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I’m a Dream Foundry Finalist!

Last month, I entered a story into the Dream Foundry writing contest. Now, I can announce that—out of a pool of more than 300 entries—I’m through to the final ten!

The Dream Foundry is an organisation dedicated to supporting the speculative fiction community, in particular by encouraging new writers and artists in the field. As part of that goal they’re launching a yearly contest, and 2019 was the inaugural run.

Judges included award-winning author William Ledbetter, JABberwocky literary agent Lisa Rodgers, and F&SF super editor C.C. Finlay. The three winning contestants will be announced on or before 15th November.

In the meantime, you can see the full list of finalists over on the Dream Foundry site.

Milford Writers’ Conference 2019: A Retrospective

And like that, it’s over. I went to Milford; I met some brilliant people, I explored the Welsh countryside with them, and I spent the whole week talking to them about the craft of writing (when we weren’t too busy making dick jokes, that is). Now that I’m back home and I’ve had some time to reflect, I figured I should share my thoughts on it and talk about what I’ve learned.

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Look at them. Look at the lovely people. Look at me standing at the back, pretending to be cool.

It’s hard to encapsulate what makes an experience like Milford so valuable. Partly because there are so many different things you can get out of spending a week with fourteen other writers; what you’ll find most valuable will depend on what you’re looking to get out of it.

For me, personally, I was looking to improve my storytelling skills: to sharpen my understanding of plot structure, character arcs, motivations, and so forth. I wanted to get better at diagnosing story problems; at figuring out when the prose is hindering the narrative. And I did. But what surprised me is that these weren’t the most useful things I learned at Milford.

It was the things that I didn’t know I needed to learn: how to get an agent, where to look for anthology submission calls, which conventions to go to, how to promote yourself. The business stuff. All things that, on some level, I was vaguely aware that I ought to know. But until I was forced to talk to other writers about this stuff, I had managed to avoid really thinking about it. Realising this gave me a feeling similar to the one I’ve experienced during workshop critiques, when someone points out an obvious flaw in a story I’ve submitted: deep down, I already knew it was a problem, but I was really hoping no one else would notice.

As any writer will tell you, this is not a nice feeling. But it is an incredibly useful one; as soon as you’ve accepted there’s a problem you need to work on, you’re one step closer to finding the solution. And Milford was an excellent place to do just that.

MilfordMe
Pretending to be cool, vol. 2.

There was a specific evening dedicated to market discussion: a chance to suggest which magazines, editors, agents or publishers might be interested in the stories we had all submitted. This naturally led to a wide-ranging debate on the business side of writing, and it was a topic we returned to in various conversations throughout the week.

I found much to appreciate in those discussions; not just in the content, but in the delivery. Everyone was incredibly supportive, and all advice was given in a positive, constructive way. It felt like we were part of a community⁠—having a laugh, eating and drinking together, and genuinely willing each other to succeed⁠—for which I was extremely grateful.

And that was the biggest thing I took away from the conference: how wonderful it was to connect with other like-minded people. How much I enjoyed spending a week in the company of some excellent writers who also happened to be excellent human beings. But that’s just my opinion; since it’s a writers-led conference, the things you learn and take away from Milford could be completely different. And since the attendees change every year, there’s always fresh opportunities to learn something new and connect with some brilliant new writers, which is, I’m sure, the thing that keeps people coming back.

If you want to read more, Milford’s co-organiser, Jacey Bedford, wrote her own retrospective, along with a series of live blogs (featuring yours truly!) during the week itself. You can apply to attend the conference here.

To Milford…and Beyond!

The 2014 conference in action…

The Milford SF Writer’s Conference is the UK’s leading residential workshop for science fiction and fantasy authors. Since its inception in 1972 (although it has roots in America as far back as the 1950s), it has played host to some amazing writers, including Anne McCaffrey, Neil Gaiman, George R.R. Martin, Charles Stross, Alastair Reynolds and Bruce Sterling.

And soon, me!

I’m really excited to announce that I’ll be one of the fifteen writers heading up to North Wales for the event on Saturday. Well, really excited and really exhausted, since part of the prep-work for Milford involves reading close to 150,000 words of fiction from fellow attendees and formulating detailed, constructive feedback before the event.

The conference runs for a full week, each day being comprised of a writers-led workshop using the Milford style of critique: the authors sit in a circle and give their feedback one at a time (group therapy style), for an uninterrupted 2-3 minutes each. If you’re the author being critiqued, you must sit in silence while everyone else takes it in turns to discuss the strengths and weaknesses of your piece. Only at the end—provided your soul is still intact—can you ask questions or clarify any points that have been raised.

