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Gamazon: How Did You Get Started?

How does a Noob of Great Ambition get to be the Lead Writer of a game development studio? Here's part of the answer.

I decided to write an article this week for a couple of reasons.  Number one:  I have gotten a lot of emails and private messages over the years from people who would like to become computer game developers.  Specifically, from people who want MY job:  Lead Writer.

These are people who want to tell stories using games as a medium.  They want to write manuals that people keep on the shelf alongside their favourite books.  They want to write scripts that voice actors have to perform.  They want to create a strange new world and populate it with wonders.  They want to create Characters that players care about, Quests that make them feel heroic, Villains that make them feel good about violence as a solution to life’s problems.

The problem is, what the Noob of Great Ambition generally doesn’t want to hear is “I worked hard on my craft for many years before I started to reap the rewards”. Or “I’ve had to fight for everything I have, and so will you”.  Those are probably the truest things I can say to them, but this is summer time, and in summer time I can also tell them something that might be more encouraging:

How did I get started?  I went to the Clarion West Writer’s Workshop.  And if you have that spark of talent that can be fanned into the Eternal Flame—you can go there too.

Of course, most gamers have never heard of Clarion West or any of the other Clarion workshops, so you might have a few questions.  So here’s the FAQ:

1.  What is the Clarion West Writer’s Workshop?

A six-week bootcamp for writers of science fiction, fantasy and horror.  A group of 20-30 unpublished writers spend six weeks solid in the company of their peers.  You write a story a week, and every day the group “workshops” the stories that were turned in the previous day.  Every week the workshop is led by a professional in the field of science fiction, fantasy or horror.  Typically five of the instructors are published authors, and the sixth is a working editor in the field.

2.  Is Clarion West hard work?

Hell yes.  Like any boot camp, the purpose of Clarion West is to take a raw recruit and turn them into a professional.  The majority of people who go to Clarion will find it hard for the same reason that a lot of recruits find Basic Training hard; they aren’t in shape to do the job yet.

Most talented people who have not already become professional writers in one field or another have not “made it” because they haven’t developed their professional skills yet.  You need to be able to put in some serious keystrokes per day if you want to be the real deal.  And you also need to be able to take and give meaningful, useful critiques that cut to the heart of what a story is, and what it intends to be.  Writing is craftsmanship as much as art.

3.  But Clarion West is supposed to be a workshop for fiction writers.  I want to work in gaming.  Why should I waste my time and money traveling to Seattle and spending six weeks learning to write regular fiction when I can stay home and spend thousands more dollars to attend the Super Duper Professional School of Game Design and Awesomeness here in my home city?

There’s no answer to this question.  It's possible that the Super Duper Program in your local area can get you a job in gaming when you graduate.  The only question is what job it will be.  There are a lot of paths into this industry, and most of them involve some serious paying of dues.

A different writer might tell you a different story about how they got started.  I don’t know how everyone becomes a successful writer in the gaming industry, I only know how I did it.

I’ve been working in the computer gaming industry as a writer (not a programmer, not an artist, not a game tester or a level designer) for fifteen years now.  I am a Lead Writer, and a graduate of Clarion West.

The Lead Designer, Creative Director and CEO of my company, Martin Cirulis, is also a graduate of Clarion West.

Know who else graduated from Clarion West? 

Jeff Spock, who worked on Ubisoft’s Might and Magic series and Dark Messiah.

Diana Sherman, who works at Cryptic Studios on Champions On-line and the Neverwinter roleplaying game.

Eric S. Nylund, who works at Microsoft Game Studios as a writer and consultant on the Halo series and Gears of War.

I hope you’re starting to get the picture.  Not every graduate of Clarion gets a job in gaming, I'm sure, but if your real skill is in writing, this is a good place to develope the professional skills that will help you make it.

4.  Why are you telling us this now?

Simple.  The Clarion West Writer’s Workshop is a summer program.  It typically runs for six weeks from mid-June to the end of July.  And during the six week period, while all the New Kids are running through their paces and suffering sleep deprivation, caffeine poisoning, eye strain, Accute Whining Syndrome and occasional drunkenness…

…those of us who are alumnae of the workshop, and who launched our careers there, sometimes decide to give a little back.  We participate in a charity fundraiser called The Clarion West Write-a-thon.  The workshop itself is run by volunteers, of course, but it has a lot of expenses.  Bringing in professional instructors costs money, and the workshop also tries to provide at least one scholarship each year to a writer who otherwise could not afford to attend.  Since I was dirt poor when I was a young unpublished writer, I am all in favour of scholarships.  I try to give kids who are Young Broke and Talented a break whenever I can.

I did the Write-a-thon last year, and I am participating again this year.  I always provide incentives for people who sponsor me. The charity donation is tax deductible already, but I also send out a free short story or fiction excerpt every week as a pdf to people who pledge on my page.

This year I’ve offered an added bonus, and given my sponsors a password that unlocks the password-protected forums of Lore and Galactic Atlas information for my upcoming game, Sword of the Stars 2, on my company’s forums.  Essentially, people who throw 5 bucks into the kitty for charity get to read up on the background fiction of the game six weeks in advance of the Great Unwashed.

My Clarion West pledge page is here, if you want to use it as a navigation point to check out the workshop.    

To all you Noobs of great Ambition:  write hard, read hard, play hard, and good luck!

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