How I Became a Writer Cliché (and Survived)

Posted: September 16, 2012 in Uncategorized

Hey everyone! Sorry I’ve been away for a while. I’ve been hammering away on Fuse and Ratchet & Clank: Full Frontal Assault, so the past few months have been some of the most hectic of my life (as evidenced by the Leaning Tower of Dishware in my sink and the sticky notes that still seem to be snowing from no discernible origin).

This is a story I’ve been meaning to tell for some time, as it’s something I’m asked on Twitter at least once a week. Game writing is one of those bizarre niche jobs you never think anyone has. It’s a tough-to-crack profession inside a tougher-to-crack industry, so finding out where to start is like trying to find the island on Lost. Even my own path to game writing was bizarre and circuitous. So let’s take a look at how I ended up writing at Insomniac.

It was 2004, and I had been renting a room in my friend’s house in Orlando trying to get my writing career off the ground. By this time I had seen fleeting periods of “success” in the freelance world: a magazine article here, a technical manual there. During the day I went to class to learn Maya and work on my 3D portfolio, and at night I’d crack open an embarrassingly outdated copy of The Writer’s Market and pitch ideas to any editor who would take a query from an unknown. I wrote screenplays and greeting cards and short stories. I was unfocused, but hungry.

One day, out of the blue, I received an email from an exec from LA who had read one of the scripts I submitted to a screenwriting competition. He couldn’t develop it, as they already had something in that genre in production, but he wanted to track my career as a writer and offered to refer me to some agents in Los Angeles. By that summer, I was repped by a small boutique agency. To this day, this remains the second-grandest gesture from a stranger I’ve ever had (Number #1 is on its way).

* * *

My first agent was no Ari Gold, but he was young and hungry like me. So when he told me he had several show runners itching to hire me, my entire world began to spin. By now I also earned a degree in Computer Animation, so I knew both industries lay in the same city. I immediately sold off everything I owned and moved to Los Angeles with no job and less than a thousand dollars in my savings account. Yes, my friends, I was a rucksack and a Bob Dylan soundtrack away from being the total writer cliché. And I loved it. But if I had known what would happen next, I probably would have held off on the pilgrimage.

After one exciting meeting with my new agent, I found out he was fired. Not because of me, mind you—in fact, I don’t think I ever got a reason why he was let go. My agency told me they’d love to continue representing me, but they never returned another phone call or email again. And like that, I was back where every struggling writer in LA is: on the outside of a locked industry with no clue how to find a key.

 * * *

2005 is what I lovingly refer to as “The Dark Time.” I suspect I was not very pleasant to be around during this chapter in my life. I found work as a file clerk at a hospital in Glendale. I delivered packages for UPS. I toiled away in my tiny studio apartment in Van Nuys, smoking Parliaments and using what remaining hours of the day I had after work to develop my 3D portfolio and write. I was flat broke to the point where I was sleeping on an air mattress and selling everything I owned on eBay to make rent. I was in a strange city and knew nobody. Okay, now, I thought, I am a writer cliché.

It was then I decided that maybe writing would be something I did on the side, just for me. I started focusing more on video games and grabbed a game testing gig at Electronic Arts. I started learning as much as I could about video game production, but never once stopped to think about who did all the writing. At EA, the testers are (or possibly were, since this was a long time ago) in a separate room away from the rest of the production team. So it was difficult to see firsthand how things were done. Then, in 2006, I switched over to Insomniac.

 * * *

I started Insomniac as a tester on the first Resistance, but didn’t do much testing. About a month in my lead turned me over to the design team and had me nav-meshing levels. For the uninitiated, this means I was marking areas where the enemies could traverse. I also handled collision and a few other small details. To me, this was a testament to how incredible Insomniac is. At Insom there were no locked doors or secret meetings. If you wanted to know something, you walked up to that person and asked them—even if that person was Ted Price.

At the same time my writing career took an unexpected turn for the better; a producer had read my samples and sent them to another agent. Suddenly, the Dark Time was over, and I had two careers taking shape. I quickly fell into the rat race of “generals” — meet and greets with execs who liked my work and wanted to discuss future projects. There’s a feeling of success the first time you get a drive-on to a studio lot. I remember standing under the water tower at WB and hoping the Animaniacs would jump out. It was exciting and empowering. And endless.

