Over the years, I’ve had a wonderful run of Milfords; I was lucky enough to read and critique some excellent stories, and to have my own stories deftly critiqued by a wide range of knowledgeable, thoughtful readers. I learned some very important things while doing that. Oh, and I’ve (mostly) illustrated this post with pictures taken in the countryside around the Trigonos Centre, where Milford talks place.
Company matters more than you’d think
I once took a week to go and write in Devon, in a house where I’d be completely alone in a quiet little village where I didn’t need to see anyone. I thought it would be an insanely productive week; instead, I just nearly went insane. Of course, everyone works differently – but I found out that, for me, if I’m going to be writing I also need to be not-writing. I need to be feeding the part of my mind that makes stories with all the stuff that goes into stories. If I don’t, everything grinds to a halt.
Milford is where I realised that. On the one hand, it can be a very solitary place. There’s beautiful empty countryside to go walking in, a quiet little village to wander through, an abandoned slate mind that’s like every Dr Who location ever rolled into one uncanny whole. You can be as alone as you want to be.
But on the other hand, there’s company. Wonderful, crazy, stimulating company, as people writing every sort of imaginative fiction you can possibly imagine collide and spark off each other. I’ve done some very useful imaginative work up at Trigonos, over the years – but only because of all the fantastic conversations that triggered it.
Multiple viewpoints rock
Over the years, I’ve had Milford stories critiqued by *deep breath* hard SF writers, space opera writers, planetary romancers, cyberpunks, occultists, urban fantasists, mythic fantasists, epic fantasists, cosmic horror writers, alternate historians, classic English ghost writers, magic realists, zen fabulists, Gothic romancers and so on. I’ve learned different things from every single one of them.
Every different writer in every different genre brings a slightly different understanding of what story is and how it works to their critiquing. And so, you get a slightly different view of what you’ve written, what makes it work and where it falls down. Sometimes the differences are minor, sometimes they’re pretty major, but they all bring useful perceptions to bear.
That’s worked really well for both books, too. I took the opening chapters of ‘Crashing Heaven’ to Milford in 2010, and of ‘Waking Hell’ in 2014. The 2010 critique of CH gave me invaluable guidance as I polished it up ready to submit to agents – in fact, I was signed by Susan Armstrong of C+W shortly afterwards. And the 2014 one of WH helped sharpen its opening ready for publication the next year.
The chocolate of doom is actually your friend
There’s a very particular Milford tradition that it’s easy to dread. If someone really doesn’t get on with your story, then they’ll slide some chocolate across the table towards you, while uttering the dread incantation: ‘I AM NOT THE TARGET AUDIENCE FOR THIS STORY.’ Then they’ll talk in some depth about why it really doesn’t work for them, and because they’re smart, critically engaged people, widely read in genre and well-practised in critiquing, they’ll usually do a pretty good job of it. This should be pretty depressing. Actually, I’ve always found it rather liberating.
It helped me understand that, on one level, there’s no such thing as a final reading of any story; and there’s certainly not any such thing as a fully successful story. Brilliant people, who I like, respect and admire hugely, have been left entirely cold by stuff I’ve written. And that’s great, that’s how it should be; it’s a very useful reminder that you can’t please all of the people all of the time, and you’d be a little unhinged even to try. Rather, you should tell the stories that excite you, then let them find their own place in the world.
Learning how to read is learning how to write
I’ve learned a lot from having my stories critiqued. But I’ve learned more from learning how to critique other people’s. Reading something entirely fresh, working out what you like about it and what you think isn’t quite working, then finding a way of expressing that in helpful, objective terms, is a profoundly useful exercise. It trains your inner critic, which trains your inner editor. And the more you train your inner editor, the more effectively it can go to work on your own writing.
So, in effect, whenever I’ve been close reading a story for Milford, and trying to come up with helpful ways of making it better, I’ve actually been doing something selfish too. I’ve been finding new ways to critique my own work, so I can make it that much better when I get stuck back into editing it.
So those are the things that I don’t think I’d have realised without Milford. It’s had a huge impact on my writing life. If you’ve already been there, I’m sure you’ve got your own thoughts to add to the list (why not drop them into the comments below?) – and if you haven’t, then hopefully that’s given you a sense of why it can be such a great way to spend a week.
Al Robertson is the author of Crashing Heaven and Waking Hell, as well as award-nominated SF, fantasy and horror short stories. He’s also a poet and occasional musician. When he’s not working on his own projects, he helps companies communicate more clearly. He was born in London, brought up in France and is now based in Brighton.