Milford Works by Vaughan Stanger

Unless you’re an established writer with a multi-novel deal – and perhaps even for those blessed folk too – a little recognition can go a long way. So when in early January I read that my short story ‘Insider Art’ had made it onto the longlist for the BSFA Awards (2016) Shorter Fiction category, I was elated, not least because it’s only my second appearance in the fifteen years since my first appearance in print or pixels. Needless to say, I was all over social media faster that you can say “click to post”, announcing my joy to all and sundry (both of you). Then, when I – doubtless unwisely – posted my good news on the Milford Yahoo group, I received congratulations from several of my peers plus an unsubtle hint from Jacey Bedford of this parish that I might consider doing some research to find out which other nominees had attended Milford – and that it might serve as a basis of a Milford blog post. And that’s how the trap was baited…

Purely as an aside – this really isn’t an attempt at self-promotion (honest) – ‘Insider Art’ was  given a good seeing-to at the 2013 Milford Conference, where it bore the title ‘Extrusion’. I subsequently revised it…extensively. In November 2015, Wendy Delmater Thies, editor-in-chief of the long-running webzine Abyss & Apex, sent me the magic email. The story was published in April 2016. Anyway, I digress…

Prompted by Jacey, I have scoured the Milford alumni list also the Success Stories page, searching for matches to the BSFA Awards longlists. I’m not going to pretend that this process was perfect – the attendance lists for some of the older Milfords remain to be unearthed, assuming they can ever be found. But in the meantime, these are my findings.

Best Novel

  • (Stephen Baxter** &) Alastair Reynolds       The Medusa Chronicles
  • Chris Beckett                                                  Daughter of Eden
  • Christopher Priest                                        The Gradual
  • Alastair Reynolds                                          Revenger
  • Al Robertson                                                   Waking Hell
  • Charles Stross                                                 The Nightmare Stacks

(18% Milford penetration.)

** As far as I know, Stephen Baxter has not attended a Milford.

Best Shorter Fiction 

  • Ian Creasey                                                     No Strangers Any More
  • Ian Creasey                                                     The Language of Flowers
  • Jaine Fenn                                                       Liberty Bird (Milford 2013)
  • Una McCormack                                            Taking Flight
  • Vaughan Stanger                                           Insider Art (Milford 2013)
  • Bruce Sterling                                                 Pirate Utopia

(23% Milford penetration)

Best Non-Fiction       

  • John Clute                                                       Scores column, articles published in 2016
  • Paul Kincaid                                                   This is Science Fiction?
  • Geoff Ryman                                                  100 African Writers of SFF

(25% Milford penetration)

Also, although not nominated directly, it is worth noting that two Milford alumni had books published in 2016 with covers that have been nominated in the Artworks category.

David Clements                                              David Hardy’s cover for ‘Disturbed Universes’ (David tells me that at least two of the stories in his collection survived trial-by-Milford.)

Alastair Reynolds                                           Chris Moore’s cover for ‘The Iron Tactician’

Last but not least, David Langford’s Ansible Editions published Rob Hansen’s ‘THEN: Science Fiction Fandom in the UK 1930-1980’, which is listed in the nonfiction category.


So, what can we conclude from the above?

Well, for a start: Milford works!

Also, 2013 was a good year… eventually.

The Milford legacy lasts for life.

And finally…

Milford works!

(Rinse and repeat)

So, there you have it. Conclusive proof that… Okay, excessive repetition is a writerly vice, as I’ve been told more than once.

All that remains for me to say is this: if you’re a BSFA member, don’t forget to vote for your (maximum of four) favourites in each category. No, they don’t have to be by Milford alumni. Voting for Round 2, which will determine the shortlists, ends on 31 January. The details and full longlists can be found here:

Good luck to all the nominees!


vaughan-stangerVaughan Stanger. Briefly an astronomer and more recently a research project manager in an aerospace company, Vaughan Stanger now writes SF and fantasy fiction for a living. His stories have appeared in Daily Science Fiction, Abyss & Apex, Postscripts, Nature Futures and Interzone.  He has released two collections,  ‘Moondust Memories’ and ‘Sons of the Earth & Other Stories’, both of which available on Amazon. Like many writers, he loves cats; contrarily, he refuses to be owned by one. You can follow his writing adventures at or on Twitter @VaughanStanger.


