There Was a Lad and all that

Happy birthday to Robert Burns who was born on this day, here in Ayrshire in 1759. I knew little about him when we moved up here in the early sixties, but I quickly became a fan. Over the years, I've written a radio play and then a stage play about him. But my biggest project was The Jewel, a novel about the poet's wife, Jean Armour, and a companion anthology called For Jean, Poems, Songs and Letters by Robert Burns for his wife. He called her The Jewel of them all, and so she was. But although the novel is a third person story (he said, she said)  it is nevertheless very much told from Jean's point of view, So of course, I too began to see the poet from his wife's point of view. 

And was equally charmed by him. 

Whenever I've done book events or talks about the novel, somebody in the audience - usually a woman - has asked me what I thought about him, and I've always had to confess that I reckon in Jean's shoes, I'd have fallen for him too. Hook, line and sinker. 

One of his most attractive qualities must have been his sense of humour. He made people laugh. He made women laugh. He genuinely seemed to like women, young, old and every age in between  - which for a man of his time was a fairly rare quality. If he had to fall in love to write a love poem - as he himself admitted - he also had many genuine friendships with women throughout his too short life. He had his faults, but my goodness he must have been attractive. 

Anyway - hope you've got your haggis and neeps and tatties for tonight. (I love Burns, but haggis, not so much!) - and perhaps a wee dram as well. 

Here's my very favourite version of Rab's song about himself, from the late, wonderful and much missed Andy M Stewart: Rantin Rovin Robin. 

There was a lad was born in Kyle,

But whatna day o' whatna style,

I doubt it's hardly worth the while

To be sae nice wi' Robin.

Chorus  - Robin was a rovin' boy,

Rantin', rovin', rantin', rovin',

Robin was a rovin' boy,

Rantin', rovin', Robin!

Our monarch's hindmost year but ane

Was five-and-twenty days begun

'Twas then a blast o' Janwar' win'

Blew hansel in on Robin.

Robin was etc

The gossip keekit in his loof,

Quo' scho, "Wha lives will see the proof,

This waly boy will be nae coof:

I think we'll ca' him Robin."

Robin was etc

"He'll hae misfortunes great an' sma',

But aye a heart aboon them a',

He'll be a credit till us a'-

We'll a' be proud o' Robin."

Robin was, etc

"But sure as three times three mak nine,

I see by ilka score and line,

This chap will dearly like our kin,

So leeze me on thee! Robin."

Robin was, etc

"Guid faith," quo', scho, "I doubt you gar

The bonie lasses lie aspar;

But twenty fauts ye may hae waur

So blessins on thee! Robin."

Robin was, etc

Guest Post: A Career in the Video Games Industry

I don't normally have guest posts on here. It's not that sort of blog. But I make an occasional exception - and what better exception than a post from my professional video game designer son? I'm hosting this post because I know that it's a dream job for many young people. The industry itself, worth some $180 billion worldwide, is developing and changing at speed, but for anyone looking for advice about getting into the industry, this is a good starting point.

A Career in the Video Games Industry

In the eyes of many, a career in game development is seen as the holy grail of working life. Video games are a fascinating and rapidly evolving entertainment medium, and by their very nature, are a special blend of technology and art, the likes of which is encountered in few other areas of creative work. As a result of this, I firmly believe there is something for everyone within the video game medium, extending from simply enjoying playing games to a variety of career opportunities within the industry, not all of which will be recognized by careers advisors.

The focus of this post will be one of the most sought after roles: the game designer. It is often a misunderstood role, and is notoriously ambiguous and challenging in terms of finding an entry point. In all honesty, a little luck is needed to enter the industry as a designer: being in the right place at the right time for the stars to align. However, for anyone genuinely interested, I'll go through some of the pragmatic things you can do at different stages of life and education to swing the odds in your favour.

The Game Design Role

One major caveat is that the design role will vary somewhat from company to company, but in general, you can think of designers as essentially architects for the games. Designers come up with the rules and create the experience a player will have when playing a game. This differs from programmers, who are actually coding the tangible product or ‘things players do’ (e.g. mechanics like shooting a gun), and artists who are creating the perceptible visuals (e.g. environments and characters) that players will see in the game. Game designers are working ‘between’ programming and art disciplines to craft the player’s enjoyment.

Design work typically involves documentation, spreadsheets, and special software tools, along with open communication between the various disciplines. This ability to communicate is important. There are different sub-specialities within the broad scope of design, and of course differences between how various companies approach the role. To name a few, there are narrative designers who create the story, system designers who work on various features such as combat, and my own speciality, which is economy design. This involves working on those aspects of the game concerned with the long term progression and engagement of a player. There is also level design, which is often seen as a separate branch of design. Level designers use special software to physically lay out game environments and create the actual minute-to-minute experience for the players.

