Fantasycon by the Cathedral, Peterborough 2017 – A Review by Terry Jackman

Peterbro 03Peterborough. A slightly puzzling location at first sight, a mix of some rather ‘mean streets’, a very pretty shopping arcade opposite the hotel – which hosted the art exhibition – and a beautiful Medieval cathedral area beyond.

Peterbro 02Where the prettiest medieval house front I can recall housed a Pizza Hut on the ground floor. See what I mean about a mix?

The con itself was much more consistent, and of a high standard, both for content and efficient running. Many thanks to those who organised it, and a special mention for whoever designed all the gorgeous posters. I was also impressed by the double page spreads allotted to each GOH, with faces, bios and book cover images, though the programme size was unfortunate. Most people I knew resorted to ripping the day’s pages out rather than lugging it around. And I did find it odd that several pages were given to a piece of fiction, but there was no layout map, or indeed any opening times included. But that was a blip in an otherwise exemplary effort.

The event has become a contrast to say Eastercon by being increasingly geared towards writing rather than readers. I find this both a useful distinction, and an attraction. This year’s selections certainly seemed aware of that. Panels covered such topics as reviewing, critiquing, writing courses, ghostwriting, collaboration, writing for TV, audio or gaming. Then there were options such as being a business, markets, self publishing, small presses, assessing book covers, building anthologies. All good stuff for writers and/or those with related interests.

Not forgetting the workshops on such things as podcasting, world building, comedy, self-editing and writing submissions. I doubt I was alone in being impressed by the choice, and quality. For once most of the discussions I saw seemed to have been properly prepared rather than the dreaded ‘off the cuff’ variety.

Did I spend any money? I’ll own up to a little over the bar. Didn’t we all? I also spent some in the dealer room, which was a much better location than last year when the tables were so scattered some were invisible. This year’s setup was one location and even included a snack bar area; intelligent and probably a real boon to dealers who were glued to their stalls so much. I always like the secondhand stall for those forgotten gems, though I’d love to be able to buy ebooks at cons too. And ah yes, the jewellery stall…

So overall, as you can see, it was well worth the trip ‘down south’ and meeting up with friends is always the icing on the con cake, especially those I wouldn’t see otherwise. So, a great choice of things to do, places to eat, smooth organisation and a very good venue, if you didn’t mind the stairs in the hotel. Plus a crowd of cheerful, like-minded people.

Well done guys. I’d go again!

author pic 1Terry Jackman: wrote articles, study guides and actual exam papers for about ten years. She has several short stories published. Attended Milford for the first time in 2011, and several times since. Runs the BSFA Orbiters crit schemes. Her first novel, Ashamet, was published by Dragonwell Publishing in 2015, and she blogs at TerryTalk, to be found on
Twitter: @terry_jackman

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It’s the Best Novel I’ve Ever Written by Gus Smith

I recently came across my very first novel, buried away in the bottom of a drawer, 179 pages of badly-typed foolscap. It’s called And We Shall be Changed, and the page after the title page carries a quote from Ovid’s Metamorphoses. Class, I thought. I wrote it for the BBC Bookshelf/Gollancz First (Last?) Fantasy Novel Competition in 1976. At the time I could say, without fear of contradiction, ‘It’s the best novel I’ve ever written,’ because there was nothing to compare it with. By the same logic, it was also the worst, and it remains so. I doubt if the Gollancz reader who was landed with it got past page 1.

It’s an odd hotchpotch of a story, with the narrative interrupted here and there by poems, news items, upside-down writing, even songs complete with music. I hand wrote it off the top of my head. I can remember churning out page after page of weird and bizarre stuff, with a portal into another world that makes a wardrobe look like hard science. There isn’t a word of dialogue until page 39. I didn’t do any rewriting, just typed it up and sent it off.

