The 12 Things Running a Kickstarter Taught Me About Creativity

Imagine waking up every morning for a month at the peak of the highest drop of the world’s scariest roller coaster. Every morning you’re right at the very edge, where your stomach is floating and just about to fall, where you can look down and see the plummet. And then you spend the day hurtling down and back, only to fall asleep along the way, waking up the next day right back where you were.

That’s a Kickstarter. I did one for 30 days. By all estimates, it was a staggering success. And it taught me a lot. I’d like to share these 12 things with you, because I think even though your thing(s) don’t look like my stuff, the lessons from 30 days in the trenches can still apply.

1. You’ll Never Know Where You Leave Fingerprints Until They’re Looked For

There’s a glut of procedural crime-detection shows. CSI:Duluth; Military Crime Solvers: Guam; CSI:Jack’s Bedroom. And in between all their softball action and banter, past all their alleged computer hacker scenes, they so often rely on little bits of powder to find a thumbprint to “nail the guy.” And it got me to thinking, you don’t know what you’ve touched until you go looking for all the places you’ve left fingerprints.

I didn’t know, I couldn’t gauge the imapct I’ve had on writers and gamers and creatives until I was asking people to exchange money for a product. I didn’t know where I had left fingerprints until over a thousand people plunked down their cash to the tune over of over a thousand dollars a day. My fingerprints were exposed with a little powder and little marketing. And it really got me thinking about how best to help other people leave better fingerprints all over.

You aren’t going to know who you impact where, how much, or when, but you can  ensure that the impression you leave is a positive one. Don’t be a shitgibbon. Don’t smear the landscape with your foul, noxious cloud of self-absorbed word ejaculate. Look to help others because it will help you too. And make an effort to stop thinking you’re a ghost amid the living, you leave fingerprints everywhere.

2. Ripples Happen, But The Lake Eventually Calms Back Down

There’s no way for me to accurately pinpoint the moments when I felt the most stress. Was it the third minute moreso than the ninth? Was it the final hour more than the first two? There are so many changes, so many times when putting yourself out there feels like you’re taking a giant or glacier-sized boulder and chucking it straight into the center of the lake that is your life.

The water is calm and glassy and totally perfect for Pinterest photography and then you go and fuck it all up with this giant rock of creative endeavor. A huge splash ensues, the glassy perfection is gone, and all you see are the ripples, the way the lake has changed and isn’t perfect anymore.

The lake, your life, it calms back down. It’s different because you’ve got this giant fucking boulder in it that wasn’t there before, but it does get back to looking nice. It’s a new normal, one that includes the boulder, and it’s just as great as the old normal, just different.

3. Love Give Love Give Love Joy

Shout-out to TV Crimes for this one. Why aren’t you listening? Seriously put them in your ears.

It sounds very new age crystal shop, but the best way I got through the days without turning into a gibbering pile of oily stress bowel movements and stressed out dry skin was by loving the ride I couldn’t control.

You cannot control, you cannot make other people give you money. You cannot force them to check out your work. You cannot make them care.

You can encourage them. You can lead them. You can suggest to them that they check it out. You can do everything in your power to appeal to them to consider doing it, but ultimately the choice is theirs. Their money, their time, their interest. All out of your control.

For a control-enjoying guy like me, that’s so beyond frustrating to accept. But, you have to. Learn to love that there’s so much of this you can’t control, yet you still have evidence that you’re succeeding. You’re never making people do it or else, yet there they are, checking out your stuff. You’re an observer to a rock concert in your honor. You’re given so many chances to love and be grateful for people’s time and support. The acts of gratitude pay greater dividends than the possible murder ballet you’d unleash by over-controlling things.

4. The Support Around You Makes A Huge Difference

No one should journey through the stress abattoir alone, and not just because having another person there means you can shove them between the deadly spinning blades in your place. Your support network, the net of people who care, can be an incredible boon if you let it be, and if you foster it to be one.

I don’t mean retreating to a crag of people clutching wine bottles like they’re partisans on the eve of battle, I mean putting people around you on the daily who look out for you, who ask how you’re doing, who ask (and then do) how best to help you on that particular day.

And this isn’t just the sounding boards upon who you crash your fears and doubts or speak your tentative “I think I might do…” plans. Those help, but you can’t only use that as a support. You’re not alone in any creative endeavor unless you choose to be. You can turn to friends, editors, agents, cover artists, readers, critique groups, all actual people with whom you can share the vulnerable, the hellacious, and the joyous. Stop thinking and acting like you have to do this alone so that it’s pure or better or because it’s what you have to do so that “it counts.” That’s a shitty way to neuter how great something could be if you stopped being a scared meatbag and asked for help to make something as awesome as you want it to be.

