Colin Harvey, RIP

This is off my usual track, but it’s my blog, so I’m free to do so.

Science fiction writer Colin Harvey died Monday, 15 August 2011, of an unexpected stroke, at age 50. He’d published several hard SF novels and edited a variety of anthologies.

I was lucky enough to have Colin in my writing critique group.

One of the ways to improve your writing is to exchange manuscripts with other people. By critiquing others’ work, and getting critiques on your own, you see what works and what doesn’t. (Strictly speaking, I should mention that the purpose of the critiques is not to improve the manuscript you just submitted, but to improve what you write in the future. You can’t do a huge amount to fix what you’ve already written.)

A good critique group is a weird thing. You want your critiquers to like what you’ve written. But you want them to assault your work with everything they have, point out every deficiency, and push you to make you better. The closest comparison I can make is to a martial arts school, where you help your partners improve even as you smack the crap out of them, being friendly and kind and forceful simultaneously. In a successful writing group, you develop unique friendships, even with people you don’t know. Colin was one of those friends.

I joined my current writing group at the beginning of 2007. Colin was a member. In the years since, Colin simultaneously beat the living crap out of my work and supported me as a writer. My work dramatically improved, thanks in large part to his efforts. (Not to discount the other crit group members; they’ve all been invaluable. Even Rob.)

I still have a copy of every message that has passed through the writing group since I joined. Rather than just say what a tragedy his loss is, I thought it might be more meaningful to extract some of what he said about writing and offer it here. It’s gauche to repost semi-private conversations, of course. I don’t believe Colin would mind these particular clips. He had a fantastic sense of humor, openly documented his life on his blog, and said all of this about my work on a mailing list archived on Yahoo Groups.

  • (On his well-deserved critiques of the first piece I submitted): “I’m aware that this mail reads like a thorough kicking, and I’m trying hard to find some positives”
  • (On receiving harsh critiques): “I’ll take this opportunity to thank you and all the others for the comments…”
  • (On theme in writing): I believe that the themes that a writer writes about come from within. So duplicity and betrayal feature largely in mine for reasons that even I don’t understand. I believe that if someone has enough belief and talent to write, then themes can’t be imposed. Topics or subjects can, but not theme.
  • (On any crit group member making a sale): “Congratulations”
  • (On synopsis): I think the whole point of the synopsis discussion is that various elements of the group have recognized that their work –as it stands– is already of publishable quality, but that there are barriers to that work being published. One of the barriers is the synopsis, or –as in most submissions generally– an inadequate synopsis. Yes, an agent / publisher will look at your first one, two or three chapters and it may be that the extract is sufficiently good to off-set an inferior synopsis. But many agents just don’t have or want to spend the time if they don’t have to. It’s all about shortening the odds.
  • (On scenes): Scenes should -for me- serve one of three purposes
    i ) To move the plot along
    ii) To set a scene or to
    iii) Illuminate the character(s) in it
  • (On advice from non-writers): Why are you letting a failed writer tell you what to write? And before you argue that — how many best-sellers has xxxxxx WRITTEN? How many awards has he won for his fiction? (Those are all rhetorical questions, btw. I know about lack of confidence – honest!)
  • (On research): I read as I go along. I never know what I need to read up on.
  • (On critiques): The whole point of crits is not to tell you what you do know, but to smack you in the side of the head from a completely unexpected direction.
  • (Whenever anybody said anything nice about his successes): Thank you,
  • (On vocabulary): recuperance? What sort of word is that? Did you just make it up?
  • (On getting published): Persistence, persistence, persistence.
  • (On future technology): I don’t see shaving disappearing anytime soon….
  • (On the Star Trek reboot): You went expecting a storyline? You’re clearly an optimist.
  • (on someone on the critique group mailing list whinging about the publishing industry): Rant on as much as you need to, as far as I’m concerned.
  • (after two years of discussing outlining novels versus winging the story, during which he converted me from a hard-core winger to a hard-core outliner, and I espouse the benefits of outlines to other group members): Oh, I am *so* enjoying the poacher-turned-gamekeeper aspect of this e-mail….
  • (On writing rules): The only ‘rule’ is if it works, do it.
  • (On the last piece of mine he critiqued): This is a very, very good story.
  • I could go on, and on, and on, but I’ve spent hours on this. And Colin would tell me to get back to writing my own work.

    Colin never stopped improving his work. And he never stopped improving mine, either. He recently wrote novels that he hadn’t had time to finish marketing. I want to see both Black Death and Ultramassive in print. The latter is cool SF, and the former scared the crap out of me.

    Colin left the writing group earlier this year, but he and I agreed to continue exchanging manuscripts in a less public forum. By sheer chance, we agreed to take a hiatus in August — we both had big family projects underway. If he’d spent the last month of his life reviewing my sewage work instead of spending time with his family, I’d feel pretty bad. If I’d still owed him a crit when he passed, I’d feel ghastly.

    Colin spent his last days with people more important to him than myself. And that’s how it should have been.