Gus picIt took me over twenty years to get round to writing longer fiction again – my debut published novel, Feather and Bone. In the interim I’d produced a slew of plays, musicals, poems and short stories, and been to several Milfords, so I’d learned a thing or two about writing. Weird and bizarre stuff still happens, but in a more organised and purposeful sort of way. People actually talk to each other, characters have backstories and develop as the story progresses, it comes to a more-or-less satisfactory conclusion – for some. There was no doubt that it had become my new best novel.

Since then, of course, I have written other novels, and the picture is less clear cut. I like the idea of improving, of feeling that I’m getting better at my craft, but once you’ve reached a certain level of competence, brilliance or somewhere in-between, progress is more difficult to discern. Nobody regards you as ‘promising’ any more, but is your current novel better than the last one? Have you plateaued, maybe? Peaked, even, with the prospect of facing a slow decline? I find it impossible to tell. I’m too close to my own work to make an objective judgment, and I know I’m not alone in that.

What matters, ultimately, is that I should think I’m capable of improvement, and not just in the detail of work in progress – Milford-style critiquing leaves me in no doubt about that – but overall. I’d like to say, like Robert Browning’s Rabbi Ben Ezra, Grow old along with me, the best is yet to be, to tell you that my best novel is still out there, waiting to find its way onto the printed page. Or at least that it might be.


GusGus Smith spent most of his working life as a teacher in as wide a variety of schools as you could possibly imagine. He was also Chair of Ecology Building Society for a number of years, which involved non-fiction writing and broadcasting, a semi-pro folk singer for a while, ran a smallholding and raised a family with his wife Tessa. After Feather and Bone he diverted into children’s literature; writing novels, short stories and poems as Gus Grenfell. He has recently returned to adult fiction, as now, in the second half of his eighth decade, he feels a bit more grown up.


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Things I Didn’t Know When I Started to Write a Trilogy – by Jacey Bedford

Nimbus cover 400pxNimbus, the third book in my Psi-Tech trilogy is out today.

Let me say that again because I only have twenty four hours to keep repeating is and it’s one of those phrases that doesn’t get old.

Nimbus, the third book in my Psi-Tech trilogy is out today, Tuesday 3rd October 2017.

In all fairness I never intended to commit trilogy, but when I sold Empire of Dust to DAW my original three book deal it was for Empire of Dust, an unnamed sequel, and Winterwood (a fantasy and the beginning of another trilogy). My editor, the lovely Sheila Gilbert actually bought Winterwood first, but she said those words that every author is gagging to hear right after, ‘I want to buy your book,’ and that is, ‘What else have you got?’

Psi-Tech 2015 6x4smTo cut the story short, I sent her Empire, which I’d written a few years earlier as a stand-alone with potential sequels. She liked it and asked me for an outline for a follow-up. I dashed of

f a page full of ideas that turned into Crossways. Part way through writing Crossways I needed to know whether to wrap up the story arc in two volumes or whether it would run to three. I was delighted when I got the go-ahead to write a third Psi-Tech book to round off the story of Ben, Cara, and the Free Company.

If you twisted my arm to offer advice on how to write a trilogy I wouldn’t say, ‘Write one book with no future plan in mind and see what happens.’ Though that’s what I did. Of course, I’d thought about the series potential, and I already knew that Crossways was under contract before I stared extensive editorial revisions on Empire, so I was able to sit back and think about a much longer story, one that I could finish in two books if I had to, but one that would profit from being given the breathing space that you only get with a three-book-story. These are not short books. Empire is 171,000 words; Crossways is 173,000 words and Nimbus is 169,000 words. That’s over half a million words to reveal a plot that begins with a personal story – a  lone telepath on the run from corporate skulduggery in an era of interstellar colonialism – and ends with a paradigm shift. (I can’t tell you more or I’d have to shoot you. Read the books, please.)

So what didn’t I know?

