#OwenOnTheCouch, Part 1: J Gray
This past weekend was PaizoCon, an event I attended in person from 2014-2019, and would very much like to go to again someday in the future. For a long time it was the kickoff of Convention Season for me, and missing one held in-person whole hearing how much fun other folks were having was bittersweet.
One of the things I commonly did at conventions was sit on a couch in a hotel lobby and talk to folks. A lot of these were fans, friends, co-workers, and colleagues, of course… but a big chunk were less-experienced or just-breaking-in freelancers, and (though they were often also friends or co-workers) work-giving publishers, editors, and developers.
A lot of people told me this year both that they miss that opportunity in general, and the chance to network in particular. So, I’m going to see if I can create a virtual version of #OwenontheCouch in social media, posting results on my blog and perhaps even holding a virtual event sometime during Origins and/or Gen Con. This week will mostly be Couch content, as I am still recovering from the flu.
The lobby couch I traditionally used during PaizoCon has apparently been removed during the pandemic, and my pals at Legendary Games were kind enough to create this memorial at the site of the original couch.
So please welcome J Gray to the couch! He wrote these observations back in 2016, and since has gone on to work for R. Talsorian Games. A number of industry professionals have noted how accurate these observations are, and I consider them well worth reading.
Five Things I’ve Learned As a 3pp Freelancer
I’ve been a freelance RPG professional, almost entirely for 3pp Pathfinder products, for over a year now. I’ve had the chance to work with several different companies and have written, developed, edited, beta read, or done layout on several books (some out for sale, some not yet out). While I haven’t been at this gig for as long as most of the folk I admire in the field, I think I’ve got enough experience under my belt to have learned a thing or five.
- THE WORK WON’T COME TO YOU
While there are exceptions, if you’ve got few credits to your name and no real relationships with publishers no one is going to come to you and ask you to write Ultimate Splatfinder Adventures 5. You need to go out there and find the work. Enter the Paizo Superstar Contest for practice. Send articles to Wayfinder to build up a resume. Pay attention to the forums where publishers advertise for writers (such as the Paizo 3pp forum). And don’t be afraid to send in a query or a pitch to a publisher if you think you’ve got an idea that will work for them. You need to find your work. The work won’t find you.
- PUBLISHERS ARE BUSY PEOPLE
Most 3pp publishers run their company as a hobby or a second job. They’ve already got a 9-5 of some kind. Those who are doing the gaming gig full time are probably running herd on a dozen projects (if not more!) at once for their own company AND working on something for other companies as well. Add to that family, friends, and the occasional social activity and they are probably sleep-deprived and busy as hell. If a publisher isn’t getting back to you right away, chances are it is because that person is busy not because they are rude. Have patience. If you haven’t gotten a response, wait a week or maybe even two and then send a polite follow-up email asking if they got your previous email. Don’t spam the hell out of them.
- YOU AREN’T THAT SPECIAL
Or, put another way, use your freaking manners people! Here’s the truth. There are many, many 3pp writers out there and unless your name is Monte Cooke or Owen KC Stephens, chances are your desire to make RPG material is greater than a publisher’s need to have YOU, in specific, make RPG material. Confidence is awesome! You should totally have it but the best way to approach any publisher is to mind your Ps and Qs, say please and thank you, and follow any confidence cocktail with a nice chaser of humility. Go in thinking you’re the cat’s meow or believing that you can follow your rules instead of the publisher’s rules and chances are all you’ll get is a “No, thank you, we’re not interested in working with you.”
- KNOW THE RULES
I don’t mean the game rules here. Obviously, any RPG writer should know the rules for the system being written for. Instead, I mean know the rules for writing for a publisher or system. Many publishers have guidelines that they will happily share with their writers. Read them. Follow them. Many publishers have specific workflow procedures. Ask about them. Follow them. I CANNOT STRESS HOW IMPORTANT THIS IS! If the publisher uses Google Docs on projects YOU use Google Docs on projects. You conform to the publisher’s guidelines and workflow and not the other way around. Respect their process. Also, know “system standard”. Fans of an RPG system get used to things being written in a certain way and when those things aren’t written in a certain way, it breaks their flow of reading and devalues their appreciation of a book. For example, if a system’s standard format is “Each character should make a Difficulty 20 Bagpipe skill check.” don’t write “Each character should make a bagpipe skill roll, DC 20.” Capitalize the terms that should be capitalized and use the right terms.
- WHAT YOU WRITE ISN’T WHAT WILL BE PUBLISHED
Based on my experience, here’s how workflow tends to go in RPG writing. First, you brainstorm the idea. Second, you write what you’re going to write using whatever process you use until it is done and submitted to the publisher. Third, the editor (or editors) edits and might ask you to make changes or just might make the changes themselves based on their experience, knowledge, and preference. Fourth, your work will be beta/playtested and further changes might be suggested. Fifth, the editor (or editors) might make further changes based on feedback from the previous stage. Sixth, there’s layout and production and all that jazz. So, let me reiterate here. WHAT YOU WRITE ISN’T WHAT WILL BE PUBLISHED. This means fluff will be changed. This means crunch will be changed. It might only be a few words that change or it might seem like the item was entirely rewritten. Why? Because no one’s work is perfect. Because the editor’s job is to see the big picture and make sure your work fits into that big picture. Because the beta readers found a flaw or a loophole that needs to be closed. Because your cool magic doodad is too close to someone else’s magic doodad. Because they freaking felt like it and that’s their job and you need to live with it. If your first instinct upon finding out someone edited your precious baby is a burning sensation in your gut and the desire to post on Facebook about how much it sucks? Learn to check your damn ego or consider getting out of the business. Because that’s how it works.
Want to Support the Couch?!
A great way to help me be able to make connections, post advice, and make #OwenOnTheCouch useful is to send me your thoughts, questions, contact info to be publicly shared, and anything else you think might advance the conversation or help people connect. I’m happy to host publisher throughs on what they are looking for, veteran’s advice, and even post common questions people have about how to break in, move up, and manage common issues.