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Questions About The Gaming Industry and Freelance Writing

(You can view this article in Russian on the site.)

An aspiring freelancer (we'll call him "Peter T.") sent me a detailed questionnaire about getting into the game industry as a freelancer. His questions were so good I couldn't help but respond with detailed answers, and with his permission I've reworked our Q&A into an article about the biz.

Understand that my involvement in the game industry is very atypical. Not many people get the opportunity to start as the webmaster for D&D, then move on to the Greyhawk relaunch, and then get handed a designer spot on the Forgotten Realms relaunch, then get asked by one of the 3E designers if I want to write for his company. A lot of the information here is based on what I've heard from other freelancers and by talking to the people on the publishing end of things. It's my best recollection and advice of how to go about this. If you try all of this stuff and still don't get any freelance work, please don't blame me, it's a dire wolf-eat-dire wolf world out there.

Why am I doing this? Doesn't helping other people become better freelancers mean that I'm less likely to get freelance work? Possibly. But I have a day job as a game design, I don't need freelance work to pay the bills. I have the dream. If me not getting a piece of freelance means some other person gets to live the dream for a while, that's great. Also, the easier you make it for quality writers to get published (and its corollary, the easier you make it for average writers to become quality writers), the better off the gamers and gaming publishers are. In other words, we're all better off.

Anyway, if you want to write games professionally, this article may help. If you have other questions, feel free to ask and if I think they're generally useful I'll add them here.

If you're a game publisher and you have more advice for potential freelancers, contact me and I can add it here. Likewise, if you're a publisher and you think I'm totally off-base on something, contact me and I can correct my statements.

How did you get started in the business?

I was working as TSR's webmaster, and R&D (which at the time was called the "creative services" department) was starting to put together its annual "group project to pay for the TSR's Gen Con Designer's Party," and I volunteered to write one of the small ghost/adventure combos for that book (which was Children of the Night: Ghosts, by the way). After that I wrote a few adventures for the RPGA. When WotC moved TSR to Washington, I applied for a designer job based on the stuff I had written, and got hired.

Can you describe to me your current work week in terms of freelance writing?

I commute by train to work, 2 hours each way, so I normally use that time to write on my laptop. I guess I get about 3 hours done a day. If I have a deadline coming up I may use some weekend time for writing as well. I'm including "designing stuff for my website" as part of this, by the way; if I don't have any assignments I'm still doing game design most days.

How many hours do you devote to it a week and how many projects do you juggle at one time?

I guess about 20 hours a week. Ever since leaving WotC I've had about 3-4 projects going on at one time, whether a PDF project for some company, a print book for another, or a series of web articles for the WotC site.

How many outstanding pitches to you normally have out at one time?

If by "pitches" you mean "me going to some company and saying, 'hey, I want to write X for you!'," none ... so far I've had people coming to me with offers and so far I haven't really had to go hunting for work (it also helps that I have a full-time job and have the luxury of not having to hunt for freelance). I have no idea how many the typical freelancer has, but I'd guess they're working on at least 3-4 ideas at any one time.

How many words do you typically write in a day?

Hmmm. I'm guessing around 500, mostly because much of what I write nowadays is rulesy stuff that's slow to do, rather than less technical things like the history or description of a country. If doing the latter I could easily do 1,000 a day, more if my "day" wasn't just 3 hours of writing.

What would you recommend doing to get started in the business?

Submit, submit, submit. Write stuff and post it on your website, or have a portfolio that you can send to someone at the press of a button. Submit ideas to Dragon, Dungeon, Polyhedron, and other gaming mags. Submit adventure ideas to the RPGA, they always need new tournament adventures, particularly for Living Greyhawk and Living City. Keep an eye out for publishers looking for submissions from group projects (like the monster and magic item books that come up every few months). Keep submitting stuff and don't get discouraged even if you're rejected over and over again (even Monte Cook was rejected by Dungeon at one point). Check out Monte's article of advice about getting into the industry.

Anyway, if you get rejected, point them at your website or portfolio and say, "Well, here's this other stuff I've done ... if you like anything you see or would like me to expand upon one of the ideas here, I'd be happy to." Don't give them time to forget you (submit something to someone at least once a month, even if it's the same item you're shopping around to several places). But also don't harass them ... it often takes 90 days for them to cycle through their "slush pile" of unsolicited submissions, so don't pester them with emails about "have you looked at my article yet?" until at least 3 months have passed.

