Failure, Success, Gratitude & Growth | Gimme Schalter №2
A few weeks ago I stepped out my front door to run a couple errands, checked my phone, and saw an email that froze me solid.
“After reading it and taking some time to consider it carefully, I’ve decided the article is not the right fit for [our] audience,” it read. Still stuck on my front porch, I frantically scanned the rest. An editor I was working with for the very first time, at an outlet I’d been excited to break into, was telling me the story I’d just filed had missed the mark so badly there was no point in giving me a second shot. They were simply offering me a kill fee and moving on.
In over a decade of freelancing, I’d only been offered two kill fees ever. Once, the entire website got shut down just after I’d filed. The other, the editor changed their mind on the angle so many times that the story had become moot by the time I finished my third rewrite.
I’d never just written something unfixably broken — at least, never before July 2021.
If you read the first issue of “Gimme Schalter,” you know this gut-punch hit me at a time when my confidence as a writer was already at rock bottom. But I still believed there was a great story in that piece, and an audience that would love it. I did the only thing I could: pitch it to another outlet I wanted to break into, and start working on the next story…
From Zork to Final Fantasy VII: Remake Intergrade, my wife and I have loved video-game RPGs all our nearly 40-year-long lives. But throughout months of trying to play Genshin Impact with our kids, a dark thought has haunted us: We’re getting too old for this shit.
Genshin Impact launched last September with everything a new Japanese-style RPG needed to win over even the most jaded gamers. A gorgeous open world, a huge cast of appealing characters and strong storytelling pulled players into fantasy settings inspired by the homeland of Chinese developer miHoYo. A global marketing blitz had millions of gamers saying the same thing my wife did: “Have you seen these ads for Genshin Impact? It looks really cool.”
But somehow, this was also a free-to-play mobile game with loot boxes and gacha mechanics — and all of that tied into the character upgrades, skill systems and even storylines. Was this a triple-A JRPG, or anime Fortnite?
My wife played it like The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, exploring the countryside and looting every bokoblin — er, hilichurl — she encountered. I tried to power up my favorite characters, even though their story quests were restricted to levels it felt like I’d never reach. We played almost every day, but our kids kept getting farther ahead of us. I filled out a player-experience survey, and the birth-year field went all the way back to my own (1981) before the final option: “1980 or earlier.” As far as miHoYo’s concerned, if you’re 40 you might as well be 100.
I grew up on Xenogears and Final Fantasy Tactics. Could I really be too grown-up for Genshin Impact? I strapped sandals over my socks and went on TikTok to ask some Zoomers.
What they told me became the heart of my debut for Waypoint: “How ‘Genshin Impact’ Creators Handle a Multi-Generational Audience.”
I’ve admired the work of the Waypoint crew for years, and I’m thrilled have a byline there. It’s also my first time being published by VICE Media in a while, after being a regular at VICE Sports.
Most excitingly for me, it’s my first time my writing’s appeared in a video-game publication in like 25 years — whenever my last letter to the editor ran in Game Players magazine. I’m bringing an old passion to a new audience, and it’s inspiring me to tell new stories in new ways. The research I did is a big part of why you’re now reading this newsletter.
All that aside, though: I’m deeply proud of this piece; I hope you read it and enjoy.
But of course, I’ve been entranced by lots more than just the new Inazuma content drop lately.
Before I link out to all the awesome stuff that’s been lighting up my neurons this week, I have to light up the world’s biggest thank-you sign to all the many, many friends and followers who shared the first issue of Gimme Schalter, and in the process said all kinds of absolutely amazing things about me and my work. I’m supposed to be a wordsmith, but I struggle to describe how, just, overwhelmed I was with joy and gratitude. I felt like I was Jimmy Stewart at the end of “It’s a Wonderful Life,” minus the object lesson on federal banking regulation.
As some of you guessed, the announcement tweet itself was crafted (set in the middle of a long-but-not-epic thread, with a picture, after a prompt to QRT it) to beat Twitter’s suppression of off-site links, discussed in that first issue:
The public stat line on this tweet doesn’t look like much: 141 retweets, 129 quote-retweets, and 293 likes. But it generated a bananas 1.3 million impressions and over 14,000 engagements, about a tenth of which were link clicks.
