When I graduated from college, I knew two things:
- I wanted to write for a living; and
- I wanted to stay in Austin
Beyond that, I had no plan.
I got a job waiting tables, and worked just enough shifts to pay the rent. I spent the rest of my time reading books, watching movies, drinking beer, riding around town on my bicycle - and daydreaming about my future life as a writer.
But I couldn’t figure out how to get started.
How did a person with no connections (and no clue) turn their dreams into reality? How did a person become a writer?
I spent a long, long, long time wondering:
Here was the problem: I just didn’t understand how people got creative jobs. Or any jobs, for that matter.
I was fuzzy on a few things, and that fuzz was holding me back.
I didn’t know what exactly I wanted, beyond “be a writer.” And I wasn’t taking any action. Action would have given me information, and with more information, I could make smarter decisions. But I wanted to figure everything out BEFORE trying anything. So I just kept sitting around, wondering what to do. Looking back, I can see that I needed to do something - literally ANYTHING - just to start learning how the world works.
Finally, I was forced to admit to myself that the clock was ticking, and if I had a fairy godmother, she wasn't much use. If anything was going to happen, I was the one who had to:
Make it so
So I started focusing on the things I could control.
The first thing I did is get serious about developing my writing chops. I had to go beyond the random bits of writing I was doing on my own. I realized that I needed to start building a body of work, to show people what I could do. I knew that I was probably not disciplined enough to create samples on my own, so I signed up for writing workshops. I figured the accountability and the support would help me build that portfolio - and it did.
In a lot of ways, it was like going to the gym. It was a way to train myself to learn how to show up and just do the work, day in and day out.
The second thing I did was get real about money. My ultimate goal was to be independent, but in the short term, it made sense to take a position in a studio. So it was time to figure out where and how writers found work.
The third thing I did is ask for help. Weirdly, asking for help is a way of taking control - it was up to ME to ask, and until I asked, I wasn’t going to get the help I needed.
I started by reading some career books. I read What Color Is Your Parachute? and learned all about informational interviews. Which, turns out, are just conversations with people who have interesting careers, to learn more about what they do (in order to figure out if that career could be a good fit for me). Oh.
I realized that was what I had to do. I had to start talking to people. Professional people.
Ideally, I’d talk to actual writers, to learn about their careers. But I couldn’t figure out how to find real writers who would talk to me.
So I did the next best thing: I talked to people who hire writers.
(At this point, I hadn’t honed in on the idea of writing for games, specifically - I was still trying to figure out what was out there. But informational interviews really work, no matter how fuzzy or honed-in you are on your goal.)
The first domino
I knew ONE person that I THOUGHT might hire writers - Beverly, who worked at an ad agency. Don’t agencies hire writers? I thought they did. So I emailed Beverly - a person I barely knew, mind you - and let her know that I was doing some career research, and I was interested in what she did, and could I chat with her to learn more?
Beverly, to her eternal credit, agreed to meet. (This was the big turning point in my story, although I didn't realize that at the time.)
So I biked to Beverly's office and chatted with her for 10 minutes to learn more about what she did and what writers did at her agency. And at the end of the ten minutes, I thought, “That type of writing is not for me.” But I didn’t say that. Instead I said, “Thank you for this. I learned so much! I don’t think I’m cut out for that kind of writing - I think I’m looking for something that requires more storytelling. Can you think of anybody that might be a good person for me to talk to?”
She did! And she made an introduction.
I sent a thank-you note to Beverly, along with a $5 Starbucks gift card (it’s all I could afford at the time), and reached out to her friend to set up another informational interview.
And that’s what I did - informational interviews, rinse and repeat, week in and week out - for a long time. Six full months. I bought so many coffee-shop gift cards!
All that time, I was still waiting tables, to pay the bills. And I was still writing.
Everything was taking FOREVER but I didn’t know what else to do, so I kept going.
And one day, one of those informational interviews paid off. Through Beverly's network, I met Maria, who worked at a studio that specialized in kids' games.
At first it was just another friendly informational interview, but then the conversation turned. She mentioned they had a job opening.
They were starting a new project - a virtual slumber-party game, for girls - and they needed a writer, ideally one who had BEEN to slumber parties. Had I ever been to a slumber party? Did I have any writing samples I could share? (You can see where this is going.)
Here's how I felt when I finally heard the words "You're hired":
Everybody's breaking-in story is different. What worked for me, specifically, may not work for you. BUT there are some basic concepts that are relevant to any writer's job search.
Looking back, here are the things that finally moved the needle for me (and could do the same for you):
- I got serious about building my writing skills - and my portfolio. (Hooray for writing workshops!)
- I set out to meet as many people as I could, to learn more about my career options. It was slow going, one person at a time, but it made all the difference.
- I started before I felt ready. (I was NEVER going to feel ready.)
- I didn’t do it alone. It really does take a village.
- I sent a lot of thank-you notes. People were kind and generous all along the way, and for that I will be forever grateful. Thank you, Beverly, wherever you are.
I hope this helped. Good luck! You've got this. If I can do it, you can do it, too.
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Susan’s first job as a game writer was for “a slumber party game - for girls!” She’s gone on to work on over 25 projects, including award-winning titles in the BioShock, Far Cry and Tomb Raider franchises. Titles in her portfolio have sold over 30 million copies and generated over $500 million in sales. She is an adjunct professor at UT Austin, where she teaches a course on writing for games. A long time ago, she founded the Game Narrative Summit at GDC. Now, she partners with studios, publishers, and writers to help teams ship great games with great stories. She is dedicated to supporting creatives in the games industry so that they can do their best work.