Tuesday, 30 October 2012

Tax Matters

[This week’s post is specific to the UK; the principles apply in most countries but the specifics vary, so non-Brits need to review the requirements with your national authorities]

In my experience, no-one likes paying taxes. (If there’s anyone out there who disagrees with this, leave a comment and we’ll debate the question.) However, it’s the law of the land that if you earn money, you have to pay tax on it. I was once approached by an irate writer who said “but it’s only a hobby”. I’m afraid HMRC doesn’t recognise the distinction.  But in our case, we’re writing as a business, not a hobby, so there’s no question about it: we need to understand the tax systems as they apply to us.

This is just an overview of the topic. For detailed information, consult an accountant or go direct to the relevant authority. I find the HMRC website very useful; better still, ring one of the specific helplines.
There are four main types of tax to think about: income tax, corporation tax, value-added tax (VAT) and national insurance.

Income Tax

·       This is paid on our income, after deduction of expenses and allowances;

·       This tax applies to everyone. Employees (including Directors) of limited companies pay via the Pay as You Earn (PAYE) system, in monthly amounts. Self-employed people pay via the self-assessment system and usually make two payments per year;

·       There are different rates of tax, depending on income.

Corporation Tax

·       This is the tax on company profit after all expenses, including salaries, pension contributions etc have been made;

·       This tax only applies to limited companies; it is paid annually in retrospect following completion of the annual tax return;

·       There are different rates of tax, depending on the level of profit, but no tax-free allowance.

Value-added Tax (VAT)

·       If a company or a self-employed individual is registered for VAT, they must charge it on all sales made;

·       VAT registration is mandatory above a certain income level (currently £77,000 in UK); and while that is not likely to worry many of us, especially in the start up phase of our business, it is important to know that VAT registration is optional at any level of income;

·       VAT is charged at different rates for different goods and services (20%, 5%, and 0%). Hard copy books are zero-rated (although e-books are currently charged at the full 20%);

·       If a company or an individual is registered, VAT must be charged on invoices;

·       But [and this is probably the most important point in this whole article] if a company or an individual is registered, VAT on all payments can be claimed back from HMRC;

·       Let me say that once again: if we are registered for VAT and selling books, our sales incur a zero rate — so no downside for our customers — but all VAT that we pay on stationery, printer cartridges, office furniture etc can be claimed back;

·       If we are selling ebooks via Amazon, they charge VAT and handle it for us;

·       There are special schemes to make administration of VAT simpler, depending on the size of the business (measured by gross income level).

National Insurance

·       This is the tax that builds our entitlement to certain state benefits including state pension;

·       Class 1 contributions are paid by both employed earners and their employers within the PAYE system; this is a big expense and is possibly the biggest disadvantage of a limited company;

·       Class 2 (an initial flat-rate) and Class 4 (additional rate, based on level of profit)   contributions are paid by the self-employed;

·       There are exemptions available for anyone on low earnings, but these need to be applied for, not assumed.

[As always, note that I am not an accountant or a lawyer, just a long-term business owner, talking about my own experience. If you are unsure about anything, always take advice from an appropriate professional.] 

Wednesday, 24 October 2012

The Next Big Thing: Tina's Work in Progress

Last week, I tagged writer Tina K Burton, giving her the task of talking about her latest work in progress. Tina doesn't have her own blog, although you can find out more about her on her Amazon author's page, so I invited her to visit me and answer her questions here instead. So welcome Tina:

What is the working title of your book?

Born To Love Me.

 Where did the idea for the book come from?

A weird dream I had.

What genre does your book fall under?

It’s a psychological thriller, but also a love story in a twisted kind of way.

What actors would you choose to play the part of your characters in a movie of your book?

I have no idea but I’d want British character actors not celebrities.

What is the one sentence synopsis of your book?

Genetic scientist Elizabeth is devastated when her husband is killed in a car-crash and will do anything to get him back, but in doing so, she doesn’t realise what a dangerous character she has created.

Will your book be self published or represented by an agency?

I’d like to seek agency representation, but if I have no luck then I’ll self publish.

What other books would you compare the story to in your genre?

It’s like The Time Traveler’s Wife in that it’s a kind of sci-fi love story, but it has a twisted edge to it.

