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+1 to Writing: A Conversation with Jennifer Brozek

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What does the path to becoming an RPG freelancer look like? How does that path differ if you want to write tie-in stories for your favorite IP, or if you have an idea for an original story? What does it actually take to go professional in the business, and what are the writing habits and creative mindsets you need to cultivate along the way?

+1 to Writing is an ongoing series of interviews with writers at different stages in their writing career, from veterans wordsmiths to emerging authors. It looks at the RPG, tie-in media, and sci-fi and fantasy fiction industries in particular, and what those authors did to break in and keep growing their professional writing business. By the end of the interview, we hope readers feel like they’ve got a “+1 bonus” to continue their own writer’s journey–like a small Guidance spell from popular roleplaying games. Then, readers can experiment with their own writing and editing process to find what works for them.

In the very first entry in this series, I caught up with author, editor, and tie-in writer Jennifer Brozek after her appearance at Norwescon last weekend to ask her a bit about her journey as a writer and what advice she has for people looking to get into the RPG industry. If you haven’t had the chance to read any of her work before, you’re missing out! Her works have twice been nominated for the Bram Stoker award, and she’s won the Scribe Award for best tie-in Young Adult novel for BattleTech: The Nellus Academy Incident. She’s also an active member of SFWA (Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America), HWA (Horror Writers Association), and IAMTW (International Association of Media Tie-In Writers).

Her latest book, which I had the pleasure of editing—To Fight the Black Wind—debuts today! The story revolves around psychologist Carolyn Fern from the Arkham Horror Files series of games, whose most recent case is to cure the Ruggles family heiress of nightmares that seem to leave her bloody and wounded. As Carolyn delves into the possibility that the wounds are not self-inflicted, the two women are drawn into the Dreamlands and an even deeper mystery. But can they outrun—or outwit—the Black Wind and its horrific agents? Of course, while in the Dreamlands, the Cats of Ulthar can make for powerful, if petit, allies.

You can pick up the hardcover novella from your FLGS today, or download the ebook from Amazon or DriveThruRPG.

Katrina: Thank you so much for taking the time to chat, Jennifer! I wanted to begin by asking you a little bit about your history with writing: How did you start, and why? What does writing mean to you?

Jennifer: I’m not someone who has always written. Somewhere in my late twenties I began to write character stories and discovered I liked writing. Really liked it. I started professionally publishing by writing RPG reviews of Black Gate Magazine. From there, I was hired to contribute to Dragonlance sourcebooks for Margaret Weis’ Sovereign Stone company by Sean Everette, and my career was off and running.

As I continued, I wrote both games and original fiction. I discovered I had a lot to say in stories. Writing has become my life. I am a storyteller, a bard, a wordslinger, and wordsmith. I enjoy outlining, writing, revising, and editing. I’ve seen the publishing world from author, slush reader, editor, and publisher roles. Each job has informed the rest. All of it has made me a better author and it is a job I’m not willing to give up.

Katrina: That’s fantastic that you’re able to hop between so many roles! I hear from a lot of writers who struggle with revision, or from editors who are challenged when faced with unleashing their creativity. But in addition to being an author, you’re also an editor of anthologies such as Grants Pass, Human for a Day, and Shattered Shields. How does one role feed into to the other, or do you see them as distinct?

Jennifer: I’ve been doing this long enough that I’ve compartmentalized the two jobs. They are two distinct modes for me. When I am editing, I have a completely different mindset. Especially when editing other authors. You need to keep your own authorial voice out of another person’s story and let their voice shine through. When I am writing, I try to keep the editor side quiet. I don’t need the critic looking over my shoulder as I draft. But I do need to channel the critic when I’m in revision or edit mode.

I will say that editing others has made me a better writer and writing has made me a more understanding editor.

Katrina: So after you’ve quieted the inner editor, what does your process look like as you begin writing? How do you brainstorm, research, and outline?

Jennifer: When it comes to tie-in fiction, it starts with an idea and a pitch. For short stories, after the pitch is accepted, I immerse myself in the IP’s universe for a bit before I write. If it is a novella or a novel, I usually am required to submit a full outline and/or synopsis before I write. This step can be extremely detailed as the particular editors and line developers make certain you will write a story that suits their world.