Do most people in the industry start out as freelancers, editors, designers, working for distributors...?

Most start as freelancers. Some work as editors and then move into design.

What would be the typical path people take and what path do you think people should take?

Submitting to the mags is easiest. Publishers like it because it's a very small risk for them ... if you're late or screw up, they're only out a few pages, which can be filled by something else in a pinch, and it's only a small investment on their part if you succeed. A huge chunk of the current industry people (not counting d20 start-ups who went from obscurity to self-publishing) got their start writing for one gaming mag or another. I really don't think there's a "better" way for either side ... the mags have the circulation to get your name out there and get you more work. You could always start your own d20 imprint and publish what you write, but the numbers on that sort of thing are pretty small, so it's hard to make any money at it, especially after paying for editing, typesetting, and art.

(As an example, my charity book Swords Into Plowshares was a group project done on a completely volunteer basis -- design, editing, art, and typesetting. The book has been out a year, and even though it has a lot of "big name" recognition, with stuff designed by Monte Cook, me, and other well-known people, it has sold less than 400 copies ... and for a time it was in the Top 20 selling products at RPGnow. The PDF industry really is that small.)

Speaking of getting more work, once you get a submission accepted, get it done right and get it done on time. That'll make you stand out in their mind. And when you turn over your article, be sure to tell them, "I enjoyed writing this, and I'd love to do some more, keep me in mind for future projects," and get ready to submit more stuff to them.

What are the big internet sites that would make sense to follow and keep checking in terms of writing requests?

ENworld is really the best place. All the news goes there, and the publishers know to post announcements on ENworld when they have such a project coming up. Still, keep an eye on which publishers tend to do these sorts of projects and bookmark their sites, too ... you may get a heads-up of a few hours between the time it's mentioned on the publisher's site and when it gets to ENworld, and having your email get in early doesn't hurt. :)

Are there any other internet lists or message boards to get involved in?

There is a d20 publishers mailing list* run by Gareth-Michael Skarka, but I'm not on it. I'm too busy as it is to hear about other jobs I foolishly might want to take on in a fit of excitement. :)

* By the way, Gareth's list is invitation-only and only for established freelancers. It's not a how-to-become-a-freelancer list.

Here's my strategy for freelance writing. I've decided to confine my article submissions to e-zines and magazines in the early goings. Then move on to become a contributing author for a supplement/product produced by a company (I.E Complete guide to goblins). Finally the objective is to be the sole author of a supplement/product. What are your thoughts on this?

Works for me. Get your name out as a trustworthy writer for the mags. Get into a multauthor book based on the strength of your mags writing and name-recognition by the publisher. Then "graduate" to being able to do your own book. Don't stop writing for the mags, though, as it's good work and continues to get you exposure.

How long and how many articles should I write on the magazine and e-zine level before making the transition to being a contributing author and most importantly how do you make the transition?

I'd try to get at least two articles under your belt before making a serious push for something bigger. One article can be seen as a fluke, two shows you are more than a one-trick-pony. Especially if the two articles are from the same source (such as Dragon) ... the prospective publisher looks at that and says, "Well, he's apparently smart enough that they wanted to work with him a second time...."

What approach and techniques have you used or would you use in making such a transition to the next level?

I'm a bad example, it was mostly luck and fortuitousness on my part. :P

Lastly do you recommend an alternative strategy and if so could you explain the strategy and approaches used in full detail?

Nope, what we've described above is pretty much the way to do it, which is why everyone is doing it. Unless you plan on inventing the next Pokemon or Mage Knight (in which case can I have a million dollars when you make it big?) I'd stick to the method that's most likely to work. Unless you want to try the Hollywood "casting couch" method of getting work....

I've written several articles for magazines, and they'll be published in upcoming issues. How do you get involved in bigger projects like writing 32 or more pages in a multiauthor book? How do you go about pitching ideas for projects such as this?

Hmmm. Well, if the articles were written for a company that also does regular books, you should be able to argue your ability to be a contributing author with that company. If they weren't, you're kinda stuck until your work is available and other publishers can get a look at it. Of course you can always shop around the turnovers of those articles and say "these'll be posted in issues blah, blah, and blah, coming Spring 2004, do you like it and are there any books I could work on for you?"

