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By Beryl Hall Bray

Photo Credit to Ray Vankleef


We always want to bring you interviews with the cream-of-the-crop and sometimes it requires a lot of research. Coming upon one of Debbie's web sites was a delight that only got better. I had to shut my door when reading her cartoons and comic strips because no one would believe I was working.
As you 'listen in', don't forget to pick up on the energy, spirit, and wisdom of this multi-talented woman. There is so much she has to share and you don't have to have many projects going at one time to profit. But if you do enjoy 'multi-careering' you'll simply love what she has to say.
When we had our phone chat, Angela and I knew that we'd made a friend for life. Read on and you'll feel like you have too.

WOW: Debbie, you had an unlikely beginning for a woman of multi-creative abilities. After graduating from the University of Toronto (Computer Science and Psychology!), you worked for two years as a systems programmer/analyst. What gave you the confidence—let's back up, what even gave you an idea—you could/should make the leap into the arts (writing, teaching piano, and doing freelance art)?

DEBBIE: Although I loved computer programming, I found my passion quickly shriveling in a corporate environment. It was my fault, really. After university, I had a choice between a small company with one programmer opening (after interviewing dozens, they chose me) and a huge company who hired about 30 of us "management trainees" at once. I chose the huge company because of the greater financial security it offered.
I quickly found, however, that very little creativity was involved in my job, and I was basically a tiny cog in a huge machine. More than half of my time seemed to be spent in meetings and catching up on the intimidating stack of Office Memos piling up in my Inbox.
I found myself looking ahead at the long, bleak corridor of my life and asking myself, Is this what I want to do with the rest of my life?
My boyfriend (now husband) was the one who encouraged me to resign and move into the arts, where he could see my passion truly lay. He didn't mind supporting me financially while I made the switch; he wanted me to be happy. I was and always will be immensely grateful to him for this.

WOW: Oh, how wonderful. Debbie, when you look back to that time, what do you wish you had known before you launched your freelancing career?

This is a tough question. On the one hand, I could have advised myself NOT to start a Web site for writers but to focus on my own writing. But then I wouldn't have made all the great contacts and friends in the writing community that I have, and I wouldn't have published "The Writer's Online Marketplace". Writer's Digest Books approached me rather than the other way around because of Inkspot; I remember thinking it was prank call at first. (We laugh) I also learned a great deal during the whole Inkspot experience.
If anything, I would have told my younger self to have a clearer idea of what my specific goals were, and how I intended to accomplish them. I would have written these on a piece of paper and read them every day, first thing, before doing anything else.
But knowing me, I never would have listened to my older self back then. I've never been a huge fan of "what ifs." I am who I am today because of the decisions I've made so far and at this stage in my life, I'm pretty happy with how things are going. Who's to say whether I would have been happier if I had made "wiser" choices back then?

WOW: That's true, because our secular choices aren't what feed the inner heart. But that is good advice about the goals. And it wasn't a lofty goal you had in mind when you created Inkspot, a Web resource for writers. It started as a hobby (and like our characters do) it took on a life of its own, and became your fulltime career. You sold it after six years and went back to freelancing. How hard was it for you to part with your 'baby?' Knowing what you know now, would you rethink your decision to sell?

DEBBIE, laughs:
Whether I would rethink my decision to sell: a very good question. I have asked myself this same question dozens of times since then, though perhaps not in the way most would interpret the question.
I could no longer run Inkspot myself. It had indeed become my fulltime career, with most of my time taken up by administrative tasks, managing paid and volunteer staff, and putting out fires. I was multitasking like crazy, working 12-hour days. At first I thrived on the activity and energy, especially the enthusiasm of Inkspot's users. But as time passed, I missed the creative aspect more and more, and especially my own writing. Ironically, there were some out there who assumed that Inkspot was run by a company with dozens of fulltime staff; they had no idea that I was the only fulltime staff member.
I felt as if I was being stretched thinner and thinner. I knew Inkspot was successful and could be even more successful, but I needed help. I was getting tired and stressed; Inkspot had grown too big for me to manage on my own. My husband and another person were helping me part-time, but it still wasn't enough. I needed to hire fulltime staff, but lacked the funds to do this. In the end, I knew I had no choice: I needed fulltime help.
Meanwhile, I was approached by over a dozen companies, all wanting to acquire Inkspot. Most wanted me to keep managing the site, but promised the funds I needed to hire more people.
So in the end, I would have to interpret your question a different way. Knowing what I know now, would I have sold or given away Inkspot, or just shut it down? I suspect I would still have sold it, but I would handled the sale conditions differently, and been much more cynical when it came to any promises that weren't in writing. I have a new appreciation of lawyers.
Leaving Inkspot when things fell apart was very difficult in some ways (as you say, it was my 'baby'). But by then, I was stretched so thin that I knew I had no choice; I had to leave to maintain my sanity! I've summarized the experience in my Woodpile Philosophy: www.electricpenguin.com/ohi/woodpile.html

