Breaking into the Roleplaying Business — the Five Top Tips

Previously published in Roleplaying Tips Weekly.

I’ve freelanced in the roleplaying industry for 7 or 8 years now. I’ve worked for 2 companies and I think 8 developers. I’ve also known a couple of developers as good friends and listened carefully on industry mailing lists, so I’ve had the advantage of hearing things from the other side of the fence as well.

I’ve done a lot of writing about the roleplaying industry, and it would take me… oh, let’s see… at least twelve articles to really fill you in on all the basics (that’s how many I’ve written so far, anyway). What a lot of people want to know, however, is the short form of this: How do I break into the business in five easy steps? What do I do to start writing for the industry?

This article is the short answer to that question: the five best tips I can give you; the guiding principles that shape everything. All the rest is just details.

Tip #1: Learn to Write!

People who want to write for the roleplaying industry often don’t stop to think of it as a publishing industry. It never really occurs to them that they have to be able to produce writing of publishable quality in order to work in the industry, not just a cool plot or some neat characters.

Think of some of the game review sites you see out there. Reviewers often get very unhappy with game authors who make typos, misspell things, have poor grammar, create cardboard characters, cause inconsistencies, and so on. If those reviewers saw your work, would they find the same mistakes and problems in it? If so, improve your writing a bit more before approaching a company.

Get Published First

If you want to break into the business you need to be able to prove to a company that you can write work of publishable quality. This means you should have a writing sample ready. If you don’t have anything you can use as a writing sample, that’s probably a very good sign that you aren’t ready yet.

If you don’t know whether or not your work is that good, you probably need more practice. If you think your work is publishable but would like a second opinion, then submit short pieces (short stories, articles, reviews) to various appropriate magazines and web sites. Not only will this tell you whether or not other people agree with your self-assessment, but it will also give you resume material.

Don’t give up if you don’t get published right away. Most authors collect rejection slips for quite a while before getting published. Why is this?

  • Yes, not having previous publications can sometimes hurt your chances. If you’re trying to get published on RPG-related web sites though, this probably isn’t an issue.
  • It is very rare for a writer to have hit the point of publishability as early in her life as she thinks she has. Hopefully during those first reams of rejection letters you’re still improving your craft, sometimes in response to editor comments (most editors don’t personalize rejection slips. If one of them does, treat the advice like gold).
  • Often, a piece that’s wrong for one magazine is right for another. Keep resubmitting manuscripts and you might eventually find the right market. (Researching your markets first helps to keep this problem to a minimum.)

Keep Improving

No matter where you are in your writing career, you can always stand to improve. So while you’re networking, submitting proposals, writing sample chapters, and so on, keep improving your writing. Keep working on it. Buy a copy of “Self-Editing for Fiction Writers” by Browne and King, and keep it next to you whenever you write. The more you improve your writing, the more you improve your chances to get published.

Tip #2: Follow Directions and Be Self-Sufficient

Check out the company’s web site and look for writers’ guidelines (sometimes you have to hunt around for them; do so). Read every word of those guidelines and follow them to the letter. Those guidelines are there to make this process easier on the developer. If you circumvent them, you’re making the process harder on the developer, and he isn’t likely to thank you for that.

Don’t ask the developer questions that are answered in the guidelines. Don’t ask the developer how to submit material when there are guidelines on the web site that you could read yourself. You’ll find that most guidelines will tell you not to send manuscripts that have to be signed for, and this one is a biggie–no developer wants to stand in line at the post office for half an hour just to get your one manuscript. Such packages are likely to be tossed in the trash.

Why is all this such a big deal? Because it says a lot about you. It says a lot about your willingness to do your own research. It says a lot about your willingness to follow directions and do work. If you can’t do any of this, then why should the developer expect you to follow the directions in your outline or contract?

Tip #3: Get Involved!

Get involved in communities that revolve around the games you want to write for. Hang out on message boards, mailing lists and forums and hold intelligent conversations. Go to conventions and participate in company-run events and tournaments. Get to know the developer if possible, but without being pushy or obnoxious. Be helpful. Review books from those game lines in an honest, forthright, and thorough manner.

Why? Because this can make a developer notice you. If you’re being straightforward, friendly, and helpful and you’re saying things about his game that make sense to him, he might remember your name in a positive way. This means that when you finally get around to sending him a proposal, he might be saying to himself, “oh yeah, that guy. He seems to really have his head on straight.” There are a few things to remember when doing this, however:

  • Don’t do this just to get someone’s attention, or it’ll probably show. Get involved because you enjoy the game and want to support it.
  • Be polite. Few developers are going to want to hire someone who shows a propensity for screaming at the customers.
  • Remember your spelling and grammar at all times. It may seem like overkill on a forum, and I’m sure a few typos here and there won’t kill your chances. But it’s all about the impression you leave the developer with. (In fact, make it a habit to always be good about spelling, grammar, and capitalization. It’s a good habit to get into, and it makes you look good. You never know when someone will be paying attention.)
  • Try to be honest (but remember that politeness thing). I think that the majority of developers out there are interested in hearing honest opinions that disagree with theirs, as long as those opinions are polite and friendly, well-thought-out, and well-spoken. Obviously there are exceptions to every rule, however.

