Fantasy and Historical Perspective by Sandra Unerman

‘There is nothing like looking if you want to find something…’ but what you find is not always quite the something you were after. So says the narrator of The Hobbit when the dwarves go looking for shelter from a storm in the mountains. On the other hand, when writers look back into the past, what they find is likely to depend on what they are looking for.

Ghosts & ExilesMy newly published novel, Ghosts and Exiles, is set in the 1930s but was written in the 2010s. I’ve tried to avoid obvious anachronisms, because they would throw the reader out of the story. But my interests are those of the 21st century and that’s bound to be reflected in what I write. In this novel, a family and their friends must deal with a haunting and with the intrusion of magic, which partly results from the events of my earlier book, Spellhaven. That novel is set during and after the Great War, because it reflects the upheaval in European civilisation during that period. Ghosts and Exiles moves forward to London the 1930s to explore how the exiles from Spellhaven and their descendants cope with the changes in their lives.

SpellhavenAs I thought about the 1930s, I found plenty to interest me. Women were breaking out of their traditional roles then but not without a struggle; people were still dealing with the aftermath of the First World War and were afraid a new one was coming. Refugees who came to London, mostly from Europe, had to come to terms with great changes in their lives, while the English countryside and English country life could no longer be taken by granted as people thought they should be.

These were some of the issues that were written about in the 1930s themselves. My perspective on them, however, is bound to be different. I’m conscious, for example, that religion and class are not important concerns for any of my characters. I can justify this because of the particular backgrounds I have given them but it is far from typical of daily life as most people experienced it then. There are bound to be other distortions and angles, less easy for me to spot, which would speak to a reader from the future about the time the book is written rather than the time in which it is set.

Lit his of SF LuckhurstI’ve been thinking about this, because I’ve been reading A Literary History of Science Fiction, edited by Roger Luckhurst (British Library 2017). This survey of the genre from its origins up to the 21st century relates different works to the social and political context in which they were written. Of course, fantasy as a genre might be expected to be less concerned with the preoccupations of the present. It has been criticised as conservative and backward looking. But I would argue that it’s just as possible to imagine alternative ways of living or to explore human experience creatively in fantasy as in science fiction. A historical fantasy doesn’t have to involve nostalgia for the past. Frances Hardinge’s latest novel A Skinful of Shadows, is not romantic about either the Cavaliers or the Roundheads of the English Civil War. She focuses, as she often does, on the possibility of change for her characters and for society, rather than a restoration of the old order. Her approach evokes her chosen period through the way her characters think and behave as well as physical details. But all the same, she writes from a 21st century perspective in her focus on a rebellious young girl and in her portrayal of the destruction and disillusion brought about by the war.

I don’t think this is a drawback: a novel which tried to avoid the concerns of today would probably not be worth reading. It means that a historical fantasy, if done well, engages the reader on two levels. It evokes an imaginary past but through that past, has something to say about the kind of people we are and the way we live our lives now.

 

sandra-unermanSandra Unerman’s several visits to Milford have given a real boost to her writing. She is a retired Government lawyer who lives in London. Her novel, Spellhaven was nominated for the 2018 Crawford award from the IAFA. Her latest novel is Ghosts and Exiles and she has had a number of short stories published. She has an MA in Creative Writing from Middlesex University and she is a member of London Clockhouse Writers.

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Into Orbit? by Terry Jackman

OrbitersI came to Milford via a recommendation from someone at Arvon, a residential ‘course’ which unlike Milford is open to beginners. Milford sets the bar at being published, for money, and it’s a great experience, one I’ve repeated several times since, but in the end it’s only once a year (unless you add in the new retreat-week option to make that two?)

So what about the rest of the year? Especially if for any reason a face to face group isn’t the best option.

For me that gap was filled by the British Science Fiction Association’s Orbit groups, which critique up to 15,000 words every two months. Orbits began as postal groups, and we still talk about ‘rounds’ from the days when a parcel of manuscripts literally went from house to house around the group members, inevitably often much slower. But since 2005 these groups have operated online, usually by simple email, with simultaneous submissions. There are currently seven groups, split between novel length and shorter, and they, like Milford, focus on SF Fantasy or Horror. Entry comes free with BSFA membership, so it’s a win-win situation really.

