Mailbag 2 – Freelancing 101

(c) 2010 Chris SimsI’ve gotten a number of questions about freelancing and writing for D&D Insider. In this issue of the Mailbag, I’ll deal with queries and submissions. I’ll also touch on huge sums of money you can make and the glamorous lifestyle you can lead through successful freelancing. Or maybe I’ll just talk a little about money.

This is going to sound so obvious, but from what I’ve seen, it bears emphasis. Be sure to follow the submission guidelines when submitting to anyone, especially D&D Insider. As an editor for Dragon and Dungeon, I received a ton of queries and had only so much time to sift through them. I could ignore outright those that failed to follow the submission guidelines. My dirty little secret is that I didn’t always do this–sometimes an idea was too good to pass up–but I could have in every case without repercussions.

Following the guidelines shows you pay attention, and it shows you’re what I call “coachable.” You indicate that you place enough importance on your time and the editor’s that you present what is asked of you. Further, you demonstrate you can follow and take direction. These elements are important in any freelance writer.

When I was still employed at Wizards, the D&D Insider editorial team, I’m sad to say, was barely big enough to handle the flow of queries and submissions. Now that I’m gone, it’s entirely possible that the filter for such material is down to one person: Chris Youngs. He has a lot of other duties besides looking for new content. It’s likely that other companies you might submit ideas and work to have resources that are more limited.

When you do pitch ideas, rely on those that bud from your exposure to the game. Mechanical elements can stem directly from your home game or good story concepts. Be concise in your descriptions while proving you’re the one to execute the idea. You have to show that you know what you want to do in as few words as possible. Your pitch has to do more than reveal your notice of a mechanical hole in the game. It has to promise entertainment, as well. Mechanics are too dry without a story connection.

It was always easier for me to work out story elements and let rules elements spring from that narrative. My colleagues seemed to work from that angle, too. For example, Mike Mearls reinforced in me the idea that you should see a monster in your head, fighting a hero in a fantasy action movie, before you put its stats on paper. The best Dragon and Dungeon articles also grow from that fertile soil. It might go without saying, but good adventure design requires such thinking.

Showing you know the game’s needs is also key. If the maps in your Dungeon adventure can all be built with recent Dungeon Tiles sets, your query is a step ahead. Supporting recently released material is a good idea. On the flip side, supporting older rules with truly fresh ideas can work well. Older classes, for example, will always need some love.

No time can be had to give you a response if your proposal is rejected.  I was sorry that was the case when going through proposals was part of my job. It’s a sad truth. The editorial process and limit on resources requires a focus on what is going to be published. If your idea is accepted, you’ll get a go-ahead and, assuming you do what you should, a contract.

Then, there’s the waiting.

It’s frustrating, I know. Even if your article receives a green light, you might be waiting a while. Take comfort in the fact that the editorial plan for Insider is often nailed down months ahead. That said, don’t become too comfortable. Write to the editor you’re working with every so often to make sure things are on track. I promise–unless you actually are pushy, whiny, or annoying–you won’t be perceived as such. I enjoyed working with new authors when I was an editor, and I liked candor.

Such honesty is what you’re going to receive from your editor. And you should always ask questions if you have them. Questions early in the process are infinitely better than problems or misunderstandings later. Whatever you do, though, don’t take personally any brevity in your editor’s responses and instructions. It’s just that old devil of limited time raising its head again.

Respect your own time, thought, and effort, as well. Don’t sell yourself short. You won’t get rich writing for D&D Insider or other gaming entities. It’s likely that Insider and freelancing for Wizards offers the most lucrative outlet for D&D work. (Working for Insider is the likeliest path to working on D&D books, unless you have other gaming credits or prove yourself in another way.) But even if you write for someone else, you shouldn’t give your work away. You can receive “exposure” and a paycheck.

That’s it for now. I’ll talk more about this subject in the future. Leave me comments, and send me email.

Comments

  1. I quite like this article. I work as a freelance writer (not for Insider though) and I can relate to a lot of the things mentioned here.

    “Your pitch has to do more than reveal your notice of a mechanical hole in the game. It has to promise entertainment, as well.”

    This format has usually served me well:
    Here is this [fill in] problem, which is causing this [fill in] issue during play. This [fill in] alternative would solve the problem and, in turn, allow us to do this [fill in] fun thing while playing.

    “It might go without saying, but good adventure design requires such thinking.”

    Yes, but it requires more than that. (In my opinion) We’re sooo far off from publishing a decent adventure that a good grasp of literary tools and pushing an entertaining (and believable) story is something that I highly value when looking at an adventure. After all, it is easier to cull, chop and install parts when you really like the product you’re working with.

