What If Opportunity Knocks When You’re Out Making Opportunities?

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First off, I’d just like to say it’s nice to be back here at Magical Words hanging with my friends. I wish Faith’s hubby a speedy recovery and assure all of you that she’ll be back here next week on her regularly scheduled day, with more tales from Jane & Beast and more awesome writing and career advice.

Today I want to talk about Opportunity. We hear all the time that opportunity only knocks once, as though there was some dude wandering around the neighborhood handing out careers like they were Super Saver coupon booklets. I say that opportunity is like a ninja, a stealthy little bugger that sneaks up on you when you’re not looking and says “Hi! I’m a potentially life-altering chance that only happens because you’re right here right now. Are you ready for me?”

At least that’s how my life and career have gone. I’ve made a habit of taking every opportunity that presents itself, no matter how strange it may seem at the time. And it’s worked out pretty well so far. This is a path that has led me from theatre, to writing hundreds of articles for the internet gaming industry, to writing and self-publishing poetry, to self-publishing fantasy novels, to a six-book deal with Bell Bridge and leaving a sixteen-year sales career to write full time.

Here’s a classic example of something that worked out better for me than it had any right to. Once upon a time I self-published a couple of books. I had sold a few copies, and was looking for opportunities to promote them. So I googled fantasy conventions in the Carolinas, and found a small convention in Columbia, SC called RoundCon. I emailed the con organizer and said that I’d like to be a guest. They said “okay” and I pointed the Silverado south and set up my little table of books. I looked around at who was next to me, and saw table cards with names like Misty Massey, Kalayna Price and Faith Hunter. And not very many more.

Since Misty, Faith, Kalayna and I made up four of the six writers at the con, and we outnumbered the attendees at almost every panel, we spent all weekend together, got to know each other, and became friends. Now a couple years later and I’m happy to call them some of my best friends, and here I am writing on their website for the second time talking to all of you. All because I sent an email to Sean at RoundCon and made the opportunity to meet these people.

I hit the convention circuit pretty hard this year, and that has led to multiple other opportunities, including editing a pair of anthologies for a small press and contributing stories to another three. All because I happened to be at dinner with the right (or wrong) people at the right time. This will likely lead to other opportunities down the road, not just for me, but for my collaborator on these anthologies, who happened to be in the right place in the right time and volunteered to help out with stuff. So because she was willing to help out with a project when it was free, as soon as there was money available, I volunteered to split it with her.

I’ve managed to have drinks or dinner with everyone from Joe Haldeman to Brandon Sanderson, just by being there, being pleasant to be around, and having a generally good time whenever I’m at a con. It helps that I love cons and I love fandom. I really do believe that fantasy and science fiction fans are among the best in the world, and I love getting the chance to hang out with fans and creators. Because the creators are the biggest fans of all! One of my favorite memories from LibertyCon will always be standing up at the end of a panel and announcing that we have to go, but I was hungry and going for pizza, then inviting the whole room to come with me. About half a dozen people joined me for pizza, and we continued the conversation for another hour and a half. That was a ton of fun, and the pizza was pretty good, too! 

My point to this is that if you sit at home waiting for Opportunity to knock on your door, you could grow old before you start a career. For every person who does things “the right way” by querying a billion people and being patient and proper, there’s another who’s out there hustling and making their own opportunities, getting to know people and making real connections. At the end of the day, this is a business, and people like to do business with people they know, people they’re comfortable with, and people they enjoy being around. 

Obviously my career advice will be different from a lot of people. And your mileage certainly may vary. I’m naturally gregarious, the “one in every crowd” as the country song goes. My approach to making friends and making opportunities for myself would never work for a more shy, retiring type of person. But if you’re naturally outgoing – use that. If you’re funny – use that. If you’re the best writer since Patrick Rothfuss – then I’m jealous. And use that.

Here’s my challenge to all of you – take a look at your career as a writer. What opportunities are you not taking advantage of? Is there an awesome critique group in your area that you’re not part of? Is there a con you’re not going to? Is there a party at a con that you’re not going to? Is there a friend who’s offered a helping hand that you haven’t taken advantage of?

And then the flip side – what are you doing to help other people get a leg up? To spin John Donne in a less morbid direction, each writer’s success adds to my success. Each writer’s victory is a victory for me. And for you. Now stop waiting for somebody to knock on your door, and go kick down a few doors of your own. 

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13 comments to What If Opportunity Knocks When You’re Out Making Opportunities?

  • Great to have you here, John, and not just because you cite John Donne 🙂 This is a great point and you are such a good person to make it. Sometimes opportunity seems to come only to those we might call opportunists! I have similar stories of things which emerged from chance encounters when I’d actually gone out and done something instead of sitting at home twiddling my thumbs. The Macbeth novel is a case in point: a project that emerged from a chance meeting at a con, and was drafted 3 months later. You have to go out and make things happen.

