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At this year's Swanwick Writers' Summer School, crime writer AA Dhand gave some wise (and eminently quotable) advice: "Fail early, fail often, fail forward", and "Change the narrative". The latter accompanied a story about how his father changed the relationship with teenagers who smashed the windows of the family's shop, eventually hiring them as paper boys, simply by sitting down and having a drink with them. Eventually Dhand realised he, too, needed to change the narrative, and start writing the world he knew instead of the one he thought he should be writing - which led to his successful Harry Virdee series.

There are always a number of evening speakers at Swanwick, and they generally have something wise to say, so here's some sage advice from previous years.

- "Let the characters create the story." - Stephen Booth (2017)

- "The point of fiction is to enlarge what's possible." - Sophie Hannah (2017)

- "Know your antagonist as well as your protagonist. They are the hero of their own story." - Imogen Cooper (2017)

- "Don't be cautious, write what you want." - James Runcie (2016)

- "Not all stories will suit your tongue, and not all stories will flow from your pen." - Brendan Nolan (2016)

- "Sometimes it's better to accept a smaller advance rather than a large one that you then struggle to earn out." - Mario Reading (2015)

- "Short stories open small windows into large events." - Zoe Lambert (2013)

- "You should be the audience you writer for." - Curtis Jobling (2013)

- "If you know your voice it will help you stop wasting time writing things that aren't you." - Steve Hartley (2012)

- "Define your own level of success. Don't compare yourself to other writers." - Helen Cross (2011)

It's always interesting to hear what they have to say, and I often find the most enjoyable speakers those who write or work well outside my comfort zone, say in crime fiction or TV drama. It's also reassuring to hear that well established series writers like Stephen Booth are pantsers, that anything is possible. Of course they sometimes contradict each other - Booth was followed the following evening by Sophie Hannah, who tightly plots everything and finds it the best way to keep up with her multiple projects. But that's the nature of writing, nothing works for everyone. However in 2014 I heard the same advice three times, so it must be true: persistence is key; write for yourself; trust your instincts.

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Day Seven - the last few hours.

Up early to get everything packed before breakfast, then dragged myself to the dining room. There was a definite sense of ending, and the room was noticeably emptier of writers than the day before. Part of this was the number who decided not to get up (those who left under their own steam didn't have to be off site until 10am) and part the number who left the night before to avoid the sadly deflated feeling the last morning of Swanwick always brings.

A lot of those who arrived were walking wounded, either exhausted from a late night or extremely hungover. Several people hadn't been to bed at all. Breakfast was a subdued affair.

At 8.30am the coach left for Derby station, the delegates not on it waiting outside the conference centre to wave us off. I have to admit to a few tears on the way. At the station we settled in a coffee shop to chat, while people drifted off in dribs and drabs to catch trains to locations all over the UK. I was one of the first to go. The journey was mercifully uneventful, and I filled my time reading one of the many books I'd bought and adding to my post-Swanwick To Do list.

When I got off the train it was raining, the bus was late, and I discovered I'd lost the Tudor rose pin I bought at Haddon Hall. I can't wait for next year!
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Day Six - The Final Countdown

I started the last full day by attending the short course on erotica. It was going to be that or copywriting, but I thought the latter might be a bit dry for the final subject of the year. In the first session we learned about good and bad word choices, mainly by shouting them across the room. We also found out about the importance of plot and character, good titles, and choosing the right metaphors. Animal metaphors are a definite no. In the second we had a competition to see who could come up with the best title. I came second with "Position Filled" and won a bar of chocolate.

The final poetry session included a read-around of work we'd produced during the week. I chickened out, and I'm glad I did as I only had very rough drafts and some of the work read out was extremely polished. I left with lots of ideas, and some poetry bits and pieces to work on.

After the final session was the AGM, and there were noticeably fewer people in the hall than before. It was short, and we collected the all-important dates for next year. I went to pack, so that I had less to do later in the evening or the following morning.

There was a slightly anti-climactic air around the Hayes after the AGM, and a sense of winding down. It was all over bar the parties. The final speaker was Helen Lederer, who had the audience in stitches. I went to the computer room afterwards, to fill some time before the Last Night Disco at 11pm - I needed to be doing something because if I stopped I knew I'd be asleep long before then!

The disco took a while to get going, as these things do, but soon there was a room full of writers dancing away as they tried to make the night last as long as possible. A lot of others were in the bar doing the same thing. We were joined by a giant chicken, who lead a group in "Oops Upside Your Head". Unfortunately I'd long since killed the battery in my camera, so no pictures.

I finally called it a night at 12.30am, only because Friday involved an early start and a long train journey. Even so, I was tempted to stay up and make the week last as long as I could.

