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Bookin’ It (2019 Edition)

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The reading log continues! The goal this year is 50 books. Let’s do it.

alice

January

  1. Alice Isn’t Dead — Joseph Fink, the creator of the podcast Welcome To Night Vale, conjures up a startling road trip that feels like a fascinating, subtly politicized intersection of The Crying Of Lot 49 and Lovecraft’s works. As protagonist Alice takes on a trucking job to try and track down her missing wife, we sit alongside her in her grief and confusion, slowly realizing that just as Alice is grappling with the loss of this important person the novel itself is dealing with the loss of American values like justice and respect. What’s most surprising here is how Fink slowly works hope, an honest hard-won sense of hope, back into the equation during the last third of the book. All in all, a fantastic yarn and a great novel to start off my new year with. ***1/2
  2. The End Of The Moment We Had — Sometimes I select books from random in book stores, with no research whatsoever done beforehand, no quick searching on a phone. Sometimes because I like the description of the plot on the back or the first paragraph has nice writing. I picked Toshiki Okada’s novella collection The End Of The Moment We Had because it sounded like a nice, breezy little character-driven read. Sometimes this method of selection doesn’t work out, as evident by how quickly I gave up on Okada’s book. I read the first novella, a stream of consciousness story of shifting perspectives that takes place on the eve of the Iraq war and focuses on a torrid affair between a man and a woman at a love hotel. I suspect that the original core text is very engaging. However, as is often the case with translated writing, the English version of Okada’s words are not great. They are dull, derived of passion, and very boring to read. Can’t recommend this one. *1/2
  3. The Alloy Of Law — I typically don’t care for fantasy novels because fantasy writers, by and large, are much better at crafting worlds than they are stories with great characters and engrossing plots. However, Brandon Sanderson is an exception in that regard. He has a talent for creating rich fantasy worlds but making sure the settings stay on the periphery, never losing sight of the fact that characters should drive a story.  The Alloy of Law, the first in a mostly standalone subseries set in the popular Mistborn universe, is great not just because of its fascinating steampunk world where people bend and burn metal to their will to imbue themselves with superpowers but because its leads — Wax, Wayne, and Marsai — are so likable. It’s a great yarn that combines the best of fantasy with the best of westerns and I can’t wait to read the next one. ***1/2
  4. We Have Always Lived In The Castle — Shirly Jackson’s second most famous work (next to “The Lottery”) is a slow burn of a novel. I loved how WHALITC thwarted  attempts to predict every twist or characterization and how subtle it was with its brand of horror. The book has more in common with “The Turn Of The Screw” rather than anything King or Poe have put out. The relationship between the Blackwood family and the town that abhors them slowly transforms into something truly horrific and unpredictable. I absolutely adored this book and will probably tackle The Haunting of Hill House Next (and then maybe the popular Netflix adaptation of it)
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Bookin’ It: Javy’s 2018 Reading Log

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Hi everyone! So I used to be a pretty voracious reader. In the last couple of years, I’ve fallen off that wagon, and I want to get back to the point where I feel like I’m reading a healthy amount of books every year. So I’ve promised myself I’m going to make the effort, no matter what, to complete at least one book a week OR, in the case that it’s a War and Peace-sized tome, read at least 300 pages.

This blog will be a way for me to hold myself accountable and not get distracted from that effort. I’ll also rate each book I read with a four star system and write a little blurb about it. So let’s get to it.

January

  • Alien: The Official Movie Novelization: A fantastic little tie-in that rises above the most of its peers. It’s not better than the movie but it does a good job of fleshing out The Nostromo’s crew by showing us their thoughts and fears. ***
  • Annihilation: VanderMeer’s sci-fi trilogy is getting an adaptation from the guy who wrote 28 Days Later and Ex Machina, two of the most interesting contemporary sci-fi films, so I thought I’d check this one out. The first book, Annihilation follows four women as they journey into a mysterious, quarantined land filled mysterious energy and is more focused on creating a Lovecraftian atmosphere where whatever the catalyst of each character’s dread is somewhere lurking out of sight than crafting an elegant plot. The start is SLOW but the payoff is immense, and I’m eagerly looking forward to reading the other two books and checking out the film adaptation next month. ***
  • Lincoln In The Bardo: George Saunders has long been one of my favorite short story writers and essayists. Dude can write complex, thought-provoking stories with brilliant concepts that also hit hard emotionally. His first novel, Lincoln In The Bardo, is no different. The book takes place after the death of William Lincoln, the president’s son, and follows the ghostly child’s ordeal as he remains in the nearby cemetery because his father refuses to stop visiting the grave. The spirits that take up the cemetery all spend the novel trying to convince him to move on to the afterlife while also dealing with the traumas and sins that have kept them trapped into this limbo. Hilarious, disturbing, and deeply moving, I loved the hell out of this book and will probably reread it again soon. ****
  • For Whom The Bell Tolls: The only novel by Hemingway I hadn’t read yet. It’s a pretty decent (if overlong) yarn about a suicide mission during the Spanish Civil War. The cast of characters is strong, especially the mysterious, unpredictable Pablo and the wise if profane Pilar. Hemingway’s prose is solid as ever, though there are a number of scenes that feel superfluous and more like chapters from his life than things that actually make the story stronger.  The romance at the center of the story is also weak and has way too many chapters dedicated to it. The Sun Also Rises and A Farewell To Arms are stronger novels than this but there are a few truly great sections that combine economical prose with the melodrama of war to create memorable bits, like the often quoted “The world is a fine place and worth fighting for.” ***
  •   Authority:  The second in Vandermeer’s Southern Reach trilogy, Authority is a great combination of Lovecraft’s creeping, unknowable dread and Pynchon’s obsession with entropy as the surreal and paranoid combine to create disturbing yet beautiful passages of prose. Focused on the incoming director of the agency assigned to deal with Area X, a mysterious piece of land filled with inexplicable occurrences and creatures, we watch as John Rodriguez delves into the history of Area X while also mitigating strange office rivalries. As somber as it is bleakly funny, I really enjoyed Authority in how it built upon the foundation of the first novel while also inhabiting an entirely different genre and vibe than the first book. Can’t wait to see how the trilogy wraps up with Acceptance. ****

