Milford Writers’ Conference 2015

Last month I attended the week-long Milford Writers’ Conference for Science Fiction and Fantasy writers in beautiful north Wales. I was asked to write a reflection on it for the Milford website which I’m reposting here…

Milford Group, September 2015 L - R: Kari Sperring; Ben Jeapes, Jacey Bedford, Liz Williams, Dave Clements, David Turnbull, Val Nolan, Jackie Hatton, Tiffani Angus, Chris Butler, Sue Oke, Matt Colborn, Pauline Morgan (writing as Pauline Dungate), Heather Lindsley, Gus Smith.

Milford Group, September 2015 L – R: Kari Sperring; Ben Jeapes, Jacey Bedford, Liz Williams, Dave Clements, David Turnbull, Val Nolan, Jackie Hatton, Tiffani Angus, Chris Butler, Sue Oke, Matt Colborn, Pauline Morgan (writing as Pauline Dungate), Heather Lindsley, Gus Smith.

I gave serious thought to withdrawing from the Milford Writers’ Conference this year. I had, only ten days or so before the workshop was to begin, been appointed to a new job as lecturer in Creative Writing at Aberystwyth University. Thus I was in the middle of organising my move across the Irish Sea, wrapping-up prior commitments back in Ireland, and getting to grips with the requirements and responsibilities which the new position entailed. I thought that perhaps a week at Milford would be too much considering everything else that was going on but, standing outside the Trigonos centre after the first day, watching satellites and meteors crisscross the north Welsh sky and already feeling the benefits of the intensive critiquing sessions, I knew I had made the correct decision to attend.

Some of this year’s participants I knew well (Tiffani Angus and I attended the Clarion Writers’ Workshop together in 2009; Heather Lindsley and I have knew each other through conventions for several years) while other such as Jacey Bedford and Susan Oke I had met briefly at cons and so forth. The majority of participants were new to me but, regardless, everyone here shared the experience of being a published Science Fiction or Fantasy writer, as well as the desire to further hone their creative practice via peer feedback and constructive criticism. No surprise so that friendships and professional contacts were quickly made during our week workshopping each other’s writing, dining together on the wonderful Trigonos food (yes, its reputation is well deserved!), and sharing a few drinks in the library each evening.

I am therefore pleased to report that my first Milford experience lived up to the conference’s reputation. Participants were not just excellent writers but highly perceptive readers of the work of others. The group functioned as a microcosm of our potential audience and was often illustrative of the different kinds of readers which one’s work will ultimately encounter (particular distinctions were evident between, say, those who want overt connections made for them in a story and those wishing to piece things together themselves, or those who prioritise scientific realism over poetic licence and vice versa). Many of the observations made have stayed with me in the weeks since the conference concluded. For instance, when our discussion wasn’t orbiting lagrangian points (which appeared in three stories, including mine; and luckily Dave Clements was on hand to address issues of physics) we often found ourselves on the topic of trees and their symbolism for writers of Fantasy and Science Fiction. As Kari Sperring put it, in what is perhaps my favourite remark from Milford 2015: “Trees bind time together. They run between the past and the future”.

For indeed, just as important as the critiquing workshops were these kinds of meandering group conversations over lunch or dinner. On any given day there was intellectual stimulation to be found in everything from the histories of Catastrophism and Uniformitarianism (thanks, Matt Colborn) to the fact that “cows got really, really big in the 1700s” (that one was Tiffani, fresh off four years of horticultural and agricultural research for her PhD). The informal stretches of Milford thus offered opportunities for the knowledge (and, for that matter, the particular nerdishness) of individual participants to shine through and, in many cases, spark ideas in others. Among the new-to-me information unspooled over the course of the week was an explanation of the mechanism whereby cannibalism basically leads to the same problems as BSE and the fact that the machine for making Pringles was invented by author Gene Wolfe.

