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On Freelancing, or "How I Became a Mercenary Writer"

Posted 11-28-2010 at 13:21 by Critias
Updated 11-28-2010 at 13:24 by Critias

Now, maybe it's not glamorized by the media and the gun rags as much as being a high speed, low drag, private military company contractor...but there's quite the life of glory and adventure to be led by their deskbound, completely non-violent, mercenary brethren; the freelance writer!

Sure, sure, we don't get to play with guns, or ride in helicopters, or play with guns while riding in helicopters, but we do okay for ourselves. I mean, three and a half cents a word is nothing to sneeze at!

...if, uhh, you use a lot of words. And don't like money very much. And aren't crazy about "benefits" and "job stability," or...or...or...alright, screw it. We're pretty sneezeworthy. But it can still be a pretty cool gig!

So, how'd I get into freelancing? Well, by being a giant geek for about the last twenty years, and playing games. I'm a longtime role-playing game and wargaming fan, and I've always been a voracious reader (maybe you've heard, but I got a gold medal in the Reading Olympics fundraiser at Benjamin J. Bubb Elementary School, 1984, you know, so I'm kind of a big deal).

I first started writing short fiction as a direct result of playing an RPG on line. In a set up not terribly unlike Glocktalk or any other forum, the Shadowland website was a place where we logged on, talked to each other in a more-or-less forum based setting, and essentially took part in some collaborative writing as we played an RPG. We'd post what our character was doing, other folks would post what their character did, there was a java-based (the program, not the coffee) die roller that handled the rules crunch of the game, and we just had a lot of fun telling cool stories together, posting about a paragraph at a time. I might have inordinately fond memories of the place, mind you, because it's also where I first met Mrs. Crit, and she and I kind of like each other.

I got hungry for more and started scribbling down short fiction to cover what my characters were doing in between jobs. The core premise of the game we played -- the Shadowrun RPG -- is something like the movies Heat or Ronin, or even The A-Team. Any heist flick will do, and you'll get the basic idea. The game's set in the near future, and you're playing a team of professional criminals that companies hire to do jobs for them. Well, me, I started to think about my characters between jobs, and I started to write a little, here and there, just to fill in those gaps. It's kind of like wondering what your favorite tv character is doing between episodes, off screen, when the cameras aren't around.

Well, the next step for me was killing time with fan fiction, or "fanfic." Whole different forum, whole different game, but I basically was just killing time writing stories set in their fictional universe. They've got war wizards and dragons and giant steam-powered robots and all sorts of other craziness going on, but I told a story about a trench-fighting soldier who liked to write letters home to his family.

Warmachine, as the game is called, is a pretty popular wargame, known for it's over-the-top action, and here I was, week after week, just whenever I had some spare time...writing a story that showed how horrible the war was for this guy who, interposed with the action scenes, was writing letters to his parents and telling them not to worry about him, or asking how the farm was doing, or who had flashbacks to his dad teaching him to shoot.

Folks ate it up!

Some buddies of mine from a wargaming forum were working, together, on creating their own game. Spinespur never really took off thanks to some marketing and management meltdowns shortly after the first book was published, but in that first book, about two-thirds of the fiction is mine. I got approached by them as they were getting nearer and nearer "crunch time" (sending drafts off to get layout done and getting ready to print), and they asked me if I'd like to write for them. They recognized my fiction I'd shared, liked it, and they needed someone -- needed very badly -- to throw together stories for their game. They knew what stories they wanted, what the setting was like, what characters to include...but they needed someone to take their rough ideas and make 'em into stories.

So I got my first paid gig.

And then came GenCon, a big old convention in Indianapolis every August. While there, I ran into the head writers for Warmachine -- the guys who are paid professionals, year round, with steady careers in gaming...who created the whole game universe, and wrote all the fiction for it, and told all the "real" stories there. To a geek like me, that's pretty awesome stuff. And they knew me!

I often scribble "Critias" (yes, I use the same name on most forums) on my GenCon badge, and when they saw that, they eagerly shook my hand, and told me they loved my story. It was like some crazy Bizarro world. Imagine running into R. Lee Ermey and having the Gunny surprise you by being excited to see you, telling you that he loved your gun collection, and then offering you a job.

Because, well, that's what happened to me. One minute I was psyched to meet Doug Seacat and Nate Letsinger, and the next thing I knew Doug was talking to me about writing for them.

