Swanwick Writers’ Summer School

Last week, taking a week of leave from work, I jumped on a train and headed to Derby for my first ever Swanwick Writer’s Summer School.

In honesty, I’d never heard of Swanwick before, despite this being its 70th year. I booked my place rather impulsively, still not knowing if I was a ‘proper writer’ or if I was going to be figured out and laughed at.

It turned out to be one of the best decisions I’ve ever made.

Most of the sessions I attended were centered around flash and short story writing, which is what I want to concentrate on. I’ve always been drawn to these more precise forms of writing, and the support I received from Swanwick reassured me that this is a ‘legitimate’ form of writing. So much writing advice is about novel writing that it’s great to find some focus on short form. Sessions by Della Galton, who is the agony aunt for Writers’ Forum (as well as author of a squillion short stories!), and by Ingrid Jendrzejewski, who is one of the most talented flash fiction writers I’ve ever come across, really helped me. I also attended sessions and workshops on character creation, world-building and mind-mapping, all of which I’ve already used in part since I got back.

There were a few things specifically that stuck in my mind. I tweeted a thread of them over the weekend, but I thought I’d list them here too:

  1. Titles. Even for (or maybe especially for) flash fiction, an interesting title is crucial. So many competition entries get immediately rejected because they don’t have one, or just use the prompt.
  2. Character, conflict, change. If I have these three in my head, I have the bare minimum for a story.
  3. Prompts. Whatever the first three ideas I get for a short story/flash fiction from a prompt are, forget them. They’re the obvious answer, and other people have probably already thought of them. Be original.
  4. Characters. Using the enneagram system, you can identify ways of change/growth for a character that stay believable. Start with a negative quality in one type, and move the character towards a positive one. Or vice versa.
  5. Publishing. If I’m lucky enough to get an agent and/or publisher, that’s definitely not the end of the line. It’s possibly just the beginning.
  6. World building. Top down is easier (building a world around the plot you have), but bottom up (building the world first) can provide a richer, more well-rounded world.
  7. Editing. Working in person with someone to look at the overall story and how to improve it is a lot more productive than trying to do it by email etc.
  8. General. Stop comparing myself to other writers. We’re all at different stages of our writing careers, and we all have different styles and ways of writing. My writing is just as good as theirs – as long as I keep working at it.
  9. Community. If you can, try and attend a writer’s event such as Swanwick Writers’ Summer School. The courses themselves are worth every penny, but making the kind of friends you feel like you’ve known your whole life is priceless.

For an introvert like me, it was an exhausting week mentally, as well as physically. With 300 people around, it can sometimes feel like you’re becoming overwhelmed, but I made sure to find space and time for myself. This worked out even better in the end, as the quiet times were really productive for me. I completed two short/flash pieces, worked on some character pieces for a novel that I’ll probably never write, and came up with enough ideas that I’m planning a series of short stories for NaNoWriMo this year.

So thank you to Della, Ingrid, Veronica Bright, Paul Beatty and Rosemary Kind for their sessions. Thank you to all of the people involved in running Swanwick. Thank you to Geoff Parkes for making me feel so welcome, especially when my anxieties were playing up. Thank you to all of the other attendees who were always so friendly, even when I was sending out my ‘do not approach’ vibes. And most of all, thank you to Becky and Pierre – you know why.

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