(Metagame Archive) Voices From the Field: To Write, or Not To Write?

By Ben Kalman

“Poetry is the mother tongue of mankind.” – Johann Georg Hamann

 

I’ve recently gotten a lot of emails from people who were wondering if I could get them a writing gig or give them advice on how to be a better writer. While I can’t offer jobs or turn anybody into Hemingway, I thought I’d write an article on how to write an article. What follows are some tips for writing about Vs. System, writing in general, and what to write about.

The First Rule of Writing

 

“Poetry is poetry, and one’s objective as a poet is to achieve poetry precisely as one’s objective in music is to achieve music.” – Wallace Stevens

As a writer of both journalistic and creative works, as a publisher of poetry and prose fiction, and as a student and teacher of English literature, I can draw on my experiences to tell you one thing above all—nobody can “teach” you how to write well. Anyone can give you tips, point out your mistakes, and even tell you what to write about . . . but in the end, only you can improve your writing.

As well, writing and editing are entirely subjective. You can take the greatest writers in human history and still find critics who’ll tell you those writers are garbage. Two editors side by side may have entirely opposing opinions of your work. One may tell you not to quit your day job, while the other might hire you on the spot. Writing is a crapshoot in many ways, and even after you’re established as a writer, it won’t free you from being mercilessly edited, criticized, and even rejected. I know award-winning authors who submit their work regularly to journals and magazines and only get thirty to fifty percent of their submissions accepted. Don’t even ask how much of my work gets accepted! (For the wise guys, yes, the number is higher than zero.)

So, the first thing to do is prepare for rejection. Whether you’re submitting an article to a website or a magazine, looking to win a contest, or trying to get a monthly column, quit before you start if you can’t take rejection . A few writers get their first novel published on their first attempt. The millions of other writers can wallpaper their bedrooms with rejection letters before garnering even one success. Also, please remember that not everyone is born to be a writer, and most writers will never become “known.” If you’re looking for fame as a writer, you have a long road to haul. As a fun little game to put this to the test, list every writer who has ever written an article for Metagame.com. Now, go through the Archives and Events sections, and look at all of those writers you’d forgotten about. The second test is to take the latest issue of Scrye or Inquest and flip through it, looking at the authors of every article. How many have you heard of before? How many do you know anything about? To write often is to wallow in obscurity.

Oh No! It’s Research!

 

“Who wants to understand the poem

Must go to the land of poetry;

Who wishes to understand the poet

Must go to the poet’s land.”

 – Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

Now that we’ve established that writing is generally an innate talent that needs to be honed, let’s look at the process of writing itself. If you want to write about Vs. System, whether for Metagame.com, trade magazines, or fan sites, then you should know the product from end to end. This means knowing the game and the system, knowing games in general and how they work, and knowing comics and comic book history. To find success as a writer in this field without any prior knowledge of one or more of those is possible—heck, high school dropouts have written bestsellers—but it will make the road extremely difficult.

Let’s start with Vs System knowledge. Knowing Vs. is not necessarily the same as being a highly successful Vs. player. You don’t need a $10K Top 8 finish, nor do you need to have placed in the money at a PC. In fact, most of the writers I know don’t play competitively anymore, assuming they ever did. You do, however, need an intimate knowledge of the game. You should have the comprehensive rules and spoilers of every set at your fingertips for reference, and you should read each of those documents several times. It is extremely important to be aware of the cards—what they do and how they interact—and how the rules of the game work. The best way to get rejected as a writer is to make fundamental errors in an article. Any proof you provide that shows you’re not technically adept will push your potential editor/employer away from you and towards the next person whose article is mistake-free.

Also, if you don’t understand every aspect of the game, how can you expect to write about it coherently? Believe me, it’s not easy to come up with new ideas week after week without fail, but knowing the game from end to end does help inspire you. You’ll need plenty of those ideas on the back burner for when you’re at a loss for new content.

The second category of knowledge, games and gaming history, is also very important. If Vs. is your first TCG or your first game, you should get out and try new things. Try some other TCGs, classic and current, and some other types of games. You don’t even have to invest any money. Just demo them a little to get a feel for other games and gaming systems. While it is always possible to write about and play a single game, isolating yourself in a microcosm within a large universe will not help you to understand the game any better. Nor will it help you to express an understanding of how that game (or other games) works. You should be well versed in the world of TCGs and hero games, and a background in role-playing games, board games, video games, and so forth never hurts. I’ve been gaming for over twenty years, and I often draw on my knowledge of other games, especially hero games, while writing about Vs. System. Many, if not most, of the primary Vs. writers (not to mention game designers and play testers) have extensive experience in the gaming industry as players and fans. Many of the Metagame.com writers have gamed for years, and play at least a dozen different games.

This is especially pertinent if you ever wish to write about the pros and cons of Vs. System, what it needs in order to improve, how it compares to other games, and what makes it a positive force in the TCG world. It is useful to have played some superhero TCGs or RPGs so that you can see both where Vs. ranks in terms of superhero games, and how it functions as a system when compared to previous attempts.

Which brings me to the third point. You should familiarize yourself with the comic universes and their characters. I’m a little over the top in this regard, being an obsessed and somewhat fanatical comic collector with a collection of nearly 5,000 . . . and that’s nothing compared to some fervent collectors I know. You don’t need to rush out and bankrupt yourself to build a vast collection, but most writers should have a fair knowledge of at least one of the two universes, if not both. In order to understand the fundamentals of the characters’ powers, how they interact, why they’re as weak/powerful as they are, and whether or not the character cards are well designed incarnations of the comic versions, you should know about comic and character history. After all, a character card may be good, bad, weak, or strong, but there are often reasons for that beyond game play or system necessity. Understanding the comics gives you added insight into the game.

