Moving Goalposts by Juliet Kemp

At the start of each year, I set myself some aims for the next year; and this year, I want to publish more short stories. That, in turn, means that I need to write the stories, and then I need to submit them.

The problem with submitting stories on spec is that on the way to acceptance, you are more than likely to face a big stack of rejections. As a writer, one has to come to grips with that, and with not allowing it to bother you (…too much). I’ve been writing and submitting short stories for a few years now, so I’m reasonably good at that part.

Reasonably good. It still kind of sucks, got to admit it; and I have a bad habit of, once I’ve received a rejection email, sitting on the story for a while before I get around to sending it anywhere else. This way, I can avoid the thought of facing another rejection for a bit longer. The downside is that the story takes longer to find its home, and that the rejection email sits there in my inbox (to remind me to resubmit, you see) and stares at me for longer. Neither of these things are particularly useful.

So this year, I am trying a new solution. This year, my first short story related goal is to get 50 rejections. Because you’ve got to send things out to get acceptances, and sending things out means getting rejections, therefore, logically, you’ve got to get rejections to get acceptances. (Slightly worryingly, this is almost exactly what I was told during the three days I once spent doing door-to-door textbook sales in the US, back when I was a student. I was very, very bad at door-to-door sales, and also I really, really hated it, which is why I only lasted three days. But one of the things they told us was that you average ten doors for every sale, so every rejection was one step closer to that tenth door and the sale. My suspicion is that bursting into tears halfway through one’s own sales pitch makes that ratio considerably worse, but I digress.)

In any case, I hoped that this would make me feel better about a rejection, because every rejection means another tick in the box towards that goal of fifty. Turns out, it’s been working surprisingly well. I am not going to claim that I am happy about the rejection, per se, but it definitely takes the edge off the disappointment. It is good to know oneself, and I am definitely the sort of person who is enthused by ticky boxes.

love my rejection slips

That goal also plays well with my next one, to resubmit within 24 hours. Because if I sit on the story for a week every time, I’m going to get through fewer rejections, right? Much better to get it out there and be waiting for that next email towards my fifty. And again, this has worked surprisingly well in terms of taking the angst out of resubmitting. I spend less time putting it off, because I want to get that 24-hour-turnaround ticky box.

My final short story goal is the most obvious one: to write another ten stories. I need something to get rejections for, after all.

The thing is: all three goals are within my control, rather than anyone else’s. Writing the stories, getting them out there, keeping on getting them out there. I want acceptances; but I can’t control those, beyond writing the best stories I can and hoping for a good editorial fit. Rejections, on the other hand, are far easier to come by.

And, okay, fine, I’m kind of hoping that I get enough acceptances, quickly enough, that I run out of stories before I make it to fifty. But if I do manage fifty this year — and I’m on target so far with fourteen to date! — I’ll damn well celebrate that.


julietkemp_worldcon_photoJuliet Kemp lives in London with their partners, child, and dog. Their fantasy novel “The Deep And Shining Dark” (Elsewhen Press) and their YA SF novella “A Glimmer Of Silver” (Book Smugglers) both came out in 2018, and their short fiction has appeared in various places. In their free time, they go bouldering, tend their towering to-be-read pile, and get over-enthusiastic about fountain pens. They can be found at, or as @julietk on Twitter.

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Impossible Stories by Jim Anderson

