Last week, I attended The Writers’ Summer School at Swanwick for the first time. I must say that I’d forgotten what it’s like to be a writing conference newbie — I’ve been going to the RNA Conference for more years than I’m prepared to admit — and it was salutary to experience newbie-dom all over again.
(At my first RNA Conference, I wasn’t published and didn’t really know anyone. But I met loads of writers whose books I’d read and loved. I remember chatting with Nicola Cornick who was then one of my writing heroes, and still is. The RNA sort of enfolded me, from that point on, it seemed.)
Swanwick and newbies
Swanwick comes much recommended by people whose judgement I trust. It is amazingly friendly, sometimes overwhelmingly so. Newbies like me wear white name badges so that the regulars can identify us from a distance and help us if we’re lost or dithering or just on our own, looking friendless.
The RNA’s standard badges with sparkles for first-timers are rather more discreet. I think that, on balance, I prefer the RNA’s version, because you need to be close to someone, even talking to them, before you know they’re newbies. Swanwick white badges are more of a flashing beacon — “newbie here!” — since old hands wear discreet yellow, or green, or lavender.
Swanwick is a beautiful location, as I hope my pictures show. It has excellent plenary and seminar rooms and plenty of accommodation (from ensuite to shared).
There are lakes and even a chapel, as you can see below.
and a sunlit prayer labyrinth (sadly empty).
It offers good facilities by way of bars, lounges and so on and really efficient and helpful staff. No one seems to queue for more than about 5 minutes to be served at mealtimes even though there are nearly 300 delegates. The food’s pretty good, too, which is always a bonus.
(Sadly there are no cosy kitchens for delegates to congregate in, after hours. Boo! But then, there’s little time for private socialising, as you’ll see if you read on…)
The programme is huge and pretty full-on. The writing school goes on for a week, Saturday to Friday, with five packed full days, Sunday-Thursday.
When I say “packed”, I think I can justify it. The sessions start at 8.00 am — lift up your pens, or meditation by the lake, anyone? — finish around 5.00 pm and adjourn to the bar before an early dinner. Then there’s an after-dinner speaker for about an hour, followed by late-evening sessions like quizzes, open-mike events, discussions, dramatics, a disco and even busking, until around 11.00 pm. Phew!
Of course, no delegate needs to attend everything.
Just as well in my case, I have to admit. Swanwick taught me that my stamina isn’t what I thought it was.
But there were compensations…
The programme is varied, as it has to be to suit participants who may be writing anything: children’s stories, all genres of fiction (including screenplays and scripts), non-fiction and self-help books, and poetry. To give you an idea, the 2019 programme included 6 specialist courses that each had four one-hour sessions spread across the week:
How To Write Your First Novel – Della Galton
Character Psychology – Steve Hartley
Crime Plotting – Bettina Von Cossel
Genius Poetry – Alison Chisholm
Screen Writing – Bridget Holding
SHoP – Succeed Happier on Purpose – John Lamont
I dipped into Steve Hartley and John Lamont’s courses and learned a lot. It also helps that the notes from all the various courses are available to delegates on the Swanwick website after the week has ended. That way, we get an insight into the courses we couldn’t attend.
What Swanwick gives (and doesn’t give) … at least in my case
There were shorter courses too. I picked up tips about how to write radio drama and how to self-publish an audio book (though I’m not at all sure I shall try either of them, because it would be such a huge investment of time).
I also learned techniques to deal with the setbacks of being a writer by turning negatives into positives. I’m still ruminating about that one.
Sometimes we writers enjoy having a communal moan about life’s unfairnesses, don’t we?
What I didn’t get at Swanwick — and I do always get at an RNA Conference — was that indefinable “buzz” that made me want to go off and write at every available opportunity.
At Swanwick, I wasn’t fired up to write.
The sessions I attended were all a bit…er…cerebral. They didn’t engage my creative brain as I had hoped.
And that’s a shame.
But that’s probably my fault, because of my choice of sessions and courses. I’m sure there was inspirational, buzzy stuff there to be had. I just missed it.
Maybe if I’d done some of the acting, or busking, or dancing — no, I spared them those and I hope they’re properly grateful 😉 — my creative juices would have started to flow like a spring feeding a Swanwick lake?