Yes, friends, when I say it’s a rat race, I mean it’s a rat race. There are meetings all the time, and when you have a full-time job, managing this can be tricky. Somehow I was able to multitask, and even landed a script with a producer. This came right at the perfect time, as Resistance was done and QA was staffing down. My time with Insomniac was drawing to a close…

And then, I discovered another irritating fact about the movie business no one ever talks about: everything takes a really, really, really long time. It’s never as simple as writing a script; there are rewrites, note sessions, and all the politics of packaging. I had made a leap forward, but hadn’t made any money— and soon I would be without a job or means to pay my rent.

Then, the Number #1 grandest gesture came around. Adam Moore, the writer Insomniac hired for Tools of Destruction was leaving the company. He was a fantastic writer who was frustrated with the mercurial nature of game production (see one of my previous blog entries) and was shifting back to the feature world. But before he left, he recommended me for his position. There’s a ton of competition between writers, so the fact that he was let go and recommended his own replacement is something I’ll never forget.

I spent the entire weekend unemployed, came in for an interview on Monday, and was hired on Wednesday. When Brian gave me the good news I had $200 left in my bank account and half my belongings boxed up. From there, the rest is history. And that script I was working on? When the writer’s strike hit a month into my tenure at Insomniac, all projects were put on pause. Mine was one that was never taken off of it. Welcome to Hollywood!

 * * *

Now, in 2012, things couldn’t be more exciting. I’ve gotten to work on some killer projects at Insomniac, and even worked on some exciting feature and comic book projects. I’m still geeking out about getting to write a Batman story for DC, and have some crazy stuff lined up for 2013.

So why am I going into all this now? Well, if you’re trying to get into the video game industry, I wanted to bring up an important piece of advice: you need experience not just in writing, but also in game production. Being a good storyteller isn’t enough; you need to learn a trade that will help you interface with the team. Amy Hennig, Steve Jaros, Ken Levine – these talented folks aren’t just writers; they’re designers. My writing got me the interview, but my knowledge of 3D animation and basic design got me my job.

If you’re a feature or TV writer, my advice to you is to stay focused and persistent. Even during the Dark Time I knew I had to keep writing. Not to sound schmaltzy, but life will throw so many hurdles at you you’ll wonder if you’re living in some cosmic reality show. When that happens, just pick up that rucksack, put on some Bob Dylan, and accept that sometimes success means becoming a cliché for a while. It’s persistence that will turn you into a professional.

Comments
  1. Tim van der Meij says:

    Loved this one, TJ, I’m so appreciative that you were brought on to ToD and beyond because you’ve brung in so much for the series. CiT is still my favourite R&C story of them all. I’ve always wondered how much the PS2 titles influence what you write for the modern titles (such as the QForce in FFA). I’ve also always wondered who wrote ToD before you did; did Adam do the PS2 titles as well or is that still a mystery?

    BTW, thanks for signing my Comic Omnibus after Community Day!

    • tjfixman says:

      Thanks! Adam didn’t work on any other titles; they brought him in just for ToD, but the entire story was scrapped before I got there. As for the PS2 titles, those were written by Brian Hastings, John Lally, and a few other folks. I should also note that Brian cowrote Tools with me, though he now heads up Outernauts at Insomniac.

      As for inspiration, I drew from earlier titles as far as matching the style of humor, but aside from that I was fortunate enough to join at a time where we were redefining the franchise. This doesn’t mean “reboot”; more that Insomniac wanted to expand the games into a universe. This meant I could play around with the voices and put my own stamp on it. It was quite an honor that they trusted me with their franchise.

      Best,
      TJ

      • Tim van der Meij says:

        Sweet. Yeah I can definately see why they wanted to expand the world, and I feel like it’s really given the series extra depth in the world when things get mentioned off-handedly and then show up properly later (such as the Zanifarian Death Weasel and Ebaro being mentioned in ToD).

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