Writing


I got hired as an intelligence analyst based, I think, on that one connection between me and the company owner. I had a lot of the skills they needed as an analyst, but I wasn’t a programmer. But we connected on gaming and it got me a job as a contractor for a while.

It also has made me a good lecturer at the university, because I know how to tell a story, do it extemporaneously and with energy. I have no issues with people cutting in to ask questions or make observations; it’s part of the game. I think it helped make me very good at what I do. To a lesser extent, it helped me be a good writer (which circuitously, got me my first RPG writing gig with Heresy in 2001, after John Tuckey had read my novel, Cawnpore.)

From the Content Marketing Association. If anyone’s got the name of the originator of the inforgraphic, let me know so I can credit them appropriately:

seven-steps

Yes, I’ll admit right off the bat: I’m a Microsoft Office hater. Their software is bloated, the interface a brick-to-the-face ugly, and the menus make no damned sense. I was a WordPerfect guy — it was the best word processor out there through to the early 2000s. When I bought an iPad, I found I truly loved the simplicity and surprisingly functionality of the “lightweight” Pages and Keynote apps, enough so that when my wife bought me a MacBook Air, i started using Pages and Keynote on the laptop, even though I’d have to sacrifice the clean fonts and layout when I had to shift the presentations over to Powerpoint (but that’s what we use at work…the cri de coeur of everyone sick of the MS Office suite.)

Pages, however, was a dream to create documents in. Especially for e-publication. ePub is the easiest of the ebook formats and everything looks like it’s supposed to when you go the publish a book (then Amazon makes you go to .mobi, which is like can spray-painting a Ferrari.) So I was kind of excited when the new iWork suite dropped on the iPad. Again, for basic work, it’s surprisingly good — easy to use, there’s a lot of template designs and other things you can use quickly, but it’s not for heavy duty work.

Liking what i saw on the iPad, I upgraded to Pages 5 (I haven’t even touched the other apps, other than to test how quickly they opened)…and I am disappointed I may have to work with Word for a while, assuming that Apple bothers to fix the disaster of Final Cut X proportions that it has foisted on its users. But hey! It’s free!

Doesn’t matter when it’s crap. Here’s a thread on the Apple Support Communities to give you an idea of how big a steaming pile Pages 5 is for the hardcore writer or publisher.

First the good (and there is a lot for the casual word processor user.): The big one — collaborations — now you can work on documents with others using iCloud. I don’t do this, and I don’t like sending my personal IP to someone else’s server if i can avoid it. You can track changes, and it works fine with Word docs that are imported. There’s also support for right to left script (Arabic, Hebrew, and the like…)

It still lets you export your work in various formats, you can still email a document right off, although there was a lot of bitching about this on the thread highlighted above — you “send a copy.” It’s no different from the last iteration, really. I did notice it zips some of the documents, depending on their size. It shouldn’t be necessary and might be a developer artifact that hasn’t been fixed.

It looks nice. I want to be able, however, to create a new button toolbar that suits my particular needs and which speed productivity. That was, perhaps, the single best element of WordPerfect; you could customize the toolbars so that you never needed to use the menu, and it wasn’t crowded or confusing. Apple and Microsoft could learn a thing on interface design from the old girl. The “Inspector” — essentially a condensed window of the most necessary control features is something a lot of people are lamenting is gone.

It’s not. they’ve just moved it to a sidebar on the right of your window and called it “setup” and “format”, much like in the iOS version. I like it. I can key it on and off fast, if I don’t want to leave it open.

Templates: there’s a bunch and they appeal to the casual user…and that’s a problem. It’s a pain in the ass now to create a template or import one. Setting up Styles has never been a great feature on Pages and it’s worse than before. but if you just need a canned newsletter, letter, resume, etc. — Pages 5 has probably got most student or non-publishing types covered. (And honestly, I think the market demographic they were shooting for was the student with the free pricing and the ease of use.)

However, that ease of use disappears the instant you want to do complex documents, or ones that can be quickly and easily reconfigured (like, for instance, a brochure where you want to move a single page of text and imagery around fast.) It used to be you could simply click and drag on a section and move it. That’s gone. so it selecting it to get rid of it or to copy it to another document…no, now you have to select in the document, cut and paste. It’s doable, but it’s more time consuming and a friggin’ hassle. No ability to duplicate or delete pages. (This is the most egregious of the idiot moments the Pages development team had here…did they not have one writer or publishing type in the team? If not, I suggest maybe having a user of your bloody product to review it might be in order.)