What I'd rec'mend doing is working on a body of material that you could adapt or loot for other projects. For example, I have a "things to post" list of stuff I want to remember to design for my site at some time. When I got an offer to do a book of templates, I looked that list for template ideas to use in the book; if I had already designed them for my own personal use, I could just cut & paste them into the book and have a head start. Thus, if you write up a bunch of spells and save them somewhere, if you eventually get an offer to contribute to a book on a marshy country, you'll probably have some spells that are applicable to that book.

(Note that I'm not advocating copying work you did in book or article X for use in a new book from Company Z ... most publishers want new material, especially if they're paying for it. I'm talking about stuff you keep on your computer that you haven't published or posted anywhere on the off chance you might get paid for it some day. There are exceptions, of course ... sometimes a publisher will like something you have posted on your website and will want to contract you to expand that in a book or article. In fact, that's exactly what happened with the path magic stuff on my site -- the folks at Citizen Games wanted me to tweak it for inclusion in their book Path of the Magi, and that landed me a freelance contract. But to reiterate, most publishers are paying you to give them something that nobody else has, and self-copying without permission is really likely to bite you on the butt when the publisher finds out what you did.)
Example: How did you get the Anger of Angels project?

I cheated by becoming friends with Monte years ago. After I was let go from WotC he called me and asked if I wanted to write anything for Malhavoc Press. :)

For projects this size does the freelancer pitch the idea or the company and regardless how can I freelancer like myself get involved?

Companies normally have their book schedules planned about 6-12 months in advance because of the time needed for printing, shipping, adding things to the biannual catalog, etc., so they usually take a look at their pool of freelancers and say, "Hmm, Mr. Y would be a good choice for Book X." However, if you're willing to plan ahead, you can pitch a book, like "I know you plan way in advance, but I have a really cool idea for an adventure about Z, and if you'd like me to write it for you I can get started now or at some date in the future, and if you end up with a hole in your schedule and it comes up sooner rather than later then I'll get cracking on it right now."

I've pitched article ideas to Dungeon, Dragon, Campaign, Games Unplugged, ENworld Players Journal, and The Gaming Herald. Are there any other paying RPG magazines or ezines that you could recommend and how do they stack up in comparison against the ones mentioned above?

Heh, sounds like you know more gaming magazines than I do. :)

How do you go about learning of freelance work? Are there web sites besides ENworld that you check or do you have all the manufacturers web sites bookmarked and periodically check each of them?

I really don't have to look for work, like I said above, but I'd keep an eye on ENworld and the mailing list. If you have a relationship with any publishers (like the magazines you've written for) be sure to let them know on a regular basis that you're up for more work.

What approaches do you do to reconnect with someone you've already worked for and would like to write for them again?

Pretty much everybody nowadays is comfortable with email (though some prefer snail mail for first contact, and some require it for first-time submissions, if you've already gotten work from them they ought to be fine with a followup email). If you're not a personal friend or acquaintance of the person you're talking to, I'd reintroduce yourself. "Hi, I'm So-and-So, and I wrote the article on XXX in issue YYY for your ZZZ magazine. How are you? I have some time in my freelance schedule right now, and since I enjoyed working with the ZZZ staff I thought I'd see if you had any work available at this time. My strengths are AAA, BBB, and CCC, and I'd like to do more about DDD if I get the chance. Please let me know if there's any more work I can do for you."

Do you just write out of thin air an adventure, prestige class, or game idea and submit it to companies and/or magazines?

That works, too. That's what the business calls a "blind submission" or "unsolicited submission" and it goes to what they call the "slush pile," which is either a virtual or actual box for such things which are reviewed by staffers when they find the time in between getting articles edited and magazines published. The stuff that's crap they throw out* and send a rejection letter, the stuff that's decent they throw out* and send a rejection letter, the stuff that's good but unusable by the magazine gets thrown out* and sent a "this was neat but we can't use it, is there anything else you have?" rejection letter, and the stuff that's good and useable gets held and send a "this was neat, we'd like you to make some changes, how about a contract?" letter. Spells, prestige classes, monsters, whatever, they've seen it all. Stuff on a theme tends to do better than stuff without a theme (a collection of random spells is boring, a collection of slightly-less-random spells in a neatly-described spellbook with a backstory is not boring).

