I Imagined the Grind Would Have More Sparks


I’m Josh.

I’ve decided to take you on a stream-of-consciousness journey instead of working on something that’s due in 20 hours. Sound like fun? C’mon, let’s go!

Talking About Art Without Sounding Pretentious is a Lost Cause, Just Get on With It

I’ve been making art in various forms full-time for the last four months, and part-time for much longer. Comics, short stories, plays (writing them lately; performing, designing, and directing them back in college), videos, blogs about a twenty-year-old video game… The list goes on.

There are a lot of challenges in making art. First, there’s the matter of identifying enough of an idea to form it into a story, which can take anywhere from a few minutes to decades, depending on the idea. (Most of the good ones come from the latter end of the spectrum, but certainly not all of them.)

Then, you need to put it on paper (or camera, or whatever medium you’re using) in some form and see if it stands up. A lot of ideas fail at this stage, and that’s OK; sometimes you need to either shelve or throw away that particular project, only to come running back to it years later when you realize what you were trying to say, but couldn’t articulate at that point.

But let’s say we have an idea that makes it past that point. Let’s say we now have something with a lot of potential. Now we refine it. Sometimes this means shaving off the rough bits and adding on some detail in areas that don’t quite work; sometimes it means melting the whole thing down and starting over from scratch. Some of them need to be shelved or thrown away at this point, too; again, that’s OK. The idea will forgive you. Over time, you will, too. (I have a goodly number of these in my Documents folder as I type.)

But let’s say we have a piece of art that makes it past that point. It is, for all intents and purposes, ready for the world; not perfect, because no art ever is, but ready. Now we send it out. You shout about it on every social media account you own; you make social media accounts for it; you bring it up when something even tangentially related happens to it in world affairs…

If you’re very, very fortunate (or you have an established audience, but that’s a separate post altogether), you’ll get a meaningful response.

More likely than not, it’ll be lost in the sound and fury of Chewbacca Moms, Unlikely Animal Friendships, and Connected Pixar Universe Theories.

This isn’t because people hate you, or because they’re stupid, or because people don’t appreciate art anymore, or because you’re no good. (I mean, you might be no good right now. Especially if you’re just starting out. And if you are, you can get better. But I doubt that’s the reason.)

(Also, your hair looks great today.)

It means…

I don’t know what it means.

I’m still trying to figure that out.

I have some leads, but nothing conclusive yet.

If you were hoping I was going to provide some life-affirming lesson out of all this, sorry. That’s not where I’m at right now.

Because the two “successful” things I’ve done in my time on the internet are a fan tumblr for Final Fantasy VII and a tweet that’s kinda about Twitter and kinda about Dungeons and Dragons.

A Fan Tumblr for Final Fantasy VII

level99challenge.tumblr.com’s stats over the past month

The success of the Level 99 Challenge makes a lot of sense to me. I’ve been doing it daily for almost three years, and it has a built-in audience whose language I speak fluently. It took me a while to find that audience, but after about eighteen months, I had 500 followers; I’ve been gaining roughly 1.5 followers per day overall. As far as building an audience, this is by far the most successful thing I’ve ever done on the internet around a single account. (By comparison, my seven-year-old Twitter account has been hovering around 295 followers for the last few days.)

But this isn’t the most popular thing I’ve ever done on the internet. Not by a long shot.

A Tweet That’s Kinda About Twitter and Kinda About Dungeons and Dragons

This tweet has probably been seen by more people than everything else I’ve done in my life combined. (Also, my Twitter name is Josh LYMAN because of October reasons. It’s a whole thing.)

It was a Thursday afternoon. I was at Chipotle, eating lunch, probably having stayed up late the previous night finishing up a page for my webcomic. I had an idea for a tweet, typed it up, and sent it out.

them: hey can you dm me
me: sure, be there in a sec
them: wait wha-
me (at their house): you enter the cavern
them: um
me: there are 3 ogres

(If you don’t know, a “DM” is both a direct message [a private form of communication on Twitter] and a Dungeon Master, the person that runs a Dungeons and Dragons game. Comedy!)

It exploded, y’all.

Helped by Stranger Things and a handful of popular Dungeons and Dragons podcasts (along with the general nerds of the world looking for good clean pun), those 140 characters flew around the Twitterverse at ludicrous speeds. My notifications were pretty useless for a few days. It felt good, but overwhelming.

Over half a million people (or Twitterbots) have seen it in less than three months. That’s ridiculous. That’s more than 400 times the student body of my undergrad. That’s almost every man, woman, and child in Wyoming. (Side-note: I don’t have state-by-state breakdowns of those impressions, so maybe they all were from Wyoming. Doubtful, but possible??)