impossible header
I love reading stories about the impossible, and science fiction is full of them.  Faster than light travel is, as far as we currently know, an impossibility, but I don’t mind reading stories that use faster than light travel in either an essential or an inessential way.  There are some spectacularly good ones, and we all have our own personal lists of our favourites.
Magic, ghosts, all things that as far as we understand the rules of the universe are impossible, and yet that doesn’t matter.  We know our understanding of the rules of the universe is incomplete, but it is still something of a stretch to create a universe of magic.
As a mathematician in my day job, I’m used to dealing with impossible things.  Encountering them, that is, but not doing them.  Because doing impossible things is, well, impossible.  But there are things that we know to be impossible, such as squaring a circle or trisecting an angle, and as in all things, the rules of the game matter.  But that’s a different story.
believe-impossible-thingsSo why do I love reading stories about impossible things like faster than light travel, universal translators, magic and all of the other standard tropes that we work with.  I love reading them because I love watching what their authors do in creating them.  I love the flights of fancy and deep dives into the pools of imagination that are the short stories, novellas and novels I love to read.
As much as I love reading the impossible, I’ll admit that I have great difficulty writing the impossible.  Part of this difficulty is one of imagination.  I’ve read a lot of very, very good stories about impossible things, and for me, this raises the hurdle of the impossible I can imagine.  Fortunately, there is infinite room in the realm of the impossible, and so the impossible becomes an infinite playground.
And so this is my challenge, to find something interesting in this infinite realm of the impossible.  And not just interesting to me.  Interesting to everyone who might read my explorations of this infinite realm.
VLUU P1200 / Samsung P1200Jim Anderson (on-line at is a Professor of Mathematics at the University of Southampton, and is also the Associate Dean (Education and Student Experience) for the Faculty of Social, Human and Mathematical Sciences. Beyond mathematics, he practices the traditional Japanese martial art of aikido and writes science fiction and fantasy.
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Beginnings, Middles, and Ends by David Gullen

alpha & omega

This one’s a bit of a ramble, but I get there. Almost all stories have beginnings, middles, and ends. Not necessarily in that order, and sometimes there are more than one of each.

The vast majority of advice I ever received about novel structure was focused on the opening, and it was all about getting published. Your opening needs to be vivid, it needs to be engaging, and immediate, because that is what will get you past the slush reader and/or agent and/or commissioning editor to the desired goal of acceptance, contract, and publication. Yay!

For me this raises an interesting point about who your audience actually is, especially for newer or less well-published writers. Yourself (you should always, always write for yourself), your (prospective) agent, your (prospective) publisher? Sometimes it can feel like a readership can be a long way away. Of course that’s who your real target audience is but it’s worth remembering that any reader is free to put down your story and when a submission reader, agent, or editor does that it goes no further.

Kings last songGeoff Ryman’s The King’s Last Song has a superb, beautiful and engaging start. As a writer I still remember thinking ‘why do I bother, I shall never be this good?’ As a reader I was compelled and excited to read on, the promise of a good book was terrific.

There’s also a good deal of advice on how to get through the great swampy middle, where plot wanders in circles, tension withers and dies, and characters stand around in empty rooms and talk to each other about what they should do next. I think they are not really talking to each other about this problem, they are asking the writer for help.

We’ve all read books that meander in the middle and plot drifts like a rudderless boat on a sluggish river. Sometimes I’ll put a book like that down, or skim to the end. More rarely I’ll keep reading because the quality of the writing and use of language keeps me engaged and then, even more rarely, all that seeming wandering about draws into sharp focus, the writer really did know what they were doing, and it is brilliant. The Old Ways, by Robert MacFarlane, a book about the ancient routes of Britain, is a lovely example.

An agent once wrote that they could not remember ever having put a book down because it had too much tension. I think that is a statement well worth paying attention to, especially when writing fiction, and in particular if you worry your own story may be adrift in the swampy middle.

I’ve not read much advice about how to end a story but it, like the rest, is essential. Not only because in the end it all needs to be as good as you can make it, but mainly because what you remember as a reader is how you feel about a book when you put it down. And that determines if you will ever pick it up again, or read another book by that author.

book_shopocalypse_(9c)I have read many reviews of books in series that complained how the end was not an end, just a pause in the tale, and how disappointing that was. I seldom had the impression they were giving up on the story, and how wonderful that the reader continued to trust the writer, though it doesn’t help. Readers want to read and if they are like me they hate to leave a story unfinished. I still reserve the right not to start – I once had a long fantasy series recommended to me on the basis that ‘after book three it gets pretty good’, but that’s another story.

If the beginning is about making promises to the reader, then the middle is about trust, and the end is how you reward that trust. An ending needs to pay back in some way on the promises you have made to the reader in the course of the story you have told. Whether your ending is full of blood and thunder or quietly introspective, it should also summon memories of the journey we’ve shared, author, reader, and characters. In brief, it should be satisfying.

