THE MILFORD WRITERS’ CONFERENCE: PAST AND FUTURE
02 July 2013
By Jacey Bedford
Each year an ever-changing group of up to fifteen published writers of fantasy and science fiction get together for one special week of intensive critiquing of works-in-progress. There are no leaders and no students, just writers, all equal. This is Milford, nominally a conference, but in practice a week of intensive peer-to-peer workshopping of writing and ideas combined with useful networking with fellow writers.
Writing is a solitary business, so to find fourteen other like-minded individuals willing and eager to chew over plot-bunnies, story arcs, characters and potential markets gives everyone a real boost, an infusion of enthusiasm and renewed writing energy.
It all started in 1972 when James and Judy Blish brought the Milford idea across the Atlantic from Milford Pennsylvania to Milford on Sea, Hampshire. The Blishes organised it, Anne McCaffrey chaired it, and the attendees included Brian Aldiss, John Brunner and Chris Priest. Skip ahead forty years and Milford is still going strong. In the intervening years it's been handed down to a number of different committees and hosted hundreds of writers. It's been held in Cheltenham, Great Yarmouth, Margate, Rothbury, Maidencombe (near Torquay), York, and currently resides in scenic North Wales at Trigonos, a lovely residential retreat and learning centre with its own lake and a magnificent view of the mountains.
Authors passing through have included: George R.R. Martin, Charles Stross, Alastair Reynolds, Jaine Fenn, Kari Sperring, Karen Traviss, Patricia Wrede, Neil Gaiman, Mary Gentle, Diana Wynne Jones, Ben Jeapes, Bruce Sterling, David Langford, Elizabeth Wein, John Clute, Gaie Sebold, Rob Holdstock, Samuel R Delany and Liz Williams, who is also the current secretary.
Each Milford week takes a maximum of fifteen attendees, for both rooming and workload reasons. The minimum qualification is one fiction sale, and that can be one flash fiction to a small press magazine or a novel to a major publisher, (though self-publication doesn't qualify). Some writers sign up with only the minimum qualification, others have so many publication credits that they only dimly recall what a rejection slip looks like. No matter their status in the publishing world, everyone is equal at Milford.
Attendees submit up to 15,000 words in one or two pieces. These can be complete short stories or sections of a longer work. At one time Milford concentrated on short stories, but now a significant number of novel chunks are submitted, mostly, but not always, an opening with a synopsis.
Days are organised to a schedule in order to make sure all the work is covered. Saturday we arrive, settle in and get to know each other. The real work starts on Sunday. Mornings are free for catching up with any reading and critting not done beforehand. After lunch the formal crit sessions begin, and evenings are for social time (or not, don't feel obliged if you need to hide away and write like mad). Since Trigonos provides for all bodily comforts, including three square meals a day plus home baked cakes and 24/7 hot drinks, we're completely self-contained for the week. (Though there are often individuals making a morning run to the local stores for more wine, or to Caernarfon for a peek at the castle, so people can explore for an hour or two.) It is just about possible to do all the reading and critting within the week (and pre-internet that's how it was always done) but attendees would be mad not to do some prep work and for this reason writers are encouraged to circulate their pieces via email at least a couple of weeks before Milford begins. If everything goes according to plan we finish the formal crits on Thursday, which leaves Friday free for a group jaunt to somewhere scenic and Welsh, a copper mine, a castle, or the chocolate pizza shop in Beddgelert. (Yes, really!) We depart on Saturday morning after breakfast, enthused, enlivened by new friendships and maybe with a whole pile of rewriting to do.
We encourage thorough but constructive critiques. There's no place at Milford for snide, destructive comments or ad hominem attacks. Critique sessions use the Milford method which has been passed on to various writers' groups over the years. Each person in turn gets four minutes to deliver a verbal crit. The person being critted has to sit mute (usually scribbling notes), but then gets an uninterrupted right of reply in which they can scream, 'But you don't understand my genius!' or alternatively explain and clarify ideas. A general conversation ensues in which ideas are developed and searching questions asked, and what began in the crit session can often crop up again at dinner or breakfast, or over a good glass of red in the library late at night.
This is where I hold my hand up. "My name is Jacey Bedford and I am a Milford junkie." I've attended 12 Milfords in fifteen years, surpassed only by Liz Williams who has attended every single one since we both turned up, wet behind the ears, to the same Milford week in 1998. Liz didn't step back quickly enough and became secretary in her first year. I've attended so often that I have ended up on the organising committee by default. We're legally obliged to hold an AGM and elections annually, but the committee has been fairly stable since 1998 with Steve Kilbane managing the money and Sue Thomason in the Chair, having taken over from Ben Jeapes in the early noughties. Kari Sperring and Karen Williams complete the current lineup of people to take the blame. We are five Brits and an American.
Milford is not restricted to British writers, of course, and we often have a significant proportion of overseas attendees, usually American, Canadian or Australian, but anyone who writes in English is welcome.
Which brings me to 2014. Yes, we're planning that far ahead, but for a very good reason. The 2013 Milford, to be held 14th - 21st September, has been fully subscribed since February. It booked up so quickly that it took us all by surprise. 2014 sees Worldcon returning to the UK in the shape of Loncon3, so we're holding two Milfords, one on 23rd – 30th August and the other on 13th – 20th September. The August week begins on the Saturday after Worldcon weekend, giving overseas writers the opportunity of attending Worldcon and Milford on the same plane ticket (and a bonus four days to sightsee their way from London to North Wales). To facilitate that we're ring-fencing seven of the fifteen places on the August week for overseas attendees until the end of August 2013. After that all places are open to all comers until both weeks are full. Bookings are open already and full details are on the Milford website at http://www.milfordsf.co.uk/attend.htm
I've attended two Milfords, 26 years apart, and loved them both.' Liz Sourbut
'I workshopped at Milford for several years in the late 80s to early 90s; it was a very useful learning experience, very enjoyable (if occasionally bruising -- it's not an environment which coddles complacency or self-satisfaction!), and certainly helped me improve my short fiction. (It may be less useful to pure novelists, if only because the intensive feedback it provides takes a lot of work, and there simply isn't time to subject novels to that level of focus.)' - Charles Stross
'Writing is a solitary act, and it's easy to start feeling disconnected from your peers and discouraged. For me, Milford is not only a great environment for critical reading and feedback, it's a support network of fellow writers, and a source of renewed energy and enthusiasm for my work.' – Kari Sperring
'I've attended Milford several times and always found it both educational and inspirational - even the time I threw myself in the lake after a bad crit...' Jaine Fenn