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Two Milfords: August and September
Milford First Week, August 23rd - 30th 2014
Milford Group, August 2014 L - R: Tina Anghelatos, Gus Smith, Jim Anderson, Jacey Bedford,
Sue Thomason (kneeling) Terry Jackman, Nick Moulton, Pauline Dungate
Milford 2014 – Week 1 – A report by Gus Smith
There were eight of us at this year’s first Milford. We were all seasoned Milfordians, and most of us knew one another, which meant there was a strong group feeling right from the start. And having half the amount of critiquing to do certainly made everything more relaxed, compared to the pressure-cooker atmosphere I remember from Milfords past, when we didn’t even have the benefit of submissions circulated beforehand.
This was my first time at Trigonos. Set among the old slate quarries of the Nantlle valley in North Wales, there is a fascinating contrast between the remains of the industrial past, and the wonderful open views to the Snowdon range and Snowdon itself on a clear day (which we didn’t have many of!).
It is a truly delightful place, and not only in its setting. Plas Baladeulyn was a small, fairly modest country house, and has been minimally converted to provide guest accommodation, still retaining the atmosphere of the old place. Meeting rooms and other facilities for activities and courses are in new buildings nearby. The Main Meeting Room where we held our crits has the Snowdon view across fields and a lake, and is a superb space in which to work.
And the meals! Wow! Being a company where social values are more important than maximizing profits, Trigonos’s aim is to produce the best meals they possibly can, from home-grown and ethically-sourced produce, and the results are amazing. They are happy to provide for varied dietary requirements, and I mean happy -– there’s nothing begrudging at Trigonos.
The twelve submissions covered the field of speculative fiction – SF, Fantasy, Horror – and varied from Jacey’s all-action space epic, to Jim’s quietly contemplative story about death and loss. And – for the first time in my Milford experience – a play script. The thorough, constructive criticism which is Milford’s byword was well up to standard, aided, perhaps, by the fact that we didn’t need to make any nervous newbie allowances (do we ever?). And eight is still enough to provide sufficient divergence of opinion and reaction (at least it was with this eight!) to be challenging and unexpected at times, which, for me, is one of Milford’s chief benefits.
A relatively light load meant that we had more time to enjoy Trigonos and its locality. Sue came with Rory, whose enthusiasm for walking rubbed off on several of our number, while I explored the more immediate environs – eighteen acres of fields, woods and lake shore. It includes two acres of worked land where the food is grown, as field crops and in two large polytunnels, according to organic or biodynamic methods. It was good to see the care and attention to detail that went into it, and to appreciate the direct connection with what appeared on our table. Truly inspiring.
On Friday we took our customary trip out, this time to Penrhyn Castle, a ‘19th century fantasy castle’ (their description) with its extensive gardens. It’s a fascinating place, but it had an air of unreality about it. I found it difficult to imagine it being lived in. Maybe those who did, lived fantasy lives, while the workers in their slate quarries, railways and plantations created the wealth to make it possible. In some places I found it decidedly creepy.
With only eight of us, it was possible to have conversations in which everyone was involved, rather than splitting up into smaller groups. This was particularly so at meal times, when our discussions tended to be lively and loud, at times bizarre, and almost invariably came round to sex at some point. We were joined at breakfast and dinner by Eva, a young German student on a three-month placement working on the land. She was rather quiet and demure, though not shy, and what she made of us I don’t know!
The evenings were spent in the library gathered round the log fire, carefully tended by Jim, reliving his youth. There was a lot of laughter, impromptu singing and reading aloud from our own work. We did a reading of Nick’s ghost play, with some remarkably effective casting, which gave him another perspective on it. With suitable sound and lighting effects it could be really scary. It was good to have Rory with us on these occasions. He added much to our conversations during the week.
A splendid conference, I thought. The words round the Trigonos logo are ‘Learning, Discovery, Retreat.’ I enjoyed something of all three.