What else about your book might pique the reader’s interest?

It’s dark and intriguing, but you also feel for the main character because even though what she does is horrific, you understand why. It has many layers – at times it’s quite scary, but at others very sad.

Thanks, Tina, for dropping by; I'm looking forward to reading 'Born to Love Me' when it's published.
This game of tag seems to be coming to an end, but if any writers out there missed out, give me a shout via the comment box and we'll tag you for next week.

Wednesday, 17 October 2012

The Next Big Thing: My Work in Progress

Last week, friend and fellow writer Madalyn Morgan tagged me in her post 'The Next Big Thing'. Click on Maddie's article to read about her second novel Applause. This week, it's my turn to answer questions about my current work in progress, so here goes:

What is the working title of your book?

Gorgito’s Ice-Rink

Where did the idea for the book come from?

I’ve been travelling to Russia and the former Soviet Union countries since the early 1990s. I wanted to write about my experiences, but found I can write fiction more effectively than memoir. Gorgito is based on someone I used to work with in Russia.

What genre does your book fall under?

It’s essentially a quest novel but with an undercurrent of romance as well.

What actors would you choose to play the part of your characters in a movie of your book?

(Assuming that we’re looking at all actors, rather than ones who are the right age today) Gorgito would be played by Anthony Quinn (I see him as a sort of Russian Zorba); Emma would be played by Kate Winslet (playing her proper but ballsy); Yulia would be played by Jessica Ennis (whom I need to persuade to change careers); and Viktor would be played by Robert De Niro.

What is the one sentence synopsis of your book?

A Georgian businessman struggles with bureaucracy, corruption and the weather in his attempt to build an Olympic-standard ice-rink, in order to bring home a young Russian skater who has gone to America to train — and in so doing, to make up for a promise he was unable to keep many years ago.

Will your book be self published or represented by an agency?

I will be seeking agency representation, but otherwise, I will publish via Chudleigh Phoenix Publications, where I currently publish my short story anthologies.

What other books would you compare the story to in your genre?

One obvious comparison would be with A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian as I am aiming for the same light humour that Marina Lewycka achieves; but in terms of the quest, it is similar to Salmon Fishing in the Yemen in which Paul Torday shows different characters gradually being won over to the seemingly impossible dream.

How long did it take you to write the first draft of the manuscript
I started writing it in 2006. I finished the main storyline this summer. I am currently writing two sections of back-story which involves a lot of research into 19960s Soviet Russia. I plan to be finished by the end of this year.

Who or what inspired you to write this book

I made some wonderful friends and had some great experiences in Russia. I wanted to make sure they weren't lost.

What else about your book might pique the reader’s interest?

It opens with a brief prologue set at Gorgito’s funeral in 2005, but chapter 1 then goes back to 1995. The reader knows from the start that the title character is going to die, but needs to read on to find out when, where, how — and whether he achieves his goal or not.


My final task is to tag the writers who will take on this set of questions next Wednesday. My list is still being assembled and will grow over the next few days. For now, I present to you:

Tina Burton (who doesn't have her own blog, but will be guesting on here next week).

Maria Smith: http://www.firstdraftcafe.blogspot.co.uk/

Tuesday, 16 October 2012

Business Structures

One of the questions to be resolved when setting up any small business is which structure is the most appropriate? There are a number of options including: self-employment; partnerships; limited liability partnerships; and limited companies. I’m going to look at the first and the last of these, as the two options that most independent writers would consider when putting their writing on a business footing.
Key points of self-employment (also called sole trading) in the UK are as follows:
  • There is no financial separation between the individual and business
  • There are no formal positions in the company
  • There is a need for registration with the tax authorities within 3 months of starting trading
  • Tax on earnings is paid through Self-assessment and National Insurance
  • Personal drawings (salary) are taken after tax has been deducted
Key points for a limited company in the UK are as follows:
  • The company is a separate business entity with finances separated from the individual
  • The company needs one or more directors plus a company secretary (although these can be the same person)
  • The company must be registered at Companies House (and annual returns must be made) plus tax authorities
  • Individuals are employees and are paid salaries from pre-tax profits (including Directors)
  • Individuals’ income tax is paid through the PAYE system
  • Dividends are paid after corporation tax deducted.
The advantages of self-employment include it being a cheaper option with less administration and benefits such as the availability of free banking. The disadvantages include the fact that all the assets (personal and business) are at risk and it may be more difficult to raise finances if required.
The advantages of a limited company include separation (and therefore some protection) of personal assets plus the possibility of an enhanced image with potential clients. The disadvantages include increased levels of administration and higher costs.
The choice that any writer makes on business structure will depend on their individual circumstances. I have run a limited company for twenty years, associated with other activities, and have simply added my writing to the mix. My systems are established and simple to operate; for me, it was the obvious choice. That would not necessarily be the obvious route for a new business.
Note: I write these articles as an experienced small business owner, hoping to clarify issues for writers starting down the journey towards running their own business and to help identify questions that need to be asked. I am neither a lawyer, nor an accountant. All the issues covered above can be complex (especially those relating to tax matters). ALWAYS take professional advice before deciding which route to take.