So what’s involved? People commit to critique politely but honestly. Yes, even if they can’t submit anything of their own to that round. Basically it’s a classic do-as-you-would-be-done-unto scenario. You give good feedback, you get good feedback. So all we ask for you to read carefully and respond thoughtfully. Make sense? It does to us.

Obviously you will get different viewpoints on your work, and often a range of thoughts on what works and what might work. What you choose to act on is up to you, but if the whole group think the same thing that’s a pretty strong indication. And unlike some face to face groups you get time to mull over the comments in private; there’s no posturing or points scoring, just writers working together to make their work better. Of course critiquing others also helps to build the skills you can apply to your own work. By exploring what works on another piece you can learn how to improve your own? And writing is often a lonely occupation. Being in a friendly group means you always have someone to share ideas, successes and the odd downtimes with, and if a group really doesn’t suit you can ask to move into another.

Who joins? Anyone who wants to become a better writer. That means anyone from a beginner to an award winning/many times published author. We’ve also had editors join. And while it is the British SF Association the members have never been limited to the British Isles. Before the recent AGM it occurred to me to look at the current groups membership, to find writers, yes, from England Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, but also from Eire, Belgium, Denmark, Luxemburg, Georgia (as Russian) Hong Kong and Australia. Oh, I thought, no Americans right now? And then an enquiry dropped in my inbox so that box was ticked too.

So Orbits let you see your work through other eyes, similar to Milford, and give you the kind of feedback editors and publishers don’t have the time for. And perhaps the honesty friends and family can’t. Yes, sometimes that truth can hurt but Orbits don’t try to make you feel better. Their goal is to make you write better.

How does one join? If you aren’t already a member you join the BSFA, easiest through their website, then follow the link for the Orbits. Or you can query me about anything that you aren’t sure about.

 

author pic 1

author pic 1

Terry Jackman began writing nonfiction, more by accident than design, before eventually tackling fiction. These days she runs the BSFA Orbit groups and edits-for-hire  between writing and the day job. She also runs the occasional convention workshop, and is strange enough she actually enjoys moderating panels.

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How to Sell Short Stories to an Anthology By Deborah Walker

2018-Young-Explorers-GenericFirst off, I’ll pepper these words with caution. This is how I do things. You might have a much better way of selling stories to anthologies. And if you do, could you please tell me in the comments.

SELLING WITHOUT SUBMITTING

Sometimes an editor will chance across a published story and decide it’s perfect for their anthology. Make it easy for them. Publish your contact information on the interwebs. A bibliography of your published stories with links is good, too. I speak from experience. A few years ago, I had no contact information on my blog, and an editor had to track me down via Facebook. I could have missed out on a Year’s Best sale. Thank you so much, Mr. Editor.

FINDING ANTHOLOGY CALLS

Search for anthology calls and guidelines on The Grinder http://thegrinder.diabolicalplots.com/. A quick search of markets gives twenty-eight  anthologies paying 1 cent per word or more, open today. That’s a lot!

But lots of writers use The Grinder. I also use submission call sites, like Horror Tree http://horrortree.com/, Dark Markets http://www.darkmarkets.com/ and My Little Corner http://sandraseamans.blogspot.co.uk/. Anthology leads can also be found on social networks: writers passing on submission calls, mentioning a submission or an early sale.

IT’S NOT A NUMBERS GAME, BUT IT IS

Selling stories is difficult. There’s no doubt about that. There’s a lot of great writers out there and you’ve competing on an international stage. My strategy is to make a lot, a lot of subs. Sure not everyone has my time or my enormous bag of stories, but the more subs you make; the more rolls of the dice you make.

OLD STORY?

Once you’ve found an anthology call you’d like to submit to you need a story to submit.

Consider the stories you’ve already written. When I see an anthology, I go through my list of stories (non-sold and reprint) and think hard about if it could fit. That sounds foolish doesn’t it? Surely it should be obvious. But by thinking hard about the anthology’s theme and thinking outside the box, I often find a story that fits in an non-obvious way. Consider the editor. She’ll receive a large number of stories riffing off the most obvious interpretations of the anthology’s theme. A creative interpretation might stand out. Certainly, I’ve sold stories that I thought were long shots for a theme. Possibly more often than the perfect fit stories.

If the anthology takes multiple subs, consider sending more than one. I’m very bad at guessing what editors’ like. When I send more than one piece, you can bet the editor takes the story I didn’t think they would.