WOW: Your words have a home in our hearts. So much good, so many pains, we see many opportunities come up in the writing industry, combined with the Internet. Would you advise a writer to think twice before taking on a writing Web site? (It's a little late for us.) We ask because despite the fact that Inkspot won a whole lot of awards and that had to be fulfilling, you also had to put your love of the other arts on hold, for the most part. Was the trade-off worth it to you?

DEBBIE, no hesitation:
Yes. I met so many wonderful writers and editors during my Inkspot days, and I've maintained relationships with many of them. I learned a great deal about the craft and business of writing as well as about myself. I've gotten good work because of my involvement with Inkspot.
It also brought me many opportunities and incredible life experiences I may not have otherwise encountered. Like being flown to NYC and having breakfast with Steve Riggio (who is now CEO of Barnes and Noble)! Lunch at the Toronto airport with the President of Random House! Being flown first-class to Seattle for a meeting at Amazon and seeing the famous "door desks"! The list of exclamation marks goes on. (We chuckle, as our mind imagines more...)
Someone in the publishing industry suggested I should write a book about the whole Inkspot experience but y'know, there are so many other things I'd like to write about first.
As for advice re: starting a writing Web site, I would never want to discourage anyone but would definitely encourage them to think twice. There are a LOT of writing Web sites out there nowadays, so it could be a challenge to attract traffic. Before you start one, make sure you have something unique to offer that none of the others have. Be familiar with your competition as well as the writing community.
And figure out how you plan to publicize your site. Good content is essential, of course, but that's no longer enough.
And my biggest piece of advice, if you DO launch a venture of any kind, especially online: ASSUME you will be wildly successful, and have plans for what you'll do. It's common for entrepreneurs to plan for failure, but many forget to plan for success. I wish I had done that for Inkspot; I would have handled things much differently from the beginning.

WOW: We hear so much about how tough this industry is that your advice is greatly appreciated. We should all grab our permanent markers and write that on our favorite coffee mug. Now, we know why you haven't slowed down. What are your primary projects right now?

My primary project is my novel for young people. My agent sent it out in August. An editor liked it enough to pass it up to the head of the imprint, who also liked it, but not enough to offer me a contract yet. The first editor worked with me on discussing suggested revisions, and that's what I'm working on now.

WOW: Oh, we're so excited for you. Look at you! It's no wonder you've turned your life into a comic strip. And what a great avenue of expression. Do you have a favorite comic strip or cartoon that you would share with us?

Do you mean of my semi-autobiographical strip, or of other people's strips?

WOW: Hey, if you're humble enough to start with others, we'll take them, too; but we want your semi-autobiographical ones, too.

DEBBIE, laughs: Well, for other people's my favourites currently include:

Dork Tower

Calvin and Hobbes

Tiny Sepuku

And since you asked
(Debbie grins) My Life
In A Nutshell
are my favourites, I'd
include the following:*

WOW, laughing: This interview has been so much fun. We thank you for these and will now return to our interview.
With so many things going at the same time, thinking women everywhere want to know how you're able to keep your marriage happy and healthy.

We've both learned never to take our happy marriage for granted. We have regular "date nights" (yes, even childless couples can need date nights!), where the purpose is solely to spend time with each other. Our basic principle: treat each other like good friends should. Too often, couples forget that.

WOW: I had thirty-six years of marriage that says this works...not only works, but imagine, great dates and you're not even nervous. But, I digress. You're always producing. What replenishes the effervescence of Debbie?

DEBBIE: I focus on the positive as much as possible. And as clichéd as it may sound, I make every minute count. This doesn't mean I work all the time; I just try to squeeze everything I can out of every moment, whether I'm working or playing.
I lost my mother to cancer 18 years ago, and my brother and his wife to a car accident 14 years ago. Those events both changed my life in so many ways: the most important was learning never to take anyone or anything for granted, especially time.
As for re-energizing, I find that getting regular exercise is essential. When I stop exercising, I find myself getting tired more quickly, and of course that makes it even tougher to find the motivation to exercise...it's a vicious circle.

I also find that enjoying other non-work activities help provide renewed energy for work. Like cooking, hanging out with my nieces, working in the garden, painting a tree in my office.
Taking walks outdoors is one of the best ways to find renewed creative energy, I find. I've come up with a lot novel writing, songwriting and cartoon ideas on my walks, and it's also a great opportunity for reflection.