Worse, layout breaks, and the ability to do multiple layouts? Gone. Layout margin changes? Gone. Merge fields? Gone. Importing Numbers (their spreadsheet) into a document? Gone. Two page view seems to be gone. Find and replace special characters (like extra character returns so Amazon’s execrable .mobi doesn’t take a crap when you try to publish a manuscript)…gone. Bullet points in comments. Gone. Importing images not in bloody iPhoto? You can do it, but you have to open a finder window and drag and drop a photo into a document. Haven’t tries video dra g and drop, but I’m betting it will work. Unlike hyperlinks to external documents.

Oh, and it doesn’t work and play well with rtf… WTF?

In other words, if you do any kind of work that is more complex than the canned templates, you’re pretty much screwed. Your workflow will be slower and less efficient, and while you might be able to get there eventually, it won’t be without a lot of visits to the Apple community pages and a buttload of swearing. the kind of thing that leads people to say, “Word sucks and is a bitch to use, but it’s a bitch that you can actually use.”

Great job, Pages Development Team! How many of you idiots were on final Cut X? Just curious.

Style: 4 out of 5 — it looks nice and could be really useful for basic and casual users. The target audience seems to be students. Substance: 2 out of 5 — For the 11 or so new elements of functionality and a nicer interface, we lost hundreds of features that were kinda important if you do any kind of word processing for a living.

If you’re a writer or publish who uses Pages 4.3 right now DO NOT UPGRADE TO THIS CRAPWARE  until they’ve flayed the morons that released this, and added functionality back into it.

I’ve been waiting about a month for a contract for the two books I was supposed to be working on this summer for Cubicle 7’s Victoriana line, and I have other projects that need attending to, so I’ve begged off.

This is emblematic of the role playing game industry and the lack of professionalism that surrounds it. Part of the issue is that the publishers tend to be fans and gamers who get into the business because “it will be fun” or “I can do this better.” Inevitably, they hit the hard wall of business reality: deadlines, coordination of talent, outsized expectations — this causes many of the companies to have trouble with paying their talent, or keeping to a schedule. They don’t figure on the ancillary time and expense of launching a game line (especially when licensing is involved!), or maintaining interest.

The other problem is the “talent”. Again, usually gamers and fans, they get into the industry for “fun” or as a means to bootstrap themselves into the writing field. They sometimes work for peanuts, but more often for the “love of the game” or “to get their name out there.” That leads to a lack of professionalism, and allows the industry to pay them as the amateurs they are. ($0.02 a word is typical. That’s $2000 for a 100,000 word book.) If also means the industry is used to half-assing their relationships and responsibilities with their artists and writers because they know they can get away with it.

What’s the solution? I don’t really have a practical one. Publishers need to look to the business plan first, and the talent needs to go in with the expectation that they are going act like professionals (no prima donna bitching when the editor cuts the writing you thought was superb) and get treated like professionals, including a reasonable pay schedule.

How do you know you are making an appropriate amount for a project? Here’s a tip: Figure the total payment for the project. We’ll work with the hypothetical 100k word count from above. Figure out how much you’re willing to work for hourly. My rate is, lowest, $20/hr. — about on part with what I get paid for for teaching college classes. (I do the same calculation for the flat rate I’m paid per class.) Below that, it’s not really worth my time. That means for $20/hr. I will dedicate 100 hours, maximum for a project paying $2000. If I block out 5 hours a day, that’s 25 days or roughly a month to do the work. Every time I’ve used this method, it has helped me with time management and motivation. I usually figure my time as a range — $30/hr. is my favored pay rate and would mean I’m happiest if I can punch out oa project in 66-67 man-hours, but I am willing to stretch to 100 as needed.

I’m sure an artist would have a different set of standards for getting paid, and if there’s an RPG artist reading this, please feel free to comment or drop a line on your thoughts regarding the industry, payment, etc.

Reading a post from my Victoriana alum (and contributor over at Gnome Stew) Walt Ciechanowski on Facebook got me thinking about verisimilitude in modern games or writing today. Specifically, he was talking about Boost!, a citrus soda that is available only in a select area of southern New Jersey. I have a similar strange food from the Lehigh Valley in Pennsylvania, where I lived as a kid — Schaeffer’s Bologna, an “all-beef bologna, flavored only with salt and pepper”, an a touch of garlic has an edible skin and is great snack food.

For the longest time, you couldn’t get real New Mexican chile paste (red or green) or salsa outside of the state. The California stuff is too bland, Texas too sweet…during the ’90s, when I was away from Albuquerque, I would get cravings for NM-style chile and could only find something similar in Sierra Vista, Arizona when I was stations at Sierra Vista. It was also one of the first places I could find McEwan’s ales outside of Scotland — then it started popping up everywhere until Heineken bought the brewery and delisted it, leading to my singular desire to blow the Netherlands off the face of Europe.

So those of you reading, please chime in — what a particular, very popular but highly localized food or drink from your neighborhood or past. (Tell us what it is and where it’s limited to. Who knows, it might turn up in someone’s game!)

