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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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I'm posting this a day late as I didn't get a chance yesterday - a Swanwick friend was visiting for one day only so I took the opportunity to spend time with her instead.

Tuesday's speaker Simon nelson was excellent. He went over five-act structure, and how turning points happen at the mid-point of the story. We also looked at the beginnings of TV shows Happy Valley and The 4 O'clock Club to illustrate pacy, grabby openings. I took more notes than for any other evening speaker, more than for some courses!

Wednesday saw the return of the regular run of courses, with our crime investigation turning from preservation of the scene and forensics, to the actual investigation. We took a closer look at the crime scene in the corner, and ran a mock press conference.

The short courses included a look at "wild words", song writing, and editing, and I took the final parts of the Writing as a Business course, which was unusually running as two short courses instead of as a specialist course. We looked at project and time management, something I desperately need to do better at.

In the usual one hour course slot we had a birthday celebration for the school, with a "school photo" (the first since 1956) and birthday cake. 

The evening speaker was Sophie Snell, storyteller, singer, and folkorist. She also has a psychological thriller out in November, based on fairy tales. Something else to add to my wishlist!

I stayed up late in the bar for the first time this week, chatting to my friend. Thursday is the final day, featuring the last of the four part courses, and a mystery instead of a speaker since they never reveal what's going into the farewell.
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Yesterday's speaker AA Dhand was one of the best speakers I've seen at Swanwick, and told us of his journey from childhood cornershop to published author with a TV series in the works - via over a million words of failed drafts. It's always a mark of a successful speaker when you can hear their words repeated around the school the following day, and today was full of people telling each other to "change the narrative" or "fail early, fail often, fail forward".

First this morning was part two of the specialist courses. For those of us on the Making Crime Pay course this meant a not particularly after-breakfast-safe discussion of post mortems, and why you should never ask a pathologist how to kill someone and get away with it. 

Today's short courses were The Business of Writing, Creating Characters, Writing for Children, and Self Publishing. I did the business course, since it seemed like a useful thing to take (which it was). Unusually, this is actually a four-part course over two days instead of two hours over a single day. Parts three and four deal with setting up as a freelancer so I'm not sure whether or not I'll take those since I need to keep the day job.

This afternoon was Swanwick at 70, a celebration of how the school has changed over the years. The first ever programme, which includes a reminder to bring ration cards, can be seen on the website. It's changed immensely just over the eight years I've been attending, and some of the older delegates can be heard chatting about the long-gone swimming pool and Garden House, or the days when delegates shared rooms with each other - sometimes complete strangers.

This evening has a panel instead of a speaker, of Writing Magazine editor Jonathan Telfer, and prolific short story and novel writer Della Galton, hosted by frequent visitor and tutor Simon Hall. I may give this one a miss as I'm already flagging from classes and so much socialising, as well as waking up at 6am without the aid of either an alarm or my cats.
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It's that time of year again, and I'm back at Swanwick Writers' Summer School for its seventieth year. It's the longest running writing school in the UK. Getting here was surprisingly stress-free considering it involved a rail-replacement bus service, but still tiring.

Given the travel and full-on socialising that started while we waited at Derby station for our coach (which was late), I got to the end of dinner feeling tired and cranky. The evening speaker was Sue Moorcock, but I decided to spend the evening on a phone call home, and streaming Netflix in my pyjamas. Possibly the most important thing Swanwick's taught me over the years is the importance of self-care - which includes time to myself. Getting overtired can ruin my enjoyment of the rest of the week.

Today saw the start of specialist courses on poetry, crime writing, novel writing, short stories, and memoir. I opted for crime writing (even though I don't write crime), the first two sessions of which are looking at forensics and scene preservation. There's a mock crime scene in the corner, which I haven't had a chance to look at properly yet, so I hope to take some pictures tomorrow.

The short courses on offer today were a mini-film making course, sitcom, more poetry, and writing for competitions. I went to Secrets of Sitcom - something else I don't write. Well, I am here to learn! We went into the building blocks of what makes a sitcom, and in groups discussed our own concepts. It hasn't made me want to start writing sitcoms, but it did occur to me that if you take out the comedy you're basically left with a soap. I also thought about how well the format would - or wouldn't - translate into prose.

