Image Credit: All but one of the Swanwick photos were taken by me, Allison Symes, though I have used Book Brush for captioning purposes. It is a useful tool. Many thanks to Fiona Park for using my phone to take the photo of me signing books. It is tricky to do that kind of photo yourself! Other images from Pixabay as usual.
It was wonderful to be back at the Swanwick Writers’ Summer School recently. For the first time in its 70+ year history, it was cancelled last year due to You Know What. So getting back together again at The Hayes Conference Centre in Derbyshire was especially nice given I met friends I haven’t seen in person for two years.
There is something special about getting together with fellow creatives in person. Many of my Swanwick friends I keep in touch with via Facebook/Twitter and/or Zoom, which is something positive about social media. It has been a lifeline like that but when you get together in person, you do bounce ideas off each other, share useful tips and so on. There is something in the atmosphere which encourages this.
And it was my first train trip since before March 2020. Annoyingly Cross Country had taken off the direct service from Southampton Airport Parkway to Derby (the service runs on to Newcastle) so I had to go in to London Waterloo, across to St. Pancras, and then go up to Derby.
To be fair it only added another 40 minutes to my journey, which is not bad, but I do still feel it was odd to say the least to send people into the capital when it wasn’t necessary. I am hoping the direct service will be back next year.
Swanwick – What happens?
The Swanwick Writers’ Summer School runs from a Saturday to the following Friday and comprises workshops, talks, guest speakers, specialist courses, and shorter ones over the space of those few days. The range of topics is incredible.
This year’s school covered flash fiction, poetry, historical fiction, social media, non-fiction submissions, world building (fantasy and science fiction), crowdfunding, book trailer production, creating suspense, writing compelling crime, competitions, writing for children, and the list goes on! I haven’t named half of what was on offer this year.
All meals (which are generous!) and accommodation is included and I pay a little extra to be on the coach that takes me to and from Swanwick from Derby Railway Station. Many of us meet up at Derby to enjoy coffee and a sandwich before heading off to the school. For us, Swanwick week starts there!
After a full day of workshops and courses, the evening entertainment consists of guest speakers who are experts in their field. One talk was from Tony Faber of Faber and Faber who talked about the history of the publishing firm. (Yes, he does have a book out on that topic. How did you guess?!). But it was fascinating to hear the history and especially about the links with T.S. Eliot.
On other nights, there are quizzes. One is a literary one and the other is a general knowledge quiz. I am part of a team known as the Prosecco Queens (no prizes for guessing why) and we ended up in medal position for both (one silver, the other bronze before you ask) so we can hold our heads up reasonably high.
Before Swanwick, there is a competition called Page to Stage where writers are encouraged to send in a script for a five minute play. These are judged anonymously by a professional theatre company and the best scripts go through for performance at Swanwick.
This year seven out of eighteen entries went through. At Swanwick itself, these plays are staged and volunteers are sought for acting, to direct, and of course the writers get to see their plays being performed. During the week the plays are then performed in the main hall in front of the other delegates and we the audience vote on the ones we like best. The winners are awarded a “Swannie”, which is literally a small trophy made to look like an Oscar but clearly isn’t! Trust me, these things are coveted….
Swanwick has a Book Room where authors can put out their wares. Writers fill out a form listing the books we’re taking in for this ahead of the conference and at the end of the week, when we pick up any unsold books, we sign our unsold books out on that list. Payment is made via BACS after Swanwick.
I was thrilled to sell out on Tripping the Flash Fantastic and I only took three copies of From Light to Dark and Back Again back home with me. This was my best year at Swanwick for sales and my first live event since before lockdown.
Networking is the other big benefit. It was a joy to meet up with Linda W Payne, a fellow Bridge House Publishing/CafeLit and Chapeltown Books author especially. We usually meet at the annual Bridge House event in December and that too was cancelled last year. We have high hopes it won’t be this year.
