A Swim in the Pond in the Rain by George Saunders – A review by Ian Creasey

George Saunders won the Booker Prize in 2017 for his first (and so far only) novel, Lincoln in the Bardo, but before this he rose to prominence as an author of short fiction, winning numerous awards for individual stories and his (to date) four collections.  Although his work frequently appears in the New Yorker, it’s a long way from the stereotype of literary fiction.  He often uses science-fictional elements; stories such as “Escape from Spiderhead” or “The Semplica Girl Diaries” could easily have been published in SF genre magazines.  Both of those pieces were collected in Tenth of December: Stories (2013), a book I highly recommend.

Saunders teaches creative writing at Syracuse University, and in his classes he often discusses Russian literature.  His book A Swim in the Pond in the Rain (2021) draws upon his many years of teaching this material.  The book is advertised as “a literary masterclass on what makes great stories work, how to write them yourself, and what they can tell us about our world today”.  It presents seven classic Russian stories from the nineteenth century (three by Chekhov, two by Tolstoy, one each by Turgenev and Gogol), and analyses them in depth.  The first story is presented a page at a time, i.e. chunks of the text are interspersed with detailed discussions of each chunk; the remaining stories are presented in full before a more holistic analysis.

Although it’s not a major focus of the book, Saunders does address the limits of translation.  The translations themselves, as far as I can tell, look fairly recent: they all seem to be post-war; they’re definitely not out-of-copyright translations from the nineteenth century.  Consequently, the stories as presented don’t exhibit the fusty and archaic feel that you sometimes get when reading Victorian literature written in English.

The textual analysis by George Saunders is always interesting.  It’s not written in the standard vocabulary of writing advice books.  Terms such as characterisation, plot, structure and viewpoint are rarely used, although he does frequently talk about theme.  Typically his discussion begins by breaking a story into scenes, or beats, and asking the purpose of each.  He often points out that a particular scene doesn’t strictly need to be in the story, and could apparently be cut without seeming to affect the narrative.  He then asks why the scene is present, and talks about features such as imagery, theme, patterning, escalation, and so forth.  His arguments are illuminating and persuasive.  Sometimes he then draws wider lessons, talking about how writers might approach their own fiction.  In this vein, Saunders very occasionally uses examples from his own work, but this is not done in a self-aggrandising way, and it’s not necessary to have read any of Saunders’ fiction to understand his points.

In general, Saunders refrains from comparing these Russian stories to other literature.  This exercise is something that alert readers must perform for themselves.  Personally, when I compare these old stories to modern SFF genre fiction, I find it notable that despite a narrower range of content, the Russian classics exhibit a greater range of technique.  Modern SFF very commonly adheres to standard methods such as using limited third-person viewpoint, concentrating on a short span of time, emphasising “character growth”, insisting on concise prose and shunning digression, etc.  Writers who only read SFF probably don’t realise how rigidly they conform to a small repertoire of conventions.  For any genre writer, reading outside the genre — whether that’s old Russian classics, or whatever else — is a useful way of broadening one’s conception of the possibilities.  Of course, one could simply read an anthology of classic stories, without Saunders’ discussion, but his analysis does indirectly help to illuminate some technical aspects of the narrative, even if he doesn’t explicitly use workshop-style jargon.

I shouldn’t give the impression that Saunders never discusses practicalities.  Here’s an extract that talks about plot, albeit without using the word:

I’ve worked with so many wildly talented young writers over the years that I feel qualified to say that there are two things that separate writers who go on to publish from those who don’t.  First, a willingness to revise.  Second, the extent to which the writer has learned to make causality.  Making causality doesn’t seem sexy or particularly literary.  It’s a workmanlike thing, to make A cause B, the stuff of vaudeville, of Hollywood.  But it’s the hardest thing to learn.  It doesn’t come naturally, not to most of us.  But that’s really all a story is: a series of things that happen in sequence, in which we can discern a pattern of causality.  For most of us, the problem is not in making things happen (“A dog barked”, “The house exploded”, “Darren kicked the tire of his car” are all easy enough to type) but in making one thing seem to cause the next.  This is important, because causation is what creates the appearance of meaning.  “The queen died, and then the king died” (E.M. Forster’s famous formulation) describes two unrelated events occurring in sequence.  It doesn’t mean anything.  “The queen died, and the king died of grief” puts those events into relation; we understand that one caused the other.  The sequence, now infused with causality, means: “That king really loved his queen.”  Causality is to the writer what melody is to the songwriter: a superpower that the audience feels as the crux of the matter; the thing the audience actually shows up for; the hardest thing to do; that which distinguishes the competent practitioner from the extraordinary one.