Despite the various specialisations, members of a design team will work closely together, with overlap in the work, so it is important to keep an open mind, and enjoy a working environment where no two days are the same.

Stage 1: In High School

At this early stage, even if you see yourself as a game designer in the future, one of the most important things you can do is to keep your options open! I can’t stress this enough. You never know what you'll end up truly enjoying or being good at. Despite this, you will likely gravitate towards science or art, so if you’re technically minded, consider subjects like Maths, Physics and Computer Science. If you are more arty, then naturally you'll choose Art but try not to abandon the STEM subjects entirely, because a working knowledge of some of them will help. The key is versatility.

If choosing school subjects is proving challenging, the general guide of sticking to the core traditional academic subjects at this early stage will put you in a strong position for a future career in games: Maths, English, Physics, History, Computer Science, Business Management, etc. are all helpful.

As a young teenager, there can be occasional opportunities to take short (week long) placements at game companies. This is something to go for if you have the chance. Even if this is not an official part of school, don’t hesitate to approach game companies and politely enquire about any opportunities they may have. Some companies see this as part of their outreach programme, so you may be lucky. Always make your approach personal and courteous. Never send out group emails to different companies at the same time. The scattershot approach just irritates the recipients.

Outside of school, it will be helpful to try to make games in your spare time. This can be tricky, as making a full game requires many different skills (which is really the whole point of this post!), not to mention expensive high-powered software. However, there are many more options out there. Try downloading software such as GameMaker, and see what you can put together. Maybe you can also take the chance to team up with a few other like minded people to create something original.

Stage 2: Higher Education

Although you will hear of exceptions, 95% of the time you will need to be educated to degree level to enter the games industry (with the exception of QA, see below) and sometimes to postgraduate Masters level.

Choosing where to apply for your higher education will present an important but tricky choice. Nowadays, there are very good degree courses specifically for game design. In Scotland, Abertay University in Dundee is a top place for computer games degree courses but there are plenty of others, worldwide. These courses do put people on the correct path to join the games industry, and if you are dead set on a career in games, across any discipline, then you should seriously consider one of them. However, you should also bear in mind that if you suddenly decide half way through such a course that it’s not for you, then choosing an institution where it’s possible to switch or perhaps just tweak your course options might be no bad thing.

If doing a dedicated game related degree is not feasible, or you are potentially unsure about what role you want, then getting a good degree in a core academic discipline will serve you very well. Look at English, Maths, History, Physics, Computer Science, to name several solid choices. Many people do an initial core degree, work for a few years and then do a dedicated postgraduate video game Masters degree, once they have more certainty about what they want and need.

This is also the time when it would be valuable to try to get an internship in your chosen field, or a place at a company in the Quality Assurance (QA) testing department. Some of these roles are part time, so can be fitted around a degree. Some are full time jobs which will allow you to get valuable experience after graduation. It’s worth stressing here that QA is not ‘beta testing’ where individuals play an almost completed version of a game. It is an important and often tricky job within game development where you test games intensively, usually sections of games, finding and reporting bugs. It is generally, although not always, a junior job and you can sometimes get work with few or early stage qualifications. That said, it is a vital job, and good testing jobs at very well-known companies will naturally require some qualifications.
Stage 3: Entry Level Game Design Jobs

The catch-22 of requiring work experience to get work is common within the game design discipline, but there are ways around it. As mentioned above, QA is a very good place to start for many designers, even after becoming qualified to degree level. Many companies actively promote good QA testers into the design team. This is because QA testing will allow you to experience the complex realities of working on a game and that practical experience is invaluable.

Other junior design roles are available, but you will need to be persistent and enthusiastic about the industry you hope to enter. It should go without saying that if you are applying for a position, you should be very familiar with the company and the product. With little or no experience, you really will need to be able to demonstrate your design ability through some sort of tangible artefact such as a working game prototype. This is something that doing a game related degree will help you with, as you will certainly graduate with a portfolio of prototype game projects and some knowledge of working in teams. On the other hand, you will be investing years of time and money into studying, so don’t let it completely define your decisions.

Some Final Words

In conclusion, a career in Game Design is a worthwhile, lifelong endeavour, so don’t be discouraged. For me, personally, studying mathematics at university level was by far the best option as a game economy designer although I also went on to study game development at Masters level. I knew roughly what I wanted to do, back then, but very little of the well-meaning advice I received as a teen reflected the rapidly evolving situation in the industry. It is certain that similar changes will happen for us all in the future. The best advice I can give is to love and play games, keep up with developments, study as broadly as you can, but prepare to be flexible, adjusting your goals as you learn more about what suits you as an individual within this extraordinary industry.