  • The John Donne reference was all for you, AJ. It’s important to remember that even though writing is often a solitary existence, that really, really good things can happen when we do tear ourselves away from the keyboard and interact with other people. As long as you get your word count done!

  • Hi John! Great to see you here!

    My first reaction to this post was, “Crap. I am one of those shy people.” Because I can be shy. And I have things in my life that limit the amount of participation I can have, from a demanding day job to my MS. But then I realized that I’m not shy. Not entirely, not anymore. I’ve been pushing myself, putting myself out there. Like flying across the continent to meet some awesome writers at a convention just because I interact with them on the Internet. And being at a dinner table with local authors during a conference and creating a group to meet and chat about writing, and finding a perfect in-person critique partner from it. If you’d asked me a few years ago, I’d have doubted such a thing would ever happen to me.

    And opportunity exists online, even for the shy or extra-busy. There are a lot of great contests and chances to interact with people on the Internet, on Facebook and Twitter. An agent who saw me post a snippet on a certain prominent blog has asked me to send three chapters when they’re ready. The open door calls for submissions that publisher Angry Robot and its YA imprint Strange Chemistry have annually now are pretty awesome, too. I have writing friends from the Internet that I’m so happy to have made. Beta-reading with online groups has pushed me to learn how to give (and, *gulp*, receive) critiques, and I firmly believe that it’s improved my writing. I’ve learned that I have strong copy-editing skills that I bring to the table. And being encouraging and cheering on other writers (especially on Twitter) not only creates a great sense of community, it just feels good.

    I will say this, though: there have been times where I’ve said no to an opportunity because it didn’t feel right. I used to dabble in webzines, and one person I knew from forums a decade past wanted to create a ‘zine with me. We spent a few *weeks* talking about it, until I realized that he wanted to provide the webspace, and pretty much have me do all the work when I had too much going on already. I had to tell him no, even after getting excited about something that maybe could have had potential. So being a little bit cautious can be helpful, too.

    Okay, hope that wasn’t too long. Great post! I love opportunities. It’s amazing what can happen. 🙂

  • I definitely wish I could hit more cons, but more than one a year right now’s prohibitively expensive for our bank account, and this year was worse than last. Last year we managed ConCarolinas, but we didn’t have the money to travel this year, thanks to a loss of bonus structure at the wife’s workplace. Still, we hit MarCon this year, and even though I didn’t get to really talk too much with people, except Faith as we passed from place to place and a stint with David in the hall, it was a fun time. Next con I hit, I want to plan a day without the little’n along for networking purposes. Can’t really take her to hang out at the bar and she gets bored just sitting in one place for too long. Though we did drop by the ConCarolinas party with her, we had to leave early. She had fun though while she was awake. 😉 Next time I’m thinking of bringing someone who won’t mind watching her for that sort of stuff. She enjoys the cons too much to leave her with the grandparents for a weekend.

    Considering checking into Context next year (www.contextsf.org), another local (Columbus, Ohio) con that’s for spec-fic and related games, comics, and films. Never been to that one and they’re already on number 26!

    As I’ve mentioned on here before, I am shy and introverted, a tad pessimistic, so it takes me a bit to build up confidence to open my mouth. But I’m supposedly funny, so I’ve been told. Don’t think I’m the best writer since Patrick Rothfuss, however. I’m up there though, so says my carefully cultivated and still somewhat small vain side. 😉 Don’t know if I can believe him though. He thinks that song is about him…

  • Thanks for being here today, John. The hubby is doing well after his proceedure, despite a late afternoon post surgical complication that had me calling the surgeon, and then calling in the family surgical tech to evaluate my own evaluation, and then 3 hours of pressure and ice. (rolls eyes) Nothing is ever easy with the hubby. Today is much better and will continue to be if I can keep him still and quiet.

    I was so shy (pre publication) that I never said a word to anyone about anything and never went to a con and … And post publication, I knew I’d have to create an alter-ego and find a way to become gregarious. It was dang hard, and sometimes I’d look in the mirror and wonder who that person was. But I did find her inside me, and over the years, I’ve incorporated her into me. It can be done.

    MW itself was the result of one of those chance encounters you mention. Life is full of them, and when we grab the ones that our inner selves cry out for (and run like heck from the ones our inner selves warn us about, as Laura did) we can move forward into the furure with confidence and success. As you have done.

  • Great point genially made, John! Nice to see you on MW again. I don’t have much to add or elaborate on, but I’m definitely looking forward to scaring up some ninjas in Charlotte.