If it is original fiction, especially a novel or novel series, I tend to think about them for a long time, even 1–2 years before I write them. Sometimes this is because I’m writing other things. Other times, this is because the idea is big enough I need to really think about it first. Then, I outline. I usually start with a “what if” idea and built the story from there. In one case, I commissioned a map first because the location itself was so important to the story, I needed to see it before I started writing.

In either case, I have an idea, then I decide an act structure (three or five), then I outline. I must outline, but I am not extensive in this process: bullet points for each act, and bullet points for each scene in each act. In general, each scene bullet point is a chapter, and I tend to write two to three thousand words per chapter.

When the draft zero is done, I sit back and look at what I have. I look for plot holes, weird pacing, and dangling subplots. I’m an adder. I go back and layer in details, foreshadowing, more action, and such like that. THEN I get to work on fixing it for draft one.

Katrina: “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure” then, huh? It sounds like it definitely beats having to rip up entire chapters’ worth after you’ve written them, especially when you’re freelancing and are getting paid per word! Once you’ve got your outline figured out, what does a typical day look like when you draft the manuscript? How about when you revise, or do you do a little of both each day?

Jennifer: On a day when I’m drafting, I tend to edit the last three paragraphs I wrote (but no more). By the time I’m into writing, I’ve reset my tone and thought process to where I left off. I try to write fast, getting through all of the mini-scenes I’d plotted for myself that day. I plan these mini-scenes out the night before so I can think about them all night. While I’m writing, I remember the phrase, “I can fix this in post.” If I run into a problem such as not having blocked out a fight scene, I will say, [Fight here between X and Y. Y wins. X dies.] I will color code it in red for the next draft.

After the first draft, I sit and read it from beginning to end. I want to hold the whole story in my head at once. I make notes on the manuscript and in a notebook on what needs to be added or subtracted or changed. Then I start again, polishing, editing, and revising. I like to do this with a top-down approach, although I can move scenes around as needed.

I do not revise a work I am drafting. If I do drafting and revising work in the same day, it is on two different projects. I draft in the morning and edit in the afternoon.

Katrina: That way, you can compartmentalize the creative versus the critic? That makes sense. So what does the critic look for in particular? What do you feel like you still struggle with as a writer, or what is the most challenging thing for you to do?

Jennifer: The more I write, the more I realize what I don’t know how to do. Writing is one of those skills you get better at the more you do it. I know I struggle with fight scenes, especially technical ones. I will block them out and write them, but they tend to come out like grocery lists. Thus, I will often send them to someone I know who excels in fight scenes and ask for help—for an edit or a rewrite. I’ve learned there is no shame in asking for help. For my BattleTech books, I have a BattleTech Think Tank who help me with the ’Mech fights and help me with particular details of the IP. When I write for something with a rabid fandom, I know I want to get the details correct. Details matter. Subject experts are gold to an author.

Katrina: Given how many hats you wear and how many works you have under your belt, do you have a preferred length of story or genre to write in? What is it and why?

Jennifer: When I write novellas, the draft ends up between 25,000 and 30,000 words. For novel, it is about 75,000 words. As I tend to write for the young adult market, 75,000 words for a novel is fine. If I need to do more, I know I need to weave in a secondary plotline that is, in essence, a novella.

Choosing a favorite genre is harder. I like to write cross genres. I write everything from science-fiction military to urban fantasy to cyberpunk and apocalyptic and horror. Most of my writing has a dark bent to it. That’s just the way I am. Those are the stories I like to read and write.

Katrina: That’s a lot of different genres, but it makes sense considering you’re pretty active in the SFWA, HWA, and IAMTW, both as a volunteer and as a member. What role do professional organizations play in your writing business? How have you used conventions as an author? Can you speak a little to how an emerging writing might benefit from these groups versus how they help you as an established author?

Jennifer: At first, membership in these organizations was the goal; a tangible mark that I’d made it. Once I joined these organizations, networking and using the resources offered helped me level up as an author and editor. There are opportunities for learning, PR, publication, networking, and volunteering that all allowed me to grow as a professional.

