20/10 Hindsight

A year ago, more or less, I got an out-of-the-blue phone call from Mongoose, informing me that my contract was being terminated. I was Mongoose’s longest-serving staff writer by far, having started way back in May of 2003. That equates to roughly five million words, by the way, the vast majority of which were delivered on deadline.

The termination came with a month’s notice and a thank-you, nothing more. Such is the lot of the freelancer.

2010 was a chaotic year. I’m still dealing with the aftermath of my mother’s death. I got married. I ran a marathon. I tried to have a kid, found out I’m very close to infertile, started on a course of IVF. Meanwhile, of course, the world decides to go into meltdown, and I watched as the government pushes the country to the brink of bankruptcy and oblivion. 2010 was almost entirely interesting times.

So, what have I learned? The emphasis here, of course, is on the ‘I’; these lessons are painfully obvious to everyone, but they’re what I need to internalise and take from the past year.

Quality, not Quantity: I was successful at Mongoose primarily because I was able to produce lots of moderate-quality material on command on almost any topic. While that’s useful, I need to aim higher. I must break myself of the mindset that the first draft has to be the final draft. When you’re producing a book a month from scratch, there’s no time for planning, editing, rewriting or anything other than getting words out as quickly as possible, but other companies don’t work like that. Not everyone is Mongoose.

Constraint is Focus: I need to relearn the skill of juggling overlapping projects instead of working on them in series, and to do it all without the pressure of monthly deadlines. I’ve taken to using pomodoro for time management, with good results on days when I can get a good run-up at work. Other days, I’m so squeezed for time that I’m forced to focus. I need to make sure that every day is one or the other, and stop wasting time on the internet.

Fail Better: Remember those five million words? I own none of them. They’re all work for hire, and most of them are written for licensed games so they’re doubly not-mine. For someone who’s allegedly prolific, I’ve written only a tiny amount for myself, and an even smaller amount for public consumption. I’m afraid of failure and obscurity, so I don’t even try. To hell with that. Write, fail, write better.

The World is Strange: It was a year when ‘low orbit ion cannons’ were in newspaper headlines, when the roleplaying industry slouched and mutated, when people talked about twitter being an essential service even as the water pipes froze and burst. The older I get, the stranger the world seems, and that is terrifying and inspiring. The lesson to draw from it is that there may be people interested in my stranger ideas, and to break out of my comfort zone. Stop retreading what worked in 2005… or, more accurately, 1982.

Learn Until It Becomes Habit: I have said and blogged these things before. Every year is next year in Jerusalem, the year I finally write that novel, write that game, change the world. So be it – if I have to repeat these assertions and plans until they are become real, then I will. What I tell you three times is true, and what I tell myself a dozen times will eventually become true.

Love is Enough: And I stood on a beach in Kerry in impossible sunshine and I married her, and that is enough. Everything else builds on that.

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17 Comments on "20/10 Hindsight"

  1. Jonny Nexus
    05/01/2011 at 1:26 pm Permalink


    the year I finally write that novel

    And this:

    And I stood on a beach in Kerry in impossible sunshine and I married her, and that is enough.

    It was wonderful. A humanist ceremony on a beach in Ireland with sunshine. Enough to make the most hard-hearted of fundamentalists question their faith. :)

  2. Awakedreamer
    05/01/2011 at 1:43 pm Permalink

    A beautiful and inspiring entry. From here it looks to me that leaving Mongoose was, after all, a change for the best. You also married that gorgeous girl and I think that your games are already pretty awesome (even when you write for others).

    Now just get that damn novel done ;) . After all you acomplished last year, this should be a walk in the park ;) .

  3. Jonny Nexus
    05/01/2011 at 2:01 pm Permalink

    Hi mate,

    Apologies, if this is stuff you’ve already thought of, considered, and perhaps even rejected, but regarding novels, have you considered media tie-in novels? I can’t think of anyone better equipped to write them (and I’m including myself here – I’d love to do them but fear I don’t have the level of knowledge and abilty to absorb a setting required).

    I’d have thought that given your proven track-record of producing lots of words, to a deadline, for a particular setting, with many of those settings having been for licensed properties, you’d be about as good a candidate as anyone could possibly be (at least, someone who hasn’t yet written a novel).

    But what I’m trying to say, is that as a working writer, the best way for you to transition to novel writing might be with a project where you’ll know you’ll be getting paid for it, and where for anyone else, not having previously produced a novel might be seen as a concern, if anyone is going to get a nod without a previous novel under their belt, it’s a man who’s written five million words, many of them for a bunch of licensed settings.

    And of course, a man who has very cool ideas. :)

    I don’t know if you are already following them, but both Matt Forbeck (@mforbeck) and James Swallow (@jmswallow) are into media tie-ins. I met Jim at Eastercon last year and he’s a really cool bloke (and he just made it into the New York Times bestseller list with a Warhammer novel).

    There’s also a really good book (which I have read) by the International Association of Media Tie-In writers:


  4. Donal Cahalane
    05/01/2011 at 3:02 pm Permalink

    Never forget the impossible sunshine; it means that someone, somewhere is looking out for you.

    2011 is a year for you to do what makes you happy. I especially think its the year for you to forget about working for a system that is inherently broken and will always struggle to make money.

    Every single word that you’ve written above makes complete sense and shows that you understand the industry that working in where success means that great art of planning and juggling becomes every bit as important as the words themselves which lets face it have never ever been a problem to you!

