Ian Creasey — Report on Milford 2005

Milford 2005 group photo - click to see a larger image
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 fire.

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 workshop.

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 wider countryside.

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 any other.

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.

This page last updated: 23 May 2015