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Day Five

Origianally the plan for this morning was to go to the Romance course, but I decided to skip it since I'd realised that it really wasn't for me. Instead a couple of us walked to Swanwick Junction to look at the steam trains. Of course, almost as soon as we got there it was time to walk back for the specialist courses.

More homework from today's poetry course. We were given a marble to use as inpsiration, and also asked to think about a timeline for our work in the future. I've already got a couple of ideas for that. I went to a course on turning your writing into a business in the afternoon, and learnt some useful things.

Tea was the most random meal so far. A starter of hoisin rolls, bhajis, onion rings, samosas, and barbeque chicken wings, followed by a pick and mix main of rice, sweet and sour chicken, beef stew, cabbage, carrots, and naan bread. All followed by bread and butter pudding. Very odd.

The evening speaker was comedy writer David Nobbs. He was, as expected, very funny. I still managed to get some notes done for my poetry homework. Once again I didn't stay up late, and fell asleep sitting up trying to wrangle my poem.

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Day Four - the "day off"

Tuesday at Swanwick, the halfway point, is what can loosely be called a "day off". Loosely because there's usually something on in the momrning and evening, with the middle of the day being filled with either an excursion or lots of writing in the bar or on the lawn.

This year was no exception. The morning slot was filled with speaker Rebecca Woodhead, who managed to give a non-techie talk on e-Publishing that made a lot of sense. She also shared a story of how she taught herself language again after an horrific car crash - an inspiriational story if ever there was one.

A quick teabreak later, it was time for the e-Publishing panel. I was really looking forward to this, but scarpered as soon as I saw they were filming it, and went to the computer room instead. After, it was time for early lunch, and then the dash for the coach to Haddon Hall.

Last year I really enjoyed looking at the Derbyshire countryside during the excursion; this year I fell asleep and woke up as we were pulling into the car park.

It was a bit of a walk to the hall. The first building we came across turned out to be the gatehouse, and it wasn't until later that Haddon Hall revealed itself, looming ominously from the trees. A quick (and steep) walk up the slope revealed a very fetching courtyard, with a tower and lots of stained glass. The chapel still boasted the original medieval wall paintings (although the colour had faced), a Norman font, and some carved screens above the altar.

The hall itself was very impressive, with lots of period furniture in the kitchen, main hall, and dining room. One long hall was displaying various costumes from adaptations of Jane Eyre, on some very creepy mannequins. There were some odd ommisions though - only public rooms, no sense of how the family would have lived. This might be because parts of the hall appear to be still lived in.

After exhausting my camera on the inside of the hall, it was out to the garden, with its fountain and beds of lavender, and spectacular views. Then a wander back down to the the old stable block which is now a cafe. I sat down with a lemonade and slice of cake and got talking to some other random Swanwickers (as you do) about what we planned to do for the rest of the week.

The giftshop was in the gatehouse, so I visited it on the way out. I picked up some postcards and a Tudor rose pin. There were some lovely wooden boxes, that I regretfully left there as I couldn't see how I'd get them home. In hindsight, I'm sure I'd have managed.

Back to Swanwick, and lots of hanging around chatting until dinner time. Then the evening speaker, who was romance writer Sharon Kendrick. She talked about what Mills and Boon want of their romantic heroes and heorines, and promptly put me off going to her romance course the following day. She was a very good speaker, but made me realise that writing about effortlessly beautiful heroines who want a muli-billionaire to dominate and master them is really not for me.

The plan for after was to go to Write, Camera, Action! (the production the theatrically inclined work on on their "day off") and follow it up with karaoke. What actually happened was a long and rambling conversation which took in the opening chapters of Dracula, armoured spiders, cat throwing as an Olympic sport, speech impediments, crap day jobs, and French ninjas. The first time anyone looked at their watch it was midnight, and we'd missed everything including the bar.

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Day Three (last Monday)

Awake at 6am, but somehow still managed to not be ready in time for Lift Up Your Pens at 8am. After breakfast I went to the Write a Haunting Tale course, to learn about ghost stories - something I've never managed to write but would like to. There were lots of inspirational pictures up around the walls and Stella, the course leader, let me take a particularly interesting one with me when we left. In the gap between the two parts we were instructed to wander around the Hayes looking for our spooky elements, and I found mine down by the lake in a spot where the reflection of the willow looks much more sinister than the tree itself.

In the tea break I bought some postcards, intending to cheer up my boyfriend, who was sick at home, by sending him one every day. This would have worked better had they not all arrived on the same day - so much for first class stamps!

