Truly my pleasure to catch up with author (and delightful humorist) R.B. Harkess. On his page at http://www.robertharkess.com/, he describes himself as an “Author in Waiting,” but I have to contend he’s anything but, as he’s already written in multiple genres (fantasy, crime and speculative fiction/science fiction novels). Not to mention his short stories which have been featured in a number of anthologies, etcetera.
GL: Great to welcome you to The GL Giles Files, R.B.! Please give readers a synopsis of your book, “Aphrodite’s Dawn,” and why you were inspired to write it.
RB: Aphrodite’s Dawn is a SF adventure. It’s very definitely ‘crossover’, and would appeal to any reader, but the marketing tag for it is very definitely ‘Young Adult’. Think ‘Rendezvous with Rama’ meets ‘Hunger Games’.
Garret’s world is six floors tall by five hundred people wide, and he despairs of ever being happy. When a voice in his head offers the 14-year old an escape from his boring life, he has no idea how apparently being offered everything he could want or need might change him. With his best friend Pitr in tow Garret seizes the opportunity, and their universe is thrown into confusion when they are told they are on an asteroid-sized sleeper-ship. The asteroid’s computer has been damaged, and cannot control the engines to deliver them to their new home. Garret is asked to take a message to the other end of the world.
GL: What made you decide to go with Salt Publishing?
RB: Why did I go with Salt? Because they asked me. Seriously, Aprodite’s Dawn was my first published novel. Steve Haynes is lucky he still has his arm I snatched the contract out of his hand so fast. But, on a more serious note, it all comes down to conventions.
GL: Have you attended any writing conventions in 2013? If so, then which ones? Do you think that conventions are a good way for both new and established writers to market their books? Can most marketing be done online now, or does meeting someone in person still carry more weight?
RB: This is a bit of a ‘yes and no’ answer. In 2013 I attended, or will attend, ‘Edge Lit’ in Derby, ‘Get Writing’ in Hertfordshire, and (my current favourite), BristolCon (I have to say that, being a Bristolian-in-exile).
I think that genre conventions are essential, and in so many ways it’s going to be difficult to explain why without writing three blogs worth of words.
Example 1: Aphrodite’s Dawn was published by Salt because I went to NewCon5 and met Steve Haynes (the editor of Proxima) which was a fledgling imprint at the time and he was trawling for writers. We got talking and, some months later, Steve asked me if the novel was still free because Proxima had decided to dip their toe into YA.
Example 2: It was at the same con that I met Geoff Nelder, author of the ARIA trilogy, editor of many things including Escape Velocity Magazine, and also in one of my writing groups. When he was putting together his Escape Velocity anthology, he rejected the story I submitted, but remembered ‘Jack in the Box’ from a review and criticize exercise, and asked if it was still available (there was a point to that). Thinking about it, I met at least half of my best friends and acquaintances at that con, so thank you again Ian Whates.
So, from my perspective, much of my publishing success has been down to conventions. Having said that they can be lonely and intimidating places. Everybody seems to know everybody else except you, and unless you’re the sort of person who can barge their way into a random conversation, it can be insular.
Most cons run ‘newbie groups’ though, where experienced staff are used as icebreakers to get people involved. On the other hand, if you can jump in and interact, you get to meet some fascinating people (and occasionally the odd ‘oh my goodness, that’s _____________ (fill in the name of your literary deity here)’. I mean, at Bristol Con last year I had Jaine Fenn on my Triva Team (and this year she is a panelist on a panel I am moderating). How cool is that?
I’m rambling. For making contacts, cons can be unbeatable. For marketing? Well, everybody wants a book launch at a con. I’m still waiting for mine. I might even get one next year. You get the option to stuff flyers into goodie bags, and do readings, and it’s all good exposure. I doubt it translates too much in direct sales, but it’s great for increasing your exposure, especially if you can get on some good panels.
But I do find conventions change as the organizers and committees change. There’s one con I used to think was the best in the world, and now I doubt I shall go to another because the people running it changed. On the flip side, new cons, and not just pure-writing ones, come up in your awareness and you migrate. I am going to Asylum next year, the great Steampunk extravaganza, which I’ve not been to before, and I may try Andromeda, or even SFX.
GL: Many thanks for your honest, humorous and thoroughly illuminating answer! In a different vein, you run a critique group, correct? What are some of the benefits of belonging to a group like this?
RB: I am a member of the British Science Fiction Association, and members are entitled to join our crit group, Orbiters. A multi-talented woman by the name of Terry Jackman sits above us all as general manager, and passes jobs and members down to us lowly Co-ordinators. I have the honour to run Orbit-4 (novels)—and Terry is actually a member in my group, which is a bit mobius.
The benefits are incalculable. It’s because of my association with fellow Orbiters (and, briefly, the inhabitants of Café Doom) that my work is of a publishable standard now. No amount of loved ones telling you how good your latest poem is will make you better. Friends and family, no matter how hard you beg them, will rarely be honest with you because they have to live with you afterwards. In a crit group, people can be more honest. Sometimes they aren’t. Groups can be frustrating places, where members don’t comment helpfully, or never seem to learn from what they have had pointed out to them. It can get nasty, too. We frequently run with scissors and people get cut. One of my jobs as co-ordinator is to arbitrate in disputes, or quietly calm things down if they trend towards getting personal. It’s not always easy. But it’s when you get that crit back, and after you’ve got over the ‘how DARE she…?’, and you reread the comments, and the little light blinks on over your head and you realize that just by changing *that* paragraph like she said, the whole scene suddenly works just like it did in your head. It’s great.
I recommend review groups to everybody. You sometimes have to try out a few to find one that fits. Try Orbits. We don’t insist on everything being SF, so long as it’s pretty much genre, we’ll eat anything. Eventually, any writer can find one that suits them, and they will almost certainly improve as a result.
GL: Great advice! Switching gears again, how did your story come to be a part of the “Full Fathom Forty” anthology? Please tell readers a bit about both (your story & the antho.).
RB: Ah, Full Fathom Forty. You must mean ‘Jack in the Box’. As I mentioned, that actually wasn’t the first place it was published. It first saw the light of day in ‘Escape Velocity: The Anthology’ about six months before. And you’ll never guess where I first bumped into David J. Howe, who edited FFF? Aw, you got it. Newcon5. Anyhow, I was a member of the British Fantasy Society at the time, heard that David was putting together this anthology, which was going to be given free to members on the society’s anniversary, and I submitted through normal channels. I doubt whether me being known to him made much difference: David knows, or knows of, just about everybody in the UK genre scene, particularly SF.
The story itself is about a new keepsake to remember the departed—a copy of parts of their memory. Which is fine, until they start talking about stuff that was never meant to be recorded. I call them Embedded intelligence, and use the idea in a couple of my later SF stories. The idea, the whole concept of silicon self-awareness fascinates me. Raises all sorts of interesting problems.
GL: So, what is on the horizon for 2014?
RB: Well, I’ve already discussed convention plans. Writing-wise, I am hoping my second YA novel will be published early in the year. It’s all subject to contract at the moment, so I can’t name names, but let’s just say I’m so happy about the people who are going to publish it I am already working on book two (and putting the plot together for book three). I seem to have a thing going on with steampunk/alternate reality, mashed in with some urban fantasy. I have two other novels out there looking for homes, so who knows what else might see the light of day.
The rest of the time I shall be trying to fit in being as close to a full-time writer as I can get in with the boring business of actually putting food on the table and the roof over our head. And loving every minute of it.