The Lucky Road to RPG Editing

Note: This post is Part Two of two, for now. It’ll be a recurring theme, though.

My winding emotional journey into editing began long ago, but the practical journey happened suddenly and unexpectedly, and the path was paved with luck, or fate, or providence, or whatever you want to call the power that occasionally brings things together at exactly the right time.

Please humor me as I wander down Memory Lane.

In November of 2000, some of my husband’s coworkers got together for drinks. Having given birth to our daughter a few days earlier, I was pretty psyched about the opportunity to have a social drink, so I went along. There I met a very nice couple we quickly became good friends with—Cam and Jess Banks. We started gaming with them and also with their friends Jim and Shannon Butcher. (I remember Jim handing me a copy of Storm Front with some self deprecating comment like, “Oh, yeah. I wrote this book. I’ve got a closet full of them. Want one?”)

Cam started writing for Dragonlance sourcebooks, and around 2004 he was working on Spectre of Sorrows, which is the second module in a long term campaign. He was struggling with a particular chapter and asked Clark and me for some help. I’m guessing he only asked me out of politeness since Clark is the more experienced player and GM. When I read over the chapter he was working on, I decided he needed an editor, whether he knew it or not. Luckily, he humored me. I shared an editing credit on the book, which was my only compensation (of course, it’s not like they’d even asked me to work on it!).

When Cam took on the third module, Price of Courage, I volunteered to be the editor from the get go. Since they hadn’t budgeted for an editor, at the time I didn’t get paid for editing nearly 300 pages of text (Cam later ensured I was compensated for my work. Thanks, Cam!). However, I got to work with Cam and Clark, and it was important to me that their work be properly edited. In the end, we made a book I was really proud of, so it felt worth it.

After that, I started getting paid to work on Dragonlance books. However, we were all learning exactly what that looked like, so there were some interesting experiences—like the time I was credited as the only editor even though I never saw the first chapter of the book, or the time the fifth chapter was dropped due to page limits but I didn’t get the chance to go back and revise the other four chapters to reflect the missing last chapter! It was clear that they were used to working with copyeditors, but I wanted to be a little more…involved. If I didn’t think the structure of the book was working, I didn’t see any point in fixing the text. Cam was my champion throughout, and everyone else eventually got used to me and valued what I did, even if it was sometimes frustrating. This experience very much led to my guiding philosophy which is “It’s my job to make sure your book doesn’t suck.” I was willing to take on whatever jobs were necessary to ensure the book was as good as it could be.

The next time I went to Gen Con, I took a pile of resumes with me, hoping to get some additional work. Not a single one of those panned out. However, I did meet Fred Hicks (not at all coincidentally a friend of the Bankses and the Butchers) who was a year or so into the Dresden Files Roleplaying Game. I mentioned that if he happened to be in the market for an editor… Again, luck—or, perhaps more appropriately, fate—paved the way, because it turned out that he and Rob Donoghue had just been discussing the possibility of bringing on an editor, and then I had my work cut out for me for the next three years. I have to admit, I was pretty terrified to be working on this project with this group of people—I knew many of them by reputation, and expectations were already high for the game. It took me a while to really find my stride with them because I tended to be too timid. Luckily, they were patient!

The bulk of my editing work is still with Margaret Weis Productions and Evil Hat, and I think I’ve worked out a really good editing relationship with those teams. Through them I’ve met lots of other people in the industry, particularly at conventions. This has led to working on the Fiasco Companion for Bully Pulpit Games and Bulldogs! for Galileo Games. I now have enough work to keep me busy full-time. I’m at the point where people are starting to approach me about working on their projects, which is awesome and flattering.

I’ve gone on for probably too long about my personal story. Here are some general observations that might be helpful to people who aren’t lucky enough to hang out socially with game designers.

It really is about who you know. I think this will be a topic for a future post, but you need to find a way to meet the people you want to work with, whether it’s online or in person. They can’t hire you if they don’t know about you, and they won’t hire you if they don’t have a sense of who you are and what you can do.

Luck has a lot to do with it, but you can make your own luck to a certain extent. You have to put yourself out there. You need to convince people that they need what you have to offer. It means not taking no for an answer while not crossing the line into pushy and obnoxious. It’s a fine line to walk.

