Last week at DunDraCon, I was on the “How to Survive in the Gaming Industry” panel. One of the topics we discussed was the vital necessity of knowing your limits and pacing yourself, lest you get yourself into serious trouble. However, we weren’t able to offer any real guidelines for how to figure out what your limits are, which strikes me as a problem; in my life, I can think of several occasions when I learned what my limits were only when I broke. Trial and error is one way to do things, but it’s less than optimal. So I’ve been looking at my records, and thinking about my experiences, and I’ve developed a few rules of thumb.
My first suggestion is that you should keep a journal of your work progress with daily wordcounts. This becomes important later. You’ll have to figure out how to deal with the issue of how to count revisions. I count revised wordcount at a 5:1 ratio, but different people have different tastes.
Most advice on how to get started in the industry recommends starting by writing magazine articles. The stated rationale is usually building your chops and developing a portfolio to present to future employers. I think magazine articles are equally important for developing a work routine and getting a sense of what amount of work you can fit into your life in a non-deadline situation; your work journal is useful for this purpose.
Once you’ve gotten a few articles accepted and gotten your feet under you, you’ll be ready to start soliciting contracted work. My rule of thumb for choosing contract projects is “Don’t stretch yourself by more than a factor of two”. This breaks down in a couple of different ways.
#1: Avoid taking on a project more than twice as long as anything you’ve done before. Write some 10,000-word adventures before taking on a 20,000-word chapter; write some chapters before taking on a 35,000-word supplement; and so on.
#1a: Under no circumstances take on a project that will double your total professional wordcount. I’ve done this. It was a bad idea.
#2: Avoid taking on a project (or multiple projects at once) that will require you to more than double your baseline daily writing speed. (Here, again, that work journal is useful.) Most people work faster when under deadline. As a rule, however, working much faster than normal for long leads to burnout and a slump in quality.