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So What Has Milford Ever Done for Me? by Jacey Bedford

silverwolf-final-cvr-smMy new book is out today!

Hang on, let me say that again, because it never gets old.

My new book – my fourth – is out today, 3rd January 2017.

For the longest time I worried that I would never sell a short story. Then when I’d sold one of those, I worried that I’d never sell a novel. I used to think: If only I can sell one book, just one book, I’ll be satisfied.

Yeah, right.

I was suffering from a poverty of expectation. In other words I’d set my sights firmly on the bottom rung of the ladder and no further. Lots of my writer friends from Milford, my contemporaries, had got themselves book deals before I did, some spectacularly. Alastair Reynolds, Liz Williams, Kari Sperring, Jaine Fenn, Ben Jeapes…

group98Milford 1998
L-R Back row: Jacey Bedford, Kat Patrick, Ben Jeapes, Chris Amies, Patricia Wrede, Liz Williams, Cherith Baldry. Front row: Alastair Reynolds, Steve Kilbane, Pauline Dungate.

VLUU P1200  / Samsung P1200

Milford 2016: L-R standing: John Moran, Dave Gullen, Terry Jackman, David Allan, Guy T Martland, Jim Anderson, Liz Williams, Jacey Bedford, Glen Mehn, Elizabeth Counihan, Lizzy Priest. Seated L-R: Sue Thomason, Amy Tibbetts, Paulina Morgan, Siobhan McVeigh.

While waiting for my break I’d done all the usual things: kept writing novels even though they were not being published; searched for and found an agent (and lost her again when she got out of the agenting business); kept sending out novels to publishers’ slushpiles while looking for a new agent. Then I got lucky. A writer I’d met at Milford gave me an introduction to her editor. I was still in the slushpile, but maybe slightly closer to the recognised end of it.

Finally (in 2013) I got the message that I’d been waiting half a lifetime for. Sheila Gilbert from DAW emailed me and said: I want to buy your book, when can I phone you? It was 6.00 on a Wednesday evening, and the novel in question was Winterwood. I stared at the email for a few frozen moments, excitement bubbling up inside me. I started to type: I’ll be at my desk all day Thursday when the realisation struck me. If it was 6.00 in the UK it would still only be 1.00 in New York. I’m in now, I typed. The phone rang almost as soon as I hit send.

Everything happened quite quickly after that. Within a week I had a new agent – the lovely Amy Boggs from Donald Maass Literary in New York. Shortly after that I had a three book deal with DAW. I’d been worrying about selling one book and now I’d sold three. Of course I still had to write one of them from scratch, but I could do that. Of course I could. I was a real author, now. Real, I tell you. REAL!

My poverty of expectation had been blown out of the window.

One of Sheila’s first questions was: What else have you got? She was pleased to discover that I wrote science fiction as well as fantasy. She bought Empire of Dust, a space opera which, in embryonic form, I’d taken to my first ever Milford in 1998. She then ordered a sequel to Empire, which became Crossways, and the third book in the three book deal was the one she’d bought first, Winterwood, a historical fantasy set in 1801.

Empire of Dust (Psi-Tech #1) came out in 2014, Crossways (Psi-Tech #2) in 2015 and Winterwood (Rowankind #1) in 2016. My agent negotiated a follow-on deal and now my fourth book, Silverwolf (Rowankind #2) is out today and Nimbus (Psi-Tech #3) is due in October 2017.


I very much doubt I’d have my book deals if it wasn’t for Milford. All my published books – their first few chapters at least – have been subjected to the Milford process, and all of them are better for it. I learned a lot about publishing and story markets from the after-dinner socialising, and made invaluable connections. It was still a long process. Overnight success (from my first short story sale to my first published novel) still took sixteen years, but if I’d not had the help and encouragement from other writers (friendships made via Milford) I might never have stayed the course.