For me Roger Zelazny is a master of the poignant and open ending. His Jack of Shadows is an odd, fascinating book about the collision of the worlds of science and magic, and the man who tries to unite them. It’s not his greatest work – that is Lord of Light – but the ending is perfect and shows brilliantly one way to do it. I’m not going to tell you what he does, you should read the book.

I think this is important enough to say again – People remember how they feel about a book when they put it down. Ideally this should be at the end.


gullen-dkg1-2012David Gullen was born in South Africa and baptised by King Neptune at the equator. His short fiction has appeared in various magazines and anthologies, including New Scientist’s ARC, Albedo 1, and the Sensorama anthology from Eibonvale. David lives in Surrey, England, with the fantasy writer Gaie Sebold and too many tree ferns. His SF novel, Shopocalypse, is available from NewCon Press. He has been a judge for the Arthur C. Clarke and James White Awards, and is the current Chair of Milford SF.


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Alastair Reynolds on Milford

revelation-spaceMilford came at a critical time for me – real make or break stuff. It was the year when I knew I’d have to decide whether I was cut out for this science fiction lark.

The year was 1998. I’d made my first sale nine years earlier. After a long apprenticeship collecting rejection slips it had felt like a significant breakthrough and I was excited when my first pair of stories appeared the year after. I sold two more in relatively quick succession and the reaction to that first clutch of stories was positive enough to provide some encouragement. I felt myself to be cautiously on the up: I had a novel in progress, and ideas for more. Some of my immediate peers were starting to get book deals and attention from international markets. I felt that if only I stuck at it, the same rewards might start coming my way.

But quite unexpectedly my career faltered. After that initial blip of sales I had a run of lean years during which I couldn’t sell anything. After a string of rejections I eventually found my way back into the magazines, but with only a story or two a year it was hardly a blistering return to prominence. My massive gothic space opera novel had ground to a halt, too. I had finished a draft of it, but I knew there were major structural problems and I couldn’t find the energy or the enthusiasm to start picking through the entrails. I was treading water and feeling insecure about my prospects. One or two editors liked my stuff but the rest of the world seemed indifferent.

I can’t remember when I signed up for Milford, but I do remember that the conference lay many, many months in the future and that there was no great concern on my part about having some material to take with me. Surely there would be ample time to produce one or two stories for workshopping?

I should have known better, though, because the year marched on and somewhere around the late summer I felt the icy claws of panic beginning to take hold. Never mind, there was still time! My wife’s work had taken us to Spain for a couple of weeks. While she took care of a conference, I holed myself up in our hotel room with coffee, one C90 cassette containing two Can albums, a laptop, and tried to nail down a story. It was a biggie, one I’d been struggling with for a long time.

The inspiration of the story was simple enough. I’d long had a fondness for the kind of narrative which tries to fold a novel’s worth of events into a few (or a dozen or so) thousand words. Ian Macdonald had recently written a great story called “The Days of Solomon Gursky” which took a present-day protagonist and catapulted them through a series of ever more weird future vistas, finally reaching a vaulting cosmological climax. I had just published a story in Interzone which could conceivably belong to the same future history as my second one, and which might just share the same background as the semi-dead novel. I had begun to think about a grand, over-arching story in the “Solomon Gursky” vein, to tie the whole lot into one grand, explicit future.

The problem was that while I had a sense of the scope of the story, I was having trouble nailing down those small particulars like plot, character, point of view, and so on. The story went through endless aborted versions while I struggled to find the right way to tell it.

But somehow or other I pulled together a draft, and it was this that I took with me to Milford. I’m not even sure if it had a title at that point. Being quite long- about thirteen thousand words, I think – it was the only story I presented at the workshop. Others brought two or more somewhat shorter pieces and in hindsight I would suggest that this is much the better approach, especially if those individual pieces are quite distinct.

It was a horrible, rain-lashed day when I flew into the UK and caught the train down to Devon. There were delays and service cancellations owing to flooding, and the journey took far longer than anticipated. The troubled weather echoed my mood. As excited as I was by the idea of the workshop, I was more than a bit apprehensive about meeting lots of other writers for the first time. Although I’d been publishing for eight years, I still knew hardly anyone in the field. Since I was living abroad at the time, I didn’t go to SF conventions or meetings and I had very little idea of how other writers related to their peers. A few of the Milford writers were people whose work I’d read and enjoyed already, but I’d met none of them.