More often, he discusses patterns and themes.  In his commentary on “The Darling” by Anton Chekhov — a story in which a woman repeatedly adopts the enthusiasms of the latest person she loves — Saunders says:

Suddenly questions arise about the nature of love….  We want to believe that love is singular and exclusive, and it unnerves us to think that it might actually be renewable and somewhat repetitive in its habits.  Would your current partner ever call his or her new partner by the same pet name he/she uses for you, once you are dead and buried?  Well, why not?  There are only so many pet names.  Why should that bother you?  Well, because you believe it is you, in particular, who is loved (that is why dear Ed calls you “honey-bunny”), but no: love just is, and you happened to be in the path of it.  When, dead and hovering above Ed, you hear him call that rat Beth, your former friend, “honey-bunny” … you, in spirit form, are going to think somewhat less of Ed, and of Beth, and maybe of love itself.  Or will you?  Maybe you won’t.  Because don’t we all do some version of this, when in love?  When your lover dies or leaves you, there you are, still yourself, with your particular way of loving. And there is the world, still full of people to love.

There’s a lot of good material in the book, but nevertheless I have a couple of quibbles.  One is that the book lacks an index, and hence will be hard to refer to.  If, a couple of years down the line, you find yourself thinking that Saunders said something useful about patterning, but you can’t remember exactly what it was — well, good luck finding it without re-reading the entire book!  This points to a wider issue with books about writing: it’s easy to assume they’re helpful, but harder to prove it.  The problem is that while you’re reading Saunders’ wise words and nodding along, you might think you’re learning something, and you might believe that all your future stories will benefit from this masterful exposition of craft — but is that really true, or is it all just (as my old Granny used to say) “in one ear, and out the other”?  How do you translate a feeling of insight into an actual improvement in your work?

Another issue is the question of whether nineteenth-century techniques will actually fly in a twenty-first century marketplace.  I commented above that modern SFF mostly uses a narrow range of techniques.  If a writer deviates from the Standard Workshop Template and submits something different, e.g. a story using omniscient viewpoint that encompasses two decades in ten pages, will this be greeted rapturously by editors and lauded for its freshness, or receive form rejections sent by twenty-something slush readers who only ever read contemporary genre fiction and don’t understand that other approaches are possible?  Of course, the SFF genre’s paucity of imagination is not Saunders’ fault, so I don’t mean this as a criticism of his book; I mean it more as a caveat about the book’s utility for modern genre writers.

As it happens, there is an SFF equivalent of George Saunders’ book.  It’s Science Fiction 101 by Robert Silverberg (also published as Robert Silverberg’s Worlds of Wonder).  In this book, Silverberg reprints thirteen classic SF stories and adds his own commentaries upon them.  He doesn’t go into as much depth as Saunders — the ratio of analysis to original text is lower — but it’s a similar approach, albeit with a different emphasis.  While Saunders frequently examines the narrative at the level of scenes, paragraphs and sentences, Silverberg more often delivers an overview that focuses on how the science-fictional premise is handled, and how the story is structured.  Sometimes he will frankly admit that the prose is plain and the characterisation is nonexistent, but he then explains that the narrative is doing different things that don’t require fancy imagery or distinguishable characters.  Even though Silverberg’s analysis is more superficial than Saunders’ deep dives, it’s still an interesting book that new SFF writers might find helpful.  However, the stories that Silverberg examines mostly date from the 1950s, and may fall foul of contemporary progressive sensibilities, so perhaps the time is ripe for someone to publish a similar book analysing modern SFF stories.

Ian Creasey lives in Yorkshire, England.  He has published numerous SF and Fantasy short stories, including the collection The Shapes of Strangers (NewCon Press, 2019).

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Humber SFF by Sue Oke

Humber SFF (Speculative Fiction) organises free events for those interested in science fiction, fantasy, horror and speculative fiction in general. These events feature both established and upcoming writers who discuss their work and offer up readings from their most recent novels and short stories. In addition, guest speakers are invited to talk about key areas of interest for those engaged in writing speculative fiction.

The last event took place on Sunday 24th July 2022 at the King’s Head in Beverley, Yorkshire. This was the first face-to-face event after the disruption of the pandemic and was thoroughly enjoyed by all. Two guest speakers took to the stage: Carl F Northwood and Susan Oke (that’s me!).

Carl regaled the audience with an extract from one of his series of novels The Mainguard Chronicles – a sword and sorcery epic with invaders from another plane of existence. Even more interesting was his talk on the ups and downs of self-publishing. It is certainly easier these days to get your work into a publishable format with tools like Amazon’s Kindle Direct Publishing, which is a great way to get your books to the market on a much quicker timescale than the traditional publishing route. However, costs can mount up when it comes to marketing your book, choosing to have an ISBN and, of course, you need to factor in printing costs. Self-publishing is not for everyone, but it is good to have that option available.

Carl F Norwood and Sue Oke – guest speakers at Humber SFF

I was invited to talk about editing, primarily I expect, because I am the Reviews Editor for the BSFA—a role I’ve held for about six years now. I took the audience on my journey from aspiring writer to editor—that journey included my experience of the Complete Creative Writing Course run by Maggie Hamand, to the confidence that gave me to complete an MA in Creative Writing to, yes you guessed it, my experiences at Milford.