Thank you Milford.

jacey-novacon-2012-300pxsquJacey Bedford is the hon. sec. of Milford. She’s been attending since 1998. She’s a British writer from Yorkshire with over thirty short stories and four (so far) novels to her credit. She lives behind a desk in an old strone 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.




Follow Jacey:
Twitter: @jaceybedford



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Unforeseen Consequences by Sandra Unerman

If I hadn’t been to Milford, I might never have become an MA. When I retired after thirty-four years as a Government lawyer, I wanted to work hard at my writing of fiction, as I’d not had the time or energy to do before. But I did not want to work in complete isolation. When I started to write, a long time ago, I had assumed that that was the way to do it, that my efforts should be shown to nobody until I was completely satisfied with them. My first visit to a Milford workshop, in 2000, helped persuade me otherwise. I was almost too nervous to go. But when I made it there, I found the experience thoroughly encouraging. By then, the atmosphere had mellowed since the early days described by Chris Priest. The basic framework was the same but nobody made a big fuss about the rules or tried to tell anyone else how to rewrite their work.


The late David Rain who wrote as Tom Arden

I’ve been back to Milford several times since then but as I thought about retirement, I was looking for something more extensive. I discovered that Middlesex University was offering an MA in Creative Writing, with a specialist strand in Fantasy and Science Fiction. I wasn’t sure whether an academic approach would help me develop my fiction or kill it off altogether. But the course supervisor was David Rain. He had been one of the other participants at my first Milord and his feedback had always been perceptive and interesting. I went to talk to David and decided to give the MA a go.

I can’t recommend that particular course at Middlesex because it’s no longer available. I’m sure courses at different universities provide different experiences. Even so, some of what made my course worthwhile for me must also apply elsewhere.

At the most basic level, like Milford, the Middlesex course provided a chance to meet and talk to other writers about technique and ideas, not to mention book recommendations. And it’s always intriguing to read other people’s work in progress, even if, or especially if, it’s not the kind of thing I would normally tackle.

My creative impulses were not suffocated by the academic aspects of the course. Instead, I was pushed into trying things I would never have tackled on my own, with positive results. Writing for the screen, for example, has never been an ambition of mine. But the exercise of telling a story through action and images capable of being filmed had benefits I could apply to other kinds of narrative. For the novel writing section, Farah Mendlesohn got us all to provide a 90,000 word draft in three months, starting from scratch. I learned a lot from that and from the resulting discussions led by Farah.

The tutor for SF short stories was Rob Shearman. I’ve always found short stories harder to tackle than longer work but the sessions with Rob helped me grasp the different approach needed. I’ve had a number of short stories published since I graduated and I don’t quite so often receive feedback along the lines of ‘This doesn’t quite work as a story but would make a great start to a novel.’

The MA course led on to more connections with writing networks. I continue to meet a few of my fellow students once a month in a critiquing group, where we try keep roughly to the Milford system. (If anyone within reach of North London is interested in joining us, do get in touch.) I am also a member of the London Clockhouse Writers’ Workshop, led by Allen Ashley, which is not a critiquing group but a chance to look at market opportunities and to discuss themes and ideas. This has no direct connection to the MA or to Milford but I doubt I would have found it without them.

David Rain’s early death was a great loss to everyone who knew him.  I shall always be particularly grateful to him for drawing me into the MA course.


sandra-unermanSandra Unerman is a retired Government lawyer who lives on the northern fringe of London. Many years ago, she had an Arthurian fantasy published as a YA novel. Since then, she has published a number of short stories, including stories recently in Midnight Circus and Detectives of the Fantastic, vol. IV. She has a draft of another novel for which she is seeking a publisher. She is a member of the Folklore Society and the Historical Novel Society.

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Twenty Random Book Suggestions

At this year’s Milford we talked–a lot. Most of the talk was about writing, but, of course, you can’t really talk about writing without also talking about books. Here’s a random selection of books recommended from one writer to another. I asked writers to briefly say why they’d recommended this particular title. It’s not intended to be a ‘best of’ list. It may give you some ideas for Christmas presents or tempt you to add to your own wish list.

