My LTUE Schedule

Looks like my statement that I had no events at LTUE was premature. There have been some schedule additions and shifts in the past weeks and I am now going to be part of 4 panel discussions. I’m very excited about all the panels I get to participate in. I may type up presentation notes after the panels are over. When I am not running panels, I’ll be running our table in the Dealer’s room. Hope to see you there!

Friday Feb 12, 9 AM
Paths to Publishing: When is traditional best and when should you choose an alternative.
This will be a fascinating discussion between people who have taken all sorts of publishing routes and who have been in the business for years.

Friday Feb 12 3 PM
Living with the Artist (writer): Functioning as support personnel to a creative person.
I’m really excited about this one. At the moment the only panelists are Dawn Wells and I, but we may shanghai some of the other artistic supporters we know. Since the topic of this panel is going to be my life focus for the next month as we drive the next Schlock book into print, I am very passionate about the topic. If nothing else come to hear us tell stories about our more-famous-than-we-are husbands.

Saturday Feb 13 3 PM
The Experience of writing a good blog
I’m glad I’ll get a chance to discuss blogging with these panelists. They are all excellent writers and I expect to learn a lot.

Saturday Feb 13 5 PM (2 hours)
Making a Living as an Artist
I remember when this panel first appeared at LTUE. It was about 12 of us in a room, so we just pulled the chairs into a circle and chatted. Last year it was 10 panelists in a packed room and there wasn’t enough time to talk about everything. So this time there will be two hours. The wealth of artistic experience on this panel is incredible. I recommend it to anyone who wants to pursue a creative career, not just to visual artists.

Notes from a presentation on journaling/blogging

I gave a 20 minute presentation on blogging and journaling this evening. It was a really enjoyable experience. I love getting to talk about the writing that I love to do. It was nice to share that love with people who were considering picking it up. What follows here is notes from my presentation. This is mostly for my benefit. I may have to give a similar presentation some time in the future and this way I can start from the notes I already have. It also allows me to point people to this entry instead of creating a piece of paper to hand out. Perhaps it will even be useful to someone who was not at tonight’s event. Keep in mind that these notes only served as a jumping off point for discussions which were much more nuanced and specific.

The difference between blogging and journaling: Journaling is primarily private, the only intended audience is yourself. Blogging has an audience in mind even if that audience is only one other person. Both blogs and journals can contain personal thoughts, events, experiences, or commentary.

Costs and Benefits:
Both cost time, energy and brain space. Some of the tools require practice to use.
Writing thoughts down helps them be clearer and more focused. It slows them down so they can be examined.
That slow down provides a conduit for inspiration and seeing things in a new way.
In a public blog, sometimes you get comments. That can be either a cost or a benefit depending upon the nature of the comments.
Can be a wonderful way to connect with family, friends, or even meet new people.

Paper and pencil- journals don’t have to be elaborate. I’ve grabbed scraps of paper before. But I recommend a method where the bits of paper won’t get lost.
Bound book- this can be anything from a special tome purchased for the purpose to a ten cent spiral notebook. At times I have found the spiral notebook to be very nice because it is so relaxed. I scribble all my notes, math calculations, lists, etc in the same place and it becomes a record of my life at the time.
Online- Lots of options. I’ll only list the three I know personally
Livejournal – An online community which has friends lists similar to facebook. People can lock their entries according to who they want seeing the entries. Read their site for more details.
Blogger – A journal or blog here can be completely password protected, or open to the public. Read their site for more details.
Own Domain name – This takes a lot more effort to set up, but can be very flexible and useful.

Stumbling Blocks:
“My life is boring” – No it isn’t. All of our lives are full of things that would be fascinating to someone who lives differently. Find the little stories in your life. The odd conversation in the grocery store line. The child’s lost tooth. Think of the stuff you would tell to a friend you haven’t spoken to for a day or a week. You can carry a little notebook to scribble notes about things as they happen so that you don’t come up blank when the time comes to write.

“It is a burden” The blog or journal is yours. You own it, it should not own you. You make the rules. You don’t need to apologize if you haven’t written in a while. The journal or blog is not going to get upset. It will wait for you.

“I always forget” Like any other habit, practice is required to make it a regular part of your life. Practice also makes figuring out what to write easier. You’re training your brain.

“People are watching” This one is blog specific, particularly if you post publicly. It is easy to become self conscious. Make sure you set some clear guidelines for yourself about what parts of your life are private and which are public. Everyone will put their line in a different place when deciding whether to pose photos, names of children, location, etc. Do your own research. Think through the risks and pick what is comfortable for you.

