Tag Archives: writing

5 Worst Ways To Ask A Professional For Help

I like helping people out. I really do. I often eek out time between projects here and there to check a friend’s game mechanics or read over someone’s manuscript. For my friends, I’m willing to do a lot.

The downside is that I don’t have a lot of time left over to help relative strangers. I try to post advice and suggestions to this blog and on my social media, with the idea that I can help a lot of people more generally. However, I still get requests for free business advice, uncontracted design suggestions, informal manuscript comments, and unpaid consultations. And for a while, I tried being a nice guy and help out, but this year I committed to cut down and say “no” more often, because it was becoming a huge drain on my time, energy, and ability to stay civil.

I firmly believe that everyone involved isn’t trying to be irritating. They’re just confused, excited, and a little unsure of themselves. I get that. But I’ve talked with friends of mine who are also creative professionals, and they struggle with this as well. Many of them have stopped fielding such requests altogether (and I’ve come damned close a few times). And usually it’s because there are some really big problems in how folks ask for favors. Here are five ways to quickly frustrate the person you’re asking for help.

Continue reading 5 Worst Ways To Ask A Professional For Help

How To (Maybe) Get Work As A Freelance RPG Writer

For those that don’t know, Onyx Path Publishing is holding an open call for new freelancer writers (and they clarified a few things). While I’m not involved in the process, I spent years going through the “slush pile” of unsolicited submissions. I saw just about every mistake it is possible to make in attempting to get hired. Here are a few of them, so you can avoid making the same mistakes if you’re interested in being a freelancer in the RPG industry (although much of this applies to any kind of writing submission).

As a note: I refer to “client” here. Usually, this is the company you are applying for, but sometimes it’s not. Sometimes it’s the same thing, in the case of very small companies. For clarity, I just went with “client,” and I use female pronouns because I can.

Make sure all examples of your writing are polished. I was surprised to learn how many people asking for writing work would send in badly-written emails. Misspellings, bad use of punctuation, and “text speak” don’t inspire confidence in someone trying to hire you for your ability to clearly and evocatively communicate a world or complex rules, and it just makes your well-polished submission look suspicious.

Don’t talk shit. Don’t talk shit about yourself and say how much you suck, because your client may agree with you. Don’t talk shit about the client’s products and how you’ll make things better, because she might decide she’s just fine without you. Don’t talk shit about other writers, because you might find yourself working with that writer. There is not one situation I can think of where talking shit helped.

Follow the fucking guidelines. You are not special. Processes are in place to help incredibly busy people get through a lot of material. If you break the process, you’re making more work for your potential client, which is a terrible way to start off a business relationship. If you’re good, your creativity will come out in the submission, not in how you submit it.

Don’t name-drop (sometimes). The client doesn’t care if you once knew Neil Gaiman. The client doesn’t care if you’re friends with Stephen King on Facebook. She cares about what you can do for her, and that’s it.

There’s an exception here: references. If you’ve worked with someone in the past that you know your client has worked with, there’s value in mentioning the connection. It gives your client a chance to talk things over with your mutual work connection to assess what you’re like working with as a writer.

It’s a job, not a lark. The client is (likely) treating this as a business. Writing to her to tell her that you thought it would be fun to try to do some writing between your real hobbies isn’t going to help you get any contracts. Even if you’re freelancing now and then as you have availability, treat it like a job.

Learn as much as you can about being freelance. With extremely rare exceptions (which are just about always spelled out), you’re going to be working on a project-to-project basis as a contractor. This is not a full-time job. You will not be relocated. You will not get benefits. You will need to handle your own taxes (although some clients will send you tax information). You are not an employee of the client. While asking questions like these won’t usually tank a freelance gig, it does betray a distinct lack of knowledge, and that can be hard to overcome if you’re wanting to negotiate for a pay increase after a few contracts.

Satisfaction is not guaranteed. None of this will guarantee you work. You will hear stories of people who broke some of these rules and got work. Every situation is different, and everyone brings different things to the table. But if you avoid these mistakes, your odds of getting noticed, and thus getting hired, go up considerably.

