Freelancer Chronicles: The Coast Wizards and I, Some Lessons.

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In 2011, several RPG bloggers and freelancer were contacted by the D&D  producer team of Wizards of  the Coast.  They wanted to to tap  into the community of amateur content creators to scout new talents and get some new perspectives into their D&D  magazines.

I was among those invited. My experience turned out to be… Interesting. I’d like to share that experience, now more than a year after, so that current and would be freelancers avoid making the same assumptions and mistakes I made.

Like all invitees, I was presented a list of planned articles for the coming year (early 2011 to early 2012) and was invited to express interest for those I felt like tackling.  We were also invited to pitch article ideas. I expressed interest in a few and sent a few ideas, mostly a rehash of previous pitches I had sent before.

Lessons Learned 1: If a pitch isn’t taken the first time, don’t try to pass it with a new coat of paint, try something else.

I was awarded 4 articles (I lost one along the way). I got to design level 0 rules for D&D 4e and I got to write an article for such characters. I also got to write a companion article to the  Halls of Undermountain adventure featuring mechanical monsters created by the Metal Mage, Trobriand.

I had two contacts at Wizards to interact with. Greg Bilsland was the Dragon Magazine producer and Chris Perkins was producer of Dungeon Magazine content. They were my interface with the rest of the D&D team: developers, editors and art directors. I was told to direct all my questions to these two.

I could describe my WotC freelance experience as a play-by-play, but I have a story that actually resumes what freelancing for them is all about.

About 20 years ago, my friend Eric enrolled in Military College. After a year of  science and officer training, he was given a choice as to what job he wanted to do in the Canadian Armed Forces. He asked to become a F-18 pilot (Canada’s jet-fighters). The Armed Forces selection process was dead simple: take all the kids that want to be fighter pilots, put them in a flight simulator… and don’t give them any instructions whatsoever. They pick the best 2 kids from each college and put them through actual training.

My friend failed…

That kinda sums up my experience with WotC. Once you get a Go signal to produce an article or an adventure, the onus is on you to deliver exactly what they want.  While you are given templates to follow and a series of well-written guidelines, the actual human support you get is invariably less than what they promised you. Now let me be crystal clear, I don’t believe it’s entirely their fault. Much like anyone with day jobs  in this modern age, the D&D producers are overworked and are expected to cover a ton of ongoing projects at the same time.  In reality, you can’t expect to be mentored or taught the basics of the field. You are given one (maybe two) chance to deliver what they asked for on top of what they assume you know about their expectations.

And those  expectations are thus: deliver top grade, engaging manuscripts that will require no or minimal editing  in terms of grammar, syntax and spelling. Those are very stringent requirements which you can’t afford to brush off.

Lessons Learned 2: Yes the Chicago Manual of Style is a HUGE and expensive document. If you want to write for WotC, that’s going to be your main bible. I decided to ignore that… and I paid for it. I could use the fact that English is my second language as an excuse… but that only goes so far when you get to work with the highest paying client in the field.

Lessons Learned 3: If you’re serious about being a freelancer, get MS-Word. It’s got issues but that’s what the industry uses. Forget about Open Office and Google Drive. Purchase MS-Office. 

Lessons Learned 4: This may be unfair, but there’s a bug in Office 2010 that prevents some styles of the WotC templates from being imported properly when you open a template. I heartily suggest using Word 2007 unless someone can attest that the bug has been fixed.

Once I got the assignments, I was asked to produce outlines for the articles so the producers and developers could comment on them.  As things stand now, outlines are no longer required. But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t write one. Trust me, YOU MUST! In fact I suggest sending them to the D&D developers to let them know how you plan to tackle the article.  You should also send them to any other freelancer you trust who’ve signed the WotC NDA so you can get extra set of eyes to look at them.

I got great feedback on the outlines. My daring approach for token-based powers for level 0 characters was green-lighted (with some well thought-out advice). My proposal to set the 0th level adventure in the Elemental Chaos was also well received, if only because it struck the fancy of the producer. But therein lies another issue. By proposing ideas that were so outside established “normal” D&D concepts (indie-like mechanics, staging an adventure’s setting outside its usual level range), I got people within R&D to champion them against people who disliked them. I can say this because I got some tersely written feedback from people down the line saying they didn’t like the approach. Fortunately, I wasn’t asked to change course. For this I thank those who championed my ideas.

Lessons Learned 5: Don’t always try to reinvent the gaming wheel. Be innovative, but don’t go for crazy all the time… 

But that wasn’t the real problem. The thing is that while I got people championing an unproven freelancer with crazy ideas within the D&D team, I failed to deliver a draft that was up to the established standards of WotC. My piece needed significant editing, didn’t  fit the established templates (faulty styles), was handed a few days late  and needed additional content to be more fleshed out.  While none of these issues were a problem in themselves,  once combined they put me in the “not quite trustworthy” category.

