Interview: James Cambias

James Cambias wanted to be a writer since he was 14. What happened? He’ll tell you in this interview.

This is a part of our series of interviews with successful freelancers. Enjoy.

Jim2010

How long have you been freelancing? How and why did you decide it’s what you wanted to do?

Well, it’s what I’ve wanted to do since I was about 14 years old and realized I could write stories. But I shelved that ambition in my teens after a series of extremely well-deserved rejections. I went to college with vague ambitions about becoming a scientist — which didn’t survive second-year math; and then vague ambitions about becoming a historian — which didn’t survive my exposure to modern academic culture. When I graduated I worked in publishing.

But I also got married, and my wife was dedicated to her scientific career. When she entered graduate school at Duke University I couldn’t find any publishing jobs in the area, so I began doing freelance writing again. Instead of fiction I concentrated on roleplaying games and nonfiction articles, and I began to sell steadily. After nearly a decade of that I tried writing fiction again, and this time I succeeded.

Have you noticed the “feast or famine” world that people think about when they picture freelancing?

With me it’s not so much “feast or famine” as “horses getting shot out from under me.” I have a bad habit of developing strong relationships with editors and publishers that then go out of business, leaving me to scramble for new markets. At least three times I’ve been tapped to take on major products by roleplaying game publishers which went out of business before the work could see print. 

Many freelancers today work for clients and also supplement that with their own blogs and books. What’s your approach to maintaining a successful freelance career?

I haven’t shifted entirely away from work-for-hire — I just finished a sourcebook for the Savage Worlds roleplaying game for Pinnacle 51bw6wjlGNL._SL110_Entertainment — but I definitely do more for myself. With my wife and a couple of other people I started a game company called Zygote Games, which publishes science-based card games. I do the game design and editorial work. We’ve got two titles out right now: BONE WARS and PARASITES UNLEASHED.

I also finally sold a novel. It’s called A Darkling Sea, and is due out from Tor Books in January 2014. I’m working hard now to capitalize on that by writing more novels. There’s a second manuscript in the pipeline and a third under construction.

I treat blogging as a mix of promotion and recreation. Currently I have two blogs. One of them “Science Made Cool” is a science blog my wife and I write in order to promote our science games. The other one, “Just the Caffeine Talking” is my personal blog, where I write about stuff I’m working on, my reviews of books and movies, and reprint some of my older roleplaying game material.

In your opinion, what’s the best way to get new clients as a freelancer?

Any way you can. I’ve never been good about keeping up with publishing gossip and whatnot, so I wind up just coming up with ideas and pitching them to markets which look like a good fit for them. I also simply ask editors “what are you looking for?” Email makes that very easy, and doesn’t have the intrusiveness of phone calls. I also talk with science fiction editors and game publishers at conventions.

Drumming up freelance work is probably my weakest area. I read memoirs of old science fiction writers and am intensely jealous that editors like John W. Campbell actually used to send his writers story ideas, or show them cover art and ask them to write stories to fit. I would love that: working to an assignment is always a tremendous spur to creativity.

Tell us what your day is like. How many hours do you work and do you have the flexibility that many freelancers crave?

I’m fortunate in having an understanding spouse and a cheap lifestyle, so I have a lot of flexibility. Because of that, I’m not sure I have many typical days. When my kids are in school I get them onto the bus, then spend four to six hours writing, corresponding, and researching. I often write at coffeeshops rather than at home, as it keeps me from turning into a recluse, and separates my working life from household duties.

When that’s done I like to get in an hour of work around our property — cutting wood, mowing grass, or shoveling snow, depending on the season. It’s cheaper than joining a gym, and there’s no better way to deal with stress than hitting things with an axe.

I don’t work much in the evenings. I use that time for podcasts, blog writing, socializing, or writing games for my regular roleplaying group.

What’s the biggest misconception people have about freelance writers?

I think it’s that we don’t look like we’re working when we are. Fiction, especially, involves a lot of sitting and staring off into space. That’s one reason I find coffee shops useful: I’m not in a position where people can ask me to do things.  

51D1BITAFVL._SL110_Do you have a favorite book about writing or small business that has helped you?

Jeff Vandemeer’s Booklife is a useful, up-to-date book on how to manage one’s writing life as a professional. Stephen King’s On Writing is also entertaining and helpful, and of course Fowler’s Modern English Usage is essential.

What’s your best advice for someone who wants to start freelancing today?

Don’t assume anything will last. Keep developing new markets. Write for royalties rather than a flat fee whenever you can. Proofread your own work and meet your deadlines (and if you can’t make a deadline, let the editor know as far in advance as possible).

Anything you’d like to add?

Freelancing appears to be the way of the future, and not just in writing. This poses problems: a freelancer is both a creator and a hustler, and unfortunately the best hustlers aren’t always the best creators.

Where can we find you online?

My personal blog is at www.jamescambias.com, and I also contribute at www.sciencemadecool.com.

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