Confessions of a Milford returnee, or, how to stay sane at Milford - A report by by Sue Thomason
Milford Week 1
- I’ll make my report as if I told a story -- no I won’t. I can’t. I’m all narratived out. I’ll do bullet points instead; bullet points are a perfectly normal and respectable report format, and if you don’t like them, go and read some other Milford report.
- Writing a Milford report is essentially an examination of Why Milford Is Good, which is an examination of why speculative fiction writing is important to me – important enough to pay £500+ to spend the week talking-and-listening with a bunch of like-minded people, paying serious attention to each others’ stories.
- It was fabulous. Utterly wonderful and exhausting.
- The person I am at Milford is not the person I usually am. In my usual life, I am often on my own, thinking about medical data (at paid work), or doing house/life maintenance stuff at home. My talking, running, walking and eating is done with Rory. I write letters, book reviews, apazines, trip reports – and occasionally fiction. I’m not sure whether writing is central to my life. Yes it is. No it isn’t. It gets fitted in round the fringes of doing the washing-up, shopping, cooking, etc. These days, I’m usually too tired in the evenings. But writing is my thinking time; how do I know what I think till I see what I say? Apparently I need to talk to myself a lot. So a week in the intensive company of others is difficult. Wonderful, but difficult. So I put energy into trying to be as normal as possible; going walking/running (it’s good for me in about 17 different ways to stay grounded in the outdoor world, a green landscape), and spending at least some time on my own.
- I met a great new cheese; Y Fenni. It’s made in Abergavenny and contains ale and wholegrain mustard (as well as cheese, obviously).
- Saturday: arrival day. Rory and I had an easy drive down, collecting Jacey and Terry en route, and arriving at Trigonos around 2:00 pm. We were welcomed by Trigonos staff Richard, Kayleigh (new), and Lee (cook), and immediately fell like vultures on the fresh coffee and CAKE (cranberry and apple, delicious, as were the entire succession of daily cakes: a cake a day helps you crit, crit, and crit.). R. and me then went for a walk around Mordor. Snowdon’s top was out of cloud – a remarkable omen. Warg kennels at the end of the quarry terrace are still inhabited. Huge puddles on the track were easy to tiptoe around. Delicious blackberries. Warm and sunny. Wonderful slate/moss/fern “gardens”. Nuthatch calling from an oak tree. The orc-holt with the big beam-engine (1904) has a very active wild bees’ nest halfway up. Supper: very fine sausages, lavish fresh Trigonos veg., plum tarte tatin, and catch-up with a bunch of excellent people and very special friends. Milford this year was unique in being a Milford of two parts, with Part 1 (this one) both unusually small (8 attendees) and containing no first-timers -- so the only person I hadn’t met before was Pauline. Conversation topics: The Worst Crit in the World, teenage daughters, cats on the Internet, Mormons, how to translate swearwords, the new Dr. Who. Bed. Sleep. Woke up in the middle of the night thinking about crit points (on other peoples’ stories). Went back to sleep eventually.
- Sunday. I had resolved to have either toast or muesli for breakfast. That resolution lasted about 5 seconds while queuing for the toaster. So; after toast and yeast extract, prunes, muesli, orange juice, coffee, and more coffee, it is necessary to go out for a walk. It was therefore good that I’d worked myself stupid the week before Milford and already written all my crits. (Who remembers the days Before Email when we didn’t see other peoples’ MSS until Saturday night, and mornings (and often evenings as well) were for reading/thinking/writing crits/pounding one’s failing brain in despair in?) Rory & me walked Mynydd Mawr: saw a pair of ravens, a pair of choughs, a pair of buzzards, a kestrel and a peregrine. Also lots of kind-faced Welsh Mountain sheep (found a lovely, lovely book on the “local interest” shelves at Trigonos, called, I think, SNOWDON SHEPHERD, with beautifully tender and sensitive portraits of some local sheep in. Recommended the book to Gus, who I thought would enjoy it). Hillside garishly beautiful in green/yellow/purple (an interesting insight into tartan as camouflage); flowering heather and gorse forming low sheep-clipped carpets. Afternoon crits: Jim: “Mull” (he writes extremely well about food, and about perfect moments of awareness; post-crit discussion of authors’ responsibility to not glamorise suicide), Terry: “Ash sequel”: post-crit attempt to write a technical spec for how to start Book 2 of a trilogy. Then it was CAKE time – lemon and poppy seed cake, after which because this was a small-group Milford and we only did two crits on Day One, I did some reading and sleeping. Supper: chicken, Trigonos veg, blackberry & apple crumble. Discussion topics: Pythagoras’ theorem, the Bronze Age Collapse, how to use a condom in zero gee, translations from dead languages, football rituals and customs. All but Rory & me then went off to watch the downloaded first episode of the new Dr, Who.
