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Learning the Hard Way

Updated: Sep 21, 2018

INTRO: MARY-MARGARET NETWORK BLOG POST #5 This fifth post in my series was published 12/17/09. See the intro to post #1 for the what and why of this whole naive memoir.

Photo by Ryan Johns on Unsplash

LEARNING THE HARD WAY The freelance business model has a big trial and error factor. Even if you always do the same thing, doing it for a new client introduces surprising variables. So let's talk trials and errors. As a self-styled writer for interactive games, I went out to seek my fortune armed with untested assumptions about an industry in which I had no experience. Although you've probably made your own mistakes in previous stages of your career, I invite you to cringe along with me as I replay a few instructively embarrassing moments.

Know What You're Talking About Imagine being so desperate to get your hands into your first interactive software project that you'll pitch one to a creative director with a vague idea, offer a first draft on spec, and deliver it as a detailed linear document -- without a flow chart. As for our discussion about compensation, I quote his email: "I know that you are new to this kind of deal, but I must tell you that the licensing of an entire technology... costs me 2%. For me to pay you 6.5 % is out of the question... The creation of a story line for a small component of the software will not make you rich in this environment... sorry." Yes, sir! So noted.

React Well to Offers I was an untested writer only a few months into my first round of client searching when I scored an interview with an educational developer working on a very cool teen game. I showed up with a number in my head based on my previous salary, and spluttered defensively when the producer made much lower offer. Needless to say, she never called me back, and I became more circumspect around proposed dollar amounts I found ridiculously small. Clients may or may not be open to making deals, but there are more grown-up approaches to this issue!

Get It in Writing At last! A movie tie-in gaming project! Yes, it was a stupid movie and only a first-person shooter game, but this team wanted me. They kept mentioning a contract as we hashed out milestones and workflow, and I kept producing and refining samples to bring myself up to speed. Meanwhile, farther up the food chain, there were delays, disagreements, and eventually some rolling heads. I'd given them a week's worth of creative product before we hit the brakes, and it took about three months to determine that there would be no contract or kill fee. So... if a new client doesn't present a written contract, I send a memorandum of understanding before startup. Just to get it in writing.

Don't Play Project Manager When I was hired to write dialog for a franchise title, I assumed money wouldn't be an issue. Indeed, the producer told me early on that I'd be compensated for my time even if we ran over estimate. Well, I ended up overshooting it by about 100% because I gave them way more content than they actually requested. They were shocked and I felt awful for assuming so much about the project without even keeping them apprised of my time investment. We ended up splitting the difference and they invited me to the product launch party, although they never worked with me again. I don't think it was personal, but I'll never know.

Know Who You're Dealing With If a client says, "I'll make it up to you on the next project," will they remember? Will there even be a next project? If they say, "We found someone else to finish this. Remember Morris the Cat? This is the writer who created that TV campaign," did they just flip you the bird? Can the Hollywood business model, whether used by game developers, indie filmmakers, or high-profile ad agencies, be trusted any farther than you can spit? It's way too easy to get something from a hungry, naive newbie in exchange for a warm handshake, a direct gaze, and his/her name inserted into every third sentence. (Do I sound bitter? Well...) It's best to Google your would-be client before agreeing to anything. Demand hard facts about everything. Set and stick to limits. If possible, request startup and milestone payments. Trust your intuition about who's legit. Earn respect from people for whom respect means something. With luck, you won't have to learn the hard way.

But enough on this grim topic. Next time I'll talk about some of my finest hours as an interactive writer.

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