There’s been a discussion going on over on LinkedIn regarding breaking into RPG writing. It’s had some excellent posts, some solid — if hackneyed — advice about sticking to it, making connections, etc…but I’ve noticed all of the posters seem to miss a salient point about this niche of writing: the lack of professionalism.

Don’t get me wrong, there are plenty of folks who come at their work from a professional attitude: they work hard, do good product, meet deadlines, etc…I’m talking about the employers here.

The industry is comprised mostly of game fans that go into the biz for the love of making a game, or because they have outsized expectations of what kind of money is in game publishing. Many run a tight margin and have to play fast and loose with their production schedules and also with their paying the talent.

Let’s see if this sounds familiar:

It might not pay, but you’ll get your name out there.

This is perhaps one of the biggest loads of crap that gets slung the way of a new writer or artist. Outside of the arts and academia, this would be considered insultingly unprofessional; real businesses recognize that their emloyees expect remuneration.

Yes, you can get your name in a book. The publisher may even come back to you for more…but they’ll assume you’ll continue to work for free. Often, even when you get an offer of pay, you’ll be lucky to get paid on time thanks to shoddy business practices. I’m currently going through this with a relatively big name publisher…they’re weaseling over $600, but they’re showering money all over for licensed product lines.

Additionally, you will get paid (if you do) a crap wage. Standard is $0.03 a word. I break down the full job, divide the payment by an acceptable hourly rate, then attempt to get the work done in a period of time that breaks out to that hourly. For a $600 job, that came out to roughly 30 hours work, give or take. I did it in 36.

Your employers are not your friend.

I don’t care how cool the line editor is, or how well you got on with the publisher at GenCon — good connections will get you a chance to get in the door (I’ve never pitched for a game company; they’ve all come to me based on other work and reputation) but when it comes to doing the job and getting paid these people are not your friends.

No matter how awesomely awesome your ideas might be, you are producing their material. That means you give them what they want and you don’t blow artistic-spinded nonsense about your process or integrity up their ass. You are a monkey on a keyboard or art table. Shut up and do it.

Whe you’ve completed your task the same goes for getting paid. They owe you money, so go after it professionally: invoice, keep the emails between you and the publisher while they shine you on about your check being on the queue for the (like it was last month, and the month before…) hit up the line developer and the A/P person about once a month.

Hint: Pay on delivery is usually a quick trip to collections nightmares.

The publishers love this. Contract or no, they’ve got your work and their money. I used to demand half up front, half on delivery — it creates trust: I’ve got some of their dough, they’ve got the rest I want…so work already. I made a serious mistake in violating bold type #2 and assuming that working with a guy I liked meant I’d avoid collections issues. Pay on delivery is never acceptable and it always puts you on the hook to get your money.

Even worse is pay on publication — this is just another way of saying “we’re not going to pay you.” Publication can be defined however they want — maybe they only did a .pdf run and don’t consider that “publication.” Maybe they do eventually print on demand runs…but don’t consider that publication, either. There’s a smallish bunch based out of Kansas that are very fond of this one.

I do it for the love of the game.

Totally understandable. The RPG industry is full of amateur writers and artists who kick our material to be part of the scene, and that is okay. If you care more about getting your name out there, more power to you, but for those looking to work it the industry, you have to take it seriously.

Market, Network, and Keep at It.

Once you’ve got your foot in the door, you need to stay active. Keep your CV up to date even with project that are still upcoming. Hit the boards for game publishers and drop some good comments and ideas. You could start your own blog on game matters, but that’s of limited utility.

If you’ve gotten the impression that I don’t view the RPG industry as a place to make a living, you’d be wrong. I know people that have done so, but only for lmited periods of time, and they were usually running a line for a company. Once the company makes a bad step on production schedules or licensure (they get you customers, but dealing with the expense and approval process can kill a game line fast!) you can find yourself back to your old day job.

Because that’s what RPG writing is: it’s part-time work, at best, most of the time. I would suggest that it is best looked at as simply another writing assignment, like cranking out blog posts, ghost work, ir amy number of gigs you can get as an artist.

I attended Bubonicon this year — the first sci-fi convention I’ve been to in over a decade.  It was an interesting experience in that this time around, I was much more interested in the panels than in the costuming or the merchandise tables. (The rise of the internet and the ability to buy the goods you would otherwise have to wait a year to scarf up at convention prices is why I suspect the merchandise tables were mostly flea market trash.)

One of the panels was on writers who game, and it had a few of the expected names:  Melinda Snodgrass, Walter Jon Williams, etc…  Their comments got me thinking about my own experience as a writer and a gamer, and led to this post…

There are a lot of gamemasters out there that think of themselves as frustrated writers.  I had always been interested in some form of storytelling since I was young — not necessarily writing, per se…I drifted between that, acting, cinematography, comic books, etc. but always with the intent to, some day, tell stories for a living (hence the profession of historian.)