(Actually, I think the standard is that they mail it back to you rather than throwing it out, but only if you include an SASE with your submission.)

If yes I'm assuming you do this as well as look for open calls, which do you do more of and which is the way to go?

You do both. If you have material that's done, there's always the chance that some publisher will like it enough to snap it up. Responding to open calls takes longer because you have to show you can write what they want and get it back to them in a reasonable amount of time.

If you do write stuff out of thin air or submit stuff how do you protect your work against someone copying the concept or idea?

At least with the Paizo stuff, you're required to include a Submission Agreement Form with every submission, which basically says, "I wrote this, but I'm aware that you get a lot of other submissions and someone else may have written something similar, so if you reject my article and in the future I see an article similar to mine, I won't sue."

Legit places won't steal from you. Paizo is certainly legit, and most publishers aren't going to try to steal from you. If you're really concerned about copyright theft, contact your local copyright office to see how to get a document registered as copyrighted in your name. Then if someone steals from you, you can sue them. :) But it's pretty much a non-issue, as this industry is small enough and the people involved are connected to the net, so any accusations of stealing that turn out to be true are quickly discovered and everyone hears about it.

How much can a freelancer make just starting out as a side job?

I think the starting rate for mag articles for a new author is 2-3 cents a word. A typical article is 2,000-4,000 words, so you're not making more than $120 for a typical article. Freelance rates for game books are usually better, starting around 3-4 cents a word. A typical 32-page book (one "module unit," a.k.a. "MU"=32 pages) is about 20-25,000 words, so that's at least $600-$800. Established freelancers usually can get around 5-6 cents a word. WotC pays the high end of that because they can afford the best talent. Big name authors (which hopefully means the same as "quality authors") can charge more.

WotC assumes an in-house designer can do 32 pages of work in a month, and usually gives its freelancers 1 month per 32 pages, so your typical WotC freelancer doing 1 MU per month can pull in an extra $10-$15,000 per year doing freelance. I know a lot of people who do more than that, averaging 2-3 MU per month, but honestly when you start trying to cram in that much work your work is going to suffer for it, and you're more likely to become burned out.

Also know that most freelance work is "payment upon publication," so you may wait 6 months to a year to get paid for something you wrote. Path of the Magi came out late last month (Oct 2003) and I'm getting paid for it this month (Nov 2003); I finished it in December 2002! So plan ahead with your budget if you're expecting freelance to be a reliable source of income.

(WotC usually pays an initial payment upon acceptance of the contract and the remainder when the article is turned over to them; this is unusual and one of the reasons why most people love getting WotC gigs.)

Unless the book you're writing is guaranteed to be a fantastic seller, avoid situations where you're paid in royalties. In most cases the flat payment means you get paid more and quicker (which is better, $600 now, or $300 now and the hopes of $100 per quarter for the next 4-5 quarters?).

When you work with a company how close to perfect does your written word need to be before it goes to the editor?

Short answer: As perfect as you can make it without (1) wasting time due to the law of diminishing returns, and (2) being late.

Long answer: Spell check it. Grammar check it. Make sure it makes sense and is laid out in a reasonable order. Mark the start and end of sidebars. Use proper formatting (italics for spell and magic item names, caps for ability scores and feats, etc.), get names right, and use proper headers (like a chapter head being bigger than a section head). Ask if they want you to include a title page; if they do, grab one of their books and model your title page after that one so they don't have to fix yours. Many companies have a standard Word document that has all of their header formatting built in, which means the editor doesn't have to fiddle with your doc to make it work in their style. The more work you do for the editor in taking care of stoopid spelling, grammar, and formatting mistakes, the more time she has to make your book shine. The less time she has to act like a middle-school english teacher, the more time she has to make your book the next evergreen product. Editors are really underappreciated. In a bad turnover, it's the editor's job to salvage the book and they get the flak if it looks bad; in a great turnover it's the editor who makes the book look fantastic and gets no praise for it from the fans. The editor is your friend. Offer to help her out with anything you can, including rewrites, fixing sections, or additional playtesting. Send her thank-you notes and other things to show you appreciate the work she's doing. The editor is on your side; don't fight her, and don't make her job any harder than it has to be.