Monday, 8 October 2012

Giving It Away: Should We Write For Free?

[By pure co-incidence, fellow-writer Patsy Collins has also been blogging about the same topic this week, although she is talking about the provision of free books for Kindle. Read her article here.]

If there is one subject that seems to cause more conflict among writers than any other, it's the question of giving our writing away for free. I've seen some quite vicious arguments break out on some of the forums (and as writers, we all know how to use our words as weapons, don’t we?) each time the question is raised. At the one extreme, there are some people who believe that we should never write anything for nothing; we may be craftspeople, but we still have to pay the bills; publishers and printers all get paid, so why should writers be any different? At the other extreme, there is a view that the words are more important than the money and that we should use any and all opportunities to get our writing published — even if we have to pay for the privilege rather than the other way around.

Personally, I sit somewhere in the middle — and as always, I am looking at it from the point of view of a business-woman as well as a writer. We should never be ashamed to expect payment for our writing. It may take thirty minutes, an hour or a day to write something; but it has taken twenty, thirty or more years to learn how to write that something.

However, very few of us only do one type of writing all the time. We tend to write in different ways for different purposes. For example, here are some of the ways in which we might write. Most, but not all, further our businesses, although not all of them do so with direct financial returns. The key thing is to understand which is which and to decide whether each individual piece of writing is worth it or not.   

·       Articles for newspapers and journals are generally written on commission. Hence we have a formal or informal contract and an expectation of payment on delivery or on publication. (Don’t forget to send an invoice with the piece.)

·       Non-fiction books and fiction books by established authors are generally written on commission. We would expect a formal contract and, if we are lucky, an advance paid at time of contract and/or delivery of the manuscript. Further payment will depend on sales of the book, although we will not be asked to pay back the advance if the book bombs.

·       Fiction books, for first-timers, are generally written on spec. We are continually being told that this is not the way to a fortune, unless we are very good and very lucky. Hence this would come under the heading of potential financial returns.

·       To succeed as a writer these days, we all need to develop our ‘platform’. Increasingly this implies engagement with social media plus blogging.  No-one is going to pay me for writing this column (and nor would I expect them to) but if it brings my name to the attention of more potential readers, it is beneficial for my business.

·       Like musicians, writers get better with practice. When I first started writing creatively, I spent some time working on articles for one of the dreaded content sites. I never expected to make much money from those articles (and my expectations were not exceeded) but working out how I could improve my writing and watching my ratings to see what worked and what didn’t was a valuable exercise.

·       All businesses need planning and development. We covered planning in an earlier article. Development might include writing proposals for articles or books. Not all of those pitches will be successful, but the more we do, the ‘luckier’ we become. We would never expect to get paid for these proposals (I’m always suspicious of anyone who offers me a ‘free quotation’ — what else should it be but free?) but they are an important part of growing our business.

·       Writers get all sorts of requests to provide their work for free. And we always have the option of saying no. But sometimes we might want to say yes. I write for and publish Chudleigh Phoenix, a small local community magazine. It has no funding, so my co-editor and I don’t get paid. But that’s our choice — and I make sure it doesn’t eat into too much of the time that I need to devote to my business. (I also make sure that the readers of the magazine know about my books and short stories as well, so even my ‘donated’ writing can benefit the business in some way.)      