I didn’t know that writing sequels is difficult and writing a sequel to the sequel is even more difficult. How much of the story of the first book do you give away in the second? How much of the first two books do you give away in the third? Many times I was tempted to start the second and third books with a chapter of the story so far, but I didn’t give in. I tended to put in way too much backstory in the first draft, and had to pare it down, sometimes relying on fellow writers in our critique group, Northwrite, to scribble: Yes! WE KNOW! In the margin of my manuscript. Hopefully all those bits have been excised.

What else?

Rookie mistake, but when I wrote Empire, I didn’t know to compile a style sheet which noted spellings of names and terms used in the book. When does Telepath have a capital letter? (Answer, when it’s a Telepath whose talent comes from having a neural implant.) Is it air lock, air-lock or airlock? Is it jumpdrive, jump-drive or jump drive? The answer is that it can be any of them, as long as what you write in the last book is consistent with what you wrote in the first. The copy editor who dealt with Empire very kindly sent a style sheet. I added to it as the cast of characters and the specialised vocabulary grew. By the time I got to the end of Nimbus, my style sheet was (well, still is) 12 pages, double columned, using 10 pitch Calibri.


I didn’t know how and when to kill off characters. I’m no George RR Martin about to drop the headsman’s axe on the neck of a beloved character, or wipe out a family at a wedding, but without losing some characters, the threat to the others wouldn’t seem real. I’m too soft. One of my characters died and was resurrected about three times (not in the plot, but in several early drafts) and he still made it to the end of the third book.

And then there’s the problem of writing about sex in a stable relationship.

OK, not exactly a problem, but I started Cara and Ben’s relationship backwards. They had unwise sex as strangers (in the very first chapter of the first book, so I’m not giving you much of a spoiler) but grew past it – and that was only the first book. So the romance sub-plot had to leave will-they-won’t-they? far behind (because they already had). I introduced Ben at the beginning of the first book, and he grew to be an equal viewpoint character with his own story arc. His problems intersected with Cara’s and they solved them together… eventually.

Rounding off.

I’m a sucker for circular plots and for actions growing logically from earlier actions rather than happening for the convenience of the author. I was a little worried about the motivation of one of my antagonists and the answer didn’t hit me until the very last revision of the very last book. I was one of those oh, yeah! moments, so logical that I wondered why I hadn’t planned it from the beginning. And then I realised that even if I had I wouldn’t have written anything differently, because I wouldn’t have wanted to spoil that final reveal. It still worked anyway.

Sometimes luck is on your side.


 jacey-novacon-2012-300pxsquJacey Bedford is a British writer from Yorkshire with over thirty short stories and five (so far) novels to her credit. She lives behind a desk in an old stone house on the edge of the Pennines with her husband and a long-haired, black German Shepherd – that’s a dog not an actual shepherd from Germany. She’s the hon. sec. of Milford SF Writers’ Conference, held annually in North Wales.


Jacey’s books:
Empire of Dust (Psi-Tech series #1)
Crossways  (Psi-Tech series #2)
Nimbus  (Psi-Tech series #3)
Winterwood (Rowankind #1)
Silverwolf (Rowankind #2)

Follow Jacey:
Twitter: @jaceybedford

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Creating Aliens by Deborah Walker

When I first started writing, I read Orson Scott Card’s advice about creating aliens in How to Write Science Fiction and Fantasy. Card discusses developing the evolution of the distinct biology of an alien species, and how that imagined evolutionary process informs both an individual’s thoughts and actions and the aliens’ culture.
That was advice I could really sink my teeth into. I’ve written a fair few aliens since then, always thinking about that advice, but with an added aspect: stealing blatantly from Mother Nature

My aliens are based on the reality, the science we currently understand. The starting point for one of my other races is often an earth creature, sometimes more than one as I pick and mix. The diversity of Earth’s species is astonishing. There are, to my mind, some truly strange creatures out there.