February

  •   Acceptance: The final chapter in the Southern Reach trilogy is a pretty decent conclusion, appropriately offering answers to established questions while creating countless more questions. Creepy and occasionally moving, the whole trilogy is worth reading, though Acceptance is probably the weakest of them all due to its bouncy perspective-based structure. ***
  •   Roadside Picnic: The basis for both STALKER the film and S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Shadow Of Chernobyl, the video game, I came to Roadside Picnic with high expectations that were not met. The premise of aliens visiting earth and then discarding their trash, and humans becoming obsessed with said trash is interesting, as is the profession of the so-called Stalker as they creep into the mysterious ‘Zone’ to steal artifacts. However, the actual journey of its characters (and the characters themselves) are kind of dull, especially in comparison to the works that Roadside Picnic would eventually inspire. **
  • The Secret History Of Twin Peaks: As someone who only experiences peaks and valleys when it comes to Twin Peaks, TSHOTP is definitely one of the bottom of the barrel bits of the experience for me. A half-novel, half-encyclopedia that feels like fanservice to get people hyped for The Return more than anything, I found the whole tome to be rather dull. I gave it till halfway to get interesting but shortly gave up afterward. *
  • The Crying Of Lot 49: Every year I reread The Crying Of Lot 49. It’s my favorite book of all time because of its enigmatic nature, sympathetic protagonist, and the humor and humility that shines through the writing. A deft balance of playful and tragic, there is no better modern classic in my mind.  ****

March

  • Crime And Punishment (Pevear & Volokhonsky trans.): Crime and Punishment was one of my favorite books in college. I discovered, going back to it, that post-college me does not love it nearly as much. I think part of it might be the translation (I’ve struck out with every single Pevear translation of classics I love so far), and also part of it being I forgot just how much time our boy Dovo spends painting the same picture of Russian society over and over again, ignoring the philosophical meat of Raskolnikov’s story. Still a classic and a fantastic read your first go-round but maybe don’t go back for seconds. ***
  • All The Pieces Matter: The Inside Story Of The Wire: The Wire is my favorite show of all time so this oral history of the production was a no-brainer. Jonathan Abrams does a great job of corralling all of these interviews into a well-structured history of the show that reveals surprising details and trivia, like how John C. Reilly almost ended up being McNulty, and how Method Man acted on the set. A necessary addition for any fan. My only issue, and it’s not really a huge issue all things considered, is that Abrams doesn’t really bother to explain the significance of the show or these trivia bits to non-watchers. Hardcore fans need only to read this book but man, for us Wire fanatics, it’s a fantastic journey through the best television show ever. ****
  •  Rum Punch: I love Elmore Leonard. I also love Jackie Brown and think it’s Tarantino’s best movie by a long shot, so it seemed like a good idea to check out the book it was based on. Guess what: it’s really good! Strong dialogue, great plot, well-written characters. The kind of book that makes me want to go a reading spree and burn through all of the rest of the author’s works real soon. ***

drop

April

  •  The Tattoo Murder Case: A solid, sordid mystery by Akimitsu Takagi that stands out more because of the setting (post-WWII Japan) rather than its characters. Still, some beautiful writing makes this one worth reading even if it’s fairly predictable. ***
  • The Drop: A rare case where the movie is better than the novel it’s based on but this Brooklyn-set crime novel is still strong and terse. The balanced characterization when it comes to presenting protagonist Bob as both a likeable person and someone carrying a dark, disturbing secret is particularly well done. ***

what we talk about when we talk about love

May

  •  What We Talk About When We Love: Raymond Carver was the king of short stories and WWTAWWTAL is the apex of his work. Whether it’s the painful, drunk blurriness of nostalgia in “Why Don’t You Dance?, the quiet, building resentment of “So Much Water So Close To Home” or the subtle balance between despair and love in the title story, Carver was a master at plumbing the mundanity of existence for all its wonder. ****

last wish.jpg

June

  • The Witcher: The Last Wish: I spent 70 hours the past few months diving back into The Witcher III. It’s still one of the great games of all time and I loved exploring that world so much I popped the short story collection that marks the genesis of everyone’s favorite grumpy, yet lovable monster hunter. While there are a number of duds in the collection, both retellings of popular myths and stories (including a particularly interesting remix of Beauty and the Beast) as well as the introduction of characters like Geralt and Yennifer make The Last Wish a good read for fans of the game series or those who want an interesting, gritty fantasy world. ***

tinker 2

July

  • Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy: I loved Tomas Alfredson’s 2011 film about English spies tracking down a mole in their agency during The Cold War. I’d seen the movie three or four times and figured it was high time I got around to reading the book. Spoiler, like the movie, it’s confusing but well-written. Le Carre is as good at stringing together sentences as he is creating perplexing, multi-tiered mysteries. ****
  • The Spy Who Came In From The Cold: An earlier Le Carre novel that shows the man’s talent for strong, lean writing and crafting a plot filled with double-crossing and philosophical debate about the duality of man. Not quite as good as Tinker but close. ***
  • Before Sunrise/Before Sunset Official Screenplay Collection: Nobody, and I mean nobody, does compelling dialogue as well as Linklater does. Before Sunset in particular shows amazing character growth while balancing humor and tragedy all within the short span of 80ish minutes. Reading those words and the minimalist direction is almost as rewarding as watching those amazing movies. ****

Fear and Loathing

August

  • Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas: Hunter S Thompson’s seminal Gonzo work  was a huge discovery for me when I was 17 or so. In the years since, I’ve come to look at this drug-addled odyssey into the The American Dream with a more critical eye, but it still remains a huge influence when it comes to imbuing prose with personality and remains one of my favorite books. ****

September

  •  A Heartbreaking Work Of Staggering Genius: Dave Eggers’ tragicomic cross between memoir and fiction remains a masterpiece since it came out nearly two decades ago and I’m glad I took the opportunity to reread it. ****
  • The Battle Of Brazil:  Jack Matthews’ chronicle of the fight between director (and Monty Python alumni) Terry Gilliam and Universal Pictures over one of the best films to ever grace the silver screen is a fascinating read — if you love the movie.  If you haven’t seen it, wait until you’ve watched Brazil to give this a read. Oh, and go watch Brazil right now! ***
  • Brazil’s Script: It was included with Battle of Brazil and it’s one of my favorite movies. Of course I read it. ****

braz.jpg

October

I traveled A LOT during this month and wrote my first cover story for Game Informer, so I didn’t have that much downtime to read. However, I did make time for the Criterion essays included in the collection I’ve been (re)building over the past year and they’re always great. Standouts: the essays included in Seven Samurai, Brazil, In The Mood For Love, The Princess Bride, The Rules Of The Game, Decalogue, Thief, Rashomon, Repo Man, Before Sunrise Trilogy, The Passion Of Joan Of Arc, Mulholland Drive.

