Saturday, June 26, 2010

The Winds of Change

Although it still seems like yesterday that I started sharing some of the fruits of my creativity with the rest of the blogosphere, I guess I've been doing what I do for... a while. I'm not even talking about my professional life or anything. I'm just talking about creativity in general -- art, words, life, emotion. Different aspects of what I consider my raw essence to be made of at its core.

In that amount of time, I've read many, many articles offering advice to aspiring creationists on how to stay productive, stay creative, generate ideas, and so forth. Some of it's good or even great advice. Some? Not so much. However, the directive I dislike the most is also one of the ones I see popping up with the most consistency. "Force yourself to create on a regular basis. Do it every day whether you feel like it or not. That's the key to lasting success."

Now, I'm hardly knocking productivity or consistency. I'm a big fan of them both and I strive to embody both to the greatest extent possible. I've just never thought of art as something that could successfully be forced into the world, kicking and screaming. Believe me when I say I've tried it. I feel that it shows quite obviously when I've done something just for the sake of being able to say I'm staying productive, as opposed to when I've done it in a frenzy of true, unbridled inspiration. I like my inspired pieces, but I can't say the same for the ones that had to be strong-armed into existence every step of the way.

Creativity ebbs and flows for many reasons and I truly believe that unless we're talking about something you're doing for a client that has a deadline attached, you're only shooting yourself in the foot if you try to make yourself create when you don't really want to. At best, you'll wind up creating something that... well... kind of sucks and lacks any kind of a soul. At worst, you could eventually find yourself hating the act of creation and seeing it as a chore to be avoided at all costs. Art should never be that, in my opinion. It should be a haven you feel like you can run to when you have something to say that can't quite be expressed in any other way. If it feels any other way, you're doing it wrong... seriously.

My own relationship with my creativity has been... interesting to say the very least. I have said so often on my other blogs, but I consider myself to be an artist to my core. Art isn't just something I do or make. It's an essential part of how I see and approach the world that I personally couldn't imagine life without. That doesn't change according to how productive I am at a given time.

I've had periods in my life during which I was very creative. Downright prolific, even. During those periods, I might have created a new piece of visual art -- or even two -- from start to finish every day. I'd be the same in regards to my writing. I remember times when I was actually writing and posting so much new material each day that I was worried about my readers getting tired of hearing from me, even if the material was really substantial and inspired.

Then there have been periods of dormancy where I never once felt moved to paint or write a thing. It wasn't for lack of good ideas, because I get those constantly. It was for lack of comfort, freedom or security in my life. For that reason, I've learned to use the intensity of my own creative drive as a means to assess the truth of how I really feel about a given situation, because the thing is... I can lie to myself. However, I can't lie to my creativity. The more creative and on fire for the actual act of sitting down and pouring my soul into my art I feel, the happier and better adjusted I find I really am at a given time. On the other hand, if I have to force myself? Something's not right at the Circle K and sooner or later, I will have to think about knocking down a few walls.

I don't really care to discuss my current living situation in depth as far as this particular blog goes. This is a place for me to talk about art, writing, the creative process, and so forth -- not my family drama or personal problems. However, suffice it to say that my current situation is.... insufficient. I haven't created a new piece of artwork or completed a new piece of creative writing in a very, very long time and as I said above, that's indicative of a very bad fit and a strong need to change the scenery to something more apt to nurture a creative spirit like mine. My fiancé and I are doing just that very, very soon and I am excitedly looking forward to it and all that it could mean for my drive to create.

I've been productive professionally for sure, but I haven't taken much time to explore my personal creativity in a long, long while. I've been feeling some artistic stirrings as my life moves into its next phase though, hence the opening of this blog despite the fact that I'm not actively painting, drawing or writing creatively right now. That's going to change very soon and I'm truly excited about the shift I feel coming within the next few weeks as far as my output goes. It's in the air for sure. Can you feel it?

Friday, June 4, 2010

How Did You Become a Freelance Writer?

As a writer, I naturally know a lot of other writers who feel the same way about writing that I do. I'd say that at least 75% of them fantasize about being paid to do what they love best someday. That being the case, I get asked this particular question more than any other, therefore making it a pretty good subject to address in one of my first real posts here.

Truth be told, I got into freelance writing more or less by accident and I got into it relatively recently. Growing up, I'd always considered art to be more my calling. Throughout my school years, I was known as "that girl who can draw really well" and I think most people assumed that I would eventually become an artist or a designer of some sort as far as a career goes.

