The crew of Milford 2005 wearing protective headgear ready for
a tough critiquing session
Left to right: Liz Counihan, Deirdre Counihan, David Redd, Sandra Unerman,
Claire Weaver, Merrie Haskell,
Mike Lewis, Ian Creasey, Jaine Fenn,
Vaughan Stanger, J. Ardian Lee, Liz Williams Click on the photo to see a larger image
The Milford workshop has a venerable history, and in its UK incarnation has
existed for several decades in a peripatetic kind of way. I first attended
Milford in 2001, which was the last year the workshop happened in Devon. (Back
then I was a fresh-faced young writer with just a few semipro sales under his
belt. My report from that year can be found, along with other people's reports
from other years, at the Milford website.)
In 2002-3 the workshop spent a couple of reportedly fraught years in York; I did
not attend, but I returned in 2004 when Milford moved to Wales. I enjoyed it so
much that I came back in 2005. Milford now seems to be happily settled at the
Trigonos centre in north Wales, and looks likely to be hosted there for many
years to come.
On the plus side, Snowdonia is beautiful. On the minus side, it's remote,
especially if you're arriving by public transport. My journey comprised a bus
from my house to Leeds station, a train from Leeds to Manchester, another train
from Manchester to Llandudno, and yet another train from Llandudno to Bangor,
followed by a bus from Bangor to Caernarvon, and finally another bus from
Caernarvon to Nantlle.
But when you arrive, it's all worthwhile. Trigonos is located in extensive
grounds containing gardens, fields, woods, a stream and a lake. This year the
workshop was held in August, and flowers were in bloom everywhere, from great
orange drifts of calendulas by the driveway, to huge ox-eye daisies in the
stream-bed, and vast clumps of lavender between the buildings. There are
benches in the gardens and by the stream — it's heavenly to sit in the sunshine
among all the greenery.
This being Wales, it's not always sunny. Nevertheless, we had good luck this
year, with only a couple of rain-showers during the week. (In 2004, when the
workshop was in September, it rained rather more often.) But even when it's
raining, the interior is comfortable. Accommodation is split between the main
house and the subsidiary buildings; in 2004 I was in the main house, but this
year I was in an annex. The bedrooms are of varying degrees of luxury depending
on where you are, but in practice you don't spend a huge amount of time in your
room, as there is plenty of space to congregate in the main building.
As a group we spent most of our time in the library, a true writers' room
outfitted with bookshelves all round, comfy chairs, and a real log fire.
Despite the fact that it was August and fairly warm, the pyromaniacs among us
insisted on having a fire every night. Perhaps it's a relic of caveman days,
but to me there is an almost primal comfort in lazing around in front of a log
In 2004 the library had also contained a large wooden desk set in a window-nook
that overlooked fields down to the lake. It was a perfect setting to sit down
and write, the kind of place that makes you want to win the lottery so you can
buy it for your very own.
Sadly, in 2005 this desk had vanished to be replaced by an additional sofa.
This did however prove useful in helping to accommodate us all. In 2004 there
had been nine workshoppers, but in 2005 this grew to twelve. While Milford
mostly attracts British writers, the 2005 workshop was deliberately scheduled
after the Glasgow Worldcon, and we consequently welcomed a couple of Americans
who had arrived in Britain for the convention and stayed on to attend the
Attendance at Milford has fluctuated over the years, depending upon demand and
hotel capacity. I understand that future Milfords at Trigonos are likely to
have a maximum of about 12-13 members.
Even a workshop of only twelve people creates a lot of reading when everyone
brings 15,000 words (the maximum allowance). In previous years the reading
could be something of a burden, because writers simply brought multiple copies
of their manuscripts to the workshop. However, in the age of email,
workshoppers are now strongly encouraged to distribute their manuscripts in
advance, to give fellow participants time to read some of the work beforehand.
By the time I arrived in Wales, I had already read about half of the
manuscripts. This took the pressure off, allowing me plenty of time to read the
rest during the workshop itself.
Milford tends to exist in its own little realm, cut off from the outside world.
This is particularly the case in Snowdonia, where mobile-phone signals are rare
and elusive. The village of Nantlle does not have any shops or pubs, so there
is little reason to leave Trigonos itself. The mornings were generally spent
quietly reading manuscripts, or sitting outside enjoying the sunshine.
Afternoons were devoted to discussing the manuscripts. In the evenings we sat
in the library and relaxed after a hard day's critiquing (which can be
surprisingly intensive and tiring work). Due to the lack of local pubs, many of
us had brought our own alcohol to aid the relaxation process — a fine array of
wines, whiskeys and more exotic beverages embellished the library's ambience.
One noteworthy feature of Trigonos is the quality of the food. Now, for me it's
a sufficient treat just to go somewhere and have someone else do all the cooking
and washing up. But Trigonos does it superbly. Much of their food is sourced
locally, or grown in their own gardens to organic standards. It's the kind of
place where you see chickens wandering around the orchard, and you know exactly
where your eggs and apples have come from. They also do the little things well,
like mid-afternoon tea and cakes — a very welcome break from critiquing.
The Milford critiquing process follows a standard workshop pattern. A timetable
is set at the start of the week, so you know which pieces will be discussed on
each day, allowing you to plan your reading if you haven't already read all the
manuscripts. In 2004 we generally critiqued three manuscripts each afternoon.
In 2005, due to the greater number of attendees, we critiqued four manuscripts
every day. Most people had split their 15,000 words between two manuscripts
(for example, a story and a novel extract), so from twelve attendees we had
about twenty manuscripts.
