Shells Chats with author Robert Harkess

What made you want to start writing?

Reading. I was a voracious reader as a child. I was in awe of these wonderful people who could take me away to unimaginable places. EE 'Doc' Smith, Heinlein, Asimov, and Ian Fleming were some of the key names, along with many others who have sunk into obscurity like Hugh Walters and Brian Earnshaw.

About 15 years ago I decided to have a go myself. I wrote several novels, including a 140k word epic fantasy, but nothing really to submit. Eighteen months ago I got into podcasts, which led me into writing shorts. Since then I've written many shorts and a YA novel. The support networks for writers that exist now are amazing.

What genre is your favorite to write in and why?

At the moment, I'm writing mainly SF, and that's probably because its what I am reading most at the moment. I swing back and forth between SF and Fantasy (Eddings, Feist). SF is what I remember reading first, and I've always been drawn to it. I think I drifted away and into fantasy in the 80's and 90's when SF got a bit too abstract and psychological. I prefer SF with an element of Space Opera, which seems to be coming back into fashion. Having said that, I've also tried my hand at horror and crime, but SF seems to be where I feel most at home.

You have written short stories, what is your favorite character from any of those stories?

A nine year old boy called Paulie in 'Jack In The Box'. He's smart, cheeky and adventurous. Everything I wish I had been. He's also brave. I think he's would grow up into an interesting person

Has any of your stories been published and where can we find them?

I will be appearing shortly on 'Abandoned Towers' web-zine with 'A Light Touch on the Neck', and I have acceptances for two anthologies. The first is 'Jack in the Box' which will be in the Escape Velocity anthogy from Adventure Books of Seattle, and 'Black Rose' which will be in the Monk Punk anthology from Static Movement

Have you ventured into longer works and if so how do you feel that is different than short stories?

I enjoy writing both, but they are very different skills. Shorts have no slack, no space to linger over a thought or a person. The writer has to ruthlessly excise anything that is not absolutely essential to the story. That makes it so much more difficult to give a character any solidity, or to build a sense of a location or situation, even though both are still essential.. It is a strict discipline, but a fun challenge and good experience for any writer.

With longer works there is so much more scope to explore characters and situations in more depth. You are allowed so much more opportunity to develop a plot and to control the pace of the story.

Being a part-time writer, another big difference for me is the commitment. When I write at novel length, I'm investing up to a year of my writing time. I can write a lot of short stories over that same period, obviously.

You have a YA Science Fiction novel you have written, can you tell us a bit about that?

Previously, I had never even considered writing to the YA audience. The story had been noodling around in my head asking to be written for six months or so, but every time I tried to outline it it wouldn't settle, and felt too derivative. Out of the blue, sitting in a caravan in Wiltshire, I came up with Garret, who is the lead character, and who is only fourteen. The rest of the story outlined in three days and I never wrote a first draft so easily or so quickly.
Obviously, I don't want to give too much of the plot away. Garret lives in a tiny community of only 500 people, and his universe is only six floors deep and hour's walk across. That is all his people believe exists, and Garret hates the lack of scope and variety. Then he starts to hear a voice in his head, giving him the security code to an access panel in a far corner of his world. Nobody knows what the panel is for and where it goes, but their is a folklore tale that every hundred years a hero is chosen to go on a mission, from which none have returned.
In some ways, the style is similar to D J MacHale's 'Pendragon' Series, and it is currently out playing the submissions game.

What would you tell a new writer about the world of publishing based on your experience?

That's not easy to answer. I've learned so much in the past eighteen months. And so much depends on why you are writing. Three things stick out, I guess.

Aim high, but be pramatic would be the first. By that I mean that if you have a story that you honestly believe is good enough, start by submitting it to the pro market. But if it doesn't sell there, don't retire it. The semi-pro and 'for the love' markets still get you exposure, and you will learn something from every editor you can get to talk to you.

The second is to research the market before you submit to it. By that I don't necessarily mean reading the content of the magazine first - although that's always a good idea - but check the submission guidelines and follow them. I've heard the argument that you shouldn't to make your work stand out from the crowd, but in reality it just gives the slush-pile reader a quick excuse to delete you.

Third would be to treasure any rejection you get that isn't a form. Editor are busy, and that they liked your stuff enough to respond personally is a major acheivement in itself.

How important do you feel it is to market your work and how do you market your own?

If you want any kind of career as a writer then marketing is essential. And not just marketing what you produce, but marketing yourself as well. In the current climate, many small publishers are asking for your marketing plan along with your outline and first three chapters when you make a submission. Even if you manage to land a deal with a major house, do you think they are going to invest as many marketing dollars in an unknown as they will on someone like King? Probably not.

But I feel the marketing has to be appropriate. For example, there is no point in me phoning my local paper and trying to get them interested in me selling a short story, even to the pro market. I do, however, have a blog/website, and a Facebook page, and I shall be bragging on there. Different situation if I had sold a book, even to a small press, but still not earth shattering.

That's where 'for the love' publishing comes in, like many Static Movement anthologies, and the majority of the web-based magazines. You're being paid by getting your name mentioned, hopefully with a short bio or a link to your website, and that just might get someone who doesn't know you to look up your site and find the small-press book you published.

Conventions are good, too. I did my first ever con last year (NEWCON-5) and ended up on good speaking terms with a couple of writers and an editor. I'll be going to FantasyCon 2011 this year, hoping to expand that.

What are your plans for the future, any projects on the horizon?

I'm in the process of outlining my next novel. Unfortunately, I have two ideas fighting for precedence, so it will either be a SF/Vampire story, or a SF/Fantasy fusion of a tech-regressed society.

Of the nine shorts I wrote last year, six have found homes, so while I work on the next novel I shall be working on placing them and the YA novel I finished last year.

I have to be cautious about my targets. I have a fairly demanding full-time job in the real world, so I would rather set achievable writing targets than be overly-optimistic and disappoint myself.

Where can people find more out about you?

My blog is at, and my facebook page is Author Robert Harkess

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