  1. admiralAdmiral, by Sean Danker (Recommended by Jacey Bedford)
    Evagardian Series #1
    Four cryo-sleepers wake on a strange vessel in space, the first three are rookie Evagardian military personnel and the last is an admiral – or so it says on his sleeper. He’s as surprised about this as the other three are. This is a get-me-out-of-here story paced like a race over hurdles. Problem after problem besets our quartet at breakneck speed. Think: The Martian meets James Bond.
  2. Ancillary trilogy, by Ann Leckie (Recommended by Sue Thomason)
    (ANCILLARY JUSTICE, ANCILLARY MERCY, ANCILLARY SWORD). The protagonist is the only surviving fragment of a multiple-human-body-plus-spaceship-core AI – and an embodiment of virtue. Lots of really interesting stuff about ethics and free will. Some people find it bothersome that the protagonist refers to all sentients as “she” – as an AI, she doesn’t really grok gender, and her mother tongue either doesn’t mark gender or defaults to “she”. I didn’t find it anything like as intrusive as the people of Winter all being referred to as “he” in THE LEFT HAND OF DARKNESS; possibly because I’m female, so I’m used to female = person and it’s easy to reverse this into person = female. Males, you have been warned.
  3. arcadiaArcadia, by Ian Pears  (Recommended by Dave Gullen)
    Quite languid but never slow, a really interesting mix of dystopia, fantasy, and time-travel, that is also, like Mythago Wood, very British in sensibility. It’s also quite a writerly book because in parts it’s about writing but is also such a superbly plotted story without a single dangling thread. Read this twice for the Clarke Award, then read it again because I liked it.
  4. The Collected Stories of Lydia Davis (Recommended by Siobhan McVeigh)
    Penguin 2009
    Families.  People.  Again!  And short shorts.  Acute bleak reading to know you’re not alone.    So many gems here, but like Roald Dahl she mocks the pretensions of fine wine very well.  Though really this is a bit of a cheat, as it’s over twenty years work, gathered in one volume, but a good one to keep by your side in case of emergency.
  5. Europe at Midnight, by Dave Hutchinsoneurope-at-midnight  (Recommended by Dave Gullen)
    SF written by Le Carre, a brilliant, original, and timely parallel worlds story whose invention really got under my skin.
  6. Europe in Autumn, by Dave Hutchinson (Recommended by Jim Anderson)
    What’s not to love – well written, suitably weird and compelling but I don’t want to give too much away.  So have a read …
  7. The First Law Trilogy, by Joe Abercrombie (Recommended by Jacey Bedford)
    Joe Abercrombie’s first foray into Grimdark is saved by the delicious streak of black humour that runs through it. These three books have to be read as one huge story. It will take a while but it’s worth it (though probably not for the squeamish).
  8. The Invisible Library, by Genevieve Cogman (Recommended by Jacey Bedford)
    It’s well-paced, inventive and a very satisfying read, with engaging and well-drawn protagonists. And of course, anything featuring librarians as heroes is OK by me. A very good debut.
  9. just-one-damned-thingJust One Damned Thing After Another, by Jodi Taylor (Recommended by Jacey Bedford)
    Chronicles of St Marys’ #1
    Time-travel fantasy that’s a real page turner. Light, frothy, exciting and hilarious in turn, with some serious, high-stakes problems. It’s also got great ‘voice’. St Mary’s sends historians back in time to verify facts. What could possibly go wrong? The institute is a disaster-magnet, chaotic and dangerous—eccentric hardly begins to cover it—and someone is messing with the timelines. If you like this there’s a whole series. Enjoy.
  10. The Lies of Locke Lamora, by Scott Lynch et. Seq. (Recommended by Jacey Bedford)
