How I Crit by Sue Thomason

The first thing I do is read through a piece “for fun”, as a story-reader. If I finish reading and think “Wow! How interesting! (and for an unfinished piece) “What happens next?” then I am happy to say that the story is successful in its current form. Yay! Not everything needs fixing…

Reader 07

If I am kicked out of the story by boredom, bafflement, irritation etc. then I try to note where this happens, and why it has happened: “I was finding the description of the spaceship launch really exciting until I got bogged down in the 4-paragraph description of the acceleration couches.” Sometimes at that point I can climb back on the narrative horse and continue the story-journey; sometimes I can’t, and have to continue in Second-Read mode. All stories will in any case get a Second Read.

In fun-read mode I’m hoping to be your Target Audience. In Second-Read mode I am trying to be your worst, pickiest critic, concentrating on looking at the trees rather than the forest. That phrase sounds awkward. Too many “s” sounds. That paragraph contains three sentences starting with “unfortunately”. Would anybody really say “By the way, Conrad, I wouldn’t mention Randall’s indiscretions to Captain Langford”? You don’t need those italics. Hang on, Randall is now bareheaded; wasn’t he wearing a hat on page 2? When did it fall off? Maybe during the fight on page 4; does that need mentioning or am I being too picky here? I need a better description of these aliens. Who is Arnulf? I didn’t notice the gun over the mantelpiece, you maybe need to paint it red, but that heavy hint about the Portal of Doom felt like having a brick dropped on my foot, couldn’t you just have it open with a menacing creak? All that stuff about the acceleration couches doesn’t really interest me, even if you’ve just spent 3 months designing them.

Reader 09

And then, after I’ve spent a while getting bogged down in the details, I read the story again. This time I’m thinking “Why is this story interesting/important/worth telling?” And, because I’m working on a personal theory that interesting stories don’t need Conflict, but they do need Causation and/or Transformation and/or Discovery, I try to identify actions that have consequences, causes that have effects, and I also try to identify what has changed or transformed in this story, and I ask myself what I have learned, what have I seen that’s new? Does this story raise some expectations in me as a reader, and then satisfy them? If I’m not satisfied, why is that? Is the story a pleasing shape? Where is my attention being directed? Do I like looking at this? And so on.

I have a fairly limited reading-comfort-zone, and I have failings as a reader. There are genres I never read for fun (horror, misery-memoirs), and story elements I struggle to enjoy (characters I don’t like or can’t engage with, for example). I dislike feeling that I’m being indoctrinated, condescended to, or manipulated. And sometimes I’m just stupid or ignorant; I miss the point, I misunderstand, I don’t get it. But sometimes reactions from someone who is not your Target Audience can be useful to a writer. No story can please everyone. I would like your story to work for me, but maybe it won’t. Maybe it can’t. Sometimes you should ignore everything I say about your story.

May I read it now, please?

Sue ThomasonSue Thomason lives in rural North Yorkshire, near the sea, with an ex-GP and up to 5 cats. Varied involvement with written SF has included a handful of published short stories, reviewing for both VECTOR and FOUNDATION, co-editing an anthology of locally-based SF/F stories, and being Chair of Milford.  She writes fiction mostly for her own entertainment and to find out what happens (often this surprises her). Her other interests include outdoor pursuits, gardening, classical/early/folk music, and collecting interesting or unusual paper clips.

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Self-Publishing: A Tiny Saga by Dr. Tiffani Angus

First posted posted on Tiffani Angus Blog in 2016

Because I am a lecturer in publishing and I teach creative writing, self-publishing often comes up in conversation in class. My only knowledge of it was from friends–their successes and failures–and from what I see on Twitter (that is, the constant spam from some writers). So I decided to try it out for myself, to get an idea of the steps required to go from manuscript to “book”. I didn’t do it with the idea of making any money; some things are done for the experience, not the results.

First up, I needed something to publish:

Hill WitchI’ve had some short stories floating around, pieces I’ve gotten good feedback on, but pieces without secure homes because they’re just odd and hard to place. I chose two: “Hill Witch” and “Litter.” They don’t share a genre (one is dark fantasy the other post-apocalyptic science fiction), but they share a theme: the consequences of accepting help from others. I also believe in the idea that things you like go together because they’re yours, like odd soft furnishings. So these are my throw-pillow stories!

Then, I needed to decide which platform to use:

There are dozens out there, but I decided to go with the big guns (you know, the one that starts with A and ends with mazon). Their KDP (Kindle Direct Publishing) platform walks you through the whole process.

Next, I had to set up my account and deal with the tax thing:

Easy enough.

