Wednesday, April 08, 2009

Okay, so where was I?

Despite being just a wee bit older now (and having had a few unusually chaotic evenings), I seem to remember telling you guys that next up on the blog would be some tips on writing. I've thought long and hard about this every time I get asked. Over time, I started to realize, I've usually answered with the same few things every time. Once I even went in depth and wrote it all down. I happened to be digging around in some files the other day, when lo and behold, I happened upon the old notes (which I'd already used once years back in response to Dan Hsu's blog over at 1-Up).

So, once again for your viewing pleasure, here are a few tips on how to do my job:

There's a popular misconception that all I do is get paid to play video games, read comics, and spout out a few words ... something anybody can do. If you're one of these people, please step away from your keyboard. At the very least, do a little more research into what it takes to do this job, because there's a lot more than you'd expect. Sure, there's the game playing, but there's a WHOLE lot more:

  • Writing - Okay, so this may seem self-explanatory, but it's not as easy as you think ... especially when you're freelancing. To start with, you've got to make sure that your article is designed around who you're writing for. I know Dan touched on this in the blog entry about submissions, but freelancers deal with this all the time. For example, a standard review for GameSpy will run anywhere from 600-800 words. At EGM though, since it's a print magazine with more space restrictions, a full page may only run around 400 words. And beyond having to expand and contract the actual length of the content, there's also the matter of incorporating the "feel" of the outlet you're writing for into the piece, while still maintaining a little bit of your individual personality.

  • Rewrites - Oh come on ... just because you wrote it once, you don't think you're done yet do you? First you need to proofread everything. And DO NOT rely on spell check for everything.

    I remember looking over someone's work once and saw where he made mention of a book's "exiting artist". When I pointed out that the guy was actually staying on the project, I found out he was trying to say "exciting artist" (note the missing 'c' the first time around). What made it so funny is that the guy then got ticked because his spell check missed it. Last time I whipped out the old dictionary, "exiting" WAS still a word ... just not the one he had intended.

    And after you've checked and rechecked everything, there's still a good chance that you'll end up having to take care of some more edits. Either by going into deeper detail on particular features, or by trimming down some words to fit space constraints. While the editors will try to handle some of this, it's our job as writers to make their jobs as editors as easy as possible.

  • Communications - Again, this seems like a no-brainer, but again it's something that needs to be addressed ... ESPECIALLY for freelancers. When you're working for a few different places, it's easy for communications to break down.

    It's hard enough to keep track of communications between editors, PR reps, developers, and everyone else involved in a game. Now take that confusion and multiply it by the number of places you write for. It gets even more confusing when things start to cross over, such as talking to one PR rep about two games for two different outlets.

    And when communications break down (which trust me, sooner or later at some point in your career ... they will), you've got to be able to keep a level head and roll with the punches, salvaging as much as you can.

    Which is a great segue into the next key point ...

  • Adaptation - No matter how well you plan or how precise you are, at some point things will start to unravel. Nothing will ever always go according to plan. Whether it's your fault, the fault of others, or simply an act of nature ... the fact remains that at some point you will hit a snag. When this happens, you need to have the ability to quickly change gears and adapt accordingly. Sometimes this can even work to your advantage. A rush job for one place may fall apart, but give you the opportunity to refine it into something better for somewhere else. Be like a reed in a blowing storm. Bend but don't break. (Words of wisdom straight from a fortune cookie)

  • Networking - No, I'm not talking routers, modems, and CAT5 cable here. I mean SOCIAL networking. They say "It's not what you know, but who you know." Well, that's not necessarily true. It's what you know AND who you know.

    When I first got into the video game industry, I basically jumped in head first. Eventually, I developed a relationship with Victor Lucas and Tommy Tallarico over at Greedy Productions. Ironically, both were big comic books fans, and I had been working in the comic industry for over seven years. After helping them out initially with some comic-related work, Vic decided to have me do some writing for Electric Playground, and eventually help produce some segments for the show. Then, one day, Vic was producing a piece for G4 and one of the guests was Raymond Padilla, who at the time was GameSpy's Senior Console Editor. Vic brought my name up into conversation, and before I knew it, Ray was dropping me a line asking if I'd like to freelance for GameSpy.

    And when it comes to networking, leave no stone unturned. You'd be surprised how things tend to work out. For example, I've already mentioned my years of work in the comic book industry. During that time I made a lot of contacts in the industry. Once I "jumped ship" from comics to games, do you think I was the only person to do so? I've run into my old running mates from the comic world all over the place. From Square to Activision to THQ and more. In fact, some of them have even gone on to start up major IP development studios. Recently, when a last minute scheduling change came up at E3, I was able to get into where I was needed based NOT on the fact that I was a writer covering the event for GameSpy, but rather because of the years I spent in comics with the person in charge of the event.