    Also, if your victory is my victory… why are you hogging all the scotch and brownies? (j/k)

  • Faith, I’m so glad to hear everything is going well with hubby. Please give him my best.

    Laura brings up a good point – not every opportunity is a good one. Sometimes you just have to determine if something passes the “sniff test,” as I call it. If it doesn’t smell right, it probably isn’t. And don’t be afraid to say no. People will respect you more if you turn down an opportunity because you’re overworked, or can’t make it this year, or whatever, as long as you’re honest with them. It’s better to step away from something early than to take on a project that you can’t deliver on.

    And here’s an opportunity for folks that like to read comments – one of my books, Genesis, is free on Amazon today. So if you want to read something I’ve written, check it out! It’s free today only.

  • I am also shy and reserved, although in my professional (non-writing) life I’ve overcome that. Like Faith, I basically created an outgoing alter-ego for my jobs, which have all involved spending time in front of groups as a teacher or trainer. When I used to travel for work I learned the art of small talk and getting comfortable around new people quickly.

    Now I’m working on transferring that skill to my writing life, which has always been personal and mostly for my eyes only. Making myself be more outgoing about my writing is as hard as making myself sit down and actually write, but I’m getting better. MW has really helped me improve at both.

    Faith–glad to hear your husband is doing better.

  • Great to see you here, John. And as A.J. says, you really are the perfect person to write this, not only because you have seized opportunities, but also because you always bring positive energy to whatever room or crowd you’re in. That’s a gift. I made up my mind with THIeFTAKER that I would not leave any opportunities on the table. I was going to work my tail off — either the book would do well or not, but if the results weren’t what I wanted, it wouldn’t be because I didn’t try to make it happen. The jury is still out on how it’s done, but I feel good about how I’ve taken control of the process, and that in and of itself is worth something.

  • Great post John and I second everything you’ve said. I’ve gotten a lot of opportunities just from hanging out and from asking questions. I recently published a short story in a new online literary journal called Drafthorse (check it out, it’s pretty cool–on “work and no work.”) I met the editor at a conference and asked if they would be interested in a spec fic story (’cause it’s a literary journal). She said “sure! Send it!” So I did. And they took it. 🙂

    Asking to help folks is a good way to do stuff–even if you’re scared to do it. I certainly was. It took half a (really strong) drink at FandomFest for me to look at John and say “hey, can I help edit Big Bad? I’ll do it for free.” And, as he mentioned, it turned into something even bigger. And he offered to pay me, which is nice. 🙂 (Thanks, btw.)

    Daniel> Context in Columbus is a really cool conference–or it was a few years ago when I went. Small, lots of helpful folks, a lot of fun. One author I know met her publisher there years ago and is no pubbing with pocket books. Definitely check ’em out if you can!

  • Gypsyharper

    So far I’ve only been to MISCON, which is my local Con, but I go every year and love it. I’m pretty shy, at least until I get to know people, so actually meeting people is difficult, but I think I’m getting better. Diving into the commenting communtity here at MW was actually kind of a big step for me, but everyone has been so kind and welcoming that it’s really fun. I would love to make it out to ConCarolinas at some point to meet you all.

    My writing partner and I started our own critique group, as there wasn’t really one in the area (at least, not that we knew of) for fantasy/science fiction writers. I only recently started writing again after a loooong hiatus and am really just trying to get into good writing habits, get stuff written (I guess those are kind of the same thing) and meet other writers – online as well as in person. Thanks for the great ideas!

  • Great post John! It links in my mind to John Scalzi’s recent blog post about being a self-made man in which he thanked all the people who helped him get where he is today. I never would have gone to cons for writing contacts if PeaFaerie hadn’t convinced me to go with her. I wouldn’t have learned as much or as soon about writing if I hadn’t attended panels and workshops with the MW writers. I would have quit trying several times over the years if I didn’t have a writing partner (Pea again) who’s relentlessly optimistic. I wouldn’t have sold the short stories I’ve sold or gotten positive query responses without honest feedback from the betas. And I would never have pitched that antho idea on my own – it took J Mulvihill saying “yeah! great idea” and then poking John. Every time I’ve succeeded in my career as a writer it’s been because I was involved in some sort of a mutually helpful relationship. I think Ed Schubert said something similar about networking a while back – don’t go to to cons looking for someone to help you, but looking for opportunities to click with other like minded people and help them out. That’s when networking succeeds and opportunities get made.

  • You all raise some good points, and it’s more than just cons, too. There are opportunities locally, and it’s cool to see some of you making your own instead of waiting for things to come to you. Remember, it’s YOUR career, and no one will be more interested in your career than you will. And hey, if there’s anything I can do to help out, let me know. Y’all know where to find me!