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.

milford19.png
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.

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’