My Writing Life: Edward W. Robertson
Edward W. Robertson is an LA-based science fiction and fantasy author. His books include Outcome, Breakers, Melt Down, Knifepoint, The White Tree, The Great Rift, The Roar of the Spheres, Breathe for Me, Lightless. He is the author of numerous short stories and runs the self-publishing blog Failure Ahoy!
When did you first discover a love of writing? Is there a particular book that made you want to become a writer?
When I was seven years old, we were assigned to write a short story for class. I wrote about Godzilla–with the serial numbers filed off; even then, I must have been aware of copyright–but there was nothing short about the story. My giant lizard destroyed the city for page after page. When I read it aloud to the class, I was the only one who laughed. So that was my first taste of criticism, too.
I can’t point to the specific book that made me want to do this. Apparently, I always have. If there was a single book that did it, it probably had cardboard pages.
Where do you get your story ideas?
Usually, I find myself thinking lots about a particular subgenre or subject I want to write about. The end of the world, say. Then I think to myself, “Okay, Self, a thousand other people are writing about the end of the world right now. How are YOU going to make it different?”
I let myself think about it for a while–this phase can take as little as hours or as long as months–and if I come up with something that feels at least a little unique, I get to details, starting with the protagonists I want to write about. From there, I figure out what these characters are going to do about the world I’ve just handed them.
Once I’ve got that worked out, there’s my story
What is the best piece of advice you’ve ever received as a writer?
It can feel very intimidating, the blank page, but the worst that can possibly happen is you’ll write a bad story. Unless something goes terribly, terribly wrong–like your cat concussing you with your laptop–you’ll come out the other side a better writer. Better able to tackle the next story.
I don’t think you learn a whole lot in the time you’re not writing. So much of writing well is learning to tell stories. Unless you become a skald, which is a pretty low-demand position these days, the only way to learn storytelling is to tell stories. So literally the best way to learn to write better is to write more.
Where do you usually write?
On my couch buried in cats and small dogs.
Do you believe in Writer’s Block?
No. There are times when I’ve gotten stuck on a specific plot point, I’ve painted myself into a corner and have no idea where the story goes next, but at most that stalls me for a few days. When that happens, I ask myself question after question about a) the internal logic of the story (if character X does Y, what would happen?) and b) the external, storytelling logic of the work (what would make good drama?). If I ask questions long enough, I’ll find an answer eventually.
If you’re talking writer’s block in terms of lacking ideas, I dunno. It only takes a handful per year to come up with more books than you can write.
If there were one writer (alive or deceased) that you would love to meet, who would it be?
John Gardner. The dude was just so good at thinking about what makes good fiction. He seemed really eager to share it, too. I wish I’d been able to take one of his classes, but considering he died before I knew how to talk, it probably wouldn’t have done me much good.
What made you decide to self-publish?
In 2010, I self-published a collection of short stories I’d previously sold to magazines, figuring I might as well make a few extra bucks. “A few” was all I got, but it was my gateway drug. It showed me that getting a book online wasn’t that hard. In early 2011, I decided to publish two of my novels, the ones that were halfway decent. For the next 12 months, they paid the water bill.
In early 2012, I had a new novel all finished and ready to go. But by that point, I’d been trying and failing to land an agent or a publisher for ten years. I don’t know if you’ve ever failed at anything for an entire decade, but it’s exhausting. I was so bone-deep sick of the querying process–which can easily take a year for a single book–that I figured it would be better to earn a few more bucks a month than to earn another hundred letters saying “No thanks.”
That book was called Breakers, and I could tell something was different right away. It sold even before I told anyone about it. Not in bestseller numbers, but enough to perk up my ears. Within a month, I was on the path to this career. I write full-time now. And it feels great.
Are there any self-publishing tricks of the trade you’d like to share? What rules of craft or promotion do you live by?
The only real rules that I see are to keep writing, cultivate a way to stay in direct contact with your readers, and stay flexible. You can control (mostly) how much you write, and if you set up a mailing list or a website, there’s nothing between you and your fans.
But successful promotional techniques change constantly. Specific advice is obsolete within a year, if not months. Even smart, successful people have a hard time keeping up; a lot of the time, what brought them success doesn’t work by the time we’re hearing about it. If you find something useful, run with it. Ultimately, however, the source of this information is far less important than whether it works for you.