Presenting at Capclave 2014

Capclave 2014, Washington DC's regional SF conferenceOK, you can officially label me as surprised. I just unexpectedly landed a speaking gig at Capclave 2014, the regional SF/Fantasy convention for the Washington DC metropolitan area. Here’s how it happened…

I was attending a WSFA (Washington Science Fiction Association) meeting in early June. If you’re not familiar with WSFA, they’re the organization of volunteers that runs Capclave, as well as administering their annual Small Press Award for new writers, and publishing a few books each year by well-known writers. During the evening, I ended up talking to Cathy Green, the Head of Programming for the convention.

I asked Cathy what it took to qualify as a presenter at Capclave.

Now, I know from the conferences that I attend in my daytime IT career, as well as from the the technical conferences that I run, that you generally start planning your speaking engagements a year or so in advance. At least, you start planning for the ones that you intend to pursue; you don’t necessarily get picked for every conference or convention for which you apply (unless you’re a draw like Neil Gaiman or George R. R. Martin). So, I was really asking so that I could ensure that I’d be ready when I went to pursue a speaking opportunity for 2015.

Yes, that’s right. 2015.

However, Cathy knew some things about me already from previous, unrelated conversations. She knew that I attended two writing groups, that I had extensively researched all things related to indie publishing, and that I had experience running technical conferences in my daytime career (the one that pays the bills). She essentially took me more seriously than I had expected.

Without explicitly saying so, it became clear during our conversation that she was considering me for the 2014 Program. What probably helped was that I wasn’t the slightest bit pushy. I was inquiring about opportunities to present, I wasn’t aggressive, and I was perfectly fine if there wasn’t an opening. Trust me, just being “easy to work with” can go a long way sometimes.

I pitched a couple of ideas for her, including my “Pitfalls of Medieval Fiction Writing” presentation that I’ve been putting together. She didn’t bite on any of the ideas. Not that they were bad, but she had other panels that already covered similar topics.

During our conversation, I mentioned that I was in Toastmasters, which is a non-profit organization that helps people learn public speaking and leadership skills. I added that I had spoken at lots of technical conferences, which is something I’ve been doing since 2007. I figured that if she wasn’t interested in one of my panel ideas, maybe I could be a sort of backup speaker, capable of filling in on panels wherever she had an opening.

Then she asked, “How long have you been in Toastmasters?”

I said, “Four years. I’m closing in on my Distinguished Toastmaster accreditation.”

“Really? Could you give a workshop, say, maybe a 2-hour workshop, on public speaking for writers?”

Needless to say, I was surprised. But what I said was, “Yes. Of course I could do a workshop like that. It would be fun, too.”

So that’s how I landed speaking engagement at Capclave 2014. One of the things the convention organizers pride themselves on is having an excellent track for writers. It turns out that Cathy had a hole in the schedule for the writer’s track, and I had the legitimate skills and experience to craft a workshop that would fill the hole.

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So You Want to Quit Your Day Job?

For me as a writer, one of the most interesting panels at Ravencon was one entitled, “So You Want to Quit Your Day Job?” It featured four relatively new writers who were, in my opinion, extremely open and honest about their experiences.Since I took such copious notes on this session, I decided to devote an entire blog post to it.

Panelists Edmund Schubert, Joelle Presby (moderator), Tim Burke, and James S. Stratton

Panelists Edmund Schubert, Joelle Presby (moderator), Tim Burke, and James S. Stratton at Ravencon 2014.

Here’s what the Program Guide had to say about the session, which was held Saturday, April 26, from 11:00 AM to noon:

So You Want to Quit Your Day Job?
Edmund Schubert, Joelle Presby (moderator), Tim Burke, James S. Stratton

Panelists discuss what you need to consider as you shift careers from corporate employee to something else. Discussion topics include reassessing finances, finding alternative healthcare coverage, managing odd neighbor/acquaintance expectations, defining and defending work hours, refilling the creative well, and more.

Hard as it is, writers enjoy writing. Every writer wants more time to write. However, most writers start out writing on the side while supporting themselves with some sort of day job. Getting to the point where you can quit your day job is hard. Here’s what the panelists had to say about the writing life.

Have You Quit Your Day Job?

What does it take to quit your day job so you can write full-time? The consensus was that it takes money, either money you’ve saved, inherited, or are earning through your writing. How much? Well, that depends on your personal situation.

Joelle Presby, the moderator, had quit her day job six weeks ago, something she was able to do thanks to her husband’s support. Tim Burke quit his job a year ago to focus on writing full-time. He said that he’d hit that magic milestone of 50, and realized, “If I was going to make a stab at it, this was the time.” James Stratton still had his well-paying job as a lawyer for the government, but mentioned that he hoped to retire soon. Edmund Schubert had closed a business, exiting with some reasonable (but not excessive) money, had no debts, and a wife with a salary and benefits. Of this, he said, “I quit my day job because my wife didn’t.”

How Do Non-Writers Look at Writers?

All of the panelists had stories about funny reactions from non-writers. Tim Burke said that when he described a writer’s lifestyle to friends and neighbors, he often got reactions like, “You can do that?” Most people looked at him as a curiosity, an oddity. He added that he had to develop metaphors to speak with ordinary wage earners, because they had no idea how the writing profession worked.

Edmund mentioned that people treated writers like “strangers in a foreign land.” According to Joelle Presby, a common question she received was, “When is the movie coming out?” Again, this showed how little understanding of the writing life most people possessed.

How Have Recent Changes in Publishing Affected Writers?

The panelists also spoke generally about how much the publishing industry has been changing in recent years. Generally, they felt the changes offered more opportunities for writers, but stressed how chaotic and confusing the industry could be today.

Writers need to treat the profession as a business. Edmund mentioned that the rule of thumb for a new business is that it takes five to seven years to break even. He asked, “Why would you think it would be any different for writers?”

What About Healthcare?

Edmund stressed that healthcare was in a state of flux, but that there were healthcare options for writers. He cited the example of C. J. Henderson, a popular and well-regarded writer who was currently fighting a second bout with cancer, sans healthcare. All of the panelists agreed that healthcare was vital.

Do You Need Agents?

None of the panelists had an agent. Additionally, Joelle was picked by David Weber to work with him on the third book in his dimensional war series (taking over from Linda Evans) based on the recommendations of friends. She mentioned that Weber himself has never had an agent (for books anyway — he does have an agent for movie rights).

Several of the panelists noted that both Baen and Tor, the two most popular SF lines, take unagented submissions.

What About Marketing?

The general consensus was that, barring a lucky lightning strike like Fifty Shades of Gray, it takes a concerted effort over a period of time to build a brand.

Different writers market in different ways. John Scalzi blogs, and is known for it. Don’t blog unless you like to, because your readers will be able to tell. Joelle stated that the biggest thing was to get your stories read, to get a novel out there if you can (even a short one), and to start doing the convention circuit to get the word out.

Tim added that new writers needed to be willing to make sacrifices. He said, “It’s like having to build the airplane while it’s flying and people are shooting at it.” There was general agreement that you needed to plan your writing/marketing, execute that plan, and then be willing to make course corrections as needed.

Conclusion

Overall, a well-done session, with the panelists trying hard to address the topics in an informative and useful manner for the audience. As a new writer, I really appreciated how open everyone was. While they didn’t sugarcoat the amount of work necessary to jumpstart a writing career, they all agreed that the rewards of being a writer were worth it.

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