Saturday, March 23, 2013

Hopping on the Treadmill

Today, I’m going to make a direct appeal to you. You people out there are reading this blog – all 19 of you – and you’re enjoying it. Or not. Whatever. But, this is not translating into support for my friend Sara Bakay. So I’m going to make this a quid pro quo. If you like something you read here, if something I designed has ever entertained you, then I urge you to make a donation. Hell, if you’re just tired of reading about her, then make a donation, just to shut me up about it. Simply click on her picture and contribute. 

Previously, I discussed just how crappy the pay is for freelancers in this industry. To recap, just in case you missed it: it’s crappy. You’re going to be doing a lot of work, and make less than a Chinese factory worker in Shenzhen. Seriously, you might consider it, because at least when you finally commit suicide it’ll be reported in the media.

So, the question is: Why do we do it? Or, more appropriately, how did the industry pros you know and love end up “making it”?

Undoubtedly, there are people who are successful at it. They move up in the ranks and become the Monte Cooks and Kenneth Hites of the industry. I made it. So why can’t you?

If you want to go that route, you should know that it’s going to be a tough slog. Basically, the industry pros you admire so well got to where they are because of some combination of the following (often all them).

They worked hard: I love Steve Kenson’s work. Steve does a lot of stuff for Green Ronin these days, for their Mutants & Masterminds game. Steve’s been a friend for years. I was happy to give him work when I was line editor for both Star Trek RPGs. It was a joy to see a file from him in my in-box.

Steve also worked his ass off. It wasn’t uncommon for him to be working on three projects at the same time. He booked his schedule tightly. Literally, he’d finish something for me, and the next day he’d be writing something for someone else, and by the end of the week he’d be writing for a third contract. If I asked him to write something, he had to work it into a busy schedule (which is how I know this, because he’d whip out his calendar and talk me through his schedule. For the month.).

If you want to make it to the upper echelons of the hobby games industry, you’re going to have to hustle. You’re going to be writing so much, for so many different people, that you may lose track of which game it’s actually for. If you have open time in your schedule, that means you’re not making money. You’re going to have four projects on your desk, and one is going to bleed into the other. Then, you’re going to have to manage those contracts – “if it’s Tuesday, then I’m working on Pathfinder. Or is it Vampire? Whatever. Same thing…”

Volume, Volume, Volume: I met Steven Long when I started working at LUG. I’d never really heard of him before then, mostly because of the above (I was writing my butt off). I was simply too busy to notice. So we fly Steve out to LA at part of the design team, I think because Andrew Greenberg recommended him. Or was it Danny Landers? Anyway. He comes out to LA, and we sit him down at a computer, and we ask him to write something. It was done in 20 minutes. Wait, what?

It’s a standing joke among industry insiders that if you give Steve a 6,000-word chapter to write, he either hands it back to you in 15 minutes OR he gives you 20,000 words at the end of the day. Your choice, really. In the time it’s taken you to read this, Steve has written a 35,000 words. I see his status updates on Facebook, and he routinely posts stuff like “wrote 20,000 words about Horus’ nutsack today.” He’s inhuman.

If you want to make it in this business, you’d better be a writing machine. There is no such thing as “writer’s block.” Writer’s block is a fancy, writerly way to say “I’m feeling lazy today.” When I worked at LUG, I was expected to churn out 5,000 words per day. That’s on top of the numerous emails I had to attend to. And my editing. Imagine having to write 5,000 words per day. Every day. For years. It grinds you down. 

Let’s put it his way. I have a friend who’s in college right now (Hi, Ashley!) and she routinely complains about having to write 1,500 word papers on her favorite TV show. That would take me about 20 minutes. And that’s with smoke breaks. I burp and 1,000 words come out. I once wrote a term paper for a friend (yes, I know, cheating. Go report me.). It had to be five pages about prejudice in the restaurant workplace. I wrote 15. With citations. In about four hours. And I was drunk at the time. It took me more time to edit it down than it did to write it. She got an A.

They followed instructions: As much as this is a grindstone for you, it’s even moreso for your editor. I used to have a calendar on my desktop at LUG with a colored bar for every project running from its start date to its end date. Most days looked like a rainbow. I was supposed to be outlining one book, editing a second book, writing a chapter for a third book, and proofing the layout for a fourth book. So writers who followed instructions (like Steve Kenson or Kenneth Hite) were like gold.

I’ve covered this before, but to summarize: write what you were asked for, write it following the rules of proper grammar, and turn it in on time.

I don’t want to break the pattern I’ve established (bonus points if you can see it), but I can’t really name names. I had one writer who turned in stuff that ended in mid-sentence. The sentence would just. I had one who didn’t read the outline I sent him, so the submission bore little resemblance to what I asked for. One guy wrote only in sentence fragments. “A giant bird. Really dangerous. Death from above.” None of that helps me, the editor. I may as well have hired a chimp.

Here’s another thing I don’t think you guys realize: We all talk to each other. I’d get a call from Bill Bridges asking me if I knew anyone who could turn around a 5,000 word chapter fast. Or I’d call John Wick and ask him what he knew about someone who was asking me for a job. Or we’d all be sitting in a bar at Origins, and we’d be swapping stories, and I’d remember when someone said “that dude’s a pain, he’s late, and he writes like crap.”

(This may, in fact, be why I don’t get much freelance work anymore. I suspect I’ve been blacklisted….)

They brought their A game: I like working with Mark Carroll and his wife Jen Baughman. And Chris Harris, too. They all share similar traits. In addition to being able to follow instructions, they all bring their A game. I’ll take Mark as an example here. What do I mean by “A game”?

