Everyone’s a Critic

Empire of Dust cover

Empire of Dust

My friend and fellow author, the much talented Jacey Bedford, guest blogs about her new book. My reciprocal post is here – Ben

That’s it, I’ve done my best. Empire of Dust is not only finished but it’s published. I have a copy in my hot little hands. Too late now to change a thing.

It’s a star-spanning space opera featuring mega-corporations, brain-implanted psi-techs, foldspace and jump gates. Its broad theme is trust and betrayal with complex relationships and twisty plots. Friends become enemies and help comes from unexpected quarters. The most important skill for survival is knowing where to place your trust.

Much as I’d like to take credit for the whole book, publishing a novel is a team effort. Sure, I wrote it, but my editor, Sheila Gilbert, worked with me to make it better. Then when it was finished to the best of my ability it was handed over to a copy editor who checked it for clunky phrasing, spelling mistakes, continuity errors and consistency, and also translated it from British English into American English. (It’s published by DAW in the USA, a well-established, specialist science fiction and fantasy publisher, part of the Penguin Group.) Then I got it back to do a final check, i.e. the page proofs, which was my first inkling of how it would look in its finished typeset form. After that a professional proof reader went over it yet again.

That’s a huge team effort, but even before DAW agreed to publish it I already owed a lot to members of various critique groups.

Writer Paul Cornell says that it’s a writer’s job to seek out the harshest criticism they can find and learn from it. Some of that learning process comes from reviews after the event, but a wise writer seeks out critique while the work is still in progress. But don’t just ask your mum (unless your mum is a writer, too) and beware of those writers’ groups that exist to pat you on the back just for getting some words down on paper. I’m a firm believer in peer-to-peer critique groups.

There are well-known online critique groups like Critters, but I was lucky to be a part of a Usenet newsgroup called rec.arts.sf.composition (rasfc for short) in the days before Usenet was overtaken by Google groups, blogs and social media. (It’s not all that long ago. Things change quickly in cyberspace and Usenet still exists for those of us who want it.) Someone on rasfc floated the idea of forming an email critique group and a bunch of us who were working hard towards publication waved our hands. It became the RECOG crit group and it lasted for eight years. We had a schedule for submitting work to the group and we were honour bound to give as thorough and constructive critique as we could. I learned a lot from people I knew only by names such as garyfury and zeborah. We were all heartened when one of our number, James Hetley, got his first publishing deal for books that we’d critiqued. Hey, if it could happen for him then there was hope for all of us.

Also on rasfc I met (online) Liz Holliday who was then the secretary of Milford, a week-long event of peer-to-peer, face-to-face critiquing. In order to attend Milford you have to be published, but that need only be one short story to one recognised publisher or magazine. In 1998 I sold my first short story to an anthology and therefore qualified for Milford. I was terrified, but I booked anyway, determined to give it a go. In those days it was held in a cliff-top hotel in Maidencombe (near Torquay). Later it moved to York for a couple of years, and currently resides in scenic North Wales at Trigonos, a lovely residential centre with its own lake and a magnificent view of the mountains.

We were a group of ten in 1998. Writing is a solitary business, so to find nine 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. My fellow writers included multiply-published American author Patricia Wrede; host of this blog, Ben Jeapes; Cherith Baldry, who is one of the team that writes the very successful Warrior Cats series of children’s books, under the name of Erin Hunter; and Alastair Reynolds and Liz Williams, before either of them got their first book deal.

Did my fellow writers like my book? Not especially, I suspect, though they were very kind in their constructive criticism, and their advice helped me to make changes for the better. They certainly didn’t make me feel like a clueless newbie, even though I was. I learned so much that I went back the following year, and again the year after. In fact, in sixteen years I’ve only missed three Milfords, and those due to prior commitments that I couldn’t shirk. I’ve been on the organising committee for the last five or six years and I now maintain the Milford website.

Each Milford week takes a maximum of fifteen attendees, for both rooming and workload reasons. Attendees submit up to 15,000 words in one or two pieces. These can be complete short stories or sections of a longer work. Days are organised to a schedule in order to make sure all the work is covered. 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; no one need feel obliged if they need to hide away and write like mad).