I ended up doing a bunch of magazine articles for their No Quarter by-monthly and some on-line stuff for them, all of which was run quite a bit more professionally than the brief brush with writing I got from Spinespur. Contracts, non-disclosure agreements, official layout formats, etc, etc -- it all felt terribly grown-up and real, at that point.

Currently, I'm up to my ears in steady freelancing for Shadowrun. My first RPG ever, the game I was playing when I met Mrs. Crit, and the single game I've got the most books for, the most time invested in, etc, etc...after (literally) twenty years with this game, I'm finally adding to the canon. I'm pretty psyched about it, and having a blast.

The most fun part of freelancing -- to me, and I'll admit my idea of "fun" might be a little unusual -- is the fact that you're writing in someone else's world. You're adding to the canon, not creating all new stuff. It's their sandbox, you're just playing in it. So you know what writing there feels like? History. I've got to research what's already been written (for Shadowrun, that's 20 years of prior books to go through!), and make sure that what I add to the setting jives with all that. I've got to make sure I have Character X acting like he's always acted towards Character Y, I've got to make sure that Company X has security at least as tough to breach as it had in a book written when I was fifteen years old, I've got to make sure it's all fitting together, making sense, and reading like a cohesive whole when my chapter gets held up next to their chapter.

So I sit at my computer with a stack of books all around me, tugged off the book shelf and sitting seven and eight books deep in a semicircle around me -- within arm's reach, in different directions -- balanced on top of every flat surface nearby. I flip from one to the other as I write, I get an idea, I grab a new book and read about what happened to Austin, Texas in their fake timeline (in Shadowrun, the present year is 2073), to make sure what I add to Austin makes sense. Or to Nairobi, Kenya, or to Kobe, Japan, or to the CIA and FBI, or whatever -- my latest project was for an upcoming book called Spy Games, which is going into detail on the espionage world of our fictionalized 2073 setting.

It's a hoot, and it beats the heck out of trying to have a "real" job while I'm going to school. Not because it's easy, but because it's flexible. When I have a deadline for some freelance writing, it's just like having a paper due in grad school (and I know how to handle having a paper due). Instead of having to be at work every day for a certain number of hours, I've got a deadline and it's up to me to juggle my responsibilities and handle my time, and make sure I get it done on time. It's not a terrible "shifting of gears" to go from working on a semester paper to working on a 10,000 word rough draft about tradecraft in 2073.

I select my sources, I do my research, I read what's been written on the topic in the past, I analyze and interpret the evidence, I come up with what I want to say, and I write it. The only difference is that instead of getting a boost to my GPA, I'm getting three and a half cents a word.

Which is nothing to sneeze at.
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Total Comments 4


  1. Old Comment
    GamerGirl's Avatar
    You get PAID to write? Wow! I bet people would pay me to NOT write!

    Great blog!
    Posted 11-28-2010 at 13:32 by GamerGirl GamerGirl is offline
  2. Old Comment
    Lonestar 48's Avatar
    I think I heard about that award at Bubb, but I can't remember for sure. Neat gig you've got going!
    Posted 12-01-2010 at 16:35 by Lonestar 48 Lonestar 48 is offline
  3. Old Comment
    Lone_Wolfe's Avatar
    That's pretty awesome. I used to read Forgotten Realms and Dragonlance from AD&D and had a few locally published short stories based in the Realms.
    Posted 12-01-2010 at 17:07 by Lone_Wolfe Lone_Wolfe is offline
  4. Old Comment
    Critias's Avatar
    I've been pleasantly surprised by the responses (some posts, some PMs, some comments here) to my blog so far, but this one's really shocked me. Out of all of 'em, this blog entry has the most views, and a couple comments, to boot!

    I'm pretty excited about that, because in March I'm slated to give a little seminar type speech, at a local convention, All-Con. A good friend of mine's been involved in the convention management and we've visited the con several times, but he's been talking to me about trying to get some gaming going on, and I'm testing the waters by co-chairing a panel about writing for game companies, this year.

    So the fact that a bunch of Glocktalkers are reading about how freelancing is working out for me is a good sign, because it means a bunch of geeks (who are actually into this stuff) should be even more interested.
    Posted 12-02-2010 at 14:17 by Critias Critias is offline

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