A Writing Career Is Basically A Really Weird RPG

It is assumed, quite falsely, that a writing career gets easier once it gets going. The assumption being, all you need is your foot in the door — just enough sneaker to wedge that fucker open so you can slide sideways through the gap — and now you’re in the Kingdom. After which it’s all, what, signing contracts delivered by courier and royalty money falling from the sky like rain and a dragon whose breath weapon is endless writing time, he just disgorges endless time upon you, whoosh, and now all you have to do is write, and write, and write.

But, as I’m sure you’ve anticipated already, it isn’t like that at all.

A writing career is like an RPG. (Dealer’s choice whether we’re talking pen-and-paper or video game, but for this metric, let’s go with MMORPG.)

The beginning of your writing career is in fact your entrance to a new land, but for the most part, you’re probably some kind of Scrub Knight, some Pig-Farmer Squire-Scribe who has been tasked with using his rickety wooden sword to whack rats in the unicorn stable. You’re just a ratwhacker, bringing rat-pelts to the local Publishing Guild.

Point is, your book is out, but so what? Obviously, so what is so quite a lot, thank you very much, because having a book out is a glorious thing, an impressive wonder, and you should be pleased as peaches with yourself. But the important thing to note here is, dozens, literally dozens of books come out every week in your given genre. Your book coming out isn’t the toast of the town, most likely. There’s no secret library parade, no invitation to the monthly Publishing Orgy, no golden key that opens every bookstore in America. It’s a book, and now it’s out, and you hope it does well.

Now! Maybe, just maybe, the book does well. Or maybe, hell, you were the toast of the town — certainly some debut authors are lucky enough to be chosen in such a way, given a considerable marketing and promotional boost at the outset. Maybe you were lucky, maybe your book is amazing, maybe it’s a confluence of both of those things or some other quirk in the time-space continuum but ha ha now you’ve done it, now you’ve really Won the Publishing Game.

Nnnyeah not so much.

One does not win this game.

One simply tries to stay in the game.

Again, we return to the RPG metaphor — yes, once you’ve whacked enough rats, and earned enough Publishing XP, you are granted access to a new land. You have a Shiny New Word Sword.


One thing, though —

Your problems have leveled up with you. You have new skills, new cred, new weapons, but you also have new problems. You’re not just playing D&D anymore, now it’s Advanced D&D. Success breeds new concerns. Are you more branded? Too branded? Can you easily write outside the genre in which you have found success, or is that like re-speccing your build and starting over? What will the next book look like, and can it possibly match the success of the first? And when do the contracts run out? (See last week’s post about cliff mitigation for more on that problem.) Are you with the right publisher? Right editor? Right agent? Have you chosen your ADVENTURIN’ PARTY well? Have you collected the proper blurbs, the good reviews, the nice royalties? What happens when the money runs out? Or when the totally sporadic way of getting paid in this industry leaves your budgeting all out of sync? Or, hell, what happens if you discover… you’re not just having that much fun?

(Parenthood, by the way, is similar to this: you keep thinking, ah, once we have the kid past this next step, it’ll get easier, once she’s walking, or talking, or eating solid food, or in school, or out of school, or, or, or. And diapers give way to the kid running full-tilt into the corner of a coffee table which leads to dealing with second grade social circles which leads to middle school horror which leads to now they can drive which leads to oh hey now they rule over a band of apocalyptic hill cannibals at the end of the world and they’re some kind of chosen one?)

(Though of course every child is different.)

Success breeds new problems.

Failure breeds new problems.

A standalone novel, a trilogy, a series, an award win, a bestseller tag, a box of remaindered books, a bookstore going under, an editor orphaning you, a marketing budget that never manifests, an agent gets too big for your books, an agent quits, there’s a film and TV deal, some foreign rights, a publisher shutters, a genre tanks, a genre takes off, new successes, new problems, and on and on and on. The game doesn’t stop just because you get some victory in you. Every new sword and cool spell just means a new realm, a bigger dragon, more complicated decisions.

And that’s okay. It’s just good to know it. There is no comfortable plateau in a writing career, I imagine — not one that isn’t equivalent to some kind of literal or creative death. You left the stable, and now it’s a forest. You leave the forest, and now it’s a jungle. From rats to orcs to demons in the chasm. From slingshot to wooden sword to steel blade to diamond scythe. It gets more fun. It gets more dangerous. It gets more frustrating! It gets more confusing. And it never really stops transforming itself. There’s always a bit of a grind, always a need to level up, always decisions about how exactly you’re going to tweak and advance your character (aka, you) going forward. Then there’s the sweet ding of the next level, and again you climb. Onward you go.

And onward I go, too.

* * *

DAMN FINE STORY: Mastering the Tools of a Powerful Narrative

What do Luke Skywalker, John McClane, and a lonely dog on Ho’okipa Beach have in common? Simply put, we care about them.

Great storytelling is making readers care about your characters, the choices they make, and what happens to them. It’s making your audience feel the tension and emotion of a situation right alongside your protagonist. And to tell a damn fine story, you need to understand why and how that caring happens.

Whether you’re writing a novel, screenplay, video game, or comic, this funny and informative guide is chock-full of examples about the art and craft of storytelling–and how to write a damn fine story of your own.

Indiebound / Amazon / B&N

12 responses to “A Writing Career Is Basically A Really Weird RPG”

  1. I enjoyed and it is a more amusing way to look at a writing life. I saw myself as on a ladder and trying to get up another step with each venture into the publishing pandemonium. I do not expect to ever really get off that ladder but I might be happily sidetracked into a battle with the dark goblins of literary might.

