Fantasycon 2022 by Susan May Oke

The British Fantasy Society annual convention was held September 17th – 18th at the Raddison Red Hotel, Heathrow. Although a slightly curtailed version of the annual convention that we all know and love, it was still well worth the time, money and effort it took to get there. I arrived on Friday night (16th) so that I would be ready for the full onslaught of panels running through Saturday and Sunday morning.

There was a lot to choose from! I opted to start with ‘Portraying Families in SFFH’ as my own writing is family orientated. The panel discussed the fact that the expectations of readers are now more focused on the depth of familial relationships–they want to see internal conflict and have an opportunity to flex their empathy. While this is certainly true, not all satisfying family dynamics are centered around conflict. For example, the four Fallow sisters in Liz Williams’ Comet Weather provide a more cooperative model of family dynamics.

My next port of call was the panel on ‘Writing Humour’, ably moderated by Sandra Unerman. The panel discussed ‘ways to approach the arduous task of being funny’. It certainly is an arduous task for me. The panel was interesting, informative and, yes, genuinely funny. David Wragg, by his own admission, aims to be intentionally funny in his books; he made it clear that you need the implied consent of the reader and that you must ask yourself: are you making a good point? Dan Hanks emphasised the need for humorous banter to be organic (‘organic’ is a term that came up a lot during the panels); and Jen Williams discussed her challenges around removing humour from her latest crime novel. When is humour appropriate? A good question.

‘Character Development in Short Stories’ was interesting and a good refresher. In short stories, characters are the ‘glue’ that holds everything together. All panelists agreed that any physical descriptions of characters need to be short and must appear early in the story. ‘Love, Sex, Magic: Romance and Relationships in SFFH’ was entertaining in its own way and covered familiar ground around gender issues.

The Guest of Honour this year was Liz Williams, a prolific writer and stalwart of the annual Milford Speculative Fiction Writers’ Conference. I thoroughly enjoyed listening to her speak. Knowledgeable, insightful and overall deftly done.

The panels on ‘Religion in SFFH’ and ‘Mental Health in SFFH’ gave me plenty to think about in relation to my writing (and the writing of others). Religion is certainly a useful tool when it comes to world building and can be used to drive the plot forward. What I need to consider is how religion makes my characters think and how it influences their behaviour. And yes, when it comes to the depiction of mental health in SFFH, we really do need to do better. As pointed out by Tej Turner, a mental health issue could just as easily be a strength as a weakness. There was an interesting discussion on the need for trigger warnings in books–again, Tej suggested the use of links to the author’s website rather than include possible spoilers at the beginning of the book.

‘Writing Older Characters’ raised a number of interesting ideas. Firstly, the relationship between how old a character is compared to their natural lifespan, which can be very different in the SFF genres. There was an interesting discussion around the implications of older characters actually being immortal. The point was made that older characters already have their own story arc in motion (baggage, a complicated past) and are likely to have a different perspective on events. There are not as many tropes around older people, which may give a writer more freedom. While older characters can certainly learn new skills (e.g. technical skills), they can’t replicate the mindset of the young. I can’t remember which panelist quoted Oscar Wilde ‘I’m not young enough to know everything’. Terry Pratchett’s character, Nanny Ogg, was agreed to be everyone’s favourite older character. She gets my vote too!

I’m already looking forward to next year’s Fantasy Convention in Birmingham.

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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Live Blogging from Milford 3

Ramya Jegatheesan
As a newbie, it feels like I’ve now got into the comfortable swing of things. I know what the day will bring – copious amounts of food, wine and useful, weird conversations. The weather today was clear and bright, and the Welsh countryside has been put on best display. An excursion to Dorothea Quarry after crits found me wandering around abandoned, overgrown buildings and a contaminated, gloriously blue lake. I was sure I was either going to be murdered and/or abducted by the Fair Folk – which might give you some insight into the sorts of stories we’ve read so far. It’s whiskey in the library time now, followed by a midnight (or nine-ish) dip in the lake (a hopefully non-contaminated one)

Jacey Bedford
We finished the last of the crits today and spent the evening – after dinner – socialising in the library. Much wine was drunk, much chocolate eaten. Discussion topics were many and varied. This is our last night with a full complement of attendees. Liz Williams is Guest of Honour at Fantasycon this weekend, so she has to leave tomorrow morning, bound for London. The rest of us will have a day off tomorrow. There’s a contingent going into Caernarfon for a mooch around and a pub lunch, while another car-load heads for Portmeirion – the place where The Prisoner was filmed all those years ago.

While I’ve been here this week, my friend Steve Ritchie from Owen Sound in Canada found my book in his local bookstore and sent me a ‘shelfie’. I’m delighted, of course.

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Live Blogging from Milford – 2

Jacey Bedford
Today is the third day of our active Milford. We arrived on Saturday and started work on Sunday. So today is Tuesday, and we’re just over half way through our critiques. My story was up for critique today and I got some very useful feedback which means a bit of rewriting, but I’ve got some good ideas.