Two lots of homework from the poetry course, a toy soldier and a tiny key, because there aren't classes on the fourth day of Swanwick, it being reserved for the excursion and catching up on writing/sleep. With half an hour to fill, I then went on a wander to explore the old house and found lots of very odd corridors off of corridors, including one that stank of cigarette smoke. There were lounges both with and without TVs, communal bathrooms with actual baths, and at some point the rooms started to have letters instead of numbers. I didn't see either of the ghosts, but the place has a definite atmosphere.

After my wander I went to the poetry reading by Matt Black, and bought one of his books in the spirit of reading more modern poetry. Tea was the most random meal so far - topped with mashed potato so we thought it was shepherd's pie, but when it was dished up it turned out to be some indeterminate white flesh in sauce. Our next thought was fish pie, but it actually turned out to be chicken. Even though it was topped with mash, we also had roast potatoes. It wouldn't be Swanwick without a few mystery meals!

The speaker was Alan Samson, who works as an editor for celebrity books. I was going to skip it, as the subject doesn't interest me at all, but went along with my notebook in the end with the plan fo doing my homework if I got bored. As tends to happen in these cases he was actually very funny, although there was a problem with the sound system that gave me a headache.

The evening entertainment was a quiz, latin and ballroom dancing, and a buskers' night. Once again, I ended up in bed early with a cup of tea and a magazine - after a frog rescue, escorting a friend down to the lake to deposit a tiny frog there.
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Day Two - the first full day.

I'd planned to go to the Lift Up Your Pens sessions before breakfast this week, and failed on the first morning. Instead I stumbled into the dining room bleary-eyed at 8.30am, into what would end up being my regular seat.

The choices for the first short course of the week were: Characterisation; Enticing the Media; Flash Fiction; and Scriptwriting. Initially I wasn't sure what to take, but Steve Hartley (yesterday's speaker) was taking the characterisation course, which was recommended to me as being really good.

The course was based on a Jungian idea about our three brains, personality types, and how people react under pressure. A (very) basic outline can be found here. After the first session I could feel my brain being stretched, in a good way - it was nice to be mentally stimulated again.

I'd already decided way in advance that I was going to take the poetry specialist course. Alison Chisholm taught a short course last year, which I really enjoyed, so it was great to be able to build on that. We looked at pre-writing, the importance of reading poetry, and keeping a list of poems you want to write. On the way in we'd each been given a mini-notebook and pen, the notebook for jotting poetry ideas that came to us during the week, and the pen to be our poetry-writing pen. I have to admit this made me think of Full Metal Jacket - "This is my poetry writing pen. There are many like it but this one is mine." Our notebooks came with a poem randomly selected from an issue of Orbis Poetry Magazine. We had to look at why we thought the editor chose to publish it, and then use the poem to inspire one of our own - the first of many pieces of homework.

After the poetry course I made the second of my trips to the Book Room, having already bought more than I meant to. For this year I had at least limited myself to only buying books that are potentially useful - but in a conference full of writers there were a lot of How To books! I also ended up with a couple of issue of Mslaxia, which they were giving out free.

I skipped out of lunch early to get to the queue for tickets for the Tuesday excursion to Haddon Hall, and ended up being the first one there. After that was the second part of the characterisation short course, and the obligatory tea break. I skipped the workshop session to catch a nap, and then went for a walk around the lake with my camera. Then it was on to dinner - fish and chips, possibly the best meal of the week.

The evening speaker was Stephen Davis, who writes a lot of TV drama. Afterwards I had intended to go to the poetry slam but went back to my room to have a cup of tea and do my homework instead. There was a Eurovision disco at 11pm, but by then I'd fallen asleep.
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I've been away at Swanwick Writers' Summer School, which was fantastic. I didn't take my laptop, and the computers there are really slow, so I get to blog about it a week late!

Day One

Actually only half a day, since the morning was spent travelling to Derby. I arrived incredibly early for the coach, and expected to have to amuse myself for several hours, but I'd just finished an overpriced station lunch and settled down with a cup of tea when other people started to turn up. We all got chatting, and before we knew it it was time to go!

Last year I was in the cheapest room available, and got a single bed and a sink with a shared bathroom. This year I paid a little more to upgrade to my own shower, and was thrilled to discover I had my own toilet too. No more nocturnal trips down the corridors! After checking in I unpacked, went to deposit books and bookcards in the Book Room, and then went to catch up with old friends.

Dinner was lasagne, and cherry pie. I was very good and skipped dessert - there would be plenty more of them throughout the week. Steve Hartley was our evening speaker, who writes the Danny Baker Record Breaker series of children's books. He was very funny, and rounded everything off by seeing how many writers would fit into a giant pair of pants. (Eleven.)

11 ladies in giant pn

March 2019

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