In 1993 I crossed a line. Overnight, I went from “person who watches movies” to “person who is in movies”. This had long been a dream of mine and, as we all know, dreams are simply goals without a plan. I made a plan. Dream became goal. Goal was achieved.
This past weekend I crossed another line. This time I went from “aspiring author who sits in the audience at writing conventions” to “author who speaks on panels at writing conventions”. This had also been a dream/goal of mine, ever since I attended my first SIWC (Surrey International Writing Convention) waaaaaaaaay back when.
I wrote a pithy, business-friendly version of my experience at VCON 39 over on the Warpworld blog but at the behest (AKA aggressive nagging) of my friend Griffin, I decided to write a more meaningful post about the experience here. New slogan: The Coconut Chronicles, where guts come to be spilled!
I won’t post an accompanying image for that slogan.
I’m not going to write an informative, point-by-point breakdown about speaking on panels for newbie authors but if you are a newbie author and you want to get an idea of what the experience is like, read on. IF YOU DARE!
First, let’s talk about why the hell I even got on those panels. After all, I’m a self-published author (gasp), who only has two books (number three is coming soon!) and a handful of published stories and awards under her belt, surely there are more accomplished and talented authors out there? Yep. There are. So what’s the deal?
1) I asked. Simple, really. I wanted to speak on a writing/SFF convention panel, I told people I wanted to do this, and when the opportunity presented itself I threw my name in the hat.
2) I knew someone who was involved with VCON and who would put in a good word for me.
I know what you’re thinking because it is exactly what I once would have been thinking: “Oooooooh, she knew someone.”
Back up. Back way the heck up, buddy.
“Knowing someone” and “Knowing someone who recognizes that you’re a good candidate for the thing they do that you want to be part of” are two very different beasts. The someone in question has seen me in action, online and in real life. They knew that I could do a great job (and I think I did), and so they could confidently put a word in for me without risking their reputation. I would not have been given the same opportunity if I had not always presented the best (see also: most interesting) version of myself when interacting with readers, fellow writers, agents, editors, and publishers. My A game may be a tad quirky (yes, I performed my human bagpipe imitation at a Worldcon party),but I always bring it.
Luck is a factor in any arts career. Don’t like that? Too bad. The trick is working hard enough and putting yourself in enough situations where luck and you can run into each other like you’re in some goofy romcom with Emma Watson and Hugh Grant.
So I worked hard, got lucky, met the right person, asked confidently, and got OK’d for four panels. Yay!
Well, that’s when the work started. When it comes to things I love and want, I’ll be the first to admit I’m a bit of an overachiever. Of the four panels I was on, two seemed pretty straightforward. One was about writing fight scenes, specifically hand to hand combat and weapons. Having punched and having been punched (and kicked and flipped and generally beaten up) in ways too numerous to mention, and with two action-heavy novels with my name on the cover (number three is on the way!) I felt really, really comfortable on this topic. The other panel was about how to start a writing project and see it through all the way to the end. Yep, the queen of goal setting and self-discipline was all good with that one. Sure, I refreshed myself and jotted down notes but I didn’t sweat those panels.
The other two panels were a bit trickier. One concerned perspectives on self-publishing. What made this topic more complicated was that I’m not even close to being a “best seller” in the indie world and I also don’t agree with many of the stances espoused by the “cult of self-publishing”. Further to that, I consider myself a representative of Warpworld so I wanted to make sure that whatever I said my partner wouldn’t disagree or, worse, be embarrassed or offended. For this, I did some extra research and spent a good chunk of time conferring with Josh on how I should present myself (us) up there.
But the panel that had me shaking in my boots was, ironically, a panel that I had submitted for consideration. Titled “After the Battle”, it dealt with the responsibility of writers to accurately portray the aftermath of conflict. It seemed like a good idea when it came to me but once it was real AND I was on it I felt suddenly out of my element. Yes, Warpworld has conflict and in the second book we tackle the aftermath of that to some extent but I have no personal experience with war, battle, PTSD, or the military—as my fellow panelists all did! Worse, I would be sharing the table with David Weber, military SF heavyweight and VCON guest of honour. YIKES!
Thank Cod I know so many knowledgeable and helpful people.
And here is where I pause for a short public service message to aspiring writers. *cue elevator muzak*
The one piece of advice writers are given ad nauseam is “read a lot and write a lot”. It’s good advice. I’ve given it myself. What people don’t often tell you is “live a lot”. Living is where you experience things that can go into your stories. It’s also where you can meet interesting people who possess knowledge that you could not possibly accumulate in your lifetime. Go out of your cave! Do things! Meet people! Live!
Back to the show…
For help with this daunting panel, I called upon my Army of Awesome. Along with the aforementioned Griffin Barber, I reached out to Alistair Kimble, Andy Rogers, Josh Simpson, Deryn Collier, and Liz Meyer. They all gave me a ton of feedback and encouragement. All have some experience or knowledge that I lack, all are people I respect. Let me thank them again, because I should. THANK YOU ALL!!! (Your cupcakes are in the mail).
So, now I was on the panels, I had copious notes, and I was ready to go!
How did it go? To quote Tony the Tiger, “Grrrrrrrrrreat!”
Once the first panel was over and I’d dealt with the nerves—yes, even people who have jumped out of the way of oncoming cars (on purpose) get nervous—I felt right at home. It helps that I am a dyed-in-the-wool ham and love nothing more than a captive audience. (Emphasis on captive). In fact, I can’t wait for the next opportunity, which I will seek out like a thing that seeks out things!
And here’s where I’ll pause again to offer advice to writers who hope to someday cross the line, like I did. The rest of you feel free to stretch your legs or grab a beverage.
I had a great first panel experience because I was worthy of it (I’ve put in over ten years working seriously as a writer), I was (over) prepared for my panels, and I genuinely LOVE talking to people and sharing my enthusiasm for writing and for the genre I write in. Yes, there’s an element of marketing and networking involved but if that’s the only reason you’re on a panel people will smell it, trust me. (I’ve been on the other side of the line long enough to say that with confidence). Respect your audience and never forget what it feels like to be on the other side of the line. Bring your A game (however quirky that may be), be the best version of yourself, have something valuable to offer, and take time to talk to people who come up after the panel to talk to you. If you’re uncomfortable speaking in public (it’s the #1 common fear people have), don’t wait until the day of your panel to deal with that. Join Toastmasters, take acting classes, start speaking at small events to get a feel for it—practice!
Respect, equally, your fellow panel members and moderators. This is not all about you and your book(s). Ideally, this is you and a group of like-minded people entertaining and/or educating a bunch of folks who have given up their precious time to listen to you babble. It’s about them.
And I’m back…
By the end of VCON I was buzzing like a mega hive of killer bees during honey season. (Is there a season for honey? Hmmm.) There’s some switch that flips on in my head when I’m tossed into a conversation with clever, funny, and dynamic people. Introvert I may be, but I love me some cerebral stimulation.
In November I head to World Fantasy Con in Washington, DC. No panels to speak on but a whole bunch of amazing people to meet and re-connect with. (Breakfast Squad, I’m looking at you!)
I may never get rich writing but, holy crap, has it turned out to be rewarding on so many levels. If VCON taught me anything, it is that I am a wealthy, wealthy woman.
Oh, and as for that “someone” that I know. She’s not just a good someone to know, she’s one hell of a great friend.
The line has been crossed. The dream has been realized. And now a new, exciting chapter begins.
What is your line? How will you cross it?