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Coming Attractions Feature at Gamespy: The Pain of the Writer

May 26th, 2010 by Troy Goodfellow · 6 Comments · Feature, Gamespy, Industry, Me

Another long form feature of mine was just published at Gamespy. This time I look at the art and science of opening cinematics. If you have any comments on the article itself, put them there. If you want to comment on this post, however, comment here.

Because I have more to say.

I like feature writing. I started doing more of it for Crispy Gamer and found a voice there that I think works in this format. But the more of these I do, the more I understand why many writers don’t, why so many game sites go for the quick hits, rumor reporting or lists.

This is damned hard.

The five things they never tell you when you try to write a feature story with original research:

1) Data collection is necessary but not sufficient. I put out the call for friends, colleagues and Twitter followers to ping me with their favorite opening cinematics. The list is long and varied and, on its own, not especially helpful. Once I had it, I had to work out what the hell to do with all this information. This is where writing is at its most mystical – all you have is information. Now you need a plan.

2) People are slow. Gaming PR is full of very busy, very hard working and sometimes very responsive people. Off the top of my head, I can name probably a dozen I can count on for a quote. But helping a writer with a story that is not necessarily going to move more units is not always a high priority. Some people will be slow in replying. Some will be late with information. Some will agree to do it and then decide they can’t. Some will not reply unless you bring an editor into the discussion to prove that, yeah, this is a real thing.

3) Writing what you know only gets you so far. Because what I know is war, death, famine and pestilence – the four tools of strategy gaming. My feature stories are probably more strategy heavy than your standard article because that’s where my knowledge and contacts are strongest. But you have to boldly go forward. Thanks to Gamespy’s Editor, Ryan Scott, for letting me feel my way through a lot of this.

4) Stories do not hatch. Well, some do. That literature feature I wrote a couple of months ago was one of the easiest things I’ve ever written. This one was not. I struggled, I deleted, I reorganized. I finally found my opening hook when I remembered that conversation and got permission from my friend to quote it. But that was the intro. I was still moving things around to almost the final minute. If Ryan had not emailed me and said “So where is it?” I could have been punching it for weeks. I gave myself a deadline, and I met it.

5) You are almost never happy with the slow births. This article had a very slow and painful birth. I still think that if I had another month it could be better. But I can’t guarantee it would be much better.


6 Comments so far ↓

  • Punning Pundit

    I find– for me– the first draft is shit and I can throw it away. The second draft is when I figure out what I want to say. The third and fourth drafts usually find polish… but if I try beyond that, it turns to shit again.

    It’s pundit’s collary to Chick’s Parabola.

  • Rob Zacny

    I’m grateful to you for writing this. This perfectly sums up my feelings about my latest piece. I hated the dead-ends, the people who promised interviews and promptly vanished, the dawning realization that I wasn’t going to do half of what I had originally envisioned, and the way I had to keep going to my editors begging for a little more time.

    I don’t know about you, since you’ve been at this a lot longer, but I always come away from pieces like this feeling shaken. Publication day arrives and I don’t feel glad so much as jittery. I’m dissatisfied, so I assume everyone else will feel the same way. And I always feel more responsible if the piece doesn’t turn out, since the whole thing was my idea in the first place. There’s a world of difference between just performing a task as part of a job, and volunteering for it the way freelancers do.

  • Cow cookie

    I’m a mid-career reporter at a daily newspaper and have spent my entire time working at papers — everywhere from small, rural communities to Iraq and Afghanistan. So my perspective is a bit different from that of a freelancer. Yet not completely so because journalism is journalism.

    First, the piece was great. It was enjoyable, and you accomplished what you set out to accomplish. Maybe you don’t think it was perfect, but then nothing ever is. I have stories (a series on methamphetamine, in particular, still haunts me) that I tackled as a rookie reporter and wish in retrospect that I would have held off on until I had a little more experience. That’s the shakes. You did all you could under the current conditions, and that’s the very best any writer can do.

    Second, your job is harder because you are working with companies, many of them private companies. I have the luxury of working primarily with governments that more or less must cooperate with me. Businesses in general — and private companies, in particular — don’t have to be as helpful. Despite this, you still managed to get some insiders from big-name companies. In other words, take heart. You’re playing at expert difficulty and seem to be doing just fine

    I’ll also add that professionals are easier to work with than amateurs because they know how the game is played. I don’t know the game industry, but from the outside it appears that there are just a few big companies like EA and many, many smaller ones whose communications team is perhaps not as experienced, well-staffed or even primarily devoted to PR. Small non-profits are the bane of my existence for this very reason.

    Third, every writer needs to read your points three and four and internalize them. Hollywood and pop culture have hammered home “write what you know” for so long that it’s become established fact. Journalists don’t have that luxury. It’s far more important that they be able to learn about that which they’re writing.

    Ditto for the whole muse theory of writing. We have all these movies of inspired writers — inspired by a happy coincidence, by an incident in their life and, of course, by a girl — but it’s hard, toilsome work like anything else. You’ve got to develop a framework for the article and once that’s done fit all the bits and pieces to that framework. That takes time and effort. Thanks for emphasizing that.

    Finally, to Rob’s point: That has never changed for me. I dread picking up a Sunday paper when I have one of my project pieces in it. I fear discovering some mistake I slipped into an article. I fear sloppy grammar and punctuation errors. Most of all, I fear the article will just bore people. Not everyone fears this. (My girlfriend, an editor at a regional magazine and much braver than I am, ruthlessly critiques every one of her articles.) But I think it will always be the case for me. Moreover, I think that’s a good thing. It keeps me honest.

    I, for one, am glad you’re doing this type of feature writing. Few enough journalists in any area are willing to take on all the hardships it entails. That you’re doing it as a freelancer whose paycheck is on the line is all the more impressive to someone like me who has the comfort of a regular paycheck whenever I attempt something new.

    Love the podcast. Love the blog posts. Keep up the good work.

  • Troy

    Cow Cookie:

    Thanks for the report from the trenches.

    The Muse theory is terrible. I’d rather have a good friend that will tell me when I am writing shit.

  • Alan Au

    Yeah, for me, it boils down to two things:

    1. You have to work with what you’ve got. And yes, it really sucks when your sources go incommunicado.

    2. Sometimes it’s best to throw away your first draft and start over.

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