Good luck!

Charles Lees-Czerkawski

To Beta or not to Beta: That is the Question!


I've been working on a big research and writing project throughout Covid - a piece of narrative non-fiction that seems like a companion book to A Proper Person to be Detained

The Last Lancer is about the Polish side of my family, especially the grandfather I never knew - his background, his milieu and what became of him. It's a good story but it was probably the most difficult thing I have ever had to research and write. I now have a draft that I can send to my publisher. It will need more work, but I'm at the stage where I've done a lot of revision, but I don't know whether it's good or bad or indifferent. What I need now is time and distance and a fresh pair of eyes. 

Eyes I trust. 

When I was chatting about this on Facebook, somebody asked if I didn't use some kind of market research and let other people read it at this stage to judge the response. It's a fair question, because I know a number of writers who do just that and find it very useful. They call them Beta Readers, a select group of people who will give feedback on a reasonably early draft. 

The term originates with Beta Testers in the video games industry, although it's worth pointing out that Beta Testers aren't there to shape or question the essential idea and structure of the game, nor even its development. That is done by teams of professionals. They are there to discover annoying glitches in the almost ready project, and their parallel in the world of publishing is probably a copy editor - somebody who spots all your silly mistakes, the punctuation glitches, the names that change, the infelicities, the repeated words and so on. 

My gut response to that perfectly reasonable question was 'Noooo!' It surprised me that I had such a visceral reaction, but like many writers, I can hardly bear to talk in any detail about what I'm writing while I'm writing it, let alone allow anyone to read it. If I do that too soon, it so often melts away, like snow in sunshine, leaving a little puddle behind. I don't  even let my supportive husband read it at this stage. Not even when I've written it and done some revisions and have a decent early draft.  

All the same, you reach a point where you are too close to the wood to see the trees. At that stage you need to hand the manuscript over to some trusted individual, an editor, a publisher, an agent if you have one. 

I have many friends who are great readers, but I wouldn't want any of them to read an early draft of a book. 

Beta Readers may work well and if they work for you, that's fine. Every writer is different. But they're not for me. Partly it may be that I've taught creative writing to mixed groups who critiqued each other. Often, with the best will in the world, and often without knowing they're doing it, people will critique a piece of work according to the way they would have written it themselves, and that isn't always what's needed. Sometimes, too, a reader and a book are just not a good fit. Nothing wrong with the reader but nothing wrong with the book either. 

The other difficulty is that at this stage, too many different opinions may be problematic. One or two trusted professionals - that's fine. But even then, I've experienced two different agents reading the same novel and recommending that I remove a third of it. One was certain it should be the first third and one the last third. (I did neither although there were significant edits!) On another occasion, a young intern at an agency read a book called The Physic Garden, later beautifully published by Saraband, and said that it was 'just an old man telling his story'! I don't blame her. It simply wasn't for her. And it is a bit of a Marmite of a book. When people love it they really love it, but a few readers dislike the narrator (the old man telling his story) and tell me so. That's fine. He's crabbit. I'm very fond of him. 

Then there was an early experience of a play developed over several weeks of rehearsal, about which - after a very successful production  - the director pointed out that I had been 'far too accommodating' with editorial suggestions. I should have fought more, he said and I think he was right. 

I wouldn't use Beta Readers myself, although I would use an experienced editor, one who would ask all the right questions. But I'm old and wise enough (I hope) to  know what works for me. 

Essentially, whatever works for you is good, but remember that not everyone will like your book or your characters. That doesn't necessarily mean that there's anything wrong with them. 

Finally there is one bit of advice that may be useful. Beware of anyone attempting to rewrite for you. The best editors or directors or producers - in fact anyone who comments on your work - will never attempt to do this, although they may point out sentences or even paragraphs that are unclear or don't work effectively. What they will do is query and question you intensively, these days using Track Changes software, so that you can have an online conversation about the manuscript. The best editors will look at structural problems if there are any. Then they will hone in on those parts of the book or play that you have been most uncertain about - and there will be many uncertainties, if you're honest with yourself. He or she will ask the right difficult questions and in finding the answers to these questions, you'll make the piece of work better.  

This is a difficult, professional job. Choose your help wisely. 

Money Matters

Where's that pot of gold?

This is the time of year when we think about money. This year we're thinking about it more than most, with our energy bills about to rise, the prices in the shops already going up, and our annual paperwork revealing just how little we have earned, yet again, for large amounts of work. The accountant and I have just had our annual 'this time next year we'll be millionaires' conversation and even he has noticed that it's all wearing a bit thin.