Screen Shot 2018-12-02 at 11.05.20 AM

November

How To Stay Alive In The Wood: Branford Angier’s classic survival guide might be a little outdated in some ways now but the text still offers a fascinating foundational guide to wilderness survival, including explainers on gigging, decontaminating water, hunting animals, building traps, and so on. ***

The Revenant: October was basically Red Dead Redemption II month for me, so in the wake of finishing that, I’ve started reading a fair amount of Westerns I wanted to reread or haven’t made the time for before. The Revenant falls into the second category. It’s a great yarn about revenge that’s occasionally slowed down by questionable attempts at Shakespearian humor. Aside from those weird, stilted play-like segments, Punke’s writing is great and economical. This slight fictionalized version of one man’s true survival story is definitely worth a read. ***1/2

Blood Meridian: What’s there to say about this one that thousands of scholarly papers and accolade-heavy reviews haven’t already? Blood Meridian is not just probably the best Western novel ever written but one of modern literature’s infallible classics. Every time I read it, I find something new to love and be horrified by. ****

Jesse James

December

True Grit: Charles Portis’ strange, delightful novel about a 14-year-old farm girl seeking to avenge her father’s death with the help of mean old US lawman named Rooster Cogburn might just be the funniest Western ever written. Some bits sag toward the middle but on the whole, True Grit is a heck of a read for anyone who wants their funny bone tickled. ***1/2

The Assassination Of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford: The adaptation of Ron Hansen’s novel might just be my favorite Western film I’ve seen. The book’s also pretty damn close to being that good. There are some unnecessary subplots and maybe a few too many pieces obsessed with capturing the nuance of the epoch at the cost of not moving the story ahead. Still, Hansen’s writing is pure poetry, enough so that you don’t mind his detours. His introductory description of Jesse James itself is one of the best pieces of writing from the 80s that I’ve read: He was growing into middle age, and was living then in a bungalow on Woodland Avenue. He installed himself in a rocking chair and smoked a cigar down in the evenings as his wife wiped her pink hands on an apron and reported happily on their two children. His children knew his legs, the sting of his mustache against their cheeks. They didn’t know how their father made his living, or why they so often moved. They didn’t even know their father’s name. He was listed in the city directory as Thomas Howard. And he went everywhere unrecognized and lunched with Kansas City shopkeepers and merchants, calling himself a cattleman or a commodities investor, someone rich and leisured who had the common touch. He had two incompletely healed bullet holes in his chest and another in his thigh. He was missing the nub of his left middle finger and was cautious, lest that mutilation be seen. He also had a condition that was referred to as “granulated eyelids” and it caused him to blink more than usual as if he found creation slightly more than he could accept. Rooms seemed hotter when he was in them. Rains fell straighter. Clocks slowed. Sounds were amplified. He considered himself a Southern loyalist and guerrilla in a Civil War that never ended. He regretted neither his robberies, nor the seventeen murders that he laid claim to. He had seen another summer under in Kansas City, Missouri and on September 5th in the year 1881, he was thirty-four-years-old. Beautiful. ****

A Visit From The Goon Squad: When I was younger, I used to force myself to read all the way through every book that fell into my lap. Even if I didn’t enjoy it. Mostly because time was a triviality then and always thought rich rewards might be ahead at the end. However, I’ve fallen out of the habit of doing so simply because as I’ve grown older, I’ve come to appreciate my free time much more. I made it halfway through A Visit From The Goon Squad. It isn’t bad. I just don’t like short stories parading as novels. There’s something disingenuous and yearning-to-be-en-vogue about it. On a prose level, Egan’s writing is top-notch. She makes her characters swoon and ache and yearn with as much nuance and poetry as anyone else at the top of their game. But I just don’t care enough about these characters to give a damn enough to see how their interconnected stories end. It probably says more about me than the novel that I just don’t have enough interest to devote to sad, washed up music industry executives, has-beens, and wannabes than it does about the book’s craft or the talents of its writers. **1/2

 

Living In The Not Knowing: How To Survive Being a Freelance Writer

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Who are you? 

Hi. My name is Javy Gwaltney. I work for Game Informer as an associate editor. Until recently I was a fulltime freelance writer. I wrote for Playboy, Paste Magazine, Vice, Killscreen, and a few other places about video games (or videogames, depending on which editor I was writing for).

I want to speak with a fair amount of candor about being a freelance writer and maybe offer some tips that might help other freelancers or aspiring freelancers.

What are you trying to sell me?

Nothing. This isn’t a Syd Field type situation. I don’t have a book I want you to buy or anything. There’s a surprising amount of silence on the subject and I think it should be easier to find knowledge and impressions related to being a freelancer. If you like some of my words and want to support what I do, you can check out the stuff I write for Game Informer or talk to me over at my Twitter account (@HurdyIV) but there’s no price attached to any of this outside of the time it takes to read it.

Why should I listen to you?

I don’t really have any flat out, awesome reason for why you should read this stuff. I was a fulltime freelancer for nearly a year. I did well enough to survive and eventually get a cool job. That’s about it. There are undoubtedly people doing this that are better at it than I am but they’re not here writing this, it’s me, so I’m who you’re stuck with.

Okay, well how did you become a full-time freelancer?