(By the way, you'll notice that throughout this document I've been referring to the designer as "he" and the editor as "she." That's not me being sexist. First, I originally wrote this in response to questions from a male designer. Second, most designers in this industry are male. Third, most editors are female. I'm not sure why that's the case, but it's what I've seen. And by the way, Kim Mohan is a male editor, and Tracy Hickman is a male designer.)

As a freelancer do you have an editor that checks things over before you submit stuff?

No, but I've been writing long enough and (in most cases) know my editors well enough to know what sort of stuff they have pet peeves about (such as "stop using so many damn semicolons, Sean!"). It never hurts to have someone proofread it for you to catch stuff you'd miss from being overfamiliar with the text. One mistake that happens a lot is planning to put A, B, C, D, and E into a book, writing a book, and not realizing that C is still safely in your head instead of in the book, yet A, B, D, and E make references to C here and there. Another set of eyes is good for noticing things like, "hey, you talk about truesilver all over this book but you don't say what it is anywhere" ... which is problematic if the book is called The Magic of Truesilver. ;)

Is there any materials that you would recommend that I read, view, or study that would improve my chances of having written pieces of work accepted for publication?

Read the PH, DMG, and MM. Recognize their style, how the language is used and the structure of its sentences. If you write a prestige class, model its text after the prestige classes in the DMG, with similar structure and language. If writing a spell, find a parallel spell in the PH. If writing a monster, compare the monster's abilities to similar ones in the MM and make sure you're covering all of the bases they covered. If there's an "Elements of Style" book for d20 writing, the 3 core books are it.

Other than that, just understand how to write English. You'd be surprised how many "authors" have problems with that. :)

For freelancers like myself who are just starting out, and seasoned freelancers like yourself how important is the attendance of game fairs like Gen Con for networking purposes?

It never hurts to put a face to the name. It's a great opportunity to get your face out there. If it's the end of the show for that night and you find yourself near someone you want to work for, offer to buy them a drink or have dinner with them. Everybody appreciates a free drink (don't offer to buy them dinner, though, they shouldn't be able to get away with being cheap bastards just because you want work from them) and it gives you more face time with them. Before you leave, give them your card, and email them after the show, "Hey, we had drinks at Major Goolsby's on Thursday night, nice talking to ya, keep me in mind for any work you have coming up."

The shows also give you the opportunity to meet other freelancers. If you can't manage to get your foot in the door with a publisher, making friends with another freelancer can help. I've passed over several books because I didn't have time, but always answered with "but I have a friend who would be good for that and he's looking for work right now...." Plus there's a chance you'll end up collaborating on a book with them at some point, so it's good to get to know your co-authors.

Gen Con is obviously the biggest show. GAMA, Origins, and DragonCon are big, too (though I hear DragonCon is turning into more of a huge party than a game con nowadays). If one's close by, definitely go, and if you can only do one, I rec'mend Gen Con.

What are some of the approaches you use at these events for networking?

Apparently buying drinks is the way to go. :) And I'm sure if you find someone stuck at a booth and they're looking tired, thirsty, or harassed by some guy who doesn't realize the fifth story about his half-orc paladin really isn't that interesting, go grab them a soda. They'll appreciate it, and it's a conversation-opener. And if they're a jerk, well, you're only out the cost of a soda. ;)

Third most important question in the questionnaire! I was extremely impressed with the material that I've seen of yours that has appeared on the Wizards of the Coast web site. I have never pitched any ideas to the authorities at Wizards and was wondering how do you go about getting your material posted on their web site?

You know, I don't think they really accept unsolicited submissions. The producers work closely with R&D to see what products are coming out and what things need tie-in articles. Others are ongoing articles in a series by known authors. But I'll check on that to see for sure. Certainly if you get in good with Paizo, you could ask them to talk to WotC's web team about other projects you'd be good at (for that matter, it wouldn't hurt to ask them to put in a good word for you with WotC R&D).

It's a nice gig if you can get it; because those accounts are handled by Hasbro, you're paid upon completion just like a WotC freelance assignment, and they don't mind if you finish early and send in an invoice early.