WOW: Do you have a favorite Career of your many careers?

DEBBIE: Writing, definitely.

WOW: Not surprised, at all. Some multi-talented women may wonder if they 'can have it all' while well-meaning friends keep telling them "Focus, focus, I say!" What advice would you have for them?

DEBBIE: If I had only one interest, then I'd agree with those well-meaning friends. I've always been envious of the women who have known what they want to be when they grow up from childhood; their life path is already clearly marked for them. I've never been like that. There are so many things I want to do.
I find that pursuing more than one interest has helped me in so many ways. Working with computers has given me the confidence to be able to be more hands-on creating my Web sites; I'm learning CSS right now to help me have more control over the look over my Web sites.
Being able to make money with my illustrations, cartoons and nonfiction writing helps bring in some income while I'm working on longer term projects which, though they may not bring in money immediately, will potentially be more satisfying in the long run, like my fiction writing.
Ironically, I am focusing compared to the number of projects I'd like to pursue. Life is too short: there are so many exciting things to do, and so little time! Rather than try to work on a zillion projects and be unhappy because I don't get enough time for any of them, I've chosen to narrow down my interests to only a few, and focus on those.
I limit the time I spend on musical projects, for example, because they're not related to my main career goal (which is writing), though in another lifetime I could easily see pursuing jingle writing and songwriting as a career, or being a session musician.
So my advice to multi-talented women out there would be this: Prioritize your passions, then allocate time accordingly. Get the most out of that time by also figuring out how working on one talent can benefit another.

WOW: Do your talents bump into each other, making it difficult to finish a project before beginning another?

DEBBIE: Sometimes, if I'm not careful with managing my time.

WOW: Working in the creative arts, some feel that a schedule can hamper their work. How important is a schedule to your career(s)?

DEBBIE: With multiple projects on the go, I find it essential to have some kind of schedule with short-term and long-term goals for each project. I think setting specific, attainable goals is important, both for time management as well as for one's self-esteem.
Saying "I want to get a novel published" is a long-term goal that many women may have, for instance, but I believe that it's important to set smaller, achievable goals to help you achieve your long-term goals to help keep you on track as well as make you more aware of how you're spending your time.
So if one of your long-term goals is to get a novel published, then you should also be setting specific goals like "I'm going to write 1000 words a day" or "I'm going to have prep work (outline, character descriptions, background research, whatever) finished by July 15th".
Setting a schedule and having goals also helps keep me from taking on too many projects at once.
I write out my goals and revisit these goals about once a week. Sometimes goals need tweaking or change; there's nothing wrong with that.people change and so do life circumstances. But I strongly feel that having something written down is important.

WOW: Great advice. But, undeniably, you have a full life. Do you suffer from burnout; if so, what/who enables you to continue?

DEBBIE: The only time I've ever suffered burnout was near the end of Inkspot, when I was stretched WAY too thin and juggling too many plates at once. My doctor advised I quit, but I told her that I couldn't, that too many people were relying on me. It didn't help that I was living in Philadelphia, away from my husband and support network.
So I kept juggling more and more plates for another few months (Jeff helped keep me sane; we talked on the phone every night), until I realized that I simply couldn't do it anymore.
That's when I resigned, went back home, and started again, turning my focus back on doing creative projects again. I haven't suffered from burnout since.
Still, I'm careful not to let my work consume my life again, no matter how much I enjoy it, and schedule regular time with my husband, family and friends.
To those in danger of burnout: Make sure you schedule in selfish-time regularly...enjoyable time that is NOT related to your work. Also, never ever take your support network for granted. Good relationships take work. Learn to lean on your friends when you need them, but not too often, and be prepared to be leaned on yourself from time to time. Work on fostering your healthy relationships; get rid of the destructive ones.

WOW: Another downer in this business is receiving rejection letters. I heard about a list you were compiling of authors that collected a series of rejection letters before they were published. What did you hope to learn and what did you find out?

DEBBIE: I was inspired to compile the list after reading a blog post by a hopeful writer who had just had something rejected several times and was considering giving up on a writing career altogether. Considering how well this person writes in her blog, I know it's only a matter of time until some smart editor buys her work and I didn't want her to give up before then.
I am accumulating my own collection of rejection letters, of course, for future use!

WOW: You certainly won't have much time to fret over them. You have writing-related Web sites, books, columns, short nonfiction and short fiction/ poetry, besides songwriting, musician, photographer and illustrator...what do you attribute to your success, besides your obvious talents?

