Kelly Sue DeConnick: Overcoming Distraction Disguised as Productivity
At Freedom, we love our users – not just because they use our product, but because they’re cool – cool people working on cool stuff. Academy Award-nominated screenwriters, bestselling authors, editors, journalists, developers, illustrators, designers, academics, coaches, podcast hosts, sports presenters, explorers, and entrepreneurs – the Freedom community is packed with curious, creative, and passionate go-getters. We love to share their stories, advice, and process because how better to learn about productivity than from the productive?
Meet Kelly Sue DeConnick.
Kelly Sue is a comic book writer and previously an editor and English-language adapter of Manga. DeConnick started her career in the comic industry by adapting Japanese and Korean comics into English, which she did for about seven years. During this time she estimates she wrote more than 11,000 comic book pages.
Now as one of the comic-book industry’s most successful writers, she has been credited with drawing back more female readers to comic books – a traditionally male-dominated industry and audience. In and outside of work, she writes and fights passionately for feminism, female representation, and the need for more female comic book creators and artists. DeConnick is best known for her comic books like Carol Danvers’ rebranding as Captain Marvel, the mythological western Pretty Deadly, and the dystopian sci-fi hit Bitch Planet – all of which star complex female characters. She also started the #VisibleWomen movement on Twitter that encourages women within the comic industry to share their works on social media to improve and promote visibility and representation.
Currently DeConnick and her husband, Matt Fraction, run the company Milkfed Criminal Masterminds, a production company of television and comic book writers. Their most recent project involves developing television for Legendary TV.
With such a wealth of experience and success under her belt, we decided to sit down with Kelly Sue this week to learn a little more about how she finds the time and focus to do it all.
How did you know that you wanted to be a comic book writer and what were your first steps in making this your career?
I didn’t intend to become a comic book writer. I always feel bad saying that because so many people work very hard to break into this industry and so saying I kind of fell into it seems disrespectful, but in truth I wanted to be an actor.
I started doing comics for fun because of my friends on the Warren Ellis Forum and, as I slowly started writing comics, I did less and less theater. It never felt deliberate. Felt like I woke up one day and realized the thing that I thought was my hobby had become my career.
That said, the writer/artist collaborative comics model is very much in keeping with the theatrical collaboration model.
At what point did you realize that tech was taking a toll on your productivity, time, and relationships? When did you know that you had to do something about it?
It was a slow realization, with no specific point in time.
Writing demands honesty and emotional vulnerability and as such, it’s scary. It’s also solitary work—even in the collaborative model, you get to the point where you need to be alone and get words on the page. And I’m a very social person. I like people and I can convince myself that it’s part of my job to interact with people and build community rather than actually writing. It’s a particularly easy procrastination technique because I can convince myself it’s work…but it’s not.
As someone with many roles, how do you prioritize what gets your time and attention each day?
I have one client that is contractually in first position.
After that, I determine which project needs attention first in order to be fair to my collaborators. The writer is the first domino…so if I’m late, it affects everyone down the line. And I have a 9-year-old and a 12-year-old who need and deserve my time and attention as well.
Beyond that, I need to make sure I’m “putting on my own oxygen mask” and making time for myself; exercising regularly and engaging in activities that make me happy.
Sometimes it adds up to more than can be done in a day. Often, really.
How do you stay focused and motivated on a daily basis? Do you have a routine, ritual, or process that helps you get into a productive flow?
I’ve been using the bullet journal method for several years now. I find it incredibly centering and it really helps me moderate my stress. I also try to do some stoic reading every day to the same end.
This is my job and it doesn’t come easily to me, but the motivation comes from my enjoyment of the finished product. What’s the Dorothy Parker line? Something like, “I hate writing, but I love having written.” So, there is pleasure as a reward.
I try to have a routine at the end of the day to provide a boundary between work and home. I blow out a candle. It’s very simple.
How do you optimize your environment for productivity and focus? How do you incorporate Freedom into your schedule?
My office doesn’t suit everyone but I quite enjoy it, aesthetically and physically. I have a cheap desk chair that no one else finds comfortable but I think it’s cute and find it quite comfy. I can’t work when there are messes. When I get busy, large stacks of things accumulate around me and I HAVE TO stop and organize. Having a tidy office is a big deal for me. I can’t think in a mess.
I have had some success with Cal Newport’s Deep Work strategies where I’ll plan 90+ minute sessions and I’ll use Freedom to keep my desktop alerts off – and, embarrassingly, to catch myself when I mindlessly open Twitter or Instagram. I do this with disappointing frequency.
I do need to keep Safari available, though, so I set that up as an exception. The nature of my work necessitates that I am able to chase down a term or fall down a rabbit hole from time to time. It is on me, however, to recognize when I am avoiding work or procrastinating. I am not as consistent in that practice as I’d like to be, but it’s nowhere near the problem for me that social media is.