When Mark writes something, he doesn’t just “phone it in.” He tries to bring you original ideas. Interesting ideas. Now, at this point, there are no new ideas in hobby gaming. Those tropes have been thoroughly raked over. The one-eyed dragon. You all meet a mysterious stranger in the a tavern. The evil wizard. We’ve seen it all before. But Mark tries to bring you interesting combinations of those tropes. The Hero who’s actually a psychopath who just happens to keep killing all the right people (the bad guys). Or the Villain who’s not so bad after all, he just keeps making bad decisions.  

Mark also understands why he’s writing what he’s writing. In other words, he knows the structure of a game, and the purpose behind each element. If something doesn’t do the heavy lifting, doesn’t do its part, then he eliminates it. Put another way, I once had a writer submit a number of encounters for an adventure. Each one made sure to include the light source in the room. Where the hidden magic items were. The tactics the NPC would use in a fight… Only problem was, it was for a town. Are we going to randomly slaughter the town’s baker? Do we need to know that he has a +5 vorpal sword hidden in the back? What the hell is a baker doing with a vorpal sword in the first place?! I needed a different kind of encounter.

Lastly, it’s a common saying in writing that you have to be willing to kill your darlings. You have to be willing to cut something you lovingly crafted if it doesn’t fit the project. I submit to you, in order to be a successful freelancer, you must be willing to sell your darlings, for two-cents per word. That really cool idea you have, that will make the company thousands of dollars – like the githyanki, for example – you’ve got to be willing to give that up for pennies. Just take pride in the fact that it was you who created the githyanki, and move on. If you’re not willing to do that, you’re not bringing your A game.

So, you’re not discouraged by my previous post about your crappy pay. You’re going to do it anyway. You’re going to make it, and be the next Monte Cook, Kenneth Hite, or Steve Kenson. Great. If you can work on several different projects in rapid succession, easily churn out a lot of words, follow instructions, and bring new, interesting ideas to the party, then I urge you to get on that treadmill and run. That’s how you become an industry pro in this business.

* For those of you who are interested. This is 1,694 words. I wrote it in an hour and 22 minutes. With two smoke breaks. 


  1. You can't scare me away, Ross! I'm a glutton for punishment (witness the fact that I have a 10-month old son, am going to College, and STILL trying to write)

  2. I was going to name check you as an example of a good writer, but I've given you enough attention on this blog.

    I hope you make it. I really, really do.

  3. This is full of great advice! I love the follow instructions part. That would seem very important. It would seem like a no brainer, but then I have been guilty of not doing that myself. I turned in a paper with 1500 words and they only asked for 1200 words and the professor deducted points for it! It was a lesson I learned the hard way. Always follow directions!

    1. It goes a lot deeper than your typical term paper instructions, Ruthie. When I generate an outline, that's basically a roadmap of what I want to see in the chapter or section. Sure, you can add to it, if perhaps a topic belongs under it's own separate heading. But I expect the outline to be followed.

      Paul can tell you, I write fairly detailed outlines.

      Because I want to see those topics covered in that particular manner. In that order. So if I ask you to, say, describe the weather on Romulus, that's what I want. I don't want ancient Romulan myths about the weather. I don't want information on how the weather on Romulus affects average grain production. I want the weather. It's temperate here, with an average rain of yadda yadda. In this region, there are a lot of thunderstorms. Over there, it's hot and tropical... The weather.

      There's a reason for this -- every planet in the game gets treated the same way. Those entries are standardized. Imagine opening an atlas, and every country has it's weather described, except Mexico; instead there's a long section on Mexican weather myths... Uh, what? It's even worse when you tell me you forgot. It's in the outline.

      Also, when I say "follow instructions", I mean follow the standards of English grammar. That's an overarching instruction, sort of like a "general order." Sure, you can break the rules of grammar, for effect or emphasis. Most of the rules in Strunk & White are actually how Strunk and White wanted papers submitted to them. I start sentences with conjunctions all the time. I'll put "however" at the beginning of a sentence (when I'm trying to emphasize the difference with the previous sentence). I know the rules of grammar, so I can break them for effect. Submitting sentence fragments or dangling participles is not "for effect."

      When I say I want 5,000 words, I don't want 6,000 words. Because guess who has to go through the entire document, and find ways to cut the text down to size? Me. It got so bad with one writer that I threatened to simply count to 5,000 words and lop off the rest, and print it that way; if anyone complained, I'd direct them to the writer and he could deal with it.

      Follow instructions: Follow the outline. Write in English. Stick to your word count. Meet your deadline.

  4. Ross, I found so many things helpful with this post. I have had some nonfiction articles published in some insurance trade magezines and have been wanting to do some more of that, but wasn't sure what I could do to improve my writing. I would like to do fiction, but I know my fiction needs work. I have good ideas, but I suck at getting them on paper. Everything you wrote here, and in your other posts, can help me in both my nonfiction and in my other writing. I am always over my word count. I never turn it in that way to my editor, but he always sends it back for rewrites. He is nice and I have been working with him for about 4 years so he sends the articles back and says things like I like this and expand on this, but he never gives me an outline. I guess that is the difference between nonfiction and fiction.

    Everything you wrote seems so simple and so common sense, but I know I have made some of those same mistakes. I was writing a story that was suppossed to be about a cursed engagement ring, and it ended being a huge mess and the ring just got lost. I ended up putting it away, because I couldn't figure out where I wanted to go with it. I really ejoyed all your advice in this blog, (as well as your others!)