I needn’t have worried. Although it was my first Milford, and there were some old-hands in attendance, I was quickly made to feel very welcome. Tea and biscuits helped break the ice. Gradually more people arrived, each having experienced some sort of epic journey, but by some miraculous turn the weather started improving and for the rest of the week – as I remember it – it was actually relatively pleasant, enabling a number of walks down to the nearby beach, overlooked by the dramatic red cliffs of the south Devon coast.

It was good to get out of the house when we could. Reading and critiquing each other’s stories took a lot of time and energy. Reading is easy: reading and having something useful to say, not so much. I’ve always found that two or three readings are necessary if you’re going to make any sort of informed critical commentary. It was all right with the shorter pieces, but some – like mine – were getting on for novelette or novella length.Milford 98 Tripgroup1-label.jpg

Reading stories in manuscript form is a very different thing to reading the finished product within the authoritative frame of a magazine. Your own work looks unpolished, provisional – a little tentative and unsure of itself. But – as you quickly discover – so do all the other stories. The reading experience then becomes very liberating and democratic. I tried to treat each story as seriously as the last, and I’m sure my fellow workshoppers brought the same intention to their reading. What looks scrappy and unfinished as few sheets of photocopied paper might be only a draft away from greatness. As we gathered in a loose circle of armchairs in the main room, I think we all strove to give honest, conscientious criticism. For my own part, I soon realised that there was no point pretending to like or understand a story if it hadn’t worked for me. Pretty clearly, not everyone liked my story as well. The important thing was to give feedback in a constructive and friendly spirit, without presuming to know better than the writer what their story should have looked like. I do remember some stories being more or less liked, and some stories more or less disliked, but at no point do I remember anyone being put down or belittled, or being upset by the process. More tea and biscuits soon soothed any bruised egos, if there were any. It was a shrewd move to bring more than one piece of work along to the workshop. I just wish I’d had the good sense to do so myself.

We all parted as friends, and years later I still enjoy bumping into my Milford colleagues when our paths cross at science fiction events. For my own part, I returned home a little overloaded by the spread of opinions I’d received on my story. I quickly realised that while these individual responses might all have some validity, there was no possible way to address them all without rupturing the story completely. So another lesson was in the quiet art of ignoring perfectly sensible and intelligent criticism. Ultimately a story exists because of some germinal idea or intersection of ideas; it derives from a private creative impulse. It may well be improved after being opened up to outside criticism, but the writer should never lose sight that the story is theirs, and that they had a vision in mind at the outset. Criticism is useful, but a story that pleased everyone probably wouldn’t speak deeply or urgently to any single reader. Better to write a piece that really electrifies one reader, even if it bores or bewilders others, than an inoffensively pleasant story that ticks a set of majority boxes. There’s enough of that about as it is.

Where my story sat on that continuum between pleasant and electrifying, I’m not too sure. After I’d had some time away, I sat down and reworked it rather boldly. The finished piece – by then titled “Galactic North” found a home in Interzone, gained splendid illustrations, and has been reprinted a number of times. When I put out my second collection, this was the title story. To this day it will always be my Milford piece and I remain immensely grateful to my fellow workshoppers for their reading and criticism.

Alastair Reynolds


ALASTAIR 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. That was followed by eighteen further novels and story collections (or nineteen if you count his Dr Who tie in novel, Harvest of Time). His most recent book is Shadow Captain (2019), the sequel to Revenger, a brisk, distant future caper novel set in the rubble of a ruined solar system, and concerning itself with two sisters who want a little adventure in their lives, and get much, much more than they bargained for. A third book in the same universe, Bone Silence, is upcoming.

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You Want Fries With That? by Alex Stewart

Shooting the RiftThough I’ve a couple of stand-alone novels out from Baen (Shooting the Rift, a wide screen space opera, and A Fistful of Elven Gold, which quite clearly isn’t), the vast majority of my twenty-something books to date have been tie-in fiction for Games Workshop’s Warhammer 40,000 franchise. Given that I use a pseudonym on them, a bit of bad advice I got from a former agent who thought that sort of thing was a bit downmarket, I now find myself in the slightly odd position of being considerably less well known than my alter ego, Sandy Mitchell, who has a large and enthusiastic following.