    There are three Locke Lamora books out so far and the fourth seems to be stalled in publication, which is a pity because I’m gagging for it! Beautifully written, excellent characters and dramatic tension up the wazoo! If you haven’t read these three books I order you to READ THEM NOW.
  11. lie-treeThe Lie Tree, by Francis Hardinge (Recommended by Siobhan McVeigh)
    Macmillan 2015
    Because of the paper theatre, and how Faith looks after her little brother Howard.  And Faith’s refusal to accept the conventions of the times, all in a fabulous gothic setting.   The restrictions women lived with are shown very clearly.  And it’s a real miss-your-stop-on-the-tube page-turner.  It reminded me of Little White Horse at the beginning with the coach journey west into lurching darkness.  And I do like a good travelogue.
  12. Magic Lost, Trouble Found, by Lisa Shearin et seq. (Recommended by Jacey Bedford)
    A second world fantasy that reads with all the pace, snap and fizz of good urban fantasy. Breathless pacing. You’ll want to read them all. Each new book takes up exactly where the previous one left off. The series is complete.
  13. martianThe Martian, by Andy Weir (Recommended by Sue Thomason)
    No, I haven’t seen the film. Really plausible near-future hard SF, with a genuinely likeable main character.
  14. Nemesis Games, by James S.A. Corey. (Recommended by Dave Gullen)
    Actually book 5 in a series but it works as a standalone, and led me to go out and buy the first, which was equally good, and I’ll be catching up through the series. Just rip-roaring space opera set in a colonised solar system, grubby and gritty, quite political but with explosions too, and what made it special for me were the interesting and complex characters.
  15. A Night in the Lonesome October, by Roger Zelazny (Recommended by Jacey Bedford)
    Reissued in 2016. A day by day trip through the month of October in the company of Jack the Ripper’s dog, Snuff, as various recognisable protagonists (and their familiars) are preparing for ‘the game’. Hugely imaginative and vastly intriguing. Snuff is brilliant.
  16. quarryThe Quarry, by Iain Banks (Recommended by Siobhan McVeigh)
    Little, Brown 2013
    Peeling back the layers of an old group of friends, looking at death in an open-eyed way, with a strong female hero.  And a real understanding of aspergers and OCD.  And because people have a choice about how they behave.
  17. Six of Crows, by Leigh Bardugo (Recommended by Jacey Bedford)
    Fantasy. A fast-paced thrill-ride, supposedly for the YA market, but very adult in the amount of violence perpetrated by the good guys as well as the bad. Very tense and exciting. Kaz Brekker is a young criminal prodigy in the rough part of Ketterdam where anything goes. He’s offered a job, a dangerous heist for more money than he can dream of, but it’s a job for a team and Kaz is not big on trust.  Add to this Crooked Kingdom, the sequel, published in October 2016.
  18. thinking-fast-and-slowThinking Fast and Slow, by Daniel Kahneman (Recommended by Jim Anderson)
    We like to think we have free will, but this book is the summary of Kahneman’s life of work showing just how fragile free will is and how we are programmed to react to the world in ways we don’t understand
  19. The Thrilling Adventures of Lovelace and Babbage, by Sydney Padua (Recommended by Sue Thomason)
    Hardback comic; this is the one I am currently thrusting into the hands of various friends while yelling “YOU MUST READ THIS YOU MUST READ THIS!” Warning: contains cats – also the Difference Engine, the Analytical Engine, Queen Victoria, George Eliot, Coleridge, and Lewis Carroll.
  20. Uprooted, byNaomi Novik (Recommended by David Allan)
    A great story of self discovery in a logically constructed fantasy universe which, IMHO, should have won the Hugo
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Alistair Rennie – Attending Milford 2006