Why? Well, I started working on the assignments too late. I mostly ignored style guides (thinking  English and French were similar enough… Sadly, they’re worlds apart .)  I also got screwed on MS Word Styles without realizing it.

Lessons Learned 6: Getting your foot in the WotC freelancing machine is the easy part. Delivering top notch material with little to no guidance is your prerogative. Show THEM you can fly the F-18, they can’t afford to teach you, they likely never will.

No matter how talented, creative or passionate you are, you have absolutely no entitlement to a “fair chance” as a freelancer. Your chance is the one you get when you have one of your pitches accepted. If you flub it, even if no one took the time to tell you the rules, it’s your own fault. You will be remembered for it and the climb to get another assignment will only be that much harder. I know… I can see it in the tone of the notes I get from my recently rejected pitches.

Lessons Learned 7: Put that sense of entitlement back in your desk. You are one of many dozens of moderately skilled writers WotC can call upon. If you don’t wow them, they’ll pick the next one because they can afford to.  Your job is to amaze them and deliver a product that will not add to their workload. That’s how they work, we either accept it or seek elsewhere.

Lessons Learned 8: For God’s sake, don’t leave typos and spelling mistakes in your pitches. That’s an almost auto-rejection, especially if you are on their “watch-for-mistakes” list.

I still got three great D&D articles I’m incredibly proud of. They were very well received and I still get praise for them. It however became clear to me I was not “on the list” after those.

Am I bitter? Not anymore. I consider myself a professional and take full responsibility for how I managed the whole thing. The producers were nice enough to warn me and I still missed my chance.

Fortunately, I have since found other teams where my skillset (both strengths and weaknesses) are more compatible with their practices. I’ve since gotten progressively better. Not  perfect, but better.

So here’s the list of often repeated, not always followed advice if you do land an assignment:

  • Write what you were hired to do, no more, no less.
  • Make an outline and validate it with a third party… preferably one of the producers
  • Deliver before the deadline. If you can’t, tell the producer in advance and suggest an alternate date you will stick too.
  • Follow style guides and templates, it is not optional
  • Leave your ego by the door when you get “notes'” back from developers and editors. Always stay polite no matter how annoyed, angry you get.
  •  Never, ever, ever… send your first draft. Go through it at least three or four times before sending it. Sleep on it, then review it 3-4 more times.

What about your experiences with a publisher, want to share your own advice, your Dos and Do nots?

Comment here or post them in your blogs!

P.S. My friend Jerry wrote about his own, more recent, experience over on his blog here.

Comments

  1. I said it on Twitter, but I’ll say it here, too: A good read no matter who you’re freelancing for.

    Also, if you’re ever looking for guidance on CMS questions, you know where to find me. I know Chicago style through and through.

  2. Very nicely done. Thanks for sharing.

  3. @Lizzy: Love you forever Liz! 🙂 I shall remember that, the CMS remains a total mystery to me. I have since read Stunk and White and King’s “On Writing” but the CMS currently resides outside my ability to pay for it.

    @Shawn: Thanks Shawn. It means a lot coming from you. After all, you were the one who edited my first D&D adventure. 🙂

  4. Thor Olavsrud says:

    As a professional writer and editor working outside the gaming field (in addition to some occasional gaming work as a hobby), I can back up all these points.

    The less work an editor has to do to publish your work, the more valuable you are and the more work you’ll get. Some of the highest praise you’ll ever hear from an editor is: “He writes fast, clean copy.”

    If you haven’t formatted your work correctly, that’s more work for the editor.

    If you haven’t followed the publication’s style guide, that’s considerably more work for the editor.

    If you haven’t spell-checked and then reviewed your copy manually again, that’s more work for the editor.

    If you file your copy late, you”re either making your editor scramble to fill a hole, endure a chewing-out by his supervisor for failure to meet his deadline or both.

    As an editor I’ve experienced all these things, and you can bet that in between expletives I was thinking to myself, “I’m never hiring this guy again. I could have written this better and faster myself.”

    You don’t want to put your editor in a position to think those thoughts.

    And there’s something else: If you’re a writer that doesn’t make the mistakes above, many editors will happily work with you again even if they’re not 100 percent satisfied with the quality of your work. So many writers make the mistakes outlined above that anyone who doesn’t is usually a keeper. After all, writers get better with practice.

  5. @Thor: Thanks for validating the observations from your side of the job. All your (wince-inducing) assertions make me want to become better at this craft.

  6. TheMainEvent says:

    Very nice clinical examination. When you are embroiled in your first big ‘gig’ its very hard to see the forest for the trees or even realize where your tiny cog fits inside the machine. Every place is different, but I have found that is very important to remember you are a tiny gear that everyone else wants to rely on without having to maintain it themselves.