Adult Vampire Squid attribution © Citron / CC BY-SA 3.0

Adult vampire squid

Earth Organisms I’ve Used in My Alien Building

My Alien Building Process

I use Wikipedia as a research resource. I know some writers are critical of Wikipedia as a tool, but I like it. I find it gives plenty of detail and there are always links to other resources if you need to expand your research.

First you need to select your base creature(s).

You could start with the alien, at which point you’re free rein to plunder the Earth. For example, I’ve always wanted to create aliens riffing off the reproductive biology of fungi, which is very different to mammalian reproductive biology. (By the way, that doesn’t make me strange or anything.)

Or have may have story in mind and need a creature to fit. The Kanzai are an alien race written in the shared world of the SF online strategy game The Dark Expanse. So, there were already a few known facts about them: they were slug-like, they were semi-aquatic; they were reported to have mind-powers. I quickly found the story I wanted to write: a colonization story, charting the fall of the original Kanzai civilisation and the downfall of my main character. So I went straight to the slug and sea slug section of Wikipedia.

I like to copy and paste Wikipedia into my document and delete the text as I read. For the Kanzai I downloaded 60 thousand words on slugs, sea slugs and on specific species of sea slug that caught my eye. (I know that’s a lot. It’s my process. I bet your mileage varies.)

I read through the text, looking for details that will work for my alien. I did this concurrently while writing the story. So that details of Kanzai biology and culture informed the story, and the needs of the plot informed the details I chose.

Real life Details I Used for the Kanzai

Some species of sea slug have feathery external gills. The Kanzai are amphibious, so I made these delicate gills retractable on land, and gave them lungs. Lungs are useful if you want to speak to species without mind powers.

Slugs have a moist skin, for extended periods out of water the Kanzai use bathing pools.

Slugs and other gastropods undergo an incredible process in their development, rotating their internal organs 180 degrees. In the Kanzai this organ rotation occurs at adolescence and is linked to the emergence of their mind powers.

Sea Slugs lay a lot of eggs, an evolutionary advantage when eggs and young are consumed by predators. The Kanzai also lay a lot of eggs, but when they developed mind powers they exterminated their predators. The continual influx of youngsters became a species disadvantage as the Kanzai threatened to consume their world’s resources. Kanzai society developed a process of culling 90% of their adolescents. This is an example of cultural world building that comes directly from Kanzai biology and their imagined evolutionary history.

Additional Thoughts When Making Aliens

It doesn’t have to be a multicellular creature, I copied the multiple genome from the charmingly nick named Conan bacteria, to give post-humans a similar tolerance to radiation.

If your aliens evolved on a non-Earth-like world, Mother Nature can still help you. Extremophiles are a group of creatures living in what we would be consider a hostile environment.

If I’m writing from the point of view of an alien, I always try to empathise with that culture. (Your mileage may vary on this one)

To a human the idea of killing off 90% of our children when they enter adolescence is outrageous, unconscionable. But to the Kanzai it’s a normal process, part of their belief system. And who’s to say who’s right. I’m not Kanzai. (But that’s not to say that outsider characters can’t comment on those practices, and there’s always the odd troublemaker who doesn’t like the status quo.)

When creating an alien species, you’ll need to pick and choose the details you want to explore. You don’t need to go into every aspect of their biology, because living organisms are incredibly complex. A complete picture of microscopic and macroscopic detail could expand to fill textbooks of alien physiology. I try to use details that tie into the themes of my story, and/or give colour to the story.

You may find fascinating detail that just don’t fit the story you want to tell. During my research I learnt of the penis fencing habits of flatworms. (I don’t make this up). I considered it, but, sadly, I decided not to include that detail to the Kanzai.

I’m sure that there’s more than one way to write an alien. But this is mine. Mother Nature has written a lot of potential stories into the bodies of the creatures, plants and other living creatures that share our world. It’s one of my favourite parts of being a writer, creating imagined creatures from the strangeness of reality.


