On Starting

I’ve been going around to local conventions with a presentation about the development process of visual novels (a video of one you can see here). It’s been great bringing this information to people who are genuinely excited about the narrative game development and want to learn more.

At one of the conventions, they invited me to sit on some other panels, one of which was a very lovely “Women Content Creators” panel. Toward the middle the question was posited “How did you start doing what you do?”

My answer:

“I was too stupid to think that I couldn’t.”

And it sounds glib, but that’s really where most new things start for me. I don’t have the money to pay anyone else to work on my productions, I’m too particular about my own IP’s to let anyone else work on them in any major capacity, anyway, and I’m just the right blend of neurotic and anti-social that I’d rather just learn how to do it all myself than deal with–ugh–other people.

There’s a lot of power, though, in acknowledging that we all have the capability in us to undertake great creative endeavors. There isn’t a secret. There isn’t a trick. Every novel starts with ink on a page.

Start Small with Low Expectations

I preach this every chance I get. Your first foray into writing doesn’t have to be a novel. Your first game doesn’t have to be a forty hour RPG. Your first webcomic doesn’t have to be a sprawling, multi-volume epic you spend 7 years on. No one even has to even see your first attempt at something (though I highly recommend letting someone read/listen to/ play it at some point).

Pick a small, easy goal. Write a 1,000 word flash fiction or a 5,000 word short story or a 20,000 word novella. Make a one to three screen point and click game. A three to five page comic. A three episode audio drama. Pick an approachable goal to start with. This makes it easier to finish, and finishing is just as important as starting. Finishing tells you that you can do this thing you set out to do. It’s your proof to yourself that you’re capable of this thing. Along with the boost of confidence that can bring, it also gives you experience in all phases of a project including those tricky end stages like polish and QA.

Coming in with low expectations for yourself also relieves you of the burden of trying to meet some possibly unachievable level of quality for someone of your experience. One of my first published short stories was about a girl who has a fever dream about an anthropomorphic racoon. My first visual novel had three endings, three choice points, and was roughly 15k words. There’s a unique beauty in simplicity, and you can embrace that until you get the basics down. When you’re early on in your creative journey, it’s easy to get discouraged. During those times, having a handful of small finished things to look back on is way more encouraging than staring down a long, seemingly unending, multi-layered project.

Give Yourself Permission to be Bad

I’m pulling a quote from Adventure Time for this.

“Dude, suckin’ at something is the first step to being sorta good at something.”

And it’s true. It’s also important to remember, though, that being “bad at something” is mostly relative and in no way a permanent condition.

A lot of creatives (especially those who are former “gifted kids”) suffer under the dangerous delusion that we should be good at something immediately upon undertaking it. Maybe you don’t have that specific problem, but you still may find yourself frustrated with the seemingly inadequate quality of your first tries at a new artform. That’s okay.

The first major hurdle of trying something new is that feeling of “I don’t know what I’m doing.” Moving on to the next step in your creative growth required recognizing that you don’t know what you’re doing, then promptly not caring that you don’t know what you’re doing. Embrace that you don’t know what you’re doing. Revel in it. Become your own personal chaos god and damn the consequences. “But I want to be good!” you scream at me. “I KNOW,” I reply.

Here’s the one magic trick in this whole thing: the more you art, the better you get at said art.

So yeah, you’ll suck at first. Then each time you sit down to create, you suck a little less and a little less until, suddenly, you’re kinda not bad at this thing. Then you’re actually sorta good. And that feeling will go up and down and up and down as you learn and grow, but you’ll never get there if you don’t push yourself past that first stage.

Reference, but Don’t Compare

There’s another thing that might freeze you at that first stage and second stage and tenth stage and pretty much forever until you die, and that’s comparing your art to others. It’s looking at a piece and going “man, that’s so much better than me.” Of course it’s better than you. There’s a ninety-nine percent chance they’ve been doing it way longer than you. That they were you a month or a year or a decade ago.

“I’ll never be that good.”