I was lucky enough to study my MA at Middlesex University when they were still offering a master’s course that focused on Science Fiction and Fantasy writing. This course was led by the late David Rain, with the redoubtable Farah Mendelson as a key lecturer. The practice of working in small groups and critiquing each other’s work was the first real stepping-stone to becoming an editor. After the course, a group of us continued to meet once a month to eat cake and critique each other’s work at that same MA standard—several members of the group have gone on to have their novels published. Almost ten years later, we are still meeting, albeit via Zoom (no cake, but on the plus side, we can now expand the membership of the group to, well, anywhere in the world, really).

I gave the Milford experience a huge thumbs up, while being realistic about the work involved and the possibly challenging nature of the feedback process, especially for newer writers. There really is no substitute for the Milford Speculative Fiction Conference—I certainly wouldn’t be where I am without it. All those who are attending this year—enjoy!! I’ll be there in 2023.

I did give a reading from the opening of my YA SF novel Blood Will Out, which was fun to do. Let’s hope I can find representation for that, otherwise I’ll by dropping Carl a line 😊

Susan Oke worked in the UK Higher Education sector for thirteen years before surrendering to her passion for writing. She spends every minute she can spare writing and has had short stories published in anthologies, magazines and podcasts. As the Review Editor first for Vector, and now for the BSFA Review, Susan gets to read lots of books—her favourite pastime, when she isn’t writing––and edit copy (another fun job, which she genuinely enjoys!). Susan is an active member of several critiquing groups and works part-time as an English tutor. You can view her blog and read samples of her work at: susanmayoke.com

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Naming Favorites by Nancy Jane Moore

A few years ago I heard someone ask Vonda N. McIntyre which of her novels was her favorite. Her answer? “The one I’m working on now.”

It’s possible that she meant she was most excited about that particular book, the one she finished just before she died. It is a brilliant book.

But I took it more generally to mean that whatever she was working on at the time someone asked that question would be her favorite.

I like that idea, though I suspect it’s rather a romantic one. After all, writers who become known for certain books often find themselves in a position where they have to keep writing them long after they’re sick of the subject.

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle famously tried to kill off Sherlock Holmes so that he could quit writing those stories, but it didn’t work. I suspect strongly that his favorite Holmes story – assuming he hadn’t become so sick of doing the work that he didn’t like any of them by the end – would not have been any of the later ones he wrote.

I’m sure many other authors have felt something similar, though they’ve kept it to themselves since people were paying them to keep writing the same thing. After all, most writers need money.

But Vonda wrote a lot of different books and she spent a lot of time researching them, something that also gave her pleasure. I can see her being obsessed with each one, loving it even as she struggled to make the words fit her vision.

(I also heard Vonda say something to the effect that there are rules to writing a novel but no one knows what they are, so I’m pretty sure even she struggled with what she was doing from time to time.)

My most recent book is For the Good of the Realm, published in 2021 by Aqueduct Press, [http://www.aqueductpress.com/books/978-1-61976-187-2.php] and in the interest of self promotion I should certainly tell everyone that it is my favorite book.

I am, indeed, very happy with it. It started out to be a simple adventure story and ended up becoming a more complex tale. And for all that it’s about swordswomen and witches and power struggles, it is, at heart, a rather gentle book.

I’m pretty impressed that I could write a gentle book. I’m also pretty sure that’s not what I thought I was doing. But it seems to be what I did.

I certainly don’t know what the rules are for writing a novel. I just write until something comes together.

But if you asked me right now about my favorite of my works, I’d be hard-pressed to know how to answer. For one thing, it makes me feel like the parent asked which is their favorite child.

Even if you have one, you might not want to admit it. And since I’ve only got two novels out there, I’d feel guilty choosing one over the other.

Also, the previous one, The Weave, [http://www.aqueductpress.com/books/978-1-61976-077-6.php] is still in print, so I wouldn’t want to discourage anyone from buying it by bragging solely on the new one. I like what I did in that book, too.

And then there are some shorter works I’ve done that I’m very proud of as well.

I might, though, be willing to say the book I like best isn’t written yet. Because I have this idea, one I’ve been working on for years. Right now the written parts are a jumble of pieces that certainly don’t qualify as the best of anything.

But if I can ever put it together, I think it might be the best of my work. As long as it only exists in my head, it’s easy to believe that.

And maybe thinking that it could be my favorite book will make me finish writing it.

Which might have been what Vonda was really talking about.

A version of this post previously appeared on the Treehouse Writers blog. [https://treehousewriters.com/wp53/]

Nancy Jane Moore is the author of For the Good of the Realm and The Weave, both published by Seattle’s Aqueduct Press. Her other books include the novella Changeling and the collection Conscientious Inconsistencies. Her short stories have appeared in numerous anthologies and in magazines ranging from the National Law Journal to Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet. A native Texan who spent many years in Washington, D.C., she now lives in Oakland, California, with her sweetheart, two cats, and an ever-growing murder of crows.