    You’ve been the crazy mind behind some of the most original adventures that any of us have ever played. Sure some of those adventures have been for a particular system, game or “brand” but 99% were never typical of the genre. Methinks that its time to move beyond transforming and improving other people’s work and open the doors to the asylum of original ideas, your ideas, that are sitting in that head of yours.

    What format will any of that take? Only you know that, but I’m sure it wont be anything that any of us will expect.

    except probably your wife, cause she probably knows already. :)

  5. Mario
    05/01/2011 at 3:20 pm Permalink

    Bravo! That is all.

  6. Paul B
    05/01/2011 at 3:52 pm Permalink

    Great post and Jonny got it right about this bit:

    And I stood on a beach in Kerry in impossible sunshine and I married her, and that is enough. Everything else builds on that.

    That bit almost warmed up my stone cold heart…

  7. Graham
    05/01/2011 at 3:58 pm Permalink

    That’s a lovely post.

    These things happen by increments, I think. You don’t suddenly start writing the stuff you want to write, but, gradually, a greater proportion becomes that stuff.

  8. Brian
    05/01/2011 at 4:02 pm Permalink

    Gosh, wonderful. Advice for all, even if some have to change the verb, and I suppose we don’t *all* get to marry your lovely lady. :) But wow, thank you for sharing.

  9. Allen Varney
    05/01/2011 at 4:06 pm Permalink

    Advising a roleplaying writer to turn to media tie-in novels is like telling a field hand to aim for a kitchen scullery position in the big house on the hill — technically an improvement, true, but not really to the point.

  10. Jonny Nexus
    05/01/2011 at 5:14 pm Permalink

    “Advising a roleplaying writer to turn to media tie-in novels is like telling a field hand to aim for a kitchen scullery position in the big house on the hill — technically an improvement, true, but not really to the point.”

    Well I don’t want to start a row over this, but firstly I think that’s a bit of an insult to media tie-in writers. Personally, I think media tie-in writing is a cool and skilled craft. The reason I haven’t pursued it is partly because my day job gives me the luxury of writing stuff that may never found a home, but mainly because I don’t think I have the skills and apitude that tie-in writing takes. (Although I’d love one day to be able to disprove that).

    Secondly, my advice was based on the fact that as a working freelancer who has to keep writing paid words to live, one of the things that *might* be holding Gar back is that he can’t afford to take time out to write 100,000+ words on spec, words for which there is a considerable chance he might never get paid for. (Even the best novels can fail to find a home). Whereas if he were to get a tie-in deal, he wouldn’t start writing until a payment was guaranteed.

    In other words, a media tie-in novel would slot very neatly into his current “business model” whereas a stand-alone novel would have to be done as very much something on the side.

    That’s all I was saying.

  11. Matt Forbeck
    05/01/2011 at 6:08 pm Permalink

    Both Jonny and Allen have good points. Writing tie-in novels is a step up from writing RPGs in terms of pay and audience, although there can be some overlap in the top and bottom ends. A number of RPG writers have gone on to make decent money and good reputations writing tie-ins, including Mike Stackpole, Aaron Allston, Troy Denning, Doug Niles, and Jeff Grubb. I’ve written a number of tie-ins, and I often described my first few as having other people pay me to learn how to write novels.

    Tie-in novels can be a good way to make money while working on your personal projects on the side. As a working writer, though, the dilemma comes from being able to find enough time to devote to your own stuff while still paying your bills. As you note with RPGs, never managing that is an easy trap to fall into. I’ve done that myself many times.

    Writing a tie-in is a job. You do the work, you get your pay, and if you do it well you might continue to get more jobs. Working on your own novel is like buying into a raffle. There’s no guarantee of a payout or of the amount you might get, but when you win, it’s all yours to do with as you wish.

    So, my advice? Keep writing your own novel(s). But, if you’re interested in tie-ins, go ahead and pursue that too. Few of us can manage to live without any guarantee of income for the months we need to write our own materials, and there’s no shame at all in writing good things for other people to put food on your table at the same time.

  12. John Kahane
    05/01/2011 at 6:54 pm Permalink

    Sounds to me like the escape from Mongoose was a really good decision, and I trust that working with the folks at Cubicle 7 has been a good move for you, and that you’re extremely happy working with them.

    Needless to say, the highlight was standing on a beach in Kerry and getting married. Brought a tear to my eye, hearing about that. :)

  13. Tim Gray
    05/01/2011 at 7:23 pm Permalink

    Learning is hard.

    But you’ve got a lot of achievement in the bank there. Especially that last bit. Great post.

    (Are there any other channels where that ‘voice’ might pay off?)

  14. Gareth
    06/01/2011 at 7:47 pm Permalink

    Currently, my writing is the main source of support for the two of us and the two dogs. Later in the year, when Edel gets a teaching job and we’ve more reliable income, I can look at taking a few months to work on my own material full-time.

    I may poke at tie-in novels, but I need to build contacts in that area.

  15. Mark
    08/01/2011 at 3:23 am Permalink

    I was moved by this post; it was affecting to read something so heartfelt and honest.
    In terms of your aim towards quality in work life: The Laundry is excellent. It certainly read really well and enthused me, it stood above the RPG materials I have read lately, especially in terms of presentation of background and setting.

  16. morgue
    11/01/2011 at 10:10 am Permalink


    (And, of course, love + best wishes from us in down underland)

  17. nedjer
    11/02/2011 at 10:59 pm Permalink

    With you on the IVF – bit of a rocky road :)

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