Archive for the ‘How to Write’ Category

How to Write Science Fiction

11 October, 2009

Here is the ‘How to’ guide Harry and I put together for a workshop which was conducted at the ALTfiction event in Derby in April 2007.

Writing SF


Octocon 2009 – 2 Days to Go…

8 October, 2009

Octocon, the Irish National Science Fiction convention, will begin on Saturday morning — there’s lots of cool stuff going on, but this is a HH blog, so we’ll concentrate on what Harry will be doing this weekend. 

The official programme of events hasn’t been released yet but… Harry will, I believe, be taking part in three panels during the course of the weekend: a discussion about collaboration with other authors; a question and answer session; and a session which I think we’re giving the modest title of  ‘How to Write a Science Fiction Bestseller’! This will be a discussion of the creation of a major SF work, with some in-depth insights into the writing of the West of Eden trilogy, including such topics as creating an alien race, language and culture, creating an alien world, and getting from orginal idea to final plot. All in the space of an hour.

I’m flying out to Dublin tomorrow at ridiculously-early o’clock, back in the UK late Monday, and will post a full report when I get back.

If you are at Octocon this weekend, come and say hi and have a chat with Harry — that’s what conventions are all about. That and sitting in the bar drinking. 🙂

Harry Harrison – Where I Write

17 August, 2009

My sitting room in Florida — also used as an office.

I wrote the new RAT book there.

More Alpha Centauran Swine Bashing

17 June, 2009

In a previous post I had the text of Harry’s fanzine article ‘Take That You Alpha Centauran Swine!’ but only had the original sketches, not the finished HH artwork as published.

Thanks to Dave Willoughby, I now have that artwork, which I share with you here…

Art (c) Harry Harrison

Take That, You Alpha Centaurian Swine!

8 December, 2008

The best article I have ever read on hand-to-hand combat in space was written by Harry Harrison and published in the fanzine Amra.” – Frederik Pohl

I’ve mentioned before that coincidence seems to play a large part in tracking down the more obscure items written by Harry Harrison. I came across the above quote, in Pohl’s autobiography The Way the Future Was; it refers to an article by Harry Harrison that I’d never seen.

A quick search on Google revealed that the article was titled ‘Take That, You Alpha Centaurian Swine!’ and was published in the October 1967 issue of Amra. Google also showed that a collection of back issues of the fanzine had sold in the recent past for megabucks. Not much chance of getting hold of a copy then.

But a couple of months later I was going through a box of Harry’s papers and came across the original typescript and Harry’s accompanying sketches.

I’m not sure what the illustrations in Amra were like – but here I’m posting the article with the author’s own sketches.

And, coincidentally, I was OCRing some of Harry’s short stories last week, and had ‘No War, Or Battle’s Sound’ on the scanner. As I was fixing the text I noticed that the weapons described in the story had a familiar ring to them. That story was published in 1968.

Here then is – probably – the best article ever on hand-to-hand combat in space. And if anyone wants to take up Harry Harrison’s challenge at the end of the article – forty-odd years after he made it – then you can do so by leaving your comments here.

If anyone has the original issue of Amra, then please get in touch, as I’d like to see a scan of it.


Take That, You Alpha Centaurian Swine!
by Harry Harrison

The general level of weaponry in hand-to-hand space battling is very depressing. All of the invention seems to have been done by E.E. Smith a few generations back, and the authors who came along later have been happy to use Doc’s armory without modification. The names may be changed, but call it what you will – it is still Van Buskirk’s space axe that crunches through the helmet.

And what about that space axe? As described by the immortal Doc even the iron-thewed Van couldn’t have done much damage with it in a null-G situation. You only have to think of all the complex tools that have been designed to turn nuts and bolts in space – without having the operator turn in the opposite direction – to realize what would happen when that mighty axe was swung.

I have brooded on this problem, and the possibilities of new weaponry in space, and present the results here. They are free for all to use, I ask only that authors retain the names I have assigned so I can enjoy a bit of egoboo.

Firstly that axe. It will have to become a Power Axe that will operate independently of gravity. To all appearances a normal axe, it has a power source concealed in the haft and four small jets located in the tip beyond the blade. The only pressure required to swing it is the pressure of a fingertip on a switch.



6 March, 2008

Apologies for the lack of posts recently – I just upgraded to a new PC at home, and on the grounds that too much change can’t possibly be a bad thing, I’m also upgrading to a OS (Vista), and new versions of favourite applications, such as my OCR software: I’ve been using a version of OmniPage I got free on a magazine cover disk ages ago — it has served well for converting various bits of stuff for the website, the blog, and virtually all of the short stories for Harry’s 50 in 50 collection, but it’stime to try a newer version…

Still don’t have internet access on the PC at home, or my scanners working, but hopefully will be up and running by weekend.

In the meantime, here’s something I OCR’d a while back – a piece HH wrote for the 1987 WorldCon convention book. Contributors were asked to write on the theme of ‘breakthroughs,’ if I remember correctly, and this is what Harry wrote…


If a writer really cares about his art and his craft, then acquiring the skills to become an author can be a very exciting process. 

