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Freelance Writing Tips

by David Pulver

Editor's note: David Pulver is the most prolific of all the GURPS freelance writers that SJ Games deals with. His credits include the Ultra-Tech books and Bio-Tech, GURPS Vehicles, GURPS Robots, GURPS Mecha, GURPS Reign of Steel, and around 20 other titles for SJ Games and other companies. In other words, he knows what he is talking about. This article is reproduced, with David's permission, from a post he made to a private mailing list, in answer to the question, "What does a freelancer really need to know in order to break in to the business of writing for games?"

  1. Realize that what we call game design is actually several skills. Good writing (grammar, clarity, prose style) is common to all areas, but some works require storytelling skill (adventures, campaign settings), some require game-rules design skill (rules books or rules-heavy supplements) and some require research skill (real-world sourcebooks).

    In the '70s and early '80s, most RPG writers came out of the board-game tradition and had high game-rules design and research skills; these days, that skill is rare, while storytelling skills and writing are emphasized.

    Many writers make the mistake of thinking that because they can write kick-ass storytelling supplements, they can also write good game rules. Some also make the reverse mistake. Writers and editors should be clear on what kind of skills are required for a project. Writers should also be aware that writing rules-heavy and research-heavy material can easily take two or three times as long to do as a sourcebook or adventure, and should make sure that both they and the editors have budgeted the time.

  2. Outline, outline, outline . . . starting a book ON A DEADLINE without an outline is like trying to navigate a desert without a compass. Avoid it. Also, the shorter the work, the more you need a detailed outline. In a big book, you have a bit of room to waffle and change direction. In a short book, the deadline is probably tight and with only so many words, you need to be precise.

  3. Know your word count. On a few occasions, companies have given me contracts that specified pages but not word count. Make sure you get a word count – your pages and their pages will differ. Moreover, double-check that word count: twice a company has blithely told me that they had, say, 1,000 words per page – only for me to learn AFTER I had written 64,000 words for a 64-page book that that was "without art." Erase every third word. Also, in rules-heavy books, be careful of tables. GURPS Vehicles and GURPS Robots showed me they eat up more pages than word count would indicate. Stay within the word count, especially if it is a final draft. The only thing more annoying than finding you have to cut great gobs of text is having an editor do it for you. I am gradually learning this . . .

  4. Save files at least every hour. Make backups at least every day or two onto floppy or ZIP disk. If possible, invest in a ZIP drive. I've only ever lost one manuscript to hard-disk crash, but that was one too many, and except for a very understanding editor, it might have cost me a $2,000 contract. A ZIP drive is good, because with 100 megs per disk, you can save multiple booksize manuscripts on a single disk with minimal effort.

  5. Most companies are looking for specific books. The odds of a proposal that is completely freelancer-generated being accepted are low: even if the first editor you send it to thinks it's brilliant, something else at the company may have higher priority. Your chances are astronomically higher if you find out what subjects the editor is looking for NOW, and send a proposal on those subjects. The best way to find out is by asking the editor through email or at a convention, then sending a detailed proposal for that subject within 1-4 weeks.

  6. If projects are going to be late, stay in regular touch with the editor. A warning weeks before the fact is a lot better than an excuse weeks afterward, especially if the company has penalty clauses.

  7. Blindtesting is vital for rules-heavy projects, and useful otherwise. If you can't blindtest, at least give it to someone who knows the game system to read over. If you are doing a historical or other research oriented book, give the manuscript to someone who knows the field to read, even if it's just a university major. For complex adventures, if you don't have time to run them, talk someone through the plot, asking them what they would do at each major decision point. Chances are, they'll go off in a direction you hadn't thought of in your first draft.


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