There are some problems with translating your ideas from a game into workable, salable fiction.  First — gaming is collaborative by nature.  The GM might set the plot in motion, and might nudge the players to get through the adventure on track (I have a tendency to do that), but the better storytellers don’t railroad (I have been known to do this, or to bribe the player with story/plot/hero points to stop trying to derail things…but I try to be subtle), and are willing to let the players guide the direction of the adventure.  This collaborative feature of role playing is one of the reasons it’s so fun and social, but is also is a problem for the wannabe writer who wants to cull his gaming for ideas.

There’s the problem of intellectual property.  Do you “own” the characters?  do the players?  Do they get a cut of the proceeds, or maybe a mention in the forward?  Best is to not use other people’s characters.  Come up with something new, or similar.  Avoid the problem entirely.

I’ve found most gamers, when I’ve thought about moving characters to fiction, don’t mind not getting money or credit; it’s usually enough to see their creations in print…but a thank you is appropriate.  It’s a good idea to see if the player is alright with the idea, but once again — I’d suggest against it.

(Caveat: I have written and published a novel with a character culled from a game that another player ran, but the original idea was mine and he simply took it over.  When I wrote the book, I kept the name, but the character reverted to my original conception and away from the stuff that the player had done with him.  He was okay with this.)

Second, storylines and ideas from games tend to have a certain format to them, and these are easily identified by editors who are in certain genres like fantasy.  (There’s a reason that some of the magazines for fantasy explicitly tell you not to write up your gaming sessions as a novel and send them in…they’ve seen this before.)  If you had a good plot arc and want to use it, great, but remember the collaborative nature of the game tends to make the way a game unfolds more unwieldy than a tightly plotted novel.

thirdly, characters — and this was something mentioned in the panel that I agreed with — are central to good fiction, and several of the authors admitted to culling their RPG characters for fiction…but always with some tweaking.  A game system — especially the random creation or the class-based ones — have a tendency to create archetypes that do not translate into fiction well.  Whereas having a Level 2 Elf Fighter is something that gives a nice shorthand for the player to latch onto to play a character, a fictional character is not a stat block…  (This is why I prefer systems where you build your character to the idea — one of the better ones, I think, is Cortex.  Even so, you can “feel”  the advantage/disadvantage nature of characters crafted in a game when they are dropped into short fiction.)

Characters first.  Who are they?  Where do they come from?  What do they do and why?  Add quirks.  You can almost see this template for much of genre fiction — mysteries, especially.  A lot of mystery hero(ines) have that quirks first feel to them.  I need a detective, but I need something different…this one’s fat.  This one has Tourettes.  This one is a chimp.

Stealing well-rounded characters from a game is something that I think is fully doable and can lead to a successful transition of some gaming ideas to fiction.  If didn’t, a friend of mine and I wouldn’t be tossing around the idea of a comic book based on one of our campaigns, right now.  But that’s the key:  based on — not a straight translation.  The best translators (language wise) always play with the language a bit, to fix the flavor of the writer they are translating, rather than a cold mechanical transposition.

Fourth: A lot of games, over time, develop massive backstory, and delve into a lot of ideas.  I’ve run into guys that have complete worlds, worked out to Tolkeinesque complexity and completeness, and who think that everyone in the world will be as excited by, and interested in their worlds as they are.  You’ve met them, the guys that have notebook upon notebook of history, geography, etc. that they will often truncate into a Dickensian players guide to their universe as a welcome packet for the new gamer.  Throwing everything at the wall and hoping it sticks doesn’t work for RPGs anymore than it works in fiction.

(One of my problems when experimenting with science fiction is that I concentrate on worldbuilding and forget, oh, character…plot…that stuff.)

Look at the best science fiction, for example.  Much of the time, there can be a number of intriguing ideas, but they focus primarily on one technology, one trend, and examine their world from that.  It doesn’t inundate the reader, and is more concise and interesting.  Mysteries concentrate — red herrings aside — on the problem at hand:  who killed this due in the kitchen with the candle stick?  Romances are straight-forward:  how do this girl and this guy get together and what seemingly insurmountable problems do they have to overcome to do it.

Keep it simple, keep it concise, keep it interesting.

The general consensus of the panel at Bubonicon was that, in general, it’s not particularly effective to translate gaming ideas over into fiction (Wild Cards not withstanding…)  I don’t agree, but I think it’s necessary to be very careful with what you pluck out of a game to use for fiction.  Basic storylines, character ideas — yes; transcribing your “way cool” gaming night — no.