Talking with other writers, editors, literate readers; reading with insight, analysing and cogitating; all of these are a great aid. But they make up only a small percentage of the total gestalt of a writer’s skills. They should happen almost daily and should also be an ongoing process. Any writer whose reach does not exceed his grasp is loafing or on the skids — or both. 

But breakthroughs are exceedingly rare. I can remember only one that was truly important. By hindsight it might be considered obvious; most simple and vital things are. Or why didn’t you invent the paperclip first and get rich? 

Like many other SF authors I grew up in science fiction. I read all kinds of fiction — but liked SF the best. So when I started to write this was what I wanted to do. I wanted to read more of the kind of SF I liked. So at first I was more than happy to think as, and be, an Astounding-Analog author. Campbell was God and his magazine was prophecy. He liked my work, as did his readers, and it was a wonder to be alive in that world. 

Critical analysis came slowly. Fine as Astounding-Analog was it had been born in the pulps — as had the authors. This was a stricture. More than just the lack of profanity, absence of breasts, importance of action, necessity of back-plotting. It was the overall attitude. The absolute taking for granted that SF had built-in limitations, could never compete with the Joyces and the Faulkners. 

Which is nonsense. Literature is literature, prose is prose. 

The breakthrough I had was that all of the restrictions on SF were inside my head. If I felt the profanity taboo was a good thing I would never even consider a plot development that might contain a world like damp. If I thought that SF was a second-rate field of literary endeavour, as many fantasy writers today obviously do, then everything that I wrote would be second-rate. Thought control is self-imposed. Realise that you are free to create in any way you want and you are free. 

So after writing Deathworld at least five times under various guises I wrote Bill, the Galactic Hero. Read it and you will understand.   

From: Frontier Crossings: A Souvenir of the 45th World Science Fiction Convention. London: Science Fiction Conventions, Ltd., 1987.

How to Sell to John W. Campbell

25 January, 2008

Here’s a piece Harry Harrison wrote for the Science Fiction Writers of America bulletin back in 1969, when John W. Campbell was still editor of Analog. Still worth a read for the advice and anecdotes I think – including the origins of that classic HH story The Man from P.I.G.

How to Sell to John W. Campbell, or, Psionics in One Easy Lesson
by Harry Harrison

Two things have prompted this expose. Firstly, a writer friend of mine, one of the best in the business, asked me how it was done, since he had never managed a sale there. I would like to give him an honest answer. Secondly, I think the quality of most of the fiction in ASF is so low that we should all work hard to improve it. If the estimable Mr. Campbell receives only trash writing by literarily ambitious engineers he can print only t.w.b.l.a.e.

To begin with, it helps to be a born Campbell writer. I know, I know: I hear the screams now, this is no answer. If you grew up with ASF, panting monthly, waiting for the new copy to appear, you are halfway home. I did and I still love the magazine, hunchbacked and deformed as it is at times. If you do not like ASF type fiction from one of its many periods, then just give up, Jack, and try the other markets.

Alright, so you like one of the forms of ASF during its varied history. Think your stories in that era to begin with. Then face the idea that John Campbell buys ideas, concepts, not fancy writing. He is a mean and tough editor and can instantly put his finger on the holes in your plot or where you went wrong, but he does this as a secondary thing. It is the idea that counts. If the idea is right, all he asks of the writing is that it be literate and cover the ground well enough to convey the idea. He’ll buy great writing — he has in the past — but he does not ask for it nor look forward to receiving it. That is mainly what is wrong with the magazine now. His attitude, which he has expressed in print many times, “Come on, all you PhD’s, and lab types, earn yourself a new camera or such by batting out a little story…” has produced some of the most incredibly foul fiction ever to blind the eyes of western man. I assume that the concept is worked out correctly in every story, John would not have bought it if it wasn’t, but that does not make a readable story.

I also assume that John will read this so the preceding should prove the next very important point. You can argue with the man. I’m not saying that you’ll win, that’s a right difficult thing (even when you know you are right) but you can express your own point of view. So that it is not necessary to adhere slavishly to Campbellian theories expressed in the past. Break new ground and see what happens.

The next best thing you can do is come to New York and visit the editor on his home ground. Any writer with a decent excuse will be admitted to the lair. Come prepared to think, it will be expected of you. Come prepared to remember, because you’ll find ideas winging your way thick and fast. I’ve met a lot of writers in my lifetime but none ever came close to Campbell in sheer ability to produce ideas, concepts, complete plots and theories at such a continuous clip. Grab onto the ideas that fit your own interests, then rush home and write them. You may still get a reject, the writing up of a Campbell idea does not guarantee the man will buy, but at least you know that you are on the right track. What he talks about, he is interested in and if you can fit a workable concept and story to material the editor likes, you are already halfway home.