We're told that Arts and Culture contribute £8.5 billion to the UK economy. So how come all the writers and artists I know, and we're talking full time or almost full time, long term professionals here, not hobbyists, make so very little cash? Every year in every way, we seem to do more work for less money. 

Where is it all going? 

And what, if anything, can we do about it? 

I don't have any easy answers to these questions, by the way. I'm just throwing them out there as points for discussion, because until we debate this, things can only get worse. 

Is it because people believe that anyone can put words on a screen or on a piece of paper? Maybe they're right. Maybe there is so much free stuff out there that people don't see why they should have to pay for it. Do artists have the same problem? Probably. 

I'm always a bit phased by writers who boycott Amazon, but are OK with people buying a single second hand copy of a book and then passing it around several friends. Do people ever stop to think about where the money to pay the writer -  or, indeed, the publisher - comes from in that situation?

I dimly remember a time when I made a decent living out of my writing. My husband was working as a woodcarver and I was writing mostly radio drama, with a little bit of television and theatre. TV was the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow but I never did enough of it to get rich. But radio paid reasonably well, and with one or two good drama commissions each year, as well as a bit of tutoring here and there, the odd story or feature article, a review or two for a newspaper, we were OK. 

Remember reviews? Newspapers with decent circulations used to pay professionals for reviews and freelance articles. Alan, meanwhile, was making new hand carved rocking horses  and restoring old ones. as well as working on some spectacular outdoor carvings. Again, we made no fortunes, but we could pay our bills and have the occasional treat. We made a living.

Now, many of the 'extras' that used to provide a decent portfolio of work have evaporated. Instead 'creatives' need to spend more and more time and money on promotion, time that we used to spend on the actual creative work. 

Once again, this is not so much a complaint as something that should be up for discussion. There are no easy answers. But I know very few full time creative people who make anything like a living from their work. People often come late to a creative career when they have a reasonable pension from a completely different job. They don't have to make money. The rest of us muddle along as best we can. Not very well at all. 

Writing Advice: Getting the Details Right

This isn't really a 'how to write' blog. But I've been writing in so many different media for so many years now, that occasionally things occur to me that may be useful for people who are just starting out on the long road to publication or production. I used to teach Creative Writing for various organisations, so I have a good idea of what works and what doesn't. For the New Year I've dug out my big folder of 'how to' notes and I'll be including an occasional post with what I hope may be useful advice. Some of it should be self evident - but isn't always. 

I've been reading a contemporary thriller. I won't name it, even though it's a very good read. It fairly gallops along with plenty of surprises along the way, although less than half way through, I've guessed at least part of the ending. That, though, is more my problem than the writer's. The more you write yourself, the more you tend to be able to guess what's going to happen next. 

No. The niggling irritation involved a garden. 

The story is set in spring (I think) a warm late spring, in the South of England. The house has a big garden. Early on, we're told that it is full of wild garlic and lavender. Now, although wild garlic flowers and scents the air with its wonderful pungency through the spring of the year, it tends to be found more in ancient woodlands, bluebell woods in particular, flowering from April to June after which it is masked by other growth. By May, the scent of bluebells usually takes over. Lavender stays green throughout the year in mild climates, so that's fine. Although it wouldn't be all mixed up with the garlic. Later though, that same day, we're told that the garden is miraculously full of flowers including foxgloves, night-scented stock, hyacinth? As any gardener, even the most amateur among us, knows, your foxgloves and night scented stock are summer flowers. Hyacinths? Not so much. Not even bluebells if that's what's meant. 

We all get details wrong. But it is this kind of precise detail that can pull the reader right out of the story, challenging her willing suspension of disbelief. On reflection, it's indicative of a wider problem, because I'm still not 100% sure at exactly what time of year the story is set. Sometimes it feels like summer but other details mean it must be spring. In which case, yay for the wild garlic and hyacinths. Not so much for the foxgloves and night scented stock.  

It shouldn't matter at all. But it sort of does. It irritates, because this is a much lauded traditionally published novel and it's exactly the kind of thing that a good editor should immediately pick up on, writing 'flowers? time of year?' in Track Changes. Then perhaps even extrapolating from that a question about timescales, the when of the story. That's what good editors do. They pick up on the small things with wider implications. They ask the right questions and in finding the answers, you, the writer, make the piece of work better. 

So much of writing involves finding exactly the right word. That goes for things as simple as garden flowers, as well as complex emotions. If you're not a gardener, then Google is your friend.