started taking stock of my beads. I do have a rough idea of how long a household project will take me, however, and that definitely helps me plan my day.

Out of this, what I learned was that outlines for fiction don’t come naturally to me, because I’ve always been more of a gardener (as opposed to an architect) when it comes to telling stories. My solution to writing has always been to write until I internalize what I need to, and I always wanted to try new approaches to see if I’d get longer projects done faster. Outlines have helped me recognize a story’s potential for conflict and character motivation, which are two things that are often lacking in stories if you’ve worked in games for as long as I have.

For some novels and long-term projects I’m working on outlines are essential; they’re also necessary in the world of media/tie-in for approvals, too. In the past, I’ve worked off one-to-three paragraph pitches for short stories, but now that my productivity cycle is longer? I have to use them–especially since I can’t drop everything to work on “one” project for months at a time. That would be glorious, if that were the case, but to stay in business I have to do more than one thing.

For April, I am embracing Camp NaNoWriMo and am in a cabin with other writers from my agency. April’s theme will be SPEED! It takes inspiration from the many one hour, one thousand words writing sprints the NaNoWriMo team conducts. Watch for my upcoming post about how (and why) this theme can be a lot of fun!

    Mood: Focused like sharks with laser beams on their head.
    Caffeinated Beverages Consumed: I stopped counting.
    Work-Out Minutes Logged Yesterday: Housework
    In My Ears: Nada
    Game Last Played: Final Fantasy X-2 Remastered
    Book Last Read: The Oracle
    Movie/TV Show Last Viewed: ONCE Upon a Time
    Latest Artistic Project: Make Art Not War 2017 Challenge and Rules
    Latest Releases: In Volo’s Wake for Dungeons & Dragons 5th Edition. Read my end-of-the-year list of releases for an overview of what I’ve put out for 2016.
    Current State of Projects: Read my latest project update. New project update coming this month!

Looking for Monica’s books and games that are still in print? Visit Monica Valentinelli on Amazon’s Author Central or a bookstore near you.


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