NEW STORY

What you write is your call, of course. But as I mentioned an editor will receive a lot of submissions on the most obvious interpretations of the theme. How about making your story stand out a little?

If you’ve written a story specifically for an anthology, a rejection can sting. After all, you’ve written something new, and now you’ve been rejected it was all a big waste of time. But not so! I find rejected anthology stories sell to other venues just as well as stories written for no particular venues. Sometimes rejected anthology stories sell to different anthologies.  Some years ago I did some number crunching, let’s lay aside the fact that the numbers were too small to be statistically meaningful. Stories that I wrote specifically for a themed anthology and were rejected went onto sell slightly better than stories I wrote with no particular theme in mind.

ASK THE EDITOR

If the guidelines don’t mention reprints, I sometimes query to see if the editor will accept them. I’ve also queried about length and, I had a bit of flash accepted which I queried about as the guidelines asked for 2000 words +. If you come across an invite only anthology, you can query. Editors don’t bite—most of the time. A word of caution: do query privately, via e-mail. Once I saw a joking query to an editor on Facebook that turned unpleasant.

WHEN TO SUBMIT

Anthology editors receive most subs at the start and the end of the submission period. Try not to sub at the end if you can help it.  That’s not always possible, I know. Some anthology calls respond to everything at the end of the submission period, and might say so in their guidelines. But subbing early sometimes means that you get a second bite of the cherry and can send in another story if the first one’s rejected. It’s also possible that an editor might want to work with you on the story. She’s possibly more likely to do this if you submit in good time.

AFTER THE SALE

You’ve sold to an anthology! Congratulations. Now don’t forget to practice good after-sales. I always respond to the initial acceptance letter with a thank you. I respond quickly to queries and copy-edits, always within a week. Once the anthology is out, promote it on your social network to the extent of your comfort zone. Do all these things because they’re good manners, and because you’ve found an editor who likes your work and maybe, just maybe, they’ll buy from you again in the future.

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I hope you find bits and pieces of this advice interesting. There’s nothing quite like being published in an anthology. I love the camaraderie between the contributors and love reading the authors takes on shared theme.  Anthologies are a lot of fun. Good luck and don’t forget to share your tips in the comments.

 

cranach sigDeborah Walker writes short fiction: fantasy, science fiction and horror. In the last six years, she’s been published in quite a few anthologies. You can check out her bibliography here: http://deborahwalkersbibliography.blogspot.co.uk/p/bibliography.html

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NESTA: Futurefest by Liz Williams

Tobacco Dock 1I recently contributed to an anthology of women’s SF published by a think-tank (doteveryone, helmed by Martha Lane Fox) and they very kindly gave me a free ticket to an event in Wapping: Futurefest 2018.

This was held in Tobacco Dock, a converted tobacco warehouse which is now a conference centre (an impressive building in its own right, with its long, low stone arched rooms) and it was an interesting setting for a conference on the future, being an old industrial building. The conference itself was run by the innovation foundation NESTA and featured a mix of political thought, technology, and social concepts. Futurefest’s website states:

“This year’s FutureFest came at a time where for many, our relationship with the future felt troubled. From hidden influences over the media and politics to growing threats of terrorism and environmental degradation ,the forces shaping our world seem threatening and remote. FutureFest brought together thousands of forward thinkers to explore ways to put power back into the hands of citizens; tapping into new ways of thinking and solutions for some of this era’s biggest challenges.”

Futurefest entrance 1Nicola Sturgeon and Sir Nick Clegg both gave talks on the future of politics, and there were talks devoted to consciousness, social change, the future of employment and the idea of universal wages, and many more ideas. There were also experiential exhibits: I had limited time, so focused on these. I went to a 3 minute VR concert by Imogen Heap, finding myself in a woodland landscape filled with fireflies, while a digitized woman sang to me. I also petted some cute robot bunny-pups, designed as alternative care and therapy animals for the housebound (the people who make them are also looking at domestic care robots). These had to be programmed to remain within a designated space, as there were problems with them following delegates around and seeking snuggles (this was not the Blade Runner-y dystopian end of robotics!). In addition to this I watched a short film on the nature of consciousness by the Sackler Centre from the University of Sussex, and wandered through a pop-up urban garden while someone from the Groundwork gardening organisation explained how urban gardening can cause a decrease in anti-social behavior.