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Milford at Fifty: Milford Memories by Pauline E Dungate

My first encounter with Milford was 1977 but I wasn’t actually an attendee.

In the early days of Milford UK, the event was held at Milford-on-Sea, a village on the Hampshire coast. On the Saturday, after the week of workshops, there was a party to which friends and family of the participants were invited.

My new boyfriend, Chris Morgan, lived in Weymouth. He was a member of the Pieria Writers Group which had morphed out of OUSFG, the Oxford University SF Group. A number of the Pieria members had been at the Milford week, so other members were invited to the Saturday night party.

Those that I remember being there included Rob Holdstock, Andrew Stephenson, Chris Priest and James Blish. Chis was very pleased to meet D.G. Compton.

The first Milford I attended as a participant was much later since they were held in term time and as a teacher, couldn’t attend. Then one year they made the mistake of holding it at half-term. By that time the venue had moved along the coast to Devon and it was also Jacey’s first Milford. It didn’t become a regular participant until I retired.

If you are wondering about the boyfriend, reader, I married him.

Milford group 1998

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My Second Milford: Milford at Fifty by Jim Anderson

My second Milford was 2011 and it was during that Milford that I had one of the most memorable critiques of any piece I’ve submitted there or elsewhere. It was a piece built about an idea that I’d been trying to find a good story home for some (long) time, and I’ll admit that the story I’d submitted was not one that I was entirely happy with, but I felt it would be helpful to get the views of the assembled company.

This is one of the strengths for me of the critiquing process, whether it be the Milford process or another, namely getting the views of others, who are experienced readers and who are actively engaging with the piece not just as a reader.

Tiffani shaking fists!

The first person to comment was Tiffani Angus, another now-veteran of Milford. It became clear in the first few seconds that she too felt that while the idea might have some merit to it, the story I’d built around the idea was not yet right, as she began her critique by shaking her fists in my face while giving a gentle growl.

She then began what I can only describe as a dissection of the story in its then-current form, speaking quickly because there were many points, ending with the words ‘Shame, shame, shame.’ (Perhaps inappropriately, I had fallen out of my chair laughing by this point, because what else could one do.) One thing that I took from this first critique was that she took her full time, and passionately, which I could only take as a sign that the underlying idea had some merit.

The remaining thirteen critiques ran the gamut of disappointment with my treatment of the core idea, through to indifference and grudging complements, and a former editor expressing a willingness to consider the story for publication had they still been in post. And this is an important lesson that I take from experiences like this, that different readers encounter stories sometimes very differently, and so in the end, we come back to the basic advice of writing from our own hearts.

For me, the experience was extraordinarily informative. We can sometimes doubt our ideas, oh those darn imposters living beneath our skins, but getting such passionate feedback, however varied, helps to chase those subcutaneous imposters into the shadows for a bit. I also want to invoke a reaction in my readers, and the more passionate the reaction, the better.

As a postscript, I let this idea ferment (for more years than necessary) and brought it back to a later Milford, one at which there were a few people (including Tiffani) who’d been in 2011, and it’s safe to say that the story got a significantly more positive response the second time around. Hopefully you’ll be able to read it somewhere soon, once it finds its appropriate home.

Professor James W 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 Sciences. Beyond mathematics, he practices the traditional Japanese martial art of aikido and writes science fiction and fantasy. He insists his role on the Milford committee is as Most Egregious Token Male.

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The Literary Laddership for Emerging African Authors by Suyi Davies Okungbowa

Back in 2016, I came across a seemingly ordinary young woman who’d recently moved from Lagos to Bristol. She’d decided to start a writers’ fund in her grandparents’ name. Small change, it seemed like at the time: £160, which came to about N70,000. From the way she described it, she wanted to fund serious, emerging writers who didn’t have enough money to buy a laptop. In her mind, perhaps if they could buy a used laptop to write (in Lagos, this cost about N70k at the time), they could get rolling.

At the time, I was working 5-to-9 and earning circa N92,000 monthly. Though I had my employer’s laptop to write, I needed something else: a month of unpaid leave to finish this little novella (later turned novel) that had been gnawing at my brain for over a year. All I needed was one month away and some income to cover the bills.

So I applied for this young woman’s writers’ fund—and got it.

Fast-forward to 2018, and that novella-turned-novel became my debut, David Mogo, Godhunter. It was also the moment I realized that perhaps I wasn’t so bad at this writing thing. This was a time when energetic and not-so-privileged storytellers living on the African continent—and their stories, especially those of the speculative variety—weren’t as prized in the global sphere as they are starting to be now. Completing the novella in that 1 month gave me the jolt I needed to think bigger. I began to seek free and paid remote writing workshops. I submitted to magazines, published a few stories. I got a bursary to attend Milford, where I first learned about fully-funded MFAs in Creative Writing (two of the workshop attendees ended up being references for my application). I spent a year on MFA applications, got into 2 out of 9 schools, spent 3 years in writing workshops, sold a trilogy, became a professor.

