The first time I came across Milford, I didn’t know what it was. This was October 1998, and I’d just completed a week long workshop/course called One Step Beyond, or OSB. As I was leaving the Devon hotel-with-a-superficial-resemblance-to-Fawlty-Towers where OSB had been held, Milford Class of ’98 were arriving.
OSB was a residential writing week designed and run by writer Liz Holliday for people who wanted to write SFF but hadn’t done much about it yet. Every morning Liz took us through skills we’d need – world-building, characterisation, story structure and suchlike – using writing exercises with an SFF slant to explore the topic. Critiquing using the ‘Milford technique’ happened in the afternoon; not that we knew that was what we were doing. Liz just told us to give succinct feedback to the writer whose story was being discussed, one at a time, while the writer stayed silent; when everyone else had spoken the writer could respond, after which we all chipped in and discussed ways to improve the story.
I cried when my story was critted; not because I was upset that my fellow workshoppers had failed to appreciate my true genius but because I was embarrassed. My story got critted on the final afternoon, and after an intensive week of learning I could see just what a dog’s dinner it was. OSB was a life-changing experience, and not just for me: of the seven of us who attended two have since had many short stories professionally published (Mike Lewis and Vaughan Stanger) while two of us, myself and Karen Traviss went on to become ‘filthy rotten pros’.
Leaving the hotel after that amazing week I remember seeing the first of the Milford intake arrive, and someone saying that if we worked hard, we too could attend this mythical event, the next step after our one step beyond.
That next step happened to me in 2003, after I had put what I’d learnt at OSB into practice and sold a few short stories to good markets – the paycheque from one of these sales, to Alfred Hitchcocks’s Mystery Magazine, was enough to pay for that first Milford. It was the final Milford in York, held in a dingy basement, but I didn’t care about the surroundings: it was brilliant. Other people on the same path as me gave honest feedback on two of my stories, both of which subsequently sold.
The next year Milford moved to the the idyllic setting of Trigonos, where it has settled in well. I love North Wales, and the beautiful surroundings combined with a reduced amount of reading during the week (thanks to the wonder of email) makes Milford at Trigonos something of a holiday – albeit a working one, as the crits are incisive and detailed, and with the week normally fully subscribed there’s a lot of stories to get through.
Trigonos has some minor downsides. For those without a car, it’s challenging to get to, though I’m fine with a long drive as long as I can listen to Radio 4. I’m also unworried by the wholesome veggie diet, as my diet is already meat-free, if not always wholesome. Those needing a meat fix can sneak off of a morning to Beddgelert, where the illicit pleasure taken in the generous bacon baps served at the Glendwr Cafe lead to the invention of a new word – the Porkgasm. Trigonos also lacks a bar, which we made up for by buying the local Co-op out of wine boxes and replacing the Milford tradition of buying a drink for the writer whose story you gave the harshest crit to with the new tradition of giving them chocolate instead.
I say ‘harshest’ crit because critting only works if you are honest. I’ve I got a bit of a rep for giving, shall we say, brutally honest crits, and I took to bringing family-size tins of Roses, ready to shower my target with consolatory sweeties. I’ve been on the receiving end of some harsh crits too; after a session which featured the (well-deserved) panning of a story which will never see the light of day again, I stalked off in a (faux) huff and threw myself in the lake. Fortunately that was one of the warmer years.
I’ve attended five Milfords at Trigonos, the last one in 2013. Aside from the initial change in location, the main change I’ve seen in my decade of Milford is the week’s growing popularity, with all 15 places filled many months in advance. Some writers have become Milford regulars, and there has been discussion of whether this is a good thing; these days, in an effort to encourage new blood, regulars are asked not to attend for three consecutive years, and some places are held over for first-timers. Any journeyman writer of SFF who wants to improve should take the chance to attend Milford if they can. Milford is going from strength to strength: long may it continue.
Jaine Fenn studied linguistics and astronomy to a level just high enough to be able to fake it and worked in IT just long enough to never trust computers again. She is the author of numerous published short stories and of the Hidden Empire series of space opera novels, published by Gollancz. She also teaches creative writing and is currently writing for the video games industry.