The hour long courses today were readings of the prize-winning competition stories, or preparation for the Page to Stage (drama) and Swanwick Standard (journalism) projects that run later in the week. I took the opportunity to have some me-time, something I try to build into every day as otherwise it gets a bit full on.

Tonight's speaker is Amit Dhand, who writes novels while working full time as a pharmacist. I'm looking forward to seeing how he gets it all done,
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Thursday is the final day of courses. We finished up the poetry course by looking at summer and collage poems, and hearing some of the previous day's homework. Some interesting things hatched from those eggs!

I hadn't been planning to take a short course, but remembered the slightly deflated feeling from last year when I missed out so on a whim picked Murder Investigation over Flash Fiction, Advanced Characterisation, and Self Publishing. It turned out to be one of the best courses of the week. Retired police detective Stuart Gibbon took us through the steps of what happens in an investigation after a body is found, and gave some real life cases as examples. It appeared to be the perfect complement to the CSI course earlier in the week which did the same thing from a forensics perspective, and I slightly regret not taking them both (although my Monkey Mind is chattering a little less so it may be worth the loss). I also took the opportunity to get my copy of The Real CSI: A Forensic Handbook for Crime Writers signed by author Kate Bendelow. Crime Writing and Forensics are always popular at Swanwick, and Kate's book had caused quite a stir when it turned up unexpectedly on Tuesday - people were queuing to get into the book room to get one!

As always, the AGM took up the workshop slot. A new committee was elected, including the co-option of a new secretary with the relevant experience and replacement of both the Chairman and Vice Chairman. Then it was off to pack and/or attend the dregs party before dinner.

The evening event was a rather more low key affair this year, as the committee had decided there wasn't the time to do a pantomime justice this year. Instead there was a brief "award ceremony" where prizes were handed out for the chairman's puzzle competition and Ingrid's writing contest from earlier in the week. The latter had received over seventy entries, possibly more people than had attended the course! I honestly don't know how she managed to read all the entries, since her secret appears to be not to sleep!

After this there was a brief singalong, with John Lamont singing Swanwick favourite "500 Words" and the committee regailing us with a rendition of S Club 7's "Reach" that was stuck in delegates heads for at least four days if the comments on Facebook were anything to go by.
 then finally, a last trip to the bar before the final night's sleep.

 

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I had a surprisingly lazy day on Wednesday. After reading my poem out in the poetry specialist course - and really not enjoying it - I decided to skip the Performance Poetry short course. I didn't feel like taking any of the others (Heroes, Life Writing, Comedy Sketch Writing). In hindsight I wish I'd taken the life writing course, as this isn't something I've ever looked at before (which was also the reason I didn't take it), but by this time I was feeling a little ragged so glad of the extra down time.

I also skipped the workshops on journalism and editing. I probably could have spent the day working on a poem from my new prompt, a glittery purple egg, but spent it chatting, reading, and walking around the lake instead - all time-honoured Swanwick traditions in their own right.

The evening speaker was Imogen Cooper of the Golden Egg Academy and formerly of Chicken House, who gave an informative talk about the academy's services for writers. After were the Page to Stage performances, and another early night for me.



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Tuesday is traditionally the day off, with a minimum of activities and lots of potential for free time. This year there was a short course in the morning, instead of the usual panels and speakers, with a choice of pitching, research, grammar, and mindfulness. I went for mindfulness, as this is something I'd like to bring more into my life. There were several exercises, and the tutor Zana Lamont emphasised the importance of kindness, to ourselves as well as others. The session ended late, with the class engrossed in a video that had half of the delegates in tears by the end.



Alongside the courses ran the Procrastination Free Day, which as in previous years locked two groups of writers in a room to challenge themselves to meet wordcount goals. Several of the other delegates also achieved this by locking themselves in their bedrooms to write, and as a result the bar was surprisingly quiet.

