Thursday, 17 September 2015

How It Gets Done: A Guide to Productivity

Noah Stevens writes:

What's your standard work flow for an idea, from conception to out-the-door? For a while it seemed like your output was pretty prodigious - it may still be but I amn't paying attention like I usually do.

It seemed to me I was thinking "How does he keep up this pace?"

It really depends upon the product. The fact is that I have more things languishing in the black hole of “On Hold For Now” than I care to admit. It takes more than a good idea to make a worthwhile product; it takes a sort of “idea-plus-vision”. What I mean is that the idea itself is a kernel around which a vision takes form, and that vision must be sufficiently different from the original idea to make the whole stand out. I find that if something doesn’t stand out, it is very hard to write about.

For example, Mermaids from Yuggoth, in the Mystic Bull product In the Prison of the Squid Sorcerer, started with an illustration of the titular creature and nothing else. That is the base idea – here is this aquatic-looking creature…it sort of looks like it is levitating on land. The vision that made it work was not only adding the Lovecraftian Yuggoth elements, but adding a temporal element both to the main “story arc” of the situation, and to how the situation played out in game. Until I had that, it was just this thing floating around in my head, looking for a place to go.

Another example: Prince Charming, Reanimator started with a pretty simple idea: What if you mixed fairy tales and Appendix N stories? The title of the series, Faerie Tales from Unlit Shores actually predated any specific adventure idea. The specific idea of casting Prince Charming as Lovecraft’s Herbert West gave me enough of a grip on the idea to get writing.

With Bone Hoard of the Dancing Horror I was given a map, and asked to populate it. The way the cartographer drew the chasms on the map made me speculate about what was filling them. It was the idea of the creature that could remove bones, though, that allowed me to see the adventure as a whole – for one thing, any other monsters encountered there could not have bones. That’s why monsters are either possess exoskeletons, are constructs, or already have their skeletons removed. Similarly, the seed for Stars in the Darkness was based on the way the chasms were drawn on the maps, but I needed the larger vision of the devolved elvish star-herders to see where the adventure should go.

My actual writing tends to be in fits and starts. I’ll keep a notepad, and keep ideas in my head, until they have gelled into a vision where I can “see” the overall structure of an adventure. I may have to make up details as I go, but those details fit into a vision that I already know. Some adventures take a number of sessions to finish…generally because I find myself dissatisfied with the overall vision I have, and I have to search for a new element to add to the mix. Others are written in a single sitting (The Arwich Grinder, for instance, was written in a single go, and is probably the darkest thing I have ever written).

I write quickly when I am writing, but (and I imagine most writers are similar), I have periods where I find it difficult, and these come without warning. Sometimes they are based on external pressures, or disappointments. The last two years have been relatively low-productivity for me. There are a lot of factors involved, including family tragedy, child behavioral issues, and relationship tensions, but where I started to slow down was when The Tribe of Ogg and the Gift of Suss (now a freebie from Mystic Bull) was not approved by Goodman Games.

That may sound stupid. In reality, I started to second guess whether or not the time invested in any of the things I was writing was going to pan out, or turn out to be wasted. Please note that I do not blame Goodman Games for the decision, but I had a hard time letting it go. I hope that seeing it out in the wild, even without an official stamp of approval, will do a great deal towards increasing my output. So far, so good.

From start to finish, my process looks something like this:

  • An idea is proposed, either by someone else or it pops into my head from the ether.
  • I start to think about this idea. I might adjust my reading list to generate more thoughts about this idea. For instance, when working on The Weird Worm-Ways of Saturn, I read a lot of Clark Ashton Smith. This may, or may not, be apparent to the reader.
  • I am probably working on several other things while the new idea germinates.
  • Eventually, I gain some form of overarching vision that can guide me in creating details.
  • I sit down and write. And write. And write. Basically, I write until I run out of creative juice, my partner demands that I stop, or I need to spend time with my kids. I have found that home environment – how you interact with your partner and/or your children – is as rejuvenating as anything else could possibly be, as far as creativity goes. Getting out into the woods is also good.
  • At some point, the writing is done. My partner is not a gamer, but she reads a lot of what I write, and may offer suggestions, which I may or may not agree with. Usually I do agree. Some of the work that I like best, however, is not the work she likes best.
  • I do whatever revisions I am going to. Honestly, I don’t do much revising. Most of the stuff you have read that I have written is first draft plus the publisher’s editor. Comparing final text to submitted text, most publishers haven’t seen much need for tons of editing.
  • By this time, hopefully, some other idea(s) have flourished into full-blown visions, and I get writing again.

The banes of writing? Computer chess and spider solitaire. Facebook. Self-doubt.

Every review (good or bad) and every playtest report helps with self-doubt. But, yes, as confidently as I project myself on the InterWebs, I am prey to wondering whether or not the last thing submitted to the Great Void is good or shite. That’s one of the reasons why I am so vocally supportive of others’ efforts. Writing is a lonely gig, and feedback is essential.

Also, I really hate letting people down. There are people who have asked me to do projects with/for them, who are still waiting for output, and I feel the weight of it. I really do. Sometimes that’s a help in getting things done, and sometimes it seems to make things harder. Six of one, half dozen of the other. You know who you are. I am sorry. I will get to it.

That’s about it. I’ll be happy to field questions raised in the Comments, below.

Hopefully, this autumn and 2016 will be more productive.


  1. what was the reason for not approving the tribe of ogg and the gift? was any given? i ask as someone that might one day want to publish for DCC.

    1. It had reached the 90% near completion mark when Frozen in Time was announced, and there were concerns that there might be confusion between the two products. That's a reasonable decision from a man running a business, but it is hard news for a guy writing adventures. If you may want to publish for DCC, you could avoid the same by giving Joseph Goodman clear notice about what you want to do before you invest a lot of time in doing it. I am under the pretty clear impression that Joseph wasn't happy to be saying "No" - he's good people - and I don't blame him for it. I'm just glad to see that Paul Wolfe made it look good.

    2. aren't you writing at the moment your first official DCC GG module?

    3. The Imperishable Sorceress was my first official DCC GG adventure. I also worked on both The Hypercube of Myt and Death by Nexus. There is an adventure by me in the GG GenCon Program Guide from this year.

      But, yes, my first "headliner" module is currently being produced. It is already written, though,

  2. and also to add: besides stroh and curtis you are my favorite dcc author. grinder is great funnel, stars in darkness great and through cotillion of hours one of my top five dcc adventures (other being blades against death, sailors, purple planet and beyond black gate)

  3. Just wondering if you have every written or toyed with the idea of writing short stories or even a novel? Also I am curious as to what led you to become a writer. Did you just think it would be something fun to do, did you major in english literature, or were you simply struck by lightning and bestowed the gift?

    1. I have never written a novel, but I have written (and published) several short stories and some poetry. For instance:

      I cannot remember a time that I didn't want to write, so I guess the gift was bestowed by generations of writers who went before me and dropped seeds of ideas in my head as a child.

  4. Looking forward to checking them out....

  5. Funny - your blog is on my watching roll in my feedly app, and I didn't see this until I checked my own blog for a link!

    I'm facing a dry spell at the moment, and ostensibly working with others on a pretty cool adventure but it's languishing. It's a transient period of the year when I always slow down and must break through with a struggle - the thing I published has been out there for almost a year now and to get it out and done was a real fight near the end.

    Hope to see you return to the fray when you are ready, and thanks for answering my question!