  2. This rings so perfectly true. Six months ago, I was like, yay! So what I’m a ghostwriter and don’t work on my own shit anymore! At least I’m getting paid for these rat pelts, and the rat pelts are ranking highly in the world of Amazon algorithms. Sure, the mortgage is like two months behind and my credit card companies have me on speed dial, but hey, pretty I’m poised now for a level up. Thanks for the giggles and solidarity.

  3. I was fortunate to have a writing mentor – the guy who wrote several of the movies I loved growing up. By the time I knew him, he’d successfully been a member of Writer World for 30 years, so he had that crucial item all writers can use when they get it: perspective. The best piece of advice I got from him (after “pay attention to spelling – would you hire a carpenter who can’t drive a nail straight? – words are writer’s nails!”) was this: “When I was up, I couldn’t figure out how I got there; when I was down, I couldn’t figure out how I got there; when I was back up, I couldn’t figure out how I did that. I finally gave up trying to figure it out and just got on with it, and things worked much better.”

  4. “And it never really stops transforming itself.” This is like one of those battles where the opponents keep changing into different animals, isn’t it? I frequently feel like a mouse trying to stare down an elephant, so let’s hope the story about elephants being scared of mice is true. Failing that, I may stretch as far as a bunny – so it better be one of those red-eyed attack bunnies. (Further zoological question: can elephants deploy Holy Hand Grenades?)

    It is a difficult but very important lesson not to pin your happiness on some elusive ‘then’ but to learn contentment with the constantly shifting ‘now’.

  5. Thanks for the laugh at this insane career choice. It really is a strange way to make a living. (I do have to add to the parenting thing…some days I’d rather have written a book.)

  6. I just read this out loud to my husband, Chuck. You blew both of our minds and just in time since the cleaning ladies are coming at 9:00.

    My knuckles are raw from knocking on the drawbridge while trying to get in the traditional way. I haven’t vaulted through a window, explored the moat, or started digging an underground tunnel…yet. In the meantime, I’m devouring craft books and attending conferences while in revision mode. I’m getting closer.

    Ironically, the guest speakers at Colorado Gold talked about the same thing. There are no guarantees even if you wrote Eragon. I’ve got a post about it waiting in the wings. My expectations are low, but being an optimist, I can’t wait to have a shelf of my books and can hold one in my hand. I’m ready for the wild ride.

    I woke up this morning thinking about how much my life had changed after becoming a writer. I work all day and into most nights. My social life has diminished quite a bit. No matter where it takes me, I’ll continue to battle since I LOVE WRITING.

  7. Totally on the nose. Adding some context-related advice:

    1.) Know your rotation and know the raid mechanics. Every class of writer has a handful of powerful, fast, or brutally effective elements that you are either good at naturally, or have practiced enough so that they bring the pain without burning all your mana. Dedicate yourself to knowing how to optimize and chain them together to rain literary DPS down on the heads of your readers in the most effective way possible. When you go into a publishing raid, always be aware of the mechanics–a bad contract or a bad agent or a flailing publisher can stun-lock your career and all you can do is sit there and watch your health bar empty.

    2.) Optimize your gear and use your consumables wisely. Even trash-mobs will wear you down if you don’t have your chest pieces optimized to match your leg pieces. Use the best writing and publishing tools you have available to get your stories out there in the best, most complete way possible. Put the cool armor on the story. Put the cool buff on the blurb. And when you knock back a potion (made of magic beans that makes the eyeballs open and the words come and the brain wake), do it at the *appropriate* time–boost potions work best right before you chain your biggest attacks.

    3.) Be a good team player, have patience with PUGs, and don’t stand in the stupid. It takes work to build a decent raid team, just like it takes work to build a good publishing support team, whether you’re going indie or choosing the trad route. Know your teammates’ strengths, weaknesses, and their jobs (do not force your healers to tank unless you want the repair bills to clean you out of most of the gold/credits in your bank). When you run with PUGs, go in with the understanding that it’s a group effort full of people who aren’t used to working with each other, and that bolster buff is designed to make you seem stronger than you are. Successful PUGs through group/raid finder do not mean you can walk into hard mode and not break a sweat. And don’t stand in the stupid. If you’re in a bad situation, whether it’s a PUG, a box set, a failing effort of any kind, look for a way out and take it as gracefully as possible.

    4.) Run the Dailies and do the Grind. No matter how many raid bosses you’ve downed, if you only log in outside of raid time to sit in Gen-chat and listen to the trolls, bots, spammers, ERPers, and little kids trying to get around the cuss-filters, you will soon find yourself running out of resources (raiding is expensive and so are repairs) and losing your skills with every new update.

    5.) Always be prepared for a nerf. Chances are, you’ll be the class everybody wants to be once or twice around the circle. When that happens, enjoy it, but don’t rest easy. The Devs *will* eventually come along and nerf that power-attack, so when the time comes, be prepared to learn a new rotation.

    6.) Social Media is a PVP Area. Enter at your own risk, and don’t go into ranked unless you’re good at that shit. PVP rewards are rarely optimized for raiding, even though that sick burn on twitter might look cool when it’s screenshotted and posted to reddit or pinterest, but it will not help you in book-raiding. PVP requires a whole different set of skills than raiding, and quite frankly, you’re likely to be stun-locked and face-melted by some 13 year old kid with a toon that does nothing but hop around madly and do the tea-bag dance on your corpse’s face until the match ends. Do it for fun, do it for stress relief, but don’t do it for career advancement. Know when to Exit Area.

  8. Success in publishing is sorta like getting older – it’s better than the alternative. When I’ve achieved success and it brings too many hard choices or attention, I always remind myself, “These are good problems.”

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