Are you interested in the Milford SF Writer’s Conference? A year ago, I definitely was! I was in the middle of the Taos Toolbox Writer’s Workshop and couldn’t get enough of its “Milford-Style Critique” – a collaborative process in which a dozen or so writers critique each other’s stories in a circle of peers. For each story, every attendee offers 2-3 minutes of commentary (timed) to which the writer listens (quietly), at which point they may respond, followed by open discussion.
Taos Toolbox tweaks this a little bit by having two experienced authors – Walter Jon Williams and Nancy Kress – moderate the critiques. They follow student critiques with free-form critiques of their own, giving the students a role model to follow. But I still wanted to be prepared, so I looked up what Milford-Style Critique was and how to do it constructively – and while I was doing my research, I was pleased to find that the Milford SF Writer’s Conference was still going after six decades!
It seemed everyone who was anyone had been through Milford – and not just the big names, but people that I in particular admired – Neil Gaiman, Harlan Ellison, Samuel Delany, Anne McCaffrey, and more. Milford is open to published science fiction and fantasy authors, and it turned out that there were slots open for 2018 – so I applied. And got in. But I was still intimidated. I mean, all these BIG NAMES had been there. It was a BIG DEAL! I knew I was taking writing workshops to improve my craft, but what kind of game did I need to bring to Milford to effectively contribute?
I was so intimidated I didn’t know what to ask. Now that I’ve been to Milford, I know what to ask, or can at least attempt to pretend that I do for the length of a blogpost. So, without further ado, here’s what I wished I’d known about Milford.
Believe in yourself. If you are a published science fiction author, there’s no better time than the present to sign up for a workshop like Taos or Milford. If you’re not yet published, there are many other workshops like Clarion or Viable Paradise which can help you up your game. The longer you wait, the longer it will take you to get the feedback you need to become a better author than you already are. All you really need to bring to Milford is a completed story and a constructive attitude.
Relax. Yes, your favorite authors may have been to Milford, and it’s been running for more than half a century, but each year is new, and each year is a gathering of peers. Of course, Milford has a committee that guides it, and a staff that prepares for it, and a moderator that keeps everything running – but ultimately, the workshop succeeds because every author there is there not just to improve their work, but to help their fellow authors improve their work as well. You’ll see stories from first finished draft to hashtag #shipit, and your story will just add to the mix.
Prepare. If at all possible, attempt to not have any major work, academic or personal deadlines fall on you immediately prior to the conference. Milford involves reading approximately ~150,000 words of fiction from fourteen or so other authors. The sooner you get your story to them, the sooner they can critique it; the sooner that you read and critique all the other stories, the sooner you can take long walks in the countryside and/or join your fellow authors for drinks in the library.
On critiquing. Personally, I read a story once to gauge its impact, and then read it a second time to mark it up for critique. If I don’t ‘get it’, I read it a third time. Then I fill out a page or two of summary notes. Writing is an exercise in ego – you’re creating a pocket universe, after all – so I always start my critique with something positive about a story. I guarantee you, even in the story you like the least, the author did SOMETHING right! Then I list the issues I found – with the story, not the author. I try when I remember to say “the story didn’t do X” rather than “you didn’t do X” because critique is about improving the text, not insulting the author – and who knows, you may be mistaken. Even if you think the story is awesome as is, try to list the best parts of the story so the author will know what you liked – you don’t want them to accidentally change those things based on other feedback! Finally, many people send out detailed critique documents after the conference. Hopefully, I’ll get to that soon – after my twelfth anniversary vacation is over.
The moment of. Unlike Taos, which has instructions and critique mixed with each other, Milford has free mornings; the actual critique starts at 2, after lunch. The running order for critique is sent out before the conference, and there are roughly four each day, depending on how many stories everyone submitted. Each critique session goes roughly for an hour, starting with (as much as possible) someone who hasn’t started yet. Remember: breathe, be constructive in your comments, let everyone speak first if you’re the one being critiqued, and, if you feel the critique of your story was particularly harsh, chocolates are always provided.
Learn from all of it! The best part of Milford is not the critique of your story, but the chance to hear many different critiques of other stories you’ve read – stories you are not personally invested in. You’ll agree with some critiques and disagree with others, but more importantly, people will see things that you did not and suggest modes of improvement you’ve never tried. Pay close attention to that, and, if you can, take some of it with you as tools and principles to use in the future.
Milford is both English and global. Well, English-Welsh-Scottish-Irish, but, since Milford is in the UK, there’s a strong contingent of authors who come to Milford again and again, or who know each other from UK conferences during the year. That means that there’s no shortage of people who know the ropes to lend a helping hand – but never fear, there will be a lot of writers from all over the world there as well, so you will get exposure to a lot of stories and a lot of different perspectives.
Wales is far. The site of the conference is Trigonos, a beautiful educational center near Mount Snowdon in Wales. Trigonos has fields and streams and paths and sits on the shore of a lake, but while it is awesome, it is not really a hotel: there’s no room service and no real on-site laundry. (Awesome meals are served promptly on the clock – breakfast at eight, tea at eleven, lunch at one, cake-o-clock at four, and dinner at seven; be sure to alert them to your dietary requirements). Plan ahead: Trigonos is also a four-hour train ride from London, with multiple hops and a taxi required to complete the journey. Stock up: while your fellow authors with cars will be willing to take you, the nearest big-box grocery stores are 20-30 minutes away. Oh, and the weather is variable, so bring layers and an umbrella. Even if it’s nice and sunny at Trigonos during the week, layers and an umbrella will be useful on the last “free” day when groups of writers go visit castles or the countryside – because that’s when Wales likes to “reassert itself.”
That’s about it! There’s more to tell about Milford, but you can figure it out on your own. Just write your stories, get them published, and once you have – or if you have already – call the friendly people at Milford up and apply. You’ll learn a lot, make great friends, and have wonderful experiences; you definitely won’t regret it!
Anthony Francis studies human and other minds to help design intelligent machines and emotional robots. By day, he works at the Search Engine That Starts With A G, and by night he writes science fiction and draws comic books. He has very kindly offered to subsidise two places at Milford for the Writers of Colour bursary scheme. Thank you, Anthony.