What is a Professional?

As freelance checks start rolling in, I recently paid my membership dues to the IGDA (I had been part of the Writers special interest group for several months now, but I hadn’t had the spare $48 to put in my membership dues — whoops). I also decided to apply for membership to the Horror Writers Association, and was pleasantly surprised to see my application accepted within a couple of hours. During all of this, I got a lot of well-wishes, but also stumbled across a couple of side discussions (related to the SFWA, actually) about how membership in such organizations constitutes being a “professional.”

And that got me thinking a bit.

For years, my definition of professional was simple, and similar to that used for athletes: a professional gets money, while an amateur doesn’t. Over the years, with the rise of self-publishing and Kickstarters, there’s been this change to imply a certain amount of quality control to professionals. Nuances of “getting paid” vs. “making money” have been bandied around, and for a while I fell into the trap of trying to draw such lines myself. I mean, I’ve been a professional by my own definitions for over a decade now, and there’s a certain comfort in drawing the lines to include me and exclude those whose quality I dislike. But that’s arbitrary, pointless, and ultimately mean.

So instead, I started thinking about what professionalism means to people. It’s a fuzzy topic, and it gets fuzzier as business models evolve, but I think people generally have some mixture of three concepts when they think of someone as a professional.


The first factor I eluded to above. Many people equate financial income for artistic work to constitute professionalism. And, at some level, it’s hard to argue with that — if you’re making money, or even (dare I say it?) a living by performing art, there’s a certain clarity to the situation. “I am a professional writer, because my primary job is writing.” It’s very binary function is appealing.

And yet, for years writing wasn’t my primary job, but rather a secondary one. Was I not “professional” during that time? Also, I have sometimes posted free things on the Internet — are they not professional? When I wrote the Holmes essays, were they amateur until I compiled them into Watson Is Not An Idiot? What about if I take a low-paying job for a friend?

The point is, “a professional gets paid” is a stickier question than it first appears.


The next factor is explicitly nebulous — artistic quality. These are the kinds of arguments that unfairly get lumped into the “self-published/indie” vs. “published via another company” distinction. It’s a yearning for some sort of gatekeeper, a level of quality assurance that a third party company can and will vet bad quality products and keep them from reaching the light of day.

This one is easier to refute with examples, but harder to dismiss. While you can certain find examples to both arguments, and point out the decreasing creativity in established areas to balance out the decreasing quality in indie circles, but the reality is simple logistics – a company has more resources to use on a product. But I do think a creative who works for other clients is forced to try new things and consider ideas he wouldn’t before, which helps him grow. There’s just something about working with someone outside your own head that’s hard to replicate.

So, working for a client can make your work of higher quality, but it’s not an inherent quality of working through a gatekeeper.


And finally, there’s “professional bearing,” or whether someone comports themselves as a professional. And in this case, it’s all over the board — I’ve met some of the more professional-acting people in the fanfic and mod communities, and met some childish assholes who make way more money than me.

What’s worse, there’s no single metric for professionalism. I was blown away to learn that, for example, some RPG companies don’t have comprehensive outlines for their products. I had internalized this as a “professional” mode of work, but in reality it’s just my own work process. Same with online behavior — some of the more vocal and opinionated people online I know are still intensely professional in how they conduct themselves.

Does being nice and speaking well mean “professional?” I would argue that Chuck Wendig is intensely professional, but he has strong opinions and strong language, and isn’t afraid to share either. Is it an unwillingness to comment on the business you’re a part of? Michael Stackpole is a professional by just about any metric you can think of, and he is extremely open about his perspectives on the industry he works in.

So What Is A Professional?

Well, I consider myself one, both as a narrative designer of games and a writer of horror. That’s why I finally plunked money down to two organizations — to help me continue to grow in those fields. But I wonder sometimes if the decision to be a professional isn’t someone else’s, but mine alone. I think if more people felt they were professionals, whether other people agreed or not, things would be better off.

The Meaning Penumbra

Let me tell you two quick stories.