I did not sample the edible wares of the bug bar (it does what it says on the tin) or the wonky vegetable smoothies given out by the Economist (the vegetables were wonky, not the smoothies – the publication is trying to highlight the widespread practice by supermarkets of only selecting perfectly formed vegetables).

Tobacco Dock and ShardI attended a talk on smart cities: how city management is looking to technology to engage citizens in participatory democracy and evaluate quality-of-life aspects such as air pollution. The panelists were all concerned with potential abuses of this – for instance, the dangers of creating a surveillance society and too much power being sidetracked into the big vendors such as Google and Amazon, resulting in top-down corporate control rather than ground-up needs of citizens themselves.

All of these concepts are obviously concerns of the average SF writer. It was noted that we’re not particularly good at predicting the future (the failure of early SF to really get to grips with miniaturization is an example) but we are reasonably good at causing it. At an earlier event at Imperial College, Mars geologist Sanjeev Gupta commented on how so many people involved in the science of space exploration are also fans: what they read informs what they try to achieve (the ‘That would be so COOL’ effect), and I think this is applies to other fields. But what it does show is that a range of people, from politicians to scientists and engineers and social policy makers are actively engaging with what’s coming down the pike, albeit in a somewhat piecemeal fashion (I’m not sure how much long–term joined-up thinking is going on, as opposed to knee-jerk reaction on the part of political establishments, for instance).

The presence of some major UK political figures, a number of university departments, and some of the heavy-hitters of the corporate sector, indicate that futurology is of major concern to areas of the establishment. How far can we, as SF writers – generators of future content – engage with this process? Attendance at events such as Futurefest (which I wouldn’t have known about if I hadn’t been commissioned for a short story submission) is something that we as SF writers might consider, alongside our (to us) more conventional conventions.

https://www.futurefest.org/
https://www.nesta.org.uk/
https://doteveryone.org.uk/

Liz WilliamsLiz Williams is a science fiction and fantasy writer living in Glastonbury, England, where she is co-director of a witchcraft supply business. She has been published by Bantam Spectra (US) and Tor Macmillan (UK), also Night Shade Press and appears regularly in Asimov’s and other magazines. She has been involved with the Milford SF Writers’ Workshop for 20 years, and also teaches creative writing at a local college for Further Education.

Novels are: THE GHOST SISTER (Bantam Spectra), EMPIRE OF BONES, THE POISON MASTER, NINE LAYERS OF SKY, BANNER OF SOULS (Bantam Spectra – US, Tor Macmillan – UK), DARKLAND, BLOODMIND (Tor Macmillan UK), SNAKE AGENT, THE DEMON AND THE CITY, PRECIOUS DRAGON, THE SHADOW PAVILION (Night Shade Press) WINTERSTRIKE (Tor Macmillan) and THE IRON KHAN (Morrigan Press) and WORLDSOUL (Prime). The Chen series is currently being published by Open Road.

Her first short story collection THE BANQUET OF THE LORDS OF NIGHT was also published by Night Shade Press, and her second and third, A GLASS OF SHADOW and THE LIGHT WARDEN, are published by New Con Press as is her recent novella, PHOSPHORUS.

The Witchcraft Shop Diaries (1 and 2) are published by New Con Press.

Her novel BANNER OF SOULS has been nominated for the Philip K Dick Memorial Award, along with 3 previous novels, and the Arthur C Clarke Award.

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Science for Fiction by Liz Williams

Imperial CollegeImperial College has been running an annual event, Science for Fiction, for the last few years and many members of Milford have not only attended, but have found this to be an invaluable resource in terms of inspiration and information for their fiction. Run by Professor David Clements, himself a Milford regular, the event runs over 2 days and consists of a series of lectures and discussions on cutting-edge science. In the past, attendees have learned about epigenetics, ethical issues in AI, and tried out a VR device simulating the Mars rover.

Huxley bldg signImperial is one of the top scientific institutions on this planet, a world-leader in physics, astrophysics and AI. It’s fundamentally an engineering college, but some researchers (for instance, Marek Sergot in the AI department) are involved in exploring ethical issues within their fields. Robotics is a major focus and Imperial is involved with the European Space Agency; an Imperial professor, David Southwood, was appointed to the role of Chair of the Steering Committee of the UK Space Agency in 2016. The college also houses the Data Science Institute which acts as a focal point for coordinating data science research at Imperial College. Its research focuses on cross-cutting foundations of data science, including statistics, big data, machine learning, modelling, simulation, visualisation and cloud computing.