You’re right.

Because you’ll be a different kind of good.

I recently declared myself Empress of Weird Analogies, so let’s say your creative journey is like making a salad at a salad bar. You and your fellow customers will likely start in the same place, you may use some of the same ingredients, you may even get inspired by someone’s inclusion of green bell pepper in their salad and go “ooh, yum, I want some of that.” In the end, though, each salad is unique to your tastes and your experiences. There’s also not really a wrong way to make a salad. Some of your ingredient choices might be a bit weird to someone else, but as long as you’re happy with your salad, that’s a success.

But you’re never going to be able to completely avoid looking at other people’s salads. We can’t help it, and we shouldn’t. You have to breathe in, sometimes, to be able to breathe out. The best way to deal with this is to not be discouraged by how tasty someone else’s salad looks, but to look at that salad and go “Next time I make a salad, I’m gonna try beets.” You may like it. You may not. But the idea is to turn that feeling of distress and dejection into curiosity and a sense of personal challenge. To change your mindset from “I’m never going to be that” to “How do I get to that?”

Avoid Getting Hung Up on the Details

Here’s a secret: I’ve written a little more than twenty scripts for various things in the past fifteen years or so. Read probably close to a hundred. This is less than some people and more than others, but a not insignificant amount. I still couldn’t format a screenplay or a script for you from memory with 100% accuracy if you asked me to. I always have to go back to my reference books and be like “oh yeah, you’re supposed to italicize that thing.”

There a lot of small organizational and administrative tidbits that might pop up when you’re first learning how to do something. You might get recommendations that you have to have a specific kind of brush or software or book or some other gadget, and if you don’t, you’ll never be successful and your dreams will shatter into a million pieces. But there’s varying levels of truth to that. For some artforms, you do have to start with a certain set of tools or you’re going to have an ineffective entry into the artform. Watercolor painting, for example, requires certain brushes and paint and the right paper to have those early successes that will push you forward. Otherwise you might be discouraged. Learning to figure draw? Yeah, certain kinds of paper, pencils, and erasers can help with certain learning methods, but you can do just as well with regular #2 pencils, loose leaf printer paper, and the appropriate reference materials (a lot of which you can get off the internet for free). For a lot of things you really don’t need fancy equipment or high-priced software or fifty books about “unleashing your inner writer” to start learning the basics.

This also applies to high-level concepts. In reading through tutorials or information articles, you might come across things like subsurface scattering or ludonarrative concurrence or how to build an arduino controlled LED array that you can integrate into an EVA foam armor piece. There are a lot of really cool advanced things out there that are fun to read about and may even be a point of inspiration for why you wanted to start pursuing something in the first place. You don’t have to know how to do those things, yet, though. You are a little baby creative person. Babies can’t walk. Babies can’t eat solid food. You wouldn’t expect them to. Learn to sleep through the night and gain object permanence before you worry about reciting Shakespeare.

Sort out what you do and don’t need to know to get started, and take the other learning hurdles one at a time.

Just Do It (as “Doing It” Pertains to Your Unique Needs)

I’m never going to say “Just do it. It’s not that hard.” I understand executive disorder and ADHD and depression and all the other things that make “just do the thing” so difficult. I have some of those.

When you’re looking to make something new, though, especially in a new field, you’re going to have to have that “just do the thing” moment. And, unfortunately, I can’t tell you how to find the appropriate amount of the correct currency (eg time, spoons) to “do the thing.” I’m not qualified. What I can tell you, though, is the same things you use to motivate yourself to do the dishes or get your homework done can be transferred to learning something new or starting in on a big scary creative endeavor. They’re the exact same coping mechanisms.

So approach that book you want to write like you would doing your laundry, whether that’s breaking it down into manageable parts or allowing yourself a certain reward for a certain milestone. The difference is, though, when you eventually finish this thing you want to make, you have in your hands a thing you made. You did that. It didn’t exist, then you made it exist. And that’s an incredible thing.


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