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.
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.