Thursday, 4 October 2012

Thinking About Finances

One phrase that is often quoted by experienced business people is: turnover is vanity; profit is sanity. The long-term objective of any small business is to be successful, otherwise why do it? In the context of this article, I’m going to define success as profitability.  (I know that’s not by any means the only measure of success, but it’s the one I’m dealing with today.)

So, in all businesses, and writing is no different to other businesses, there is one important equation:  income minus costs equals profit. 

The financial advice most appropriate for us as small business owners will often depend on the stage we have reached on the life-cycle of our business. If we are just starting out then our financial priorities and expectations will be different from when we have an established or mature business. 

Today we’ll look at the start-up situation. Starting out is a difficult period. 

·       We have to identify an aspect of our writing that is saleable and which we can deliver.  We may have to experiment or do some development before we get it right.

·       We have to identify our potential customers and get the message out to them that we are around.

·       We need systems in place to make sure we get paid for our writing.

These activities may take some time to get through and need to be completed before we can expect any income.  Therefore we need to think about interim funding options. 

·       Do we have savings or investments we can rely on? 

·       Do we have other members of the family who can help? 

·       Are there any grants or other types of financial support available?

·       Do we need to take out a bank loan? 

The bank loan option should be the one of last resort.  It’s a mistake to take on an additional financial commitment, such as an interest payment, before we know whether our business will succeed or not.

At this stage, our own wage is the last thing on the list.  Although, if we have any staff associated with this business, we have to make sure their wages are paid — even if ours aren’t. (This would include the support team like child-minders or cleaners that we use to clear our own time for writing.)

Despite my opening comments about profitability, at this early stage, just being able to pay the bills and keep the business open can be considered a measure of success.  [Unless we are very lucky this is certainly not the time to be thinking about company cars, health insurance or membership of the local golf club.]

Monday, 24 September 2012

Business Start-Up: Getting Paid

We’ve talked about finding the customers; we’ve looked at getting the work (i.e. the writing) done. Now we’re going to focus on the third element: getting paid. Talking about money is something which new business owners often find very difficult.  However, no-one will think badly of you for charging a fair rate for your work.  After all, that's what they are doing, whether they are running businesses themselves or working for someone else.  So here are my tips for how to get paid:
·       Do make sure you have a system in place to collect money, which means keeping a record of what you’ve done, invoicing at an appropriate time-period (weekly, monthly or at the end of the job), and chasing invoices if they are not paid on time. Otherwise not everyone will be honest enough to pay up — and that will be very bad for cash-flow.

·      Try to negotiate at least some percentage of the money in advance.  This is especially important if you have to buy materials or incur travel or other expenditures in order to do the work.  However, it is also a way to reduce the risk that you will not get paid.  Unfortunately, there are people out there who will take your work and then refuse to pay.

·        If you suspect that there is going to be a problem with payment, then cut your losses and walk away.  A customer that doesn't pay is not a customer that you need (or can afford) to keep.

·       At the end of the financial year, many organizations, particularly public ones, are looking to spend excess budget money, on the "use it or lose" basis.  So the last couple of months of the financial year could be a good time to prospect for work.  Even if they don't need the work done until the next budget cycle, they may be willing to make an advance payment for services to be supplied later.  Now that's a really good way to "borrow" money without incurring interest payments.

Monday, 17 September 2012

Business Start-up: Doing the Work

[There was no post last week, due to long weekend in Paris, and just a quickie today, as I’m in the middle of extended celebrations for a BIG birthday. Normal service will be resumed next week. J]

Once we’ve got our customers, we must satisfy (or even better, exceed) their expectations.  If we do, they are likely to come back to us next time they need the same service and also recommend us to other people.  [In fact, it is a good idea to ask satisfied customers to pass our name on to their friends.] So here are some of my top tips for getting the work done.
·       Any business needs premises from which to work. As writers, we are lucky that we can work more or less anywhere, especially in these days of mobile technology. The first option should always be to work from home or from the customer's premises.  It's the cheapest option and there will be no extra facility costs involved.  If you are working from home, you may be able to offset some of your household bills against your income, although this is a tricky area where it is worth taking professional advice. 

