There are certain aspects to writing professionally (and writing for the roleplaying (RPG) market) that people don’t like to think about when they sit around fantasizing about their dream job. Facing those details and dealing with them, however, is much more likely to get you a job you enjoy in the long term!
Lesson #1: Writing, Roleplaying, and Designing All Matter
Knowing how to design good RPG material isn’t enough. Knowing how to write well isn’t enough. Knowing your way around a company’s products and game world isn’t enough. Learn as much of all three of these things as possible – it will make you and your editors much happier. It’ll also make you much more likely to get more and better-paying contracts. It’ll cut down on the research, harsh redlines and revisions that accompany your contracts.
Lesson #2: Writing Under Contract Isn’t Writing for Yourself
There are certain things you can’t do when writing under contract. You can’t decide that you don’t want to do what’s in your outline, and write something totally different without telling your editor. If you feel stuck you can’t put the contract aside and wait until you feel inspired – you have a deadline to meet. You can’t send copies of your work to your friends or put them up on the web. (Heck, sometimes you can’t even tell people the title of the book.) You can’t decide that you’re tired of the manuscript and junk it.
Any of these things are likely to cost you your paycheck when you work for someone else. Worse, the company will probably never hire you again. You can do these things when you write your own material, but not when you act as a professional.
Lesson #3: Even the Best Writer Writes Bad Stuff
All writers have trouble learning this lesson. Every writer writes bad stuff. Every writer has their off day or their off manuscript. No one writes perfect material all the time. Learn to accept this. Learn to discriminate between your good writing and your bad so that you can junk the bad stuff entirely or revise it into something good.
Lesson #4: Revision is the Philosopher’s Stone of Writing
Revision turns the lead of your rough draft into the gold of a finished manuscript. No one wants to believe that their first draft needs help, but it does. Even the most accomplished writers revise, revise, and revise again. Your final draft probably won’t look anything like your first. Revise your manuscript before your editor ever sees it.
If you have no idea how to revise your work, then buy a copy of Self-Editing for Fiction Writers by Browne and King. (Okay, so it’s for fiction – but it’ll still teach you a lot.) Other good resources: Keys to Great Writing (probably the best source for non-fiction writers I’ve found) by Stephen Wilbers, and the classic “The Elements of Style” by Strunk and White.
Most importantly, know that revision is necessary and make a conscious decision to engage in it.
Lesson #5: Craft Takes Time and Practice
Everyone wants to believe that their very first attempts to write are perfect and publishable. They aren’t. (Ten years from now you’ll look back on them and cringe. Trust me.) While talent can be helpful, most of writing consists of skill – and skill takes time and effort to learn. It includes a knowledge and understanding of everything from grammar to pacing, concision to characterization, passive voice to genre conventions.
The good side of this? You can learn a skill. So even if you think you have no talent, you may still learn to write well.
Lesson #6: Learn by Doing… Sort Of
To a certain extent you need to learn to write from other people. Read your favorite authors’ work and see how they do what they do. Take classes and workshops. Get your writing evaluated by teachers, editors, and peers. Read books and magazines (and web sites) about writing. Participate in forum discussions about RPG systems and mechanics. Read reviews to see what sorts of things matter to people.
However, none of these things can teach you how to apply this information to your own writing. None of them can teach you how to decide which pieces of advice apply to you and which don’t. No forum discussions can tell you for sure which techniques and mechanics will and won’t work in the course of your game design. You can only learn these things by writing. So sure, go ahead and take classes and read books – but don’t forget to write, too. Try things out and playtest them into the ground.
Lesson #7: Someone Hates Your Work
If you publish your writing, someone will hate it. This is true no matter how talented or brilliant you are. We all like different things in our RPGs and our writing. I like horror; some people hate it. I don’t like many literary novels; lots of people love them. The game mechanic that wows your sister will be met by scorn from your brother, and vice versa.
So don’t take it personally when someone writes a negative review about your work or says something derisive on a newsgroup. It’s going to happen. It isn’t the end of the world or your career as a writer. Let them have their opinions; don’t get defensive (feel upset in private, not in public). After all, you’d be pretty unhappy if someone told you that you weren’t allowed to dislike romance novels or mysteries, wouldn’t you? So why should you yell at someone for not liking your work? It just gives you an ulcer and makes you forget what’s really important: doing what you love.
Lesson #8: The Conditions Suck
Take your pick: short deadlines, vicious editors, late (or missing) checks, low pay rates, writing something in a way you don’t agree with; nasty reviews… I could go on. Eventually you’ll encounter one (or mostly likely most) of these conditions if you work in the business. Keep in mind that even for “normal” writers, the average professional writer makes about $4,000 per YEAR.
Of course, you’ll encounter many of these same conditions in other writing industries, and in plenty of other non-writing industries as well. I think one of the reasons they burn so many people out in this industry is that people think of writing RPGs as a magical dream job. They don’t expect these conditions, so they get worn down by them. Know what you’re getting into before you start, and decide whether or not you’re willing to deal with it. If you aren’t, then do something else. You can always write RPG material for yourself in your spare time even if you can’t stand doing it as a professional.
I’m trying to make sure that if you really are interested in the job, you’ll stick around longer than your first contract. You won’t get scared off by the tight deadlines and nasty redlines. You won’t perform a career-limiting move or ruin your chances of getting a contract by turning in a completely un-publishable writing sample. You won’t be shocked by the low pay or the months-late checks. In short, you’ll know what to expect – and you’ll know whether or not you’re ready for that.