Note: In private journals, be sure to include full names, dates, locations and details. In five years you won’t remember what “lunch with friends” was about unless you put in the details. It is not polite to post such specific information about other people on the internet unless you have their prior permission.

A Running Start on the New Year

I made a list of the things I want to get done this month. It was enough stuff for two months. I looked at the list and felt a deep desire to get some of it done quickly, to knock it out in the first week of the month so that the rest of the month is more relaxed. The desire is familiar. Each week I bury Monday under a list of things that I want to have out of the way for the rest of the week. I looked at my list again and realized that I’ve kind of done the same thing for the year. January is full of things that I want out of the way. I want this year to be a calmer one. I want there to be space for quiet contemplation and family trips.

This front loading of my schedule is partially driven by fear. I don’t know what is going to come along and rearrange the calendar. Last year it was the XDM project. The year before that it was a health issue. Earlier than those were financial reverses, learning new skills, and conventions which could not be missed. Our schedule has not been predictable for a long time. I combat the fear by tracking upcoming events farther out in the future. I’m endlessly grateful when other people give me lengthy advance notice about events for which we’ll need to plan. I also try to get as much done as fast as I can because it theoretically makes more space.

Only it doesn’t really. Small businesses and families both provide an endless stream of time filling tasks. It is not possible for me to get it all done. I will never be done. I run myself ragged trying to create spaces and often as not the spaces are filled up before I get there. If I want this year to be calmer and more peaceful, I have to start now. Now is part of this year too. I need to begin as I intend to continue. I need to carve out spaces of time to feel peaceful and joyful. If I can do that in each individual day, then this year will be what I want it to be.

I still have my list. I still intend to get most of it done by the end of the month. But I will not treat this month like a mad dash toward completion. It will be a quick paced run with time to look up and around at the scenery.

Putting Away Christmas

Some years I am so eager to be done with the holiday season that I take down the tree on boxing day. Those years I am in a hurry to reclaim my front room and normality from the clutter of tree, nativity, and seasonal books. Other years I want to savor the holiday feeling for a more extended period of time. This year the need to un-decorate sneaked up on me. It dawned on me slowly that today is New Year’s Day and that my front room is still full of Christmas. Some time before Monday morning I need my front room to not be full of Christmas anymore. I need to hit the ground running on Monday because the first of the year accounting is looming and I’ve got a list of business contacts to refresh.

Knowing the job needed to be done, I decided that the sooner it was done the better. So I rallied my reluctant forces and we began to un-decorate. In this case the forces were my kids. They are always enthusiastic about decorating and completely uninterested in putting things away. (This is also true with most of their toys, but that is a problem for a different day.) I started by requiring them each to remove 50 ornaments from the tree. Thus I discovered that we own approximately 150 ornaments. I’m not sure what I’ll do with this little factoid, but there it is. Mostly I was pleased to have all the ornaments transferred from tree to box in less than 10 minutes. The tree itself was carted downstairs and shoved into the giant duffel bag we use as storage.

At that point I released my minions from bondage and they fled back to their games. The rest was up to me. The tree is our big Christmas effort. Everything else fits into three boxes. This year I decided to organize and sort as I put things away. It is a small gift that I am giving to my next-December self. She will discover less chaos in the Christmas boxes, which is a good thing.

The boxes are all stowed. The various debris have been swept. The furniture is put back in the regular locations. My front room feels light and spacious. Over the next few weeks various Christmas items will surface from odd corners of the house and I will shove them into the tops of the Christmas boxes. We’re ready for what comes next.

The Writing on the Calendar on the Wall

My calendar is three feet by four feet and it hangs on the kitchen wall. All of the months are laid out in a grid; each with its own square foot of space. This is where I write the family schedule in multi-colored inks, one color per person. I spend a lot of time standing in front of the calendar. It allows me to quickly review a week, or a month, or a year, as I’m planning ahead to see what will fit, and what will not fit, into our lives. Each day gets about a square inch of space. It is common for the entire inch to be filled with a rainbow of notations about what is to happen that day.

Today I ventured out into the snow covered wilds to fetch the calendar for next year. Upon my return, I sat down with the pens and noted all the scheduled events of which I am currently aware. It used to be that a new calendar stayed mostly empty, only filling up as each month drew near. It was like a wave of scheduled events which rolled across the blank squares. It doesn’t work that way anymore. The wave is still there, but the empty is not. I have events scheduled through November of next year. Our path for the next year is set, complete with wayposts and planned respites. All of it is waiting for the wave of little events to roll through and fill up the gaps.