When a manuscript is critiqued, the author sits quietly while everyone takes
turns to give their opinions, to a rigorously enforced limit of three minutes
each. Participants are encouraged to talk about the most important issues,
rather than line-edit nitpicks, which can be noted on the manuscript and given
to the author for later perusal. It also helps if critiquers write up a short
summary of their main points. The author may be frantically scribbling notes
while people are talking, but it can be difficult to get everything down. (When
I returned from Milford and sorted through my manuscripts, I found that someone
had written a note on my story saying, "I agree with what Claire said about the
caverns." Sadly, Claire hadn't written down her point about the caverns, and
I'd failed to make a note of it, so I remain in ignorance as to what this
comment actually was.)
After everyone has given their critique, the author is finally allowed to speak
and ask questions, and a general discussion may ensue. However, the time
pressure of critiquing four pieces each afternoon tended to make the discussions
this year shorter than they had been in 2004.
Inevitably when there are eleven people responding to a manuscript, differences
of opinion arise — unless you're the stupendously talented Liz Williams, who
submitted a short story that simply evoked eleven variations on "This is
fantastic!" But it's often the case that a consensus is fairly clear: either
the story is basically OK and could benefit from a few minor tweaks, or there is
a more fundamental problem and the story needs significant redrafting. I was
pleased that my novelette, "Ministry of Karma", evoked a generally positive
response. Of course, this doesn't necessarily mean that an editor will buy it.
But it's a good sign.
Despite all the critiquing, we did have some time to explore our surroundings.
The village of Nantlle is overlooked by vast slate quarries, mostly abandoned
and full of derelict buildings slowly crumbling away. In some places the
atmosphere was quite sinister, with "cold spots" that raised goose-pimples even
under the summer sun, not to mention all the graffiti and sheep skulls, and the
circling ravens cawing over the grey landscape. The great undulations of slate
were very reminiscent of the bleak locations used for alien planets on
Blake's Seven and Doctor Who in the seventies.
One of the quarries was half-filled with water. From the buoys and other
paraphernalia, it looked to be used for diving, perhaps to train divers. At the
top of the cliffs overlooking this submerged quarry, two plaques recorded the
deaths of men. The plaques gave no cause of death, but we speculated they might
have been diving accidents or suicides. There seemed no other reason why the
plaques would be placed in such a spot.
We nicknamed the slate quarries "Mordor". Yet we saw brambles and even the
occasional tree growing on the piles of slate. It was clear that within a few
decades, nature would reclaim the entire area.
Not all of north Wales is gloomy slate mines, of course. It contains gloomy
copper mines as well! On Thursday we finished the critiques, leaving Friday
free. In 2004, we used the free day to visit nearby Portmeirion, famed as the
location for TV series The Prisoner (which I've never seen). This year,
we visited Beddgelert, where there is the grave of a legendary dog from the
Middle Ages. (The legend is that Prince Llewelyn ap Iorwerth went on a hunting
trip and left his infant son in the charge of his faithful dog Gelert. On his
return, Llewelyn noticed the dog's muzzle was soaked in blood, and his son was
nowhere to be seen. Overcome with anger, Llewelyn attacked his dog and killed
it. He then heard a cry, and following it he found his son alive. Beside the
boy lay the body of a giant wolf covered with wounds, the result of a fight to
the death with hound Gelert. Llewelyn strode back to the corpse of his faithful
dog and in remorse gave it a lavish burial.) I was amused to see that the grave
had a sycamore tree growing out of it, which is not quite the right ambience for
a legend from the Middle Ages, given that the sycamore is not native to Britain.
Near Beddgelert is an old copper mine, which ceased production in the Victorian
era, and has been restored as a tourist attraction. As one of our group said,
only in Wales could they charge you £8 to tour a dark damp hole in the ground.
We donned our hard hats and braved the depths, which to me were chiefly notable
for showing that Victorian copper miners were rather less than 6'1" tall,
forcing me to stoop and shuffle along the tunnels like some great shambling
orc. Nevertheless it was interesting to see the ancient working conditions,
full of rickety-looking wooden ladders and primitive hand tools.
We came out of the copper mine in the middle of a hillside entirely covered with
rhododendrons as far as the eye could see. The rhododendron is a 19th century
introduction by Victorian gardeners, which conservationists dislike partly
because it isn't native, but also because it's mildly poisonous and a danger to
sheep. I have done my fair share of rhododendron-hacking in various
conservation areas. However, it looks like this battle has been lost in the
Back at base we concluded the week with a brief business meeting to ratify the
minutes and accounts and so forth. Apart from critiquing, the only other formal
Milford activity during the week was a session on marketing: discussing suitable
venues to submit each manuscript when polished and completed. This segued into
a general discussion of the state of magazine and book publishing — Milford
isn't just about writing fiction, but also about selling it. It's helpful to
hear the experiences of other writers who are involved with publishers, meeting
editors and so forth. Networking is just as useful in the writing profession as
Milford is run by a committee, and much of the work is currently done by Liz
Williams, who has been secretary for a number of years. Liz organises the venue
and dates, and takes enrolments from writers wishing to attend. The workshop is
held annually, and details are usually announced in early Spring, via SFWA and
online writers' forums. The cost of attending Milford varies according to where
and when it is held, since almost all of the fees go to the venue — the workshop
itself is run on a volunteer, non-profit basis.
My experience has been that Milford is a great week, both as a holiday to spend
away from home in beautiful surroundings, and as a serious writing workshop to
help you improve and sell your fiction. It's also a good opportunity to meet
fellow writers and share the joys and frustrations of the writing life.