Dolly Garland’s photo of yesterday’s crit session.

Liz Williams
A beautiful evening here, with the light going down over the valley and throwing the mountains into sharp, bright relief. I just went for a walk down to the lake, admiring the scarlet rowan and the ripples from a boat out on the lake. Some of us went into Caernarfon this morning, parking in the shadow of the castle, and went on various errands around the town (I am very pleased with myself, having managed to purchase socks and cards in Welsh – thank you, Dewi Lingo). We’re now sitting in the library with wine.

Jim Anderson
With some sadness, we’ve reached the midpoint of the week, and it’s been a great week so far. Three days of critiquing and conversation down, three days to go though Friday is excursion day. I always find it fascinating the extent and variety of the comments made, and also the extent to which unrelated ideas come into the mind while listening. Alas for the current list of projects, I’ve added several new ones to the list already, and I’m sure more will come. While we’ve had some rain, the weather today was exceptional and clear, and Snowdon watched us as we went through our business this afternoon.

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Live Blogging from Milford – 1

Jacey Bedford writes…

If you want to know all about Milford SF writers’ weeks take a look here.

This is Day Two, since yesterday, Day One, was our arrival day and getting-to-know-each-other day. Milford is always a mixture of newcomers and old hands. We ring-fence five places for writers who have never been before. There are usually fifteen participants, but since we had one late drop-out (for unavoidable reasons) there are only fourteen of us this year. It doesn’t take long for everyone to integrate. This was the scene in the library last night after dinner. Much chat and several bottles of wine.

We had a particularly bad journey yesterday, driving east to west across the Pennines and along the North Wales Expressway. The motorway was closed off at Manchester airport necessitating a diversion which said follow signs. Err… what signs? Luckily I’d given a lift to John whose phone and google maps navigated us around the blockage. Even so, with that, and subsequent traffic jams our three and a half hour journey turned into nearly six hours. Instead of arriving early as I’d intended, we were almost the last to arrive.

Trigonos (trigonos.org) is lovely and peaceful. As we drove into the car park I could feel the stress of the journey dissolving away. Cake and a cuppa awaited us, and a load of friendly faces.

The group had already begun to gel.

The real work starts today. We all circulate pieces for critique and discussion beforehand. This year I managed to get all the reading done in advance, so instead of a last minute scramble to catch up, I have mornings free, to live-blog, to read, and review the crits ahead of the three pieces we’ll be discussing in the formal crit session after lunch. I might even get time to write though… my room is at the back of the house and staring out of the window is a default option. Instead of a grand view across the lawns to the lake, which is the view from the other side of the house, I look out over the secret garden. It’s not so secret, but it is a lovely walled garden which lives behind a gate. This morning there’s a black cat sitting patiently at the gate. It’s been there for about half an hour.

I took this photo, turned back to my laptop to download it, and when I looked up the cat had vanished. Schrodinger’s something-or-other comes to mind.

I’m going to try to get everyone to add to this live-blog throughout the week. Watch this space.

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A First Milford by Georgina Kamsika

I’m not sure when I first heard of Milford – it was something that is just known. The Milford Writer’s Workshop. The Milford Method. They existed and I knew of them. I also knew it was for published authors, so I wasn’t quite there yet.

The first time I actually used the Milford method, or a version of it, was at Clarion West in 2012. Then again in other workshops, including ones held online.

I kept writing, and critiquing, and workshopping stories. I had stories published, a novel, some novellas. Then when I’d almost finished my third novel, a sci fi story set during a flu pandemic, an actual pandemic hit.

It wasn’t until 2021, when, post Pandemic – or the worst bit of it – that I wanted to get back out into the world. So, I attended The Milford Writer’s Workshop.

While it wasn’t my first ever workshop, it was still shiny and new in its own way. Held at the beautiful Trigonos in Wales, I was introduced back into writing society gently by the always kind Jacey Bedford who offered to drive me down.

I’m sure Jacey would be modest about it, but her fount of knowledge was the best introduction to Milford that I could have. That a long drive talking about ourselves, our writing, and Milford itself eased me back into socialising after almost two years of lockdown. Some of it was self-imposed, but necessary for the health of my friends and family.

That meant by the time I met up with the other writers, I was a little more acclimatised to people again. It was easy to chat and get to know people when surrounded by this scenery. 

As mentioned above, I’ve attended many workshops before, but once again, Milford had its own unique style. I am very used to critting quickly and concisely, whereas at Milford you are given a leisurely three whole minutes. I found myself speaking for half the time of others, and had still not quite unlearned this by the end of that week.

I came out the other end with a large number of very helpful comments and critiques while being reassured that my initial chapters had merit and that I should keep working on this novel. The best possible outcome from a workshop!

Georgina Kamsika is British Indian novelist who utilises the speculative element to examine power structures that mirror the real world. She has published a number of short stories and novellas. Her next attempt at socialising is as the UNESCO City of Literature Writer in Residence for 2022 in Wonju, South Korea.

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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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