Two in a Row: Fantasycon and Bristolcon by Jacey Bedford

These are two of my favourite conventions, but unfortunately they fell on consecutive weekends this year, which made for a tiring ten days. I’m still recovering.

Fantasycon, which I always think of as an ‘industry’ convention took place in Glasgow at the Golden Jubilee Conference Hotel, in Clydebank, Glasgow on 18th – 20th October. It’s overseen by the British Fantasy Society, but this year was run by a new team and there were a few blips which will hopefully be corrected when the same team runs the 2020 event in Sheffield.

Glasgow view

The view over the River Clyde from our Golden Jubilee Hotel room

The convention hotel was excellent for this event. Strangely it’s attached to an NHS hospital and was originally built for private customers, but when that aspect declined, fell into NHS hands. The hotel and hospital are actually attached to each other (which means hotel residents can access the hospital shop, coffee bar and canteen). Rooms are extremely comfortable (4*) and the beds are a delight to sleep in. The meeting rooms are adequate for convention needs. It’s out of the city so there are no restaurant facilities within walking distance, but the hotel restaurant (to my surprise) managed to feed everyone, though they were not allowing bookings, and the menu was more limited on the Friday and Saturday. We arrived on Thursday which offered a full menu.

The convention itself felt less well attended than usual, with fewer publishers and agents, though it might have been simply that there was a lot of space in the hotel. Some panels and book launches suffered from not enough audience. Maybe it was just the distance that put off attendees from the south. We flew up from Manchester as the flights were barely more expensive than the train (and since Sunday train services are notoriously unreliable, flying seemed like a good option).

Panels… what can I say? I sat on three panels. One of them I asked to sit on. It was called ‘It takes a village to raise a child’ and as it was about all the effort put into publishing a book (in addition to the author’s) it was right up my street. The moderator emailed to introduce us all in advance. The other two panels with very similar themes (on animals in fiction) were less well attended. Panel notifications were sent out much later than usual, and many of them were not clear about who was supposed to be moderating. This echoed through the whole weekend with many panels starting with ‘Who’s the moderator?’ RJ Barker moderated one of the animal panels I sat on and kicked it off with some very left-field questions, which made it great fun.

Green Man's FoeQuaestorThere were a few authors I knew from Milford. I spent a lot of time with Terry Jackman, David Allan, who launched his new novel, Quaestor, and Sandra Unerman, as well a Juliet McKenna who was there to plug her new book, Green Man’s Foe, published by Wizard’s Tower Press.

We flew home on Sunday afternoon, missing the banquet and the awards ceremony.

Then, with only three days to catch up on work I was away (by train this time) down to Bristolcon, via a day in Bath for <ahem> historical research which partly turned into a Christmas shopping trip. I met up with my friend and we spent Thursday night in Bath and then moved on to Bristol (just 11 minutes away by train) to the Double Tree by Hilton. Bristolcon is only a one day con, but coming from Yorkshire I can’t get there and back in a day, so I always have to arrive on Friday evening and depart Sunday morning. My train service is the one that goes from Aberdeen to the West Country (and back). As I pick it up at Wakefield, it’s a steady four hour journey, which gives me time to catch up on my reading.

Bristolcon is a small, event but interesting, and there are lots of writerly friends there. There are two programme streams and two workshop streams, plus a dealer’s room, so there’s plenty to do. They sprinkle ten minute readings between the panels, which means they are well attended. The panels are thoughtful and varied. I also went to a workshop by Doctor Bob on building alien biology, which was funny and fascinating. She’s a great speaker.

The hotel is always welcoming, the bar food is decent, and they make good Pimms and lemonade, but oh dear, the mattress was ‘tired’ which made the bed brutally hard. I don’t remember it being that bad in previous years, so maybe the beds are in need of renewal, or maybe I just got a bad one. I must have woken seven or eight times during the Friday night with appalling back ache. As a result I fell asleep during one of the panels I really wanted to see. (Apologies to the panellists.) Luckily my friends tell me I didn’t snore! The second night was saved from complete disaster by asking for four extra pillows and building a nest in the bed.

