Suggestions for the Beginning and Intermediate Freelancer

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.

Originally published on LiveJournal

Evading the gatekeepers, figuring out your own shit

I maintain the Writing & Publishing section at work, and as I was straightening up the many, many books on becoming a successful writer, I noticed a shift in my own attitude toward that process.

There was a time when I was very concerned with the mechanics of “breaking in” — how many syllables should the first sentence of your query letter be, and so on. This was, I think, a reflection of my own conviction that I was a good writer, that the market was self-evidently full of books written by people whose skills were inferior to mine, and therefore the whole enchilada of becoming a successful writer was figuring out how to persuade the gatekeepers to recognize these facts.

Any number of things have happened to alter my perspective. Among them is the lesson that there is a mighty gulf between being able to write a good book and writing a good book. (To say nothing of the gulf between being able to conceive a good book and being able to write it.) I think, also, that it’s easy for a young writer to overemphasize talent, that being most of what one has at the beginning of a career. It’s been eye-opening to realize that an uninspired wordsmith who delivers solid product in substantial and reliable quantities is in fact a better writer than the tortured genius who dribbles out a few hundred words when Venus is in trine. Craft is important. Work ethic is important. And talent develops over time. But most important, I think, has been the simple process of getting familiar with my own capacities and my own shortcomings. In wrestling with them, the idea of surmounting them becomes real, and it gives my writing life a concrete future beyond “And then I’m gonna write some stuff”.

I still believe I’m a good writer, and the market is indeed full of books written by people whose skills are inferior to mine. But I don’t want to be one of them. And, having realized that, I believe that when I get where I want to be for any given form, I’ll be able to sell my work on its merits, regardless of whether my query is appropriately dactylic.

Originally published on LiveJournal


Not the succulent red meat kind (though the burger earlier was very tasty), but the bitching and moaning kind.

I’ve been entertaining myself lately by making use of the Dragon Magazine CD archive that’s been idling on my shelf for the last few years, and reading some seriously old-school gaming stuff. It’s been thought-provoking, and likely some other thoughts will burble to the surface over the next few days (such as “what would RPGs be like today if TSR hadn’t been so full of gentlemen with prickly tempers?” and “Was feminism a mortal wound to swords and sorcery?”).

The issue at hand, however, is this. It becomes clear, adding the historical record to my personal experience, that since the dawn of time, any gaming magazine, when faced with the question “Why don’t you run articles about X?”, will reply “Well, we can’t run what no one submits. Duh. You should write something instead of bitching to us.”

To quote Juicy Bananas’ “Bad Man“, I call bullshit on that.

By and large, low-grade RPG freelancers are a pretty pliant bunch. If I got an email from the editor of pretty much any gaming periodical I’ve heard of, saying “Hey Michael, we’re trying to round up an article on X. Can you put something together?”, I’d be thrilled (assuming I know anything about X). It would be vastly easier for me than working on spec on articles that will have to brew in the slush and may not even be what any editor in the industry is looking for.

Now, there is a perfectly valid case to be made that commissioning (or even just soliciting) articles is more work for the editor, and gaming magazine editors often lack the time and controlled workload that their mainstream-magazine counterparts enjoy. That’s fine. I can accept that. But it’s not the ordained order of the heavens that gaming magazines must be at the mercy of fickle freelancers and their sometimes-spotty submissions, and I chafe at the responsibility for the editorial content of a magazine being pushed onto its subscribers and freelancers.

Chafing, and I’m all outta talcum powder.

Originally published on LiveJournal