- Critting is an amazing activity. These days it’s about the only chance I get to practice my reading-and-thinking skills. Other people are amazingly insightful. I am sometimes amazingly stupid. How fascinating, that we all react to the same text in such different ways. (Pic right to left features: Sue Thomason, Terry Jackman, Jim Anderson, Gus Smith and Tina Anghelatos at a crit session, Milford August 2014.)
- Monday. Woke up HUNGRY. Breakfasted on muesli and two pieces of toast. And an egg. Then a morning walk with Rory and Tina up Moel Tryfan, which has some dramatic quarried landscape (if the Dorothea quarries are “Mordor”, Moel Tryfan is “Moria gate”), and a nice accessible summit, small but well set-back from the bigger hills and providing some very fine views. On the way back to the car we found a beautifully laid-out “Troytown” labyrinth, done in brick-sized chunks of stone, obviously modern (rather than prehistoric) but in situ a few years. We did not enter the maze. Afternoon crits: Jacey: “Seven Short Men and a Waif” (a reality-fairytale retelling of part of Snow White), Tina: “Aphrodite’s Blood” (set in Periclean Athens and featuring Kypria, a young lamia (Classical Greek female vampire, sort of)) with a post-crit discussion on name spelling, and on using modern phrases or words in “historical” fiction. I think the CAKE was brownies, but it might have been lemon drizzle, or millionaire’s shortbread, I have lost track of the cake order, I lost track of a lot of things round about Tuesday. Then Terry: “4th seed” with post-crit discussion on the use (or not) of Prologues, also the economics of interstellar trade, with particular reference to food shipments. In the evening, Jacey wanted to practice giving a reading, so I had a pleasantly undemanding evening listening to people giving readings (from their own work) in the library, with a candlestick (Cluedo scenarios became a running gag throughout the week).
- Tuesday, after a wild night, was windy with low cloud. For our morning walk Rory & me set off up Yr Aran but turned back at the saddle before the final ridge, just before disappearing into the cloud. I really, really need a morning walk in order to be able to cope with the rest of Milford. For one thing, the food is so good that if I didn’t exercise every day, I would put on weight. Also, fascinating though Milford people are, and wonderful though I find their company (it’s a privilege), I am an introvert, and Milford is intensely hard work – crit sessions and non-crit conversation both. I get people fatigue; I need to spend time in the landscape with Rory, or alone/reading in the evenings. Even so, by about Tuesday I usually end up in BRAIN DON’T WORK mode; unable to find words, complete sentences, or hold on to a train of thought. I stop being able to take in information or respond to people – very frustrating, as Milford is my opportunity to do a year’s worth of socialising in a week... but I can only actually manage about 48 hours’ worth... Tuesday afternoon’s crits were Pauline: “Skylight” (a horror long-story), Nick: “Ghost Trap” (a classic ghost-story play script set in a pub, and intended for pub performance), and a chunk of my maybe-novel (and what people had to say about that was mostly really helpful). We had time for a post-cake visit to the mound and hillfort at Dinas Dinlle (“Lleu’s dun”) with Tina. Supper was an excellent lasagne, and in the evening we lit the fire (Jim acting as Fire Supervisor) and did a group dramatic reading of “Ghost Trap”, which was great fun. I got to play the Mysterious Knock.