The convention isn’t responsible for the state of the beds, of course. I guess most local Bristolians don’t stay there anyway since it’s only a one day con. All in all, sleep quality apart, I really like Bristolcon, and will be back again next year.

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The Nature of Story by Jim Anderson

Babylonian world

The Babylonian World

I have spent some time this weekend pondering the nature of story.  Part of this arises, I think, from my 2019 reading project and my current exploration of ancient Babylonian wisdom literature.  And part of this comes from working through the revisions on a story that I need to fix before I submit.

Procrastination being one of my strengths, I paused in my revision to ponder the question, why do we tell stories, and why did we start?  I want to be able to assume that of course, we humans have always told each stories, sitting around our fires as we distracted each other from the beast in the night.
I think this is a safe assumption to make, if only because we have been telling each other stories every since.  And like cooking, which allowed for the improved release of energy from food, I think it’s safe to assume that composing and telling each other stories are amongst those aspects of being that make us human.
Gilgamesh

Epic of Gilgamesh

Ancient Babylonian wisdom literature is interesting, because these pieces are among the oldest written record we have.  The pieces are not traditional stories; rather, they are, as the name suggests, records of admonition of how to behave in the eyes of the gods.

I’ve been reflecting on this, and it occurred to me.  We had not long been living in cities; these stories come to us from a time when we have only (relatively) recently established our earliest cities and perhaps part of what we were doing was teaching ourselves the skills we would need to live together, in larger and larger groups.
Today, the stories I read and that I (try to) write have their primary purposes to entertain, but also to educate.  There is a circle here, because we are still, in a different sense, learning to live with one another.  We are still learning how to behave as individuals so that we don’t disadvantage others, and however much we have learned to date, we have much still to learn.
And so, a project.  Read the ancient Babylonian wisdom literature and ask the question, what are we trying to teach each other through these stories?  And what are the parts of this education that are still relevant, and how do I build this into my own stories?
And there is always more to do.
Babylonian wisdom lit

Babylonian Wisdom Literature

jim_andersonJim Anderson (on-line at http://www.multijimbo.com) 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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The Art and Craft of Critique


Jacey Bedford
The Milford Conference each September is a full week of peer-to-peer critiquing. Fifteen writers sit down each afternoon to critique each other’s work, but always with the aim of helping the writer to improve what’s on the page.

Over the years my writing has been taken apart and put back together by some of the best in the business. Every writer/reader has their own critiquing style, so in the wake of Milford 2019, I thought I’d ask some of them how they set about putting a critique together. Here’s what they said…

 

 

Terry Jackman 01Terry Jackman
Once upon a time I read the complete text, then went through it again making comments. After a while I stopped the first read through. Basically I’d got better at it – or so I’m told – plus I believe the first impressions are essential. After all, that’s what the ‘real’ readers get, they don’t expect to have to re-read something to understand it. In fact if that happens most of them stop reading?

So now, whether I’m critting or actual editing, I assume the text is considered to be at least reasonably polished, then I make comments as I read – on everything from plot to punctuation – then check back over those to see if they are clear, or need changing in hindsight. Things like something sounded odd, but later I realise it was meant to pull me up so it didn’t need attention after all.

Finally, I add end-notes summing up my more general impressions, good, bad or indifferent, and identify any areas I feel should be reassessed, and why.

And that’s me.

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.

 

Jaine Novacon 2012 - credit to Al JohnstonJaine Fenn
I do an initial read-through of the MS, noting any obvious small (line-edit type) issues on the MS itself. Ideally I’ll work from a paper copy but if it’s much more than 5K long I feel guilty about the trees and use the comment function of Word. If anything more ‘macro’ occurs to me as I read (issues with a particular character, lack of clarity on an important aspect of worldbuilding etc.) I’ll make a rough note, not on the MS.