DEBBIE: Networking online. The Internet had a huge part in almost every one of my successful projects. I wouldn't have made so many writing-related contacts were it not for Inkspot, for example, and that led to writing sales, including my nonfiction book.
The image-sharing site Flickr.com was largely responsible for getting me started as an illustrator and photographer. I started posting my drawings and photos, mostly to show friends and family, but I also got posted comments from strangers as well. The feedback helped motivate me to strive to improve my craft, and eventually people started offering me money for my photos and drawings.
Having multiple projects has helped with cross-promotion. Users of my writing site would be curious enough to check out some of my other projects and thus discover my illustrations and online cartoon strips, and vice versa.
I also constantly work on improving my craft. I read books and Web sites on the topic (writing, illustrating, etc.), push myself to experiment and try new techniques. I never assume that I've learned everything I need to know. Interacting with other people in the field in person and through online communities is also hugely motivational.

WOW: Debbie, diversification versus the necessity of continually honing your craft(s), how does that work? Aren't those activities at odds with each other?

DEBBIE: Not really. My main focus and priority is on my writing. Next is illustration. The other projects are hobbies (though some are starting to make money for me, so I suppose they might not be classified as hobbies anymore?) and don't claim nearly as much of time.
I allocate regular time to honing my craft of writing and illustration. I do a lot of writing every day, plus I enjoy researching useful tools and tips for writers for Inkygirl.com: Daily Diversions For Writers. I also do a cartoon or doodle every day; it's my equivalent of some people's cup of coffee. Often this cartoon is writing-related, and I post it in Inkygirl.com.
Someday I'd like to publish a collection of my cartoons, or an illustrated book of some kind.

WOW: That would be great, we'd love to see that. While variety is definitely the main spice in your rack of life, it's interesting that you concentrate on writing books for young people. Why is that?

DEBBIE: Because it's always been my lifelong dream, to write books for young people. I love reading middle reader and YA books myself; I'll buy a pile at a bookstore and the clerk will almost always assume I'm buying them for my children or a young niece or nephew.
When I started Inkspot years ago, it began as a resource for children's writers. I only expanded it once it became clear that I had enough useful info on the site to be of interest to other types of writers as well.

WOW: This has been fun and informative. Before we go though, we know you have a very talented sister, Ruth Ohi. Would you care to engage in some family bragging? We'd love to hear about her.

DEBBIE: Do you have a few hours? Seriously, I have the most amazing sister in the world. She has written and/or illustrated over 40 picture books and novels, gives workshops in schools across the country, and is an amazing mother to boot.
Some people think I have a lot of energy—well, I'm a lazy slug compared to Ruth. And despite her intense work schedule, she still makes time to spend time with her girls as well as take them to all their before and after school activities. AND somehow Ruth also manages to carve out some much-deserved selfish-time as well. Like me, she has a wonderfully supportive spouse.
You can find more info about Ruth at www.ruthohi.com. I created the Web site for her, but will be revamping it soon.

WOW: We'll be certain to check it out. Sounds like someone we'd love to interview. Quickly, we have a fun question, since this issue's theme is Freelancers Union, what would you select as The Perk of a Freelancer's Life?

Being able to wear pajamas during a business meeting (online) and having no one suspect.

WOW, laughing: Do you have any closing comments that you'd like to make?

DEBBIE: Thanks so much for the interest in me and my work. I love the Wow!
Women on Writing site—what a wonderful resource you've created
here for writers! I hope to meet you two in person someday.

WOW's closing comments: We thank you. This has been a remarkable time with you. There is something for everyone here. We have truly appreciated your time and thoughtfulness. And of course, we'll all be running to your cartoons and comic strips as one diversion to save us from burnout. We wish you all the best in your endeavors and look forward to hearing great things in the future. Keep us informed.

Debbie Ridpath Ohi is a freelance writer and illustrator who lives in Toronto with her husband, Jeff. Author of "The Writer's Online Marketplace" (Writer's Digest Books), Debbie is also a columnist for Writersmarket.com and maintains a blog for writers called Inkygirl.com: Daily Diversions For Writers. In her spare time, Debbie writes songs for and performs with Urban Tapestry. You can find out more about Debbie at debbieohi.com.

You may also visit Debbie at www.inkygirl.com (Inkygirl: Daily Diversions For Writers)www.electricpenguin.com/blatherings/archives/001755.html  Debbie's writing-related cartoons here: www.flickr.com/photos/debbieohi/sets/444070/  Also, feel Debbie's sketchbook images:   www.flickr.com/photos/debbieohi/sets/36464/ 

Contact Debbie at inkygirl@gmail.com


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