After lunch, overlapping with the end of PFD, were the rehearsals for Page to Stage. I opted to spend most of the rest of the day in my room, binge-reading and also writing a poem for the following day's poetry session. After travel and some heavy socialising it was nice to have some quiet time to myself.

In the evening there was a "chat show" hosted by Simon Hall and interviewing several of the course tutors, followed in the evening by the buskers' night. I skipped both of these as I'd already decided that, this time, it was going to be a true day off.

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Monday is when I start to get the days confused at Swanwick - after all, it's the second day of classes. I spent the whole day convinced it was Tuesday, a trend which continued all week.

The day started with the specialist course. This year, again, I took the poetry course run by Alison Chisholm. We were following the course of the year with poems following the seasons, and today was Winter so Alison gave each of us a glittery snowflake as a prompt, with instructions on how to use the spaces and spokes to generate a poem. We also discussed diary poems, and how these can cover different time periods (hours, days, months).

I had been planning to take the Marketing and Promotion short course, but decided against it in the end. Also on offer were Writing Intimate Scenes, Poetry from Dreams, and Illustrated Picture Books. None of these appealed so I gave them a miss and parked by the coffee machine instead and chatted to other delegates for a while.

Later in the afternoon I took my only workshop of the week Writing for Competitions, run by Ingrid Jendrzejewski. She's won a prodigious amount of competitions since she started entering in 2014, including winning a free trip to Swanwick last year, but she's a nice as she is prolific so it's difficult to hold it against her! She hadn't expected many people to come, but the hall was packed. She rattled through a lot of useful information in the hour, and could really have done with being given a short course slot. At the end of the session she gave us a writing prompt and instructions to write a story or poem, taking into account the guidelines she'd given us, for a competition with a deadline of Wednesday.

Our evening speaker was children's author Cathy Cassidy. I've enjoyed my time at Swanwick a lot more since I stopped feeling like every speaker was compulsory, so I gave her a miss in favour of curling up in bed with a book, and another early night.

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The first full day of Swanwick means choosing a specialist course, one of the long courses that runs throughout the week.
On offer this year were Writing Popular Fiction, Fiction for Children and Young People, Scriptwriting, Non Fiction, and A Year in Poetry.

After the morning session I took myself off to the Book Room, and was glad to see the secondhand table was a hit this year. This is where delegates can donate books about writing they no longer want, and can take some of the offerings in return for a donation to the school. I picked up a copy of The Plot Thickens by Noah Lukeman, and from the delegates' books a copy of A Route Map to Novel Writing Success: How to Write a Novel Using the Waypoint Method by David Hough.

The short courses for the day were Short Stories, Forensics and CSI, My Voice Will Go With You (about finding your writer's voice) and The Inner Game. The latter was about silencing the monkey mind, the inner critic, and challenging the things it comes up with. Easier said than done, but I learned a useful technique which came in useful later in the week.

As always there was a Facebook and Twitter reception in the main lounge during the afternoon tea break. I intended to go, but got distracted on the way by coffee and chatting, and only remembered an hour later when I saw the pictures on Facebook.

There were three workshops on offer, on running a creative writers' group, journalism, and a briefing for Page to Stage for casting the performances that would take place later in the week. This is the slot I usually sacrifice for quiet time, so I headed back to my room to read before dinner.

Dinner started with a small group of us in the bar celebrating the sale of Val Penny's novel Hunter's Chase to Crooked Cat Books. Then dinner, and our evening speaker Sophie Hannah. She was hilarious and informative, with anecdotes on the inspiration behind her first book and how she came to be writing Poirot continuation novels. Unlike the previous speaker, she's a plotter and outlines her books to within an inch of their life. It works for her - she's nothing if not prolific - but it's not a method of writing I get on with.

After the speaker I took in the start of the poetry open mic, but didn't have the stamina to stick out the whole thing so headed off to bed.

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I am, once again, blogging a week late. I took my tablet and some good intentions, but didn't switch it on all week.