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While I missed the Wednesday sessions (on account of a staff meeting at my new job some two hours down the coast), I was back in time for the Milford AGM that evening. I found this to be a mature and meaningful discussion of just how the conference intends to go forward, how it aims to attract participants from a wider range of backgrounds, and how the organisers take care to ensure that the event always ring-fences slots for new attendees.

Equally, the “Marketing Evening” – a discussion of what venues the participants thought the pieces workshopped throughout the week might be best submitted to – served to underline one of the great selling points of Milford: the pooling of knowledge and experience from a variety of published authors at various stages of their careers. The discussion of agents and editors was frank and beneficial, as was our discourse about both the “hot new markets” and the shifting moods of more established publications. The Marketing Evening was followed the next day by a group field trip to nearby Portmeirion, famous (as I’m sure you all know!) as the setting for the classic 1960s TV seriesThe Prisoner. This was a delight (I’ve always wanted to visit) even if it wasn’t strictly part of the workshop (!).

Of course Milford is not for everybody (I’m thinking of the kind of author – and we all know one – who reacts poorly to, for instance, a bad review; which is to say the unprofessional author). While robust Milford critiques are softened with an apologetic offering of sorts (a so-called “chocolate review”) they are also to be expected because the point of the exercise is to dismantle stories and make them better. If Milford was nothing more than a dozen people telling you that you are already great then it would be worthless. Instead it is a serious undertaking for authors who wish to improve their craft. As a writer and, for that matter, as a third level writing instructor, I found it an extremely valuable experience (and, if nothing else, it introduced me to the term “anti-ditto” which I have already begun using in my own workshops!).

I will definitely go back to Milford. Hopefully I will be more prepared for the heavy reading load on the next occasion (you know, by virtue of not moving my entire life to another country at the same time!) but, for now, I have returned with a wealth of meaningful feedback to fuel the revision of my submitted story. I imagine my fellow participants are all hunkered down in similar rewrites at present. I can’t wait to see where the work which they shared eventually appears in print.

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Two Recent Anthologies…

I’m delighted that a pair of fine volumes featuring work by yours truly have recently arrived on my desk.

Best of Electric VelocipedeFirst off, my Sturgeon nominated story ‘The Irish Astronaut’ comes home in The Best of Electric Velocipede, edited by John Klima, a retrospective collection from the much-missed journal which originally published the piece. ‘The Irish Astronaut’ follows an American pilot on a visit to the moon-like hills of Country Clare in the aftermath of a crash which has placed doubts over the future of the manned space programme.

The story finds itself in some really wonderful company here, with the Best of collecting thirty-four pieces of fiction and poetry from across the twelve years during which Electric Velocipede was published. Those familiar with EV will recognise the great verve and willingness to take risks which defined the magazine in this selection. This breadth of material renders the Best of eclectic in terms of style, however what never varies here is the quality of the work. A few of the pieces which stick with me the most include ‘Indicating the Awareness of Persons Buried Alive’, by Liz Williams, ‘∞o’ by Darin Bradley, and ‘The Beasts We Want to Be’ by Sam J. Miller, but there are also stories by Catherynne M. Valente, Ken Liu, Liz Williams, and many others. It’s a treat of a book… which I’d be saying even if I hadn’t contributed to it (honestly!).

You're Not AloneThe second anthology is You’re Not Alone: Thirty Science Fiction Stories from Cosmos Magazine, edited by Damien Broderick. This volume reprints ‘All the Wrong Places’, a comic story I wrote about the search for the Higgs Boson particle for the Australian popular science publication Cosmos. ‘All the Wrong Places’ was only my second story sale back in 2010 and I’m glad to see it back in circulation. Though of course, as the editor says in his introduction, the piece is ‘a jape which risked being undone by the march of science after its first publication’. While that’s just a risk of the sci-fi field (!), I’m confident that this particular wild particle chase still has something to offer even in light of CERN’s discoveries.

