I met Lynne Hardy and her husband Richard two years ago at Gen Con, and we quickly became friends. Soon after that, our friendship became a working relationship also when I became a freelance proofreader for Modiphius on the Achtung! Cthulhu line, where Lynne was the line editor. Lynne has taught me so much about proofreading, editing, and writing that I knew I wanted her to share her insights someday on my blog. Our schedules finally coincided, so today you get to experience some of the great mentoring I have enjoyed these past two years. Thanks, Lynne!
I was a bit stumped when T.R. asked me to write a guest post for his freelancing blog. Honoured, but definitely stumped. I didn’t really want to write a big long list of dos and don’ts for freelancers, as there is already a huge amount of advice out there (John Adamus frequently posts very useful practical tips for writers and editors over on Twitter @awesome_john, for instance).
So, what should I witter on about? Well, seeing as I am primarily a writer, how about writing about writing?
There are a lot of adages about writing, ones that you frequently see trotted out at the drop of a hat; “Write what you know” and “Write from the heart” are two that immediately spring to mind. But, as a gaming writer, both are problematical to a greater or lesser extent.
Now there are certainly some useful adages out there (such as “Kill your darlings”, for example), and there are most definitely a few pieces of advice that apply to all freelancers (be professional, be on time, read what your write, etc.), but there is a fundamental issue at the heart of games writing that can be quite scary: the fact that you are, more often than not, writing for complete strangers.
In Britain, there are a plethora of daytime TV shows about buying and selling antiques. The core piece of advice that the experts always give to the various contestants is “Buy what you like”, on the assumption that if you like it then the odds are that someone else will, too. (My own personal rule is that the uglier an item is, and the less you’d want it in your own home, the more money it’s probably going to be worth.)
In a lot of ways, writing for strangers is like that (not the ugly thing; well, hopefully not, anyway). When I write for my gaming group, I know what they enjoy so I tailor the game to them. I know what I like running, so there’s an element of that in there, too. After all, this is supposed to be fun for everyone.
But when it comes to writing commissions, I don’t know everyone who is likely to buy the book. I can talk to the creator, do research to find out what the setting is, what the system is, and what has gone before – all of which will give me an idea of what the fans of that particular game might be interested in. Yet, at the end of the day, what I take away from that will still be my impression and mine alone, and it could be wrong.
So writing for strangers is scary because there is always a chance they won’t like what you do. Writing what you like/love helps – at least you have a bit of confidence there because it’s something that you’re interested in and you’re probably within something of a comfort zone. Writing what you know can be relevant, but by “know” I mean “researched” rather than something you’ve necessarily experienced (I am not in the habit of facing down dread Cthulhoid entities; at least, not since I stopped lecturing).
You might not always have the luxury, as a freelancer, of writing what you love. Heck, everyone has bills to pay and you might find it tricky to consistently find work that fits your likes and dislikes to a T. You may be writing something that piqued your interest but isn’t in your “usual” line, meaning that you’ve probably just added another level of scary to the whole proceedings.
If it is so scary, then why do it? Because you have ideas you want to share. Because challenge can be a good thing. Because practice, whilst it may not always make perfect, does help you to grow and develop. Because you never know what opportunities might arise from taking the risk to put yourself and your work out there under the microscope for all to scrutinise.
And just because you don’t quite get it right this time doesn’t mean you won’t in future, because, yes, there will be times when you’re going to fall flat on your face, or it’s going to be a real slog to get to the finishing line. One thing I always tried to get through to my students was that it’s okay to fail. They usually didn’t believe me, but you usually learn far more from a difficult or unsuccessful experience than you do from one that’s all plain sailing.
Not that I’m suggesting for one minute that you deliberately choose jobs that will make your life hard – far from it – but accepting that sometimes things get away from you despite your best intentions is a valuable lesson. The real goal then is to make sure that you’ve done everything you could, done the best job you can, and move on.
And, as long as you’re happy with it (okay, largely happy with it – most writers are never entirely satisfied with their own work), then maybe all those antique experts will be right and someone else will like it, enjoy it, and share it with their friends. That, at the end of the day, is one of the best rewards for being brave enough to do it (although a pay cheque never comes in wrong, either!).