From now until that mythical day when we’re not so busy, I will be working rear guard action. I must defend the white spaces on the calendar. Because those blank days are not empty days. They are days which are full of the mundane things which don’t get written on calendars. I have to leave time for us to do laundry, and read stories, and clean house, and go to the park, and sit still. There has to be time for the boring stuff, which is the important stuff that we remember best.

I will not always be able to keep spaces empty. I can already see a couple of months that are going to be insanely busy. That happens. That is why it is all the more important to defend the spaces that I can defend. Defending the spaces means not volunteering for things even though I have the skills to get them done. It means telling people no. It means setting aside some of my shiny ideas indefinitely. It means making choices about the activities in which we choose to participate. Turning down an obviously good thing so that I can keep a day empty feels backward, but I have to do it.

My new calendar is on the wall now. In two more days it will be this year’s calendar and the adventure will begin.

Managing an irregular income

Our income does not arrive in regular checks made out to the same amount. The bulk of what we make in a year will arrive in the month surrounding a book release. All the money arrives and sits in a big pile in our bank account. It is our reserve and for awhile we feel rich. But then the months pass by and the reserve dwindles. We still have bills to pay and we tighten our belts until the next book release.

One of the things I do to manage the money is keep separate accounts for the family and the business. The reserve sits in the business accounts and gets transferred to the family by means of small regular paychecks. This allows me to manage the family budget the same way I did when Howard still worked for a big corporation. At least in theory. The actuality is that when the business accounts begin to run low, we go longer between paychecks and the paychecks get smaller. Sometimes we even pull money from our home equity to cover bills for the last month or two prior to a book launch. That money gets paid back as soon as the next book launches.

We are currently at the lean end of our income cycle. Last year we launched a single Schlock book and then invested money into inventory in the form of XDM books, a reprint of Under New Management, and slipcases to make boxed sets. The inventory investment was necessary, but it diminished our reserve more quickly than usual. Since last August we’ve been about two months from having to borrow money to pay bills.

I did the accounting this morning and we are still about two months from having to borrow money to pay bills. This is largely due to additional advertising revenue. However all the scrambling we did during the Fall definitely helped. It also helps that Schlock fans were generous and bought the things we scrambled to make. Christmas sales went well.

Now Christmas sales are largely finished and advertising revenue always takes a nose dive in January. However, the end is in sight. Travis is hammering away at the coloring for the next book. Howard is hammering away at the bonus story. We should be able to send the book to the printer right about the time our reserves run out and we start to borrow. The borrowing makes us nervous, but the truth is that our home equity and our IRA accounts represent an enormous reserve in themselves. We stock them up when the money flows freely so that we can draw on them when things are tighter. If we are depleting a couple months of the year and accumulating the rest, then we’re still in good shape.

We really are very fortunate to get to do what we are doing.

Projects in my head

Christmas–still needs some organizing and shopping and wrapping and shipping.

The Kids– The level of drama around here is lower than it was, but there is still plenty for me to figure out and manage. I’ve figured out the family structures to meet the needs, but I have to keep it all in place.

One Cobble– My brain is almost constantly collecting stuff for blog entries, or composing experiences into stories. Sometimes I can write as soon as I think of it. Other times I have to scribble notes to try to save it for later.

House cleaning — always. This project I often try to ignore out of existence, but it never works.

Family Photo book– This was shoved to the back burner when I realized I couldn’t get it done in time for Christmas. Instead I planned to have it done by my Grandmother’s birthday. Which is at the end of January. And I’ve done nothing on the project for nigh three weeks now.

Resident Mad Scientist book layout– The deadline on this has been pushed back, but that does not mean I can ignore it. We need to know where margin art is necessary.

My essay book– I’ve collected and revised about a third of the essays I estimate I’ll need. I have notes for a bunch more. I really want to get to the point where I can be sending out queries.

Cooking– I’ve recently discovered an interest in occasionally cooking things where I don’t start with a box or a can.

Birthday story– By the end of January I either need to write or revise a short story for posting on my birthday. I like the tradition and I want to keep it.

Short stories– My back brain has decided that writing Christmas stories would be really cool. This comes despite the fact that it is notoriously difficult to write a Christmas story without doing a re-write of The Grinch, The Best Christmas Pageant Ever, Fill-in-the-blank saves Santa Claus, or It’s a Wonderful Life. I don’t even have characters or plots in mind. I’m waiting patiently on this one and hoping that the mood subsides, because I honestly don’t have time at the moment.