Milford critiques are thorough but constructive. Each person, in turn, gets four minutes to deliver a verbal crit. The person being critiqued 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.

Lots of good things have happened to me because of Milford, one being the recently formed Northwrite SF writers’ group, started by a few Milford writers who wanted a northern-based quarterly face-to-face group. My fellow Northwriters currently have the pleasure of critiquing chunks of Crossways, my sequel to Empire of Dust, due to be published in 2015.

I can honestly say that if it wasn’t for Milford I would not have a three book deal with DAW and I would not be sitting here clutching Empire of Dust and grinning like an idiot.


Jacey Bedford

Jacey Bedford

Jacey Bedford lives behind a keyboard in Pennine Yorkshire with her songwriter husband, Brian, and a long-haired black German Shepherd dog called Eska. She’s had short stories published on both sides of the Atlantic and her first novel, Empire of Dust, is out from DAW, part of the Penguin Group in the USA, in November. It’s available via good bookshops and the usual online retailers.

Jacey met Ben Jeapes, the host of this blog, at her very first Milford in 1998. She wants to make it very clear that the Ben in her book and Ben-your-blog-host are not related.


Bright and breezy BristolCon

So, this year’s BristolCon programme is out and, guess what, I’m doing a couple of things on top of all that painful but necessary sitting in the bar and drinking beer …

17:00 – 17:45 Past Lives, Future Visions: What can SF writers learn from history? What events lurk in the past that we don’t realise have happened or don’t think about – are we recreating the past when we envision the future?
with Ben Jeapes (Mod), Janet Edwards, Dev Agarwal, Jessica Rydill, Justin Newland

19:00 – 19:45 Rogues and Ruffians, Pirates and Thieves: From Han Solo to Loki to Locke Lamora, the scoundrel has enduring appeal in SF and fantasy. What is it we all like about a bad boy (or girl?) Who are the best SFF rogues, are pirates better than thieves, and how do you write a good bad good guy without getting completely confused?
with Anne Lyle (Mod), Huw Powell, Ben Jeapes, Gaie Sebold, Lor/Rudie

Campaign for Real Space Opera

Dear BBC. Or ITV, or indy production company, or whoever gets to make TV series in today’s post-regulated media world. Doctor Who is kind of successful for the BBC. I understand – though never watched it – that Primeval wasn’t bad for ITV, as far as wannabe clones of successful series go. Torchwood … let’s just say it found its way, eventually, but even at its best it was hampered like Pertwee’s first three years by being mostly present-day and Earthbound.

Why can’t we have a decent homegrown space opera again?

You see, I’ve been rewatching Blake’s 7 on YouTube. But not all of it.

First time round, I only ever got to see the first season. I was in my last year at prep school and we went to bed at – wait for it – eight o’clock. So, there was just time to squeeze in an episode once a week between end of prep and going upstairs. I still think of it in black and white. I started watching with the third episode, “Cygnus Alpha”, and was immediately hooked. (Terry Nation’s novelisation of the first four episodes later helped fill in the gaps.) I can still remember the first use of the teleport. Our heroes struggle with half understood technology on a stolen starship, so Blake materialises halfway up a slope and immediately tumbles backwards. Genius.

In those days, TV SF that wasn’t Doctor Who was original Star Trek or Space: 1999. Neither of those exactly pushed the boat out in terms of antagonism, anti-heroism, friction between the leading characters … all the things that made B7 fun. B7 was the first space show I saw where the good guys – well, the heroes – didn’t work for a uniformed organisation. Sure, the effects were risible, but not bad for what the Beeb could do in those days. And it’s not what you see, it’s what you remember. This is how Doctor Who and Star Trek made it big. You saw wobbly, cardboard sets and identikit alien planets – but you remembered epic battles across time and space.

And let’s not do the Beeb down. They had no money but a lot of vision. They made pioneering use of video effects with, for instance, the aforesaid teleport. Watch the last few minutes of “The Web”: Blake and Avon teleport out of the lab just as the little dwarfy creatures – I forget their names – break in and start wreaking havoc. It all happens in the same frame, at the same time. A dynamic, motion-filled scene. Mould-breaking stuff. The Beeb’s attitude to effects (and this goes back to Doctor Who, too) was that they knew what they could have done with a decent budget, unlimited time and state of the art equipment … so they went ahead with what they could and pretended that what they had done was what they had in mind.

