Making Writing Fit
I have told my friends I am at ‘writing school’. Swanwick Writers is the world's longest running residential week-long writers conference, attended by professional and aspiring writers in rural Derbyshire. ‘Swanwick’, by the way, rhymes with 'tonic', not 'tonwick'; do not pronounce the second ‘w’! A few months ago an email was shared around the English and Comparative Literature department at uni, informing us that we could apply for TopWrite: a scheme offering heavily discounted places condition to an approved sample of writing, personal statement and academic reference. I was accepted, and to be honest with you I didn't research particularly well, so ended up on a train to Derby with little idea of what to expect.
Upon arrival, I learn that this is the 71st year of the summer school, which members of this cohort have travelled from Canada and New Zealand to attend. Of the three hundred, a small handful did not pay hundreds of pounds to be here. In a nutshell, I have - big time - lucked out. I am shown to my room, a double bed ensuite that is situated between the lakes and gardens, opposite the main house, which is filled with lecture theatres of varying sizes. I attend classes, talks and workshops on things like structure, gender and plot twists.
“If you’re sending to an agent, you haven’t got later, you only have the first page.”
The first page needs a hook, at least one main character, a setting, indicating an idea of genre and some form of action, dialogue being a solid choice. This must be woven seamlessly into the first 350 words, ideally evoking a sense of narratorial voice that is original and engaging.
“Not all books have that,” someone in the row behind me says, tone indignant. He wants to rebel from writing school, he is not enjoying the first-page-rules. He goes on to list famous authors, who, did you know, have omitted half of these bullet points?
“When you are a bestseller, you can do what you want.”
I am enjoying learning the formulas, they push me to begin structuring the loose ideas I arrived with. Are my characters and storylines big enough to sustain 90,000 words? Does my idea have depth, or is it just linear? Is this plot twist relevant to the original story arc?
“Don’t set your first novel in a place you have not seen, touched and smelled.”
“Don’t have a prologue because your first chapter isn’t exciting enough.”
“Don’t name your hero ‘John’.”
The sessions are all optional and without sign up or assessment. If you didn’t like part one of something, you can go to part two of something else. I am surrounded by authors of everything from poetry anthologies to cookbooks, both those with the microphones and sitting beside me in the audience, and I overhear things like ‘my agent said it was more likely to sell in America if I set it in London’ and ‘I’ll be around in a bit, I just have a quick book signing to do’.
Many people here are retired; the minority of us under thirty are ‘the kids’. Everyone says good morning to each other in passing, usually followed up with a ‘how’s your draft looking?’, and at no point do you feel eggy for saying you just really really want to write a novel. Some have been writing for decades and others started in their seventies. There is a Book Room, in which anyone who has been published can sell copies of their work. We all wear lanyards with our names printed in large, so you often see the name on the cover sitting across from you at dinner. There is a constant flow of tea and coffee and cake. There is also a bar. It’s basically Hogwarts - for novels, with wine - and by the second night I have informed my family group chat that I will not be returning home.
“I have to start making plans for when I graduate,” I am saying to an author I meet at a drinks reception early on in the week. “I’m worried that applying for PGCEs means I’m not backing myself as a writer. Everyone says that once you sign up to teaching you’re trapped, and that’s all you’ll ever do. And then you have babies, and that’s all you do. I feel like being a teacher and having a family means I’m giving up any potential shot at a 'proper writing career.’”
“Setting yourself up with a reliable career is backing yourself. If you make writing your life, job and hobby, you are turning it into something that must provide you with an income, entertainment and fulfilment. No one thing can give you all of that: not a partner, a job or a child. If you write something that happens to make you a fair amount of money, you can reconsider; trying to push yourself into generating a salary from short stories and novel drafts aged twenty is not ‘backing yourself’, it’s deluding yourself.”
This is the first time I have not been warned away from teaching by someone who knows I want to write a novel. And this woman has been a teacher. And published many novels.
One of the evening guest speakers recounts telling a group of authors about his plans to ‘take a year out, to focus on my writing’. The author sat beside him replied ‘oh gosh, don’t do that! Taking a year out is not sustainable: if you are a writer, you make it fit into your life.'
'Don’t have a prologue because your first chapter isn’t exciting enough.'
I don’t really know what I pictured novelists doing when they are not novelling. The only authors I know personally are my tutors at Goldsmiths, who are nearly all academics with PhDs. I can’t believe it has taken me this long to realise that most people can do most things and still make writing fit. You live your life the way you want, and you make writing fit. A writer makes writing fit.
It used to comfort me, when I was a young child with parents battling a messy split, that one day I would have a life in which nobody would tell me whose house I will sleep at this weekend, what is appropriate to say to this person, that person, in which I would never feel helpless and always feel in control. It is clear to me now that control is not a constant, whether you love something, or someone, or not. I want a life built up of components: it seems the best way to remain steady is to have multiple anchors, so that I am not left empty if one is taken away. When one is taken away, because loss is inevitable. I do not want to look to a single friend, partner, career or novel draft as the sole source of my happiness.
I am going to make writing fit. And I know they say a PGCE is the most stressful thing you can do, or the first year of teaching, or second, or third, or a masters, MFA, marriage, children. Divorce! I know that these events will slow and sometimes pause my writing, that I would probably get a novel out faster if I was less extroverted and more focused. But this is a good thing: I do not want a life that does not have these things.
Some of the most inspiring writers I have met this week were not published until they retired. Others have full time jobs, families, travel. Everyone - regardless of age and life stage - finds a way to make writing fit. I do not have to choose, because I will make myself have both.
I have been interviewing people a lot, recently, and I often ask what they would say to their younger selves, if they could. A surprising amount initially refuse, on the basis that communicating with a younger self would change the course of what was ‘meant to happen’. I am not as poetic as this. I am an interferer. If I could speak to ten year old Ruby, who is chubbier and kinder than twenty year old Ruby, I would say: just keep writing your stories. But don’t just write your stories. Do all the other things, too, otherwise you won’t have anything to write about. Having said this, don’t bother with clubbing, you will find it boring. Freshers’ Week is not the best week of anyone’s life, it definitely won’t be the best of yours, and that is fine: there is nothing glamorous about getting drunk with random strangers and you do not want to be the person who, when reflecting in old age on your time on earth, cites Freshers as a high point. Don’t mix your drinks. Don’t tell your secrets to people who bitch about their friends; they are bitching about you, too. You are going to be undeniably attracted to men who are difficult and interesting, and you will spend a lot of time romanticising this. You are allowed to write about them, but do not fall in love with them: they will not make good husbands or fathers! Do not make major life decisions when you are hungover, hormonal or heartbroken. If someone cares, you will know. If they don’t, you will feel confused.
In short, I am not my characters. There is a difference between the life I want and the lives I want to write about, and that is absolutely okay; there is no novel, if everyone is happy.