Suyi and Vaughn Stanger, Milford 2017

This might sound like a pretty sweet grass-to-grace origin story, but I actually like to think that HUUUGE luck aside, the socioeconomic barriers to my upswing weren’t that high. I know talented writers who have it much worse than I did—who do not have jobs, decent electricity or laptops. When they quit writing, it is not because they don’t love to tell stories, but because survival is a more pressing need. And it is for them that I have started this fellowship.

The Literary Laddership for Emerging African Authors aims to support, elevate and connect emerging fiction authors of Black and/or African descent, based primarily on the African continent and writing in English. Fellows will be offered a funded ($500 each) three-month digital residency, membership in a private community of practice, and continuous support through the publishing ecosystem.

Why Laddership? Well, this expression is my attempt to combine the ethos of two terms: “ladder” and “fellowship”. Fellowships are an established approach to funding artists and creators globally, with the aim of buying them time and space to create, as well as fold them into a community of learning and practice. This program is based on the writing fellowship model, but with one marked difference: my team and I are invested in the continuous act of “sending the ladder down.” We retain an awareness of the privileges and inequities resident in communities built on traditional institutions like publishing. The literary “laddership” is our way of paying attention to these inequities and designing a system to alleviate them.

$500 is not a groundbreaking or life-changing sum. I don’t plan for it to be. This is why, after extensive discussions with friends, colleagues and peers who live on the continent, I have also infused other aspects of the fellowship that intend to address non-monetary pain points, including ongoing education on the publishing side of things and the pathway to becoming a professional author.

My hope is that this fellowship, more than anything, can be a jolt for others like that admirable young woman’s £160 did for me. For emerging African writers most invested in building a career out of telling stories, I am hoping to be a raft, aiding in their conveyance from one end of the murky writing and publishing waters to the other.

What can you do to help? For starters, you can support us. This may mean sharing this post, or sending the fellowship link to folks you think qualify, or buying us a coffee (see below). Perhaps featuring this on your newsletter or blog or something, helping us get the word out. It may mean simply nodding approvingly from the sidelines. Either way, you’re doing something, and I appreciate you, because that’s better than nothing.

I don’t have a grandiose plan to save or fix the world. I don’t even know how long this fellowship will last—the previously mentioned writers’ fund that jolted me lasted only two-ish years! But I do know this: I have built a raft. Now, we follow the winds and learn how to sail as we go.


The Literary Laddership for Emerging African Authors is now open for applications as of today. The deadline for applications is Tuesday 31 May 2022 @ 11:59PM EST. Afterward, an anonymous reading/judging period will commence, and winners will be announced before June 30, 2022. The first cohort’s digital residency (and simultaneous community of practice) will run from September to November 2022.

If you wish to support this venture, we encourage you to do so! All such support will go to increasing the amount each new fellowship cohort receives, sponsoring their attendance of conferences and workshops, and managing and maintaining the community of practice.

Buy us a coffee!

Note: All donations are collected by Suyi Davies LLC, which is not a nonprofit or charity organisation, and therefore contributions are not tax-exempt.

Suyi Davies Okungbowa is the author of Son of the Storm (Orbit, May 2021), first in The Nameless Republic epic fantasy trilogy, and the godpunk novel, David Mogo, Godhunter (Abaddon, 2019). His shorter works have appeared internationally in periodicals like Tor.com, Lightspeed, Nightmare, Strange Horizons, Fireside, and anthologies like Black Panther: Tales of Wakanda and Year’s Best Science Fiction and Fantasy. He earned his MFA at the University of Arizona. He tweets at @IAmSuyiDavies and is @suyidavies on Instagram. Learn more at suyidavies.com.

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Milford at Fifty by Mike Lewis

I first attended Milford in 1999. I had been to the One Step Beyond Workshop run by Liz Holliday the year before in the same Devon hotel and was excited to attend Milford itself. If a little nervous as I had only sold a couple of very short pieces at that time.

The stories I took that year weren’t great. They needed a lot more work and I simply hadn’t had the time or frame of mind to rewrite them properly.

My father was dying of cancer at the time (he went back in the hospice for the last time while I was at Milford) and I came very close to cancelling the trip all together. But I wanted to get away for a while and do something normal after the previous few months of stress and so I went.

The people were generous with their crits (very generous) and I would like to apologise for making those people who went to Milford 1999 read those two poor half-written stories. The company and the welcome I got meant a lot to me and I was able to forget real life for the week.

Milford 1999, Devon.

I have attended several Milford since (I think 4 in Devon, 1 in York and 4 in Trigonos). Fortunately, my writing has greatly improved, and I have always found the Milford critiques helpful and illuminating. I always come away from Milfords with at least two story ideas as well, usually sparked by the conversation around the dinner table or whilst sitting in the library. I have made firm friends at Milford, who I look forward to seeing again – even if it sometimes only at another Milford.