Working within a franchise certainly isn’t for everyone, but I’ve found it both creatively and financially rewarding, and still have enough enthusiasm for the process to be embarking on the eleventh volume of the adventures of Commissar Cain with genuine pleasure. He and I have been through a lot together over the years, and I owe him a great deal; in fact I’d go so far as to say that without him I wouldn’t be nearly as good a writer as I am. His first outing, For the Emperor!, way back in 2003, was the first full-length novel I ever had commissioned, and the exceptional editorial support I got made the learning curve a lot less steep than it otherwise would have been. Working in a pre-existing universe gave me the chance to concentrate on character without worrying too much about the world-building, although the 40K background is so huge and diverse it leaves plenty of room for individual flourishes.

Caiphas cainAnd that, I think, is the key to playing successfully with someone else’s train set. Find something you can do within the established background that no one else can, and stake out your own corner of it. In my case it was bringing overt humour to a setting that’s generally regarded as unremittingly grim, but in a way which respects the existing IP rather than working against it. Cain is essentially Flashman in space, an idea that had appealed to me for a long time, but which I’d buried in the metaphorical bottom drawer for years because the amount of world-building necessary to set up an idolised military hero who’s actually a self-serving fraud on a galactic scale would crush the entire conceit. Plonking him down in the Imperium, however, short-circuited all that, and made the stakes satisfyingly high, as the consequences of discovery would be too terrible to contemplate.

The other advantage of working in a well-established background is that there’s never any risk of running out of story ideas. All I have to do is leaf through a sourcebook or two, splice a couple of background details together, wonder how Cain would react to the result, and the outline practically writes itself.

And let’s not forget that starting out in a franchise can be a springboard to success in your own projects too; a chance to try new techniques, and develop your own unique narrative voice. I like to think my own, tongue-in-cheek, dryly humorous, would have taken a lot longer to arrive without Cain, if I’d ever discovered it at all.

As I said at the outset, writing for a franchise isn’t for everyone, but if there is one that appeals to you, it’s worth checking out the possibilities. The worst that can happen is you have a little fun, and get paid for it. And the best? You have a whole lot of fun and get paid for it!


AlexAlex Stewart has been writing professionally for over thirty years, during which time he has produced novels, short stories, comic strips, audio dramas and television scripts. His most recent books are Choose Your Enemies, the latest instalment in the Commissar Cain series of Warhammer 40,000 tie-ins, and A Fistful of Elven Gold, a tongue-in-cheek fantasy adventure about a bounty hunting gnome, the mass market paperback edition of which is due out from Baen books in April. He has an MA in Screenwriting, so watches far too many movies ‘for research’ when he ought to be working.

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Beginning at the Beginning by Jacey Bedford

I’ve always been particularly fascinated by book-beginnings. One of my favourite opening sentences is the one which opens John Wyndham’s The Day of the Triffids:

When a day that you happen to know is Wednesday starts out by sounding like Sunday, there’s something seriously wrong somewhere.

What a classic! It sets the scene, sets up expectations and leads brilliantly into the story of a man who wakes in hospital with his eyes bandaged to find that the world has changed forever.

The Day of the Triffids was the first adult SF novel that I read. I was eleven or twelve and I’d bought it via a school book club. It made such an impression on me that all these years later I can still quote the first line. Now here I am, a writer with six books already published, and I’m still searching for the perfect beginning of my own.

Finding the right opening line, the right opening scene is a gift. It’s difficult at the best of times, but even more difficult when the book is not the first one in a series. People often ask which comes first, the characters or the plot. It’s a bit like asking a songwriter whether the tune comes first or the words. The two are often so intertwined that it’s impossible to separate them. They arrive at the same time.

And so it is with books, at least, it is in my experience. I usually find a scene that plays in my head. I know who the character is and what the situation is and I have an idea of the basic conflict that’s going to be the engine of the plot. I may not have all the details, but I can work them out later. At the beginning of Winterwood I knew that I had a young woman drawn to visit her dying mother. There was enmity between them, and the young woman had put herself in danger simply by being there. It begins:

The stuffy bedroom stank of sickness with an underlying taint of old lady, stale urine and unwashed clothes, poorly disguised with attar of roses. I’d never thought to return to Plymouth, to the house I’d once called home; a house with memories so bitter that I’d tried to scour them from my mind with salt water and blood.

