COLIN HARVEY 1960-2011

I've only just heard the sad news. Colin was a lovely man, who had talent and perseverance and vast love of writing. He was also a good person. He passed away 12 days ago, but I hadn't realized until now... This isn't much of an obituary because I'm just too upset to write one.

RIP, my friend.



The one book on writing that I recommend without hesitation is Stephen King's On Writing. There's another book of the same title, rather older, by George V. Higgins. If you haven't heard of him, that may just be an indication of how old I am... or the types of books you read. He wrote crime thrillers, his first (published in 1972) being made into a movie starring Robert Mitchum. And if you haven't heard of Robert Mitchum, we really are from different generations. But that's part of what I'm talking about.

Except that I've just flicked through the book, which I've not read for, er, about 20 years, and I can't find the passage I was after. Heck. So, some divertissements...

Higgins said this about writers, and it's not entirely comfortable to read:

"Stupid people do not write good fiction. Arrogant, smart people write good fiction. Their arrogance is to demand center stage as the tellers of the stories. Their intelligence is what enables them to conceal that arrogance. If you are a good writer, you are a sneak."

He's more complimentary about readers than writers:

"Never tell your reader what your story is about. Reading is a participatory sport. People do it because they are intelligent and enjoying figuring things out for themselves."

The final paragraph of the book goes: "The secret remains that there is no secret... Those who do [write] can't help themselves. We do it for the hell of it, and those who raise a lot of hell, and then get very lucky, well, we make a living..."

I guess I'm going to have re-read the whole thing slowly. It contains long excerpts followed by discussions, much of it being mid-20th century lit'ry fiction. For a non-US reader, some of them suffer from the same thing as Stephen Jay Gould's Full House and Stephen King's Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon: what I described as "a surfeit of baseball" to one of my American friends.

But perhaps I've misremembered, and the passage I was looking for exists in some entirely different book. The excerpt in question features a telephone conversation between two characters. The non-fiction book's author then names the novel's title and author, and points out that you've probably never heard of them. (I hadn't.)

So what is the passage's distinction? It's the first appearance of a phone conversation in a published novel.

And the point is that no one cares, because putting in a clever leading-edge reference doesn't create a wonderful novel. It's one little sprinkle on the cake.

Robert B. Parker's early novels (which were terrific) often included details of what his characters were wearing. Generally, this is a no-no; but there was always (well, often) something socially telling about the choice of garments. To a young reader now, though, they're just bizarre discriptions of flares and platform shoes.

Writing novels set in the far future, you might avoid this danger. Perhaps an analogue, though, is to make use of some current literary motif in a way that will leave your novel eventually looking dated.

When I went up to Bill Gibson at the '87 Worldcon, I gushed fanboy-wise: "You've revitalized the entire genre! You're brilliant!"

And how dated do the lesser cyberpunk novels look now...?

Leaping further afield still (welcome to my mind), the notion of It From Bit - as I've previously mentioned - arouses my suspicion. Information might be a fundamental aspect of reality - or it might be as misleading as the clockwork universe that was most people's mental extrapolation of Newton's physics. Clocks were the cool, leading edge tech of his day. They became a metaphor for cosmic reality - a metaphor we no longer find exact or rivetting.

In an earlier age, in the Renaissance, the cool thing to have in your home was a map. I've not worked out how that might have affected intellectual worldviews in those days.

Perhaps this is preying on my mind because I've outlined a contemporary, non-SF book in which computer tech needs to be part of the background. Gulp.

On the other hand, the shelf-life of books on real bookstore shelves has been shorter and shorter for decades, so mulling over posterity is even less relevant now than it was. Or on the, er, third hand, ebooks never go out of print, so perhaps that's flipping back to the Old Days.

I remember the Three-Day Week of 1974. Here in Britain, commercial users of electricity - i.e. every business in the country - had power for only three days of every week, which therefore became their new working week. This was due to a massive coal shortage, which at that time was caused by the miners' industrial action... itself a fraught period of our social history.

So however much I like this interweb thingy, the idea of entrusting all my reading material to electronic devices that need a functioning power supply to recharge... Nah. Even though you get a portable library out of it.



Back from my refreshing stay at Charlie's Diary, I shall attempt to beguile and amaze you with new, insightful posts.

But, er, I haven't done any real work today, apart from some admin. Not my usual routine, but today is a read-through-galley-proofs day. This is the writer's final involvement with their book - after submitting it to the publisher, making changes as suggested by the commissioning editor (these tend to be high level, as in, this part of the books needs to be tightened up, we need to see more of such-and-such, or I don't understand X's motivation for doing Y), then more detailed changes thrown up during the copy-editing stage... after all that, the Word document (standard format for the industry) has gone to the printers and been turned into a QuarkXPress file or similar, the printers have produced a properly set book and printed it on loose-leaf sheets, and that's the galley proof.