    Networking is easily one of, if not THE most important aspects of your career. Always keep your contact info up to date too. You never know when Person A has moved on to Company B unless you constantly keep things updated. If you're serious about networking, the best advice I can give you is to head out to your local book store and pick up a copy of "Dig Your Well Before You're Thirsty" from Harvey Mackay. It's one of the best guides to building and maintaining a solid professional and person network of contacts.

  • Budgeting - Easily the bane of the freelancer's life. Remember, as a freelancer, it's all feast or famine. Some months you may pull in a ridiculous amount of work, while others will be bone dry. You need to plan accordingly. Also, since you're not a staff worker, guess who's responsible for paying Uncle Sam his share of your pay.

    Maintaining good records and holding on to receipts is vitally important. Not just for tax purposes, but also because some companies will reimburse you for some of your business related expenses.

  • Be Persistent, Not a Pest - There's a FINE line between being persistent and simply being a pain. If you're trying to get work at a particular outlet, and you don't hear anything back from an editor, usually a short inquiry is acceptable after a bit of time has passed. Keep in mind just how much communication the standard editor has to put up with just in his normal routine. Plus, he may be out of town covering a particular event or even just away on vacation. Give him some time to get back to you, and if you still don't hear anything back, drop a quick line to check in on the status of your last communication ... and then leave it at that for a while and move on to the next outlet. You can always come back sometime down the road and repeat the cycle.

    These are just a few of the things I deal with on a regular basis. It's a lot more than just "Play a game and write up something". Make no mistake that if you're jumping into this career, there's good and bad in it just like there is in ANY job. You may even need to get another job to help keep the bills paid. The key is to go into it as a job, and not a fantasy. Be realistic, be persistent, and be willing to work hard at it, and you've got just as much chance as the next guy of "making it". However, if you're just looking at it as a "dream job", don't be surprised when reality forces you to wake up in a cold sweat.

So there you go ... that's the main list of tips I have, sans one major bit of advice I've come up with since initially writing that list a few years ago. What could I have neglected to mention? It's something that, truthfully, seems to go unnoticed and taken for granted. Two words: "Talk" and "Listen". Seems simple, right? Well, you might be surprised ... especially when used in practice and trying to keep the two in balance. You see, you've got to learn to really listen to people. Pick up on the little things and try to remember them, even if it doesn't seem to be related to the work you're doing. You'll never know just how many doors have been opened for me because I remembered something from a random conversation I heard or was involved with some time before. The thing is, you need to actually open your mouth and talk sometimes too. You need to be a part of the conversation and to speak your mind too. Besides, talking can actually help your writing.

Now, I'm not going to claim to be an expert on writing, and you'll probably never see my stuff on the front page of the New York Times ... but that's because I'm an entertainment journalist. Am I a "real" journalist? Hell yes I am, damnit. It pisses me off when I hear someone say otherwise, particularly after I've busted my ass researching a piece, conducting an interview, etc. The catch is, in my particular field, people need to enjoy what they read too. Instead of the clinical "just the facts" attitude of classic news writing, I've got to walk that tightrope of a line between informing readers and entertaining them in some fashion.

Raymond Chandler once wrote of his characters that, "If there were enough like him, the world would be a very safe place to live in, without becoming too dull to be worth living in." I try to make sure that my every bit of my writing is a very informed piece to read, without becoming too dull to be worth actually reading. For me, that means writing the way I talk. Read enough of my articles and the odds are pretty good that you'll recognize me in a crowded room, even if you've got no clue what I look like. Why? Because I carry a conversation the same way I write. Talk to people in print, to me, is no different than talking to them face to face. The reason I'm comfortable writing is because I'm comfortable talking, and vice versa.

If you read back a piece you've written out loud and it doesn't seem to flow from your tongue, odds are fair to good that readers will feel the same. If you need practice, use a recorder (I started to say "tape recorder", but it's all digital now), speak your mind about a piece, then copy it verbatim. Edit it a bit here and there, then read it back and see if it doesn't come across better. That's what works for me sometimes ... it might help you out too.

Okay folks, I'm spent now. That's about it for this session of class. I'll be writing more here, though, letting you know what's happening, what's coming up, and possibly even an exclusive little bit here and there to keep things interesting. I may vent one minute about the various bullshit of the day, and them I may follow up with a quick review of the latest book/game/flick/etc. This blog will probably be going all over the place. Why? Read the intro at the top of the page, people. It says, "Well, like all the best zoo exhibits, this is your chance to see one up close and personal in a pseudo-natural environment." And as for me? I'm the trained monkey ...

Later ...

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