I'd always written, of course, and I was good at that as well. However, most of my writing was either done for school assignments or privately in one of the many journals I've kept over the years, so writing more or less went unnoticed as a potential marketable talent I might have had, especially in my own eyes. It's not that I didn't think my writing was any good. I just never figured other people would be interested in anything I had to say, so I just kept it to myself.

I guess the way I saw my own writing started to change when I discovered the wonderful virtual world that is the internet. My first blog was my little personal one over on LiveJournal that I've had for years. Logically I knew that people kept blogs and that other people read them, but like I said above -- I had no real reason to think that people would want to read about my life. I was working as a Macy's salesgirl at the time. I considered my entire existence to be incredibly boring. When I opened my LiveJournal, it was just meant to be an extension of my beloved paper journals. I was honestly surprised when people found it, liked what they read, and wanted to read more.

It was at that point that I started to really see my writing as something that might actually have value for someone other than myself. Eventually I got back into my creative writing, which I really hadn't focused on since I was a kid. I did the same with my poetry. I shared a lot of it with my new audience and everyone just loved it. It was at that point that I started thinking I might want to shoot for putting out a novel someday or maybe trying to get a poem or two published in a magazine. I eventually got into participating in web-based writing events like NaNoWriMo and I kept up with my blogging for fun and self-expression as well.

I still don't know if I was truly serious about writing for a living yet. After all, trying to make a living doing any kind of poetry or creative writing is as much of a gamble as trying to do it producing fine art. However, I eventually changed my mind about that when I got into writing informative content. The first writing community I joined that revolved around that kind of content was Helium. One of my NaNoWriMo friends had an account and I thought it looked like fun, so I signed up for a Helium page of my own.

At first I just went to town submitting articles on topics I knew a lot about or felt like writing on. Then one day I discovered their marketplace section. Real publishers and potential clients submit their requests for content they need. Then writers on Helium submit articles for the buyer to choose from. If the buyer picks yours, then you get money... and in some cases, it's really good money, too. I submitted a couple one day just for the hell of it and to my great surprise, they actually sold. Then I did it again... and sold even more. At that point, I realized I was onto something.

Once I realized that there was apparently money in being able to provide informative content on demand, I did my homework on it to see how I could make it work for me. That's when I found out about some of the more serious freelance communities out there that were created to help clients and providers find each other and build relationships. Elance and Guru are two examples. I actually met my very first regular writing clients on Elance. I still use Elance when I'm looking to make a little extra money or make some new contacts.

From there, my little one-woman writing business just grew in the same way any other business grows. Clients who were happy with my work referred me to friends of theirs who could use my services. I even wound up meeting some clients that were thrilled to find out that I double as a fine artist, eventually commissioning artwork from me as well.

I truly love what I do for a living. I get to spend my days doing something I enjoy and that I sincerely feel I'm good at. I get to meet really interesting people and be part of a really wide variety of different projects. Honestly, I've gotten to write about subjects I never would have even considered before including military weapons, green energy, and even the stock market. I've gotten to write about a number of things that are of great personal interest to me as well, like food, wine, animal care, or astrology.

But is freelance writing a good fit for you?

That's a question you really need to ask yourself before you decide once and for all that you want to do what I do. Sure, being able to write for a living is awesome, but I think a lot of people have illusions about what my job is really like. For one thing, everyone who knows me thinks my job is easy and that it really doesn't take any effort. They just figure "all she does is sit at home on her computer and type all day" the same way they do when they come home from work and sit down to surf the web. They think every day is a day off for me and that I more or less have an unlimited amount of time on my hands to do as I please. They'd also be wrong.

To be honest? Making a living as a writer is much harder and more challenging than any other job I've ever had. To begin with, I'm in charge of finding my own work. If I don't stay on top of that, then I could easily wind up in a situation where I don't have enough money to pay my bills. I'm also in charge of disciplining myself and making sure I complete my work on time. Most people hate having a boss standing over them making sure they're working as hard as they should be, but they also fail to realize how much that boss has to do with keeping their productivity levels up where they should be. Then there's the task of actually collecting your pay. A freelancer has to handle that for themselves as well and occasionally you will run into a client who hems and haws in regards to paying you on time. It's a big pain in the ass.

The work is also really hard work sometimes. You're not just writing about whatever you feel like however you feel like. You're writing to please your client. You need to be able to be flexible enough to write well on many different subjects and in a number of different voices. You need to be a very thorough researcher and proofreader as well. Your clients will not be pleased with you should you make a habit of turning in work riddled with grammar errors and information that's not solid. They definitely won't want to hire you again... and really, making sure you get repeat business is the only way to make a decent living at this.