Milford in the bar 1

Milfordites in the bar

This year there was an emphasis on space exploration, with a history of space programmes and how they are conceived and funded by Dave Clements, plus an account of the development of spacecraft by Leah-Nani Alconcel, who is working on the JUICE mission for payload instruments for spacecraft, and a lecture on the search for dark matter and dark energy by Dr Pat Scott. This was followed by a visit to the Imperial students’ union bar and a rather outstanding Indian meal on Gloucester Road.

Thursday saw us sitting down to an intense lecture on mathematics and prime numbers by Jim Anderson of Southampton University (also a Milford regular). “People sometimes say to me,” said Jim, “’so do you just sit in your office multiplying bigger and bigger numbers?’ Sometimes, I reply, ‘Yes.’”

IMG_20180705_124616699

Subu Mohanty

This was followed by a talk from Subu Mohanty of Imperial on the habitability of planets which orbit red dwarf stars – crucial for any SF writer wanting to get some cosmological accuracy into their hard science fiction. In the afternoon, we had a talk by Sanjeev Gupta on the history of Curiosity, the Mars rover: its ‘sister’ Opportunity is currently AWOL in a massive Martian sandstorm (who needs fiction when this sort of thing is unfolding in the physical world?). We learned about how the rover was driven, and about problems with its performance in this challenging environment, and we marveled over shots of the Martian landscape: over ancient river valleys and impact craters. The event ended with James Murray lecturing on synthetic biology.

So within the course of a day, we had learned about prime numbers and why they are so important in cryptography, life in the infra-red range of the spectrum, why the composition of a vehicle’s wheels can make or break an interplanetary mission, and where the creation of synthetic life is likely to lead.

IMG_20180704_164417740I brought a friend along, Canadian-based SF writer Ceallaigh MacCath Moran, who commented that as writers, it’s the people behind the science who are as interesting to us as the science itself, and I would agree with this remark, having appreciated

Mars Rover driver

Mars Rover Driver

the enthusiasm with which every speaker approached their subject. We were all amused by Sanjeev’s account of his daughter, at the eye-rolling stage of development, complaining about how boring his job was and how she couldn’t understand why her classmates all thought it was really cool.

Writers will always find something to talk about, so as well as scientific matters, several of us exchanged notes over research into magical practice – the Fantasy side of the genre spectrum. And there was a lot of discussion about ideas, concepts, dreams of the future, and concerns about the present.

I think all of us who attended would like to thank Dave Clements and Imperial for making this possible. If you are interested, the event is planned for 2019, and costs around £30 for 2 days.

 

Liz WilliamsLiz Williams is a science fiction and fantasy writer living in Glastonbury, England, where she is co-director of a witchcraft supply business. She has been published by Bantam Spectra (US) and Tor Macmillan (UK), also Night Shade Press and appears regularly in Asimov’s and other magazines. She has been involved with the Milford SF Writers’ Workshop for 20 years, and also teaches creative writing at a local college for Further Education.

Novels are: THE GHOST SISTER (Bantam Spectra), EMPIRE OF BONES, THE POISON MASTER, NINE LAYERS OF SKY, BANNER OF SOULS (Bantam Spectra – US, Tor Macmillan – UK), DARKLAND, BLOODMIND (Tor Macmillan UK), SNAKE AGENT, THE DEMON AND THE CITY, PRECIOUS DRAGON, THE SHADOW PAVILION (Night Shade Press) WINTERSTRIKE (Tor Macmillan) and THE IRON KHAN (Morrigan Press) and WORLDSOUL (Prime). The Chen series is currently being published by Open Road.

Her first short story collection THE BANQUET OF THE LORDS OF NIGHT was also published by Night Shade Press, and her second and third, A GLASS OF SHADOW and THE LIGHT WARDEN, are published by New Con Press as is her recent novella, PHOSPHORUS.

The Witchcraft Shop Diaries (1 and 2) are published by New Con Press.

Her novel BANNER OF SOULS has been nominated for the Philip K Dick Memorial Award, along with 3 previous novels, and the Arthur C Clarke Award.