I’ll then leave it for a day or several. If something occurs to me in that time, I’ll add it to my notes.

Ideally I’ll then read through the MS again, adding more to my general notes as I do.

Finally I’ll write things up legibly (because no one can read my handwriting), under a header of ‘general’ for the macro stuff and ‘detail’ for any detailed/line edit notes.

The above applies to short stories – for novels it’s a more complicated process, and I’d be breaking my ‘general’ comments down into the usual headings: character, plot, world etc.

It’s the same process for face-to-face or remote critting, but with face-to-face my typed comments might not be as polished, as they’ll get discussed in the session.

Jaine Fenn is the author of the Hidden Empire space opera series and the Shadowlands duology, as well as numerous published short stories, one of which won a BSFA award. She writes video-games for hard cash and plays tabletop role-playing games for easy fun. These days, she’s likely to politely refuse any chocolate with less than 65% cocoa solids.

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How to Critique Effectively and Influence Your Fellow Writers – By Nancy Jane Moore

theweave200

My favorite writing workshop story comes from my time at Clarion West. We were critiquing a story of mine, and one of the students — let’s call him X — was ripping it to shreds. He got to the end of his rant, and Therese Pieczynski, who was the next critiquer, said, “I anti-ditto (Clarionspeak for “completely disagree with”) everything X just said.”

X got mad! His feelings were hurt, not because someone had criticized one of his stories, but because someone had criticized his critique!

I found the whole thing hilarious. In fact, I think it might be the funniest thing that happened at Clarion, except possibly for the night when we all ended up half drunk in someone’s room watching several of the guys play air guitar to Black Sabbath (you had to be there). While I have often questioned the judgment of people who liked stories I detested, it’s never hurt my feelings that they disagreed with me.

I don’t remember what X didn’t like about my story. For that matter, I don’t remember what Therese liked about it. But I am sure I didn’t pay any attention to anything X said and that I listened carefully to Therese. It didn’t take me long at Clarion to figure out that Therese was great at getting to the heart of what worked and didn’t in a story. To this day, she’s still my favorite first reader; I can list several stories I’ve completely revised because of something she said.

At Clarion, I discovered the importance of finding the right people to critique my stories, but it was several years later, when I attended Milford, that I figured out the most important rule for participants in writing workshops, one that makes it possible for a writer to get a useful critique even from those who aren’t simpatico with their work. Here’s that rule:

The critiquer’s job is to help the writer tell the story the writer wants to tell. 

Milford 2002

Milford 2002. Standing: Neil Williamson, Colin Davies, Alex Lamb, Nancy Jane Moore, Chris Butler, Chris Paul. Seated: Stuart Falconer, Liz Williams, Cherith Baldry, Sandra Unerman, Liz Counihan, Jacey Bedford

The Milford workshop was the most constructive one I’ve ever attended. In a group of about 15 people, including several with significant publishing reputations, not one person used their critique to trash a story or to show off. Every criticism — positive or negative — was intended to help the person improve the story they wanted to write.

It was a refreshing experience, one I’ve never had in any other workshop. It could be that British writers are just nicer — and smarter — than the rest of us, or it could be that I just lucked into the right group at the right time. But from that experience, I’ve come up with five instructions for participants in writing workshops that implement the core rule of helping the writer tell the story they want to tell:

  1. Keep your ego in check. Do not use a critique as a forum for showing off how much you know about the subject at hand. It’s one thing to point out that the writer has erred in their use of physics; it’s another to use this error as an excuse to lecture on either physics or the stupidity of people who don’t know physics.
  2. It’s not your story, so don’t rewrite it the way you would tell it if it were. This can be a difficult rule. For example, if I were critiquing Much Ado About Nothing, I would be sorely tempted to tell Will Shakespeare that Hero’s willingness to marry Claudio in the end is absurd. No woman would ever marry a man who treated her as he did. However, if she tells him to go to hell, the story becomes something darker than the romantic comedy it’s meant to be. My version might make an interesting story, but it’s not the one Will was writing.
  3. Don’t tell the writer how to revise the story to make it publishable if your revision changes what the story is about. This is slightly different from the last rule — a corollary of sorts. I mean don’t tell the writer to change the story to something that fits the current fashion of what gets published. My few forays into love stories usually end with broken hearts or worse, but I don’t want to change them to fit romance guidelines no matter how many times someone tells me how well romance sells. That’s not the story I’m writing.
  4. Don’t waste group time on grammatical nitpicks; you can mark minor errors on the manuscript. And particularly avoid parroting the various canonical rules you’ve learned along the way, such as the ones about the passive voice, the overuse of adverbs, or the error of beginning a sentence with a conjunction. If a sentence isn’t working, try to explain why it doesn’t work instead of falling back on a rule that probably isn’t the real problem to begin with. Besides, telling the writer to revise a sentence that works well just because it doesn’t follow a particular rule shows you’re missing the point. Would you tell Charles Dickens he should rewrite the first sentence of A Tale of Two Cities because it’s 118 words long and he uses the verb to be 13 times?
  5. Don’t be nasty. It is possible to tell someone their story sucks without putting it in those words. Believe me, they won’t miss the point just because you’re polite about it.

These rules are for workshop participants, not for teachers. An experienced teacher knows the same approach doesn’t work for every student and every situation. Sometimes a teacher must be very encouraging; sometimes they need to hit the student over the head with the proverbial two-by-four. But peers in a workshop are not teachers, and they should not act as if they are.

brewing_fine_fiction133x200I’ll end with a piece of advice for those on the receiving end of a critique, my take on something Samuel Delany taught me at Clarion: The problem people point out in a story may not be the actual problem. Something else entirely may be out of whack, causing the scene in question not to work. It’s the writer’s responsibility to figure out where the real problem lies.

By the way, the story I mentioned at the beginning, the one X trashed? Despite not taking X’s advice, I sold it a couple of years after Clarion. Selling the story is the best revenge I can think of for a bad critique.

Note: This essay originally appeared in 2010 in Brewing Fine Fiction,  an anthology of essays on writing by members of Book View Cafe.

 

nan300Nancy Jane Moore’s science fiction novel The Weave came out in 2015 from Aqueduct Press.  Her earlier books include a collection from PS Publishing, Conscientious Inconsistencies, and a novella from Aqueduct, Changeling. She is a member of the cooperative publisher Book View Café, where she has published several ebooks and contributed to anthologies. You can follow her on Facebook. She posts on Thursday at the Book View Café blog.  Reprints of some of her stories are available at Curious Fictions.


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How I Crit – by John Moran

For me, critting depends a lot on the thing being critted. I’ll tackle a piece of literary flash fiction differently from a romance novel and a romance novel differently from a hard science fiction story. More than anything else, I like to ask, “whatever this work is trying to be, is it the best possible version of that?” and if it isn’t, the process of critting is me trying to work out why not and putting that down on paper.

So if I’m critting a plotless 500 word piece, I’ll tend to focus more on ideas, theme or language, rather than plot. Plot isn’t really what short fiction is aiming for and I want to do whatever the piece needs rather than one-size-fits-all.

Pen &amp; padHowever, assuming we’re talking about long-form plot-driven adventure fiction—a category that covers most of the novels I read, from the Dresden Files to Harry Potter—then for the first pass, I’ll sit down without a notepad and just read.

I’m hoping that I’ll get caught up in the story like I would in a good book. If I reach the end without looking up, that’s the writer’s job well done and I’ll want to tell them that. Usually, I’ll write something like, “I was pulled right through from beginning to end.”

If, on the other hand, I lost interest at any point, I’ll try to work out why. However it goes, the idea of the first pass is to get to grips with my unvarnished reaction as a reader and then let the other person know what that is.