It’s not uncommon for people to balk at paying an editor—they assume it’s just proofreading and why should they pay someone so much when they can probably find a friend who’ll do it for free? (Editors typically get paid a good bit less than writers per word, but because we look at ALL the words, it adds up.) It helps if you can prove that you really bring something useful to the project—to some extent, I have to prove myself each time I work with someone new, even within a company I’ve already worked with.

It’s proving yourself the first time that’s the challenge. Lots of people will tell you not to work for free. And on some level, they have a point. Certainly don’t ever work for free for people who could pay you and/or who are used to paying people to edit. But getting your name officially on something, particularly for an up-and-coming writer or designer, is sometimes payment enough. The people just starting out may not have the money to pay you, and the people who are used to paying an editor will want to see what you’ve worked on previously.

In short, if you want to be an editor, you have to edit. You need to find situations where you can develop the experience, credentials, contacts, and reputation that you need. Editing is a skill best honed by doing, so jump on whatever chances come your way and create a few of your own chances, even if they can’t pay you yet. With luck, they’ll lead to more opportunities—hopefully with some pay.

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8 Responses to The Lucky Road to RPG Editing

  1. Carl Klutzke says:

    I’ve heard a number of independent professionals say that you should always work for full price or work for free: what you should never do is work for cheap.
    http://lifehacker.com/5567336/freelancers-work-for-full-price-or-free-never-cheap

    • ayvalentine says:

      That makes a lot of sense – when you do get paid, you should work for a rate that you can live with. If you routinely work for less than the going rate, you may start to undervalue your own time and work.

      Speaking for myself, there’s a certain amount of guilt that comes with asking people for money. I hate setting rates. I don’t want to undervalue my work, but it’s also hard to tell a small publisher “I expect this chunk of your small budget.” Having a standard rate or having the publisher come to me and say “I can pay you this; can you live with that?” makes it a lot easier.

  2. Matt Logan says:

    Hi Amanda,

    This gave me plenty of food for thought. One of the things I’m not so good at is putting myself out there, or self-promotion. It really is a weak point that I’m slowly taking steps to conquer. I’ve never been one for shouting louder just in order to get noticed, I much prefer to let my actions or work speak for me. Yet, it does seem possible to undervalue one’s skills and even sell oneself short, especially in less ‘high-profile’ (yet no less important) occupations such as editing.

    This is probably a confidence thing on my own part. I don’t think anyone should feel guilty for loving what they do and being skilled at it. I hope that my recent foray onto Twitter will help me to get used to presenting myself in a positive light, and allow me to develop some experience in putting myself out there. :)
    Thanks for the great post!

    • ayvalentine says:

      Self-promoting is really hard – it’s a continuous struggle for me. It’s such a fine line between making sure people are aware of you and being an obnoxious twit! :) But if people don’t hire you because they don’t know you, it’s hard to get that body of work that will speak for you.

      And if you’re in one of those lower profile fields, there’s potentially the added challenge of convincing people they need anyone, let alone you. Although in some ways that’s easier – there are good objective reasons for hiring an editor, and you can talk about those without explicitly calling attention to how great you are. If you convince someone they need an editor and you happen to be the editor standing there, hopefully you can get the work.

      In many ways, I think it’s about helping encourage opportunities and then having the confidence to jump on them. That, and a good dose of luck. :)

  3. Steve Segedy says:

    Perhaps one way to approach the “work for cheap” issue is to be clear about what your standard rate buys them, and what subset of that work you would do for less. Having rate packages like that would let you set clear, fair rates for yourself and allow the clients to choose what they need and can afford.

    For what it’s worth, the rate we paid for your work on the Companion was right in line with what we’ve paid for art and design work on other projects. While paying that for editing might seem too steep for some small publishing projects, I felt we got more than our money’s worth in terms of your work.

    • ayvalentine says:

      Yes, I’m trying to be more formal about rates now that I’m full time. So far this hasn’t been an issue because I’ve been working with awesome people, but I have fears of being credited as “editor” on something I pretty much proofread which needed an actual edit! :) I’m a little neurotic that way.

      It was a lot of fun working on the Companion! It’s different from the typical game books and I liked working so closely with you on it. Plus I got to know Giulia!

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