Assembling Schlock boxed sets

Today was our day to finish assembling boxed sets in preparation for Monday’s shipping. It was also the day that the contractor arrived to deconstruct Howard’s office, but that is a tale for a different post. It did make for a chaotic day with boxes of books being shuffled around at the same time that large rolls of carpet and broken sheet rock were being hauled out. As with last time, the book assembly line began with Howard signing books.

This time all of the kids were home and they all wanted to help. They were particularly excited about helping once they realized that mom was willing to pay by the hour. I carried boxes in from the garage. Kiki helped un-box books and shuffle piles around. Gleek helped Janci slide books into boxes. Patch and Link pulled slipcases out of boxes and gathered up the garbage that Kiki and I were throwing around.

The quantity of garbage was pretty impressive before we were done.

Then Gleek, Patch, Link and I had to head out for swimming lessons. We left Howard, Kiki, and Janci working. They finished off all the book signing. We returned with lunch and the work shifted over into shrink wrapping. Both the shrink wrapping and set assembly were complicated by the fact that we were working on the sketched box sets. This means that each boxed set included a sketched Scrapyard of Insufferable Arrogance. We had to make sure that the outside of the box sets indicated which sketch was included inside. Post-it notes were very useful in helping us keep track. We used a wrapper to surround the boxes with plastic an seal the plastic. Then a heat gun is used to shrink the plastic to fit.

The heat gun was unquestionably the coolest part of the process. The kids all wanted a turn, except Link who was more interested in the game he was creating on the floor of his bedroom. Kiki and Gleek traded off for awhile. Then Patch took a turn. We supervised pretty carefully, but Patch still burned his finger. Kiki took over the wrapping while Howard and I helped Patch. Gleek was then queen of the heat gun and got really good and making the plastic beautiful and smooth.

Howard took a turn with the heat gun too. Here he takes aim at Schlock, who is taking aim at something else.

It was 4 pm before the work was done, a solid 7 hour day. At one point Kiki looked around and said “This really puts meaning into the term Family Business.” And it does. Having the kids working was sometimes helpful and often chaotic. I spent as much time hovering as I did working, but I think it was really good for the kids to be a part of this process. Now they can look at box sets and know that they had a part in making that shiny shrink wrapped package.

Photographs of Shipping Preparations

Every time we do a shipping, I grab a camera and snap some pictures. Then when I review the pictures later I realize that they don’t really capture everything that is going on. What we really need is someone who can take photographs rather than snap pictures. Unfortunately we’re all much to busy to do more than grab the camera for a moment. But the pictures do capture some of the experience.

These are the fiddly-bit pin cards that the kids assembled on Monday afternoon. They put together over 800 of these.

The books arrive in a lift-gate truck. You can see a pallet descending on the lift gate to the left side of this picture. You can also see that our garage is completely full of pallets of books. The pallets that are outside in this image were later moved down the road to our storage unit. They contain the inventory that will fill orders over the next year.

Here is our garage full of books from another angle. You can see that we’ve opened a couple of boxes to check the contents.

I did not get any pictures of us stamping books for sketch editions. I didn’t think of grabbing the camera until we were done with that. However I did get several pictures of signing for box set assembly. You can see the piles of empty boxes accumulating. Hidden behind the counter is a large pile of crumpled packing paper.

This is the best shot I’ve got which gives an idea of the work space. Boxes are brought in from the garage (out of the frame to the left) and unloaded onto the counter. They are then stacked for Howard to sign. The signed books are then moved to the table. On the table they are either stamped for sketching, or as shown in this photo, inserted into boxed sets. The empty boxes are thrown into all the corners of the room to be cleaned up later. Some of them are used for re-boxing books to transport them to Dragon’s Keep.

Here is the growing stack of box sets. We assembled 110 sets today. We need to do about 190 more. After this picture was taken, we set up for shrink wrapping the box sets. I don’t have any pictures of that. I was too busy.

We worked hard all morning. 950 books were signed and stamped for sketching. 550 books were signed and assembled into box sets. We’ll have to do more box set assembly and signing, but that won’t happen until Monday. Tomorrow needs to be spent on normal business stuff and convention preparation. It was satisfying to process 1500 books so quickly. Of course it is a little strange to realize that all that work did not reduce the quantity of stuff in my garage. We just rearranged it. Still, it is a good start.

Shipping Phase 5: Packaging and Mailing

I meant to post this during the week of the shipping party, but I was busy. This is the final phase of shipping the Schlock books.