You're not going to get famous doing this either. Sure, sometimes you'll get something published in a magazine and wind up with a nice byline to point to. However, if it's a steady paycheck you're interested in, you need to also be willing to ghostwrite... at least until you reach a point where you've made a name for yourself doing other things. There are tons and tons of people who are looking for ghostwritten content for their sites, their brochures, their catalogs, and so forth. If you're good at what you do and you're diligent about looking for work and building your portfolio, then you'll have plenty to do.

Then there's the fact that just about everyone you know will fail to acknowledge the fact that you do indeed have a real full-time job because of the fact that you probably do it from your home on your laptop like I do. Teaching your friends and your family to respect your work time as work time, and to respect what you do as actual work in the first place, presents a huge challenge in and of itself, believe me. Depending on how open they are to the idea of jobs that exist outside the standard timecard-punching universe, they may never get it and you have to be all right with that.

No, I'm fine with all of that. So how do I get started?

I really couldn't tell you how you personally could best break into the writing business. If you have contacts in writing or publishing that you can use to your advantage, by all means do that! I, however, never had that advantage so I can only tell you what worked for me. First, I would recommend getting really, really good at what you do. That means actually writing. And often. Especially informative, article-type content, as that's what I've noticed the most demand for.

Sites like Helium or Constant Content are good places to start as far as getting your feet wet. Helium is an especially good one for beginning writers because they have a rating system in effect that helps you assess how good you actually are when it comes to this type of writing. They have a mentoring system in place that allows you to ask for help and criticism from more seasoned writers on the site as well. I don't spend as much time on Helium as I once did, but I actually still use the site both for fun and profit.

Once you feel like you know what you're doing and maybe have a handful of good pieces to add to a portfolio, sign up for a serious service like Elance or Guru. As I mentioned above, I started freelancing in ernest through Elance and still use their services to this day when I'm looking to expand my reach a little. It's a terrific place to build an initial client base, as many clients are looking to build a long-term relationship with the right person. It takes time and effort to learn how to win bids, as well as to find clients that aren't total cheapskates who expect you to work for peanuts, but that's no different from "real life" now, is it.

All in all, having a job as a freelance writer is really rewarding. It's fun, it's challenging, and it's worthwhile. Being able to work at home and create your own schedule does mean you have a lot of flexibility that you might not have at a typical job. However, it's also still very definitely a job. If you want to just collect a paycheck for sitting around in your pajamas doing nothing all day, writing isn't for you... but if you honestly love the act of writing, have a genuine desire to provide a useful service, and would welcome a chance to make a little money doing that, then who knows. Maybe you are destined to be a writer, too!

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Another Flag Planted in the Name of Shannon Hilson

I'm a self-admitted blogging and social networking addict. However, when it comes to new blogs, I get the worst kind of stage fright... especially when it comes to making my first post. Once a blog is really rolling, one post kind of leads naturally to the next, but when there aren't any previous posts to draw from, I really do come up blank. That said, I figured the simplest solution would just be to dive right in and what better way to do that than by introducing myself and my blog to my potential new audience.

My given name is Shannon, but many people call me by the nickname "Cat", hence the title of this blog and many of the other accounts I have scattered here and there across the web. I'm a full-time freelance artist and writer currently living in Great Falls, Montana. I've been writing and making various types of art from my earliest days and it's always been a dream of mine to be able to do what I love most in all the world for an actual living, as well as for self expression and fun.

I've been into blogging and social networking ever since I've been online. However, I've found that since I've taken my professional presence onto the web the way I have, I feel a strong need to separate it from the personal presence that was already there. While my friends, family, and acquaintances may want to read personal accounts of what I'm doing, thinking, or feeling at a given time, I doubt my clients or the people who are really only interested in my art and writing feel the same. On the flip side, my personal circle (with the exception of a few fellow artists and writers) could probably care less about articles written on the creative process or working as a freelancer in my field.

For a while, I had an actual website set up to cover the latter and serve as a portfolio of sorts for those interested in my work or my professional presence, but after some thought, I decided a blog was really a much better fit for me. I like to write, explain, and share far more than I like managing a website. It's simpler, much more fun, and much easier to keep up with. This blog is meant to be Version 2.0 of what my website was -- a place to share my creative work, talk about all things art or writing related, and publish personally written articles on related subjects that I feel may be of use to other artists or writers. I will probably share personal anecdotes that tie into the subject as well.

Granted this was kind of a lackluster post, but there will be many more to follow in the weeks and months to come... especially now that I've gotten that dreaded first offering out of the way. Now I feel like it's time to really begin. Stay tuned!