I was a teacher for a bit. I had been writing for Paste Magazine for a few months and earning enough to help pay utility bills. I quit my community college gig after a single semester because being a teacher felt more like a pointless struggle against an immutable, awful system governed by apathetic people than a job I could love. I was burned out by the expectation of teachers to survive off some endless inner fountain of pride and enthusiasm instead of a livable wage. Four months into my teaching gig, I started writing for Playboy. In the Spring of 2015, I was making more writing a handful of articles about video games every month than I did breaking my spirit teaching.

In May I took the plunge. I had spent too many late night grading sessions that turned into morning grading sessions without compensation, too many instances where I was expected to drive an hour and a half to attend a meeting about issues that I, as an adjunct, had no power to change anyway. I became a full-time freelancer. I treated it like a real job. I pitched publications everyday. I worked my accepted pitches in a frenzy, trying to turn each one in as quickly as possible so I could get to the next to one. I guzzled my weight in coffee as I powered through 70 hour games in four days and then spent another four hours writing the reviews for them; I churned out lists, I took simple thoughts and expanded them into full-length essays. I pestered PR people and developers for interviews.

I was good at it. Not the best, but I was good enough to survive.

Tales From The Borderlands

Tales From The Borderlands: A game I’ve written about before.

You sure do like to talk about yourself, huh?

Okay, fair, but look, lesson one: you’re never just selling your writing, ok? You’re selling your persona, so you have to be able to talk about yourself. Sites that accept freelance pitches often get countless pitches every single day. The act of selling your writing is just as important as actually being able to write competently.

I built an audience over a couple of years by using social media not just as a link depository but by actually engaging with folks who took time out of their day to read my stuff. People recognize my byline. Not a million of them or anything, but enough so that a piece will always get a good number of clicks if my name is attached to it. Editors know that. Certain names get more views, more interactions from the audience, and so they might be more inclined to accept pitches from those writers.

Is that the way things should be? Shouldn’t great writing by itself be enough to be published? Sure. I want to believe that. But that’s not the world we live in. You could be the next James Joyce or Zadie Smith, but if you can’t sell both you and your work, you’ve already lost as a freelancer. That’s just how it is.

(Also, I’m sorry if I sound like I’m bragging at any point in here. I don’t like sounding boastful, but I’d rather be plain and straightforward about what I’ve done instead of wasting time and words apologizing for unintended humblebrags every other sentence.)

Okay, well how do you get your pitches accepted?

Luck, repetition, and stubbornness. Not necessarily in that order. The most important tool in a freelance writer’s arsenal right now is Twitter. That’ll probably change in a few years but for right now, if you’re starting out, you need to get on Twitter and you need to follow the section editors for your favorite sites that you know take pitches. If you’re curious: a lot of publications explicitly state somewhere near the About page whether or not they take pitches. The ones that don’t, you can email an editor at the site and, in my experience, you’ll find out pretty quickly if they accept pitches.

Follow those editors. Pay attention to what they’re tweeting. Sometimes they put out calls for specific pitches. A buddy of mine got a gig over at a quality gaming website because he saw a reviews editor tweet that he needed someone familiar with wrestling experience to review a wrestling game. He got back to that editor. He became a contributor just like that. I started working for Playboy’s gaming section because the editor over at that section put out a call for pitches and I happened to see it. That job would go on to help pay my rent for nearly a year.

Wolfenstein

Wolfenstein: The New Order. Another game I’ve written about.

Editors also often tweet about what sort of writing annoys them or what pieces on their site they really dig when they’re promoting them. All of that is valuable information that can help you learn what to do and what not to do when you’re pitching these people. Sound a little creepy, quasi-stalkerish? Trust me, the majority of those editors know that’s the game anyway and probably don’t mind that you’re doing it if it leads to pitches and articles they can actually use to bring in traffic to their site.

Which is actually another good point.

?

Pitch useful shit when you’re starting out. Hey, that gargantuan post-modernist essay you have on Battletoads is probably good and fine and worth reading but precious few editors are going to see that sort of thing in their inbox from a stranger and want to publish it right out. Editors need lists. They need reviews. They need people who can write them pieces that are insightful, often concise, and not overbearingly obnoxious (slightly obnoxious is fine though! It’s stylish!). Save the experimental or heavier stuff for later, when you have a relationship with the editors of those publications and readers are familiar with your name.

One of the best things I’ve ever written, a piece on disability representation in games, was something I’d kicked around for over a year, to every outlet under the sun and no publication wanted it until Paste took it. I had been working with them for half a year when they accepted and published it.

That’s sounds like a lot of rejection.

Rejection is part of a freelancer’s diet. Anyone who can’t stomach that won’t make it. I was rejected at least 40 times from various outlets before I got my first yes from The Escapist back in 2013. My rejection rate went down after that but it’s always been pretty high because I fired off a lot of pitches, probably 30 or 40 a week.

In the beginning, rejection is rough. But you get used to it. You see it hit your inbox, a “sorry, I can’t use this” or a “gotta pass on this” or maybe you never even get a reply. Just deafening silence, which is fine. No one owes you anything. Bitter pill, that, but it’s best to swallow it as soon as possible and just keep on pitching.

Never. Stop. Pitching. Your livelihood depends on it.

Zork

ZORKKKKKKKKKKK

Yikes! Are there any tips that might help not get rejected so much?

Sure. Pitching is more of an art than a science, but there are general tips that’ll probably improve your chances. The best thing you can do is read Alan Williamson’s guide to pitching, “The Art of Pitching”, learn it by heart, ands put Williamson’s tips into practice.

It’s just as essential to surviving freelancing as the ever-motivating awareness of how screwed you are if you don’t get your ducks in a row.

Pardon?

Being a full-time freelance writer is not a job I can in good conscience recommend to anyone. The only reason I was one was because it was the only decent paying job I could do in the town I was living in. It’s a ridiculously stressful gig, one where I lived 30 days at a time wondering if I would write enough pieces to be able to make rent and if I did whether or not the publications I was writing for would be able to get those checks to me in enough time. Thankfully they always did, but I’ve heard horror stories about other publications that flat out didn’t pay freelancers and didn’t bother trying to fix the situation even after they were notified the writer hadn’t received payment.

Like I said: stressful.

So are there…are there any perks to being a freelancer?