You’re Not Alone features contributions from Australia, New Zealand, England, Sweden, the Netherlands, and the United States. Many of the pieces are shorter than those in the Electric Velocipede collection, however the result is a no less varied or intriguing selection which ranges from Hard SF to more philosophical offerings. Standouts for me include Pamela Sargent’s ‘Not Alone’ from which the anthology takes its title, Mary Robinette Kowal’s ‘For Solo Cello, op.12’, and Liz Heldmann’s ‘Echoes’. But there are also stories from Joe Haldeman, Cat Sparks, the late Jay Lake, and a whole crop of newcomers. In that way, You’re Not Alone is a great read, yes, but also a measure of short science-fiction’s evolving identity and continuing vitality at the start of the twenty-first century.

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Year’s Best Science Fiction, Thirty-First Annual Collection

Year's Best Science FictionThis week sees the publication of Gardner Dozois’s thirty-first annual anthology The Year’s Best Science Fiction (St. Martin’s Press). I’m honoured to say that this year’s selection includes my Sturgeon-nominated story ‘The Irish Astronaut’ alongside work from the likes of Ian R. MacLeod, Sunny Moraine, the late Jay Lake, Geoff Ryman, Karl Bunker, Carrie Vaughn, Greg Egan, Allen M. Steele, Aliette de Bodard, Nancy Kress, Ken Liu, Martin L. Shoemaker, Jake Kerr, Sandra McDonald, Michael Swanwick, Stephen Baxter, Alexander Jablokov, Neal Asher, Lavie Tidhar, Sean McMullen, Ian McDonald, Melissa Scott, Brendan DuBois, and James Patrick Kelly (I’ve previously blogged a full breakdown of the contents here).

From the blurb: ‘The world of science fiction has long been a porthole into the realities of tomorrow, blurring the line between life and art. Now, in The Year’s Best Science Fiction: Thirty-First Annual Collection the very best SF authors explore ideas of a new world in the year’s best short stories. This venerable collection brings together award winning authors and masters of the field such as Robert Reed, Alastair Reynolds, Damien Broderick, Elizabeth Bear, Paul McAuley and John Barnes. And with an extensive recommended reading guide and a summation of the year in science fiction, this annual compilation has become the definitive must-read anthology for all science fiction fans.’

Weighing in at 750 pages, The Year’s Best Science Fiction: Thirty First Annual Collection can be purchased at all good bookshops or direct from the publisher here.

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Now Available: The Best Science Fiction and Fantasy of the Year, Volume Eight

Year's Best Science Fiction and Fantasy - Vol 8I’m pleased to say that Johnathan Strahan’s Best Science Fiction and Fantasy of the Year (volume eight) has just been published by Solaris. The anthology includes my story ‘The Irish Astronaut’ (shortlisted for this year’s Sturgeon award) along with work from K J Parker, Neil Gaiman, Yoon Ha Lee, Joe Abercrombie, Sofia Samatar, Greg Egan, E Lily Yu, Geoff Ryman, M Bennardo, Ted Chiang, Ramez Naam, Priya Sharma, M John Harrison, Richard Parks, Lavie Tidhar, Thomas Olde Heuvelt,  James Patrick Kelly, Benjanun Sriduangkaew, Eleanor Arnason, Ian R Macleod,  Charlie Jane Anders, An Owomoyela, Karin Tidbeck, Madeline Ashby, Caitlín R Kiernan, Robert Reed, and Ian Mcdonald (I have previously blogged a more complete breakdown of the contents here).

To quote the cover: “From the inner realms of humanity to the far reaches of space, these are the science fiction and fantasy tales that are shaping the genre and the way we think about the future. Multi-award winning editor Jonathan Strahan continues to shine a light on the very best writing, featuring both established authors and exciting new talents. Within you will find twenty-eight incredible tales, showing the ever growing depth and diversity that science fiction and fantasy continues to enjoy. These are the brightest stars in our firmament, lighting the way to a future filled with astonishing stories about the way we are, and the way we could be.

You can order a copy from Solaris online here or pick one up at all good bookshops.

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‘Diving into the Wreck’ published in Interzone

The relevant pages of Interzone #252

Two relevant pages from Interzone #252

I’m happy to say that my story ‘Diving into the Wreck’ has just been published in the current (May 2014)  issue of Interzone (#252) accompanied by a beautiful painting by Wayne Haag.

