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The Blank Page

Copyright Nicholas HM Caldwell 2000

The Pleasure and Pain of Writing

I'm procrastinating again.

I always procrastinate whenever I have to write something. It does not matter whether it's a scientific paper or a gaming article. I hate starting to write.

Sometimes I'll check my email. Or get a glass of water. Or do any of half a dozen other things.

I'm waiting on the words, you see. Eventually I force myself in front of the monitor and begin experimenting with words, looking for the vital first sentence. The sentence that starts the paragraph, the article, … the book. Then I can write until the stream dries up again.

I like to have a plan of what has to be written before I start writing. An outline stops me rambling, ensures that I remember to mention all the key points, and keeps me within the piece's constraints, like a page count or a word count. (And there is a plan for this article, trust me!) Of course, I have to wait on the plan too …

If the outline is too detailed, I need a break after finishing it. A pause for reflection. Catch my mental "breath", so to speak. Then it's back to waiting, waiting on the words.

The moral: Writing is not easy.

Time Waits for No Writer

Research is a useful skill for a writer. The facts have to be accurate or the pedants and the gurus will expose each and every flaw. Research is fun. Sometimes too much fun. I've found myself becoming far too engrossed in reading about a particular subject that writing about it gets pushed back. If it was simply reading for pure enjoyment, I might feel guilty. I don't because I'm reading in order to write. Yeah …

I think I've learned my lesson about overindulging in ostensible research, though. Steve Jackson Games had decided to produce GURPS Who's Who 1 and 2 as compilation works and the call went out for submissions. The task was relatively simple. Select a noteworthy historical personality, and on the basis of research, write a set of GURPS statistics, a concise biography and campaign ideas for that individual. The best submissions would be selected for publication. I started researching Chaucer, but by the time I felt ready to write about him, someone else had already beaten me to it. I switched my focus to Nelson and began to work my way through a selection of biographies. My submission was one week too late for GURPS Who's Who 1. Fortunately that volume was sufficiently successful for Steve Jackson Games to authorise the sequel volume and Horatio Nelson was accepted for GURPS Who's Who 2. I was lucky.

(Casanova was one of the other historical figures that I researched as a potential submission for the second volume. On close examination, his life was actually quite boring, so I gave him up as a waste of time. Okay, his technique was interesting, but his life was mostly travel somewhere, make love to someone, move on. After a while, the details become blurred by repetition.)

The moral: Timeliness is important.

Talking Point

Larry Niven has said, "Too many would-be writers are really would-be authors. They want to have written".

It's far too easy to talk an idea to death. You feel as if you've written it up, had it published, received the royalties, won the awards, and been chased by groupies. (Well, maybe not the groupies.) But you have not written it up, so it won't be published in reality, you won't receive the royalties as a juicy cheque, you won't be showered with awards, and groupies won't chase you.

The moral: Write ideas down, and then write them up.

The Mote in the Writer's Eye

One of the perils of writing is complacency about its quality. I've waited for the "perfect" words and have captured them on paper (or on the word processor), so bar a spell-check for typing errors, I'm finished, right? Nope. I've finished a first draft, not the final version. No first draft is perfect. It's time to rewrite it, looking for phrases and sentences that need tweaking and reworking to improve the whole. It's a painful process and an easy one to avoid or merely pretend to perform.

The moral: Writing is also about rewriting.

Perfection is Eternal

Perfectionism is equally dangerous. There is a point of diminishing returns in self-editing and rewriting. Beyond this threshold, more effort will not yield better prose. At best, it will delay its chances of being considered for publication. At worst, the quality of the prose decreases because the latest changes are actually worse than the existing text. When this happens to me, it's time for the piece to be handed over to someone else for critiquing or for it to be submitted and take its chances with a publisher. It might be accepted. It might get rejected. Rejections are painful, but not fatal.

The moral: Learn from the mistakes and try again. Do not give up.

Writing Professionally

Writing for personal satisfaction is very different to writing for an adventure games company. With the former, any topic is fair game and the only person who needs to be satisfied is yourself and perhaps your friends. With the latter, there are tight constraints on what constitutes suitable material and the audience could potentially be thousands of critical and discerning gamers.

Good companies know what sort of books they can sell to current and potential customers. Naturally they will seek to publish manuscripts which fit their requirements. Gaming magazines provide an easier route to publication as they can usually afford to take greater risks. Getting articles published in reputable magazines is very useful in proving to game companies that a potential writer is serious.

Perhaps the first piece of advice is to seek out companies which have a track record in publishing works on the themes which interest you, whether this is a particular game system or a particular genre. Getting to grips with the preferred game system of the company is usually essential.

Researching the company is the next move. Read the corporate website. Discover if their current needs match your creative inspiration. Find out their guidelines for proposals. Then follow those guidelines to the letter. Your ideas have to fit within the constraints of the corporate style and the product line. If you cannot follow the proposal guidelines, the likelihood that you will adhere to manuscript guidelines is much slimmer and that means your prospective line editor will be faced with a mammoth task in beating your final manuscript into a publishable form. So failing to follow guidelines is likely to lose you the contract.

Never write the book before you have a contract. Companies like proposals for good reason. They allow the line editor to evaluate your work quickly and without commitment on their part or yours. Proposals also allow them to get involved in shaping the course of a complete manuscript at the beginning. Thus the final result is more likely to meet their needs. Writing a proposal is hard work, but writing a full book is much worse. You do not want to spend that amount of time writing a complete book only to have it rejected.

Always have an outline before you embark on a large work. Without such a plan, it is incredibly easy to omit key areas, to belabour some topics at the expense of others, and to lose the grand vision in rambling incoherence. By all means, allow the outline to evolve as you achieve a better understanding of the subject matter. The broad sweep of the outline should remain stable.

Meet the publisher’s deadlines by writing at a steady pace. Games companies have a publishing schedule which they need to maintain in order to satisfy their customers, ensure cash-flow, and generally stay in business and in profit. Writers who miss deadlines or "flake" completely can really ruin their day. Make sure that any deadlines you undertake to meet are realistic for you. If you do think that you are going to miss a deadline, do not keep it a secret. Inform your editor at once. Do not wait until the deadline has passed for your nasty surprise. Given advance notice, an editor can sometimes find the extra time to let you finish by juggling the publishing schedule without causing problems for the company.

Once you have submitted your manuscript, be prepared for changes. Editors will find mistakes and they may have to disagree with some of your ideas in order to maintain the consistency of a product line. Don’t forget that the publisher has to sell the final product. It is also the case that printed products have to meet certain specific page sizes for financial reasons. Do not be surprised if your manuscript has to be trimmed to fit.

Concluding Remarks

There's more to writing in general than I can reasonably cover in this article. Indeed, there are more issues to consider even for the niche market of adventure games than appear here. However I hope these tips will help you if you do wish to become seriously involved in writing professionally. Take a look at this month's editorial for writing opportunities with The Guild Companion.

Editor's Note

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