Today I have Leo Robertson as a guest at the Scary Reviews. He has been kind enough to talk with me about writing, self-publishing and some of the common traps for aspiring writers. Leo has written many books, both in the science fiction and horror genre, and with some catchy titles! You can find a link to those and his Goodreads page at the end of his interview. Thank you again, Leo, and let’s get on with the interview.
The Scary Reviews: Can you tell us a bit about yourself.
Leo Robertson: Hello! My name’s Leo, I’m a Scottish process engineer and emerging writer, currently living in Oslo, Norway. I have stories published in Twisted50, Schlock!, Fiction on the Web and soon with Creepy Campfire Quarterly. I’m currently promoting “Bonespin Slipspace”, my novella released by Psychedelic Horror Press, which will come out on Halloween—but please do pre-order it here:
TSR: When did you first realize you wanted to be a writer.
LR: I started journaling to cope with some capital LIFE that had battered me about the head, and soon I was making narratives out of my dreams and journals that eventually became a short novel. I didn’t quite realise how ambitious the task was that I’d set myself, and as a writer I wasn’t yet skilled enough to deal with it. Thankfully, that story didn’t see the light of day, and I hope all trace of it has been eradicated. That was about six years ago now, and I’m still interested in telling that story. Ever since, I’ve been building up my skills by continuing to write, and I’m still trying to get back to that story today. In the meantime, any number of stories and novels have formed, I got hooked and will be writing forever!
TSR: What is your work schedule like when you’re writing.
LR: It depends what I’m working on. Short stories can be done in a day sometimes, if I know the plot. Novels should generally be first drafted at a pace of two thousand words a day (about two to three hours.) Novellas, for whatever reason, I enjoy writing at a much faster pace, plotting heavily first and then battering them out for a whole weekend. I always work for about forty minutes then take twenty minutes off, though: I’ve found this is the least painful balance.
I don’t really understand how people write every day. Maybe I “do the job of a writer”—social media, marketing, writing book reviews, reading, writing—but only then every weekday. Why don’t writers get weekends? Real pros don’t need every day! It’s not wise to take two days off in a row when writing a first draft—that’s a great Stephen King rule—but otherwise, go nuts!
TSR: How did you make the transition from your current profession to become a writer.
LR: That would be awesome if I had. People in the office have heard about the books coming out with my stories in them and say jokingly that I should quit being a process engineer. I don’t see my writing supporting me as successfully as engineering any time soon, but we’ll see!
TSR: How did publishing your first book change your process of writing.
LR: I started off by self-publishing, and I envisage more self-publishing to come, but there’s a much more formal schedule and vetting process now. Self-publishers learn a lot more in the open than those who follow the traditional route, but it may even be preferable for that reason: the fanbase that finds you shape the writing they want to see and are in turn shaped by it. They say ‘Don’t self-publish if you’re impatient’, but when it gets to the point that you have four or five completed manuscripts on your hard drive, that’s not impatience; that’s something else. A clear mismatch between the resources that traditional publishing wish to afford you and your work rate, maybe. I don’t know. Anyways, I have a writers’ group of folk with whom I share my completed manuscripts, and writer friends who help me proofread so long as I return the favour when it comes to their releases.
TSR: What other authors are you friends with, and how do they help you become a better writer.
LR: The other authors I’m most in contact with are Rebecca Gransden, Harry Whitewolf, Rupert Dreyfus and Arthur Graham. We all have such wildly different styles, interests and opinions, which makes me want to fight harder for what I believe in and respect those who disagree, which I would say is one of the main aims of my fiction.
For example, I maybe hung out with people like the protagonists of “Bonespin Slipspace” once, but I am completely unlike them. I would never do what they do, but I don’t judge them for it either. If anything I’m saddened that they won’t get the fun or the closure they set out for, even although maybe they get exactly what they should’ve expected—generally speaking. I couldn’t even predict their specific agony before I sat down to write it!
I know some of my readers can feel that compassion behind most of the things I write, and I hope it evokes their own compassion, as my writer buddies evoke in me.
TSR: If you could tell your younger writing self anything, what would it be.
LR: It doesn’t matter what’s currently worrying you about writing; with the simple act of writing more, all those worries will dissolve, all problems resolve themselves, all the faster if you stay calm and keep your head down and trust that your subconscious, while it needs a bit of time, will answer any question you pose to it if you don’t poke it or get it too drunk.
TSR: What are common traps for aspiring writers.
LR: Books are a lot like tattoos: they’re better off left unexplained, and people don’t generally care about yours; they’d rather tell you about their own planned-but-non-existent ones.
To a lot of aspiring writers, there’s something more appealing about the potential of a story than the real thing: once they get that “book” out them, they’d probably find it was just a short story. And that’s fine! Everything is a stepping stone to something and never a waste.