Once you have done the necessary reading, research, and field-testing, you’re ready to put your ideas to paper.

Writing and Editing

 

 “Touched by poetry, language is more fully language and at the same time is no longer language: it is a poem.” – Octavio Paz

The first and most important key to writing, be it creative or journalistic, is learning how to write. No, I’m not kidding. That may sound condescending, but the vast majority of aspiring writers have no clue how to write. As a publisher and editor, I come across dozens of manuscripts that show a ton of raw potential but are horribly written. As a teacher at the university level, I have encountered term papers with great ideas that are written at a grade school or high school level. If you want to write professionally, you must be able to write coherently, with proper transitions and good grammar, and you must be able to present your ideas in a thoughtful and intelligent manner. Sure, you can have minor mistakes that your editor(s) will fix—after all, nobody’s infallible, and everyone makes typographical errors—but messy articles with dozens of mistakes, or those that are poorly written or presented, will guarantee your rejection.

The first step to good writing is to show and not tell. That’s the first thing you learn in creative writing class, and you should apply it to every form of writing. Don’t tell me that “the one-game match system sucks!” That doesn’t mean anything. Present an argument, and then back it up with evidence. Explain to me what the problem is and why it’s a problem. If you’re putting together a deck, for example, it’s not enough to simply write up the deck list and say what drops to play and how to use the plot twists. You have to show how the deck functions, what’s special about it, the interaction between key cards, and the reason you built it. You have to make your article interesting enough that people want to read it. Simply presenting basic facts without explanation or flavor won’t get you very far.

Flavor is definitely a key aspect of any article. Flavor, for those who are unaware, is that extra “oomph” that makes writing interesting. It’s the way you write—the anecdotes, the adjectives, and the asides. Flavor can consist of colorful language, humor and wit, interesting facts . . . It’s simply the extra touches one adds into his or her writing to make it unique, like Danny Mandel’s bad jokes, Gary Wise’s wisecracking, or Jason Grabher-Meyer’s infectious excitement. While the flavor in an article is hard to insert manually, it will come automatically over time as you write more often. One way to improve the flavor and style of your arguments and ideas is to expand your vocabulary. If you use the same adjectives in every paragraph, you become an editor’s nightmare—he or she will have to spend time rewriting half of your article to make it less repetitive. As well, it never hurts to look over someone else’s article or story and think about how you could make it more interesting or exciting.

“A poet can survive anything but a misprint” – Oscar Wilde

 

Which brings me to editing. First of all, always edit your writing manually. This goes beyond a simple spell check. Spell check is the lazy writer’s editing tool that, while useful for catching obvious errors, often misses the important ones. You should read over your writing at least twice—once immediately after you’ve finished it, and once a day or so afterwards. It is especially important to edit and revise your work at least once after you’ve stepped away from it for a little while, as you will often catch mistakes that you would otherwise have missed, or notice bits that could really use some gloss.

You also have to realize that your writing isn’t perfect. If you think that every word is vital, every phrase immaculate, every line-break untouchable, then think again. Yeats kept editing his work until he died, never satisfied that his poems were finished. And I’m sorry to say it, but you ain’t Yeats. Writing is give and take. You have to be able to give in and accept change, and you have to take advice on how to implement change. A good rule of thumb when you’re just starting out is to show a piece of your writing to a dozen or so people, and let them workshop it. Let them mark possible changes, remove words, and mark down their opinions. If the majority of those readers don’t like something, then it doesn’t fit. Period. Even once you’ve started writing regularly, it never hurts to get a reality check now and then by soliciting peoples’ opinions on your work. Fan sites and message boards are great for this, as open forums often garner strong, constructive criticism. Listen to criticism, both positive and negative, and try to glean something useful from it. Change is often good.

Granted, there are always exceptions. There will be times you’ll absolutely, without compromise or question, want to leave something in your work. So be it. First, however, take a step backwards and try to think objectively about the piece. Remember that this is your baby—of course you’ll be defensive, and you won’t want anyone to malign your work. At first, every suggestion is like an insult. In time, though, you’ll get over that. My advice is to leave a piece aside for a few days (or weeks, if it’s creative writing) after reading/hearing suggestions, and then go back and re-read the advice. I think that, more often and not, you’ll begin to realize that the piece could use some change.

Finally, don’t forget about deadlines. Punctuality is a good thing, and if you respect deadlines, you are more likely to endear yourself to your publishers and editors. This means that you can’t leave everything until the last minute. You have to leave enough time to make sure your work is edited and polished before it’s submitted. Once you’re established, you may have a little more leniency (although, even then . . . ), but until that moment, missing a deadline can be the kiss of death.

Enjoy What You Do

 

“I love the language, that soft bastard Latin,

Which melts like kisses from a female mouth.” – Lord Byron

“Ink runs from the corner of my mouth.

There is no happiness like mine,

I have been eating poetry.”

                                                – Mark Strand

The most important part of writing is to remember that, even though it’s work (and hard work, at that), it’s also fun. You should always try to have fun while writing. Remember that the end goal of your writing is to please yourself, and although you are writing for a public audience and trying to impress your publishers, you have to be satisfied with your writing before anyone else can be.

So sit back, absorb, and maybe even re-read what I’ve said. Then get writing! Don’t get disheartened, and don’t be afraid to revise or take advice. Most importantly, don’t give up!

Also known by his screen name Kergillian, Ben Kalman has been involved in the Vs. community since day one. He started the first major player in the online community, the Vs. Listserv, through Yahoo! Groups, and it now boasts well over 1200 members! For more on the Yahoo! group, go to http://groups.yahoo.com/group/Marvel_DC_TCG

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