Saturday, 16 August 2014

Five Things to Love about the Swanwick Writers' Summer School

I'm just back from the Swanwick Writers' Summer School. Anything that survives 66 years entirely through voluntary effort must have magic ingredients. Magic, as you know, disappears quickly in a puff of smoke, so I resolved to write down what makes Swanwick unique while it was still fresh in my mind. In the event, I had to wait until the power of movement was restored to my body and a semblance of coherent thought returned to my brain. The last afternoon's 'Dregs Party'* on the Hayes Conference Centre lawn, and the unaccustomed exercise of the last night disco, has delayed this post slightly. But here goes:
  1. Dancing with a lion. I was relaxing with a small whisky (okay, a large one) after a hard day's workshopping, when the bar began to fill with characters from the Wizard of Oz. Dorothys, Tin Men, Straw Men, the Wizard himself. The people I was chatting with didn't bat an eyelid. I consulted the programme, and saw that 10.45pm was scheduled for the 'Fancy Dress Disco'. I am full of admiration for people who study their programme carefully enough to arrive prepared with a Wicked Witch of the West outfit, a Dorothy wig, or a full lion suit amongst their changes of clothes. Having initially made excuses about my need for an early night, midnight found me twirling the lion around the dance-floor. It was a new experience for me, but then I've led a sheltered life.
  2. Heritage puddings. The Hayes Conference Centre provides a marvelous venue, deriving charm from its history, ornamental gardens, and traditional dining facilities. Be careful not to sit at the end of a table, or you may end up trying to serve lunch from tureens and platters to people who are in the middle of a detailed description of the underlying themes of their work-in-progress. But oh, the crumble and custard! The food is a comforting, freshly-cooked reminder of a bygone age. Best not to weigh yourself when you get home.
  3. White Badgers. No, not more animal costumes, just a means of identifying guinea-pigs new to the school through the colour of their badge. Not in order to play tricks on them, but so that seasoned Swanickers can be friendly and rescue any lost souls in search of a workshop room. The Summer School also subsidises a number of young writers to attend the school for the first time. Like other first-timers, or White Badgers as they are known, they spend the first day or two wondering if they've made a terrible mistake and hiding away in dark corners. Later in the week, they are to be found improvising plays, sharing their creativity, joining in with the buskers, and providing fresh legs on the disco dance floor.
  4. Technology. The Centre has a number of modern workshop and conference rooms, equipped with the latest presentation aids. Xanthe Wells's carefully prepared slides for her first session describing a creative approach to novel writing failed to appear on the screen, despite the intervention of a series of clever people applying a rational approach to problem solving. Xanthe, undaunted, showed us the way to access the hidden, creative, two-thirds of our mind iceberg; the part, in other words, which needs no Powerpoint slides. Later in the week, Robin de Jongh gave a workshop on how to market ebooks. He got our attention by frightening us with some big numbers; the thousands of ebooks being published each week, and the billions of webpages out there trying to attract attention. He did provide reassurance in the form of a cunning formula which I will share with you. Sales = Audience / Competition. The secret is to write about something so unique and obscure that you won't be lost in the depths of page two hundred of a Google search.
  5. The age range. Nearly three hundred people attend the school, the youngest being nineteen, and the oldest being ninety or thereabouts. I strayed into the lively birthday party of a young eighty-eight year old called Ravey in a lobby. Imagine the comic potential of a group of around fifty such summer schoolers trying to understand Twitter. Enormous respect to children's writer Karin Backmann who boldly attempted to cross the technology age divide and get Swanickers tweeting each other. The trouble is, someone always asks, "What's it for?" And that's like asking, "What is the meaning of life?" A one hour workshop is insufficient to cover such philosophical questions. This was my second time at Swanwick and again I came away having learnt invaluable lessons from people who have been writing for at least a decade longer than I have. The secret to a long writing life? Keep getting the words down, then edit them carefully. David Hough shared his self-editing method in the most useful two hours of my writing education. I was sure he was speaking just to me, and I suspect everyone in the room felt the same. (Please feel free to point out the errors in this piece through the 'Comments' section below. They are all placed deliberately to test you. I wish.)
Did I say five things to love? There must be at least fifty. I haven't mentioned the opportunities for lakeside meditation; the entertaining evening speakers; the poetry, script writing, and storytelling; or crime writer Simon Hall on stage with only a guitar to preserve his modesty. Next year's Writers Summer School is between the 8th and 15th of August. If you are a writer, young, old, aspiring or experienced, put it in your diary now. A week spent in the company of other writers provides a rich diet of inspiration and a cloak of friendship which will last a whole year of being chained to your writing desk or table.

* The Dregs Party is a means for participants to avoid lugging home half-consumed bottles of wine, whisky, gin etc. Some come to Swanwick well prepared. I'm told the Wicked Witch of the West brought her fridge.

Who are these people?

The world is divided into voyeurs and exhibitionists... It takes one of each to make a good marriage.

Robert and Caroline Fanshaw are an ambitious young couple trying to make their way in a complex world.

What happens when their private affairs collide with world events and the big issues of our times? Drama, comedy and x-rated scenes.