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Milford Writers' Retreats
Bursaries for Writers of Colour
Milford Report 2003
Back row: Jane Fletcher, Jaine Fenn, Ian Nichols, Colin Davies
Mid row (sorta): Liz Williams, Rosanne Rabinowitz, Stuart Falconer, Chris Butler, Colin Brush
Front standing: Jacey Bedford, Gaie Sebold, Mike Lewis, Cherith Baldry, Sarah Singleton
Front kneeling: Sue Thomason, Deirdre Counihan
Milford 2003 took place in York in the Hedley House Hotel close to Bootham Bar and within easy walking distance of the city centre and Minster.
Milford 2003 by Gaie Sebold
I was nervous about going to Milford. It amazed me to get in, on the strength of my one and only professional story sale: I was all too aware of being a very new fish about to enter a pretty rarefied pond. However, the water turned out to be fine; in fact I had the time of my life.
York was bizarrely sun-drenched and crammed with antiquities I wasn’t going to have time to examine. I had made a pathetic attempt to get started on the reading before I arrived, but with between roughly 11,000 and 22,000 words a day to read and critique, I rapidly realised that I should have started some time before. Last year would have been good.
We gathered in the dining room of the Hedley House Hotel for the first night meal, where I swallowed, along with the chicken, my inevitable awe at finding myself on the same table as Liz Williams. There were sixteen attendees, not to mention Mrs Nichols who, though not attending the workshop, was accompanying her husband (Ian Nichols of Andromeda Spaceways Inflight Magazine). She behaved with remarkable patience, considering.
The days began with a fried breakfast of, by my standards, ridiculously large proportions. I don’t even do breakfast. "It’s brain food, you need it," people kept telling me in reassuring tones, as I watched absurd amounts of food disappear from my plate.
Mornings were spent reading and writing critiques; in your room, the hotel’s lounge, or even on occasion in the Abbey Gardens, surrounded by tourists and ancient stone disintegrating gently in the sunlight. One of the attendees, who shall remain nameless, also managed to do an hour’s writing a day, apparently without the aid of interesting chemicals. I could only whimper in awe as I attempted to prise my eyelids open with cocktail sticks.
At some point it was usual to stagger into York in search of lunch, gaping at a few beams and so forth and making vague plans to see it properly at some point when one’s brain wasn’t full of story structure, characterisation, and stray speculations on the sexual habits of wolves.
In the afternoons, the critiquing sessions took place in a strange little semi-basement room. This had an assortment of chairs and institutional green décor (with colour-co-ordinated abstract paintings of almost perfect blandness). There was a definite temptation to stand up and say, "my name’s Gaie Sebold, and I’m a writer," in approved 12-step fashion; but the impulse soon died under the sheer sweated terror of awaiting the verdict on your work. The standard of writing was frighteningly high. The piece of haematite I clutched for support attained roughly the temperature of active plutonium; but in the end both of my stories received extremely useful critique and neither was entirely despised, to my great relief.
I ended up feeling less worried about my fiction than about the standard of my critiques; the level of detail and clarity with which the other attendees analysed the work put me to shame. I hope that my technique improved towards the end of the week, and I can think of few better ways to improve your writing, and particularly your rewriting; but damn, it was hard work.
There is a benevolent Milford tradition of offering a drink to any writer whose work you are particularly harsh about, but this was seldom necessary. On the rare occasions when it was put into effect, the response was generally genial. No-one was excessively precious about their own work, or unnecessarily brutal about anyone else’s. The sessions were truly professional and helpful — even fun.
In the evening we invaded one of the local restaurants: the conversation covered death, drugs and live role play, not to mention publication, aliens, corsets, the psychology of serial killers and the proper method of deploying combat noodles. Sue Thomason (Empress of the Known Universe, a.k.a. Chair of the Milford Committee) and I were nearly banned from sitting together, as our combined howls of merriment tended to cause food to leap from plates. Not just our plates, either.
There was no real bar in the hotel. This was felt to be a disadvantage: there was a room, which had a table and a sort of sideboard arrangement with drinks in it, but it lacked a certain ambience as a gathering place. Apart from anything else we couldn’t all have fitted in. Thus the post-prandial strange games, disturbing competitions and readings from The Eye of Argon of which I had heard rumours did not, sadly, take place. Although how anyone would have had the energy I can barely imagine.
On the last day we critiqued one final story. We then spilled into York. After lunch in a chocaholic’s dream restaurant, we finally got our fill of history at the wonderful Merchant Adventurers’ Hall. The beams, flagged floors and strange green-painted chapel (there’s a definite local thing about pale green paint) I strongly suspect will turn up in one or two fantasy stories. Charity shops were duly raided, the last night’s scrumptious meal was eaten, and we were officially christened Milford Minions to the Empress of the Known Universe. (Although one of us, refusing to be a Minion, became the Token Lackey.)
I reached home broke and utterly exhausted, with an aching brain and about 17 pages of critique which I still haven’t had time to apply to the stories in question.
Am I going to put myself through it again?
Are you kidding? Of course I am. And I have to go back to the hotel, if only to check whether they’ve noticed yet that we turned the paintings in the critique room upside-down…
Not that we shamelessly nick ideas or anything, but since Clarion started doing T-shirts with context-free quotes, we started doing T-shirts with quotes. And here are this year's results:
"A fairy on a motorbike does it for me."
"Getting into a mad alien robot's viewpoint is a bit of a challenge."
"The severed arm really grabbed me."
"I'd buy it and I haven't even got a magazine."
"So, you do entrails."
"I promise to take it off and bring it to dinner."
"Die, Noodle Scum!"
"There is a lot to be said for the quick-release corset."
"How many lesbian adulterous werewolves do you know?"
"If you are coming back as a cat, I'm definitely not coming back as a gerbil."
"I don't know much about kids except that they are necessary for the propagation of the human race."
"I was expecting Arthurian mysticism but then, bugger me, it was aliens."
"So far as I know, you don't hyphenate 'arsehole'."
"It tastes terrific spread over a close friend."
"I recently ate my first Yorkshire Fat Bastard."
"I can't take ichor seriously."
"This would be a worthwhile read if I could get over the pain threshold."
"Is there such a thing as Too Klingon?"
"Secretly, I'm a bit of a sucker for The Cosmic All."
"40k at 10c a word — that's a foreign holiday!"
"You don't want people swimming in your god, do you?"
"They are going to have to pass a law or everyone in Ireland is going to be eaten by pumas."
"It's Quatermass meets The Famous Five."
"Luxury bathmats with feelings of their own..."
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