Monday, March 25, 2013

Format and Style -- The Ruthie Edition

Well, it's official. I'm an idiot. 

All this time, I've been pushing you to contribute at least $10 to Sara Bakay's IndieGogo campaign, when all this time you could've contributed at little as $1. This is what happens when you assume. I assumed the big red button on the right of her IndieGogo campaign page was dead, when it was actually hot. Click on it, and it takes you to a page where you could donate whatever amount you want. So if you liked anything you read here -- if it helped your own work or just found it entertaining -- just click on the picture of Sara Bakay on the righthand side of the screen and donate something.

You still gotta donate at least $10 to enter the contest where you win my services for free for one week. I'm stubborn that way.

On to the blog. Today's installment is the Ruthie edition. I'm a sucker for biblical names. Previously, I've written about the importance of working from an outline, and I've alluded to the importance of knowing the form and structure of a game product. Ruthie, according to her comments in the previous blog, raises questions about both. 

First of all, she asks the salient question "what if my editor doesn't give me an outline?" This happens. I've gotten frantic phone calls from frustrated editors who literally said "just write me anything about orcs!" Or I've gotten assignments where there simply wasn't an outline. Maybe the editor was too busy. Maybe he or she trusted my judgment. Or maybe they felt the topic was so simple that it didn't need one. What happens when you don't get an outline? How do you follow the editor's instructions? 

Simple. You write your own. 

Recently, I was working on a game, and this situation occurred. Write about a barter economy. No money. Oh, and don't put the equipment in monetary terms, like a gold piece value. That last instruction was a bit of genius, because whenever I've seen barter covered in a game they do that. And you just end up using the equipment lists with their gold piece value. "It says here a sword is worth 20 gp of stuff, so just give me 20 gp and lets get back to hacking and/or slashing." 

Since I had no outline, I wrote one. Why are we using barter in the game? Why is there no money? (Those two combined tell the reader why we're even talking about the subject. You will barter in the game for these reasons.) What is barter? (Define the system.) How do we barter in this game? (What are the game rules?) What things can we barter, and what is their value? (Duh.) 

Second, you've got to know the form and structure for the kind of writing you're doing. Notice how as I  outlined the above, I followed a certain structure. I didn't, for example, start with a giant list of equipment, and then explain the system. Each piece builds upon the previous section. If you read games, this should be second nature to you. 

But it's the same for any kind of writing. There is a particular structure to a romance novel, a horror short story, a script, and (yes) even an insurance newsletter. You have to know the expectations and demands not only of your reading audience, but also the genre for which you are writing. Everything has "genre conventions." Writing an academic piece is different from writing a game. Writing an insurance article as though it were a romance, while innovative, will get you a rejection letter. 

This is why the editor expects you to know his or her game. It's not just so you know the setting and rules. He's also expecting you to familiarize yourself with the company's editorial style. In all honesty, I can't read a game "for fun" anymore, because I'm picking it apart in my head. Not in a derogatory way. I find myself trying to figure out why they did what they did, even down to the style and language. So, Ruthie, if you want your editor to stop sending you your articles back, you should read what you submitted and compare it to what was printed. Read this insurance newsletter and try to figure our the editor's style. Then, write that way. And, let's be honest, the editor will never stop asking you for rewrites. We're bitter, over-worked wretches. It's why we all drink. 

Anyway, I'll give you an example of what I'm talking about. It's perhaps the most miserable experience in my career, and also the one that taught me the most. Often, those two are the same thing. 

I was hired by the great Phil Brucato to write something for the Mage companion. He wanted a piece on using real-world occult and religious symbology in Mage. He wanted it rooted in the real world. It seems too many Mage players were focusing on the game-y aspects, and not on establishing a coherent occult system for their Mages. For example, if you're playing a sophisticated dilettante who dabbles in Enochian magic, then there's a system in place for that. It's called Enochian. There's a reason Enochian magic (yes, it's real) uses the symbols it does, and places them in so-called magic squares. So, your Enochian Mage should whip out his Seal of Solomon when he wants to perform magic (instead of saying I have four dots in "bite me"). That's what Phil wanted. 

At the time, I'd just finished a lot of work for Chaosium, specifically in real-world magic. It was for an ill-fated game called Nephilim. So this was right up my alley. I knew exactly what Phil wanted. Unfortunately, I didn't actually read Mage. The style of a Chaosium book is very different from the Mage style. So I wrote what amounted to an academic article on real-world magical symbols. That was Chaosium's style. 

Phil calls me back (this is when people still used phones) and asked me to liven it up. Make it less like a thesis. Ok, I do a second draft. I address the reader directly. I do a bunch of other stuff. I submit it, and Phil calls back again. Nope, still not what he's after. He's going to send me my chapter with his comments via FedEx.

Now, take a moment to think about that for a second. Phil was a busy guy. I'd done two drafts already, and he was asking for a third. Most other editors would've just yanked the project away. But he took the time and effort to red-line my chapter, and then send it back via expensive overnight express. He spent a lot of time, effort, and money on little old me. I don't think I can thank him enough. 

When I opened that FedEx, the first page looked like Sweeny Todd wiped his razors over it. Covered in red ink. And it went on, and on, and on. I flipped through the pages and became despondent. I was a crap writer (which jim pinto will tell anyone for free). It got so bad that around the middle, Phil just got tired of writing comments and wrote "smooth" and frowny faces next to things he didn't like. I was miserable. 

I wrote a third draft. I don't know if Phil ever used it. I think maybe two paragraphs of mine made it into the book. But I learned a lot from the experience. The most important of which was "familiarize yourself with the editorial style." Writing for Chaosium is different from writing for White Wolf which is different from writing for Deadlands. 

In answer to your questions, Ruthie, you write your own outlines, even for the stories. You familiarize yourself with the style, tropes, and language of the genre, format, and editorial style. You read, dissect, and internalize. 


  1. Rule 1: If your editor sends you a bunch of files along with his request for content...READ THEM.

  2. Wow... I never thought you would respond like that! I am very grateful. extremly thankful.

    1. Well, you raised some salient issues. If only more people would post comments, maybe this blog would get even better. You're welcome, Ruth. It was my pleasure.