Sure. There’s a thrill to pitching a piece to a publication and then getting paid to write for them. One of the coolest moments of my life was watching the column on text adventures I pitched go up on Playboy. It was surreal but also something I was super proud of. I’m really happy I got to contribute to Paste Magazine’s brilliant gaming section.

I also got a cool full-time writing job thanks to my freelance work eventually, so that’s nice.

So what else can you tell me?

Yeah, might be best to scattershot the rest of this. Let’s see:

1.   Other freelancers are your friends

While it might be tempting to view other freelance writers in your niche as competition, I’ve found the network of freelancers I’ve worked with to actually be incredibly helpful. We bounce ideas off one another, share what sites are accepting pitches and for what prices, talk about what publications might be good for what pieces. So reach out to freelancers when you’re getting started out even if you’re shy. It benefits you in the long run.

2. If you’re writing about games, don’t write for just gaming sites.

Lots of games writing freelancers do this thing where they pitch only gaming sites (IGN, Gamespot, whatever). Spread out. There are non-gaming publications dipping their toes into the pool of gaming content everyday just to see if it affects their traffic substantially. The places I wrote were for most of the time were actually general interest sites with established gaming sections: Playboy, Paste, Vice.

3. Write outside your comfort zone.

Related to the last point: it’s also a good idea to try and write about more than games (or whatever you write about primarily). What are you interested in? Movies? Music? Furniture? Cheese? Write about that stuff too. Be flexible. If you can do it well, there’s likely some money in it.

4. Don’t write for free (unless you really really really really really want to)

Okay, this is more of a “do as I say not as I do” statement, as it is for the majority of people who give you this advice. I’ve written for free. I’ve regretted it. The caveat here is that you should definitely write for free if it’s on your own blog or if you really, really want to write for a site that’s not being grossly exploitative.However, there are countless sites out there that thrive on promising exposure and review codes as compensation for your writing, sites that  generate plentiful ad revenue off your work. Don’t write for them. HOWEVER: that’s not to say there aren’t sites out there with mentors who can help you become better writers in the beginning. I got my start writing community posts at Bitmob (now GamesBeat) and the editors there were instrumental in helping shape my writing. Just use your best judgement.

KRZ

Kentucky Route Zero. My favorite piece I’ve ever written was about this game.

5. Know when to say no.

Eventually after you’ve been writing for publications for a bit you’ll likely build a relationship with editors and they might start sending you assignments or asking if you’re interested in doing a feature or a review. While it might be tempting to take on every single task thrown your way, it’s better to know your limits and what’s worth your time. For example: near the end of my time as a freelancer I was asked to review a role-playing game. The pay was less than $50 to play through and write words about a game that would take 50 hours minimum to beat. That’s less than a dollar an hour once you’ve finished writing the review as well as 50 hours out of your month that you could use on a plethora of other assignments just gone. Don’t be afraid to tell editors no either. They get it. If they like your work enough, they’ll swing back around to you with another assignment in time.

6. Avoid creating drama.

Let’s say an editor or site makes you mad. You want to tweet about it. Write a Facebook thing. Whatever. Often the best thing you can do is swallow your pride and move past it. It’s a shitty thing but going on a rant on Twitter about a site’s editor can affect your freelancing opportunities. To me, that’s sort of infuriating since I think people should be able to speak plainly in public about what bothers them, but again, that’s not the world we live in. So if you’re ever mad, like truly mad, just consider if it’s worth damaging your career to say whatever you want to say.

7. Getting a full-time writing gig.

I sent out a call for questions while I was writing this post and the question I got the most was “How to get a full-time writing position at a publication?” And I know you’re gonna hate hearing this but the truth is that I don’t know. I saw the Game Informer position. I applied for it. I sent in samples. I interviewed. I got the job. That’s about it.

There are a lot of variables with these sorts of things and I can’t really offer you a detailed plan that leads to a full-time position. Just keep writing and applying for jobs is the best bit of advice I can give you for this. Don’t think about the rejection emails you get for applications or pitches, just keep on keeping on. Maybe it’ll lead somewhere.

8. Listen to other points of view.

This is important. sometimes you’re gonna write stuff that people don’t like. And they’re gonna let you know they don’t like it. And you should listen to those people. You don’t have to agree with them but you should hear them out, especially if your knee-jerk reaction is that whatever they’re saying is wrong. Learning from other perspectives can help improve your writing, so don’t be dismissive.

Apotheon

Apotheon

9. Always be reading.

This goes for more than just whatever writerly niche you occupy. You a games writer? Read more than games writing. Read novels, read criticism about movies, sports, music, everything. See how it transforms your own writing. You’ll be surprised, trust me.

10. Listen to your editors.

Editors are great. Usually they’re the ones accepting your pitches and helping turn drafts into articles they can use on their sites. They’re also often the person who decides if you get more work with that outlet. Now this doesn’t mean you should bow down and keep quiet about every change you disagree with, but make sure the battles you’re fighting with them are worth the time and aren’t bullshit about flowery words you want to keep in that don’t fit with the site’s ethos. Be respectful with your disagreements. Understand that they’re often trying to get the best out of your piece while also making it fit the publication’s tone. Chances are they know how to make that happen better than you do.

Update: Game critic Stephen Beirne (you can check out his work here and here) had a great counterpoint about this bit I felt was worth sharing:

“The point that you as a writer should avoid causing fuss with an editor over seemingly mild choice of words is a little troublesome. From the perspective of a freelancer giving it looking for advice on how to enjoy a smooth experience with editors, it’s correct. However, because so much of games press is stacked in representation to NA audiences, what it ends up meaning is this: There is a particular set of dialects that are viewed as acceptable for the readerships of the majority of mags and this benefits North American writers most of all while hindering dialects from other parts of the world. Editors want your language to veer towards this standard acceptable form & fight to eradicate what they see as linguistic oddities.  The more a writer sounds like an American the more likely they are to be published.