Of utmost importance, I had to get a cover made:

There are people out there who make covers for self-publishing writers; they are easy enough to find on the internet. But I wanted to give work (and money) to a creative person I know, or someone I could get to know. Luckily, a friend of a friend is an artist and designs covers, so I sent him the stories and my ideas, along with a list of themes and images in the stories. He sent back this awesome cover. The contrast is especially striking and looks great even when the cover is a thumbnail–something to keep in mind when self-pubbing!

Then I just had to follow the steps:

The site talked me through the businessy stuff (titles, subtitles, categories, descriptions, keywords, and–very important–royalties). It also allows the user to see what the book will look like on a Kindle. This is a vital step because it’s where you see all the boo-boos. I fixed and re-loaded the file half a dozen times before I thought it was right. (And even then I was wrong! Please, don’t be like me and do this late at night and in a hurry because you promised to discuss it with your students the next day!)

Finally, you click “publish”:

And then the next night, as you are listening to a publishing-industry professional explain the ebook business to your students, it dawns on you that you’re a total idiot and used the word “Bibliography” instead of “Biography” on the last page of your manuscript. (Because you’re an academic and used to the last page of nearly everything containing a list of works cited!) So then you go home, click “unpublish,” fix the damn thing, “click “publish” again, and then turn your attention to PR. And that’s where things get…uncomfortable.

Doing PR Without a Buffer

What happens after you click “publish”:

Selling the stories. To the public. Those people out there: the ones with money.

Following a set of physical steps to go from A to B is easy. It’s the mental work that’s difficult. Every other time I’ve sold fiction, I’ve done so in an anthology or magazine market. That means that someone in a position of authority decided my work was good enough to pay me money. The fiction had been deemed good enough to send out into the world with their brand on it. Plugging that work was easy. I mean, it was still weird–asking people to buy what you’re selling always is, and likely always will be–but those stories had a patina of respectability.

Asking people to pay for something you’ve decided on your own is some level of “good enough” is embarrassing, to put it bluntly. I’m not only asking people to trust my writing; I’m asking them to trust me. This is difficult in the writing world, especially in the SFF world, and especially if you’re a woman in this world.

In the past few years, a lot of women including women of colour have been winning SFF awards, which makes the news each time. I’m sure it is driving many of the RPs and SPs a bit daffy (which is a GOOD thing),  but it’s the fact that it’s news that women sweep awards that is important; too often SFF is still seen as a white guy’s game, regardless of evidence to the contrary. People are often surprised when I mention what I write, especially in some academic circles. Add in the attitude toward self-publishing, and you can see how doing my own PR for my own work that no one else gave me permission to sell can be difficult. Is difficult.

At this point, I’m not 100% sure what to do about it, other than possibly re-read Amanda Palmer’s The Art of Asking and remind myself of the question I used to ask myself five or six years ago when I doubted and wondered why me: why NOT me?

Self-publishing has evened out the playing field and made the publishing industry a bit more democratic, giving everyone the opportunity to ask themselves Why Not Me. But it’s that last word—me—that is most important, because you go from being just the author to being the editor, project manager, typesetter, seller, and PR machine. But it can be an eye-opening way of seeing what you’re ready for and what you’re made of.

If I wait around for someone else to give me permission to try to be awesome, I will wait forever.

Tiffani Angus teaches writing and publishing at undergraduate and post-graduate levels at Anglia Ruskin University. Her background in publishing includes several years working as an editor for an educational materials developer in the US; as a freelance writer/editor/proof-reader for educational, corporate, and private clients; and as a newspaper copy editor.

Tiffani is the author of short stories in several genres, mainly historical fantasy, and her debut novel about a “haunted” garden will be published in April 2020. A graduate of Clarion 2009, Tiffani is involved in genre fandom as a guest and panellist at SFF conventions.

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Five Kinds of Aliens by Sue Thomason

Originally posted on the Milford blog on 18th July 2017.

I think there are 5 kinds of aliens.

explosion-123690_640The first kind are The Enemy. Their aim is to destroy our way of life. They come over here, they don’t speak our language, they look funny, they take our jobs, they use super-advanced weapons of mass destruction on us. They are malign and scary – but we don’t have to get too scared, because in the end we know they cannot win. If they don’t end up being defeated by the superior strength, virtue and/or intelligence of a Chosen Few, they will undoubtedly be vanquished by the common cold, an inability to use stairs, or as a last resort they will explode with incomprehension when confronted with our sense of humour. I can’t help feeling that these aliens are a product of colonial guilt. We’re scared that They are going to do to Us what We did to Them. We maybe have not yet learned to distrust stairs. This kind of story may help us to confront our fear of Others without having to project that fear onto real individual human beings.