Gulp.

The story I’ve submitted for the event, ‘An Unfamiliar Ceiling’, involves a body-swapping sci-fi drug, and has a slightly twisty-turny plot, so it will be really helpful (and really terrifying) to have a group of experienced authors read and discuss it, and help me iron out any weak spots to really make the story shine. But mostly, I’m looking forward to hearing critiques of other people’s stories, to see what aspects other authors comment on that I might have missed, to help me grow my critical instincts as a writer.

The centre where we’ll be staying, Trigonos, is located in the middle of Snowdonia, and while the views are spectacular, it’s pretty remote, and the cell reception is apparently awful, so I won’t be in touch with the outside world. Assuming the isolation and negative feedback don’t elicit some sort of ‘The Shining’ scenario, I’ll post a write-up of my experience after I come back in late September.

Oh, you think my story sucks, do you?!

If you’re interested in attending Milford yourself, all the details to apply for the 2020 conference are available on their website.

A Tribute to the Hawaiian Pizza

It shouldn’t work, should it? The thought of putting fruit on a pizza seems to defy all good sense, and yet the Hawaiian has become a staple of modern cuisine. When Sam Panopoulos first mixed pineapple and ham in the 1960s, he had no idea that it would spark a culinary debate that still rages decades later.

Whether you’re a fan of the fruit or not, there’s something to be said for pairing opposites together. Chefs have long understood the importance of balancing sweet with savoury, and they’re not alone. Fiction has been doing it for years; pairing brash characters with quiet ones, bookworms with simpletons, do-gooders with Machiavellis. In music, genre fusions have given birth to whole new styles like Blues or Electro Swing. In love, we’re told that opposites attract. And yet despite all of this, we’re more inclined to associate with people whose opinions and backgrounds are similar to our own. Even with the knowledge that great things can come from opposition, we seek out the familiar, we cling to the tried and tested, and the reason for this may lie in our genetics.

Source: Food.com

A hundred thousand years ago, our ancestors thrived thanks to their ability to work together and strive towards a common goal. Early humans would forage together—one pulling down a branch while another plucked the fruit, for example—then share the food between them. Hunter-gatherers formed tight-knit social groups to keep each other safe, raise children and dramatically improve their hunting capabilities, which was made possible by the intense loyalty that they felt towards the rest of their tribe.

While this quality ensured their survival, its legacy puts us at a distinct disadvantage in the modern age. Humanity no longer exists in small, isolated pockets; through technological innovation we are now more connected to each other than we have ever been before. In an ideal world, this would bring us closer to people with disparate ideals or upbringings, but our brains are still hardwired to feel solidarity towards the tribe, meaning that we struggle to identify with anyone who appears outside of our tribe as a result.

Studies have shown that human decision-making is often rooted in emotion, where loyalties and perceived biases can take precedence over the rational point of view. For example, one American case in 1954 interviewed Princeton and Dartmouth students after watching a particularly dirty Princeton vs. Dartmouth football game, revealing wildly different opinions on which side had produced more fouls. When we assign emotive value to a particular group or ideology, any opposition to it is perceived as a threat to our own existence, evoking a similarly emotional response. This is why, in an argument where someone’s opinions are challenged, they tend to double down on their original point of view, closing their mind off to different perspectives as if they were literally under attack. It’s also why someone might struggle to rationalise a bigoted point of view that they hold, because it represents their emotional ties to a specific group, rather than a conclusion that they’ve reached through cold, hard logic.

And while our tribes may have gotten bigger—whether it’s favourite sports teams, nationality, ethnicity, gender, or even political and religious beliefs—the gulfs that divide them have grown larger as well. The rise of social media serves to exacerbate this problem, allowing us to seek out people of our own tribe and silence those we disagree with behind the all-powerful ‘unfollow’ button. You don’t need to look far to see the inherent danger in online echo chambers, and it’s clear from the potent emotional reactions following events like the Syrian refugee crisis, Brexit or the election of Donald Trump, that people will quickly abandon rational thought and attack those who oppose their tribe’s point of view.

So, when reflecting on the impact of tribalism in modern society, perhaps we should take some inspiration from the humble Hawaiian pizza. It might seem unpleasant at first, but if we ignore the emotional hunter-gatherer inside of us and engage our rational mind, it becomes clear that opposition really can be beneficial, especially when it’s sweet, crispy and covered in a large helping of mozzarella.