- Experiencing serious brain-down is scary. This may be what dementia is like: a calm blank, the suspension of verbal thought. So maybe dementia is not too bad, once you’re fully immersed – like swimming in the sea in January, the hard bit is walking in. I used to be scared of Milford; scared of being judged and found wanting. That has worn off. But although I think of Trigonos as a calm and restful place, and although I can sleep with the window open and be lulled by the noise of running water (always a specially good thing), I often don’t sleep well there. I don’t know why that is.
- Wednesday morning was fine, so we took Tina and Nick to look at Tre’r Ceiri, the very good (and huge) drystone Iron Age hillfort on Yr Eifl – mysterious and spectacular. Choughs seem to be doing very well in North Wales at the moment; we saw several families almost every morning. Our afternoon crits were Gus: “Water Witch” (Slavic-setting folktale-feel novel), and Jacey: “Song of Unmaking” (near-future dystopian SF). By now I was really, really tired – feeling very stupid and unable to take in any new information. But I do remember chairing a sensible AGM (Part 1).
- The food at Trigonos is specially good. Loads and loads of fresh seasonal fruit and veg., lots of local produce. I would very happily eat vegetarian there for a week, but I don’t want to be a nuisance, especially when the kitchen is already making a number of different “special diet” meals, so I will just go with the majority cuisine. I wish I could eat like this at home! (Although I’d have to balance a big calorie intake with serious regular exercise to stay healthy.) I deeply appreciate the luxuries of choice available to larger-scale catering – it’s not really possible to offer 5 different salads for lunch, for only 1 or 2 people. And I ate dessert every night (I normally make a dessert once a week). And alcohol almost every night, rather than as a not-every-weekend treat.
- Thursday morning’s walk was just R. and me, a windblown and rather wet visit to the SSSI along the beach from Dinas Dinlle. Wind over waves, the pale colours of salt and sand and sea – a rolling, roaring peace. Wild peace. Rory collected another load of driftwood for an evening fire (by now people were burning their old MSS), and I found a nice memory stone. The tide was in. Crits were Nick: “Honey for Tea” (SF parody) and Jim: “Theory of Mind” (1024 nasty uses for a STAR TREK type transporter). During supper, Tina’s partner phoned to report a break-in, so Tina left to drive home (and therefore missed The Speech, this year written and given by Rory – a superlative performance).
- Trigonos is a beautiful peaceful ethical place. I’m deeply glad that Milford is held there. It aligns with a lot of my non-Milford values, and I feel much more comfortable being there than in some sort of “standard” hotel. Trigonos has good vibes. It feels grounded. I feel supported in trying to make good choices at home.
- Friday’s group day out was a visit to Penrhyn Castle, built in the 19th century by the Pennant family in an extraordinary neo-Norman style best described as Early Hollywood, and now owned by the National Trust. The gardens are rather neglected (hard to keep on top of extensive gardens in a style that clearly needs a full-time staff of twenty, when you’re run by volunteers). The interiors are splendid examples of the labour of the many supporting the privileged lifestyle of the few – fairly horrifying – with some nice William Morris wallpaper, and an utterly fascinating Victorian kitchen. The central courtyard holds an interesting collection of industrial steam engines, many used in local slate quarries (the Pennants made their fortune from sugar and slate). (Pic left features the monolithic entrance to the castle (residence) itself.)
- I love Milford deeply. I love the stimulation and support it provides. I am very, very fond of almost everybody I have ever met at Milford. It is a real privilege to spend time with such intelligent, imaginative and kind people. Milford, in many ways, is my ideal target audience.