One of the most frustrating things I’ve found, not just when it comes to writers but to just about anyone is when they display an inkling or a talent for a particular hobby or potential profession but won’t pursue it out of lack of self-confidence. People say writers are alone, but there’s much more joy to spread as a writer than just through the stories told; there’s the joy of seeing you succeed, and similarly you will want to see others maximise their potential.
On the flipside, nothing is more disappointing to me than seeing my loved ones fail to stay true to what they’re good at and put themselves out there. I have a friend who made an award-winning short film that was played at festivals. I asked him why he didn’t keep it up, and he said, ‘I’m not that good at it, and I don’t want to make anything, because it will just be bad.’ Not only wasn’t that true, but if you’re just starting out at something, you probably will be bad at it. Why wouldn’t you? It takes, what, ten years to become a concert pianist, but you’re gonna write a bestselling novel next month? Possible, but unlikely.
This is just one of those messages that’s easier to deliver to others than to oneself. I’ve heard the exact same thing said to me, when I’m wavering, by people who will quickly make excuses for themselves. I wish this wasn’t so. Self-consciousness is just a form of narcissism: watching you be timid and hoard all your skills is not endearing to anyone with any sense. I’m not from the school of “Just do it! Yeah! Put yourself out there! Anyone can!” so much as its resentful neighbouring school: “(Sigh) Would you just do it already?! I can’t sit here and watch this!”
I think new writers tend to think good stories are written by people who either know everything, or at the very least know more than the reader. The writer may have spent more time trying to articulate a problem than a reader has spent on it—the reader is to some extent outsourcing this job to the writer—but the writer doesn’t necessarily need to know how to solve it. Or, aspiring writers read interviews with their favourite writers and think they need to appreciate the same types of books, or always talk in a particular manner about books: deferential, in awe at the skill of others, with a wise air.
The truth is, literature is so vast that you can hate whole schools of authors, abhor whole theories and branches and movements and still have enough reading material to last you your entire life! Or you can have an entirely successful career and never read a particular author. That’s something I wish everyone thought about culture in general: it’s so vast that so long as you’re open to new material and challenging yourself consistently, you should never feel guilty for not knowing who that guy is or what that film is. Most people have terrible taste anyway, so perhaps it’s a good thing you don’t know! In which case definitely don’t let that person put you down!
I’m not saying you should hate anything, but I give you permission to do so; I’m not giving you permission to be ignorant but to accept that what culture is, what it means to be cultured or well-read or a good writer is highly—but not completely—unknowable, so you get a lot of points—but not every point—for trying. The other points you get for realising you don’t know everything and for improving: you can always improve, which means you never get all the points. But that’s life, duh.
Anyways, writers need to have good taste. Taste is as much if not more about what books the writer doesn’t like than what they do like. Good taste is innate and authentic and doesn’t mean you only read Proust, rather that you’re honest about what you enjoy. So, probably not Proust. I don’t like Proust.
Also, I’m still uneasy about “faking it until you make it”: I don’t think anyone can say for sure that the world needs another film, song, painting, story. Ideal case: people are instantly astounded that the world ever survived without your art—but how do you make that happen? Stop asking the questions or making the assertions: just keep doing the work. I’m like 20% sure I’ll be dead in 100 years and about 10% sure I’ll be read in the next decade—but I’m too busy doing the work to care!
TSR: What books have you read that inspired your love for the genre you write within.
LR: Of the Lovecraft that I’ve read, The Call of Cthulhu and At the Mountains of Madness are my favourites. He’s one of the kings of “Can’t say I saw that coming.”
While not strictly horror, the epic cruelness of The Gormenghast Trilogy is also unforgettable.
I also remember the cover of the copy of Stephen King’s The Shining that I had when I was ten and how I was so scared of it that I had to run past it when I left my bedroom.
Clive Barker’s latest, The Scarlet Gospels, was great fun.
Still, I think reality is way scarier than any horror story—that’s the ironic safety that the scares of horror provide—so reading David Foster Wallace’s Brief Interviews with Hideous Men, for example, is a terrifying experience—wish I’d escaped without seeing so much of myself in the characters…
TSR: Can you tell me about your latest work in progress and what have coming in the future.
LR: For reasons I don’t fully understand, I recently became fascinated by personality disorders and wanted to write a short story about a woman who meets a pathological narcissist. My subconscious decided I wasn’t done after a few pages and put me to the task of writing a novel that required epic levels of research—that was back in June, and I’m only now reassembling my notes into a final draft!
That’s the latest work-in-progress. A look at my Duotrope account reveals four novellas, four short stories and two novels currently under review. I can’t say which will come out next, but I’m showing no signs of slowing down either.
TSR: That sounds like a great read. Characters that are a little ‘off’ psychologically are both scary and fascinating. Thank you again for the very interesting and insightful answers. Best of luck Leo on whichever comes next from your chest of possiblities.
Connect with Leo Robertson at the following links
“Bonespin Slipspace” at Psychedelic Horror Press’ online store:
Twitter handle: @Leoxwrite
Goodreads profile: https://www.goodreads.com/author/show/7870281.Leo_X_Robertson