alien-1534979_640The second kind of aliens are benign superbeings who attempt to sort out some or all of our major problems. They are usually either humanoid (tall, pale, thin, bigheaded, bald) or bodiless “more advanced” quasi-spirit-beings (tech version of angels). Their efforts at uplift often fail, or have unforeseen unfortunate results. These aliens may also be a colonial if-only; Noble Administrators who want to improve the lot of lesser races species – what we would like to have been. The Noble Administrators tend to show up our imaginative deficiencies, in that we can’t work out for real how to be SuperNice, or how to solve our current problems. This kind of story runs the risk of encouraging inertia, either through complacency (“I don’t have to worry about this; the Superbeings will fix it”) or through despair (“Not even Superbeings can fix this; there’s no point in me trying”). We seem to be not very good at imagining people who are better than Us.

The third kind of aliens are cute-but-fierce pets: Chewbacca, the Kzin. They tend to demonstrate at least some of the dog/Boy Scout virtues; they also tend to be not quite as good as Us at something important to the plot. They like us (give or take a few wars in the past). These aliens are the lesser races species we were hoping to find out there, so that we could be nice to them, and they could be grateful to us. This kind of story is probably most helpful for people with allergies to dogs/cats/etc.

alien-1535082_640

The fourth kind of aliens are Weird Biology. Intelligent sea cucumbers. Intelligent hive-mind quasi-insect colonies. Intelligent vacuum-dwellers. Intelligent rocks. They come from a combination of human astonishment at the variety of known life, and the human tendency to personify everything. As beings they combine fascinating scientific puzzles (“What’s their metabolism? How do they communicate?”) with delightful exercises in empathy (“What does it feel like to be an intelligent rock?). The best of these stories are truly engaging and thought-provoking; the less good read like animated textbooks.

The fifth kind of aliens are Us.

Sue ThomasonSue Thomason lives in rural North Yorkshire, near the sea, with an ex-GP and up to 5 cats. Varied involvement with written SF has included a handful of published short stories, reviewing for both VECTOR and FOUNDATION, co-editing an anthology of locally-based SF/F stories, and being Chair of Milford.  She writes fiction mostly for her own entertainment and to find out what happens (often this surprises her). Her other interests include outdoor pursuits, gardening, classical/early/folk music, and collecting interesting or unusual paper clips.

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SF, Fantasy and Horror films to look forward to in 2020 by Jacey Bedford

Rise of Skywalker2019 was a mixed bag of SF and fantasy movies. I saw 24 movies in total – a little lower than my usual 30 –  but only 14 of them were genre – and that’s counting Dumbo, Toy Story 4 and Frozen 2.  There was Mary Poppins Returns, of course, Captain Marvel, Shazam, and the much anticipated Avengers Endgame with Spiderman Far from Home as the epilogue for this round of Marvel movies – or maybe the prologue for the next.. The autumn was a little slow for science fiction and fantasy, apart from Adastra and Terminator Dark Fate. Though there was the very sweet Yesterday, if you count that as fantasy. (It’s a ‘what-if’ storyline so that works for me.) The year finishes with Frozen 2 and Star Wars 9, which I haven’t seen yet, though I intend to. I also intend to see cats if I can. I blog all the movies I see and all the books I read over at my Dreamwidth blog. And I talk about my science fiction and fantasy writing here on my WordPress blog.

As 2019 draws to a close, I’m looking forward to 2020’s movies. I don’t tend to seek out horror, but I do try and see as many SF and Fantasy ones as possible.

Here are some genre movies to look out for in 2020. I’ve amalgamated all the lists I could find. In some cases, where websites contradict each other about release dates, I’ve given both.