On the second pass, I want to approach the text more like a writer. In order to do that I’ve developed a number of questions that help me zero in on where it is or isn’t working. So I read it again and try to answer the following:

In this piece:

  1. Who is the main character?
  2. What are they trying to do?
  3. What’s stopping them from doing it?
  4. What do they do about that?
  5. How does it resolve?
  6. What would happen if they just gave up and didn’t bother?

If there’s a problem, I can usually track it down from the answers to these questions:

  1. If I can’t identify a main character (or characters), then the story will feel unfocused to me.
  2. If I’ve identified a main character, but they aren’t trying to do anything, then I’ll usually comment that they seem quite passive. Usually, if the character doesn’t care about the story it’s hard for the reader to care either.
  3. If the main character just wanders around without the forces of darkness pushing back on them, then there’s a danger that the story can turn into a travelogue. Not every part of a novel needs to have conflict, but if I don’t find any conflict over an extended piece, I’m going to suggest that maybe the writer ought to be meaner to their hero.
  4. If the character has motivation, tries something, hits conflict, but then backs off, then I’ll look closely at why. One of the main driving forces over a whole novel is the ability for a character to fight against adversity and keep pushing forward. Characters can be reactive at the start of a novel, but if they don’t fight back at any point, there’s a danger the story will feel mechanical – because plot is happening to the character from above rather than flowing out of their motivated actions.
  5. If a character powers through conflict, then, win or lose, something should change as a result. What I’m checking for here is that actions have consequence.
  6. Finally, it’s possible to have all the above, and for the story to still feel a bit thin. If someone rushes into a life or death conflict where they didn’t need to, then the story may well be lacking concrete stakes. The danger here is that it all ends up feeling like nothing mattered very much.

There’s more to a critique, of course. I’ll also take a look at pace, structure, clarity, world-building, theme, emotional content, and voice. But, for me, these all come afterwards, because before I can look at those things I need to know more than anything else what the story is all about. Working out who the main character is, the actions they take, the conflicts they face and how everything turns out, is, for me, the key to knowing this.

creating short fictionHaving assembled the material for a crit, the last thing I look at is how to put it all together. Here, I’m indebted to Damon Knight’s book “Creating Short Fiction,” in which he points out that a story is composed of the following layers:

  • surface
  • form
  • materials
  • idea
  • impetus

You write a story from the bottom up, so in this way of thinking it all starts with an impetus (I have to write about X), that turns into an idea (I’ll do it this way). The story is told via certain materials invented for the purpose (character, setting, background), and these are given form and structure (a novel or a short story; the relationship between chapters). Finally, everything is put down on paper in words (prose, dialogue, descriptions).

The idea is that it’s never any use to critique a story at a level higher than the lowest one that has a problem. So if the characters are paper-thin, there’s no point in suggesting the dialogue be fixed. Likewise, spelling mistakes don’t matter if the story has problems with the setting. The prose will have to change anyway, and only when that’s right does the spelling need to be addressed.

Finally, out of all the above, it’s time to put it all together. I usually want each crit to contain the following thoughts:

  • What I thought was good about the piece.
  • Whether I read all the way through easily, or stopped somewhere.
  • What I learned from the questions above, filtered according to the most useful level this can be said.
  • How it affected me emotionally.
  • How I feel about it overall.

… and then it’s done, and time to start reading the next one!

 

John MoranJohn Moran has been an industrial chemist, programmer, art shop owner, IT security consultant and nuclear physicist. He lives in the North West of the UK with his wife and a vegetable garden that is increasingly resembling the Amazon rainforest. Although it is not currently on fire.

 

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The Milford Report, 2019, by Russell Smith

Good day, and welcome to a special edition of The Milford Report, covering the release of 15 authors on to a rural environment in north Wales with nothing but their wits, several bottles of booze and all the pesto they could manage at their disposal.

Our season started with the arrival of each of the writers from across the globe, whom for (not necessarily) legal reasons we shall name each of now. There was Jacey, Tiffani, Powder, Sam, Mark, Victor, Tania, Sue, Kari, Steph, Tina, Terry, Pauline, Liz and myself.