The original Travis was a brilliant baddy, 30 years before the equally hissable, equally leatherclad Guy of Gisborne as played by Richard Armitage. And Servalan … Hmm. Yes, Servalan. I was entering adolescence in an all-male environment when she came along. Let’s just say I owe her a lot. (Her and Sarah Jane Smith, natch.)

But the first series, as I say, was all I saw. I then moved to big boys’ school, with no TV in the evenings except at weekends. So, I got a healthy dose of The Professionals but no more Blake, apart from the occasional episode snatched at half term or during the hols. Thus I got the start of the third season – exit Blake and Jenna, enter Dayna and Tarrant – and the end, with our heroes stranded on a hostile world as the Liberator disintegrates in orbit and Avon smiles. But that was it. I saw one, mid-run episode of the fourth season – the Headhunter one, just enough to leave me unimpressed with Scorpio as Liberator’s replacement, and wonder who Soolin was and where Cally had got to – and that was it.

The university sfsoc plugged a large hole in my knowledge with its end of term video weekends – the legendary Craig Hinton, in the days before shows were commercially available on VHS, somehow had a line into the heart of the BBC and what came out of it was pure gold, not just B7 but Doctor Who too. But even Craig only showed a couple of fourth season episodes. I don’t think he thought much of it either.

The fourth season was the season that should never have been. The series was all meant to end with the third – until the Head of BBC TV decided to uncancel it literally as the last episode was rolling, and the first anyone had heard of a fourth season came in a surprise continuity announcement immediately afterwards.

So the fourth season was the unplanned child, the one Mummy and Daddy never wanted or budgeted for. No more Liberator – our heroes are stuck on a broken down space freighter that makes the Millennium Falcon look swish. The same bloody sandpit, week in and week out for different alien worlds (even more so than before), none inhabited by more than three people. All the former spaces of Liberator compressed down to a single set on Scorpio because that’s all the budget could stretch to. Exit telepathic Cally, enter the somewhat bland but still gunslingin’ Soolin, who was never really given enough to do other than make up the numbers. Supercomputer Zen was blown to bits with the Liberator so replaced with the grovelling and deeply tedious Slave. Such are the budget restrictions that I’m pretty sure our heroes spend the entire series in the same outfits, apart from Soolin who manages one change. (Servalan continues to model a range of ever more setting-inappropriate glamourwear, and is no longer the scheming evil uberbitch of yore but the depressingly predictable surprise-surprise baddy each week.)

And so the fourth has a poor reputation, which may be why I never really bothered. Until just recently, my curiosity was piqued by Adventures with the Wife and Blake, and I snuck a look. And, you know what? The fourth season has been done down.

All the above points? Oh, true, all of them. That’s what I saw. But that’s not what I remember.

I can and will go further. The fourth season should have been the third. It broke the series out of a rut. No more smug swanning around the galaxy in their super-starship, tweaking Servalan’s nose, teleporting out of trouble and hitting Liberator’s go-faster button whenever a Federation pursuit ship hoves into view. Nope: right from the start, our heroes have lost everything and they keep losing. Avon gets madder and madder. Their situation grows more and more hopeless. The whole dynamic has changed. But there is still a feeling of continuity. Life has moved on and our heroes are having to move with it. All the way to the final, Hamletesque five minutes of the very last episode …

The attitude extended into the look of the programme. There was variety. Sometimes – literally only once or twice – we got to see Scorpio landing or taking off. It wasn’t just the teleport all over again. A story should be more than just the effects, of course (which in the case of B7 was never difficult) but if you’re going to have a TV show, you need movement. Season 4 had much more movement than 1-3. And of all the seasons, it had the best run of guest stars – Roy Kinnear, Lynda Bellingham, Stratford Johns – to add a bit of gravitas.

So, Beeb, come on. You did it once, you can do it again. Don’t let the Yanks fun off the field with Firefly. Give us an intelligent series with good actors and modern effects and good personality clashes with no guaranteed happy endings for anyone, where the drama arises from the interpersonal stuff rather than alien of the week. Go on, you know you want to.

And now a song.