  1. Invasion (January 2020)
  2. Spawn (January 2020)
  3. Underwater (January 2020)
  4. The Voyage of Dr Dolittle (February 2020)
  5. Boss Level (February 2020)
  6. Bloodshot (February 2020)
  7. The Invisible Man (February 2020)
  8. Sonic the Hedgehog (February 2020)
  9. Birds of Prey (Harley Quinn) (February 2020)
  10. Wendy (February 2020)
  11. Fantasy Island (February 2020)
  12. A Quiet Place (March 2020)
  13. Onward (Pixar animation) (March 2020)
  14. Godzilla versus Kong (March or November 2020)
  15. Mulan (live action) (March 2020)
  16. The New Mutants (April 2020)
  17. Monster Problems (April 2020)
  18. Cyborg (April 2020)
  19. The Secret Garden (April 2020)
  20. James Bond: No Time to Die (April 2020)
  21. Black Widow (May 2020)
  22. Artemis Fowl (May 2020)
  23. World War Z 2 (May 2020)
  24. Wonder Woman 1984 (June 2020)
  25. The Six Billion Dollar Man (June 2020)
  26. Soul (Pixar Animation) (June 2020)
  27. Top Gun: Maverick (June 2020)
  28. Ghostbusters: Afterlife (July 2020)
  29. Minions 2 (July 2020)
  30. Free Guy (July 2020)
  31. Jungle Cruise (July 2020)
  32. Green Lantern Corps (July 2020)
  33. Morbius (July 2020)
  34. Tenet (July 2020)
  35. Infinite (August 2020)
  36. Bill and ted Face the Music (August 2020)
  37. Monster Hunter (September 2020)
  38. Starbright (September 2020)
  39. The Kings Man (September 2020)
  40. The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It (September 2020)
  41. Last Night in Soho (September 2020)
  42. Bios (October 2020)
  43. Venom 2 (October 2020)
  44. GI Joe 3 – Snake Eyes (October2020)
  45. Roald Dahl’s The Witches (October 2020)
  46. Eternals (November 2020)
  47. Raya and the Last Dragon (Animation) (November 2020)
  48. Ron’s Gone Wrong (November 2020)
  49. Dune (October or December 2020)
  50. The Tomorrow War (December 2020)
  51. Disney’s The Little Mermaid (Live action) (December 2020)
  52. Sherlock Holmes 3 (December 2020)
  53. Uncharted (December 2020)

 

UNDATED MOVIES I THINK ARE COMING IN 2020

  1. Green Knight
  2. After Yang
  3. Stowaway
  4. Voyagers
  5. Robopocalypse
  6. The Turning
  7. Chaos Walking
  8. Paddington 3
  9. Superintelligence
  10. The Three Body Problem
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Happy Happy!

The Milford committee sends all good wishes to you and yours this holiday season, however you celebrate and wherever you celebrate and whoever you celebrate with. The light is returning and we hope the coming year brings health, happiness,  and success in all your endeavours.

Christmas baubles

Reminder: we still have a few places left on the Milford Writers’ Retreat from 6th – 13th June 2020 at Trigonos, in Nantlle, North Wales. (Close to Caernarfon). Contact the secretary for detals or to reserve your place: jacey@jaceybedford.co.uk or take a look here: http://www.milfordsf.co.uk/retreats.htm

Note: unlike the main Milford conference in September, there is no requirement to be published to join us ion the retreat, as long as you are serious about your craft.

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Transparent Head Syndrome by Jim Anderson

First published on multijimbo, 2nd November 2019

silhouette-human-headI first learned about transparent head syndrome during a critique session at the Milford Science Fiction Writers Conference, though it is with some significant regret that I cannot remember who first used the term, but it is a term that has rung in my brain ever since.

On the surface, it’s a straightforward syndrome. A writer writes as though they have a transparent head, so that the reader can see not only the words on the page, but also the picture and form of the story that the writer was trying to move from their own brain onto the page.

I’m at present revising an old story, preparing it for its (next) journey out into the world, and I am beginning to realize how tantilizingly labyrinthine transparent head syndrome can be. It all comes down to balance. There are aspects of this particular story, and all other stories, that I am happy to be direct about; to provide up front to the reader, so that they don’t have to work too hard to find them.

But there are other aspects that I think the reader would enjoy working out for themselves, where I leave the trail of breadcrumbs and following them, the reader makes their way out of the forest. Too much of this, I am happy to admit, makes the reading too much work for some readers, and so what I’m struggling with in this particular story is where I want to situate this point of balance.

But transparent head syndrome is much wider. I talk to my students about transparent head syndrome and how best they can express their answers to the questions I’ve asked of them, be these the weekly exercises or the more formal tests and examinations. How much do we need to write, is a common question asked by students, and one answer here is, write enough to persuade a reasonable skeptic, as ultimately unsatisfying as this answer sometimes proves to be.

Usually, I ask my students to write more, because however clear their vision of the solution in their head, they aren’t always bringing this clarity to the page, and ultimately this is what underlies transparent head syndrome: bringing clarity for the reader to the page, without needing to have sight of the author’s hidden internal intentions to make sense of what’s been written.

All of this applies to administration as well, both the writing of policy documents and also to the meetings where we discuss their merits. I have on more than once occasion been in a meeting, only to leave with no clearer an idea of expectations or direction of travel than I had when I entered the meeting room, and on not-rare occasion less of an idea.

I am confident that these are not deliberate attempts to obfuscate, any more than an author attempts to obfuscate the arc of their story. (Which is to say, accidental most of the time, and when not, then with some reason behind it.)

