Wednesday, January 10, 2018

How I got into narrative design

Happy New Year, everyone!

Let's ring in 2018 with a post for the first time in forever. Thanks to Bekah for getting me going!
For some background, I'm a narrative designer and writer at Obsidian Entertainment, and I've been here a little over four years. Briefly, my work involves worldbuilding/lore development, story design (at the critpath/"full game" scale and for individual quests), and lots and lots of writing in-game text: dialogue, player journal entries, items and examinables, and other player-facing text.

To be clear, it's a collaborative job. I work with a team of other narrative designers, and we frequently collaborate with other departments on the work we do. But the nature of the work is a topic all of its own!

How I Got Here

When I applied to Obsidian, I'd been writing for a while. I had not yet been professionally published, but I was working toward that goal (incidentally, I made my first novel and short story sales around the time I was hired). But I wanted to work in games, too--I'd played games most of my life and had a special fondness for their storytelling and worldbuilding potential--so I kept an eye out for openings at narrative-focused studios.

Sure enough, on one of these occasions, I noticed that Obsidian Entertainment had a posting for a contract writer. I had not previously played Obsidian's games (or Black Isle's), but I'd played a variety of other RPGs, and there was enough information in the job posting and on the Kickstarter page for Pillars of Eternity (then Project Eternity) to give me a good idea of (1) the game they were making and (2) what they were looking for in a writer. And you can bet I tailored my cover letter accordingly.

I emailed Hiring with my cover letter, my resume, a short story (this one), some references, and a link to a short Neverwinter Nights module I'd made.

A few days later, Obsidian sent me their design test, which included a few sample writing tasks and a questionnaire about my approach to game design. After I turned that in, the team got back to me to schedule a phone interview. Fun fact: my husband and I were on vacation in South Africa during the interview window, so I first talked to the team at midnight (after an afternoon of bungee jumping) from the lobby of an adorable little hotel in Oudtshoorn, an ostrich farming town.

Shortly after that, I got an offer for a full-time position!

Now, every studio is different, and "narrative design" is a fairly new field in a still-young industry. So the position will differ somewhat at every studio.

But if you're looking for advice on getting into game writing, here's what I took away from the process, though YMMV:

  • A degree in game design (or creative writing) is not a requirement. What matters is demonstrating the skills necessary for the job. In the case of narrative design, those skills include: the ability to write engaging, error-free text; the ability to incorporate a consistent sense of character and world flavor into dialogue and description; and the ability to build non-linear narrative around player choice.
  • You don't have to know someone in the industry to break in. Yes, it helps, but don't disqualify yourself if you don't have contacts.
  • You don't need extensive game engine experience, but you must be willing to learn your studio's technology. Most of the writing I do takes place in a proprietary dialogue editor that looks nothing like a word processor. I'm responsible for writing the text as well as structuring the dialogue trees and scripting various game states as they are changed and referenced in the conversation editor. Some studios will focus their writers more (or less) on pure writing, but in any case, it's definitely helpful to understand how these tools work. You don't have to be a pro modder, but it's worth gaining familiarity with game engines and/or dialogue editors.
  • There's no substitute for strong writing fundamentals. Most novelists, screenwriters, and writers of other stripes spend a lot of personal time honing their craft before they start making sales. I'm not saying you have to spend every waking second writing, but you must practice if you want to be competitive.  
If you're looking for more insight, I suggest following the brilliant Jessica Price on Twitter. She's been dishing out some fabulous advice for writers interested in narrative design:
Good luck and happy Wednesday!

Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Hei, Helsinki!

The last couple of months have flown by! After Houston, I went up to San Diego for a series-writing roundtable at Borderlands organized by the fabulous Tex Thompson and also featuring Adam Rakunas. A good time was had by all. Even Daryl Gregory. 

Shortly afterwards, The Last Bookstore hosted Tex, S.B. Divya, Paul Krueger, and me for a panel discussion titled "Writing Relevant Speculative Fiction."

Thanks to Remy Nakamura for the photo!

Since then, my schedule has been mostly summer R&R--spending time with friends and family, getting into some better diet and exercise habits, and gaming with Husband and Dogfriend.

But in a couple of weeks, I'll be in Helsinki for Worldcon 75! Here's my schedule:
Style of the Gaming Studios | Thursday 11:00 - 12:00, 205 (Messukeskus) 
Writing for Video Games | Friday 16:00 - 17:00, 208 (Messukeskus) 
Signing: Carrie Patel | Saturday 13:00 - 14:00, Signing area (Messukeskus) 
On the Care and Feeding of Secondary Characters | Saturday 18:00 - 19:00, 205 (Messukeskus)
After that, it's back to writing! 

Friday, May 19, 2017

The Continued Adventures

Last weekend was a blast. I love going back to Houston, especially when the weather is as nice as it was then.

And Hiren and I started it right, with lunch at Moon Tower Inn. As you can see, we covered all the major food groups:

Comicpalooza was as big as ever, and the literary track seems to grow every year. Vijay Kale and Tex Thompson did incredible work to put together some of the best panels yet. And if you ever get the opportunity to see Tex moderate, absolutely do--she's a moderator, and her enthusiasm feeds both the panelists and the audience.