    “Respect your own time, thought, and effort, as well. Don’t sell yourself short.”

    Always, always, always do this. You just can’t negotiate from a perceived position of weakness (you can most certainly negotiate from a factual position of weakness, that happens all the time) without undermining your chances to come to a fair agreement that respects the value added by all parts.

    And last but DEFINITELY not least.

    “Be sure to follow the submission guidelines when submitting to anyone, especially D&D Insider.”

    I work as a freelance writer for a marketing company. Believe ME when I tell you that, if you do that, you’ll run into some things that just won’t make sense; writing an article to be posted on Marie Fredrickson’s (from Roxette) blog about hen and stag nights in a certain European country for instance… that didn’t make sense at all. Still, my ability to add value goes hand in hand with my ability to do what my client needs.

    That includes following guidelines.

    Good luck to everyone submitting your work to D&D Insider and thanks to you Chris for the article.
    .-= Federico Figueredo´s last blog ..RPG Blog Carnival: Let Me Show You My (N)PC =-.

  2. Great article that represents exactly how things went/goes with WotC. I was one of the new authors that Chris interacted with. Patience coupled with a polite dose of attitude (hey remember me?) is the way to go. It didn’t work out in my particular case for various reasons but I now realize that’s some of it is because I have competing interests that prevent me from dedicating a large enough effort in shining through the slushpile with exciting, concise, easily implementable ideas.

    Others that read this site can do it and I encourage them strongly.

    My own advice on top of Chris’ is “don’t be boring!”. Have your submission queries read by your peers and only send the ones that get people saying “Ohhh I want to play that!”. I don’t think that D&Di subscribers want to hear about another band of gnolls menacing a logging village… unless the logging village hides a secret so disgusting that no-one can afford the gnolls from discovering it…

    Awww, I just burned another idea… 🙂

  3. Hi Chris,

    Thank you for giving us your thoughts on the process. I don’t know if you’d be able to do this and I’m sorry if it is wildly inappropriate to ask, but do you have any examples of what a good “pitch” looks like? I realize that no two good pitches are alike beyond the points you’ve mentioned here, but it would be helpful to me to have more specific guidelines when making a pitch.

    Thanks so much. Again, sorry if it’s inappropriate for me to ask.

  4. highbulp says:

    Hi Chris; really helpful advice, thanks! Do you have a rough estimate of how many submissions you were getting? Hundreds a week? Thousands a month? I’m curious both as a potential submitter to know my chances, and because I’m wondering how active the freelancer community for D&DI is. It would be kind of awesome to hear that D&DI is getting a ton of submissions and that people are actively using it as a venue for showing off new stuff, etc. 🙂

    Thanks!

  5. Insanely helpful. Thanks Chris!

  6. Great (and encouraging) article, Chris. Thanks for taking the time to answer our questions!

    This is going to come in SO handy when I submit my incredibly original idea of gnolls attacking a logging village… with a secret!

    Muhaha!

  7. It would be rad if Critical Hits published a user-submitted “Adventure of the Week.”

  8. Chris Sims says:

    Thanks, all.

    As Chatty says, “Don’t be boring.” Reflecting on working with his ideas back then, that wasn’t his problem. I think some of his ideas were ahead of their time. Others were beyond Insider’s actual scope, meaning they’d have to have another avenue of expression for successful implementation. This happens when creative people innovate. That said, they were damn good ideas. Don’t be afraid to try yours out.

    Aoi: You worry too much. 😉 I’ll see if I can slap together a sample query proposal of my own to show you. Later, though.

    highbulp: I’d say Insider receives numerous queries a day, which can add up to low hundreds per month. That’s a lot for one person to digest and work with while seeing to countless other tasks. (Thousands–eeek!) Considering how much Insider can publish, it has a very active freelancer base.

  9. Chris: worrying is my specialty 🙂 . Thanks for offering to put up a sample at some point – when you get to it, I’d really appreciate it.

  10. Ignis Fatuus says:

    I just noticed that the DDI blog has a recurring feature where Chris Youngs points out what he is and what he isn’t looking for: http://community.wizards.com/dndinsider/blog

  11. Hi Chris,

    As somebody who wants to move into freelance writing this is wonderfully helpful for me. Thank you so much for writing it, it’s always great to get advice from experienced folks such as yourself and others.

    Like Aoi, I’d love to see some sample pitches as I am gearing up to submit my first couple to Insider now and would love to fine-tune things a bit more after seeing some examples.

    All the best,
    Mark

Trackbacks

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