Chatty DM, Freelancer, Part 1: Lessons from Academia

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?


  1. I had a Modern Citizenship course. The name of the course actually changed a few times while I was in high school, as the teacher was developing the concept, so I don’t recall what it was called at the time. It was 2 parts learning the how the American Government Structure really worked, the 1 part learning to be aware of the global community, and 1 part learning to present opinions intelligently. The first two semester we had a 1 page paper due every week. No class had ever done something like that before. It was madness.

    The last two semester had a 2 page paper due every week. It taught me to form clear thoughts quickly. It also taught me that sometimes you need to bang something out.

  2. I’ve always loved to write, especially creatively, since 5th grade. I love it. Discovering critical writing in high school, and how to write like that too? That was also awesome! Very much like you I’d gotten attention and praise from teachers, professors and peers over the years, and it always felt so good.

    And yet pursuing writing as a career? It all seemed so nebulous and risky for the longest time.

    Now, however, I’m starting to change my perception. I love my D&D blog and I dare to dream bigger because of inspiring yet down-to-earth people like you in the industry. I’m amazed and pleased by how generous the RPG industry’s writing community is with their insights and guidance.

  3. @Brian: Yes, how disgustingly harsh were our teachers and voluminous was our homework, like the teachers didn’t talk to each other when dishing it out. 🙂 Yet, now, it seems I can’t write anything worthy in less than a page and a half.

    @kilsek: Hi there kindred spirit! Margaret Weis shared a fundamental set of lessons at the Ennies last year: Never stop reading, Never stop writing, never, ever, quit your day job.

    As you’ll see in the next part, I cheated and learned some very specific skills that allow me to sell a subset of my writing at a vast premium… having made writing my full time job.

    And yes, many writers are cool and generous, there’s room for more writers, you need to find the way. We all did and got great help on the way.

  4. I never really considered myself as much of a writer until recently, within the past few years. I tended to avoid it like the plague, and suffering from dyslexia and dysgraphia made writing both a massive chore and intensely painful.

    Yet, I loved studying, and I eventually decided to go for a degree with the Open Unviersity in bio-psychology. That didn’t go so well, since other real life issues got in the way – some people really don’t like others when they try to improve their lives – but two things happened that really helped me.

    Firstly, I finally got assessed for dyslexia, and learnt all about it, so I learnt how to deal with it – so now I no longer avoid writing. Secondly, I learnt how to study and write more effectively, and how to link up the two, so that my love of studying feeds my writing ability. I learnt that writing is a means of processing information, and now my love of studying has also become a love of writing.

    I never saw myself as a writer before, but now I can really see it as the way to go, and it really does help to have that sense of direction, freedom, and control being a freelance writer/editor brings. Plus, running my own business through DVOID Systems – that is all sorts of cool!

    By the way, Chatty, we are taking submissions if you are interested…

  5. I’ve been employed as a writer/editor for about ten years, after a brief stint in the biotech industry as a project manager. My first paid writing gig was a freelance game review, for which I was paid $100. Not nearly enough to pay the bills, but I was in school at the time.

    That freelance game review got my foot in the proverbial door, allowed me to make some important contacts, and led me to a job offer. I’ve done well for myself since then.

    I don’t blog because I don’t want to do for free what I normally get paid for, so I’m with you there (at least as far as limiting your output).

    While my professional writing work has been limited to the videogame industry, I’ve often fantasized about writing adventures and articles for Dungeon and Dragon magazines — until I realized that the money wasn’t commensurate with the required time and effort.

    I instead dedicate my creative energies to my home game and focus my writing in a field that adequately compensates me for my efforts. The tabletop RPG industry isn’t lucrative enough to attract talented writers who could get paid far more writing dialogue or scripting for a videogame developer.

    As for freelancing, I’d totally love to stay home and spend more time with my wife and kids, but I’d only even think of it if I lived in Canada. In the US, we still need company-provided health insurance (at least until Obamacare kicks in), so freelancing is a no-go for my family as I’m the sole provider.

  6. I beg to differ with your former research director, Phil: everyone loves a smart-ass. 🙂

    Glad to see you writing again! You’ve been missed. As usual, some great insights here, especially for those of us in the writing/editing profession.