5. What You Say Perpetuates

Just like how you can put people around you to help, so too can you put out things from your brain and face that will help too. You, creator, set the tone for the climate and attitude around your efforts. Want it to be shitshow of complaints and doubts and shitty little cutesy GIFs? By all means then keep talking about how it’s so hard and how you think the little stack of pixels allegedly representing a cartoon bunny smashing their head against a a stack of pixels allegedly representing a desk really conveys what you mean.

If you think you can or think you can’t, you’re right.

Ditch the GIFs. Own your words. Own your feelings. Be responsible and vulnerable and honest and not a crotchmaggot.

If you want to surround yourself in an atmosphere of building towards success, where you celebrate the milestones and encourage other people to step up and step in to keep that going while you’re out doing other shit, then you have to be the first and most clear resource for that. Not necessarily the only, but you set the tone. And how you handle the shit that arises like scum deserving to be skimmed off your awesome broth is going to tell people how you want them to approach you and your creativity too.

You’re the boss of the whole sphere of your creativity.

6. Who Does It Better Is Fruitless

Comparison and competition is the angel of death. It’s the Ted McGinley Curse (google it) of creativity. There’s always going to be someone who’s doing a totally different thing than you in a different way that you’re going to want to say is better than your way.

You’re writing a book? Oh they’re making candles in the shape of animal feet. And for every 1000 words you put on paper, they’ve made nine giraffe hooves (hooves, right? giraffe toes sound creepy). Clearly there’s a 1:1 relationship between candles and books, so you suck and they’re the best.

Bullshit. Applesauce. Horsefeathers. Dicktits.

What someone else does, how they do it, that can be a great template, that can be an inspiration, but ultimately it comes down you doing your thing your way, and letting them do their thing their way.

With a Kickstarter, before you start, it can be a great idea to set yours up the way other people had theirs set up. But it’s completely nonsensical to measure how you’re doing to how they did however long ago. It would be like comparing your doctor now to the doctors of two centuries ago. The time is different, the environment is different. Sure they’re doctors, but one has a hacksaw and the other one has a machine that can visualize your brain’s electrical patterns.

Competing with other people, especially those who don’t and won’t realize you’re competing with them is an exercise in frustration. Your success is yours to carve out, and it’s going to look different than everyone else’s because you’re different than everyone else. You’re the only you. Stay that way.

7. Sometimes The Best Thing To Do Is No-Thing

Remember how we talked about control? Now where you gonna talk about its shitty sidekick micromanagement. There can be a great urge to tweak things along the way towards “finished product”, to try and get it “perfect”, thinking that if they liked this one idea expressed this way then they’ll totally love 10% more of that idea tacked on about a quarter paragraph to the left. In this age of metrics and charts and on-hand feedback, there can be a drive to constantly adjust in the hopes, however vain or valid, that you’ll hit the sweet spot and stay there so that your success is some unbroken super-perfect state.

Well, no. You can’t and shouldn’t constantly tweak everything. That way lies madness. It’s a road to exhaustion, because again, so much is out of your control. So at times, back the fuck off. Back. The Fuck. Off.

Build a sense of trust that you (and your support) have set up for success as best you can, and that any trends of success will continue without you constantly rubbing up on them like the bus is too crowded.

You want to get into the groove where success and production mesh, and sometimes that means you have to keep doing what you’re doing, not fiddle with it so it works better.

8. Don’t Forget Deodorant

The swell of succeeding, of monitoring, of ensuring that you’re doing a thing and it’s going well can be very consuming. You can lose hours and days and weeks to the investment of time and energy, and it’s easy to let things slide, because you can quickly term them as non-essential or just say you’ll do them later.

Keep that up though, and you’ll collapse into bed with your hands behind your head wondering why the room suddenly smells like old celery and onions that you soaked in kerosene and kept in a gym sock behind the refrigerator.

9. Is It About Stats Or The End Result

It’s one thing to set milestones for yourself, to say you’ve hit a certain mark and that you feel good about it. That’s great, and should be a happy-making part of production. The downside of those milestones is feeling like just because you missed one (like you wanted to write a 100,000 word book, but the story’s complete at 92,359), that your whole effort is wasted.

Stats are great, tracking stats is lovely (right up until the point you find yourself competing, see above), but don’t let that distract or derail from the fact that ultimately you have a goal in mind – a book, a piece of art, a thing, something you can give to people, whatever.

