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How to break in - a field guide

· Interactivity,Storytelling

This blog is a tricky balancing act for me.

Life keeps changing, and the career I’ll have in two years’ time will be different than the one I have now. But I know that my rear-view mirror is someone else’s open road, so if I can help someone else find work that they love, then I'm here to help.

Last week, I received a couple of emails from two students at Full Sail, who I suspect are in the same class (hi, guys). Both of them were wondering how to start a career in storytelling for games. I get it; the workplace is uncharted territory for college students, and we were all there at one time. So here's my advice. Take what is useful and leave the rest.

First, here are some practical suggestions.

Writing jobs are elusive, as I’m sure you have already noticed. There are not many job listings for “game writer” on LinkedIn. And yet the work is definitely out there. When studios need a writer, the creative director usually asks people on his team for recommendations. You want your name to be at the top of that list.

So how do you do that?

Well, first and foremost, people hire people they know, like, and trust. Right? It’s a cliche because it’s true. So Step One is “meet as many game developers as you can.” Not in a “Hi, my name is X here’smyresumeareyouhiring” kind of way; that is a stressful conversation for everyone involved. Give people a chance to get a sense of you as a person before they start evaluating you as a potential hire. (And buy yourself some time to get to know them, too: this job-search thing is a two-way street. You want to figure out if you guys are a good fit or not.) Think about how your introduction can be more of a “Hi, my name is X, I’m here to help” kind of way.

There are lots of ways to start building these connections. If you are comfortable meeting people face-to-face -- and for my money, that is the BEST way to move your life forward -- start going to industry events. For example, the International Game Developers Association (IGDA) has chapters in major cities worldwide. Start attending. Better yet, become an IGDA volunteer. Then you’ll have a role to play at events, and this gives you an excuse to meet everybody who walks through the door. It will also lower your anxiety level because you’ll have a task to focus on; you won’t just be standing in the corner behind a fern, wishing you were at home watching Netflix.

Another way to build these connections is to start conducting informational interviews. This sounds like olde-timey garbage talk, I know, like advice out of the 19th century, but I’m here to tell you, it works. This book does an incredible job of explaining the concept; here’s how it worked for me.

When I was first starting out, all I knew was that I wanted to be a writer. That was it. I didn’t know where to even BEGIN to find a job that would pay me to do what I love.

So first I thought, “I’m doomed.”

Then I thought, “Wait a minute. Snap out of it. There are plenty of people out there doing what I want to do. I just need to play detective.”

So I made a list of people who HIRED writers. Any kind of writer. I just sat down and brainstormed. “People at advertising agencies hire writers. Newspaper editors hire writers. Fortune-cookie companies hire writers.” I cast my net far and wide.

(In retrospect, I should have reached out to writers directly -- but I had no idea how to find them. This was a failure of imagination on my part. Learn from my mistake.)

Then I joined an online networking group and found ONE PERSON in that group that had a promising job title (creative director at an ad agency, I think). I was too nervous to reach out to more than one person. (This whole experience was terrifying for me, by the way.) I reached out to this mysterious person, and I said; “could I have ten minutes of your time to talk about writing work in your industry?” I drew up a five-question list, and then I made my way to her office. My questions were extremely broad, along the lines of “What does it take to succeed at this work?” and “What do you look for in a writer?” We met for exactly ten minutes, not a second more. When my alarm went off, I stood the hell up and ended the interview, sparing her the awkwardness of having to wrap things up. (Working professionals are busier than job seekers; the goal is to make this interview process as quick and pleasant for them as possible.)

(If I had been interviewing writers directly, my questions would have been more along the lines of “What do you love about this job?” and “What do you hate about it?” Again, 101 stuff, but they were questions that I couldn't answer through online searches.)

And at the end of the interview, I said, “Thank you for your time. I think I understand more about what I’m looking for. [Then I recapped whatever it is I learned from that interview.] Do you know anyone else that you think I should speak to? And if so, could I tell them you sent me?” Then I had a warm introduction for the next interview. This made life much easier.

One thing led to another, and the next thing you know, I was talking with someone at a gaming studio. I had never even considered games as an option, but to my surprise, we were a fit.

You can use the exact same approach. You already know the industry you want to target and the role you want to play, but informational interviews work regardless of how broad or narrow your target is. You reach out to one person, you have a quick chat, you then go on to talk to the people they recommend. (“So-and-so suggested I reach out” is your email headline here.) Then you are on your way. You aren't overtly looking for a job at this point, you're just conducting research. Don't turn an informational interview into a "Hey, are you hiring?" ambush -- that is the fastest way to piss somebody off. Be cool. When you're a Jet, you're a Jet all the way.