As an emerging author, you should be aware that even before you are a member of SFWA or HWA, their websites are full of resources you can use to help you: advice on contracts, subject matter blog posts, etiquette in the industry, reading series as well as sponsored conferences that include pitch sessions, how-to panels, and critiques.

As an established author, these organizations give you a community that understands what you are going through. Many of them have gone through the same things and you can learn from their mistakes/triumphs. There is a sense of comradery even if you don’t agree with every point of view expressed. Also, there are opportunities to volunteer and help shape the way the organization moves and what they focus on.

Katrina: So these groups really focus on the inside half of the industry and how to “make it” and succeed. But it seems like there isn’t really a dedicated organization for RPG writing and freelancing (the closest I’ve seen is the Freelance Forge). In 2012, you wrote a whole book on professional writing for RPGs and anthologies titled Industry Talk. Do you find the industry landscape has changed much since then, and what would be your biggest piece of advice for aspiring writers now—besides that they pick up the book for themselves?

Jennifer: The industry itself has expanded. Patreon, Kickstarter, and Drip were not as prevalent then as they are now. The role of the indie RPG publisher has grown and is much more accepted. But much of what I write about in Industry Talk has not changed… the business aspects, networking etiquette, and the nitty-gritty of dealing with publishers, editors, co-authors, deadlines, conventions, contracts, payment, and the like are still the same.

My biggest piece of advice for writers would be to understand what they want to get out of working in the RPG industry and how much control they want over their own project. There are a huge number of paths into the industry and many roles that contribute to a single project, so prospective writers need to know what it is they actually want to do. The more control you want, the more you should go indie. The more indie you want to go, the more you need to know how to get your projects funded in a non-traditional way because you need to pay your artists, editors, authors, and layout people. You also need to know how to get your products to the public.

Katrina: Along those same lines, one thing I keep on hearing over and over is how women and other underrepresented voices want to get into the RPG industry and create the games they want to play. In 2014 you helped edit Chicks Dig Gaming: A Celebration of All Things Gaming by the Women Who Love It. What do you think is the biggest challenge facing women in games now, in 2018? What advice do you have for women who are entering the hobby or are looking to start working in it?

Jennifer: Our biggest challenge is still to get our voices and our point of view heard. Movement has been made but we need to keep pushing, to amplify our voices and the voices of the marginalized creators who are still being ignored. Women play games and women want to write them. My advice is to figure out what you want to do and go for it. Don’t let anyone stop you. Also, help other women… all women of every type. Amplify their voices, too. Repeat what they say and repeat your own point of view. There is room at the table for all of us. It is not a zero sum game.

Katrina: I agree wholeheartedly: we just want to make games too. We’re not trying to kick anyone else out. I’m really hopeful for the number of women who are joining our hobby as players and what the future holds for us.

Finally, do you have time in between all your writing and convention appearances to still wear the GM’s or player’s hat? If so, do you find that your writing informs your roleplaying, or vice versa, and how?

Jennifer: I prefer to be the player rather than the GM, though I will GM upon occasion. I have discovered that I want to game in areas I don’t write in. I love playing Pathfinder/D&D for a regular game. I like my fantasy game and I hate to take notes on the plot. I’ll keep the loot count, but I need the play aspect and nothing that feels like work.

Actually, I lie.

I love playing Arkham Horror and Eldritch Horror as well as Shadowrun. And I write in both games. The thing is, I want to play them occasionally rather that all the time. I’ve learned I need my downtime and separation between work and play.

Katrina: It sounds like when you’re wearing multiple hats, from author to editor to player to GM, it helps more if you can focus on each one separately and enjoy it on its own. Work versus play, writing versus editing, the whole bit. Hopefully that helps some of our readers reconsider their own work!

Thank you again for your time and for coming to talk to us! You can check out more of Jennifer’s work at jenniferbrozek.com, and keep an eye out for her next projects!

Image Credits: Canva, Fantasy Flight Games, JenniferBrozek.com, Mrinabh Dutta

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