The trip up was mercifully uneventful, and we found ourselves outside Derby station waiting for the coach. And waiting. When it eventually arrived it turned out to have been designed for children, in rows of five tiny and uncomfortable seats. I wonder in hindsight if the coach company saw the booking and assumed school meant children, but they've provided coach services often enough in the past to know better.

We arrived late, but there was still enough time to unpack before the Chairman's Welcome. After that was dinner, and our first experience of the new buffet-style dining. I loved it. There was a choice of main (generally two meat, one fish, one veggie), two choices of carbohydrates (potato and rice or pasta) and two vegetable choices. Despite having to queue, everyone was served quickly which left us with plenty of free time before the speaker. This was something that often came up in conversation during the week - how much extra time we found ourselves with, because of that one simple change. It also meant there was a choice of desserts, which usually alternated between multiple cakes, or a choice of cold desserts (including fruit), and one hot option. The down side of this was I ate more puddings than at previous Swanwicks, the up side that several of these were fruit rather than cake.

After dinner was the evening speaker, crime writer Stephen Booth, who was excellent. I don't read a lot of crime (although I'm starting to) but it's always nice to hear other writers' processes - and he's most definitely a pantser. I went along to the book signing and picked up a copy of Dancing with the Virgins, the second in his Cooper and Fry series, which I then spent the rest of the week reading instead of writing.

As always, I headed to bed early as even uneventful travel is tiring and there was a busy week ahead.

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Further to last year's First Timer's Guide, here's a few more hints and tips to make the week easier for even seasoned Swanwickers. Because let's face it, we all forget this stuff.

1. Bring any writing-related books you no longer need - You can donate them to the school for sale in the Book Room, to raise funds for the school. Bringing them with you automatically frees up the space in your luggage and on your bookshelves for all the books you'll buy at Swanwick.
2. The Hayes gift shop is generally open during the tea and coffee breaks on the programme - You may rarely catch it outside these hours, but generally the tea and coffee breaks are the time to visit. I mention it because I spoke to a Swanwick regular last year who, not realising the opening hours, kept missing it.
3. There is a games room - There's also a giant outdoor chess set in the Quad. It you find yourself with nothing to do (it could happen!), you could play a game.
4. All floors in Lakeside are accessible from ground level - It just depends on which floor you're on and where in the building. As a general rule: rooms on the ground floor are accessible from the far right entrance; rooms on the first floor are accessible from the middle entrance (for the Alan Booth Centre); and rooms on the second floor are accessible from the lefthand entrance (past the Main Conference Hall). Of course, if your room is on the opposite side of the building it may be quicker to take the stairs.
5. The Hayes has at least two bookcases of books for sale - For the price of a donation in the charity tin, you can help yourself. One is opposite the shop, the other in the Lakeside foyer.
6. If you leave dinner at the last minute, you won't have time to get to the loo before the speaker - Seriously, if you're likely to need the toilet in the next hour and a half, leave dinner early. The queues are pretty much what you'd expect from a convention of writers who've been drinking coffee all day and have just started on the wine.
7. Pack layers - Typically for British summers it may or may not be sunny/rainy/stormy/snowing. Plus the Main Conference Hall and some of the other teaching rooms are freezing in the morning, but quickly heat up once they get full of people. You will ultimately be more comfortable if your wear layers so you can take some clothes off without scandalising anyone.
8. The coffee in the bar is better than the coffee in the rooms - If you plan on heading back to your room to get some writing done, take the coffee with you. If you want to get decent coffee in the mornings, leave a little early.
9. If you don't like coffee there are about eight different types of tea - So there's no need to bring teabags with you unless you're particularly fussy. They're in the bar area by the coffee machines and include decaff options (the rooms only have regular). If you're more of a tea drinker, think about taking some tea bags back to your room.
10. The noticeboard in the Vinery is a good place to plan extracurricular events - Last year, we had matchmaking for people who wanted to go on excursions, and an impromptu class on mindfulness. You can also speak to the committee about making an announcement.

