Leigh Harlen is a speculative fiction writer whose work often has a dark bent. Their work has been published or is forthcoming in Dark Moon Digest, Aurealis, and Shoreline of Infinity. When not writing, they can typically be found wandering Seattle petting strangers’ dogs.
How long have you been writing and what got you started?
When I was in third grade I started writing and illustrating books about people dying in various horrible fashions. My teachers were concerned. My parents were concerned. I learned that scaring people is fun.
What is the best piece of advice you have for new writers?
Read a lot. Write a lot. Know that you will write things that suck, and that’s fine. Don’t self-reject, especially if you’re a marginalized writer. It can be hard, and I’ve gotten some bizarre push back about my gender and sexuality and their inclusion in my stories, so connect with similarly marginalized writers, even if it’s just following them on Twitter to remind yourself that they exist.
If you could go back and find yourself five years ago, what advice would you give yourself?
Don’t go to law school. No, seriously, 25 year old self. It’s not going to help. You’re going to hate it. You have more student loan debt than is reasonable already.
How do you measure success when it comes to your writing?
Being published is kind of the ultimate validation and it feels great. But I try not to measure any kind of success by “other people like it.” Is this piece better than something I wrote a year ago? Did I enjoy writing it? If yes to both those things, it’s a success.
What tips do you have for finding time to write?
I set aside one day every weekend and one evening during the week to go out to the library or a coffee shop and do nothing but write. Getting out of my apartment prevents me from succumbing to Netflix and other distractions.
What do you think the publishing industry will look like twenty-five years from now?
I have no idea. It could be taken over by super-intelligent octopus’ or maybe the mice will get tired of our boring human stories. Either way, I bet both electronic and hard-copy books and stories will exist in some format. They might be smaller and water-proof though.
How do you deal with rejections?
Rejections get, typically, easier the more you’ve received. I’ve received a lot of rejections. My record is 25 before finding the right market for a story. But some will still spin me for a variety of reasons. I put a lot of myself into my stories so yeah, it does feel personal sometimes, even when I know it’s not. When that happens I let myself feel sad for a little while, that may involve watching Buffy all evening, then I do a round of edits, and send it back out. I also try to start something new as soon as possible. My brain is usually the most excited about, and therefore more sensitive, about my most recent project. So, if I replace it with a new baby, the rejection doesn’t sting as much the second time.
In your opinion, how important is a writing degree or MFA when it comes to achieving success in writing fiction?
I have lots of degrees and none of them are a writing degree. I took exactly one creative writing course in college. I learned some useful things about how to use language to create an atmosphere. But the instructor was not at all supportive of genre fiction. Every piece I turned in was deemed, “not realistic enough.” So, I learned there are many routes to getting the tools you need, and degrees are only one option.
Do you participate in any online or in-person critique or writing groups?
I do! I prefer to get a first draft done before I share it with anyone. But I have had writing open up and transform into something much better after getting feedback.
What book(s) are you reading right now?
I am currently reading Sunny Moraine’s short story collection, Singing with all my Skin and Bone and Like Jagged Teeth by Betty Rocksteady.