10. Schedules and Battleplans

You have to bring order to this chaos. It’s not going to magically arise by itself, and it’s not going to be there without you giving it a genesis and some momentum. Knowing what you want is totally separate from knowing how you’re going to make it happen. This is also something where you can bring in that support network, because while the production might be best done solo, you don’t exist solo, and it’s useful to build a roadmap to success when you’ve got someone else on hand to tell you that you’ve labyrinthed yourself into a corner.

Make a schedule, make a plan that you can commit to consistently, even if it’s not dramatic or hyper showy-offy. Consistency and discipline are going to carry you so much farther and longer than you think, especially in the early days where everything is exciting and burning borrowed momentum of newness.

11. It Is Every Ride At Every Carnival Ever, All At Once

I am not a fan of many carnival rides. I like the tilt-a-whirl, the scrambler, a decent merry-go-round, and a nice ferris wheel. That’s about it. I could give a shit about high speed dark tunnels and things that loop. They make me queasy, they make me anxious, I’m always afraid of losing my glasses in the dark on some stupid whipping bend.

Sometimes, the paths we take to success are all the rides we like and don’t like, every day for as long as it takes us to get the thing made. There are turns and darkness and anxiety, and there’s fun in squishy corners.  But you can prepare a little for it by knowing you’re going to run into parts you like and don’t like, but not always where those parts are going to be. Again, lean on support, trust yourself, and keep being consistent and disciplined in your march towards success.

12. Love, give love, joy, give joy love.

If you’re not in a place to love yourself throughout the process, if you’re not in a place to love the support you receive, if you’re not in a place to love the people who recognize from the outside, if you’re not at a place where you can recognize from your side of the fence that success is changing you for the better, that you can accomplish your goals with consistency and discipline and a good support network and a plan, then you’re in for a struggle.

Running a campaign about a project I love, creating more of that project to love, CHANGED ME. For the better. And it can keep me changed or not, that’s my choice. (Hint: It’s going to, I am liking myself more, and not just because I raised over $30,000)

It’s just easier to be less of a dick sometimes when the things so often worrying you aren’t worrying you anymore

 

2013 In Review, Part 2: Actions

I don’t know if you know this, but mattresses are expensive. I start this post off saying that because I need a new one. And I know I need a new one because the one I’ve got has this Sea of Tranquility crater in it after many many years of loyal service. But I wake up with a sore back and erratic sleep, which makes posting something contemplative a little like trying to swim laps in a pool of oatmeal. But, let’s soldier on.

2013 was a good year, though you wouldn’t really know by looking at the blog. Sure, I got some really nice response to when I sliced and diced Agents of SHIELD, and I can draw attention when I get personal, but on the whole, I get the impression I’ve got sort of a stealth readership: they come in, read something in multiple chunks, then go. Maybe because I write such long things (I don’t see that changing anytime soon), maybe because I seem to lean heavily on the side of “intense” topics, but I don’t see the great swells of readers come in and stay around.

The same can be said for Twitter, where this year I gained quite a few followers, lost a lot of followers, and still regularly mashed the “intense” button pretty hard. I don’t see that changing anytime soon either. This lack of immediate and large audience can screw with your head in big and small ways, and does a marvelous job at times of making you feel like you’re whispering in a canyon or humming opera at a rock concert. So if I’m ever asked, “Who’s your audience?” I have to pause and preface it with, “I think my audience is …” rather than give anything definitive. That’s something I really want to discover and develop in the coming year.

When I think about 2013, I see three things – I see tremendous professional successes. I see attempts at new opportunities. I see the things that didn’t work out.  So that I don’t end on a downer, let’s juggle this order a little.

Tremendous Professional Successes

2013 was another huge year for me as The Writer Next Door. My name is on games I’m ridiculously proud of (sometimes not even as editor), I began developing systems (for LARPs of all things) and found I have a decent eye for design, and I spread out past novels and games and into theatre, television and film. It doesn’t matter that a lot of that work won’t see the light of day, what matters is that I did it once, and can do it again. And I want to. I just got a game in the mail yesterday, and seeing “Editing and Development” as where I’m credited really hit home that this is my job, this is what I do, and what I do best. And I’m going to keep doing it, full tilt.

I don’t normally talk finances, because my lifestyle is my own, and I don’t have to justify my purchases or my habits to anyone, but I can proudly say that 2013 was 45% more profitable than 2012, and was my best professional year to date. I believe this is due in no small part to my continued work with all the talented and amazing companies I am lucky enough to be associated with, call friends and colleagues. My success is due to your creativity and efforts, and I am grateful. I’ll even bring in the companies who haven’t paid me yet (there’s two of you that are significantly outstanding), because 2014 is the year your successes will bear fruit, I have every confidence.