This is in sharp contrast to the principle that writers have to find their voice & let their writing convey their personality. So anyway what ends up happening is 1) outside dialects are marked as unintelligent 2) writers w/ those dialects are demeaned during editing the standard perpetuates because you don’t want to have to convince your editors that you’re not an idiot & xyz is for linguistic reasons. What this all come down to is it would be nice to not be put in a position where linguistics cause waves in the editing process but more editors need to be conscious of the political nature of language, & should make an effort to accommodate foreign dialects. If things are this bad for hiberno english just think of how much worse it is for non-english primary language speakers.”

11. Read and follow the works of others.

Read an article you like? Be sure to follow the author on Twitter. Talk with them about the piece. Share it with your followers. Read and support good writing. It benefits you, the author, and avid readers following you.

12. Always have a backup plan for bills.

Pets get sick. You get a parking ticket. Bills happen. You need to have some source of money to help you out with that stuff whether it’s cash saved or part time job or help from relatives. Just be prepared for the inevitable unexpected expense. It happens.

That’s about it, really. Well actually, no, it’s not. There are tons more but I’ve already put nearly 3,000 words down and a lot of this is just stuff you have to learn as you go, picking yourself up after each and every stumble. It’s a scary thing, for sure, being in free fall with no career ground beneath to prop you up when you screw up. Luckily you’re not alone. There are other experienced freelancers out and about, hustling everyday, filling the inboxes of poor editors with pitch after pitch after pitch. They’ll help you along because they’ve been there before. They know what it means to have that helping hand when you’re starting out.

If you ever have a question, you can just reach out to me and I’ll try my best to answer it. Best of luck and may you never run out of ideas.

Distress: A New Game

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Hey! I’m making a new game with some other folks called Distress. It’s been successfully funded on Kickstarter but there’s still time to pledge so you can get a copy for a discount and some other goodies. You can pledge with the Kickstarter page here or if you’d like to use Paypal, there are Paypal links at the bottom of this page for each tier.

–Javy

About this project

A fading distress signal from a space station that’s gone silent. A metropolis filled with dark secrets, death lurking in every alleyway. Welcome to Nova 8. Step into the boots of Demetria Barton, one of the galaxy’s greatest bounty hunters, and lead her team to a mysterious city in search of answers and riches.

Distress is a branching visual novel inspired by the likes of Silent Hill, Snatcher, and Mass Effect. Trapped in a city filled with deadly creatures and a ruthless militarized task force controlled by a shadowy administrator, you’ll have to use your wits and make tough decisions in order to survive. You’re responsible not just for your own life, but the lives of your crew as well. Make your choices. Live with the consequences. Good luck.

Press

A piece by Offworld featuring Distress.

An Interview with Gameskinny about Distress.

A podcast interview with Indiehaven about Distress.

Features

  •  A 3 hour adventure with branching paths and 30 endings. Distress will be designed so that each playthrough will be radically different from any other.
  •  Difficult decisions that will alter the game’s path. Will you augment yourself in order to enhance your cybernetic abilities at the cost of shortening your lifespan? Sacrifice your medic to save your pilot? Prepare to be held accountable for your choices.
  •  Gorgeously illustrated artwork and cutscenes.
  • An eerie, electric soundtrack.

Meet The Crew

Demetria Barton (AKA You) is a war veteran and the captain of the Swiftsure.   Demetria and her crew take on only the strangest, most unusual cases: haywire androids, artifacts of mysterious origins, and everyone’s favorite failed science experiments. Nova 8 will be the most dangerous and challenging adventure she’s undertaken yet, but her physical ferocity and keen survivor’s instinct just might keep her and the rest of her crew alive.

Barkley Pearce isn’t your usual big lug. Sure, he can beat a man to death with his pinky, but he’s more likely to crush you in a game of chess. His tactical mind has made him a worthy second-in-command for The Swiftsure.

Nyles Guerra is a tech genius with a penchant for mystery novels (unless you want an hour long lecture on genre conventions don’t ask him what he thinks of P.T. Bartworth’s The Squids of Saturn). When he isn’t fixing up the crew’s weaponry or reading a novel, he can be found listening to the People’s Federation Radio in his bunk.

Sara Voxley makes a mean stir fry. Oh, and she can stick your lungs back into you when they fall out. A sassy multilinguist foodie who’s as capable of a gunslinger as she is a surgeon, Sara isn’t someone you want to be on the bad side of.

Jim Finn is a hick and proud of it, darn it. The pilot of the Swiftsure, Jim has gotten Demetria and her crew out of many a tight spot. Not much use with a weapon, but man, he sure can strum a sitar with the best of them. Whatever you do just don’t touch his craft beer without his permission.

 About Us

Light Machine is comprised of three people:

Javy Gwaltney has written and designed several interactive fiction games including The Terror Aboard The Speedwell, which received high praise from Polygon and The New York Times. He also helped create You Were Made For Loneliness and The Right Side of Town. When he isn’t playing games with the cat napping in his lap, he’s writing about them for Playboy, Paste, Vice, Unwinnable, and other publications.

Ian Laser Higginbotham is an illustrator, animator, and comic maker. His past works include illustrations for companies like Vimeo, animations for companies like College Humor and comics for himself! In 2011 he won a gold medal from the Society of Illustrators. He loves dogs and video games. You can find his work here.

Erandi Huipe is a musician who has composed for various game projects such as Cavern,Arial Society and The Right Side of Town. He is fond of synths, drum breaks, and air conditioning.

Pledge with PayPal

Distress Tier ($9)

Gets you a digital PC/Mac copy of the game upon release.

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Soundtrack Tier ($15)

You’ll receive the soundtrack for the full game as well as previous tier rewards.

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Podcast Tier ($20)

Pledge this much and you’ll receive all previous rewards plus access to an archive of bimonthly developer podcasts where one of the team members talks about the progress they’re making in developing Distress.

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Art Book Tier ($25)

A digital artbook featuring sketches, illustrations, and commentary from the team.

You’ll receive all previous tier rewards as well.

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Short Story Tier ($50)

Pledge this much and Javy will write a short story about you. You’ll also receive previous tier rewards as well.

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Sketch Tier ($75)

Pledge this much and Ian will draw a sketch of you. You’ll also receive previous tier rewards as well.

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Design A Monster Tier ($200)

We’ll work with you to design a monster to be featured into the game. You will be co-credited with its creation.
You’ll also receive all previous tier rewards.