Due to a variety of reasons, I haven’t been to Milford since 2014 but, having recently almost retired, I decided to attend the May 2022 Writer’s Retreat at Trigonos and attempt to kick start my writing again. I have written on and off over the last ten years, and sold a few short stories, but not with the regularity or volume I used to write at.

The plan was to write every day for two weeks before going but that simply didn’t happen. When I arrived at Trigonos and sat down at my laptop I was slightly worried that I wouldn’t be able to write and would spend the whole week staring at a blank screen.

But I needn’t have worried, with company of other writers and with everyone cheering each other on, we all wrote or edited every day over the week and I ended up having written 57,000 words.

I finished the first draft of a Supernatural Detective novel, added 3 chapters to a children’s book, added 4 chapters to an SF novel and even managed an 8,000 word short story set in a certain Devon Hotel at a writers’ conference.

The week was productive, entertaining and I met some fantastic writers, highly recommended.

Mike Lewis started work in IT but recently (almost) retired after working for 17 years as Toy Soldier Maker  He attended Clarion East in 2002 and has sold short stories to a variety of markets.  His proudest achievement is having one story in a couple of Swedish-English Language text books and thus helping to teach Swedish school children how to swear in English.   He is looking forward to more time to write over the next few years.

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Is it a steal? The questions to ask about paid-for publishing – by Juliet E McKenna

The Society of Authors and the Writers’ Guild of Great Britain have published a joint report looking into companies that charge writers for publication. You will not be surprised to learn there are a lot of shady goings-on in this area of the book business. For one thing, the sharks and charlatans like to muddy the waters with terms like ‘hybrid’ and ‘indie’ publishing. They’re able to do this because these terms mean different things to different people.

‘Hybrid’ originally meant authors self-publishing alongside working with a mainstream publisher. ‘Indie’ used to mean small independent presses not owned by one of the multinational conglomerates. These days, ‘indie’ has been co-opted by self-publishers (not with any underhand intent), while what used to be called ‘vanity’ presses would have you believe that ‘hybrid’ now means the author putting in money up front for a project, as well as the (alleged) publisher.

Now, there are currently a whole lot of different ways to work with a publisher. At the moment, I have five separate agreements on the go, and the details of each contract are different. For one, I have chosen to commission and pay for editorial input and artwork myself and to then supply the complete package to the publisher rather than have them undertake this part of the publishing process. These choices I have made are reflected in the royalty rate I receive. All of this information is readily available to me, the whole process is transparent, and at no point am I paying the publisher for anything. This is a legitimate way to do business.

Compare and contrast the sharks and charlatans. When I’ve been judging genre prizes and books come in from a publisher I don’t know, I go and check who I’m dealing with. Legitimate small presses I just haven’t come across before are easy to identify , but when it comes to vanity presses, the tell-tale info is often very deliberately and well hidden on websites. There are weasel words like ‘contributory’ and ‘partnership’ as well as hideous rights grabs buried under layers of obfuscation, just in case they are handed some real gem.

Though that is unlikely. When it comes to the books, vanity presses are almost always horribly, wretchedly obvious. I mean 99.99% of the time at least! I recall one first person narrative which included the detailed description of a knife that had just stabbed our heroine in the back where she couldn’t reach it. So… how could she see it then? The whole book – okay, the 65 pages I read before I quit – was full of these basic creative writing errors. There had been no meaningful editorial input at all – though I bet the author had paid well above the going rate for that, from what I read on the website. Things like this might be funny, except these authors sometimes contact prize judges, wondering why they haven’t been short-listed (yes, really) and it’s painfully clear they’ve been fed wholly unreal expectations by, well, con-artists. It’s awful to be the person trying to explain what’s happened to them.

So it comes as absolutely no surprise to me at all to see from this report –

• 94% of respondents lost money, typically in the thousands.
• The average loss was £1,861 with some writers reporting losses as high as £9,900.
• The median cost of publication was £2,000.
• A median of only 67 books were sold per deal, resulting in royalties of only £68.
• 59% of writers said their book was not available to buy in retail outlets

You can read the Society of Authors’ article here, and download the full report.

Do spread the word, and bookmark the info, in case you come across another writer in danger of being bamboozled.

Juliet E McKenna is a British fantasy author living in the Cotswolds, UK. Loving history, myth and other worlds since she first learned to read, she has written fifteen epic fantasy novels so far. Her debut, The Thief’s Gamble, began The Tales of Einarinn in 1999, followed by The Aldabreshin Compass sequence, The Chronicles of the Lescari Revolution, and The Hadrumal Crisis trilogy. The Green Man’s Heir was her first modern fantasy rooted in British folklore in 2018, followed by The Green Man’s Foe, The Green Man’s Silence, and The Green Man’s Challenge. She writes and comments on book trade issues, has served as a judge for major genre awards, and reviews online and for magazines. She writes diverse short stories and novellas enjoying forays into alternate history, darker fantasy, steampunk and SF. As J M Alvey, she has also written murder mysteries set in ancient Greece. As well as the next Green Man book, she’s currently working on The Cleaving, a feminist retelling of Arthurian myth, to be published in May 2023. Visit julietemckenna.com or follow @JulietEMcKenna on Twitter to keep up to date.