Also! I had the honor and privilege of giving a talk on The Song of the Dead and doing a signing of all three books in the trilogy at Murder by the Book, one of Houston's best independent bookstores and one with a great focus on genre fiction.

They still have signed copies of all of the books in the series, so if you missed the event, check them out! Though you may run into this little guy:

Meanwhile, in cyberspace, Chuck Wendig hosted me for a quick overview of some of the things I've learned in writing the end of the Recoletta series. It's been a fun, busy week, and the party is coming soon to Borderlands in San Francisco! More on that soon.

Monday, May 8, 2017

San Diego Down, Houston on the Horizon

Last week was a big one, and this one's shaping up to be just as exciting!

But first, happy birthday to Mysterious Galaxy, a fabulous independent genre bookstore in San Diego. They were kind enough to have Jenna Rhodes and me down on Sunday to talk about the writing process and sign some books. Despite the gloomy weather, we had a grand time.

Photo courtesy of Maryelizabeth Yturralde

If the rain kept you home, never fear--they've got signed copies in stock!

This weekend, I'll be back in Houston for Comicpalooza and a signing at Murder By The Book. It's going to be a wonderful, whirlwind weekend in the city that still feels like my true home:
Friday, May 12
  • Manuscript Makeover: Revise, Rewrite, or Recycle? | 4-5pm | 370D (Comicpalooza) | w/ Lev Grossman, Marshall Ryan Maresca, Jake Kerr, Mari Mancusi, and Pamela Fagan Hutchins
  • Folklore and Mythology for Writers | 5:30-6:30pm | 370F (Comicpalooza) | w/ Jim Butcher, Michael Wilson, and C. Robert Cargill
Saturday, May 13
  • Signing and Discussion | 1pm | Murder By The Book
  • Author Table | 4pm | Barnes & Noble Table @ Dealer's Room (Comicpalooza)
Sunday, May 14
  • Categorically Unlikely Heroes | 10-11am | 370D (Comicpalooza) | w/ Tex Thompson, K.J. Russell, George Wright Padgett, and Christina Escamilla
  • Writing in the Fantasy Genre | 11:30am-12:30pm | 370F (Comicpalooza) | w/ Lev Grossman, Jim Butcher, Tex Thompson, and Martha Wells
  • Read & Critique | 2:30-3:30pm 

Also, I've gotten to start the week off right with a guest post at John Scalzi's Whatever talking about the Big Idea in The Song of the Dead: stories shape us. Check it out!

Friday, May 5, 2017

The week in review

It's been a busy week! The Song of the Dead is now out in paperback and ebook formats. I'll be talking about writing with Jenna Rhodes and signing copies at Mysterious Galaxy in San Diego this Sunday at 3:30 pm, but if you need some fun to tide you over until then, here's what's been going on:

  • Cat Rambo graciously allowed me to talk about character craft in novels and games here
  • Mary Robinette Kowal gave me the opportunity to explore about the execution scene at the start of the book here 
  • A couple weeks ago, Antony Johnson and I chatted about our love for the 80's classic Krull here
Stay safe, and have a great weekend, all!

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

The Song of the Dead: One Week Away!

This is happening soon, folks! In one week, The Song of the Dead, the final book in the Recoletta trilogy, will be available in bookstores and online!

There's more release excitement to come, but in the meantime, here are some fabulous bookstores and venues I'll be visiting in the coming weeks:

Mysterious Galaxy, San Diego | Discussion and Signing with Jenna Rhodes | May 7 @ 3:30 pm | Details here 
Murder By The Book, Houston | Discussion and Signing | May 13 @ 1 pm | Details here 
Houston Comicpalooza, Houston | Panels and Monkeyshines | May 12-14 | Details here

There are more in the works, including a special June event for readers in the Los Angeles area. Stay tuned for updates!

Wednesday, August 3, 2016

Get Up and Gen Con

This week, I'm headed to Gen Con to participate in the Writer's Symposium! This will be my first experience at Gen Con, but I'm looking foward to it in a big way. Here's where I'll be:

Thursday, August 4

  • Video Game Writing 101 @ 1pm (Cabinet)
  • Video Game Writing: Game Stories vs. Stories for Other Media @ 2pm (Cabinet)
  • Signing at Indy Reads Books @ 5-7pm

Friday, August 5

  • Signing at the Angry Robot booth @ 10am-1pm (Exhibit Hall #3044)
  • Character Craft: Characters that Aren't Reflections of You @2pm (Capital 1)
  • Chillin' at the Angry Robot booth @ 4-5pm (Exhibit Hall #3044)
  • Writing Excuses (with Dan Wells, Howard Tayler, Mary Robinette Kowal, Brandon Sanderson, and Bill Fawcett) @ 7:15pm

Saturday, August 6

  • Signing at the Exhibit Hall @ 11am-12pm
  • Video Game Writing: Representation in Games @ 2pm (Cabinet)
  • Back with the Angry Robot overlords @ 4-6pm, (Exhibit Hall #3044)
  • Reading from "Here Be Monsters" @ 7pm (Congress 2)

Sunday, August 7

  • Read & Critique @ 9-11am (Chamber)
  • Drinking Cheap Wine on an Airplane @ ??-?? (30,000 ft)