  7. @Gerald: I certainly agree with your statement about the Tabletop RPG industry not being lucrative for writers. I find that there is a massive disparity in the estimated value of the services provided by writers and by editors for example – as a freelancer for both, I make more money in the industry as a freelance editor/product manager than a writer, even though the amount of work is actually less, in my opinion.

    The biggest issue in this, I feel, is the perception and expectation of free content. With so many writers competing with free content provided by blogs, actual products are actually becoming cheaper, but as a result the writers are making less as a result. This may seem like it is more beneficial for the consumer, but in my opinion the opposite is true, with many writers being forced into other fields simply because they are more lucrative and are the only way to make ends meet, or to feed the endless amounts of splat content that are being produced. You cannot tell me that it good that a writer has to write twice as many articles and products to make the same amount of money now as they did last year, which cuts into time spent for research, editing, and other aspects of content creation which impact overall quality.

    As a publisher via DVOID Systems, I have experienced this disparity in a lot of features when it comes to product creation, which show that writers, the primary content creators, are getting the shortest stick of all. Due to a lack of capital, we’ve been forced to launch products with the skills we can source ourselves, which being writers, is basically content. Yet, this appears to not be enough in the eyes of the consumers, who despite claims to the contrary want rules and crunch over fluff, and want art. Writers, be they decriptive writers, game theorists, or whatever, simply don’t get a look in. Another factor is whether or not you are name – celebrity games designers and writers can sell ANYTHING and certainly make enough, but other than that, it just isn’t lucrative.

    Mind you, I’ve got it slightly worse, since I’m British, and there’s nothing worse right now than trying to deal with the crappy exchange rates and the lowest offers possible for writing. Britain barely has a Tabletop RPG industry left any more. Great for outsourcing, but really bad if you want to make a living AS a writer.

    Good thing this whole thing still has job satisfaction going for it, right? Otherwise, I’d probably have given up by now, because without the job satisfaction, the current climate of an unfavourable economy and a spoilt consumer base with an overinflated sense of entitlement would just make me all bitter and twisted…

  8. @Da’Vane: Congrats on getting to where you are now. My wife works with dyslexia and dysgrafia school kids and it’s quite an ordeal to fight both the system and your own inner challenges to make it through your studies. Thanks for the submission offers, I may take you up on it one day… although I plan to have my own biz soon enough!

    @Gerald: I won’t spoil what I plan to write in the next parts, but having started writing RPGs so late in my life brought many insights and reality checks to my freelance expectations. Let’s just say that while reason calls for me to keep selling my writing time for the rates I get as a consultant, game design sings to me… and doing it is not just a “bad” business practice for me.

    Stay tuned

  9. Much of this sounds quite familiar… although I shifted away from science a bit earlier (and did not provoke the opportunity attack of additional years of college). I also avoided the path of the writer for a long time, electing to pursue a career in electrical engineering. In my first year, one of the English professors recommended that I pursue a minor Technical Communication (scientific/technical writing). I figured the TC minor would make me a more attractive engineer, so I added it. A quarter or two later I hit a wall in the form of circuits analysis, statics/dynamics, and differential equations. I liked “knowing about” science, but I realized I had no interest in actually “being” a scientist or engineer. Thus, I made Technical Communication my major. After five years in TC field, I’m working on my first (non technical or science related) book.

  10. @Rafe: Oh man, I missed you in my response last night. Yeah, smart asses start getting love when they’re not graduate students anymore 🙂 Feels good to be back! Thanks man!

    @Sunyaku: I made the EXACT same realization you did about science… except I did it after my graduate studies (in my defense, college tuitions are heavily subsidized in Québec, making it less “damaging” financially to see graduates studies through. Plus, I had scholarships by then.


  1. […] In part one, I mentioned how cathartic it could be to write without boundaries (although I often write better when I have creative constraints). Just to prove the point, what was supposed to be a post about freelance writing advice more or less morphed into an autobiographical piece about what led me to acknowledge I was a  writer. […]

  2. […] is part of a continuing series on how I became a freelancer and game designer. You’ll find part 1, part 2 and part […]

  3. […] series that describes my becoming a writer and a freelancer. You can follow the series by clicking: part 1, part 2, part 3, and part […]