In March this year, Moniack Mhor extremely kindly donated a free place on their forthcoming sci-fi writing course to Rally & Broad for our raffle. March’s theme was ‘Dance While The Sky Crashes Down’ and we were exploring all things dystopian and utopian. Bram E Gieben, writer, poet, performer, musician, was the lucky winner and we were delighted that he got the chance to visit the utterly beautiful writer’s retreat in Invernessshire.
Thank you to Moniack Mhor for this great opportunity, and thank you to Bram for the guest post!
Moniack Mhor writers’ retreat is a charming little converted farmhouse nestled in the hills outside Inverness. A two-storey building with sturdy walls and stone floors, it is equipped with everything a writer might need – monastic dorm rooms with writing desks and breathtaking views; printing facilities; an ample library spanning all genres, forms and eras; and roaring wood fires in the cosy lounge.
There is no television here (although there is, thank goodness, a strong wi-fi signal). On a retreat like the one I attended, cooking duties are shared between the students – another monastic aspect of the weekend’s precedings. It was a genuine pleasure, as a novitiate, to cook for two esteemed writers from the thriving Scottish SF tradition – Ken MacLeod, Socialist space opera architect extraordinaire, widely regarded as one of the most precise and meticulous scientific and conceptual writers working today; and Mike Cobley, a fellow star-traveller and veteran of two trilogies, the grim and gritty fantasy epic Shadowkings, and galaxy-spanning space saga Humanity’s Fire.
Beyond the farmhouse lies a rounded dwelling not unlike the ones described in the opening chapters of Tolkien’s seminal foundation stone of the fantasy genre – indeed, it is affectionately referred to by the friendly Moniack Mhor staff as ‘The Hobbit House.’ It sits beneath the wide vista of the majestic, snow-capped peaks which straddle the horizon.
On the night we arrive, the air is perfectly still, the sunset a pale, hazy wash of purple, gold and vermillion against the grey-blue landscape. You could scarcely imagine a more inspiring place in which to hone your words upon the anvil of criticism, or to seclude yourself with your characters, and create in splendid isolation. As night falls, a wheeling vault of stars is revealed above. This cosmic splendour reminds us of our purpose this weekend – this is a science fiction course. Those stars, our destination.
The first workshop is an introduction of sorts, with both Mike and Ken teaching us about the importance of first lines, and demonstrating one of the most important skills necessary to learn, for those seeking publication – the pitch. Each of the six budding writers in attendance hastily polishes up their best one-sentence pitch for an existing work-in-progress.
The sheer variety of styles and ideas on display is exciting – from 50s-pulp-inpsired tales of a future where humans are enslaved by giant ants, to fantasy adventures where magical systems closely resemble the precision of our own sciences, leading to the creation of an army of golems; Huxley-esque dystopias where reading, or thinking independently are forbidden or forgotten; to shadowy conspiracies involving government and big pharma; to my own cyberpunk-ish tale of a post-apocalyptic bus route (with explosions).
Some of us here are first-time writers, “coming out of the closet,” as one young man puts it. Others have experience with self-publishing, or a healthy number of small press and magazine credits to our names.
But for each of us, Mike and Ken have some wise words – refine the pitch. Show us the essence of the characters, what drives them. Test your ideas – do they stand up to scrutiny, or fall apart on close examination? Have they been done before? If so, what’s the twist which makes your version unique? Provocative and exciting ideas to consider, for ambitious young writers hungry to see their names in print.
The following day, our second workshop focuses on worldbuilding. Mike and Ken give us some fantastic examples from their own fiction – artefacts from imagined worlds, signifiers of an elaborately constructed reality happening just off the page. We look at how these artefacts can reveal so much, while occupying such little space on the page. Ken asks us to consider the difference between an elegant, artefact-based story reveal, and an inelegant, expository ‘infodump.’ We also look at how infodumps can be done, artfully – and at some less artful examples. One of the joys of the weekend is the deep knowledge of SF and fantasy tropes and history shared between Mike, Ken and ourselves, their enthusiastic disciples.
We retire for a short, intense burst of world building – drawing on the ideas, characters and plots we each brought with us to Moniack Mhor. After we return to the Hobbit House, Mike and Ken each offer criticism of our pieces in open discussion. As a a veteran of crit groups – I have been a member of the excellent Writers’ Bloc since 2011, and have studied creative writing at Glasgow University – I am already well aware of the value of constructive criticism from multiple readers. Each negative point or suggestion for improvement is an opportunity to streamline and enhance the story. It’s the lifeblood of my creative practice in many ways. For some of the rawer recruits at Moniack Mhor that weekend, it was evident that this was perhaps their first encounter with this kind of situation. I am pleased to report that they all hungrily absorbed the criticism, clearly inspired to refine their ideas and improve their work. It was great to see, and I very much hope that my fellow students from that weekend go on to find themselves a supportive crit group in their home towns. Being part of one has certainly enabled me to develop and grow as a writer, and helped me to make my first professional sales.
In subsequent sessions, we worked on character development and dialogue, and enjoyed valuable one-to-one tutorials with both Mike and Ken, whose generosity and clear-sighted, realistic advice was absolutely invaluable. Perhaps even more valuable were the freewheeling conversations held in the evenings, around a sturdy wood table, after a few glasses of wine and a hearty, home-cooked meal. Politics, culture, cinema, music, philosophy, history and religion were all dissected and explored with the relaxed ease of old comrades – after such intense periods of writing and criticising each others work, these late evening sessions were food for the soul.
Mike and Ken stayed until the wee small hours, sharing stories of conventions, book signings and tours; describing the various activities of the writing life – from defeating writers block to planning out major sagas, and dealing with agents and publishers. It was an absolute privelege to share their stories, and great fun to be able to pick their brains They very kindly engaged with us as absolute equals.
On the last night, a traditional dinner of haggis, neeps and tatties was prepared by my fellow students, and to our surprise, the haggis was piped to the table to the strains of a certain epic SF/fantasy trilogy theme from a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away. It was a fitting ending to a very Scottish science fiction weekend, and just one of so many memorable moments.
As an introduction to the process of criticism and feedback, and an inspirational, motivational trial-by-fire for aspiring writers, I cannot recommend a weekend at Moniack Mhor highly enough. To be in the company, even for a short tine, not only of professional, accomplished writers who have scaled the same peaks you seek to climb, but also to find comrades-in-arms among those checking their ropes and gear for the same trek, cannot be over-valued.
They offer short courses in all types of fiction, poetry and other writing, with themed weekends to suit any up-and-coming wordsmith, from page poets to crime authors to fantasy scribes and beyond. I’m extremely grateful to Rally & Broad for giving me the chance to sample the SF course. If you have the opportunity to experience Moniack Mhor for yourself, I could not recommend it more highly.