- But I worry that I’m not really a proper Milford person, because I’ve pretty much given up on the idea of writing for publication. I’m not a good enough or consistent enough writer, I can’t give enough energy and attention to it, I send a story out twice and it fails to sell twice and I think “that’s it; nobody wants it” and I can’t get past that. I don’t know why I am writing, apart from that writing is something that I do – when I have the energy, when I have the time, and when I have something to write about, which these days is not often.
- Also feel very guilty after reading “Prides: An Essay on Writing Workshops” by Ursula K. Le Guin (collected in THE WAVE IN THE MIND). She writes “...one more cause of time-wasting: workshop co-dependency, the policy of encouraging eternal returners, workshop junkies, people who go to retreats and groups year after year but don’t write anything the rest of the year...” Admittedly, Le Guin is talking about writing workshops (where people go to write) not crit groups, and about taught/led groups, not the process of collective peer review that is Milford’s essence. Some people did some writing at this year’s Milford, but I didn’t. I go to Milford to crit and be critted, to do speaking-and-listening with a group of people whose thoughts and opinions I value, to get some sort of contact and energy that I can’t get anywhere else or from anyone else. I do try hard not to feel too dependent on Milford. I worry about Milford being an end in itself for me. I always offer to withdraw in favour of another attendee, should Milford in any year be over-subscribed, and I don’t go every year.
- The library – I must say something good about the library. A perfectly comfortable space to sit around in after dinner and talk, with a variety of comfy chairs, an interesting selection of books, an open fireplace that draws well, and exactly the right slightly shabby, slightly cluttered feel. The Meeting Room (where we crit) is also perfect: light, spare, warm but not too warm. There is an amazing and beautiful curvilinear wall hanging, in which hills become clouds, and sky becomes water. And an even more amazing and beautiful view of Snowdon.
- So what have I learned this year? If I am still learning, if my writing or critting skills are still genuinely developing through Milford, then even though I’m not actively trying to sell my work (Markets Night always makes me feel very inadequate and guilty), I think it’s okay for me to be there. I learned some very useful things about the piece I submitted, some of which are now (hopefully) fixed. I learned, again, that I’m not as insightful as I sometimes think I am about other people’s work (but comments from Stupid Reader can sometimes be useful, I remind myself).
- And now I must stop tweaking this report, and let it go out into the world..
Milford Second Week September 13th - 20th 2014
Milford Group, September 2014 L - R: Phil Suggars, Carl Allery, Mike Lewis, Al Robertson, Jacey Bedford,
Guy T Martland, Sue Oke, Liz Williams, James Maxwell, David Allan
Milford 2014 – Week 2 – A report by Philip A. Suggars
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 settingI 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.
Also check out Guy T Martland's blog for 'I am Not a Number. I Am a Free Man - the September group's trip to Portmeirion .
Milford Sayings 2014
There's a tradition of taking snippets of conversation and crits out of context and here's a collection of 2014 snippets from both Milfords. gems from the mouths of Al Robertson, David Allan, Carl Allery, Phil Suggars, Guy T Martland, Jacey Bedford, Sue Thomason, Nick Moulton, Jim Anderson and Terry Jackman, not necessarily in that order.
"I have been hypnotised by a personal friend of King Arthur."
"This story reminds me of Ballard, despite the fact that it managed to avoid his twin obsessions of big breasts and concrete."
"Is West Country science fiction Cider Punk?"
"Is he literally the child of Hermes, because Hermes did put it about a bit?"
"This was written at speed--well--written at speed over a period of two years."
"It's an anal probe."
"Ooh, the things that just fall out of your mouth."
On breasts: "It's almost as if the narrator is saying: Oooh, yeah, nice set."
"I confess I like happy endings. If the protagonist doesn't get a happy-ever-after I want a good and satisfying reason--not just that his world is shitty and his dad's a right bastard."
"Reminds me of Brideshead Revisited with the improving addition of a heavily militarised refugeee from Little Grey rabbit."
"I was a bit disappointed--I wanted complete carnage."
"I love the idea of grumpy vengeful floorboards as a main character."