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Day Seven is not really a day, as all we do before we leave is have breakfast and say goodbye. Then it's on the coach for those of us heading to the station. Once we're unloaded there's already a sense of separation, of normal life creeping back in, as everyone scatters to their individual platforms. I miss the days when those of us who had a longer wait for the train would gather in a coffee shop, chat (those of us not horribly hungover from the previous night's disco, anyway), and extend the week those few minutes more.

I had mixed feelings about leaving this year, part sadness it was over for another year and part relief that I got to go home. The last twelve months have been frantic - I've changed job, moved manager three times and team twice, had health problems that are likely to have a long-term impact, plus bought and moved into a house. During all of this I've barely had the time, let alone the energy, to write. While I spent most of the year longing for Swanwick week, when I got there I found I didn't have the ability to deal with homework, large groups of enthusiastic writer folks, or watching everyone eat cheesecake or fish and chips that I couldn't have. As a result I was tired, cranky, and snappish, and I apologise to anyone who found themselves on the receiving end.

The trip home was longer than usual due to the route but after a nap, ten hours sleep, and another nap the following afternoon, I felt a lot more refreshed. And it turns out my week wasn't wasted after all. Despite not writing, and not feeling like writing, I've still got the post-Swanwick motivational kick. I've got ideas for two projects and the desire to do my homework. This weekend, I'll dig out the notes from the Manifesting Your Goals course I took in 2014 and create a timeline. It appears some of that Swanwick magic rubbed off after all.
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As always, I approached Thursday in a state of semi-exhaustion. It doesn't seem to matter how much sleep I get - or don't get - I'm always tired by the end of Swanwick week.

In the final poetry class a handful of people read out their homework, and then we shared our devices for creating original poems. Mine was to cut up several poems you like, put the pieces in a jar, and pick out a few random pieces to use as a springboard. Obviously this is for inspiration and the lines themselves shouldn't appear in the poem.

The short courses on offer were about comedy sketches, family history, finding inspiration from song lyrics, and "How To Eat an Elephant" which was about breaking writing projects down into manageable chunks. I took the latter, since the thought of starting something new on top of everything else I've done this year is a little overwhelming.

Instead of a workshop session, Thursday sees the AGM. It was short but sweet this year, since we had exactly the same number of people running for the committee as there were positions and no two people running for the same one.

On the programme, the spot after the AGM is labelled "time for you" and I always use it for packing as it frees up the rest of the evening. As I headed back into the main building several people were setting up the dregs party - an opportunity to get rid of leftover food and drink delegates don't want to take home - on the lawn. It was a bit damp and chilly for me so I went to the bar.

There's no after dinner speaker in Thursday, instead there's a pantomime. This year it was "The Battle of Writer's Block" featuring BBC journalist Simon Hall as Trevor, a joke writer trying to write a novel and win Success while being plagued by the villain Doubt. There were the songs "500 Words" and last year's "Is This the Way to Summer School?" which were catchy enough to sing along to.

After the pantomime was the traditional farewell, and then it was off to the bar to wait for the disco to start.
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Wednesday saw us back on the courses, with poetry tutor Alison Chisholm dividing the room into groups based on poetry forms we'd never tackled before. I ended up in the terza rima group, which is a poem divided into three-line stanzas with an interlocking rhyme scheme. Our task was to discuss what theme might suit the form, and how we could adapt or develop it to make it our own - and then to write one for our homework. Unfortunately by Wednesday I'm usually running more on caffeine and sugar than actual brain power, so this seemed like a mammoth task and I opted to spend my time sleeping and socialising instead.

The short courses on offer were: endings and agents, plotting and strategem; cover design; and even more poetry. I'd decided early that this year was poetry year, but the session turned out to be a workshop and it was a bit late in the week for me to cope with on-the-spot writing (see above). I made a few notes and wrote down the exercises to add to my "do at home" pile with the homework from earlier in the week. In hindsight, I wish I'd taken the first part of Erin Kelly's course (on how to write endings) and the second ("strategem") part of Michael Jecks' course in which, among other things, he discussed ways of tackling writers' block.

The workshops were on writing about an unforgettable episode in your life, and also on hybrid authors. I took myself for a walk around the lake and then went to sit in the vinery for a bit.