 

Sources/Further Reading:

The Atlantic | Robert Wright | ‘Why Can’t We All Just Get Along? The Uncertain Biological Basis of Morality

Big Think | David Ropeik | ‘How Tribalism Overrules Reason, and Makes Risky Times More Dangerous’

The Guardian | Chris Johnston | ‘Sam Panopoulos, inventor of Hawaiian pizza, dies aged 83.’

Scientific American | Michael Shermer | ‘Evolution Explains Why Politics Is So Tribal’

That First Grey Hair

Everyone past a certain age has experienced it; an unexpected flash of silver, the mad dash for the tweezers. The realisation that your vitality is not sprung from an infinite well. Throughout history, humankind has only ever known mortality as a downward slope, the vestiges of youth fleeting and irretrievable. But will it always be that way?

Science fiction offers us a glimpse at futures where eternal youth is the norm. Whether by uploading to a digital consciousness, inhabiting a synthetic body, or contracting viral technology that turns you into an immortal superhuman, the genre has conceptualised many fanciful ways to cheat death.

And though it may sound far-fetched, even now people are freezing themselves in liquid nitrogen, in the hopes that they’ll one day be revived by a world possessing such technology. In the harsh deserts of Arizona, hundreds of human popsicles lie in wait, hoping that they may yet have the last laugh.

Whether or not life-prolonging tech does come to fruition, the reality is that it won’t be happening anytime soon. However, that’s not to say we won’t see any improvements to our lifespan. In fact, current medical research is making huge strides in combating the effects of aging, with the goal of achieving not just life extension, but health extension.

Aging as a Disease

When looking at the effects of aging, researchers approach it as they would any other disease—by studying the symptoms and its underlying causes. External indicators like grey hair, wrinkles, or reduced mobility are all signs of internal processes breaking down. Cells become less effective and tissue wears out over time. While the exact cause of aging is unknown, current theories attribute it to a variety of factors which fall into one of two broad groups: damage-related causes and program-related causes.

Damage-related causes could be thought of as your body undergoing wear-and-tear. From background radiation or environmental chemicals, to diet, disease or injury, it all takes its toll, causing genetic damage that inhibits your body from functioning properly. On average, 0.6% of the DNA in human heart cells is damaged every year, and over several decades of accumulation this can reduce the muscle’s effectiveness and make it more susceptible to life-threatening illness.

Fixing the problems associated with this wear-and-tear—or at least reducing their effects—could keep people healthy for longer, and so it’s no surprise that a large portion of medical research is focused on curing the ailments experienced with advanced age, like cancer, cardiovascular disease, Alzheimer’s or dementia. Eradicating these illnesses would prevent countless deaths and allow people to maintain a lifestyle more similar to that of their youth. But as Google/Calico CEO Larry Page claimed, curing cancer tomorrow would only add around 3 years to the average human lifespan. In other words: even without disease, time will eventually catch up with you.

Part of this is down to the program-related causes of aging. Namely, the human body has built-in processes that cause it to gradually deteriorate. The hypothalamus, a region of the brain designed to regulate temperature, hunger and mood—amongst other things—is programmed to change the body’s hormone levels as it gets older, encouraging the inflammation in various tissues that forms part of the aging process. Similarly, the DNA inside a cell is protected by telomeres; enzymes that coat the end of each chromosome to stop them from fraying, like the plastic caps on a shoelace. Each time a cell divides, the telomeres get shorter, which eventually leaves the chromosomes vulnerable to damage. Taken as a whole, these processes have caused some researchers to suggest that the human body has a hard-coded lifespan of around 115 years, and that no amount of medical expertise could help us overcome that limit.

The question, then, is what if you could somehow switch off those built-in processes? The answer may lie in epigenetics.

The Yamanaka Factors

Human DNA is comprised of over 20,000 genes, which decide everything from the way we look and act, to our health and general well-being. Rather than changing the genetic material in our cells, epigenetics modifies the way those genes are expressed, turning them active or dormant to produce a wide range of effects. The body utilises this technique all the time, and part of the aging process itself involves certain genes being gradually switched on or off, to the detriment of one’s health.

In 2006, Nobel-winning scientist Shinya Yamanaka discovered a combination of four genes that, when activated, caused a cell to rejuvenate itself. The process, which has been refined by further research, undoes those epigenetic changes caused by aging. Scientists hope that by learning to harness these four genes, they may eventually find a way to stop the aging process altogether.