So I get to read through it and make corrections. I've identified about 20 corrections in Transmission. The printers have done a superb job, because I've done some tricky stuff. There are 2 digital pictures in the book! And the guys have typeset (if that's still the correct verb) the whole thing exquisitely.

So, the corrections. Half a dozen arise from errors in the file-format translation process: two instances of plain text, between blocks of italics, also rendered in italics. A mathematical subscript that didn't show as a subscript. That kind of thing. A couple of thing's I'd overlooked in my Old Norse words - two words needed to change their spelling, each in 2 or 3 places. One contextual thing - a throwaway remark about a person's dining preferences being slightly inconsistent with an earlier chapter (a one-word change). An infelicitous phrase - repetition from a couple of lines up on the same page, something I'd normally catch earlier, but didn't.

The galleys arrived on Friday, and I went through them in one sitting - if I hadn't, there's no way I'd have spotted that contextual continuity error. Then I decided to go through the whole thing again, slowly. The book's been a long time in gestation, so why rush now when it's the very last chance to get everything right? So I'm about to go through the last bit, then send the corrections off.

I'm working on hardcopy for the first time in the process, and as far as I'm concerned this is vital, because it is the exact look of the printed book. To correct it, I'm using standard proofreading symbols.

So, hint to you not-yet-published writers out there. At some point, maybe when you get your first book contract, learning these symbols will be useful. I refer to the appendix in the Oxford English Dictionary when working on manuscripts/galleys for UK publication, and for the in-text entry in my Webster's Dictionary for US publication. Yes, the symbols are different.

If you're really just starting off, you don't need that yet. Here's a tip: learn to touch type. Anne McCaffrey told me to do just that, and I've been grateful ever since. (Of course not all writers do, probably not even the majority; but those who do, all extol the benefits.)

Anyway, something else that's new for me is that the book contains a bibliography. It's not even complete - I did my homework for this... So, in case you're interested, here it is:

Barnes, M., A New Introduction to Old Norse, Viking Society for Northern Research, University College London, 3rd Edition, 2008
Copeland, B.J. et al., Colossus: The Secrets of Bletchley Park's Codebreaking Computers, Oxford University Press, 2006
Crossley-Holland, K., The Norse Myths, Pantheon Books, 1980
Fairbairn, Capt. W.E., Get Tough!, Paladin Press, 1979 (original pub. 1942)
Fölsing, A., Albert Einstein, Penguin Books, 1998
Hawkins, J., On Intelligence, Holt, 2004
Hodges, A., Alan Turing: the Enigma, Vintage, 1992
Jeffery, K., MI6: The History of the Secret Intelligence Service, Bloomsbury, 2010
Kanigel, R., The Man Who Knew Infinity, Abacus, 1991
Laughlin, R.B., A Different Universe, Basic Books, 2005
Law, M., The Pyjama Game, Aurum, 2007
Navarro, J., What Every Body Is Saying, HarperCollins, 2008
Ornstein, R., The Right Mind, Harcourt Brace, 1997
Page, R.I., Chronicles of the Vikings, The British Museum Press, 1995
Page, R.I., Runes, The British Museum Press, 1987
Parker, A., Seven Deadly Colours, Free Press, 2005
Reid, J.M., The Atomic Nucleus, Penguin Books, 1972
Poundstone, W., Prisoner's Dilemma, Oxford University Press, 1993
Rhodes, R., The Making of the Atomic Bomb, Penguin Books, 1988
Sanmark, A., Sundman, F., The Vikings, Lyxo, 2008
Shirer, William L., The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, Arrow Books, 1998
Strogatz, S., SYNC, Hyperion, 2003
Taylor, P.B., Auden, W.H., The Elder Edda, Faber and Faber, 1969
West, N., GCHQ: The Secret Wireless War 1900-86, Coronet, 1987
Yourgrau, P., A World Without Time, Basic Books, 2005

Articles on Telegraphy and on World War II in the 1956 edition of the Encyclopædia Britannica were also helpful.

...oh, and... last week, in one immense sitting, I wrote a 10 - 12000 word first draft of a story that (if it stands up to the light of day when I revisit it) will form the contents of the free chapbook that every member of Novacon gets. It's a longstanding tradition that the guest of honour provides a story for the organizers, the Birmingham SF Group, to publish.

(I don't know the story's exact length because, on a whim, I wrote it using pen and paper: over 50 A4 sheets and four pens involved. These modern gel pens don't last long! I started with a part-used pen and used all its ink, went through two brand-new pens, then wrote the last chunk with a ballpoint.)

Sometimes the stories have been a bit throw-away, other times they've been serious pieces of work. I'm predisposed to take it seriously for several reasons, since Novacon 8 in 1978 was one of the pivotal events in my life, and because Birmingham has a special place in my heart. (Yes, I really said that.) The con venue might be Nottingham, but it's still the Brum Group who bring Novacon into existence every year, bless 'em.

Just increased the font size on the blog... Better this way? Should I use a black-on-white colour scheme for the posts? Might tweak my stylesheets soon...