How Long Did That Take?

During a #SFFWRTCHT last month I was asked this question: “How long does it take you to do a piece from first line to finish?”* I responded with something vague about always being amazed at how quickly some pieces come together and how slowly others do. And that’s completely true: The time from first line to finish varies enormously depending on the illustration project. (Even more tricky to explain is why an illustration that only took an afternoon to complete may be more successful than one that took several weeks). One of my art professors used to answer:  “40 years and three weeks” when people asked how long a painting took (the sum of his painting career to that point and whatever time the specific painting required), which was a witty nod to how much more than just hours goes into an art piece. But as a freelancer, knowing how long a project took is pretty important career information. So I’ve been working on that.

Usually I have several projects all going on at once. On rare moments it all comes together like this**, but often it feels more like this. Last year I started using  kanbanpad to help keep track of my progress on various illustrations. I had queues such as “Not Started” “Ideation” “In Progress” and “Finished”. Recently it’s become necessary to revise how I keep track of stuff in order to avoid over-committing myself: I now have a Google doc with a whole year laid out month by month listing jobs already committed to, so at a glance I know if I can take on another project this month or that month. Also I’ve also started using spreadsheets to detail each month even more closely: When a job is started, when it is finished, (how many hours it took). Even things like print sales, art shows entered, (blog posts written). This is pretty new, the methods still being tweaked, but I’m interested in seeing what trends may reveal themselves.

As the at-home parent, my work schedule fits around my son’s school schedule and between general household management needs. And those work hours are not all art making: I spend a lot of time reading through the stories I’ll be illustrating, prepping digital canvases, collecting and/or shooting reference images. Not to mention just “paperwork” type stuff: keeping financial records up to date, monitoring correspondence, posting recent work, promoting projects, occasionally revamping my websites. I recently spent several hours finally writing up my own artist/client contract for new clients and it took me an entire day to prepare art for shipping to an out-of-town show.

While I have not yet started keeping track of exactly how many hours a piece will take from start to finish, I do know that I can finish about 4-5 illustration jobs per month and still be sane and pleasant to live with. (Which is really good to know.) Here’s a few other things I’ve skimmed from the webs that apply to the topic at hand:

  • And this interview with creatives talking about their time management methods:

*thank you Paul Weimer for asking the question!
**thank you Bo Bolander for lovely herd dogs.
***thank you Remy Nakamura for pointing me to Scalzi’s article.

The Time Management Triforce

It’s rare, the author who doesn’t have to pad their schedule for extra time. They do exist, and they know themselves intimately. Their health habits, productivity foibles, available time and intended schedule. Though they too can be felled by unintended life and schedule changes, the rest of us often operate on a less clear picture of ourselves or not too distant futures. Unpredictable health—ours or that of family—further complicate our ability to navigate our schedules with a clear head. Writers have to be a lot of things to themselves, and project manager is one of them.

There’s a strong temptation to take on projects for money, to continue publishing regularly—and while those aren’t inherently bad they can lead to unpleasant consequences. Getting locked into a contract for a product or publisher we end up disliking, taking far under what we’re worth, or doing it ‘for the exposure’ are things that qualify as unhealthy for our careers.

People, as the saying goes, die from exposure.

So how do we prioritize what to say yes to, and what to say no to? Half our careers are about making spinning plates look like something a toddler can do.

I bust it down into a few things.

  • Payment (monetary or otherwise)
  • Bandwidth
  • Impact


Payment might be monetary, trade, or even a favor. Monetary payment scales—for charities or for certain markets I will accept substantial rate cuts or even do it for free. I’ve done some projects as a trade, editing something because I’d later get graphics help on a project of my own. When it comes to magazines, news outlets, or fiction, payment breaks down into it being about what I get out of it in terms of monetary/trade gain, and platform. I’ve sometimes blogged for highly reduced rates or for free because the platform afforded to me by the publisher was valuable enough to equal out the loss in money or bankable favors. I don’t recommend piling your plate with platform not payment assignments, but consistently doing them over time around your other projects becomes one more way to build your audience. Great platforms and poor paychecks can create readers that follow you to other projects. Won’t be all the readers, but a few dedicated fans can go a long way.

Bandwidth is all about my emotional, physical and time limits. If I say yes to something, from a one-off blog post to contributing thousands of words to a roleplaying game text, it’s going to hit all three. Writing’s fatiguing, and it takes a lot of time. If I say yes, I have to have the time to do it. Preferably with a long enough lead time to build in some padding for unexpected events, but I’ve done short stories in under a week, and proofed a 65,000+ word manuscript in under a day—the literary equivalents of making a turn on a dime. How’s the rest of my schedule, both personal and for work? What about my boyfriend’s schedule? I want to keep my own scheduling needs in mind, but if you have a partner, or a family, you also have to consider what time you can sacrifice versus what time you want to see them. In a crunch, I know we won’t see each other a lot during some of our projects, but building in room to see and connect with your loved ones is a big deal. If you book yourself too solid, you wipe out your bandwidth in every way, and that hits you harder—because it hits everything including that project. I can write an eight thousand assignment in a day if I have to, but I’d like to never do that again. Keeping bandwidth concerns in mind protects your ability to produce quality work, not make yourself crazy, and prevents driving work between you and your partner as a wedge of obligation.

Impact is at least in part a long game, career oriented concern. Does this assignment have any impact, positive or negative? Does this build my skills, challenge me, or expose me to an audience that may not know me? Will I learn from people I admire, something that ties closely into payment concerns. Will the name of this anthology follow me forever, and can I own that? If you’re afraid of the impact of a possibly controversial publication, weigh in with yourself on whether you can own that decision. Do you have the ability to turn jokes or rage around on others? To defuse others, or just deflate them? Sometimes a project isn’t worth the potential negative impact, long or short term. But the stomach churning days of hate mail as a journalist make me far more prepared for rejections and negative reviews. You don’t have to do projects you’re reluctant about. But a good way to step up your game is to say yes now and then to the stuff that might make you—or others—a little uncomfortable.

Payment. Bandwidth. Impact. Keep the three in mind, and you’ll be a better project manager for yourself. Expertly managed time means a better use of the opportunities we say yes to.

So go get ‘em, tiger.