It was a strong image which became the opening scene of Winterwood. As I wrote I discovered that the young woman was dressed as a man, was the captain of her own ship and was, in her mother’s eyes, a pirate. She was also an unregistered witch, a capital offence in a Britain with magic. As the scene opened up in my mind and on the page, I found out that it was 1800, almost a century after the golden age of piracy, and the house we were in was on the edge of Plymouth, a town with a long maritime history, both naval and commercial. The young woman in the shadows, Rossalinde, known as Ross, is visiting her dying mother for the first time in seven years, but there’s still no forgiveness between them. Later Ross says: I had come to dance on her grave and found it empty.

Thus the Rowankind trilogy begins. Ross captains her own ship because she’s a widow. Will Tremayne, the man she ran away with seven years earlier, died in an accident leaving Ross in charge of a ship-load of barely reformed pirates. Ross’ mother passes on a legacy, a task that Ross doesn’t want, and a half-brother she didn’t know she had. No, I’m not going to tell you the plot of Winterwood, suffice it to say that Ross has to use all of her ingenuity and her courage to fulfil the task, and along the way she meets and falls in love with Corwen, a wolf shapechanger, much to the consternation of the ghost of her late husband.

And so the scene is set for Silverwolf. Starting a sequel is a far different thing from starting a new story. I already have two fully-formed characters, Ross and Corwen, who have committed to each other and who should be enjoying their happy-ever-after, but that’s about to be curtailed by the arrival of a visitor. So I have to open with that happy-ever-after. Ross and Corwen have hidden themselves away in a modest cottage on the edge of the Old Maizy Forest, a liminal place part way between the mundane world and Iaru, the magical world of the Fae. Silverwolf opens:

A large silver-grey shape trotted out of the trees, a grizzled brown hare dangling dead in his jaws. In wolf-form Corwen was almost the height of a small pony, but he had to hold up his head to prevent the hare’s legs from dragging on the ground. He dropped it to the side of the path, and in one smooth movement changed from wolf to naked man.

Ross and Corwen’s idyll is rudely interrupted. What Ross and Corwen did in Winterwood inadvertently paved the way for the return of magical creatures to Britain. A rogue kelpie has taken two children in Devonshire. Ross and Corwen must return to the real world.

If Winterwood was Ross’ story, then Silverwolf is Corwen’s, though still told through Ross’ viewpoint. After dealing with the kelpie, Corwen is called back to his home in Yorkshire to resolve a family crisis.

At the end of Winterwood Ross and Corwen, with the aid of the Fae, wrought a change which has far-reaching consequences for the magical inhabitants of Britain. The mundane world and the magical world, long separated by the heavy hand of the Mysterium, the organisation which regulates magic throughout the land, are about to merge.

And now Rowankind, the third book in the trilogy, is out. Beginning that was really difficult. I had a provisional opening during most of the writing process. For a long time it began:

I’m a witch.
I can hear someone sneaking up on me a mile away.
This time it wasn’t the clip-clop of hoofbeats, nor the soft tread of boots, but the rustle of a small animal running through winter-dry grass followed by the snick of claws on the flaggstones of our front path.
“We have a visitor,” I said.

But in the last revision I wrote a new opening scene. The original opening is still in the book, but later. Now it begins:

Freddie was on trial for his life.
Corwen sat beside me, sick with dread. He owed his life and his allegiance to the Lady of the Forests, but he didn’t owe her his brother.

Winterwood, Silverwolf and Rowankind are on bookshop shelves now in the USA and also available in electronic form. In the UK they are available in print form as an import from specialist SF bookshops, and online from the big firm named after a river.


Jacey Bedford is a British writer from Yorkshire with over thirty short stories and five (so far) novels to her credit. She lives behind a desk in an old stone house on the edge of the Pennines with her husband and a long-haired, black German Shepherd – that’s a dog not an actual shepherd from Germany. She’s the hon. sec. of Milford SF Writers’ Conference, held annually in North Wales.