The crack team of scribblers landed in a thoroughly suspecting Trigonos which, of course, being ready for us pacified us with copious quantities of food and cake for the entire duration of our stay. Inevitable desk rearrangements aside, most of us met up on the Saturday evening to make introductions, enjoy our first meal and prepare ourselves for an intense week of critiquing a wide variety of written work from our chosen crew. My phone notifications would not let me forget which day it was in at least three different ways, though thankfully I managed to get just a step ahead of it by heading across to Kari’s place, whereupon I was guarded by cats, fed delicious stir fry and be all set for a sensible launch time in order to make it in good time for the week’s adventures.

Russell by the lake

Russell Smith by Llyn Nantlle

On Sunday we commenced this task, following breakfast and in my case, a tradition which commenced that very day, I took a walk to the incredibly picturesque nearby lake. This day brought us the kind of weather that to be honest I was expecting to be the norm for the week – grey with a constant sheen of drenching drizzle. The thing I learned the hard way, though thankfully pretty fast, was that the bright footwear I wore, whilst ensuring I would be easy to find even in those conditions, provided the kind of wet weather protection which made me wonder why I didn’t just venture down there barefooted and have done. Still, the tranquility once I got there proved a way of starting the day I simply refused to go without for the rest of the week. And so, it wasn’t long before every single writer there knew my morning routine as soon as I did.

After a few hours to ourselves, usually either taken up by resting off the breakfast, exploring the local sights or certainly in my case, catching up on/revising our reading, the first round of crits began, and it wasn’t too long before we all got into the swing of things. A table sat in the centre of the room bearing snacks and chocolate, mostly there for energy hits but occasionally for those moments in which one of the authors giving a critique had to pay the ‘stress toll’ of having a lot to say to the writer in the hot seat about their piece. Dragon’s Den had nothing on this at times.

Crit room 02We of course also discovered that we were far from alone in the room where it happened (the room where it happened, the room where it happened…). By the wide windows in the corner, wasps the size of fingers of Fudge could be seen communing with their brotherhood on the Other Side of the Window (great album) and otherwise failing to be bothered about either getting out of the room or the kind of sugar supplies you could build a five year nest plan around. Instead this of course meant that the writers themselves would occasionally be buzzed, no hint of requests for writing advice nor any care for their works in progress, but instead basking in that reaction that only they could bring out of some of us. Windows were opened, doors were closed and bargains were struck with neighbouring spiders to protect us for the rest of the week in the way that spiders are a symbol of protection of the UK in general just now (too soon? Or a precise grounding of this post in time? You decide).

The day survived, the Great Feeding began. Turns out four rounds of intense crits do wonders for the appetite on the whole, and nobody knew this better than the wonderful catering crew at Trigonos. Should you require my many food and menu pics, rest assured they are available, but we did eat delicious food often. I sampled some of the local beer and got a photo of a book from the onsite library which will only be funny to the niche group within the small card game which I play. But it went down well with that lot, and so we continued through.

Lake Nantlle - Smith

Llyn Nantlle by Russell Smith

From here, a routine was very much entered, at least from me. We’d have breakfast, over which comic book discussions could frequently be heard, I’d take my walk to the lake, where I would find a difference in environment every single day for the rest of the week from the previous day, and we’d go at the crits for the rest of the afternoon following daily soup. Wasp flight patterns evolved into different angles of menace, and a set of boots far more resistant to the dewy antics underfoot turned up and aided my daily walk immensely. Coffee, cake and critiques. Could open a cafe with a name like that – oh, no wait…

IMG_20190917_123032095

Russell Smith, Liz Williams and Victor Ocampo shortly after capturing Caernarfon Castle

On the third day, some of us branched out a little with our morning adventures. Wonderful as the lake was, it was time to get out to Caernarfon whereby myself, Liz and Victor would put into practice the castle storming practice I deliberately hadn’t mentioned thus far as, aided by butterflies on the wheels of our chosen chariot, we achieved wondrous views, purchased plush dragons and pulled the odd superhero pose. The weather went on a glorious run of sunshine and so altered the landscape of the lake once more as we enjoyed scones whichever way we chose to decorate and on this night of the full moon, went on the hunt for the infamous Were-Squirrel. Sure, we’d love to have bagged photos of Nessie in a different location, but on this night, this became our quest.

