February 11, 2014

Next update POSTPONED to February 26, 2014

Part 4 of “How I became a writer”.

Late again, but if you followed me on Twitter you’d know it’s because I’ve been battling a wicked cough I picked up in Vegas. (You know you’re getting old when your Vegas trips leave you a wheezing, hacking shell of the man you used to be.)

Still not feeling great, but I figure I’m healthy enough to hit the keyboard for a while, so LET’S DO THIS!

When I left off last post, I was on the cusp of my big break. I had sold a handful of freelance pieces, and I’d done some low paying (and sometimes no-paying) writing gigs for a wide variety of employers: gov’t safety manuals, internet sports sites, button and greeting card slogans, a few short stories… it was a long, slow build up to a real career. Of course, I didn’t know this at the time.

I think that’s pretty common with most writers. We grind along for years, making slow, incremental progress and improvements in our writing. And then, one day, the right opportunity pops up and we’re ready to answer the call. In my case, this involved an open call by Wizards of the Coast for new novels in their Forgotten Realms series. For those of you who don’t know, WotC published the Dragonlance series, and the Forgotten Realms were best known for R. A. Salvatore’s Drizzt novels.

At the time (late 1999) I was still scouring the various market listings on a regular basis: a mix of print magazines and on-line websites. And I happened to see this open call from WotC. They were looking for new writers to add to their team, and anyone interested could submit a 10 page novel summary set in the FR universe, along with a 2-3 page summary of the main characters and the first chapter of the proposed novel as a writing sample.

I was coming off a crushing loss on the game show Jeopardy, so I was feeling a bit down on myself at the time. I had thought Jeopardy would be my shot to make a small fortune, but it didn’t work out that way. (You can see a recap of my Jeopardy performance at the awesome J! archives website.) Fortunately, I know that life doesn’t just give you one shot at glory: opportunities keep coming. You just have to be looking for them, and ready to grab them.

You could argue that I was lucky to see the WotC open call. But I also made my own luck by actively scouring the markets. And I’d argue that it was my skill and preparation that allowed me to put together an impressive enough submission package for Wizards to call me back a few months later.

So there it is: my first big break. The idea I submitted was accepted and approved, and I turned my outline into my first novel, Temple Hill. (No longer in print, but it is available on Kindle and in Audio formats!) The money for this was good, but it wasn’t enough to make me rich. But I had my foot in the door!

However, the publishing industry moves slowly, and even though I finished writing Temple Hill in 2000, it didn’t actually hit the shelves until 2001. It was during this gap that I found my next big break.

Having a contract for a published novel was great, but I still wasn’t sure I could make a living off my writing. So I was still working on my Masters degree in English. In April of 2000 I saw a small classified ad in the English Department newsletter: Local Edmonton video game developer looking for writers to work on D&D role-playing game.

Growing up I had played a lot of video games, but once I reached my 20′s I had fallen away from them. Still, I had experience with classic titles like Wizardry and Pool of Radiance, and I had some very basic programming skills, so I felt like I would be a strong candidate for this job. Having a contract to write a D&D novel for WotC in my back pocket probably didn’t hurt, either. So I applied to the ad, figuring I might get a small freelance contract for a few thousand dollars out of it.

The company in question was BioWare. I expected to find five guys working out of a garage, and that is how the company started. But by 2000 they had already released Baldur’s Gate - one of the most successful and ground-breaking CRPGs ever released – and the company was growing FAST! It didn’t take me long to realize this wasn’t just a quick cash grab; this was a chance for a real career.

My interviews at BioWare went great – the people and culture of the company were a perfect fit for the kind of person I was: a proud D&D geek, a fantasy and sci-fi fan and a big Star Wars nerd. And when they offered me a full time position, I jumped at it. I dropped out of school to start work in May 2000, even though I only had to write my thesis paper to graduate. For me, the whole purpose of school was to learn how to write well enough to get a job as a writer, so I didn’t see much point in continuing now that I had achieved the dream. (I guess the lesson is don’t stay in school? Somehow that doesn’t sound right…)

At BioWare, I was surrounded by incredible, supportive and creative people – other writers, artists, designers: looking back it’s amazing how much talent this small Canadian company was able to assemble. I got to work on incredible games, from Baldur’s Gate 2 and it’s expansion packs, to Neverwinter Nights, to KOTOR and Mass Effect. But my role at BioWare also allowed me to pursue my novel writing career as well.

Wizards of the Coast had already released two Baldur’s Gate novels, and they wanted to do a third. But they were looking for a different author. Because they liked my work on Temple Hill and because they knew I was involved with BioWare as we worked on the BG sequels, they asked me to do it. That led to Throne of Bhaal, my second novel. Interesting side note: even though Temple Hill was written earlier, both of my novels were released at the same time, in September 2001.

My work on KOTOR allowed me to approach Del Rey Star Wars editor Shelly Shapiro, which led to the Darth Bane novels. As the lead writer on the first two Mass Effect games, I was the logical choice to write the first three Mass Effect novels. And my success at BioWare gave me the opportunity to branch out into The Chaos Born – my own fantasy series. (Children of Fire, the first book, is on sale now!) 

The past decade has been one of great success and personal fulfillment for me. I don’t know if things would have worked out the same if I didn’t see that BioWare ad in the English Department newsletter… but part of me believes I would have ended up at BioWare eventually. BioWare was always looking for good local talent in the early years, and my work on the Forgotten Realms novels would probably have brought me to their attention. So, in some ways, I was very lucky for things to work out like they did. But I also believe my hard work and commitment to my writing played a huge part in my eventual success.

So I guess that’s the takeaway from this blog post. To make it big, you need some luck. But you can help make your own luck by following the advice of my first three posts. Make yourself into as good a writer as you can be; stay on top of the markets and keep plugging away and eventually your chance will come. It took me 10 years, but once that first break came everything fell into place. Be aware of the opportunities that are out there, and be ready to build on your success.

Okay, enough preaching. Next update I’m going to look at the differences between writing for games and writing for novels – I enjoy both, but each presents its own unique challenges. Hopefully a few of you will find that interesting.

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