Right before I started writing these lines, I sent a pair of outlines to Dungeon magazine. Baring no major revisions, this will lead to my first official D&D articles.
Looking back at one of the busiest Springs I’ve had in a long time, I’ve come to terms with the reality that I’m now a freelance writer and game designer. Prior experiences from 2008-2010 were not just statistical flukes, it seems I really made it.
Two years ago I made a plan to wrestle my life from the clutches of depression: get better, find freelance contracts, and build up a successful business. That plan unfolded itself beyond my expectations. I’m now a self-employed writer and my wife tells me she’s rarely seen me happier.
The upcoming months are shaping up busy ones too. Back in 2010, I put aside gaming so I could keep up with writing for the blog and prepare material for my training seminars. This year, I wanted to keep gaming, so I set aside blogging. I argued that I usually blogged about what I did and could’t blog about what I was writing because I was under Non-Disclosure Agreements (NDAs).
Thing is, blogging is cathartic for me. I write what I want, when I want, without deadlines, imposed subjects or specific word counts. I LOVE blogging, I miss blogging…
Hell, aren’t I blogging about blogging right now?
So that’s why, as I laid to rest my last “rushing to deadlines” bits of work, I decided to take back control of my writing schedule. I know, it’s a fraction of what I used to do, but now that writing is actually what I feed my kids and pay my house with, the era of blogging 5 nights a week has long passed…
…and asking you for dough is OUT of the question. At least, until I publish a book and kindly ask you all to buy it or help my kickstart it.
So that’s why I thought I’d start this new weekly habit by starting a new series (god knows when I’ll finish it) on my personal experience with writing and freelance work. Many of my Critical-Hits colleagues have already done so, chiefly among them my friends Chris (here and here) and Shawn who both had great things to say about freelancing.
I think I have a few, interesting insights to bring as I might have been one of the first RPG enthusiasts to have successfully managed the “Blog to networking to freelance” path.
So here goes.
The Early Years: French.
First off, while I only realized it late in my life, I’ve always been a writer. I became a voracious reader of novels during late grade school. I only slowed when I stopped taking public transport when I hit 19 and bought my 1st car.
When we started writing essays and stories in high school, I loved it! I was allowed to use verb tenses that we hadn’t yet covered because I convinced my teacher that “the story would sound better like that”. In later years, I would learn from younger students that some of my stories were being used in reading comprehension tests. I was pleased but I never thought about it as a career.
The Early Years: English
Being a Montrealer, I was raised in a French family (although my parents spoke fluent English) and went to French schools until my early 20s. I learned English watching Sesame Street, MASH reruns with my dad and deciphering Gary Gygax’s prose while in Junior High; I bought the 1e Dungeon Master Guide when I was 12, my first RPG book ever.
I started writing English essays in high school (as our academic curriculum dictated) and set out to devour English novels by the hundreds. My first authors, proposed by my mother, were Dean Koontz, David Eddings and Margaret Weis/Tracy Hickman. None were pinnacle of literature, but all made for great, accessible reading for a 13-16 year old teenager.
When I turned 18, in what we call CEGEP (pre-university), I took my first English writing class. That’s where I made two horrifying discoveries:
1) English has a grammar. Up to that point I had been surfing with good grades by basically aping the sentence structures I had gleaned from books, unaware of the existing rules.
2) The torture that is multiple drafts. Each week we’d spend 3 hours (plus about the same at home) doing the following: Write and hand in a new text based on an imposed subject, correct the edited 1st draft we handed in the last week and correct the 2nd draft we had handed 2 weeks before.
While I “forgot” about that draft business, and consistently failed to apply it during my early blogging days, I now realize that writing is so much more than an easy game. The core of quality writing is editing and re-writing… no matter how much I still hate doing it sometimes.
I’m 38. I’ve known about the importance of re-writes and editing for a long time. Yet, I’m finally learning to respect it as a necessary step that separates good from great writing.
I passed that class with flying colours; the teacher told me I was one of the most creative writers he’d taught in years. Yet, once again, I failed to acknowledge I was a writer because I was too focused on studying science.
Mother: You have too keep all options open son.
Me: Hey that new AIDS thing looks like a cool thing to cure!
The second fundamental lesson I got from my pre-college years, I owe to my Modern History of the World teacher. In the first class, he (tried to) teach us the importance of building an outline when writing essays and, more importantly for the class, reverse engineer a complex text into its bare bones concepts by distilling it back into an outline.
Teacher: Each paragraph is a concept, an opinion. Each sentence an idea that supports that concept. You should be able to distill each paragraph in a single sentence and each sentence in one key word.
Like Neo, I got my first glimpse at the Matrix… I really did.
Adulthood, English Undergraduate College
I studied in Montreal’s most prestigious English university. Not so much out of pretension, but mostly because microbiology was taught directly as a major instead of a third year minor like in the other university I was considering.
Lab reports, academic papers, essays on the difference between men and women, the Scandinavian model of retail economics, the state of Multiple Sclerosis research and so on… I wrote a ton of stuff, stuff that would make me cringe if I had to re-read it.
By that time I was also writing my own GURPS RPG adventures as scene-based narratives; each containing way too much details but I relished doing it! If you see me at a con one day, ask me to tell you about the Monstrous Brotherhood, an adventure with all monster PCs tackling a Dark Tower that seemingly builds itself at night.
During my last year as an undergrad, I took an English class called “Fundamentals of Academic Writing for English Speakers”, yeah, don’t ask. This class taught me, among other things, how to do proper research, quotes and paraphrasing of research papers and academic journals.
At the end of the class, as I was focused on graduating and starting my master’s in environmental microbiology, the English teacher called me to his office and asked me if I would be willing to allow one of my essays to feature in an academic writing textbook his department was working on.
I said yes… Suffice it to say that I still refused to consider myself a writer. I was a scientist damn it!
Adulthood, Graduate Studies, French
I spent the next 2 years in a French applied microbiology lab, reading tons of scientific papers about bacteria and fungi that could degrade diesel, gas and oil spills. I worked with some crazy bugs that could eat stuff less soluble than your average rock!
My research director drilled a few very good writing lessons in my college-hardened brain: write simply, don’t fear reusing the same words and verb tenses all the time and consider your reader to be a complete neophyte in regards to the subject I was writing about. That’s where I learned that overuse of jargon was a common pitfall of writing.
Director: Assume I’m four years old…
Phil: That would mean you can’t read.
Director: Nobody likes a smart-ass Phil.
By the end of my second year, I moved 800 km north of Montreal, following my wife for her first post-graduation job. We spent 2 years there, I wrote my Master’s report while working as a high school science teacher; I generated 175 pages of ill-written, dubiously researched, greatly illustrated prose.
My research report was accepted with minor corrections. In my director’s comments, he wrote “Phil has had a relative ease in writing the report”.
Yeah, I have a hard time getting a hint sometimes… but the light was starting to flicker on.
And so I graduated (1999) and started looking for “real work”.
I’ll tell you more next time.
What about you, what early writing lessons stuck with you?