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Milford at Fifty: Milford One -1972 and Beyond – A Retrospective by David Redd

From David Redd’s Milford retrospective (website) and comments from his 2019 interview in SF Magazines.

Milford 1972 attendees
Mark Adlard * Brian Aldiss * James Blish * John Brunner * Kenneth Bulmer * Richard Cowper * Judith Anne Lawrence (Judy Blish) * George Locke (Gordon Walters) * Anne McCaffrey * John Phillifent * Christopher Priest * David Redd * Josephine Saxton * Andrew Stephenson * Peter Tate.

1972 saw the first Milford Science Fiction Writers Conference in the UK, set up by a small dedicated team of James Blish (a co-founder of the original USA Milford); Anne McCaffrey (Chair); Judy Blish (legwork); and Ken Bulmer (“Liaison Officer between the Americans and the inscrutable British.”)

Judy Blish dug up addresses and wrote to folk, including me. (She was short of candidates.)

That initial Milford was my first-ever story workshop experience: new, exciting, crowded, exhausting, sometimes frightening, enlightening and valuable. Most attendees were published novelists, while I had only a few magazine stories to my name. With the initial demand unknown, the committee had limited Milford One to a single weekend. We workshopped fifteen stories in three days!

I remember little about the hotel; probably it was the Lydgate, sold soon after. Subsequently, Milford resided happily for many years at the Compton House, with some very understanding mine hosts in Pat & Don Emberson, along with their joint proprietors Joy and Tony Tillett in the earlier years. Milfordites kept many interesting and incriminating documents of that time in the notorious “Milford Box,” (now apparently lost.)

The stories? A blur, inevitably, although I think Chris Priest brought a promising novelette called “The Inverted World,” which became an excellent novel due to his own efforts, not ours, and I brought one called “Morning” which did at least make it into F&SF. Mark Adlard offered an alien-zoo short story and received great admiration in some quarters for his vigorous description of a harpoon “whanging home.” Mark was so encouraged by this enthusiasm that he went home and wrote an entire novel about harpoons whanging home, for which Penguin paid him £30,000. (“I do hope this story is true,” I wrote, and so far nobody has contradicted me.)

A note on costs: registration £1.50, hotel daily full board, £3.50. Ah, 1972! So that was Milford One. A whirlwind of meeting friends old and new, of professionals showing great kindness, of frantic reading and frantic critting – one member did not last the weekend. 1972 must have been a success; the next year Milford UK extended to a full week, and has been running ever since.

Random Recollections
Early Milford conferences were dominated by the frantic rush to read manuscripts – no emailed pre-circulation then – which left us only limited time for socialising. We managed some. By 1974 James Blish was obviously frail and concentrating with a fixed determination, but back in 1972 he was still relaxed enough to chat non-adversarially about, for example, the Star Trek novelisations coming from the author of A Case of Conscience. They weren’t incompatible with his fearsome literary integrity, I learned over breakfast. He told me they were useful “bridge material” (his phrase) enticing newcomers into other SF.

I hope Blish wouldn’t mind me saying that in story critiques he was a ruthless perfectionist (as he was of his own serious work, which I suspect could get over-revised) and I suffered this when he dismissed my story Morning as, if I may precis, derivative and inadequate. Nothing personal, he took pains to assure me afterwards. “At least So-and-so liked it,” I muttered. “So-and-so has a tin ear!” said Blish, reverting to workshop mode for an instant. Then he was human again.

I should point out that some of the Biggest Names there such as Blish and Brunner were surprisingly considerate to their juniors. Ditto Brian Aldiss, exiting early in some vexation, yet pausing to apologise to me for leaving without commenting on my story. A lot of people took the Milford ethic of mutual help very seriously.

Highlights of the first and subsequent Milfords
Meeting so many good people, e.g. Richard Cowper, Pam Boal, Rob Holdstock (to name some of the sadly missed) through to the 21st century and, oh, Vaughan Stanger, Ian Creasey, Colin P. Davies among too many to mention. (If you’re a Milford person reading this and thinking your name should be there, yes it should.)

Lowlights also came: those lapses of judgement which dog my life, of course, but worse still, the shock of attendee Paul Tabori being suddenly rushed to hospital (1974) and dying weeks later—to my shame I’d known of him better for The Green Rain than for The Art of Folly and the rest.

One last highlight? I was at a Milford wrap party when Chip Delany met (Lady) Naomi Mitchison; what a nice meeting of different cultures. Now, the amazing Naomi Mitchison: what a life, yet the internet this decade can say “Today, she has largely been forgotten”. Another one. She never attended a Milford workshop (that I know of) but was a Saturday-evening guest in 1974. Delany was quick to smile and mention Memoirs of a Spacewoman; Mitchison had the air of one enjoying herself greatly. They should have found much to discuss.