But you also get to meet new authors, publishers, all kinds of people at Swanwick, and they tell you what they do and you tell them what you do. Nobody thinks it odd here that we sit at our desks and make things up all the time! Of course a lot of the networking takes place at another side benefit to Swanwick – the bar!
The grounds at The Hayes are wonderful to walk around (and the main time for this is after lunch and/or if you decide to not go to a workshop etc). The nice thing about Swanwick is you can pick and choose what you go to. Nobody worries if you decide you don’t like a course and then try the others out instead.
And, after Swanwick, you can download the notes from all of the courses, whether you went to them or not. I don’t know of any other writing event that does this. Most tend to let you download notes only from the ones you went to. And you do feel connected to the overall writing community in a way you simply can’t do when you’re sitting at home drafting a story or a blog post on your own.
The biggest problem most delegates have is when there is a clash of courses you’d like to go to on the same day. I don’t envy the Swanwick Committee for putting this together. There is no way of pleasing everybody but being able to download the notes later from the ones you couldn’t get to helps enormously here.
The Hayes is an old country house and it has its own Chapel. A daily service is held during Swanwick week (only for about 20 minutes) and I led a Lift Up Your Hearts session, as these services are known, on the Monday I was away. I shared my favourite parable, The Good Samaritan, and talked a little about how stories can be told in hymns. (Possibly another form of flash fiction going on here as all hymns are well under the 1000 word count limit for flash!). One lovely thing is here is that the names of Swanwickers who have passed on are specifically remembered at the services here. And Swanwick has its own war memorial too.
So there is a lot going on and a huge creative buzz but everything stops for afternoon tea which is fabulous but fattening!
Of course, you get a chance to try out workshops here on subjects that may interest but which you are not perhaps yet writing in and that is useful. I never started out as a flash fiction writer. Would I have gone to a course on it when I was starting out? Probably. Out of sheer curiosity to find out more.
The one thing I don’t join in with at Swanwick is the Fancy Dress Evening/disco. (I have two left feet when it comes to dancing. Trust me, I am being kind on everyone in sitting that out). On the Thursday afternoon, there is a Dregs Party out on the main lawn and, later in the evening, a formal Swanwick Farewell in the main conference hall.
There are a couple of mini competitions during the week so prizes are awarded for the winners at the Farewell. It is also when the Swannies are given out for Page to Stage and I was delighted a friend, Penny Blackburn, won Best Drama for her five minute short play. I didn’t win the flash fiction competition but another friend, Fiona Park, did. Fiona also took this fabulous picture of me happily signing copies of Tripping the Flash Fantastic – I have the feeling I will be using this picture again in marketing efforts!
I had a fabulous time at Swanwick as you will have gathered from the above. The Hayes, for the first time, created packed lunches for people to take outside when the weather improved and that was a great idea which went down very well. Prior to that, you could have had three cooked meals a day there!
There were plenty of sanitisers all over the place and people were pretty sensible about distancing when possible, masking in enclosed spaces and so on. There was plenty of ventilation in our rooms and in the conference rooms. (We all carried out lateral flow tests before going and I carried out another on my arrival home on the Friday. Both negative I am glad to say).
What is wonderful is there was a sense of normality coming back, something everyone picked up on and appreciated, I feel. Now for more author events, please, live and on Zoom. I hope to share more news later on in the year as I have a couple of things coming up.
Oh and you may well know The Hayes for something else. It is the setting for the book and film, based on true events, of The One Who Got Away. Yes, The Hayes did see the only German prisoner of war escape Britain. Oberleutnant Franz von Werra escaped from their marvellous grounds during World War Two. On previous visits to Swanwick, you could go and see the remains of the tunnel he escaped from (and it is tiny, even by my standards and I don’t even make it to 5’ tall!).
Will I be back at Swanwick next year? Let’s just say I can’t wait for the booking slots to re-open!
Read blog posts by Allison Symes published on Chandler’s Ford Today.
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