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You don’t have to be Luddite to work here… by Alastair Reynolds

There’s an understandable assumption that someone who thinks about coming technologies must also be something of a gadget-head. I’ve certainly done my share of near-future speculation, trying to imagine plausible extensions of current advances in AI, robotics, virtual reality, telepresence and so on. While I’m fascinated by these topics in an abstract sense, I couldn’t be less interested in terms of my own working environment.

I write in a wooden shed in Wales. I have a kettle in there, and a record player, and not much else. There’s certainly no wifi, and I struggle to get a good telephone signal. Most of my writing (including this blog post) is done on a Dell desktop computer that will soon be old enough to begin driving lessons. Technically it’s on borrowed time – I was assured that the hard-drive is already many years over “MTBF” – “mean time between failures” – yet it keeps working, boots up before I’ve had time to boil the kettle, and only ever crashes in really hot weather. Given that I live in the aforementioned Wales, that’s rarely a concern. That said, I’m very diligent about backing up. And for those of you who care about such things, it’s running Windows XP with Word 97. It’s never been connected to the internet.

I’m not a technophobe but if a piece of equipment does the work required, I see no reason to discard it. Whenever I have to write on the road, using a succession of unreliable and clunky laptops – none of which is has yet outlasted the Dell – it’s always a relief to come back home and find that I can work freely, without the machine interposing itself, impeding the creative process rather than helping it flow.

OlympiaSG158In truth, I needed persuasion to switch to computers in the first place. I’m possibly one of the last wave of writers who had any tangible contact with manual typewriters. I began with a very heavy Olympia typewriter and later switched to a lighter, portable model, and I wrote the first draft of Revelation Space on the latter machine. I taught myself using a rudimentary hunt-and-peck approach which is still about all I can manage. I was still submitting typewritten stories to Interzone into the middle nineties.

Revelation spaceThis education served me well in one sense, in that it encouraged me to keep going. My working method was to type three new pages of fiction an evening. I would allow myself three Tip-Ex corrections per page – more than that, and I retyped the whole sheet.

What I tried not to do was to go back and fiddle with what I’d produced the night before. Revision and polishing are absolutely essential aspects of the craft, but they can also be dangerous substitutions for actual creative slog. The writer who spends all their time trying to write the perfect opening line, the perfect opening page, will likely never finish anything.

When I’m sitting at my PC, I try to treat it as a typewriter during the first draft, accepting that it’s better to be moving forward, even with imperfections, than get sucked into that spiral of fiddling and polishing. That part (which I enjoy much more then slog of the first draft) can wait until later.

I am death to keyboards, though.

I bought a swanky new one a couple of years ago, and after finishing only one novel half a dozen of the keys were blank. I ordered some stickers but they lasted even less time than the original markings. Having learned to type on stiff manual typewriters, the force needed to work them is irrevocably hard-wired into my brain and muscle memory. When I worked in science, colleagues used to complain about the racket coming from my office, as I hammered yet another keyboard into bloody submission. Being an amateur musician, as well, I have sharp nails on my right hand. The right side of my keyboard wears out appreciably faster than the left.

That’s fine, though. I’ll gladly accept the cost of a new keyboard every couple of novels for the discipline of moving forward, producing rather than revising. Meanwhile, I suppose I can always buy some more stickers.

Alastair ReynoldsALASTAIR REYNOLDS is one of Britain’s leading science fiction authors. His first novel, Revelation Space, was a critical success, shortlisted for the BSFA and Clarke Awards. He was born in Barry, South Wales, in 1966. He studied at Newcastle and St Andrews Universities and has a Ph.D. in astronomy. He gave up working as an astrophysicist for the European Space Agency to become a full-time writer. Revelation space and Pushing Ice were shortlisted for the Arthur C Clarke Award; Revelation space, Absolution Gape, Diamond Dogs and Century Rain were shortlisted for the British Science Fiction Award and Chasm City won the British Science Fiction Award. His most recent book is Elysium Fire, featuring Inspector Dreyfus. It’s a fast paced SF crime story, combining a futuristic setting with a gripping tale of technology, revolution and revenge.