The evening speaker was Irish storyteller and one-time Swanwicker Brendan Nolan. He spoke a little about how attending Swanwick - and one of first night speaker John Lamont's courses - changed his life, as it gave him the motivation to write his first book. He also told us stories, one about a traveller and a bar of gold, and another from Irish mythology about Aengus and Caer. I've never seen the hall so quiet!

After the speaker, it was time for the Page to Stage Performances prepared earlier in the week. In previous years this has run concurrently with other entertainments, however from last year it was changed to be the sole offering, so no one taking part felt like they were missing out.
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Traditionally Tuesday is the "day off", but this only means that there are no classes. Most don't rest however, as the morning is usually taken up with a speaker and a panel on a particular area of writing, and the afternoon with rehearsals for those taking part in Page to Stage. Alongside both runs the Procrastination Free Day, one session for those with laptops and one for those without, during which people are shut in a room to write to their own goals - only being let out when it's time for food. It feels all too much like a workshop to me, despite the shiny stickers being offered as bribes, so I steer clear. Maybe I'll give it a try when I have a project that coincides with the school.

This year's theme for the morning was crime, and was hosted by retired policeman (and then Swanwick Chairman) Michael O'Byrne, forensics expert Kate Bendelow, and journalist and crime writer Simon Hall. Each gave a short talk on a different aspect of crime fiction, including common mistakes made by writers, and why you needn't bother dusting a steering wheel for fingerprints. Michael gave a visual demonstration with replica weapons as to why you should think hard before having your killer shoot a rifle from a moving vehicle, and also why it's important to know where your shell casings are. The second session was a Q&A where the three were joint by Ian Martin, also a retired policeman, to answer any questions the audience could throw at them.

As I wasn't taking part in Page to Stage, I spent playing card games with a friend and relaxing.  I also went on the mini-excursion to the other side of the site to see the beginning of the escape tunnel.

If you read this blog in 2013 you might remember me posting these pictures:


The Hayes was once used as a prisoner of war camp, and there is a case of memorabilia in the bar area, including photographs of how the site looked then, and also the spoons used at the time - some of which were used to dig the tunnel. This year there was a short talk about the history, and then a trip to look at the tunnel itself. The camera on my phone doesn't really do justice to how steeply the tunnel descends, or how tight a squeeze it is.
 

It was back on the usual programme at 8:20pm, where the speaker was Michael Jecks, author of over 30 historical crime novels and also a tutor for the following day. There was also a general knowledge quiz, and the buskers night.Save
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Day Three saw us discussing the mathematics of poetry in part two of the poetry specialist course - how to add, subtract, multiply, and divide to improve a poem. Our homework was to do just that, or do write a poem about one thing in the jargon of another.

The short courses were on song writing, non fiction, fantasy fiction, and "the trickier side of fiction" - viewpoint, flashbacks, and dialogue, among other things. I took the latter, and while I didn't learn anything new from the course it was a useful refresher. In fact, the course was so popular we realised partway through the second session that some latecomers had crept in and sat on the floor!

The workshops were an ideas generator session and one on flash fiction. Personally I don't get on very well with workshops - something about being told to sit and write for an hour rubs me up the wrong way, so once again I gave these a miss and spent some time relaxing instead.

The evening speaker was Kathryn Aalto, leader of the creative non-fiction specialist course, who was followed by the first of the week's discos and a retrospective of the first 25 years of Swanwick - the latter of which inspired a mini-excursion the following day.
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Day Two sees the start of the specialist courses that run all week. This year's subjects were creative non-fiction, journalism, short stories, character psychology, and poetry. I toyed with the idea of creative non-fiction, but opted for poetry as I've been doing more of that lately while creative non-fiction is completely new to me.

In the session we discussed ways of working on poems that aren't working (edit them shorter, and then longer again), and the tutor Alison Chisholm requested that for the last session we think of ways to come up with original poems. She also gave us homework - poems from the past, and five ways to look at them to start something new.