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Be In The Game Tier ($500)

We will use your likeness in the game for a character! You’ll be in our game! You’ll also receive all previous tier rewards.

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Grand Theft Auto IV and the Whims of Lady Luck

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I wrote this for Bitmob a few years back. Reposting it here because it’s one of the stronger pieces I wrote on that site. –Javy

[The following contains spoilers for Grand Theft Auto IV and its two DLC packs]

Back in 2008, acclaimed author Junot Diaz (Drown, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao) wrote a piece about Grand Theft Auto IV entitled “’Grand,’ but No ‘Godfather.’” In it, he described GTA IV as:

 … an example of our evasions as a culture, more of a fairy tale, more of a story of consolation than a shattering cultural critique or even, dare I say it, great art. GTA IV is a game that allows you to forget how screwed-up and complicated things are in the real world; it could have done more, it could have put that screwed-up complicated world front and center.

I’m not sure that I completely disagree with Diaz, but I am curious to know how (or if) his opinion would have changed if he had ventured to play the game’s two DLC add-ons, The Lost and the Damned and The Ballad of Gay Tony.

I recently completed a second playthrough of the full game and the two add-ons, and I have to admit that my first time through GTA IV left a bittersweet taste in my mouth. The narrative concept of this particular entry was grand, but the game was just too damn long and its story sagged in places (Manny Escuela, anyone?). However, playing the DLC and the main quest at the same time made the narrative a much more cohesive and interesting experience. What emerged was a shared and rather grim tale about chance.

It’s clear to me that, although GTA IV can certainly be played by itself, all three of these campaigns are needed in order to experience the full story. Much like Robert Altman’s Short Cuts, they are all separate stories that happen to occasionally intertwine. Each protagonist has his own narrative and set of issues he’s dealing with: Niko futilely attempts to both escape and confront the demons of his past while tackling the seedy side of the American Dream, Johnny Klebitz tries to keep his biker gang (the Lost) together after their insane former president returns and leads them into a senseless gangwar, while Luis Lopez struggles to help his boss pay back his creditors by doing violent and outrageous favors for them.

The ending of GTA IV’s main story presents Niko with a choice: pursue revenge against someone who has caused him only misery throughout the events of the game, or make a deal to absolve the man of his crimes and rake in tons of cash. Unfortunately, neither choice has positive consequences for Niko. If you choose revenge, Niko’s innocent girlfriend dies, and if you choose to make a deal with the bastard who has consistently screwed you over again and again will only result in — get this — him betraying you once more … and your cousin’s death. In the grand scheme of things neither choice matters that much. Somebody that Niko loves will die, and all the money he has accumulated means nothing.

This is not poor game design. You are presented with choices throughout GTA IV, but you’re never told that they’ll have that much of an impact. Kill Playbox X or Dwayne. Does it matter who? You might get a little reward for killing one of them, but the endgame doesn’t change one iota. This is because choice does not reign supreme, chance does.

The DLC cements this theme. In The Lost and the Damned, Johnny spends the first half of the game loyally (but not unquestioningly) serving Billy Grey, the club’s president, and he is rewarded with suicide missions, rampant paranoia, and, eventually, Grey’s betrayal when he decides to go state’s witness. In a fantastic sequence, the remaining members of the Lost storm the prison holding Grey and kill everyone inside, but this doesn’t change the fact that the gang is done. The campaign ends with the remaining members of the Lost burning their clubhouse to the ground as they watch solemnly. Roll credits.

And to think that all of this could have been avoided if Johnny had been enough of a scumbag to usurp Billy and put a bullet into his head at the beginning of the game.

Contrast this ending with the one for The Ballad of Gay Tony, where Luis is actually rewarded for his loyalty to Tony. He kills the antagonist and all of Tony’s creditors are either paid back or dead. Not only that, but there’s a hint that Yusuf Amir, the son of a billionaire, will work with Tony and Luis to open a chain of Tony’s clubs around the world. Then there’s an earlier sequence where a homeless man gets accidentally pushed by Luis and discovers the diamonds that all the protagonists of these stories have been chasing.

I won’t disagree with Diaz’s notion that GTA IV isn’t “great art,” but I think a game that leaves everything up to chance like this is hardly a “story of consolation” or a “fairy tale.” Bad shit happens to good people (Kate and Roman), and sometimes the characters who don’t deserve a break get one (like Luis and Tony). Chaos is not consolation, and if anything, this expanded narrative for GTA IV is one that flaunts just how unfair and dismal the world can be to its inhabitants.

Grand Theft Auto IV may not, as Diaz charges, put a “screwed-up complicated world front and center” in the way that something like Spec Ops: The Line does, but it’s still a pretty sound narrative that shines most of the time and leaves me tittering in anticipation of the next Grand Theft Auto.

Evils Yet Unknown: Correspondence From The City

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A while ago I pitched a story about taxi riding in Grand Theft Auto V to various publications. The idea was simple. I would sit in a taxi in the game for a couple of nights, maybe a week, and I would write about what I saw. Just to see what happened. I called it a digital tourism piece because it sounded fancy and I thought I was being clever. Nobody bit, so I filed the pitch away.

The idea kept coming back to me though. I couldn’t stop thinking about it. I wanted to do something with the concept. So, my greedy heart be damned, I decided to write the piece for free. Something happened though. I guess you’d call it lycanthropy. My games criticism piece changed, slowly but surely, into some kind of weird, delirious fiction. I wrote it in great hunger and sorrow. I wrote it drunk and sober. I carried it with me for three weeks, thinking about it non-stop. We ran together beneath a full moon. I loved and loathed it and now that it’s done I can finally stick it on the internet and kill it with a silver bullet for good.

Enjoy it. Loathe it. Do what you do. You can download a PDF version or an E-pub version here for free/PWYW.

New Game: The Right Side of Town

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I am releasing a new game. It’s one that I made in collaboration with Kitty Horrorshow,  Erandi Huipe, and Matthew Schanuel. It’s called The Right Side of Town and it’s set in the same universe as The Terror Aboard The Speedwell and You Were Made for Loneliness:

Welcome to the future. The remnants of humanity, in the aftermath of a cataclysmic event known only as The Fall, have fled a dying homeworld to seek refuge among the colonies of the solar system. Five hundred years later, on a decaying city orbiting Mars, an android lives in secret, passing as a human detective. When a man winds up dead in the richest district in the city, the detective and her partner find themselves taking a case where any choice could have dire consequences for humanity.