WALKER-bio shotDeborah Walker grew up in the most English town in the country, but she soon high-tailed it down to London, where she now lives with her partner, Chris, and her two teenage children. Her stories have appeared in Fantastic Stories of the Imagination, Nature’s Futures, Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet and The Year’s Best SF 18 and have been translated into over a dozen languages.

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The Milford Write Up for 2017

Contributors: Suyi Davies Okungbowa, Dolly Garland, Mark Isles and Steph Bianchini


Setting: Trigonos Centre, Nantlle Valley, Wales
In the beautiful Trigonos centre, under the cover of clouds and rains and occasional bursts of sunshine, fifteen writers gathered together for one week of respite from the regular world. It is understood that most of what happens in Trigonos, stays in Trigonos. But for posterity purposes and for future generations we write this report to give a flavour of some of the things that transpired at Milford 2017. We thank Val Nolan for (unwittingly) donating his story-style for the creation of this document.

Dolly Garland (First generation recipient of the writers of colour bursary & all-around troublemaker): When a fellow Milfordian you’ve never met agrees to give you a lift from London and willing to spend four plus hours in a car with you, you know these folks are all right. Or possibly that you may end up in a car with a complete nutcase. Susan Oke thankfully wasn’t a nutcase. I am not sure if she can say the same about me. The whole week devoted to thinking only about writing has been a sheer luxury. There has been high quality work, great productivity, mind-blowing conversations and sheer lunacy. Muddy trousers too, as I battled imaginary orks during a trip to Mordor (aka slate quarry) with Vaughan Stanger, and traversed across the landscape to map out the lake on my fitbit. And while attempting to play a joke on Phil Suggars, I ended up being on the Milford committee to help out with social media. Tiffani Angus called it karma. I regret calling her wise now.

Suyi Davies Okungbowa (Youngest Milfordian this year, recipient of writers of colour bursary, aspiring beardgang member, snitch on the weekends–if Dolly’s to be believed): There’s got to be one Dolly in every room, I guess; every gathering needs that energy, and Dolly really packs it. Though the other thirteen also bring different aspects of themselves to the table, there’s three things all fifteen of us can agree about the trifecta of Milford + Trigonos + Nantlle: the views are breathtaking, the food turns out to be absolutely fabulous, and everyone’s real kind and thoughtful and awesome (even during crits!)

Steph P. Bianchini (One of four New Milfordians of 2017. She watched too much SF Horror as a kid): Somebody should inform prospective Milfordians about the real and substantial dangers of induced insomnia. They’re real even if in your home settings you sleep as a baby (I do). Instead, here you’ll probably spend many nights checking out your phone or staring at your ceiling. No, they don’t put anything strange in your food (you wish), and the sky doesn’t offer many opportunities for deep-sky observations (it might, not being so clouded). It’s that your brain, after the hyperstimulation of the day, stubbornly refuses to switch off and keeps going into loops as if it were at a holiday theme park. Things get even worse if you have a critique the day after: last night, I briefly considered Val Nolan’s Immortal Hero Pillow Cryo-Option, deciding straight away it was not such a good idea (no tentacles). I decided to settle for the mammoth “Games-of-Thrones-in-Mediaeval-History” The Accursed Kings: endless descriptions of XIII century French brocade dresses do work miracles with tired minds. Consider yourself warned, and bring over your more abstruse and boring texts of choice for emergency sleeping remedies.

Sara K. Ellis (First time Milfordian channeling messages from Trigonos toaster, now reimagining itself as a haiku generator).