bleak-warrior-coverI attended Milford shortly after my first publication came out in John Klima’s now legendary “Electric Velocipede”. This was in 2006, a year when things, in writing terms, started happening for me.

Foremost among these was Milford. I submitted the two requisite pieces of work – a surrealist fantasy piece called “A Doom of My Own” (later published in John Klima’s “EV”) and a short story called “BleakWarrior Meets the Sons of Brawl”, now the first chapter of a recently released novel entitled BleakWarrior.

When I look back, it seems to me that “A Doom of My Own” gained the most favour in terms of its reception by the Milford group. But it didn’t cause as much of a reaction as the other piece, which is the basis for a very important and inspiring lesson for me.

I was nervous about submitting “BleakWarrior Meets the Sons of Brawl” because of the type of story it is. Like the novel where it now sits, it is a generic hybrid that incorporates elements of dark fantasy, splatterpunk and cosmic horror, new weird, graphic novels, spaghetti westerns and (as I like to think) Elizabethan revenge tragedy.

BleakWarrior is deliberately hard-edged and gratuitous, violent and X-rated. It is equally careless of applying strict grammatical rules or rules of narration and narrative point of view. It is ugly, philosophically perverse, but also experimental in its aims to combine pulp and literary facets of fiction. I tend to refer to the novel, in generic terms, as Sword and Debauchery. And, to this extent, it follows a risky strategy that is likely to divide opinion.

When it came to the critique, however, what quickly became obvious to me was that the Milford group were not in the business of letting personal taste or preference get in the way of a robust but measured critical appraisal. The Milford critics (also accomplished authors) were proven experts in their field. They were too shrewd and sharp-edged with insights to let value-judgements overrule their critical opinions. They were unerringly professional, to put it plainly, to the extent that, in my case, I received some vital practical advice that I treasure to this day.

One thing I learned, for example, was the art of not giving away too much, too soon – the art of concealment as a means of perfecting the illusion of fiction, in such a way as to make it seem more real, more believable, more true to the way that we process information in the real world – not all at once, but gradually.

My risky story didn’t meet with everyone’s personal approval (for from it!). “I am not your target audience” was often heard during the scrutiny of “BleakWarrior Meets the Sons of Brawl”. But at no stage did anyone suggest that I was barking up the wrong writing tree. On the contrary, it was clear by the reactions of the group that I might have actually been onto something.

So much so that, soon after, “BleakWarrior Meets the Sons of Brawl” was accepted for publication by Ann VanderMeer at “Weird Tales” magazine – a submission that I made in response to the sage advice of Milford grandee, Chris Butler. Chris was adamant that “Weird Tales” was the ideal place for submitting my story, and so it proved. I’m not sure I would have had the confidence to submit to “Weird Tales” if it hadn’t been for the encouragement and direction given to me by the Milford group. It was exactly the kind of firm but gentle shove that I needed at the time. I was, after all, a mere rookie.

There are other important caveats you will take away with you from Milford. Above all, it lifts you onto a more elevated plane of awareness in regards to the people and processes that populate the world of writing. It gives you confidence, lasting friendships and, to top it off, a full on engagement with the enchanting landscapes of North Wales.


alistair-rennieAlistair Rennie is the author of the weird, sword and debauchery novel, BleakWarrior. He has published dark fantasy and horror fiction, essays and poetry in The New Weird anthology, Weird Tales magazine, Fabulous Whitby, Electric Velocipede, Mythic Delirium, Pevnost, Schlock Magazine, Horror Without Victims, Weird Fiction Review and Shadowed Realms.

He was born and grew up in the North of Scotland, has lived for ten years in Italy, and now lives in Edinburgh in the South of Scotland. He holds a first class Honours Degree in Literature from the University of Aberdeen and a PhD in Literature from the University of Edinburgh. He is a time-served painter and decorator and a veteran climber of numerous hills and mountains in the Western Highlands, the Cairngorms and the Italian Dolomites.

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Making People In My Head – by Gaie Sebold

babylon-steel-coverSomeone asked me recently, “Which comes first for you, character or plot?”

“Oh, character,” I said. “Character every time.”

And having said it, I realised that it might be generally true – at least, where novels are concerned – but of course, it isn’t as simple as that. A character doesn’t just stroll into my head, named, physically complete and fully costumed, with all their quirks, motivations, backstory, family and taste in beverages neatly arrayed.