The short courses on offer were self publishing, a grammar refresher, picture books, and connecting with an audience. I took the latter, even though I was in two minds about signing up for the poetry open mic that evening. Tutor Joy France was a little frazzled, having arrived from a festival minutes before, but was an engaging and lively tutor. She discussed audience reaction, memorising works, and how you won't always know something works for performance until you try it. It made my mind up about the open mic, but when I went to sign up all the slots were taken. Maybe next year.

The workshops were on flash fiction or a briefing for Page to Stage, a theatrical event that takes place later in the week. Since I was planning on taking a specialist and short course every day I'd planned to take the workshop time to rest and/or nap since it's a busy week.

The evening speaker was James Runcie, author of the Grantchester Mysteries. He told anecdotes from his varied career, and gave writing advice, including: "Don't be cautious: write what you want." I should really listen to that.
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Last year I blogged the week as I went along; this year I'm back to posting the week after. I just couldn't find the spoons to fit it in during the week this year.

Day One is really only half a day, since the earliest we can arrive is 3:30pm. For most of us it feels full, since we've either been travelling or have been on site early to set up. This year the travelling took up more time than usual - for me because the route I'd been booked on was longer and with more changes, presumably to avoid the trouble spots where there are strikes and cancelled services. Others had to travel through the trouble spots, and a lot of travel updates were passed back and forth on Facebook.

For those of us who arrive in time, Swanwick starts with a cup of tea and meeting up with old friends. I usually take this time to unwind and unpack. Then it's off to the chairman's welcome, to find out such important housekeeping elements as the code to get in the accommodation block.

The evening speaker for Saturday was Swanwick regular John Lamont. He taught last year's specialist course on "Succeeding on Purpose", which I regret missing (and have asked on my feedback form to be run again!). John spoke about the adaptability of the human brain, and about visualisation and retraining the subconscious - both of which are important in learning good writing habits, or unlearning bad ones.

After the speaker the traditional Saturday evening entertainments are "What Are You Writing Now?" and an alternative fairy tales icebreaker. I spent a short time in the bar catching up with friends, and had an early night to sleep off the travel.
clhollandwriter: (marchin)
It's a week until this year's Swanwick Writers' Summer School, so I thought I'd post up a beginner's guide for those attending for the first time. My first year I went in blind - they didn't have much of a web presence back then, and I didn't know anyone else going, so I probably made most of the mistakes on this list!