  7. Thank you for sharing!

    The various articles I’ve read (including this one and Jerry’s) both scares me and makes me want to refine my writing craft. I want to get my ducks in a row to do a good job.

  8. @Eric: I think the take home message from both posts is to get the pitches but then treat them exceedingly seriously. WotC are currently the most demanding clients in terms of RPG freelancing. Don,t let that frighten you but don’t assume that you get a “we’ll go easy on the newbie” card. Thanks for your comment.

  9. I participated in the Paizo RPG Superstar 2011. That contest is brutal. If you ever want to feel better about any rejection you get from a publisher, go to Paizo’s website and read some of the judge’s comments on rejected entries. You’ll laugh. You’ll cry. You’ll be glad it isn’t you.

    On the other hand, I’ve been published in print Dragon and electronic Signs & Portents (both now defunct, not my fault I swear) in the past. So I’m basically minor league relief help while Paizo is the major leagues.

    I just don’t give up. I was crazy enough to enter Paizo’s contest this year (my bruises have mostly healed since 2011). And I tried for Goodman Game’s contest as well.

    Of course, I don’t quit my day job.

  10. Really nice information. I was fortunate to get my start with WotC freelancing through the same opportunity as Chatty. All of what Chatty writes is true. It takes a lot of effort to have an article meet the Wizards of the Coast standards. I would underscore the importance of communicating with Wizards what you will write, producing a very good outline as an early first step, and working through several drafts.

    On the outline, this is for me a very important step. I find that if my outline doesn’t feel right, the final work likely won’t feel right either. An outline really helps me ensure the article will flow correctly, be cohesive, and bring value. Flow is critical. Writing classes in college fortunately gave me a lot of insight into how to make sentences, paragraphs, and sections all flow together. Any freelancer must have sound grammar, but that flow is also practically mandatory so that your writing is a joy to read. It isn’t easy.

    Diligence and schedule are supreme challenges. It takes a lot of discipline to set up a writing schedule that won’t leave you writing at the last minute. It can be hard to do with a full time job(s), family, vacations/commitments, sleep… Establishing a schedule and staying on top of it is not easy for me, but it is a battle I have to fight to produce quality work.

    Your point on crazy ideas is worth underscoring as well. In general, RPG companies are wary of a crazy idea. They would rather have someone use existing tools and concepts, because that is far less risky to the game. When I get a crazy idea I usually spend a lot of effort picking apart my own idea and discussing it with friends to try to make it less off-the-wall while still preserving the goal behind the idea.

    I agree that any RPG publisher will start to label you based on previous successes/failures, but that’s to be expected given the large writing pool and how busy they are. Nothing is set in stone – it is really a convenience to them to help them move quickly. I really think a writer can approach them about past failures and undo those issues. I think addressing the past issues directly is good. “I realize my last assignment was too off-the-wall. I would like to attempt a more straightforward assignment. In addition, I would like to provide you with an outline within one week of acceptance so that we can establish…” I know that as an organized play admin, I will always give someone a second chance, but I’ll go with my A-list first. If someone addresses past problems head-on, however, that can easily sway me into accepting them now. This is because a big worry for anyone dealing with freelancers is passion. There are tons of authors who aren’t just late… they back out or rush a very poor draft and try to conceal that as a final work.

    Speaking of organized play, organized play campaigns are a great way to get started. While admins still want adventure writers with great writing skills, the standards are a few steps less intense. And, thousands will play your adventure. This gives you an excellent way to collect feedback on your encounters. You can attend a convention and run your adventure more than 6 times if you want. That kind of experience is invaluable to adventure writers. Similarly, playing and especially judging organized play will let you see what other accomplished adventure writers do, how they do it, and how it works in actual play. A Dungeon adventure doesn’t get that much actual play!

    Lastly, Chatty, I want to say to you that I’ve really enjoyed your articles. I hope you keep working on it, because the community needs more of your cool ideas. I’ve had pitches rejected and final articles shelved, but I’m still coming back for more!

  11. Teos highlighted a great point about OP adventures and adventure design. If you want to have your eyes opened to your own work, write an OP adventure and then run it several times at a convention with a table of strangers. Better yet, don’t tell anyone who you are and play it at a table of strangers (if the OP campaign allows that). You will not get much better feedback than that, as you see in real time what works, what doesn’t, and how everything comes together for the DM and players.

  12. Really enjoyed your post (and also your Trobriand article). Thanks for sharing your experience.

  13. I would agree on all those things as well. I got published through the last go of submissions, and got nothing back with this last round. You’re constantly trying to improve/come up with new ideas.

    On another note, staying busy in the meantime helps. If you want to get your foot in the door, starting writing elsewhere. You need to show them that you have dedication and the drive to write/contribute to the community.