I know one or two things about them, to start with. Generally I have a good idea what my major characters look like. In fact they’re often so clear in that respect that I have to remind myself to put some of that stuff on the page, because, unfortunately, readers can’t actually see the picture in my head.

dangerous-gifts-cover-32d6I know what they do for a living. That in itself is part, of course, of who they are, and the world they live in – and then I’m into the world itself, and what the character is doing there, and what particular mess they’re in, and why, and we’re off into plot and world-building and all that other good stuff. Out of this, things begin to accrete to the character –history, family, social status, style, quirks… and then I want something to happen in the plot so I make decisions about a character’s backstory and motivations that will bring them to that point. Then, quite often, I realise that doesn’t work, so I have to change the plot, or change the character’s history, or both.

Sometimes both. Really quite often both, actually. And then I change one of them back again because it feels better and then I have to change something else, because now it doesn’t fit. And so forth.

I’m not exactly a tidy writer.

I do, sometimes, wish major characters turned up with everything about them clearly defined, because then they’d stride through the plot, making decisions that matched who they were at every turn instead of getting lost down dead ends. Not to mention that I wouldn’t end up changing something about them, forgetting I’d changed it, and having to slog back through every single reference to make sure they all match.

shanghai-sparrow-cover-200-pxLike I say, not tidy.

So life would be easier. But if characters did turn up fully finished, I’d lose some of the joy of discovery. Creating a character is rather like making a new, close friend (or new, close enemy, in some cases), and finding out, bit by bit, who that person really is. It’s an intriguing process.

The characters who are the spark points for books do arrive with a defined and physical presence, a few essential characteristics, a voice. Other members of the cast can be elusive, refusing to fill out properly, remaining infuriatingly wispy despite intensive interrogations (this sometimes involves me weeding, or thinning the grapevine, while saying things like ‘Come on, talk to me, dammit. What do you want?” Aloud. To thin air. The neighbours seem to have got used to this, and don’t even usher their children hastily indoors any more. Mostly.)

sparrow-falling-coverSometimes I just have to inform such a character that this is how they are, and this is what they do, unless they can come up with a good reason why not.

Of course if they do come up with a good reason why not – if what I write them doing feels actively wrong, instead of simply a work in progress, then annoying as it is, that’s generally a good thing. It means the character is developing, becoming three dimensional. It’s when they turn into that kind of awkward so-and-so who won’t do what they’re told that I know I have a live one – a character with some substance to them, someone who is more than just a jointed doll to be moved around at the convenience of the plot.

But the ones who spark the story – they’re always the best ones. They existed before the story, and they take on a life beyond the story. These are the ones who hang around in my head.

I’m half-convinced they actually do have real lives, somewhere in the multiverse, and I just got to be their biographer for a little while.

I rather hope so, anyway.


gaie-sebold-pic-2014Gaie Sebold’s debut novel introduced brothel-owning ex-avatar of sex and war, Babylon Steel (Solaris, 2012). The Babylon Steel series continues, as does a steampunk series, Gears of Empire She also writes short stories and occasional poetry, runs writing workshops, grows vegetables, and procrastinates to professional standard.

Find out more at

Follow her on twitter @GaieSebold

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How to Critique Effectively and Influence Your Fellow Writers – By Nancy Jane Moore

theweave200            My favorite writing workshop story comes from my time at Clarion West. We were critiquing a story of mine, and one of the students — let’s call him X — was ripping it to shreds. He got to the end of his rant, and Therese Pieczynski, who was the next critiquer, said, “I anti-ditto [Clarionspeak for “completely disagree with”] everything X just said.”

X got mad! His feelings were hurt, not because someone had criticized one of his stories, but because someone had criticized his critique!

I found the whole thing hilarious. In fact, I think it might be the funniest thing that happened at Clarion, except possibly for the night when we all ended up half drunk in someone’s room watching several of the guys play air guitar to Black Sabbath (you had to be there). While I have often questioned the judgment of people who liked stories I detested, it’s never hurt my feelings that they disagreed with me.

I don’t remember what X didn’t like about my story. For that matter, I don’t remember what Therese liked about it. But I am sure I didn’t pay any attention to anything X said and that I listened carefully to Therese. It didn’t take me long at Clarion to figure out that Therese was great at getting to the heart of what worked and didn’t in a story. To this day, she’s still my favorite first reader; I can list several stories I’ve completely revised because of something she said.

