Milford came at a critical time for me – real make or break stuff. It was the year when I knew I’d have to decide whether I was cut out for this science fiction lark.
The year was 1998. I’d made my first sale nine years earlier. After a long apprenticeship collecting rejection slips it had felt like a significant breakthrough and I was excited when my first pair of stories appeared the year after. I sold two more in relatively quick succession and the reaction to that first clutch of stories was positive enough to provide some encouragement. I felt myself to be cautiously on the up: I had a novel in progress, and ideas for more. Some of my immediate peers were starting to get book deals and attention from international markets. I felt that if only I stuck at it, the same rewards might start coming my way.
But quite unexpectedly my career faltered. After that initial blip of sales I had a run of lean years during which I couldn’t sell anything. After a string of rejections I eventually found my way back into the magazines, but with only a story or two a year it was hardly a blistering return to prominence. My massive gothic space opera novel had ground to a halt, too. I had finished a draft of it, but I knew there were major structural problems and I couldn’t find the energy or the enthusiasm to start picking through the entrails. I was treading water and feeling insecure about my prospects. One or two editors liked my stuff but the rest of the world seemed indifferent.
I can’t remember when I signed up for Milford, but I do remember that the conference lay many, many months in the future and that there was no great concern on my part about having some material to take with me. Surely there would be ample time to produce one or two stories for workshopping?
I should have known better, though, because the year marched on and somewhere around the late summer I felt the icy claws of panic beginning to take hold. Never mind, there was still time! My wife’s work had taken us to Spain for a couple of weeks. While she took care of a conference, I holed myself up in our hotel room with coffee, one C90 cassette containing two Can albums, a laptop, and tried to nail down a story. It was a biggie, one I’d been struggling with for a long time.
The inspiration of the story was simple enough. I’d long had a fondness for the kind of narrative which tries to fold a novel’s worth of events into a few (or a dozen or so) thousand words. Ian Macdonald had recently written a great story called “The Days of Solomon Gursky” which took a present-day protagonist and catapulted them through a series of ever more weird future vistas, finally reaching a vaulting cosmological climax. I had just published a story in Interzone which could conceivably belong to the same future history as my second one, and which might just share the same background as the semi-dead novel. I had begun to think about a grand, over-arching story in the “Solomon Gursky” vein, to tie the whole lot into one grand, explicit future.
The problem was that while I had a sense of the scope of the story, I was having trouble nailing down those small particulars like plot, character, point of view, and so on. The story went through endless aborted versions while I struggled to find the right way to tell it.
But somehow or other I pulled together a draft, and it was this that I took with me to Milford. I’m not even sure if it had a title at that point. Being quite long- about thirteen thousand words, I think – it was the only story I presented at the workshop. Others brought two or more somewhat shorter pieces and in hindsight I would suggest that this is much the better approach, especially if those individual pieces are quite distinct.
It was a horrible, rain-lashed day when I flew into the UK and caught the train down to Devon. There were delays and service cancellations owing to flooding, and the journey took far longer than anticipated. The troubled weather echoed my mood. As excited as I was by the idea of the workshop, I was more than a bit apprehensive about meeting lots of other writers for the first time. Although I’d been publishing for eight years, I still knew hardly anyone in the field. Since I was living abroad at the time, I didn’t go to SF conventions or meetings and I had very little idea of how other writers related to their peers. A few of the Milford writers were people whose work I’d read and enjoyed already, but I’d met none of them.
I needn’t have worried. Although it was my first Milford, and there were some old-hands in attendance, I was quickly made to feel very welcome. Tea and biscuits helped break the ice. Gradually more people arrived, each having experienced some sort of epic journey, but by some miraculous turn the weather started improving and for the rest of the week – as I remember it – it was actually relatively pleasant, enabling a number of walks down to the nearby beach, overlooked by the dramatic red cliffs of the south Devon coast.
It was good to get out of the house when we could. Reading and critiquing each other’s stories took a lot of time and energy. Reading is easy: reading and having something useful to say, not so much. I’ve always found that two or three readings are necessary if you’re going to make any sort of informed critical commentary. It was all right with the shorter pieces, but some – like mine – were getting on for novelette or novella length.
Reading stories in manuscript form is a very different thing to reading the finished product within the authoritative frame of a magazine. Your own work looks unpolished, provisional – a little tentative and unsure of itself. But – as you quickly discover – so do all the other stories. The reading experience then becomes very liberating and democratic. I tried to treat each story as seriously as the last, and I’m sure my fellow workshoppers brought the same intention to their reading. What looks scrappy and unfinished as few sheets of photocopied paper might be only a draft away from greatness. As we gathered in a loose circle of armchairs in the main room, I think we all strove to give honest, conscientious criticism. For my own part, I soon realised that there was no point pretending to like or understand a story if it hadn’t worked for me. Pretty clearly, not everyone liked my story as well. The important thing was to give feedback in a constructive and friendly spirit, without presuming to know better than the writer what their story should have looked like. I do remember some stories being more or less liked, and some stories more or less disliked, but at no point do I remember anyone being put down or belittled, or being upset by the process. More tea and biscuits soon soothed any bruised egos, if there were any. It was a shrewd move to bring more than one piece of work along to the workshop. I just wish I’d had the good sense to do so myself.
We all parted as friends, and years later I still enjoy bumping into my Milford colleagues when our paths cross at science fiction events. For my own part, I returned home a little overloaded by the spread of opinions I’d received on my story. I quickly realised that while these individual responses might all have some validity, there was no possible way to address them all without rupturing the story completely. So another lesson was in the quiet art of ignoring perfectly sensible and intelligent criticism. Ultimately a story exists because of some germinal idea or intersection of ideas; it derives from a private creative impulse. It may well be improved after being opened up to outside criticism, but the writer should never lose sight that the story is theirs, and that they had a vision in mind at the outset. Criticism is useful, but a story that pleased everyone probably wouldn’t speak deeply or urgently to any single reader. Better to write a piece that really electrifies one reader, even if it bores or bewilders others, than an inoffensively pleasant story that ticks a set of majority boxes. There’s enough of that about as it is.
Where my story sat on that continuum between pleasant and electrifying, I’m not too sure. After I’d had some time away, I sat down and reworked it rather boldly. The finished piece – by then titled “Galactic North” found a home in Interzone, gained splendid illustrations, and has been reprinted a number of times. When I put out my second collection, this was the title story. To this day it will always be my Milford piece and I remain immensely grateful to my fellow workshoppers for their reading and criticism.
ALASTAIR REYNOLDS is one of Britain’s leading science fiction authors. His first novel, Revelation Space, was a critical success, shortlisted for the BSFA and Clarke Awards. That was followed by eighteen further novels and story collections (or nineteen if you count his Dr Who tie in novel, Harvest of Time). His most recent book is Shadow Captain (2019), the sequel to Revenger, a brisk, distant future caper novel set in the rubble of a ruined solar system, and concerning itself with two sisters who want a little adventure in their lives, and get much, much more than they bargained for. A third book in the same universe, Bone Silence, is upcoming.