Here's one major piece of advice: send handwritten thank-you notes to anyone who takes the time to talk to you. This is a kind and gracious thing to do. These people took time out of their busy day to help you, a total stranger, and everybody likes to feel appreciated. These interviews are part of your networking efforts, so do your best to make a good first impression.

Up to now, I have advised that you get in front of people, face-to-face. We are social monkeys and we like to be together. But the gaming industry is full of introverts, and the Internet is a thing. You can do most, if not all, of your networking online, if you think that is a better platform for you. You know where you are at your best. Play to your strengths.

No matter where you show up, show up as yourself. You're swell, just the way you are.

OK. Let’s say that holy frijoles, your hustle paid off and you’re up for a writing assigment. First of all, Fuck Yes, high fives all around. But how do you show someone that you can do the job?

Here’s how.

Think about the question from the other person’s point of view. What do they want to know about you? They are looking for a few things. They want to know that you can write well, and they want to know that you understand the unique constraints of game writing. So you need to come up with work samples that demonstrate both.

Here’s what I would suggest. Create three pieces for your portfolio -- two samples of creative work, and one piece of critical analysis.

For your first creative writing sample, take one of your favorite games. Imagine that there is a missing level, something that was cut during production. (Something is ALWAYS cut in production.) Find the place in the game where there seems to be a storytelling hole, or a place where the story could expand in a meaningful or surprising way. Then write the story/script for that missing level.

This sample shows that you can collaborate and contribute to someone else’s vision. That’s a big selling point, because you've got to be able to play well with others. However, you are also imitating another writer’s style -- which is why it’s a good idea to have a SECOND writing sample, one that is 100% you. This doesn’t have to be a piece of interactive storytelling. This can be a short story, a one-act play, an essay, anything. (One of my writing samples for my first game-writing job was a clip from an essay I wrote for The Washington Post. It was about movie theaters in Paris. It had NOTHING to do with games. But it was proof that I could string words together. Yay!) I would recommend developing a writing sample that is a piece of dramatic writing -- something from film or TV or theater, because those storytelling forms map closely to the work we do in games.

So OK. You’ve got your “missing level” writing sample and your “my original voice” writing sample. You are awesome. The last portfolio piece I suggest you create is an analysis of an existing game’s story. Don’t pick a game you hated, and then hate on it. That won’t serve you, and for all you know, the interviewer's best friend worked on that game, so tread lightly. Focus on a game that was successful (in your opinion) and describe WHY it worked, and how. Get as specific and insightful as you can. Don't say "It was zomg!" Really dig into the How. Let the reader see that you have some insight into how the mechanics of storytelling work. Like this guy:

So boom. That is my practical advice for starting a career in this field. Now here comes the advice that comes more from my heart than my brain.

Mark writes, “I have plenty of ideas for stories for games I want to write but I have a hard time putting it down on paper. Do you have any tips or tricks to help me further progress my skill for writing?”

Now THAT is a great question, one I am always trying to answer for myself. Here are some things that I’ve learned about the creative process.

Here’s the first thing I would say to my younger self: it’s hard to get good at anything. It takes time. It takes blood, sweat, and tears. You will be bad before you are good. You may be bad for a long time. (I know I was.) The best thing you can do is learn to love yourself and believe in yourself through the process of growing as an artist, pursuing your dreams, and becoming the person you want to be.

Ira Glass describes the process beautifully here. Mark, the answer you are looking for is in that video.

There are lots and lots and lots of books about how to become a better writer or more productive creative. Check out On Writing, Get It Done, The Creative Habit.

Steal Like An Artist is full of brilliant advice.

Roadmap is wonderful.

What It Is is everything. Lynda Barry is everything.

The Tools is a book that is all about the process of change and growth, and it’s based on work the authors did with storytelling creatives, so it cuts right to the heart of the matter.

I’ll leave you with one last thought, from Jen Sincero, a lady who I like a lot: “When it comes to changing your life, if you’re not scared, you’re doing something wrong.” Starting a new career qualifies as "changing your life." So if you’re scared, congratulations, you’re on your way. And I’m right there with you. So fuck it. Let’s do this. Because nobody wants work to feel like this:

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