This was my first Milford and in fact my first face-to-face workshop. If I’m honest, I was filled with apprehension.
Even a cursory glance at the history of Milford reveals a roll call of illustrious early attendees. As an example, founder member and original attendee James Blish, wrote the wonderful Cities in Flight books, a series that was a favourite of mine as a nerdling growing up.
Similarly, this list of alumni makes it hard not to constantly reflect upon the fact that this workshop, or conference as it should more properly be called, is now over forty years old.
Given all of the above then, it gives me great pleasure to report that Milford appears to be in very rude health and shows no sign of losing its vitality as a place to talk about, critique (and if you’re lucky) write genre fiction.
The setting, a converted farmhouse and office complex nestling in the Nantlle Valley in the Snowdonia National Park, is absolutely gorgeous. Going for a stroll along the lakeside in the spare moments between reading, writing, critiquing or socialising was a relaxing and memorable experience.
That’s not to say that the pace of work at Milford is breakneck or stress inducing, but it certainly is intense. I usually spent my mornings reading submissions and preparing critiques. Afternoons were spent in the main office with the other attendees going over the pieces that each writer has submitted.
There were ten writers in attendance for this year’s second Milford. Some like Jacey Bedford, Liz Williams, Carl Allery, Mike Lewis and Al Robertson were old hands. A couple like Guy T Martland and Sue Oke had been at least once before, while David Allan, James Maxwell (and of course me) made up the newbie contingent.
The opportunity to share your work-in-progress with talented, dedicated and big-brained writers who are serious about their work is worth the price of admission alone, but add to that the fact that you all get to eat and hang out together afterwards really does make this an invaluable opportunity. (Oh and there’s regular cake. Did mention that there’s cake?)
The fiction submitted this year ran the entire gamut of genres. We had a selection of second world medievalist stories, noir-ish urban fantasy, YA doom fiction, space opera, future set science-fiction/fantasy and neo-cyber-punk and even some magical realism in there for good measure. Moreover, there was a good balance between shorter works and novel excerpts (attendees can submit up to 15,000 words split over multiple pieces or just one larger piece).
The Milford critique process is a simple one. Before arrival Liz circulates a timetable denoting when each piece will be critiqued (which allows you to plan your reading if you haven’t had the time to go through it all beforehand). During the crit itself each participant gets to speak without interruption for four minutes while the author frantically scribbles down these comments. Once everyone has had his or her turn the author gets the chance to reply.
Generally we critiqued three to four pieces each day this way and although there is a standing tradition at Milford that a writer whose work is in for a kicking has the blow(s) softened by the application of chocolate, no one in our group suffered this fate.
Evenings are usually spent in the library where, after a few drinks, the conversational topics are wide and varied, but always pursued in a good natured and inclusive way. On my visit discussions included: the arcane laws of Swiss toilet usage, how much guano a man has to be smeared with before he ceases to be attractive and (this being the week of the Scottish referendum) whether David Allan (who was a Scot) would have to sit at a different dinner table if his nation seceded from the union.
Occasionally, Jacey would lead a breakout team to an adjoining room to play Bananagram (think combat Scrabble). Given the name of the game, I found the absence of any fruit in play notable, although perhaps players waited until I had retired before brandishing their bananas.
We were blessed with unseasonably warm weather during my visit, so much so that it led to us running at least one critique session seated around the sundial on the lawn overlooking the lake, something unheard of since Milford took up residence at Trigonos in 2004. (I should also point out that despite frequent threats to do so, Guy Martland never did jump in and go for a swim – maybe next year, eh?).
The food was enjoyable and plentiful and Al Robertson and I both reflected that going home would be difficult, given that we’d have to forgo being fed every 2-3 hours.
That said, I do remember one rather avant-garde (and bright green) cheesecake that had come to us from a planet where a race of tiny humans milked giant avocados in order to make cheese. (Maybe). Despite this peculiar provenance, it was actually pretty tasty.
My only two pieces of advice for any potential attendees would be:
1) relax. The idea of the critique process is a little intimidating at first, but in practice Jacey and Liz go out of their way to make newbies feel instantly at home. Moreover, the feedback (especially about the parts of your submission that might not be working) is absolutely invaluable and motivational.
2) do as much of the reading as you can before you get there. While it’s easily possible to read through all of the submissions on site, having got through everything beforehand means you’ll be able to do some writing in a wonderfully tranquil setting. I felt for those old hands, such as Mike Lewis, who reminded me of the pre-internet days when attendees would be greeted at the door by a stack of printed manuscripts and told to get on with it.
Writing this now, it occurs to me that compared to our colleagues elsewhere in the world we are starved of world-class genre writing workshops here in the UK. We have no Clarions, no Taos ToolBoxes and no Viable Paradises.
Perhaps that dearth is merely a reflection of the few native, professionally paying short fiction markets here in Blighty, but if that is the case then it’s also at odds with the fact that as a relatively small nation of speculative scribblers we seem to punch well above our weight.
For all of the grit and graft of our industrial history and post-empire angst, maybe this island of ours is full of dreamers after all.
It’s a good thing then, that we have Milford.
(Anyone interested in attending future events can contact Jacey bedford via the website here.)