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Northwrite SF Writers Group by Jacey Bedford

Inspired by our enjoyment and appreciation of Milford’s annual conference and unable to sign up to a specialised SF critique group in our own area, a few writers based in the north of England decided to form a small critique group. Since our founder members were stretched from coast to coast from Lancashire to Yorkshire it made sense to meet in the middle. Since I’m more or less in the middle (on the edge of the Pennines) and have a rambling old house with spare bedrooms and a decent-sized living room to meet in, Northwrite’s inaugural meeting happened here in June 2012, and it has happened quarterly ever since.

The views here aren’t so bad…

IMG_20180505_102052977

We meet on a Sunday for a full day, and since I don’t have to travel I cook lunch for anything up to ten of us, eleven if I count my longsuffering husband who very kindly helps with the washing up and otherwise keeps a low profile.

We have ten members, and though a few people have dropped out over the years we’ve always been able to fill the places. Of course not everyone attends every meeting and we find that we average out at seven members per session, which works out quite nicely as it’s a nice full meeting with a decent workload. A couple of weeks before the meeting, each attendee sends a single piece for critique, either a short story or part of a novel, up to a maximum of 10,000 words.

We start as close to eleven as possible to allow time for the long distance travellers to get here, and we usually manage to crit a couple of pieces before lunch and the rest in the afternoon, finishing around five or six p.m.

We use the Milford method of critiquing which is outlined in full on the Milford web site: http://www.milfordsf.co.uk/about.htm#Rules.

  • Each participant, in rotation, spends up to four minutes (timed) giving their critique of the work at hand. Everyone gets the opportunity to open the critting, to crit and be critted.
  • No interruption, whether by the author or anyone else, is allowed during this stage of the proceedings.
  • After everyone has spoken the author gets an uninterrupted right of reply.
  • This is often followed by a more general discussion.
  • The critter normally gives the crittee a written version of their crit or maybe their original MS with notes, or emails it afterwards.

Most of our Northwrite members have attended Milford so they already know the cardinal rule of delivering constructive rather than destructive critique. However critique is thorough and robust. When we first began Northwrite we didn’t impose a membership bar (To attend Milford you have to have sold a minimum of one piece of fiction to a recognised market) however we quickly realised that though this bar is low it is effective and we’ve since adopted it.

All of our members are either founder members, or they’ve become members by invitation. On the rare occasion we’ve invited someone unpublished or self-published for a trial session we’ve found/they’ve found that our critique was too robust and detailed for their sensibilities. One young lady said afterwards that it was like attending ‘a masterclass’. While we don’t think of ourselves as being elevated, and we certainly don’t intend to be cliquey, we are all writing for publication and we take our craft seriously. We all have experience of being edited by professional editors, and being critiqued by professional writers. Anyone who wants to be patted on the back and told how wonderful their story is, is not going to like Northwrite (or Milford either). No matter how good a story, someone can always find something, however small, to change for the better.

And that’s the whole point of critique sessions. When you critique someone’s story or novel extract, you are always trying to offer critique that will help to improve it, to drive it a little closer to being publication-ready.

Everybody’s critique style is different. I tend to critique on first impressions, because a reader might not give your writing a second chance if the first impressions don’t hold attention. One of our members is really good at dissecting the logic of a plot, another is spot-on when it comes to philosophical and moral arguments. One is brilliant at picking out typos, another is a historian and great at exposing holes in historically-based fantasy plots. We all have something different to bring to a critique session. The one thing that unites us is our desire to help the writer to make their piece better.

Having started out as a group for writers from Lancashire and Yorkshire, we found that a few of our founder members dropped out and by word of mouth writers with further to travel asked to join. One comes down from the Isle of Arran, others from Gloucestershire, London and Cambridge, while we still have a core of northern writers. It means that some arrive on the Saturday and depart on Monday morning, but so far we’ve never had more overnight people than we can find a bed for, and the social side of things is great.

You can find out more at the Northwrite web site: http://www.northwritesf.com/

Jacey 2018Jacey Bedford is the secretary of Milford SF Writers and the mother hen of Northwrite. She’s had close to forty short stories published on both sides of the Atlantic and has novels published by DAW in the USA. Her Psi-Tech Trilogy (space opera) is complete and her Rowanlind Trilogy (historical fantasy) completes in December 2018. She maintains this blog and one of her own at: https://jaceybedford.wordpress.com/

Catch up with her:
Web: http://www.jaceybedford.co.uk
Twitter @jaceybedford
Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/jacey.bedford.writer/

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