1. Pack light - This probably applies more if you're travelling by train than car, although space may be limited if you're car sharing. There is a book room at Swanwick, filled with books by the other attendees. There's also the information room that sometimes has freebies: I've picked up copies of Writers' Forum and Mslexia in past years, and there's often a pile of Writing Magazine issues, bookmarks, postcards, and small zines. I assume you'll want to take these home with you, so leave room in your luggage.
2. Take a sturdy Bag for Life - In case you fail at 1.
3. Take plenty of cash, and your chequebook - There aren't any card facilities at The Hayes, so if you're buying drinks or from the gift shop, you'll need to pay by cash. There is a card machine in the book room (it belongs to the school rather than the conference centre) but in case of failure it's best to have your chequebook along for when you've spent all your cash. Unless you're on a budget, in which case it's probably best if you don't bring your chequebook.
4. You don't have to go to all the classes - This is a difficult one, because having paid to Do All The Things if you're anything like me you'll probably try to. None of the classes require signing up in advance, so you're not robbing anyone of a place. If there's nothing on you fancy, go and write. Read some of those free magazines you picked up. Take a walk around the lake. No one will mind.
5. You don't have to complete the class if you don't want to - The specialist courses run for an hour a day over four days, and the short course over two one hour sessions in a single day. If you don't get on with the start of the course you don't have to finish it. While it's frowned upon to leave partway through a session (although people will walk out if it overruns and they have places to be), there's nothing to stop you bailing in the break. You can even turn up for the next session of a completely different class. I've done both of these.
6. Don't try to do everything - This is a separate issue to 4 as it takes in the whole programme. At Swanwick it's understood that some people are larks and some people are night owls, and the programme caters to both. The morning Lift Up You Hearts, Lift Up Your Pens, and lakeside meditation sessions all start at 8am. The various evening entertainments finish at around 11pm. If you try to do all of these, plus all the courses, you'll probably by exhausted by Tuesday. Pace yourself, and don't be afraid to take yourself off for a nap if there's nothing on you want to do.
7. When they say Tuesday's a day off, they're lying - Although there aren't any classes on the Tuesday, there will still be panels, rehearsals for the evening's theatrical productions, the procrastination-free day, and the full roster of evening events. Don't bank on taking it easy.
8. Don't feel you have to eat everything - The meals at Swanwick can best be described as hearty. Breakfast is a choice of cereal, fruit, pastries, a cooked breakfast combo, or all of the above. Lunch is usually a cooked main and a pudding, as is dinner. Sometimes there's also soup. There are also tea breaks with biscuits (am) or cake (pm). You will not go hungry, unless you're particularly fussy. In fact, some people I know manage the week on one meal a day.
9. Don't panic about not writing - This may sound counter-intuitive since it's a writing school, but between the classes, catching up with people between classes, lengthy meals, evening events, homework, and emergency napping, there may not be much time for writing. That's okay, as long as you haven't brought a deadline along. You'll still be thinking, talking, and breathing writing all week.
10. Pack early on Thursday - This is another that mostly applies if you're travelling by train, as the coach to the station leaves early. Unless you're a really early riser, you'll want to be packed before breakfast as there isn't time to do it between breakfast and departure. If you're travelling under your own power you have to be off site for 10am, so have a little more time. I tend to pack on Thursday afternoon, after the AGM and before the evening programme starts, partly because I'm feeling glum about it all being over, and partly because I don't want to be packing after the last night disco finishes at 11pm. It's not unheard off for people to stay up after this finishes too, to delay the inevitable.

If you bear these in mind, you might even get to Friday morning without feeling like you haven't slept for a week. I can't guarantee it, though.
clhollandwriter: (marchin)
I usually post about Day 7, but there's not much to say beyond the usual: we had breakfast early, left on the coach, it was sad. The train journey home was mercifully uneventful which is more than can be said for some of the others travelling home.

So I thought this year I'd post about the things I didn't do, either because they're not my cup of tea or because there simply isn't enough time or caffeine to get through everything.

For the early birds, the day starts with Lift Up Your Pens, Lift Up Your Hearts, or a meditation session by the lake. The first is a session involving some sort of guided writing (prompts etc), or writing development. I tried this once in my first year and discovered that writing that early is not for me. I hated it, although I know others love it. Lift Up Your Hearts is a short session of non-denominational refection. Since it's run by a different person each session it can be anything from music and poetry readings to traditional hymns. I've never been - see above re early mornings. Meditation by the lake is exactly how it sounds, and although I'd be tempted to go it would mean bring a small amount of extra kit with me (comfy trousers and something to sit on) and since I travel by train I pack as lightly as possible.

On the days with a full set of courses there are sessions called Unwind your Mind, which take place after all the courses have finished. These are sessions with the aim of winding down after a long and busy day. Since these take place right after the workshop sessions I tend to forget they're on since the workshop sessions are usually when I have quiet time. I do wonder if I'd get through more of the sessions if I did this instead!

Page to Stage is the week's theatrical productions. Five minute scripts are submitted and chosen throughout the year, and on Tuesday the various writers, directors, and actors get together to rehearse ready for the performances on Wednesday evening.

There are also various activities going on during the evenings. It's impossible to go to them all, not least because some of them happen at the same time. Ones I missed this year include the traditional icebreakers (after a four hour train journey I'm ready for bed straight after the speaker), two quizzes, two discos, and the buskers night. Other years have included dancing, karaoke, and old-style singalongs. Of course people also set up their own impromptu sessions, as there's a games room and a giant outdoor chess set, as well as lots of outdoor space for yoga and/or just lounging around.

There's no way to do it all, and this year wasn't the first I've wished for a time-turner so I could do more. Maybe I'll figure it out in time for next year.

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