  14. As an editor, lessons 1-4 should be known by any professional writer.

  15. David Lundy says:

    Thanks for the insight, Chatty! I actually got a pitch accepted by WotC recently and am in the midst of developing my first draft of the adventure to send to them. I like your idea of an outline and will definitely use it and submit it to them with the draft. Have you any advice regarding adventure submissions?

  16. Jack Colby says:

    No wonder WotC product always seems so stiff and lifeless compared to older D&D material. Very insightful, thanks.

  17. I wrote a Dragon Magazine article 20 years ago, wrote some computer articles and recently wrote a computer book. (All published.) But …

    I don’t care much about publication. I am much more aware of blogs such as yours and writers such as yourself than I am of official publications. When you mention Chris Perkins and DDI, I said, “Who? What?” The Chatty DM and the Critical Hits web site have a much higher profile in my mind than WotC or Paizo. I am choosing to read this (your) article instead of reading one of their articles right now. That should say something.

    I’ll take an interesting, amateurish article over a boring, professional one any day. In my own efforts, I appreciate my unpublished work more than my published work because readers, especially myself, like to have a good time and think deep thoughts when they read, even if some misspellings and bad grammar need to be endured. (That’s some of the charm, too.)

    I see why you want to do it but, in the end, I think that you’ll find that freelancing for WotC will be a step back. Yes, it is more professional but it is also just fancy writing with fancy art that’s boring.

  18. I am not a professional writer but this article was so well written that I feel I was looking through the eyes of one.

  19. I would add to Chatty’s list:

    DO NOT PICK A FIGHT YOU CAN’T WIN.

    In other words:

    PITCH ARTICLES, NOT IDEAS.

    In still other words: For most amateur writers, pitching an article is bluster. It’s trash talk. ‘Having an idea’ is meaningless and irrelevant to your ability to crank out copy, but lots of folks pitch their ideas, their enthusiasm. All that matters is your workflow, your ability to meet the standards of the profession. If you’re not 100% sure your work habits yield good-to-go copy (where ‘work habits’ includes things like ‘using editorial feedback’), then you’re mistaking the trash talk with the actual fighting bit — which tends to be silent, painful, and brief.

    Gotta say, I’m surprised that WotC had to learn firsthand that blogging =/= freelancing. I mean no disrespect to Chatty by that, either.

  20. While your points about the importance of following directions and style templates is right on target, I can tell you that the process can be just as frustrating when you don’t have those guidelines to follow. 20 years ago or so, a friend of mine asked me to step in and co-write a setting supplement for TSR. His co-author had died in a car accident and he had too much on his plate to get it done by himself. We patterned the book’s content and layout on previous publications in the series and spent night after night cranking out material. We talked with the editors weekly (sometimes more frequently) and exchanged notes as well. Unfortunately, TSR changed editors on us three times and each time the new editor had a different vision of what the book should include. As a result, we ended up creating 200 pages of text for a 100 page book. Much of it ended up on the cutting room floor. The last editor was not happy with much of the content and said we “clearly didn’t understand the direction we are taking for Dark Sun,” even though his direction conflicted with what the previous editors had asked for. In the end, the artist that my friend hired failed to deliver the art (yes, the author had to deliver the whole package, text, art, and all) and TSR didn’t use him for any future assignments. I went on to write several articles and tournament modules for the RPGA, but I never sought any contract work from TSR after that. I have no trouble following manuscript formats and copy editing my work, but I never want to experience a musical chairs game of editors again!

  21. Jared Espley says:

    I am also a newcomer to the freelancing world. I was fortunate to have two adventures appear in Dungeon and a couple of other articles get hung up in the development phase.

    Lessons I would add to your list:
    1) The editing and on-paper development is truly top-notch-professional when working with Wizards. However, I’m not sure that the in-house playtesting is as rigorous (probably because of the constant deadline pressure). So if you have the opportunity, try to playtest yourself in addition to just writing.
    2) Meeting schedule is difficult for anyone who has other things going on in their life, especially if you follow my advice about playtesting your own writing.
    3) Your submitted work is not your own once it’s submitted. Expect things to get rearranged, deleted, major additions added, etc. The changes were far larger in scope than what I imagine a novelist might get from his editor. Many changes drastically improved my work but it was weird seeing my name on articles with whole sections that I hadn’t written at all.

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  1. […] a bit of freelancing for WotC between 2011 and 2012 and he helped out on a few articles for 4e. It’s a cautionary tale with some serious tips for anyone looking at freelancing for WotC or an…, so I’d encourage you to add this one to your list. The most important tip – make sure […]

  2. […] someone with actual freelancer credentials and shit loads more experience than me, be sure to read Phil the Chatty DM’s experiences with WotC. (Shameless Plug: Also be sure to check out his Kickstarter if you like […]