Slot 1
That cake on the board
Brown, smelling of cinnamon
All those chocolates

Slot 2
Time spell overheard
War breaks out over warm toast
It’s burnt anyway

Slot 3
Crowding on the steps
Hope no one crop dusts and leaves
We’ll know who it is

Slot 4
The last crit is done
Robot has midlife crisis
Oh, that slidey eye

Mark Iles (Milford virgin and relative of Uncle Albert from ‘Only Fools and Horses’ – constantly dreaming of cheeseburgers)
Rarely eating chocolate I came bouncing full of joy to Milford only to find myself recovering from a self-induced chocolate overdose, severe insomnia, and now an aversion to cake. If I never see a slice of the latter again I’ll be a happy man. I have to admit to having extreme  fantasies of chicken and steak … then more chicken. Just not chocolate covered…

The Overlords: From the contributions above it seems that this Milford malarkey may be worth continuing with. Perhaps by talking to one another about dragons and spaceships, these weirdos may get it out of their systems, and spare the outside world. Of course there is always the risk that it could go the other way and they may end up egging each other on and move on to time travel and women who lead battles. But it’s a risk we are willing to take, because at least by putting them in one place, we know where to find them.

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Live Blogging from Milford: Friday 15th September – 5.30 p.m.

Jacey Bedford

This will probably be my last live blog from Milford for this year. The hard work is over. Today we’ve been to Caernarfon for a mooch around the castle and lunch at the Anglesea Arms. Though the weather forecast was not great there was only one short shower and this afternoon the sun came out.

caernarfon-2This was Suyi’s first look at a proper British castle and he took masses of photos and got a quick history lesson from Terry to put it into context.

Lunch was delightful. On short notice they shoved tables together to accommodate all of us and we (nearly) all chose meat of some kind. Several people had the burgers. I had gammon, Terry had lamb shank. After a week of healthy eating and set menus we really enjoyed the variety. Though we resisted pudding.

We had a quick race round the shops after lunch and I may or may not have made a purchase which was very rash and I may have to introduce it into the Bedford household with a discussion about the value of art. It is something I’ve looked at for a few years now, and not bought. However, this year…

Suyi Nantlle valley smWe stopped on the road back to Trigonos for the perfect photo opportunity – a view up the Nantlle Valley towards Snowdon. Suyi immediately leaped out of the car to capture it.

We arrived back at Trigonos at cake o’clock – lemon cake this time – and found Jackie waiting for us with her husband. She’d hung around to say goodbye. It always feels weird once people start to leave. We’ve become more than a tight knit group after seven days together–we’re almost family. Tomorrow people will be leaving immediately after breakfast and Milford 2017 will slide gently into the place where we keep good memories.

Milford 2018 is almost fully booked already (2 places left) and on Saturday 16th September we open the booking for Milford 2019. Several people from this year’s Milford have already said they are coming. As usual we’ll ringfence five places for Milford first-timers.

We’ve been building up the Milford bursary fund. If you are in need of financial assistance to attend and if you’ve never attended a Milford before and feel you could not only benefit, but also contribute, please get in touch. We particularly encourage writers of colour, but bursaries (full or part) could also be available on the grounds of need.

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Live Blogging from Milford: Thursday 14th September – 10.00 p.m.

Liz Williams

We are now well into the Writers’ Tears whisky, having just gone through the Milford Marketing Meeting. Where to send your precious piece? What to do? What to write next? The Milford MM collective hive mind will tell you and give you chocolate. We have now come to the end of the workshop: Thousand Yard Stares all round. Outside, Wales is being particularly wet. There are plans for tomorrow involving chips, pubs, and strong liquor. Milford 2017 is complete; we have all bonded. What an exceptional experience this has been, and every year brings something new – this time, HIT training. Not only are our brains expanded; our muscles are too.

Dolly Garland

We are in the library, all sitting together, people chatting about all sorts of stuff. There is real warm feeling now. I went around the room, taking photos, and feel as if in one week these people have become special to me. They have. Even if some of us drift apart (I hope not), we will always have this week. This amazing, productive week where we got to know one another, learned more of who we are, shared personal stories, and more importantly shared our writing, and our hopes for how we see ourselves as writer developing. It’s been an incredible week, and once again I feel fortunate to be a part of Milford.


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