Of course, the research is still in its infancy, and even if such a goal were achievable, there are still many hurdles left to overcome. One study found that keeping the genes active for too long turned cells cancerous, and even if the process can be perfected in a lab, there’s no guarantee it would yield any real practical application.

So when it comes to techniques that might radically extend our lifespans, we’ve still got a long way to go. And that’s without discussing whether an aging population really needs people to stick around for longer than they do already. But with advances in medicine over the coming decades, we can expect to see less diseases associated with our bodies’ wear-and-tear, and grow old with a little more spring in our step.

We may never make it past that built-in expiry date, but even then, 115 years is nothing to sniff at.


Sources/Further Reading

The Independent | Ian Johnston | ‘Anti-Ageing Breakthrough: Reprogramming the Body Could Extend Lifespan’

Scientific American | Karen Weintraub | ‘Researchers Study 3 Promising Anti-Aging Therapies’

Stanford Medicine | Krista Conger | ‘Telomere Extension Turns Back Aging Clock’

Sophomore Slumps

My first short story was published in a magazine last year (shameless plug), and since then I’ve been working on a follow up. It’s a difficult process, and while there’s plenty of reading material out there about the challenges of creating something good the first time around, we don’t often discuss how to maintain that quality in later attempts.

It’s a very real problem, that after you’ve finished patting yourself on the back and the celebratory drinks have gone flat, you sit down to work on your next piece only to realise that  you have no idea how to proceed. Do you stick to the template that you established last time and risk creating something that feels too familiar, or perhaps branch out into unexplored territory and flirt with the danger of writing a literary turd?

The decision can be overwhelming, and so it’s unsurprising that rather than firing out a second story I’ve spent a lot of my time thinking about the so-called sophomore slump.

The term was originally used to describe American college students whose second, or sophomore, year failed to live up to the excitement and relative freedom of their first, causing apathy and depression. While the expression still holds, it has since broadened in scope to include arts and media, where a second effort pales in comparison to the first.

You don’t need to look far for examples. TV shows like Heroes or True Detective, where a stellar first season leads to a humdrum, directionless follow up. In the music industry, pressure from record labels or relentless touring caused bands like Weezer, The Strokes or The Darkness to release a poor imitation of their first record. Donna Tartt’s ‘The Secret History’ topped bestseller lists in 1992, but when her second novel arrived ten years later it was a turgid mess.

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The Darkness — Sorry Justin, but ‘One Way Ticket to Hell’ was an apt title for that terrible second album. Source: The Journal

It’s not hard to understand why people have trouble replicating their success, but what’s the best way to avoid a sophomore slump? According to psychologists, it’s all about praise.

In 2011 a study was conducted to monitor student motivation following different methods of praise—the first being person praise (“You’re very intelligent,” “You’re a talented problem solver,” etc.) while the second was process praise (“You followed the right method,” “You used a good system,” etc.). After completing an easy puzzle the students were given one of these types of praise before tackling a much harder variation. The ones who received process praise reported higher levels of motivation when working on the hard puzzle, while the recipients of person praise felt less compelled to finish it.

Positivity is great while things are going well, but the type of positivity we internalise can actually hinder us when we come up against the possibility of failure. If you believe that your previous success was the result of being supremely talented, then for you there can be no such thing as a no-win scenario. That might sound cool when Captain Kirk says it (incidentally, Star Trek: Into Darkness was another sophomore slump), but in reality everyone faces failure at some stage and that’s when it’s most important to understand why you did so well before.

Process praise is central to this understanding, as it encourages critical thinking and, like Han Solo, reminds us not to get cocky. If you think about your successes in terms of the systems and structures you used, it becomes easier to work out which of those are failing you when things go wrong, and helps you keep the motivation to fix them and ultimately come out on top. For writers, as I said in a previous post, that means dissecting your work, analysing plot structure, characters and techniques, so that you’re comfortable with the underlying mechanics and can apply that knowledge in future efforts. For films and television, JJ Abrams’ TED talk covers the mistake many filmmakers stumble on when creating sequels: “You’re not supposed to rip off the shark, or the monster, you’re supposed to rip off the character”.

If you understand what really made your first effort a success, you’ll knock it out of the park the second time around. If you don’t, then you’ll end up with a sophomore slump, a poor imitation.


 

Sources/Further Reading:

Kyla Haimovitz and Jennifer Henderlong | ‘Effects of person versus process praise on student motivation’ | Educational Psychology

The Guardian | Charlotte Stretch | ‘When good authors write bad books’