At Clarion, I discovered the importance of finding the right people to critique my stories, but it was several years later, when I attended Milford, that I figured out the most important rule for participants in writing workshops, one that makes it possible for a writer to get a useful critique even from those who aren’t simpatico with their work. Here’s that rule:

The critiquer’s job is to help the writer tell the story the writer wants to tell. 

The Milford workshop was the most constructive one I’ve ever attended. In a group of about 15 people, including several with significant publishing reputations, not one person used their critique to trash a story or to show off. Every criticism — positive or negative — was intended to help the person improve the story they wanted to write.

It was a refreshing experience, one I’ve never had in any other workshop. It could be that British writers are just nicer — and smarter — than the rest of us, or it could be that I just lucked into the right group at the right time. But from that experience, I’ve come up with five instructions for participants in writing workshops that implement the core rule of helping the writer tell the story they want to tell:

  1. Keep your ego in check. Do not use a critique as a forum for showing off how much you know about the subject at hand. It’s one thing to point out that the writer has erred in their use of physics; it’s another to use this error as an excuse to lecture on either physics or the stupidity of people who don’t know physics.
  2. It’s not your story, so don’t rewrite it the way you would tell it if it were. This can be a difficult rule. For example, if I were critiquing Much Ado About Nothing, I would be sorely tempted to tell Will Shakespeare that Hero’s willingness to marry Claudio in the end is absurd. No woman would ever marry a man who treated her as he did. However, if she tells him to go to hell, the story becomes something darker than the romantic comedy it’s meant to be. My version might make an interesting story, but it’s not the one Will was writing.
  3. Don’t tell the writer how to revise the story to make it publishable if your revision changes what the story is about. This is slightly different from the last rule — a corollary of sorts. I mean don’t tell the writer to change the story to something that fits the current fashion of what gets published. My few forays into love stories usually end with broken hearts or worse, but I don’t want to change them to fit romance guidelines no matter how many times someone tells me how well romance sells. That’s not the story I’m writing.
  4. Don’t waste group time on grammatical nitpicks; you can mark minor errors on the manuscript. And particularly avoid parroting the various canonical rules you’ve learned along the way, such as the ones about the passive voice, the overuse of adverbs, or the error of beginning a sentence with a conjunction. If a sentence isn’t working, try to explain why it doesn’t work instead of falling back on a rule that probably isn’t the real problem to begin with. Besides, telling the writer to revise a sentence that works well just because it doesn’t follow a particular rule shows you’re missing the point. Would you tell Charles Dickens he should rewrite the first sentence of A Tale of Two Cities because it’s 118 words long and he uses the verb to be 13 times?
  5. Don’t be nasty. It is possible to tell someone their story sucks without putting it in those words. Believe me, they won’t miss the point just because you’re polite about it.

These rules are for workshop participants, not for teachers. An experienced teacher knows the same approach doesn’t work for every student and every situation. Sometimes a teacher must be very encouraging; sometimes they need to hit the student over the head with the proverbial two-by-four. But peers in a workshop are not teachers, and they should not act as if they are.

I’ll end with a piece of advice for those on the receiving end of a critique, my take on something Samuel Delany taught me at Clarion: The problem people point out in a story may not be the actual problem. Something else entirely may be out of whack, causing the scene in question not to work. It’s the writer’s responsibility to figure out where the real problem lies.

By the way, the story I mentioned at the beginning, the one X trashed? Despite not taking X’s advice, I sold it a couple of years after Clarion. Selling the story is the best revenge I can think of for a bad critique.brewing_fine_fiction133x200


Note: This essay originally appeared in 2010 in Brewing Fine Fiction, [] an anthology of essays on writing by members of Book View Cafe.


nan300Nancy Jane Moore’s science fiction novel The Weave came out in 2015 from Aqueduct Press. [] Her earlier books include a collection from PS Publishing, Conscientious Inconsistencies, and a novella from Aqueduct, Changeling. She is a member of the cooperative publisher Book View Café, where she has published several ebooks and contributed to anthologies. [] You can follow her on Facebook []. She posts on Thursday at the Book View Café blog. []

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