Our Wednesday AGM saw many momentous things occur, not least our illustrious committee surviving for another term but new posts being created as well. The following day found some productive marketing conversation about all of our works in their various stages as well as the last round of crits, which our exhausted yet plucky adventurers survived! Our reward was a trip to Criccieth on the Friday whereby we made full use of our expert Welsh Medieval castle guide, Kari, and gained a tour of the castle in question, as well as questioning a small boy spy and in some cases, installing ourselves as the ruler by right.

Kari &amp; Sam Titanic at the castle

Kari and Sam: Titanic at Criccieth Castle

Trivial stuff aside, we also utilised the time properly to shoot photos for the hottest album of the year, various movie trailers including a version of Titanic we’re pretty sure you don’t need to see, and the Braveheart spinoff – ‘Longshanks’. After that, we went to Dylans, a lovely restaurant by the sea, and enjoyed various fine lunches between us. Mostly mussels, but not always. Finally, a wander through the town which gained us trinkets and wool as per our individual needs.

And just as quickly as we had made our way there, Saturday came around and saw us all making our way out of the delightful week at Trigonos and on our various destinations out of our quiet little spot away from the rest of the world. On this day, Mark joined me for my little ritual walk and we said goodbye via the not-so-secret Secret Garden. You can see us bursary types, myself and Tania, perched on the wall by the river as we said goodbye to the place for now.

Tania &amp; Russell

Mbozi (Tania) Haimbe and Russell Smith

Speaking of such, you know Tania and I were the recipients of the 2019 Milford Bursary for Writers of Colour, right? No? Okay – well thanks to a bunch of people strongly suggesting that I might apply for it, and the results being successful, I had my entire time at the conference covered as well as full-board accommodation for the week. This meant I could get there at all, for a start.

I hope it has been abundantly clear that I personally found the experience not only highly enjoyable, but also utterly valuable when it came to going forward with the work in progress I took along. I had some exceptional encouragement and every one of the crits I got back will aid me greatly in some way with the next stage. When you have folk like that urging you along, you know you’re going to be just fine. Better than fine. I can’t speak for Tania as to her time at the retreat, but I can certainly tell you her work in progress is going to be quite something when it’s finished. If you are eligible and thinking about applying, honestly, do it.

I’m missing the place greatly already, that peaceful clanking of writer’s bottles and speak of adventures too numerous to mention in here, but I can tell you now the June writing retreat back to Trigonos can’t come around too soon in many ways. I am delighted to have had the opportunity to visit such a wonderful place and can’t recommend my time there enough. I certainly intend to be back.

This has been Russell Smith on the Milford Report, signing off.

The whole Milford 2019 group L to R: Steph Bianchini, Sue Oke, Mark Bilsborough, Mbozi (Tania) Haimbe, Russell Smith, Terry Jackman, Tiffani Angus, Sam Tovey, Tina Anghelatos, Kari Sperring, Jacey Bedford, Powder Thompson, Liz Williams, Victor Ocampo, and Pauline Dungate.

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Writing Under Fire by Gaie Sebold

No, I’m not. I don’t want to exaggerate.  I’m not crouched in the trenches scribbling a last note to a loved one on a scrap of torn paper bag while the mortars rain down around me.

I am, however, trying to write in a time of immense political, social and environmental upheaval.  A time where my country is constantly on the brink of an act of massive, probably irreparable self harm which will literally kill some of its most vulnerable citizens, has already empowered others to let their inner Nazi flag fly merrily in the howling gale of bigotry, and will utterly impoverish our economic, social and cultural life for decades to come.

