Broke Ninjas: Origins

 

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There’s a long and a less-long story behind the ninja cartoons that appear with some of my posts. I figure I’d try to share the less-long story here, in the standard 800 to 1,000-word blog post.

Back in 2014, I went to an SCBWI conference in New York and attended the illustrators’ workshop they offered. Mind you, I’m a writer rather than an artist. But I’ve always loved drawing, so I figured seeing how the illustrators did things would be fun.

Before the conference, the workshop attendees were told to illustrate a scene from the classic Snow White fairy tale in our own style. As a non-artist, I don’t have an “artsy” style. My stuff always ends up cartoony.

So to shake things up, I changed the story and placed Snow White in feudal Japan, where she escapes from her evil stepmother the Empress and ends up crossing paths with seven little ninjas. They were thinking of killing her too, because she found their hide-out, but decided against it since they didn’t like the Empress either.

The scene I drew (and finished about five hours before I had to board the plane for said conference) was at the end, featuring Snow White (whom I called Shirayuki), a young samurai (instead of a prince), and the seven ninjas.

In summary, the workshop sucked. The AD who reviewed my work didn’t give me any helpful feedback. Not even a, “I don’t really like this because of …” She had just said, “I don’t know enough about this [cartoon] style to make a comment.”

Waste of an air ticket and conference fee. Did I mention I was unemployed at the time?

Anyway, I started my little eBay gig later, so I forgot about the ninjas for a while. I’d sketch some of them on the paper table covers at restaurants with crayons while waiting for food, but that was about it.

Fast-forward to 2016, and I was feeling like a failure. It’d been nearly two years since I’d lost my full-time job, and I’d gotten another rejection on a book (I’d stopped counting after I’d gotten rejection letter No. 300 a few years back). But I’d been reading Start. by Jon Acuff and several articles on Forbes and Entrepreneur. And I had a crazy idea that maybe I was still a little hirable.

So, for the first time in over a year, I started looking for a job again. The funny thing about looking for editing and writing jobs is that you need to have writing samples. I didn’t want to send potential employers stuff I did for my old employer. For one, I have a much wider and creative range than the mostly bone-dry material I was paid to do in the past. Also, I’d never been paid to write about topics that interested me, like personal finance, professional growth, movies, history, travel, creative processes, and so on.

So, I started writing about things that interested me in my own style here, on this blog. My goal was to post something consistently once a week and build up to more if I could. I figured that if an employer could understand and appreciate my raw writing, then it would be the kind place I’d like to work for.

But of course, with blog posts, I needed some kind of visual. And rather than pull the same stock photos that appear on every other blog on Planet Earth, I thought it’d be fun to draw a cartoon instead. The first post I needed a cartoon for was 3 Reasons You Need a Side Hustle, and I thought it would be funny to resurrect one of my ninjas from years ago and pretend that he needed a job. I gave him a bigger head, a blue mask, and named him Sam. I thought he was cute.

As I wrote more posts, I drew comics with Sam attending job interviews. I sketched more ninjas and found that Sam had three younger brothers—all unemployed and broke just like him. They had left their village together to find work in the city. And they had to share a tiny apartment and take whatever jobs they could get to get by.

One of them, Chris in the green mask, started blogging about their experiences. The younger two are Red (red mask–original I know) and Mackie (orange mask), and their capacity for making trouble is endless. Naturally, being ninjas, they approach things differently. Sharp things don’t scare them, but their landlord on rent day does.

I started posting some of the comics on Instagram. A few people like them, so I think I’ll keep making more. I’ve looked into what it takes to be a syndicated cartoonist, but the rejection rates are high—even higher than trying to publish a book.

Considering my history with rejection, I doubt the ninjas will get picked up. Still, I suppose it doesn’t hurt to try.

Interestingly enough, my blog posts with the ninjas did help me get a couple of job interviews. Fingers crossed that I’ll start work soon.

Anyway, that’s a little bit about my four little broke ninjas. If you want to follow their escapades, follow me on Instagram @brokeninjascomics or visit www.brokeninjas.com. I hope to post a new comic every Tuesday—possibly more frequently once I get more drawn.

Ten Things I Would Tell My Graduating Self

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Graduation season is underway, and a new crop of former college seniors are about to learn that being an adult is a lot harder than it looks.

Just over a decade has passed since I made it out of my university with a newly minted diploma in hand. Since hindsight is 20/20, here are ten things I’d tell my graduating self if I could:

1. “Ditch the ten-year plan.”

You were an ambitious little snot with the best of intentions. But you expended too much energy in working hard, rather than being more strategic by working well. It’s great to have goals and some direction. But just go in understanding that if things don’t work out how you expect, it doesn’t mean the end of the world. It just means the beginning of a new one.

2. “Take a gap year to go abroad.”

I know, you had just graduated with college debt up to your ears. You were anxious about taking any job so that you could start paying those bills. You did what you had to do.

But if it had been possible, I would’ve recommended a gap year abroad. I don’t know if it would’ve made you more hirable, but it definitely would’ve cured some of that wanderlust. Maybe getting a glimpse at how much bigger the world was would’ve helped with some of that anxiety as well.

