We went to SAW: we conquered (With apologies to Caesar)

On the appointed Friday evening, two teams arrived in Cumbernauld. Tension was in the air as each prepared to face the challenge the weekend would offer. One returned home with its tail between its legs, despondent in defeat. The other carried home the silverware and planned an open-topped bus tour of their hometown.
Observe your surroundings we were repeatedly told: that’s where your ideas and inspiration will come from. So, take a professional football team, a hen party, umpteen crime writers, an entertaining literary osteopath, Francis Gay from the Sunday Post, and confused hotel guests wondering what on earth they had stumbled across, and the entries to next year’s competitions should be illuminating. Add the gothic atmosphere of Saturday’s gala dinner and battalions of towering candelabra will loom large.
While Aberdeen Football Club was sent packing: Ayr Writers’ Club celebrated. Other writing clubs cast jealous glances at our tables while wondering what we added to the water in our corner of the nation. However, given the level of success, the writing world’s WADA (World Anti-Doping Association) may seek to intervene.
Relating everything that happened at this year’s Scottish Association of Writers Conference would be a futile exercise: there’s a limit to how far you can embellish the excitement of an AGM. It’s the essence of what lingers that matters; the insights and observations, the advice and pearls of wisdom, and statements of the obvious that we often forget.
Here are some selected snippets scribbled in my notebook:
• Check out the market and have something to say (Kate Blackadder about short stories)
• Scriptwriters must give clarity for the director and actors; orchestrate them and let them move around (Catherine Czerkawska on drama)
• Stories and the characters must work together – and avoid adverbs (Helen Forbes about short stories)
• Never mind the beginning and end, the bit in the middle must zing (Marc Sherland)
• Openings must tell readers about the story and its pace – know who is telling the story – and omniscient narrators give an old-fashioned feel (Agent Jenny Brown on novels)
• Keep things moving – children don’t have patience (Keith Charles about writing for children)
• Non-fiction articles must tell a story –the tone, vocabulary and pace must make the subject accessible (Douglas Skelton on article writing)
• Avoid “!!!!!!”: your words should work on their own (Peter Ross on feature writing)
• Punctuation in poetry makes it easier for the reader: they know when to breathe –make adjectives interesting and make them count (Rowena Love about poetry)
• Don’t give spoilers and don’t just re-tell the story (Erskine Writers on book reviews)
And those were just from the adjudicators while announcing the competition results.
Even more valuable was the individual feedback given by each adjudicator on every competition entry I’d submitted: what was good, what needed working on, what didn’t come across clearly, and sometimes what the market might be for each piece. Thoughtful, objective and constructive criticism will help shape each piece when I submit it to another competition or for publication.
Yes, there were fourteen workshops during the weekend; advice and guidance from their leaders pointing us in the right direction. Whether we aspire to be poets, novelists, feature writers or dramatists, there was something to attend. The programme helped self-editors, self-publishers or those wrestling with the quest for an agent. Valuable as those session were, it’s the four pieces of paper, unique personal observations on my writing that I treasure the most, and that will be of immediate benefit in my writing.
We frequently need the proverbial kick up the bum – not just with ideas and inspiration – but with building confidence that an event like the SAW Conference injects in bucket-loads. Hesitantly, I shied away from it when I first joined Ayr Writers. Could I be part of this momentum of success? Did my writing justify attending? Then, I was nervous and apprehensive the first time I went, but that was quickly dispelled when I made connections with my own writing in virtually everything that was said.
I hope this year’s success doesn’t daunt anyone from being part of the SAW Conference. There’s writing I’ve read and heard at Feedback Evenings and Summer Readarounds that would easily hold its own at SAW. I’m confident that there are even more prize-winners lurking.
Now, it’s back to footballers and hen parties: no, maybe I shouldn’t go there.
On the other hand, somebody I was watching at the bar … that could be another story.
And for those keen to put a date in next year’s diary, it’s going to 17-19 March 2017. See you there.
Nigel Ward

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