A little over 0.2% of the people that saw this tweet clicked my profile. Of those 0.2%, 0.51% of them decided to follow me.

In other words, this was the most effective tweet I’ve ever written to lure in an audience, full stop.

WARNING: Self-Pity Alert

To look at a contrasting example, I recently wrote a 24-hour comic about a wereperson (as opposed to a werewolf) called From Were I Stand, which is a bad name, but not the worst name. It’s unpolished, but I love it. And it’s free! So far, I’ve written (at least) ten individual posts about the comic across my social media accounts. People might be sick of hearing about it from me on Twitter and elsewhere, but it’s surely had some positive effect, right?

19 people clicked the link. 3 people have downloaded it (which is the only way to read it). I used to have an option for paying for it, but I’ve taken that down because I think people may have missed the “No thanks, I don’t want to pay” option and closed the tab instead.

In other words, I’ve had a conversion rate of just under two views per post, and less than a third of a download for each one on top of that.

This is exhausting.

And maybe this is just my experience, but I’m finding it impossible to get any traction. Other than the two examples I mentioned above, the results from my other efforts are similar to this. Don’t Worry About Their Classes is very slowly starting to pick up, but I rarely get more than eight views per page, despite an amazing group of people sharing my Facebook posts about it almost every dang time. (You know who you are. You’re rock stars.) More than eight people have told me that they like my work, specifically my comic work, so one of three things is happening:

  1. They were lying to me. (This isn’t what’s happening. There’s probably some flattery going on, but not to a level that explains this.)
  2. They haven’t seen my posts about it. (Unlikely, but possible.)
  3. They don’t trust me.

Lemme break down that third one for you.

Wherein I Try to Make a Point

Art is a tricky thing. We have, at our collective fingertips, access to centuries of music (I, for one, have 9.7 days worth of music on my computer), billions, probably trillions of words of literature, hundreds of thousands of games…

There’s too much. We can’t drink from that fire hose. We simply don’t have time.

So we stick with what we know. We‘re oversaturated, so we play it safe. That new Netflix show everybody’s talking about will either be good or give me something to complain about on Twitter; it’s a win-win.

You don’t get that with a webcomic with readership that rarely breaks into double digits.

You don’t get that from your friend’s blog or band that they’re trying to start up.

There is no obvious payoff for liking a small thing, except maybe being asked to contribute to a Kickstarter or a Patreon.

But the payoff you don’t see is this:

You give purpose to a piece of art.

Or, rather, you are the purpose of a piece of art.

You read it, watch it, listen to it, taste it… Basically, you verb it, and it does something to you.

Maybe it makes you happy. Maybe it makes you upset. Maybe it makes you say, “That was a waste of time.”

Well done. You have fulfilled that art’s destiny. For better or for worse or for “Meh.” And if you do that enough times, that artist will learn what works and what doesn’t work.

All an artist can hope to do is provoke a reaction from the audience. (Hopefully they’re aiming for a positive one!) By volunteering to be that audience, you are doing a great service. A brave service. You are saying, “I don’t know how this will affect me, but I’m willing to trust this person enough to take what they’ve given me.”

Without that trust, artists cannot reach even a thousandth of their potential. Without an audience saying, “Go ahead, show me what you can do,” artists rest in rhythms of comfort and conformity, trying to please an imaginary “Them” instead of the humans that enjoy their work.

An audience gives an artist hope. Bright, shiny hope that somebody cares enough to risk being disappointed. What an important thing you can give to someone.

An Attempt at a Conclusion

I promised stream-of-consciousness and I delivered it, right? OK, good.

I’ve written this sort of thing in my head a dozen times, but I’ve always scrapped it because I thought it would sound whiny and the height of #FirstWorldProblems. (To be fair, it is.) To absolve myself of some of that guilt, I’m leaving you with a challenge.

Pick (at least) three people on the internet with less than 50,000 followers on Twitter (or whichever social media platform you prefer). I’d recommend people with less than 10,000, but for reasons I can’t quite quantify, 50,000 strikes me as a reasonable upper ceiling for this. Write them a short fan tweet. Name one or two specific things about their work that you love. Use whatever happy emojis you like. Maybe that emoji needs a little friend…

Sorry, got lost in a Rossian trance.

But… yeah. Reach out to the people that make the things you like. You don’t need to tell me you’ve done it (though you can if you want). I’m not going to come up with a hashtag for it.

Just do it.

They’ll appreciate it. They may not respond, but I promise you they’ll appreciate it.

OK! I need to do other things now, so allow me to bring this train to a screeching halt. Thanks for reading this through all its twists and turns! Have a great day!!