You want specifics? Designers and Dragons. Becoming. Paranet Papers. Ribbons. Double Tap. Fate Worlds. Khan of Mars. Those are just the ones I can think of without opening my Dropbox and looking at the 2057 items with a 2013 date on them.

Let’s not forget the Johnversations, the GenCon seminars, the panels all over the Double Exposure circuit and even an appearance on the West Coast. I discovered that aside from lighting, which I still suck at, I can put together a pretty sweet presentation or workshop, and get good reviews. (Especially if the topic is mental health or writing).

Big huge year. A catapult of a year, launching me to bigger things ahead. But it wasn’t always smooth sailing.

The Things That Didn’t Work Out

If you’re playing our home game (defined as following me on social media), you’ll note that I took some pretty big swings at relationships and a social life this year. How’d they do? I refer you to my lack of long term relationship and numerous heartaches. Did I learn anything? Yeah. I got my heart just beaten to a fine pulp, and I’m still upright and kicking. Maybe it’s not 100%, but I’m still on my feet. It’s crazy and scary and really difficult for me to quantify all that works and all that doesn’t, but I keep trying. I know now more than ever, I want someone in my life to share the awesome with, and I know that I’m not easy to be with or be around sometimes. But I’m willing to try. I don’t know what else to say about it.

There were quite a few projects that didn’t get off the ground. For various reasons, plans and money didn’t congeal into drafts or crowdsourcing, and a lot of great people’s great ideas didn’t see the light of day. Here’s to hoping 2014 is more fertile ground for them to bear successful fruit. What that taught me is that I do sort of know how to advise and counsel someone through a Kickstarter, which is good, since I’ll have my own in 2014 (see below). What it also taught me is that there’s a lot more professional knowledge in my head than I thought, and I am not the failure engine many people thought I was a decade ago. I’d like to think I grew out of that.

I also started my own project, The Great Game, after watching my friends take ideas first mentioned on Gchat and turn them into books that are now on my shelves. I worked hard on TEN drafts of it, applying the discipline and focus I have to paring down ideas and building something. It was ambitious, it was very detailed. And it didn’t work. Well, that’s not true. It worked in my head. It worked when I ran it. It worked because far more of it existed as thoughts in my head that I termed “obvious” and never bothered to write down, rather than existed in the pages I did write. When other people ran it, it stalled out, choked by its blank spots and over-ambition. The Great Game lays gutted in my Dropbox. It was a wonderful teaching device.

It’s also a great segue.

New Opportunities

So you’d think that with one game dead, I’d be discouraged. I was for a little while, and I did let that doubt eat at me, wondering if I’d always be a design bridesmaid and never the bride (I look awful in white). But once I was done thinking I should give up entirely, and after I watched a couple Rocky movies, I got up and looked at what I built, and saw it for what it was – an early skeleton. Taking those pieces, I began a new skeleton, and can say now that The Great Game has become Noir World. The scope is different, and I will detail all of this on Noir World page (which I’m going to work on after this post goes up), but it’s more in line with the stories I like to play and the characters that interest me. Also, using *World rules gives me a framework and eases some of the design pressure off. And I like the system. With a few tweaks and new bells and whistles, I can have something of my own. With over 10000 words already, I’m on my way.

2014 is also the year I’m going to watch more friends make more things. Tracy Barnett has what I imagine is the most ambitious inclusive project I’ve ever seen in Iron Edda, and somehow I get to edit it, in whatever shape it develops. I’m going throw money at Kevin Kulp for Timewatch. And at some point in the year, I’m going to join them in crowdsourcing Noir World, at least so I can pay for art and layout. Who knows, maybe I’ll get an award or recognition at least. That would be cool.

And there will be more seminars at more conventions. Maelstrom. Crossroads, if they’ll have me. Origins. All new places. All new adventures.

So that was 2013.

Oh, and there’s a new Doctor. And more Sherlock. And I bought a 3DS. And I have several terabytes of media storage. And I rebuilt my bathroom. And I made more Spotify playlists.

If you’re wondering why this post isn’t laden with resolutions, it’s because I believe quite firmly that anything you can resolve to do at the end of one year, you can resolve to do at any other time of the year, and I have no idea what’s stopping you from just resolving to do it, then doing it.

Here’s to 2013, you had some awesome parts (which all seem to be in the summer) and some sucky parts (some summer) and lots of amazing things in between.

2014, let’s do this.