Features

  • 40K branching sci-fi story with 6 endings featuring the heroine from You Were Made for Loneliness.
  • No middle ground, no easy decisions. Make your choices and live with the consequences.
  • Included with every purchase of The Right Side of Town: Erandi Huipe’s soundtrack, a selection of Matt Schanuel’s illustrations for the game, and a collection of poems Kitty Horrorshow wrote for the game.

You can buy the game here.

Disability And Gaming Resource List

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Disabilities and games, whether it’s about characters with disabilities in games or people with disabilities playing games, is a subject I’ve been interested in for several years now. Online written work is a bit difficult to find, so I thought I’d throw together a resource list to make it easier for people to find this sort of writing. I’ll check back every couple of weeks or so and update this periodically. –Javy

Writing on Disability and Gaming

“Listen Up: Taking the ‘Video’ out of  ‘Video Game'” –Christina Couch

“Ability, Disability and Dead Space” — Diane Carr

“What It’s Like to Play Games When You’re Colorblind” — Cameron Gidari

“Every Last Bottle Cap: How My OCD Turned Collectibles From Distraction to Obsession.” — Holly Green

“How The Kinect Saved My Health, And Why I Don’t Want To See It Go Away” — Holly Green

“Day In The Life: Disability and Representation” — Javy Gwaltney

“Disability, Diversity, and Evolution in Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare” — Javy Gwaltney

” Reimagining Disability in Role-Playing Games” — Elsa. S. Henry

“If It Were Any Other Jam, It Would be Illegal: Founders of Accessibility Jam on Disabilities in Gaming” — Courtney Holmes

“Film Victoria Update: a Game Accessibility Success Story” — IGDA

“For Disabled, Video Games Can Be Lifesaver” –Kristin Kalning

“A Look Into Developing Injustice’s Accessibility Mode” –Robert Kingett

“The Struggles and Benefits of Being a Color Blind Gamer” — Bill Lavoy

“Making Magic Happen” — Steve Lubitz

“A Look at Characters With Disabilities” — Brett McCabe

“Red vs. Green: Gaming With Color Blindness” — Kirk McKeand

” The Sense and Nonsense of Haptic Technology in Games” — Jan Jacob Mekes

“How Video Games and Kinect Change The Lives of Disabled People” –Microsoft

“Making Video Games Accessible: Business Justifications and Design Considerations” –Microsoft

“Your Body Isn’t Your World: The Hero of Mad Max and Disability.” — Tauriq Moosa

“Access For All: Meet The Organisations and Developers Supporting Disabled Players” — Richard Moss

“Audio-only game Grail to the Thief Puts a Blind-accessible Spin on Old-school Adventures” — Richard Moss

“Blind Games: The Next Battleground in Accessibility” — Richard Moss

“Haptic Technology: The Next Frontier in Video Games, Wearables, Virtual Reality, and Mobile Electronics” — Richard Moss

“The Healing Power of Video Games” –Richard Moss

“Why Gaming Accessibility Matters” –Richard Moss

“Blind Gamers Are Embracing Developers Who Have an Eye For Accessibility.” — Shaun Musgrave

“Includification: Bringing Video Games to Players With Disabilities” — Kyle Orland

“Different Bodies and Deus Ex: Making Disability The Enemy” –Joe Parlock

“Disability in Gaming: The Problem of Representation” — Joe Parlock

“How Pokemon is a Great Metaphor for Chronic Pain.” –Joe Parlock

“Life is Strange’s Worrying Approach to Disability.” –Joe Parlock

“Us Explains Chronic Fatigue in a Way Spoons Never Could.” –Joe Parlock

“What It’s Like Gaming With Chronic Pain, And Why I Fear The Future” –Joe Parlock

“Writing Characters, Not Symptoms: A Gamer With Autism Discusses What Our Hobby Gets Wrong” –Joe Parlock

“Why I Cried at Fallout 3’s Quest About Disability” — Joe Parlock

“I’m A Disabled Gamer And This Is My Story” –Nicky Regos

“The Unwilling Hardcore: How Video Games Helped Me Battle My OCD” –Christos Reid

Gamers With Disabilities Battle Indifferent Industry” –Jason Schreier

“Beyond Eyes is Held Back by Only Setting Its Sights on The Sighted.” –Carly Smith

“Making Video Games Accessible foe People With Disabilities” –Steve Spohn

“Game Accessibility: What It is And Why It Matters” — Joshua Straub

“One-Button Bayonetta: Disabled Gamers Fight for Inclusion” –Daniel Starkey

“Games Have Basic, Huge Accessibility Problems (That We Celebrate)” — Daniel Starkey

“How L.A. Noire Created The Illusion of an Autistic Protagonist” –Jake Tucker

TimeSplitters: Future Perfect Is The Game That Helped Me Survive College.” –Jake Tucker

“Blind Player competes at Evolution, says, ‘If you’re playing me…don’t hold back'” –Ryan Tullis

“Disabled Gamers: Part of your World” — Jordan Erica Webber

“How Octodad Works as an Analogy for Invisible Illness” — Nina White (writing as Ashton Raze)

“Interview – Elaine Biddis on Videogames, Assistive Devices & Accessibility” — Steve Wilcox/ Elaine Biddis

Writing Characters Unlike Me” — Carolyn VanEseltine

Game Changers(purchase required) — Alan Williamson

“A Glimpse Into The Lives of Disabled Gamers” — Kyle Wolmarans

“A Deaf Gamer’s Destiny” — ?

Web Sites

AbleGamers AudioGames

D.A.G.E.R.S.

Ergohacks

Game Accessibility

Game Accessibility Guidelines Game Critics (has a deaf & hard of hearing  info section for all their reviews)

Gamerrazzi

Includification

International Games Developers Association: Game Accessibility  Special Interest Group

Special Effect 

Videojuegos Accesibles