Phase 1: Collecting orders
Phase 2: Sorting
Phase 3: Inventory preparation
Phase 4: Printing Postage

Phase 5: Packaging and Mailing

All of the prior phases have been organization for this phase. We plan our big packing and mailing day as a “shipping party.” We rely heavily on volunteer workers who only get paid with free food and free merchandise. Volunteer workers are notorious for being unreliable. I always plan for no shows and for people who need things simplified, but that is not what I get. We have been very fortunate. We always have lots of smart people show up. In fact many of the people who arrived at this shipping party had come to a shipping party before. This meant they already knew how things worked. I could just hand them assignments and let them run with it. For several days prior to the shipping day, we hauled inventory and supplies down to Dragon’s Keep. Among those supplies were 1000 sketched books, 300 unsketched books, 50 t-shirts, 150 sets of magnets, 50 mouse pads, 80 pins, 8 strapping tape dispensers, 12 spare rolls of tape, 2 rolls of newsprint for packing material, 5 box cutters, over 1000 cardboard boxes of various types, about 70 USPS mailing tubs acquired from the post office, and two dozen bagels purchased the morning of the party.

We do our packaging and mailing at Dragon’s Keep because they have a large space and several large tables that we can use. For this event we had four tables in use for packing and a fifth laid out with food for breaks. Each table was set up as a station. The different shipping methods sometimes require different packaging. (For example to qualify for the priority mail flat rate, the package must be inside one of the USPS Flat Rate boxes.) Each table was set up for a different kind of packaging. The flat rate boxes tended to be the large/complicated orders, so I set those up on the tables closest to where we stacked all the inventory. The other tables were set up for orders that required smaller boxes. We had to change things around as we went to meet the different requirements of the various lists. All the inventory was set out so it could be accessed easily. All the boxes with the different sketched characters were set out in rows so that the volunteers could pull the exact books they needed.

I started by setting up the volunteers in teams. One person would collect the items for an order. The other person would pack the order into a box and put the address label and the stamp label on the exterior. Later we learned that we needed an additional person who could do the strapping tape for two teams. The group doing the single book orders set themselves up in a more assembly line fashion. There were six guys, two were collecting orders, two were packaging, two were taping. Another single book per order table had each person doing their own collection, packing, labeling and taping. We frequently had a floating worker who would carry loads of packages up the stairs to await the arrival of the postman. This person also had the assignment of grabbing empty boxes and flattening them. We amassed an impressive pile of cardboard before we were done.

My job was to supervise and make sure everything ran smoothly. If there was a question about an invoice or packaging type, I was the one who answered. Questions were frequent because sometimes I write notes on invoices as people make special requests. I was the only one who touched the file boxes with the invoices and address labels. When a team finished the list they were working on, they would come to me for the next list. I tried to anticipate and have the next list ready, but sometimes it got hectic. This was particularly true at the beginning because I started with the small-but-complex lists. In hindsight, it would have helped me a lot if I had taken the time to re-organize the file boxes after printing the postage. They were organized for ease of postage printing. I needed to be able to glance at the lists and see which table a given list should go to.

The postal pick-ups were scheduled several days before the event. Scheduling a pick up is easily done using I made sure to indicate the size of the pick-up, but I’m not sure the assigned postman believed it because early in the morning he came by to look at what we were doing. He glanced around and said “I’m going to need the big truck.” He came back with the big truck at 1 pm and then again at 3:30. We filled it up both times. When the postman comes for a pick up, all the packing work stops and everyone helps load things into the truck. This earns many good feelings from the postman. Apparently some people expect him to do all the heavy lifting.

I always schedule two days to do the shipping, but it seems that every shipping runs more efficiently than the one before. Part of that is because we know what we’re doing. A huge part of it is because many of the volunteers know what they’re doing because they’ve helped us before. This time we got it all done in one day. I will continue to schedule two days because there is always the chance that we’ll have a low volunteer turn out or that we’ll have more or more complex orders.

Once everything is packaged and ready for the post office pick-up, all the remaining supplies must be loaded back into my van for transport home. I did pretty well estimating the necessary supplies. We didn’t run out of anything and there wasn’t much to haul home. When I get back home it all has to be unloaded and set back up in my basement shipping center. And then we collapse into a heap because we are tired.


(Well, except for the fact that I will spend the next 2-4 weeks helping people with order problems. There are always things damaged in shipping, mis-packed, wrong addresses that get sent back, misprinted books, etc. So far fewer than 25 orders have needed further attention from me. That is pretty good for mailing out over 1000 packages.)