The Method to My Madness
Today, I’m continuing work on support materials for Iron Dynasty and have thought more seriously on how the next year is going to pan out. As a publisher, you have to think things way out in advance, and without organization of some form or fashion, chaos ensues. (I know Chaos so well, I should probably have a statue to Arioch on my desk. Lamentably, I do not. If one wants to take the Donblas approach, and follow the path of Law, one needs to carefully consider what one is going to do before one does it. I’ve talked about outlining and such in the past, but I have certain steps which follow to take an idea from concept to completion (insofar as a raw text document is complete, at any rate). Today, I’m going to go through the steps of my process, focusing on these particular aspects. Before you roll your eyes, begin drooling, and fall into a coma, remember what I’ve said in the past, structure is not a bad thing. In fact, it can be completely liberating. Let’s proceed, shall we? I promise I shall spare you the tedium of the business side of things today–though this approach is targeted at taking an idea, ultimately, to market, it can apply equally well for any game you’re bringing to your gang, regardless of system.
1. The Brainstorming: This phase can occur any place and at any time. Ideas are often there when we least expect them, so it’s important to keep a notebook handy. I know, this sounds very old school to some of you, but nothing beats the feel of a pen in your hands, and a nice clean sheet of paper before you. Plus you can doodle, which is important in this process. If you’ve got a crew, you can get together with them and bounce ideas off of one another. At this point, nothing is too stupid. Nothing is too lame. Let the gatekeeper have the day off, and just come up with some ideas. Ideas can deal with something in an established line (such as RunePunk or Old School Fantasy) or something altogether new. Here are some things to consider in the brainstorming process.
a. Focus: While this may seem contrary to the brainstorm process, if you’re working on something for an established line, or at least have a genre in mind, you’re narrowing your parameters. This added intensity lets you immediately discard some ideas before they leave your fingers and make their way onto paper, but don’t be too hard on yourself. Obviously, a RunePunk adventure will have little in common with a Realms of Cthulhu adventure and vice versa. If you know your playing field, you can begin to fill in the blanks. Will it be remants and an angry wist as adversaries or will the characters deal with the Lost Ring of R’lyeh, for example?
b. Think in terms of plot types: do we want to create a quest, a love story, or a political struggle? These, too, can inform the brainstorming, and are leading us to a general shaping of things to come.
c. What is the hook? This is the big one. Is it part of a continuing adventure? Something altogether new? A campaign sprinboard? Choose your battlefield, and prepare for war.
d. What is the target characters for the product/adventure? Is it a supplement for players, GMs, both? If it’s an adventure, what types of characters are best suited for this? (The answer, for the last, should be any characters the players want to play. Remember, you want a broad spectrum of folks to enjoy your adventure, and minimize the workload for the GM.)
After considering all these things, you are ready to move to step two.
2. The Scribbling: At this point, you should have a number of ideas ready to be laid out on paper, and you should begin by putting together a short synopsis of the story, if it’s an adventure, or an overview of the product, if it’s something else. Examples: Jobber’s Survival Guide: Urban Edition–this book gives the players everything they need to know to survive in the seedy streets of ScatterPoint, including new edges and hindrances, archetypes, and sample character builds. Or: The Autarch’s Guide to Anarchy–this book gives the GM exciting new citizens and denizens to complicate the jobber’s lives, including new organizations, and more. (At this point, the “and more” means you’ve not figured out what else you want to put into the project, but you can be certain things shall unfold as you move through the process.)
3. The Templating: If you are building something with an established set of guidelines, you can then take your notes (copious or otherwise) and begin to pour them into the structure. It’s as though your words are hot wax or gelatin, and you’re pouring it into a mold. While the form may be the same, you can guarantee the color/flavor/texture (in other words, your words) can vary wildly. If this is something brand new, you’re going to need to create a structure for it before you proceed any further. This structure goes by the word some disdain–the outline. The good news is you’ll only need to do this once, if you do it properly that is. Otherwise, you’ll have to refine as you go. Believe you me, while the outlining is not necessarily the most exciting part of the process, it pays huge dividends down the road when you don’t have to think of structure, and can focus on the good stuff, the words. If this is your first go at outlining, don’t be too hard on yourself. It can be beneficial to look at established works you like, and see if you can break down their component parts through structural analysis. This can improve the shape of your own materials. In any case, once you understand the foundations, you can then begin to branch out from there. If you don’t work from a structured guideline, you can rest assured you will either end up with something muddled (and less good than it could’ve been) or have a time sink wherein you must reorganize your materials to improve its flow. A solid outline is something which becomes a template for the next go round, and if broadly enough structured, can be tweaked when you approach new products altogether.
4. The Writing: Wow. You’ve done a lot of work already, and you’re just now getting to write. Congratulate yourself. Many folks usually don’t get past Step 1. We all think of ideas, but it’s the execution which is a big, gnarly bear with a scar, three tattoos, and a bad attitude. At this point, it’s filling in the blanks. You take your ideas which have been gradually getting distilled and refined up until this point, and you put them down where they need to be. The secret is to not get hung up at this point. If you come to a spot where you need a name and you can’t think of one put down Mr. X (or the variable of your choice) and keep moving. Does something not sound exactly right (such as “the proper word” evading you)? Write down something and keep moving. If you want a ferocious dragon, and you can’t think of the word “ferocious” jot down “terribly angry” or, if you’re more jocular use “pissed off”, and keep rolling. The main thing at this point is to take all your ideas and work through it at a good, solid clip. Move with a purpose, bucko.
5. The Revising: At this stage, you need to give it the once over, even if you have an editorial staff to back you up. You can let it rest for a day or a week or you can begin reviewing it immediately. I’ve read a good number of books which encourage waiting awhile and coming back. I will not encourage that. I personally find it easier to work on things when they are fresh on my mind. You know, strike while the iron’s hot or, in other words, move with a purpose. If you don’t have editorial staff or meticulous gamer friends to read through your words, then give it a rest after you’ve completed the revising, but not until then, and then move on to the final step.
6. The Editing: If you’ve got a crew to help, then go you. I do, and they are invaluable in catching minor mistakes, slip ups, and other errors I’ve made in the name of art. I recall, on one project, where I shifted names of a character in the middle of things, and I was so grateful they caught it, but hey, I was moving with a purpose, and it got fixed. If you’re going solo, then you need to carefully read through everything you’ve written. You may well be sick of it by the time you’re done. It happens. Hopefully, however, you’ll correct all the stupid mistakes (such as an abuse of the word “that” or shifting tenses or (heaven forbid) shifting your work to a narrative relegating the PCs to the sidelines. Fix this things.
7. The Final Read Through: Okay, I told you the last step was the last step, but this is really the last step. Once you’ve got all the spit and polish complete, read through the whole thing (again). Change fonts on your document. Shift them into two columns. Shake it up a bit where you’re looking at it in a physically different form–heck, even printing it out is going to shift how you look at the material, and try to read it from the target audience’s perspective. How does it really come across? Is it the best you can do? Are there any confusing bits? If so, you’re back to step 5 or possibly even step 4. Don’t despair. Like anything else, the craft of writing is an iterative process which requires as much dogged determination as anything else. You can do it. And once you do it once, you know you can do it again.
Now, I must practice what I preach, and get to some process work of my own, so I bid you, dear reader, adieu!