But this extended contemplation of transparent head syndrome is changing how I try and run the meetings that I chair, and how I engage with the meetings I don’t chair. And it is working its way into how I write mathematics, and how I write all of the other things I write, fiction and not.

jim_andersonJim Anderson  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.

Jim is on-line at http://www.multijimbo.com

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Write What Someone Knows by Ben Jeapes

First posted on the Milford blog inMarch 2017

“Bad books on writing tell you to “WRITE WHAT YOU KNOW”, a solemn and totally false adage that is the reason there exist so many mediocre novels about English professors contemplating adultery.” – Joe Haldeman

And yet Joe Haldeman’s novel The Forever War was heavily influenced by his experiences as a Vietnam vet. I’m nowhere near brave enough to disagree with Joe Haldeman but fortunately I don’t think I have to. We agree from different directions.

Five Lies Creative Writing Teachers Tell makes the same point. It’s good but often misused advice, and it’s the misuse that gets dealt with on that link: the advice being hammered in to the point where you’re not even allowed to use your imagination. As the writer points out, J.K. Rowling isn’t really a wizard, but “The good tutor will get to know you, and encourage work which is attentive to your experiences”.

I would take that further: “your or at least someone’s experiences”.

Because, yes, writing has to start with what is known. My most basic level of knowledge is knowing what it is to be alive. I’m a human being with a place in the world – sensory input going 24/7, human relationships, knowing what I like and what I don’t. A character on a page has to give the impression of a similar level of existence. If you can’t believe they existed before you opened the book, or that they will go on existing after you close it, then the author isn’t writing what they know.

But with that given, then it’s time to start making stuff up. Hal Clement’s Mission of Gravity is told from the point of view of the native of a planet with a surface gravity 700 times stronger than our own, which is laughably petty compared to the world of Robert L. Forward’s Dragon’s Egg, where it’s 67 billion times stronger. Neither author can claim first-hand knowledge of such environments, but they too can start with the basic knowledge of being alive and take it from there.

My type of science fiction tends to be closer to home, with mostly human characters. I’ve never time travelled – but I have been in some fairly insalubrious third world slums, so if I want to imagine a European city of previous centuries, that’s what I picture. I’ve never worn a spacesuit, but I have scuba dived: I know the sounds and sensations and slightly claustrophobic feeling of being enclosed by your personal life support system, keeping you alive bare centimetres from an environment that could kill you, simultaneously giving you immense freedom and severely curtailing your possibilities. I’ve never been in a spaceship, but I’ve travelled by aeroplane, so I know that illusion of normality coupled with the ever-present knowledge at the back of your head that you’re in the belly of a fantastically complicated machine hurtling through the sky several miles above the ground and that isn’t normal at all.

The Teen the Witch and the Thief coverOther things I have done: driven a car; sailed a boat; grown up in an army family; fired several types of gun; stood on the floor of an active volcano; walked up Snowdon, across Salisbury Plain and through an Indonesian rain forest (not all on the same day); flown an aeroplane under supervision; taken off, flown and landed a glider solo; been in unrequited love. I’ve never divorced, had a serious illness or died, but friends have and (sorry guys) you can bet I was paying close attention. And each of those experiences, or scenarios developed and extrapolated from them, has appeared in my published writing.

The Comeback of the King coverTed, the titular teen of The Teen, the Witch & the Thief, has a stepfather Barry with whom he doesn’t get on. An unexpected pleasure of writing The Comeback of the King was being able to give new depth to Barry that was entirely consistent with what we learned of him in the first book, but which showed a lot more sympathy. The reason: between writing the first and second books, I became a stepfather of a teenager myself. I tip my hat to all Barrys everywhere.

Alumni of the Milford writers’ workshop have access to the Milford Skills List. Everyone who attends gets a chance to write down a few areas of expertise that they are willing to share with other members. And fantastically useful it is too. I was recently able to quiz a retired GP on the best kind of fracture to have, from a dramatic point of view, and how to perform a field amputation. I doubt she has any direct experience of the latter, but again, based on what she does know she was able to extrapolate.

So there you have it – write what you know, or failing that, find out what someone else knows, and write that. And then do something new with it.

 

bjeapes01Ben Jeapes took up writing in the mistaken belief that it would be easier than a real job (it isn’t). Hence, as well as being the author of 7 novels and co-author of many more, he has also been a journal editor, book publisher, and technical writer. His first Milford was at Margate in 1991, which shows (a) how far Milford has come in the past 26 years and (b) qualifies him as a Great Old One, in Milford terms at least. www.benjeapes.com

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