Jacey’s books:
Empire of Dust (Psi-Tech #1)
Crossways  (Psi-Tech #2)
Nimbus  (Psi-Tech #3)
Winterwood (Rowankind #1)
Silverwolf (Rowankind #2)
Rowankind (Rowankind #3)
Follow Jacey:
Web: @jaceybedford

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Write-a-Thons by Karen Brenchley

So I’ve been to Milford twice (2007, 2010), I’ve sold a few stories both by myself and with a partner, I belong to a professional writing critique group that contains people who have published multiple novels (some best selling), and I’m married to a professional novelist, so I must be set, right? I should be churning out story after story, novel after novel, and letting my experience with critique groups hone every noun, sharpen every verb, right? Right? Please let it be right.

I’ve found that between my day job and my family life, I don’t have the time to write the way I used to. I think great characters and plot lines while exercising (something has to disguise the pain), but I scribble them down in my “to do” notebook before petting the cats and rushing to (a very excellent) dinner. I’d love to go to Milford again, but that would mean, you know, finishing something. Anything.

So what to do? My solution is to hold one-day Write-a-Thons. I invite my writer friends over to my house and we spend the day sitting together in a large room, writing. OK, by “the day” I usually mean from around eleven or twelve to around six in the evening. I’ve tried longer, but six or so hours seems optimal. I’m also lucky enough to have a “shed” in my back garden that I’ve remodeled, so it has lights, electricity, and room for two full-sized dining room tables (each sits six-eight). Our back garden itself is fairly nice, too, and at least half the year we don’t have rain (I’m in California), so sometimes we write outside. The space works out well.

Pat Murphy, Heather Rose Jones and Madeleine Robins in the Brenchley Clubhouse

Where should you hold one if you aren’t blessed with California weather and your own giant clubhouse? Think about the area near where you live. Is there a library nearby, with a quiet space that is (or can be) private? Is there a pub or restaurant that’s slow on Sunday afternoons, that has an area that can hold you? There’s an old Mickey Rooney movie that contains the lines, “Let’s put on a show!” followed by “I have a barn!” Conspire with the writer friends you were going to invite anyway. What do they know about? Do they have giant parlors?

I mentioned a library and a pub, which brings me to the topic of food. Libraries tend to not want food (especially not liquids) near their books, and pubs want you to have lots of food and drink, provided you pay them for it. After doing many Write-a-Thons, I tend to hold them from noon to six in the evening, which means that the people coming have a chance to have a meal before and after, if they don’t want to eat during. Since my Write-a-Thons are in a giant dining room, I encourage my guests to bring snacks and drinks to share. They tend to bring fresh fruit (California, remember?), nice breads and cheese, other nice finger foods. At my house we have a supply of drinks of various sorts, so I haven’t lured anyone to a garret to starve.

What about socializing? When I first started doing this I invited pretty much all of my local writer friends, about twenty or so. I was trying the idea out, and so were they. The clubhouse is across the garden from the main house, so I encouraged people who wanted to catch up with friends to do so in the living room (parlor?). When people first arrive, there is a quick moment for catching up, but then the writing commences again in earnest. Based on feedback from friends, I’ve narrowed the list down to those who want to come and just write, with a little bit of snacking and a little bit of socializing. Others have suggested I have a dinner afterwards, for those who don’t or can’t write for six hours at a table, but who want to meet with other writers and socialize, so I’m trying that out with the next one. I’ve found that holding these Write-a-Thons roughly once a month raises my word count dramatically. Other writers who have come agree (and come back to the next one). It’s a great way to get work done, and prepare for the next Milford. Because I very much want to be ready to go again. Don’t you?

Karen Brenchley

Karen Brenchley has had science fiction, steampunk, and fantasy stories appear in various anthologies both alone and with her husband, Chaz Brenchley. She founded the SF in SF reading series with Terry Bisson, and edited her husband’s Lambda Award-winning collection “Bitter Waters”. She designs analytics tools for large, unstructured data sets, is a defunct black belt in aikido, and lives in Sunnyvale with her husband, two squabbling cats, and a long-suffering turtle. See more at her website

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