Author interview: Colin Harvey

In the middle of writing a tale for this year's Pulp Idol competition? You might benefit from some guidance by the winner of the inaugural competition back in 2006 - Colin Harvey won the first Pulp Idol with a classic twisted story called "The Stinker". We asked him about what he's been up to since then, and sought any encouragement he might have for this year's entrants.

SFX: Did you enjoy the Pulp Idol experience?
"Generally speaking, I loved doing it: but then I enjoy writing. In fact, I don't really understand why anyone writes if they find it really hard work. [In retrospect] I wouldn't choose a title that’s such a hostage to fortune, like 'The Stinker' was! Choose something like 'The Really Good Story That’s Fully Justified in Winning'."

SFX: How did you get your inspiration?
"For 'The Stinker' I wanted to write something that was in that kind of MR James Victorian ghost story vein with tongue firmly in cheek."

SFX: Now that you’re writing a book, how are you finding it?
"Writing a novel is as hard as I imagined it to be. I must be a total masochist as I’ve tried to write an ensemble piece, which is a really bad idea for a new writer. It’s hard enough to keep tabs on your plot without worrying about what all your characters are up to."

SFX: Are there tricks you’d pass on to this year’s entrants for getting back on track if they lose the flow of the story?
"I’m sceptical about writer’s block: just write what you can and come back to it. I’m especially sceptical about writer’s block with regards to a short story: it probably just means your idea isn’t very good."

SFX: So, how can you keep yourself motivated to keep writing when it gets difficult?
"Generally, if it’s a good idea in the first place I find the initial draft comes fairly easily. The rewriting process is tougher: in that case I just go away from it and come back to it, time after time. The commissions I've been working on since 'The Stinker' have all required me to plan out the idea first of all, which really helps motivation: at the end of the day you know you need to do specific things to make the story work according to the criteria you've established with the people commissioning you."

SFX: What do you think editors and publishers are looking for in good SF fiction?
"I would imagine they’re looking for lateral ideas that are well-executed. Neither one of those things will suffice in isolation."

SFX: Do you think there's a perfect way to start such a story?
"I find beginnings really tricky. You need to hook your reader but you don't want to be too over-the-top: in fact, a 'flat', uninteresting opening sentence can be as intriguing as anything that's more colourful framed, dependent on what comes next."

SFX: How do you avoid cliché?
"To avoid plot clichés plan your idea out and remove anything that looks even vaguely like a cliché: alternatively make a virtue of your cliché by giving it a different spin."

SFX: And how do you know when you’ve revised your story enough?
"If it ‘hums’ when you read it then you’re there."

SFX: What happens if you get halfway through your story, and you have a better idea?
"I have abandoned a lot of ideas on that basis. But you have to be sure it’s a better idea, rather than just a different idea."

SFX: Got a tip for finishing a story well?
"Less is more."

SFX: What one tip or piece of advice would you give to the people who hope to follow in your footsteps this year?
"Make sure it’s a good idea, take your time over it, and rewrite it. And remember, it’s much easier to talk about it than it is to actually do it, so don’t spend your time gassing about it, get on with it."

SFX: Thanks Colin!

We'll bring you more author, agent and publisher tips every week on this website while the Pulp Idol 2008 competition runs. So check back here regularly, and also look out for our writing features in the pages of SFX magazine (next one on sale Wednesday 7 July).

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