Compare that to my all-time most-viewed tweet, which in 2017 pulled 4.8 million pairs of eyeballs — but needed over 29,000 retweets to do it. If you needed proof QRTs now get way, way more attention than straight RTs, here you go.
Simone Biles’ withdrawal from the Olympic team gymnastics event rekindled all the hot takes that ignited during Naomi Osaka’s withdrawal from the French Open. It also reminded everyone that just putting on a USA Gymnastics leotard and stepping into the gym to begin with was an incredible ask of Biles, one of Larry Nassar’s victims.
My youngest daughter was on the competitive team at former U.S. head coach John Geddert’s gym as the allegations broke. I wrote for Huffington Post in 2018 about how our family struggled mightily with balancing our child’s safety with the sport she loved — a balance no parent, or child, should have to strike. Dvora’s piece isn’t just excellent, it hits very close to home.
- “Do Hippos Count as Dragons: An Examination of Identification and Taxonomy” by Sarah Gailey, for Tor.com.
Gailey is a master of the double-edged linguistic sword: they cut themself, and you bleed.
Somehow, this piece is exactly what it says on the tin: An examination of how and why we humans label things — especially humans — conducted through the lens of a a meme-y Internet Argument Question. I am going be thinking about “please try to understand me as hard as I am trying to understand you” quite a lot, for quite a while.
For lots, lots more of this deeply-personal-and-vulnerable-yet-universally-insightful writing and thinking and also recipes, go ahead and subscribe to their newsletter Stone Soup.
This is just remarkable writing, reporting, and storytelling in service of a terrific (and important) story. Despite being a New York magazine feature about what we think of as a well-known Obama-era controversy, it will make you think “How come I didn’t know about this? How come no one is talking about this?” at every turn.
If you ever want to walk into a bookstore and see a book you wrote on the shelf, you’ll almost certainly need an agent. Sending a query letter to literary agents is the first step in turning ‘Giant Text File That Consumes All My Mental Energy’ into ‘A Book.’ Like every step in the publishing process, this is both shrouded in mystery and has a cottage industry of advice-givers and grifters who say they can get you and your project to the next step.
In this thread, Laura gives away the game. It’s an absolutely invaluable guide to removing “speedbumps” between your work and agents who’d love to represent it.
Laura is not only a living, breathing literary agent with her own agency, she’s an outspoken advocate for making the publishing world better and friendlier for everyone involved. For years I’ve subscribed to her fantastic podcast “Print Run,” with Headwater Lit co-founder Erik Hane. They’ve even critiqued my query letter for my in-progress novel, Codex 17, on-air! Highest rec for anyone who loves books.
Paul Harvey, eat your heart out
…so remember that article draft that missed the mark so badly? The one that drew that gut-punch rejection? Well, you’ve just read it.
That Generational Impact bit above is a version of the intro to what I’d filed to Fanbyte, where I’d first pitched my Genshin Impact article.
And I say “gut punch,” but Fanbyte editor Elise Favis — who gave me permission to recount this story for you all — was extremely kind and professional in explaining why that version of the piece didn’t work for her.
Throughout the drafting process, I’d struggled with how much of myself to put in the story. Sportswriters have had a Napoleon complex about being Real Journalists since long before I was born (snooty old newspaper types used to call the sports section the “toy department”). I made the jump from indie blogger to full-time professional columnist at a time when the digital/print divide was also a Boomer/Millenial culture war AND the flashpoint in industry-wide debates about the merits of access versus insight, expertise versus emotion, and honoring the work versus honoring the audience.
So it’s no wonder there are two wolves inside me: One who wants to stare directly at its navel and whimper about its feelings, and one who wants to land the pitch, get the story and hit the deadline.
My critique partner and sounding board Aidan Moher read an early draft, and encouraged me to feed that inner navel-gazer. My experience wasn’t just the inspiration for the piece, it was the entry point for the audience and emotional through-line of the story.
