Wednesday, 5 December 2012

Balancing Precariously

I am the Warden!!

It's been said before and will likely find itself repeated all over the blogosphere from every other aspiring freelance game designer, but what the fuck, eh? Being able to balance your workload with your personal life is a significant key to your success. And last week was a major test of mine.

For details, wander over to this link and then come on back. (P.S. I'm still not going into any details on these personal issues, but I will say things are in full swing to get back on track.) Those of you sticking with me and this blog may remember my current projects include the Adventurer gamebook, Fires Across the Plains, Killshot: Reloaded, the newly announced Optional Core, and the next issue of Killshot Files. Add to that my desire to submit something for Kobold Press' Valhalla Calling open adventure call and it's already a hefty workload for a relative newcomer. Plus I'm juggling weekly articles for Broken Ruler and Under the Hood, running online demos, and creating promotional videos for said projects.

Of course, there's no way I can continue with this topic without using some form of analogy to simulate the upcoming point, so here goes. A freelancer's life is much like carrying water in cupped hands. Too much and you'll lose half of it. Not enough and you'll never be able to quench your thirst. And to complicate matters, you have to keep a tight seal between your fingers and palms or else by the time you make it to your destination, there won't be anything left to drink.

While I've been dealing with serious personal issues, I have been reflecting a great deal on my current strategies and whether or not there are any major flaws in the forecast. More importantly, how can I arrange my work flow so that I can handle these last minute and unexpected changes, including additional work? (Hey, it can happen and a true professional would be prepared for such an event, right?) It's a process that's taken months of trial and effort, success and heartache, to get to a comfortable and reliable point. It's not perfect and remains constricted by other factors, yet has given me enough confidence to start taking on a decent workload.

This is where the topic gets a bit interesting and I want to stress a vital fact. Due to the accident, I have some severe problems with concentration, memory, and multi-tasking. This changes the "hand of water" analogy to carrying the water in only one hand. It brings up a valid question, one that has lead to some unexpected reactions: How the fuck do I expect to do the work with these problems? Read on and I'll tell you.

Controlling the Environment

When I'm working in my office, it is a distraction free environment. There is no phone, no co-workers walking in and out asking questions, or background noises pulling my attention span away from the task at hand. This is not only crucial, it is essential and safe to say highly recommended for all freelancers. Without this setting, there's no point trying. Not because I'm the equivalent of a toddler amped on sugar, but because my mind will literally go blank if another conversation goes on in the background. The proof can be seen when I'm in the kitchen making breakfast for guests - I'm frequently lost and need a little supervision to keep me on track or burn the yummy, crispy bacon.

At the absolute most, I'm listening to music on headphones while working in any degree. A few songs from musicians like Billy Talent, Three Days Grace, and other alt rockers, but the majority of my choices are movie scores. No lyrics. Certain scores are best suited for particular projects (for example, I listen to various pieces from the Matrix films when working on Killshot) or specific scenes. As much as I would enjoy popping a movie into the laptop, it's too distracting for my fragile little mind.

Assigning the Day

This step took a while to nail down because I'm torn between living a strict, orderly life and being a free spirit. A few family members have OCD or similar symptoms/habits and if I take it too far, I'm tapping my foot three times before putting on my shoes. Unfortunately, I require some form of structure in my day to function, especially in my work, and assurance I'll be able to handle multiple projects without fumbling the ball.

So I compromised. Every morning, I look at my project list (ranked in order of scope and deadline) and assign three projects towards one of the following spots in my day. To help demonstrate this tactic, here's what I had on tap this past Monday.

Warm-Up: This project is not due right away and is likely a personal one through BRG required in the distant future. I'll spend 60-90 minutes at the start of my work day producing as much as possible until a timer goes off. On Monday, my warm-up task went to cover selection for Killshot Files #1. I tore through various stock art PDFs already purchased and browsed through the impressive selection found on RPGNow.

Core: This dominant portion of my day goes to the biggest project on the go at that moment and so went to my first draft of Fires Across the Plains. For this task, I'll work at it for the rest of the day until it's time for dinner, I hit a snag, or finish what needs doing. With Fires, for example, I try and write 25 sections a day (the equivalent of 10 pages or roughly 4000 words). If I meet that goal, I can try and invest time in my last task of the day.

Bonus Round: Should I be fortunate enough to make it through the first two tasks in a timely fashion and still have the energy and focus to keep going, this final task gets some loving. To be honest, it hasn't happened yet, which is exactly why it's called the Bonus Round. If I had the opportunity on Monday, my entry to Kobold Press' open call would be complete. If anything, this work is made available should I find myself working late at night and, failing that, will become either the Warm-Up or Core task by the following week.

Durability and Pacing

How much time do I invest in an average day? Can't say for two reasons. I hate (like a Republican on immigration laws) working under a clock and every day is different. The second point is mainly due to the ongoing issues mentioned earlier and at least once a week, I have to crash for an afternoon.

What I can say with certainty is that I make sure I have at least two days of the week away from my desk. If I'm cognitively struggling, I'll take more (and often do), but I'd say this is just as important to anyone with an IQ of 140+ and the social life of a known war criminal hiding out in the suburbs. Step away from the laptop and live in the real world for a while.

Dealing With Reality

And that brings up a valid point. No matter what we want or try to accomplish, we still have to abide by the demands of the real world. Currently, I'm not employed and that allows a great deal of freedom in assigning time for my work, but that won't last much longer. Forces beyond my control have determined it's time to me to get back into the workforce and there's no possible way for all this work to cover our expenses. That being said, this process doesn't necessarily have to change, just the number of hours per week to apply them. Instead of parking my keister at the desk 3-4 days a week for 5-6 hours at a time (theoretically), I may only have time to do so once or twice a week for 3 to 4 hours on each go. It also means I won't burden myself as much as I do now because it won't be a realistic goal.

Why Bother?

If you have to ask yourself that question, perhaps freelance game design, editing, artwork, or other related fields aren't for you. It's a question I've been asked a lot lately and I don't have a legit answer, which ironically makes it the right answer. I don't know why I do it, but I must try. Maybe it's the joy and satisfaction the process has provided when everything else was a frustrating and painful experience, the exhilarating sense of accomplishment when so many other former duties slipped between my fingers. I don't know. It just is and I must do it.

Never assume it's easy. All good things require effort. While I have been incredibly pleased with the results thus far, it didn't simply spill onto the screen and stick the first time out. It's hard, challenging work and the mere fact that it's an impossible struggle to make it a solid, dependable career drives me. Without the right balance of organization, flow, and creativity, the odds of reaching that ultimate goal decrease until it's no longer an option.

I don't know about you, but I'm not planning on having a little detail like a defective brain get in my way.