This is a near-future story about an exo-archaeologist searching for the remains of the Eagle module on the Moon, the actual capsule in which Armstrong and Aldrin travelled to and from the lunar surface (no, we don’t know where its ascent stage is). In the process he is forced to confront his feelings about the death and legacy of his wife, an historian of the Space Age who believed that some things should remain mysteries.

There’s a lot of me in ‘Diving into the Wreck’. The settings range from the hills of west Limerick above where I grew up, to the University of California at San Diego where I was part of the Clarion Writers’ Workshop, to an apartment overlooking the shores of Galway Bay where I lived while writing the story. And the moon, of course; the same moon that watches over all those places and has for so long fueled my interest in astronauts and their adventures.

The story’s title is borrowed from the well-known Adrienne Rich poem about the past, about the power and importance of our personal narratives, and about ‘the wreck of obsolete myths,’ in Margaret Atwood’s words (The New York Times Book Review, 1973). It seemed a good fit for a story about recollection and the value of modern myths in the era of space exploration, especially given the characters’ belief in the necessity of understanding ‘the old stories before embarking on a journey to change them’ (as Judith McDaniel has written of Rich’s poem; Reconstituting the World, 1978).

Interzone #252 also contains stories by Neil Williamson, Katharine E.K. Duckett, Oliver Buckram, Claire Humphrey, and Bonnie Jo Stufflebeam, along with Andy Hedgecock’s interview with Williamson and the usual book, cinema, and DVD reviews. The issue can be purchased via TTA Press (and they, in turn, can be followed via Twitter here).

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Theodore Sturgeon Memorial Award: List of Finalists Announced

I was very pleased to discover yesterday that my story ‘The Irish Astronaut’  is among this year’s finalists for the Theodore Sturgeon Memorial Award for best short science fiction. The list was announced by Christopher McKitterick, Director of the Gunn Center for the Study of Science Fiction, and the award will be presented this June as part of the Campbell Conference held annually at the University of Kansas in Lawrence. Congratulations to all my fellow finalists!

The full list of 2014 finalists (linked to the stories where possible):

Four things jump out at me from this list:

  1. There is a respectable (though not quite 50/50) gender balance here. Nice to see that.
  2. The shortlist is a fantastic endorsement of the Clarion Writers’ Workshop. While Ken Scheyer and I are both graduates of the 2009 Clarion class, the finalists also include: Gregory Bossert (Clarion 2010), Vylar Kaftan (Clarion West; 2004, I think),  and Will McIntosh (Clarion 2003). I hope I haven’t missed anyone anyone! Mind you, go take yourself on a Google tour of all the shortlist authors and, Clarion or not, you will find stunning talent, publications, experience, and imagination right across the board. This is a phenomenal group of writers.
  3. Asimov’s continues to hold its own as one of the leading science fiction publications out there. An impressive four of the ten stories on this list were originally published in its pages.
  4. Beyond Asimov’s, however, it is impossible to ignore the continuing influence of online journals such as Clarkesworld, Strange Horizons, and the recently closed Electric Velocipede.  The rise of the online magazine is an old hat story by now, yes, but what differentiates these publications in particular is the impact of their strong and discerning editorial direction on the short-fiction ecosystem; they’re not just publishing stories online, they’re publishing those stories which are rapidly coming to dominate awards lists, Best Of anthologies, and so on.

From yesterday’s press release: The Theodore Sturgeon Memorial Award recognizes the best science fiction short story each year. It was established in 1987 by James Gunn, Founding Director of the Center for the Study of Science Fiction at KU; and the heirs of Theodore Sturgeon, including his partner Jayne Engelhart Tannehill and Sturgeon’s children; as an appropriate memorial to one of the great short-story writers in a field distinguished by its short fiction. The current jury consists of Elizabeth Bear, Andy Duncan, James Gunn, Kij Johnson, and Noël Sturgeon, Trustee of the Theodore Sturgeon Literary Estate.