What is the most difficult or challenging aspect about your work or working process? Do you have any strategies that you use to help overcome these challenges?
Fear is the biggest: fear of failure, fear of not finding the story or the story being lackluster, fear of being a fraud. When you see yourself as ambitious, there’s the fear of not living up to that drive. And it hurts when you do crash. Even when you know that failing is critical and that if you never fail, you never grow.
From a business perspective, you need to be able to do all of that while convincing clients that you are confident and capable. That you’ve “got this.” It’s a balance to strike.
As far as strategies, it sounds dumb but…I try not to think about it too much? I look at what is next and try to stay inside my circle in terms of what I can affect.
There’s another balance you have to strike… Creativity allows your mind to wander and free-float, but there comes a time when you have to decide to rein it in and get that first shitty draft on the page.
What resources or tools do you use daily and have found most beneficial to your working process?
Right now my favorite notebooks are Lemome (affordable) and Archer and Olive (splurge). The dot grid is my preference. I handwrite as much as possible. I use a Pentel Energel 0.7mm pen and I also have a Lamy 2000 fountain pen that I quite like. It is the first fountain pen I’ve found that doesn’t feel scratchy or get ink all over my fingers. Those things bring pleasure to my work.
I also love stickers. I put them on my notebook and in my planner. I find them aesthetically pleasing. It is easy to get carried away though, becoming a distraction disguised as productivity.
I use Scrivener for comic scripts, specifically using Antony Johnston’s Scrivener comic script-writing template (with a few adjustments for myself). I use Final Draft for TV/film and I have a few Spotify playlists, mostly Franz Schubert and Erik Satie. I like scented candles, and blowing them out at the end of the day to signal the close of my work day. I have an Ember coffee mug my husband bought me that I thought was silly…but I adore it as I like to nurse my coffee and it keeps it warm without burning it like my old hotplate used to. And Freedom App, duh.
I’ve also started experimenting with Monday.com. I’m not quite sure I’m ready to commit.
What projects are you currently most excited about?
I have a FULL plate and I am so very grateful. Lord… This feels a little like picking a favorite child! I don’t want any of my collaborators to feel like I’m not incredibly excited about their work. I am! I’m excited about them all.
I’m really excited for people to see Historia (DC Comics). It’s an ambitious pitch – a 3-volume history of the Amazons from their conception to the moment Steve Trevor lands on the beach. I think Phil Jimenez is doing the work of his career and I’ll be signing copies of this for the rest of my life.
The new volume of Pretty Deadly is set in Hollywood in the 1930s and plays with both Noir and Lotte Reneiger-inspired silent films styles. Thematically, it’s a meditation on art and obsession and Emma Ríos and Jordie Bellaire are making something utterly unique and beautiful of it.
Honestly, I have a really great slate right now! The one that is the most outside my most obvious wheelhouse is Aquaman — and I love what we are doing with Arthur. Robson Rocha, Daniel Henriques, Sunny Gho, and of course, my ace, letterer Clayton Cowles are as fun and funny as they are brilliant. We’re having a blast.
Bitch Planet, the feminist sci-fi satire that Valentine De Landro and I do is off the shelves at the moment, but we’re still working on it. It’ll come back when we have enough issues in the can to solicit.
Plus, you know, there’s my “day job,” developing television for Legendary.
Busy, busy, busy!
What do you do outside of your work routine that helps you stay healthy and productive?
The spin studio at the end of my block was my favorite thing, but it closed! I bought a Peloton bike and I love it, but I don’t use it as often as I used to go to class. It’s weird. It should be just the opposite…? I think I’m a person who need to have a regular schedule for accountability. Too much flexibility and I’m sunk.
I work out three days a week with a weight trainer, trying to build my strength for my taekwondo black belt test in April.
I do practice Transcendental Meditation, but not twice a day like you’re supposed to.
I try to be in bed by 9PM and up by 5:30AM but I’m not as consistent as I’d like to be, either.
One if my biggest joys is my home. It’s cozy and filled with houseplants.
What else? I am 19 years sober and there is a big crossover between stoic philosophy and 12-step practice that is a very successful prescription for me to live a happy and healthy life. When I’m struggling, I go back to those principles to navigate my way out. Finding humility, forgiveness… letting go of what’s not mine to control and embracing compassion and empathy. I think I’m also lucky that I’m naturally given to being an optimist, so that generally makes taking these steps a little easier.
My family is a great balm.
Oh, and I play viola. Very, very poorly.
Where are you currently based?
To learn more about Kelly Sue or her work, you can visit her site at MilkFed.us