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Meunier's guide to games journalism is thorough, sober

5:30 PM on 08.05.2013 // Niero Desu

Up Up Down Down Left Write

I don't know Nathan Meunier personally, but after powering through his book on freelance games writing I can tell that the man has been through the trenches -- and still managing to thrive within them.

Up Up Down Down Left Write is an unflattering and practical guide to living the dream; an earnest look into the geek-glamorous lifestyle of the paid videogames publication word-spewer, and how to sneak in uninvited. This book is as useful as it is just outright brutal, and that's what makes it a page-turner. Meunier does not skirt around the fact that website and magazine editors have 1,000 perfectly valid reasons to turn you down, and only the most creative and pragmatic will succeed.

When you're just 18 pages deep he asks: "Are you scared yet?"

A checklist light on sugar coating

The 250-ish page book is broken out into four major parts, each roughly broken out into ten chapters which are about seven or eight pages deep. You can easily motor through it in under an hour or two, as it's written in plain conversational geek-speak with enough Star Wars and Mega Man references to keep mucky topics like "Pay Rates" and "Moving Hell" a little less gross. I was pleased to find that it touches on what its really like to work for undercapitalized fan sites all the way up to the larger publications, and prepares you for your first review assignment while working on your solution against Catch 22: sites only want to hire people with experience, but nobody is seemingly hiring.

In part one, "Underwear and Keyboards," Meunier covers the ups and downs of the starving writer lifestyle, the importance of routine, and properly checks your expectations. Part two has some of ugly useful stuff: dealing with late paychecks, the brutal tax position you must prepare for, and entire chapters written around topics like "The Pros and Cons of Writing for Free," down to describing his "polygamous relationships" with multiple gaming outlets (eww). Part three gives a practical overview of the actual work, and the book wraps with an appropriate "Survival" emphasis once you jam your foot in the door.

No shortage of real-world examples you can use

I was impressed to find that some of Nathan's best kept secrets are reprinted: I particularly enjoyed reading example cold pitches to editors of top websites (page 122), and additional informal examples are touched in Chapter 29. There are also solid guidelines on what not to generally do, such as sending general pitches into an already healthy magazine. It's notable that in most examples he's made face time with the editors previously, following his own advice to attend conventions and make a good impression (Chapters 5 and more in Part IV). It's also not short of little gems and nuances about the ecosystem of working and binge-drinking (page 228) with the gaming press. For example, on page 33 he says "editors aren't shy about sharing names of writers who've wronged them." 

Like Mr. Munier, I'm also a person whom is obsessed with not only videogames, but also how videogame magazines and publications function, live, and die. Even if you have zero interest in business plans it is fundamental that you understand the challenges that Editor-in-Chiefs face, and how your wet dream of being a games writer can co-exist in a publishing ecosystem that has flushed 3/4 legacy gaming magazines listed in his opening introduction.

Oddly enough, the entire read reminded me of my earlier career as a freelance web designer and animator years before I had the crazy idea of building Destructoid. All of the mistakes I made trying to make that business work are eerily reproduced here: not minding your cash-flow and solely focusing on producing great work will soon find you starving and miserable with a degree on the wall and a dazzling portfolio -- all en route to your parent's basement.

Other required readings and reality checks

As thorough as this book is, you're going to need a few other books to round out your education as a well-rounded games writer. The Video Game Style Guide, On Writing Well, and brushing up on basic HTML and social media marketing wouldn't be a bad idea. The freelancer not paying attention to video going to have a tougher time, in my experience. Chapter 5's "Five Ways to Get your Name Out There" could easily be its own book, as building your own traffic and notorious following is vital to breaking from the pack.

That said, if you're not thinking about video you're going to struggle.

Even if you do and get everything right after reading this book, however, be ready to lose your perfect article pitches to an ADHD comedian or eSports player on YouTube. Video is completely changing the landscape for games critics. I'm not saying they're replacing games writers, but they are a new part of our ecosystem and will definitely cut into the pitches you're hoping to land. I recently spoke to an old pro (whom I shall not name) who couldn't get a PR person to pay attention to him because Tobuscus was in the building.

Personally, I would recommend that students enroll in modern video courses than go after journalism degrees if they want to work in the gaming industry ten years from now. Or both.

Still, this underscores my favorite reason to recommend this book: it constantly reminds you that at once you must be personable, unafraid, adaptable, and possibly a little insane to make it. For those that dare to dream, Up Up Down Down Left Write can be life-changing.

Niero Desu, Blogsmith
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