Tip #4: Keep Trying

Don’t give up easily. If you really want to write for the RPG business, then keep sending proposals and writing samples and so on to various companies. If one company says no, pay attention to why (if they say). Try to improve in that area and then approach the next company. And so on.

On the one hand, you don’t want to ignore the fact that a company has said no. It may mean that you have some improving to do before you’re considered publishable. This goes with that “keep improving” rule above — use it as yet another reason to get even better at what you do.

On the other hand, just because one company has said no doesn’t necessarily mean that you can’t do the job. They might have all the authors they need right now, or you might have used a turn of phrase in your cover letter that just really annoyed someone, or the developer might have had a bad morning that day.

Don’t go to either possible extreme here. Don’t assume that you’re amazing and any rejection is just a developer’s stupidity. But also don’t assume that just because a company doesn’t want you, it means your writing sucks and you’ll never get anywhere.

Tip #5: Be a Professional

One of the best things you can do for yourself is to behave like a professional. This means that you don’t treat your RPG freelance work as though it were a hobby–treat it like a real job, because that’s what it is. Developers tend to run into a lot of flaky people. If they get even the slightest hint that you fall into this category they may pass you over without a second thought. Many of the previous items also fall into the “be a professional” category; here are a few additions.

Cover Letters and Other Communications

Treat every communication with the developer seriously. Reply to emails and return phone calls promptly. Write every email and cover letter with good grammar. Include all of your contact information. Capitalize words properly. Spell-check everything.

Why? Because if you can’t even bother to spell-check your letter, why should the developer expect you to take the time on a full manuscript? If you can’t return an email within a decent period of time, why should the developer expect you to turn a manuscript in on time? Remember: writing is all about presentation.

Be Polite

This one should be pretty self-explanatory. Be polite. Don’t be rude. Don’t tell the developer how awful his writing is. Don’t insult his company.

Be Accommodating

Be willing to do what the developer asks of you (as long as it’s reasonable, of course). If he wants a writing sample, be ready to give him one. If he wants to try you out on a less popular line before giving you a shot at the one you love, be ready to say yes and do a good job on that project.

Bonus Tips

Now that you have my five top tips for breaking into the business, I’m going to pass on a few words of wisdom learned from long years of work and talking to other freelancers. These are my top tips for staying in the business and doing well at it.

Be Careful

While most companies in this business are straight-up and reasonable, there are cheats in every business. Don’t sign anything you aren’t willing to abide by. Keep copies of all your contracts. Talk to other freelancers and ask them which companies to stay away from.

A Few Realities Of The Industry To Be Aware Of

  • Freelance writers in other businesses will tell you that work-for-hire contracts (ones in which your employer owns the work you do) are evil and you should never sign such a contract. The truth of the matter is, work-for-hire contracts were created for a reason. Many magazines and newspapers try to use them inappropriately and thus they’ve gotten a bad name. However, by and large they are appropriate to many parts of the RPG industry.
  • Checks are often small and slow to arrive in this industry. Very few people in this industry can completely pay for their rent and other needs by doing RPG work. Be prepared to do something else (a more lucrative type of writing; a day job; web design; etc.) in order to make the money you need.
  • Freelance writing is done on a contract basis. Don’t expect a full-time job or health insurance.

Once Again… Be a Professional

The fastest way to tank your RPG-writing career is to screw over your developer. The occasional late contract or cancellation is probably inevitable; tragedies do happen. Do everything you can to minimize the effects this will have on the developer and company. Warn the developer ahead of time if you think you’ll be late. Do everything you can to turn things in on time. Let him know immediately if you have to cancel a contract. Got the idea?

Do good work. Turn it in on time. Follow your outlines. If you can manage all of this, you’ll probably get more offers than you have the time to accept.

Beware Burnout

In both the software field and the freelance writing field I often hear 10 years quoted as the point at which most people burn out. In my experience, that’s pretty close to the mark. Keep an eye out for burnout, and be ready to take a break or switch to doing something else when it happens. If you keep trying to do contracts when it happens, you’ll only make it worse.

Writing for the RPG industry can be fun, if not terribly lucrative. If you have the necessary skills and are willing to behave like a professional, you’ll go far. Such a combination is rarer than you might think. Developers are eager to hire such people, and desperate not to hire more flakes who will screw them over. If you think you fit into the former category, and you do good-quality work, you shouldn’t have a difficult time breaking in!

Posted in Gaming, Writing

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