3. “Have faith in people, but don’t be surprised if they disappoint you.”

People are human, so their capacity for doing stupid things is limitless. Don’t hold it against them. It’s not worth it. There will be times you’ll need to find some grace, too.

4. “Don’t buy the first iPhone.”

5. “Or the first 3-D printer.”

6. “Beware of the entitlement ladder.”

In his book Start. author Jon Acuff warns of the entitlement ladder. It’s a short cut that you think will get you to where you want to go, but it only leads to disappointment. Surer foundations for your career (and life in general) only come with experience and are tempered by time.

7. “Be patient.”

Especially with yourself. Things are not going to work out as planned, and you’re going to make some mistakes. It’s okay. Learn, grow, and roll with it. You’ll have a much better time than beating yourself up over what could have been.

8. “Sleep well.”

Unlike what others may say, losing sleep is not sexy. It’s unhealthy, and your body was not designed to go without restful sleep for long. The deadlines aren’t going anywhere. Get the rest you need, and your work will not suffer for it.

9. “In 2015, Dad will find out he has cancer.”

In 2016, he’ll get the official report that he’s cancer-free.

10. “Go through the fear.”

Acuff called it “awesome.” C.S. Lewis called it “joy.” Whatever it is to you, there’s usually a nasty chunk of fear standing between you and it. Don’t be afraid to go through the fear and get what belongs to you.

Writing Badly May Help You Write Better

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“Move fast and break things,” is a popular Mark Zuckerberg quote. It makes perfect sense to developers, many of whom have probably coded since they were in utero. Breaking things is characteristic of the young and limitless, which is how we end up with things like Facebook.

But that approach doesn’t have to be limited to software development or the marketing of such. Moving fast and breaking things in the creative arena, such as writing, is also important. (It’s just not considered sexy.)

Since branding is a big issue, you should never publish your bad writing unless you want to actually be known (and quickly forgotten) for it (think William Hung). But if your aim is to find your voice and uncover your best work, here are a few ways intentionally writing badly can help improve your game.

Memory and Conceptualization

A recent study suggested that people who took notes by handwriting versus typing on a device were more likely to retain facts as well as conceptualize what they learned (as opposed to parroting back facts that were forgotten after a short time).

You don’t have to write by hand to write badly, but it’s not a bad idea. On a device, you can easily hit the delete button and wipe out your mistakes. On paper, you’re forced to cross it out and try again. When you’re finished, you can see all your mistakes in their blinding glory.

But having a page full of pen marks isn’t a sign that you’re doing anything wrong. You’re just training your brain to figure out what works and what doesn’t.

Taking Yourself Less Seriously

Some folks take writing too seriously. So much so that they are afraid to try. Or if they do try, they don’t finish what they started. And that’s a shame.

Perhaps you wrote your first story years ago and asked a few close friends to give you some feedback. “Great!” they all said. Then, you sent it to a magazine editor or a publisher and they told you (in polite terms) that it was crap and you might benefit from taking some writing courses online or at a community college.

Your dreams of becoming the next John Grisham, J. K. Rowling, or George R. R. Martin were dashed upon the rocks of rejection. You tossed your script into the bowels of your desk. Your writing career was over before it had even started.

You need to give yourself a break.

There are a number of factors why your work wasn’t picked up. But that doesn’t mean you should give up. The vast of majority of writers, even successful ones, have received some form of rejection. They just kept moving forward.

Writing badly allows you to make mistakes and experiment with various voices and storytelling styles. You let yourself write mess that you’d never let anyone read—just to see if you can. You give yourself permission to laugh and groan at yourself. Who knows? Maybe you might learn something about yourself even you didn’t know.

Racking Up Hours

Malcolm Gladwell’s “10,000 hour rule” is widely known. While I don’t think it’s a bad guideline, it should make allowances for breaking things. Success makes the most sense in the face of failure, as inventors like Thomas Edison and James Dyson can probably attest to. Software companies popularly put out products with the anticipation that users will find and report vulnerabilities that need patches.

Even if you’re spending a lot of hours writing badly, at least you’re still writing. You’re working towards the one light bulb that doesn’t explode. You’re one step closer to the one prototype that isn’t rubbish. You’re finding your bugs and working out fixes. Those hours, days, even years are just part of the process.

Once you see how badly you can write, you might start to see things that you like. Certain turns of phrases that you particularly enjoy. A background character might be way cooler than your current hero. Staccato-like dialogue suddenly seems more appealing to you than long flowery prose (or vice versa).

Whatever they are, they’ll start coming out more and more as you practice. The next thing you know, you’ve uncovered the writing you actually like.

Freedom to Suck

There are certain pursuits in which it would be best to not move fast and break things, like eye surgery.

But sucky writing doesn’t have to affect anyone else as long as you don’t share it (see previous reference to William Hung). In fact, once you get it out of your system, you can toss it and never see it again (although your muscle memory and subconscious might hang onto it for a rainy day).

If you want to improve your writing, give yourself the freedom to suck and write something that starts with, “Once upon a time,” or “It was a dark and stormy night.” You just might be surprised at what appears on the page afterwards.