Those Milford end-of-week parties quickly became a tradition. In 1978 our guests included Nick Webb of Pan Books, a huge and genial man, confiding hopes that an untried author he’d commissioned to novelise a radio series could deliver. The author’s name was Douglas Adams. His book—you’ll know the title—came out almost exactly a year after that party, and in a couple of months sold 200,000 copies. Nick must have been delighted. And relieved.

David Redd sold his first stories to Michael Moorcock at New Worlds SF and later appeared in many other magazines, including F&SF, If, Amazing, Fantastic, Asimov’s SF, and Interzone.

One of his other claims to fame is that he appeared on the television quiz program Who Wants to be a Millionaire with his wife Meriel in 2001: they won £16,000.

He was a civil engineer by profession but is now retired. He has a son and a daughter.

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Milford Writers’ Retreat by Jacey Bedford

I’m at Trigonos for the Milford Writers’ Retreat, a full week of being closeted with my laptop in a quiet room (with a good view) and the company of nine other writers at meal times and in the library after dinner (for those of us who are not immediately dashing off to add more wordcount).

The day goes like this.Imagine writing in the gaps between…

  • 7.30 a.m. my alarm goes off
  • 8.00 a.m. breakfast (continental – help yourself)
  • 11.00 a.m. coffee and biscuits ( together in the dining room, though not everyone shows up if they are on a roll)
  • 1.00 p.m. lunch (soup and salads – vegetarian)
  • 4.00 p.m. cake o’clock (in the dining room again)
  • 6.00 p.m. some people start to gather in the library
  • 7.00 p.m. dinner (special diets catered for)
  • 8.00 p.m. onward – most people gather in the library for general socialising until driven back to their rooms by guilt at not writing, or extreme tiredness.

My task this week is to edit my work in progress, a YA romance with elements of urban fantasy and faerie. I had a great skype call with my agent (Donald Maass) before I left home and he gave me a lot to think about and act upon. It’s Wednesday morning. I’ve done the first pass, deleting some stuff I don’t need, and now I’m on the second pass, adding in some deeper thoughts about characters, and occasional new scenes.

This week is not about adding word-count for me, rather it’s about getting under the skin of my characters. A few years ago (pre-lockdown) Catie Murphy managed to write 33,000 words in a week. That set the standard. We decided to measure output in ‘murphys.’ This year Mike Lewis has reached 30,000 words and it’s only Wednesday morning. He’ll have written a murphy before the end of today. At this rate he’ll manage at least one and a half murphys by Friday.

Am I jealous? Possibly. I used to be able to do 10,000 words a day for three or four days in a row, but then I needed a little lie down in a darkened room. I’m not sure I could do it now, and certainly not at home, where there are many calls on my time. The phone rings, emails come in for the day job (I’m a music booking agent in my other life); my 97 year old mother wanders into my office for no particular reason and then forgets why she thought it was so important to see me; my husband comes though from the studio and says he’s expecting a delivery, so I tell him not to worry, I have no plans to be anywhere other than my office, therefore I’ll be close to the front door all day. (Of course the delivery always arrives when I’m in the bathroom because that’s life.)

I have an office at home, so theoretically I should be able to write, but I can’t always, and that’s why the Milford writers’ retreat is so precious to me. It resets my writerly brain.

Trigonos, just nine miles south of Caernarfon, is tucked away in a Welsh valley on the edge of Snowdonia in the tiny village of Nantlle. It’s not a hotel, rather it’s a community business that caters for groups like ours, or groups who do yoga, or painting courses. It has a strong health and wellbeing ethos. On Sunday I watched a day group doing yoga on the back lawn. And Trigonos has 18 acres of land and a lake frontage on to Llyn Nantlle, where hardy folks can swim (at their own risk).

The viw from my window. Mount Snowdon is the peak in the far distance.

We all have our own en-suite rooms either in the main house or in one of the cottages in the grounds. Rooms vary in size. I’m in Room 4 this time which is a generously proportioned, twin-bedded room. I can (just) see the a tiny bit of lake through the branches of the burgeoning trees, but I can see up the Nantlle Valley to Mount Snowdon. At least, I can see the mountain when it’s not obscured by mist. (Today is damp and the mountain is hidden behind low clouds.)

I’ve just taken half an hour of my writing time to tap this out on my laptop, so I’m going to finish now and get back to my editing. I will just say, before I go, that there are few places more conducive to writing than Trigonos. There’s our usual Milford critique-week here in September (which is now fully booked for 2022), but there are still places available on our Milford writers’ retreat in mid-May 2023. If you are thinking of joining us, you’ll have space and time to write in the congenial company of fellow writers. There are only 12 places available in total, so don’t leave it too late to book.

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