Enough theory. How about a frinstance? I was in the middle of Deathworld 3 (The Horse Barbarians in ASF) when John sent me a ream of material about pigs and how they might be used in combat. He suggested the use of war pigs in the novel. I balked, mainly because I think that there is something inherently funny about pigs and this kind of broad humor did not fit into the grim and bloody battle scenes I was doing. But the basic idea was still appealing. I kept thinking about it and dug the relevant articles and books out of the library. I was soon an amateur swineologist and even before I finished the novel, I took time off to do a story called The Man from P.I.G. which went off to ASF and was purchased. In this I pivoted a lot about the humor and the yarn reeks of bacon and lard jokes; squeals and flat flanks. Good fun! I have since expanded the novelette and sold it to Avon as a children’s book. (This was Avon’s editor’s idea; he must know a lot more about kids’ taste than I do.) Before I was through, I did a lot of work on pigs and turned a nice piece of cash. But let me not forget who suggested the basic idea in the first place and started to ball rolling.

All of this sage advice is worthless if you don’t know the difference between a concept-story and a writing-story. (These definitions are wholly artificial and germane only to their present usage in reference to selling ASF) Take an issue of ASF and one of F & SF and read them closely. On a sheet of paper write a single sentence describing the plot of each story. (Example, ‘The Cold Equations’: a girl who does not know the basic difference between manmade and natural laws must die of her ignorance.) On a second sheet do the same for F & SF. (Example, Vance Aandahl’s recent ‘An Adventure in the Yolla Bolly Middle Eel Wilderness’: the consequences of forcing a primeval act and its implications upon an individual so insulated by technology from the natural as to be unable to comprehend or deal with it.) If you can’t see any difference, well, forget about selling Campbell. (Probably forget about writing for a living, too.)

Most important. Don’t be a slave to John Campbell’s theories and beliefs and feed them back to him as stories . He doesn’t buy them as often as you think. And even if he does buy them — for lack of anything better around — you have sold yourself down the river. What have you accomplished by repeating stale ideas? Wasted your own time and the readers’. Stand up, think, fight. Look at Mack Reynold’s Russian and African stories. You’ll see ideas there that are directly opposed to those the editor holds. All Campbell asks is equal time. I know. I have just danced this one in a novel titled In Our Hands, the Stars, that he bought for serialization… but only after we had exchanged a half dozen 6 and 7 page letters. He pointed out errors in science which I happily changed. He pointed out a propaganda speech by one of my characters that he disagreed with completely. I did not take it out — but gave the opposing opinions equal time instead and wrote in a speech by another character that presents the other point of View. Why not? It doesn’t alter my story in the slightest, and it assumes a measure of intelligence on the part of the reader who can then decided between the opposed attitudes.

If you don’t like the kind of stories you have been reading in Analog of late, don’t complain… write something better for the editor to buy. Dig in and read your file copies of the magazine. Discover what it means to take an idea or concept or postulate or invention and how to play with it in a story. Face the fact that at ASF this concept comes first and rules the form. Entertainment, character, story, plot — all hang from it and do not alter it.

There is a nickel a word waiting for anyone who can face the fact that this Concept is King at ASF — and who can then write a good story about a clear-cut and (hopefully) new idea.

First published in SFWA Bulletin, vol.7 no.1 (#25), 1969.

Let’s Start With A Spaceship In Trouble …

21 January, 2008

Let’s Start With A Spaceship In Trouble …
How I Write Science Fiction by Harry Harrison (1976)

I like to read science fiction and I like to write it just as much. I like it hard and I like it soft. Soft science fiction is more like fantasy than anything else. It can be a lot of fun – but you don’t have to worry too much about your facts. Hard SF is different. If there are real facts, and they are important to the story, they must be right. You can’t cheat. I did a book once about building a tunnel from Land’s End to the United States. Before I wrote a word I had to find out just what the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean was really like. I discovered a number of interesting facts – like an underwater mountain range of volcanoes – that made the book that much more fun to write and to read.

Then one day an editor asked me to write a story for the magazine Young Scientist. He wanted a story that told all about evolution, how the first life appeared on this planet, how it grew and changed through millions of years. A tall, order that – particularly since the story had to be enjoyable to read as well. After a lot of lip-chewing and staring out the study window at cactus and jackrabbits – I was living in California then – I had the idea. I would have a class of school children travel back in time to watch evolution as it was happening. And their school teacher would explain to them – and to the readers. Then, to make the story interesting rather than a boring old lecture, I had the children react the way they would in a real classroom. The good ones were good, while the naughty ones started fights, tried to step on the squigglies of a million years ago – and were always asking to go to the loo.

I enjoyed doing this so much that I said to myself – why not a whole book like this? Why not indeed. Let’s start with a spaceship in trouble, always excitement there. Let’s start with real trouble, with the only officer left alive and in charge being the ship’s doctor. And give him plenty of problems including the medical ones he should know how to face.

All of the problems in Spaceship Medic are real ones. Some of them can be solved by a knowledge of physics, others by astronomy or simple chemistry. All of the facts are given and the reader has just as big a chance of finding the answer as does the poor doctor. Science, and the facts of science, can be fun – because real things make a real world.

When I was done I had a space adventure novel where problems had to be solved and mighty fast too. With a happy sigh I typed those magic words, The End, on the manuscript and sent it off to my publisher.


Originally published in Puffin Post, Vol.10 No.4, 1976

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