And that’s just my country.

Trodden Soldier 1

All around, the world is on fire.  The most powerful act with greed, malice, stupidity and contempt but, apparently, without consequence.  The planet smokes, boils, seethes with toxins, chokes on a locust-plague of plastics.

Writing  seems barely possible, and often entirely pointless.

Among all this, how do I continue to write?  And indeed, why?

I suspect that the answer to the first lies in finding the answer to the second.  But to deal with the first, first: I have to force myself to look away.  And that is extremely difficult to do.  We are shambling plains apes programmed to keep an eye, an ear, a nose cocked for where the damn tiger is crouched to spring.

We no longer, for the most part, shamble the plains, the tiger has taken new and myriad forms, but we’re still on the alert for whatever is likely to tear us apart.  And there are so many things, and paranoid ape-brain insists we must keep watch on all of them, all the time.

So I put an app on my phone that locks me out of the Internet for hours at a time, and a programme on my computer that does likewise.  (I use Appblock and Sprintwork, there are almost as many others as there are distractions).  And then I have to remember to turn them on, and set them to Strict Mode, because otherwise I won’t be able to resist that tug to look, to check, to see if the tiger is still in the bushes or in mid-leap for my throat.

Sometimes it helps. Other times I sit at my computer, locked away from looking for tigers, still utterly stalled by my own sense of futility.

In the face of this, I search for a powerful enough why. 

I have written almost since I could read.  I wrote because I was in love with words, with what they could do: with how I could use them to take something meaningful but formless out of my head and embody it, as best I could, on the page.

I wrote because I wanted to amuse, because I wanted to make people think, because I wanted to understand what I was thinking.  But mainly I wrote because writing is a magic portal to take you to other worlds.  I wanted to go there, and take other people with me, to see through other eyes and be in other bodies.

But now?

There are plenty who will say, writing matters.  Even in the worst of times, and perhaps especially in the worst of times, it matters. 

But how do I convince myself that my writing matters?  I’m not weighing in on the day’s politics, I’m not providing solutions or even new insight into the horrifying mess.  If one person gains a fragment of knowledge, a brush of empathy, a smidgin of compassion, from something I’ve written, it’s a bonus.  There are others with wider reach doing it far better.  Mostly, at my best, I’m providing a little escape.

Escape for others and, when I can write, for myself, too.

To quote Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House: “No live organism can continue for long to exist sanely under conditions of absolute reality.”  Especially when the reality is as loud, and terrifying, and as apparently broken as this one.

Everyone needs a break, in order to cope.  People take them as and when they can.  Some people hike, some people paint, some people play computer games or solitaire or tennis…and some people read.

Some people read stuff like mine.

I don’t think my work is ever going to change the world.  But perhaps if someone, somewhere, reads it, and has a break, and gets away from everything for a few hours, maybe they’ll go back to their work refreshed.  Maybe they’ll have a bit more strength to campaign or protest or research and they’ll help make a breakthrough.

Or maybe they’ll just find their day a little easier.  I know that when I do manage to write,  to go through the portal for a few hours, I find my day a little easier when I come back.

And maybe, sometimes, that can be enough.

 

Gaie SeboldGaie Sebold’s debut novel introduced brothel-owning ex-avatar of sex and war, Babylon Steel (Solaris, 2012); followed by Dangerous Gifts. The steampunk fantasy Shanghai Sparrow came out in 2014 and  Sparrow Falling in 2016. Her stories have appeared in a number of venues, including the BFS Award shortlisted Fight Like a Girl. She is a freelance copy editor, a graduate of Milford SF Writers’ Conference, and was a judge for the 2017 Arthur C Clarke Award. She lives in leafy suburbia, where she grows vegetables and haunts charity shops. Her website is www.gaiesebold.com and you can find her on twitter @GaieSebold

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