Reporter Wolf growled at this — I need to IMPRESS this editor, I have to do GOOD work — but I knew Aidan was right. I’d initially waffled between pitching Fanbyte and Waypoint, and ultimately picked Fanbyte because their recently published freelance features showed more room for “I played this game and felt these feelings”-type stories.
I expanded the intro to what you read above, and filed the piece.
Fanbyte has an excellent pitch guide, one that explains exactly what they’re looking for. Elise thought the piece failed on something that’s a bolded, all-caps segment of the guide’s №1 bullet point: “Have a clear ARGUMENT you mean to convince the reader of.”
It was true: After hooking readers with a personal story, I’d gone off and done a bunch of interviews with sources who told me what many gamers (and Fanbyte readers) already knew about how to get good at a new game. I had no thesis, came to no real conclusion, and didn’t mention the personal stuff again until the kicker. In the process, the piece ran much longer than I’d pitched.
I’d been thrilled with the sources I’d found, and the stories they’d told me. I was fascinated by the opportunities and challenges content creators faced entertaining a fandom full of kids, teens, and adults who all thought the game was made specifically for them. I couldn’t imagine the story without their perspectives.
But Elise told me the parts from my perspective were the strongest, and she would have preferred it written as a personal essay. Even then, just cutting out all the interviews wouldn’t have left enough of a story to revise it into something worthwhile. She praised my clean copy, invited me to pitch again — even agreed to entertain a pitch for a different Genshin Impact story! Just not this one.
I felt like my crisis of confidence had sabotaged me. I’d been too scared to put enough of myself out there. Had I relied too much on my ability to Do Work rather than serve the audience?
I tweaked my pitch (including a higher wordcount, hoping I’d find a way to keep everything while revising), and sent it to Waypoint. I started reporting out the potential follow-up story, trying to develop an angle that would succeed in all the ways I’d originally failed.
When Waypoint’s Rob Zacny accepted the pitch for the first story, I found myself back at Square One, squared: Even more delighted at the opportunity to try, and even more terrified to fail.
I revised it with a focus on that personal angle, tying each creator’s story back to my own. I expanded the conclusion, and looped it back to the intro. I had my wife read a draft to make sure she was okay with everything I’d shared, and she choked up while reading it. I was as sure as I could be that I’d threaded the needle.
Rob told me to cut the personal stuff.
Darkness took me. And I strayed out of thought and time. Stars wheeled overhead, and every day was as long as the life age of the Earth. But it was not the end. I felt light in me again. I’d been sent back, until my task was done.
After setting up the piece as a kind of parenting dilemma, Rob told me, I’d had a lot of “good interviews and discussion” with content creators about the opportunities and challenges they faced serving a fandom full of kids, teens, and adults who all thought the game was made specifically for them.
“It’s a good piece, and it’s what you’ve written,” he said, “but right now it’s not set up by the intro.”
He agreed to let me take a crack at tightening up the beginning, while leaving the personal thread running through the piece. I did just that. After a couple of back-and-forth tweaks, it was done: The published piece at Waypoint.
Writers: Editors are there to help you. They’ll make your piece better. They’ll help you find the heart of the story. They know their audience better than you do, and they want your work to resonate as strongly as possible.
Elise saw my piece as a personal essay that lacked the conviction to make its point, with interviews replacing honesty. Rob saw it as a well-reported story saddled with a long, irrelevant intro. They were both right.
Though the journey was long, the work was hard and the emotional roller-coaster Mangumian, the destination is better than I could have imagined. I’ve established a good working relationship with two new editors, connected with a whole new audience, and got some primo newsletter content out of the experience. Plus, Fanbyte’s kill fee is already in my pocket, with Waypoint’s full rate forthcoming.
None of it would have happened if not for the support, encouragement, and professionalism of all the people who worked with me on this. As tough as the #content game can be, it’s better, easier, and more lucrative for everyone involved when we help each other out.
I hope this helped some of you.