1) When I posted my findings on what I learned when I went to a shooting range, it was pointed out that the word “gun” does not accurately apply to small arms.

2) My wife is a scientist, and scientists have a very specific use for the word “theory.” Tell her that “evolution is just a theory,” and I will open betting on how long it takes her to frenzy and try to kill you.1

In both cases, these are conflicts within a word’s penumbra, or the meaning that people have put on a word that isn’t explicitly covered in it’s technical meaning. In both of these cases, it’s an example of a technical term gaining a vernacular meaning that isn’t the same as (or even at odds with) the original meaning.

Continue reading The Meaning Penumbra

  1. Of course, I’m joking. She’d likely only maim you.

Back from GenCon

I have returned from GenCon 2012 in a blur of activity and talking to people. What I remember:

  • A group of filmmakers is working on a documentary about Dungeons & Dragons. I was one of the people interviewed for it (at last GenCon). They have a Kickstarter up now, and I highly encourage folks to support it.
  • I got to spend more time with friends at this con than I have at previous ones, which is always a plus. However, it made me realize that I just don’t have enough time to spend with everyone I want to, which sucked.
  • Turns out Brennan Taylor really liked my Bulldogs! short story. Enough to ask me if I want to contribute to another anthology of his.
  • There’s a small chance that my insane love of Sherlock Holmes might find a wider audience. It might be nothing, but it might be awesome.

Continue reading Back from GenCon

What I’m Working On

The Size of your SheetJust a quick update while I have a few minutes.

  • For those that missed it, I was approached by OWbN Girls to do an interview elaborating on my blog post “What I Learned from OWbN Girls.” You can hear the hour-long interview over at Soundcloud.
  • There’s been some idle talk about doing a feature over at that podcast, covering all kinds of topics about LARP culture, game theory, and the like. I’ll keep you posted.
  • I’ve also been approached about doing a piece with the Flagons and Dragons podcast about horror gaming. Again, I’ll keep you posted on that.
  • I sent off the final draft of “I Knew Him” for the The Play’s The Thing fiction anthology. The editor was really pleased with the rewrite, as was I — I think it’s much better now. I should be getting a proof to review soon-ish, and then hopefully you’ll have another chance to buy my stuff.
  • I’ve also been approached to contribute to two more anthologies. Right now, it’s still at the hush hush stage, but once I know more I’ll pass that along.
  • I’ve finished off my contribution to Werewolf: the Apocalypse – 20th Anniversary Edition, and Ethan is now diligently doing redlines for many, many writers.
  • With everything going on, I haven’t had a chance to even touch Watson is Not an Idiot (my “Tour de Holmes” essays). Maybe April? I do want to get that done, but paying work right now trumps personal projects.
  • I’ve been idly talking with a publisher about taking the fantasy RPG I’ve been working on (Bloodmourne) and doing something with it. That’s a much longer scale project, if it even happens, but it’s something else bouncing in the back of my head. Don’t worry — it’ll have vampires in it.
  • I do plan to do some more “What I Learned” posts — just haven’t had much time to sit down and put my thoughts in order.

Help Me Ruin My Vacation

Starting on Friday, I have 11 days of vacation set up. Of course, I’ll still be doing a little White Wolf work during that time (because “vacation” really means “a chance to catch up on work”), but I really do want to try and relax. So, the first announcement is that I’m planning to be less available on the Internet during that time. I have vacation responders set up for both of my email accounts, I won’t be on social networks as much, I won’t be updating this blog, and so on. I’m not going to be completely off the grid, but I do need some time away and live in my own head for a bit.

Part of the reason I’m doing that is that I want to finish off my Hamlet short story, and then roll right into revising and expanding my book of Tour de Holmes essays. Aside from comments on each of the stories, I also have in mind a discussion of Smart Watson vs. Dumb Watson, the popularity of Moriarty over the other (and sometimes more visible) villains in the canon, Holmes’ cocaine use, Watson’s wives, and (if I hate myself enough) the chronology of the cases.

So, faithful audience, what topics of the Sherlock Holmes canon would you like me to discuss/rant about in such a manuscript?