The Campbell Conference has been held each year since 1978 at the University of Kansas. It includes a Friday-evening banquet where the annual Theodore A. Sturgeon and John W. Campbell Memorial Award are given; a Saturday round-table discussion with scholars, scientists, and writers of science fiction; and other events. This year’s topic is “Science Fiction in the Real World,” with a special focus on long-time friend of the Center, Frederik Pohl.

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The Best Science Fiction and Fantasy of the Year – Volume 8

Year's Best Science Fiction and Fantasy - Vol 8I’m very happy to say that editor and anthologist Jonathan Strahan has just announced the contents of The Best Science Fiction and Fantasy  of the Year (Volume 8) and that he has selected my story ‘The Irish Astronaut’  for the book.

I’m really very pleased with this and very grateful to Mr. Strahan for seeing fit to include the story alongside work from a very intimidating group of writers including Ted Chiang, Neil Gaiman, Geoff Ryman, M. John Harrison, Ian McDonald, and many more. 

From the Amazon description: “The best, most original and brightest science fiction and fantasy stories from around the globe from the past twelve months are brought together in one collection by multiple award winning editor Jonathan Strahan. This highly popular series now reaches volume eight and will include stories from both the biggest names in the field and the most exciting new talents.”

I heard Mr. Strahan speak at last year’s World Fantasy Convention in Brighton and it gave me a real appreciation for the thought and effort he puts into crafting his anthologies. I’m very much looking forward to seeing how all these pieces work together as a volume.

CONTENTS (Via Jonathanstrahan.com.au)

  •  Introduction, Jonathan Strahan
  • “Some Desperado”, Joe Abercrombie (Dangerous Women)
  • “Zero for Conduct”, Greg Egan (Twelve Tomorrows)
  • “Effigy Nights”, Yoon Ha Lee (Clarkesworld)
  • “Rosary and Goldenstar”, Geoff Ryman (F&SF)
  • “The Sleeper and the Spindle”, Neil Gaiman (Rags and Bones)
  • “Cave and Julia”, M. John Harrison (Kindle Singles)
  • “The Herons of Mer de l’Ouest”, M Bennardo (Lightspeed)
  • “Water”, Ramez Naam (An Aura of Familiarity)
  • “The Truth of Fact, the Truth of Feeling”, Ted Chiang (Subterranean)
  • “The Ink Readers of Doi Saket”, Thomas Olde Heuvelt (Tor.com)
  • “Cherry Blossoms on the River of Souls”, Richard Parks (Beneath Ceaseless Skies)
  • “Rag and Bone”, Priya Sharma (Tor.com)
  • “The Book Seller”, Lavie Tidhar (Interzone)
  • “The Sun and I”, K J Parker (Subterranean)
  • “The Promise of Space”, James Patrick Kelly (Clarkesworld)
  • “The Master Conjurer”, Charlie Jane Anders (Lightspeed)
  • “The Pilgrim and the Angel”, E. Lily Yu (McSweeney’s 45)
  • “Entangled”, Ian R Macleod (Asimov’s)
  • “Fade to Gold”, Benjanun Sriduangkaew (End of the Road)
  • “Selkies Stories are for Losers”, Sofia Samatar (Strange Horizons)
  • “In Metal, In Bone”, An Owomoyela (Eclipse Online)
  • “Kormack the Lucky”, Eleanor Arnason (F&SF)
  • “Sing”, Karin Tidbeck (Tor.com)
  • “Social Services”, Madeline Ashby (An Aura of Familiarity)
  • “The Road of Needles”, Caitlín R Kiernan (Once Upon a Time: New Fairy Tales)
  • “Mystic Falls”, Robert Reed (Clarkesworld)
  • “The Queen of Night’s Aria”, Ian McDonald (Old Mars)
  • “The Irish Astronaut”, Val Nolan (Electric Velocipede)

The Best Science Fiction and Fantasy of the Year (Volume 8) will be published by Solaris in the UK, Ireland, and Australia this May.

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