Tuesday, January 3, 2017

Persistence & Professionalism

Several factors came together last week to remind me of two important elements from my own game-writing experience: persistence and professionalism. I’m puttering around tidying up parts of my office (along with other bits in the house long-neglected in my fight against the Lords of Chaos and their glaciers of clutter); I stumbled upon some letters and materials from my earliest game submissions in my high school days, embarrassing tidbits from a time when I didn’t quite know what I was doing. My brother-in-law’s family got me Stephen King’s On Writing for Christmas, in which I’m finding some inspiration and re-affirmation. It’s all reminding me how much persistence and professionalism have played a role in my growth as a writer.

I’d been immersed in roleplaying games – starting with Moldvay’s Basic/Expert Dungeons & Dragons – for about two years when I began submitting game ideas to a publishing company. I’d already been creating my own games, both material for home-grown D&D campaigns and board/card games for my neighborhood gaming friends. I’d also been reading TSR’s venerable Dragon Magazine the entire time. Between the advertisements for game product and companies (some of which sought new material) and the occasional module submission contest, I got the impression designing games and sending them to companies for publication was just another aspect of the adventure gaming hobby. I’d developed two games I thought might find a market: Caravan, a game in which players assembled wagons, carts, and mercenaries to trade goods between fantasy cities; and Nuclear Diplomacy, a card game that rather brutally reflected my anxiety about nuclear war at the time (the mid 1980s). Of course they were nowhere near the level of professionalism I’d later come to expect from writers sending me manuscripts for the Star Wars Adventure Journal, but I was a high school junior with a seemingly boundless, naive enthusiasm for the adventure gaming hobby...and very little experience beyond my own gaming table.

I probably got the company’s name and address from some listing in Dragon Magazine seeking game material submissions; maybe I just sent off query letters to suitable advertisers and pursued the first one that replied...much is lost in the nostalgic fog of fading memory. I sent away for the guidelines and submission documents, prepared my prototype, signed the “Application for Submission Form” with my dad co-signing since I was a minor, and then asked him to drive me down to the post office to mail it. The company rightly rejected Caravan for under-developed mechanics and some core gameplay concepts that didn’t quite work. The neighborhood kids and my brother had fun playing it, but that wasn’t really a very demanding or critical audience. (As I reminisce about it even now my game designer brain starts turning over how I might rework such a concept today....) After a query for more information on why the company rejected Caravan, the general manager sent a one-page letter critiquing my game and offering some advice. I was impressed with this personal touch, since I later avoided sending form rejection letters in my editorial career (as I’ve mentioned in “The Editor As Everyone’s Advocate”).

I persisted despite my rejection and inexperience. I submitted Nuclear Diplomacy, which the company also rightly rejected; the publisher felt it was too close to a more comical nuclear war card game already on the market (and, as Flying Buffalo advertised Nuclear War frequently in Dragon, it probably influenced me on a subconscious level). Nuclear Diplomacy did see a limited exposure beyond the card set I made and played with the neighborhood kids. My high school English teacher that year, Liz Arneth, along with her American Studies history counterpart, J.P. Sutich, allowed me to run the game in class as related to discussions of current events. I cut out photocopied cards, assembled decks, and explained the rules. Most of my fellow students seemed to find it less an enjoyable game and more an exercise demonstrating the futility of nuclear escalation and war. The introduction of the game in class might also have served as a means to bolster my ever-flagging self esteem at the time. I was a nerd with an esoteric hobby...one who had the added distinction of receiving rejection letters from the profession to which I aspired. I didn’t have the necessary professional experience, though I eventually obtained it through persistence to become a writer and game designer.

I continued designing games and writing fiction throughout high school, but held off submitting anything to publishers as I focused on academic work and getting into a good college. At Hamilton College I immersed myself in my studies, though the writing courses didn’t emphasize practical matters of writing and publishing but the more artistic elements. The environment offered me the time to explore my own writing and adapt myself to different subjects and styles. I didn’t have time or the inclination to submit work to publishers beyond a few collegiate writing contests. Yet I continued my gaming activities during breaks and generated scenarios for my new-found favorite game, West End Games’ Star Wars Roleplaying Game. After college graduation I found a job with my weekly hometown newspaper; it offered a quite different, more practical education in writing, editing, and publishing. I still hoped to find a job in the gaming industry. I applied for a editor position at TSR I found advertised in Dragon. I sent a query letter with my resume and a copy of one of my better short stories to West End, but it was came back “rejected” because the editor thought it was an unsolicited TORG submission and not, as noted in my cover letter, a sample of my writing. I persisted. I submitted some Star Wars scenarios to GDW’s Challenge Magazine, with two getting accepted. When the first one appeared in the print magazine, I tried my luck with West End again. I sent my resume, some published newspaper features, and a copy of the published adventure. I lucked out. West End was looking to establish a quarterly Star Wars Adventure Journal and needed an editor to set it up and oversee publication. My persistence and professionalism paid off; I got the job. I’d never have managed through five years in that often turbulent, overwhelming creative environment without my past experience and a drive to keep going. Persistence and professionalism helped me survive my desperate freelancing days after West End Games’ bankruptcy. Not everyone appreciated these qualities – I’ll freely admit my professionalism can seem too formal and my persistence downright annoying to many – but they helped reinforce my work ethic and ultimately aided my survival in what was even then a highly competitive, dwindling game-writer freelance market.

Reading Stephen King’s On Writing I’m struck by his own persistence in trying to get his early work published and his frank views on “the craft” of writing. Here’s one of the most successful authors of our time experiencing the same sense of rejection I did...and rallying his spirits to persist until he found success. I’m enjoying King’s candid views on writing, not all of which work for me, but they at least expose me to different approaches. During my career I’ve occasionally picked up books about writing. Like any form of advice (including criticism), I’ve found suggestions that worked for me, my style, and my projects...and some that didn’t. My two favorites remain Strunk & White’s Elements of Style (also highly recommended by King) and Damon Knight’s Creating Short Fiction. (I need to re-read them again soon.) Certainly craft and talent affect one’s writing, but persistence and professionalism can help bring that all to publication. Although I’ve fostered an annoying sense of persistence most of my life, my professionalism came from hard experience first as a journalist, then as a game editor, and later as a freelancer. I’d like to think it’s paid off.


Want to share your opinion? Start a civilized discussion? Share a link to this blog entry on Google+ and tag me (+Peter Schweighofer) to comment.