·       If you feel unable to work from home, then try to find options other than renting or buying.  Maybe there is a local business that has spare space they are willing to let you use.  If you can agree a barter deal (where you provide advertising copy or press releases for them in lieu of rent), even better.   Investigate your local libraries or internet cafes. If you do decide to rent premises, then investigate local schemes which support start-up businesses. 

·       Make sure you have the time to write. This is your job as well as your business and this means it must take priority. You will need back-up systems such as child-care arrangements and may have to consider contracting out housework etc. If you worked for someone else, you wouldn’t be able to drop everything each time there was a problem at home; so why should you be expected to do so when you work for yourself?

·       Especially if you are working from home, make sure people understand that you are not available for coffee or chats during your working time. Again, they wouldn’t interrupt you if you had a ‘proper job’, so why should they do it now?

·       You will need the right equipment to do the work. That’s a bigger topic, so we’ll come back to that at a later date.
·       Finally, you need the will to get on and write. So many of us complain of having writers’ block; losing the muse; being too busy doing other things [see above!] and therefore not getting anything done. At the risk of repeating myself: this is your job, not just your business. Write through the block; use trigger to wake up the muse; stop doing those other things — just get on and write.
·       Bearing in mind my opening note: don’t forget to have fun along the way. Otherwise, why be in business for yourself; you might as well go out and get a ‘proper job’. Right, I’m off to open some more cards and presents - have a good writing week.

Monday, 3 September 2012

Business Start-up: Reaching the Customers

Setting up a successful small business is a major step — and is not one we should take lightly. It’s also a huge topic, so I’m going to cover it over the next few weeks. Note my use of the word ‘successful’. I’m going to start with the assumption that our small business will be successful. Anyone starting a small business hopes it will be successful, but only a small percentage of the businesses set up each year actually succeed.  So let's start from the belief that our business of writing will survive.

For our business to survive, there are ONLY three things that need to happen: we need to get customers; we need to satisfy the demands of those customers; and we need to get paid.  Everything else is window-dressing.  So, let’s start by thinking about those customers and how we are going to find them.

If we start by brainstorming all the different types of customer a writer might have, we come up with quite a long list (and I’m sure your list would be even longer than mine). For books, whether fiction of non-fiction, the traditional customer is an agent or a publisher; however, with the growth of e-publishing and self-publishing, the reader is much more accessible as a direct customer. Additionally, there are newspapers, journals, magazines, both hard-copy and electronic. Thinking slightly outside the box, every company in the country is publishing something — whether it’s the annual report of a major multinational, or a simple website for the garage down the road — and not all those companies will have the writers they need on the payroll. There are also professional associations, sports organisations; the list goes on and on. Think about your own interests, experiences and expertise: where would you go to find out about any of them? Once we’ve identified our potential customers, here are some tips for how to reach them (and it you’ve got any other suggestions, leave a comment, so we can all share them):

  • Network 1: For people to become your customers, they need to know you exist.  So get your name (and contact details) out there.  Spend as much time networking as you can.  Tell everyone you know (and everyone you don’t know, but just happen to be talking to) that you are a writer.
  • Network 2: Don't underestimate the size of your indirect network. Every one of your family and friends has their own circle of contacts. Ask them to pass the word around. Next time someone says to them “I wish I could find some one who could...” they will think of you and pass the word on. 
  • Network 3: Print some simple flyers or business cards and leave them with local shops, restaurants and bars.  With today's technology, you can do this yourself, without incurring huge printing costs and still put over a professional image.
  • Network 4: As a writer, your customers don’t have to be just around the corner. Having dealt with the local opportunities, it’s time to turn to the rest of the big wide world — and that’s where the internet comes in. The power of electronic networking was brought home to me when I joined LinkedIn a few years back — at the time, it was the best option for my professional networking. Initially, I only had 11 contacts in my network. Yet the third degree network that opened to me (contacts of my contacts' contacts) was more than 182,000 people. Today, I have more than 500 contacts and my third degree network runs into the millions.
  • Network 5: Today, the options for electronic networking are much wider — and frankly confusing: Twitter, Facebook, Google+, Pinterest, Youtube plus others. I’m not going to attempt to unravel that particular tangled ball of wool here — although we may return to it in a later post. I recently had the chance to hear the inspirational Rebecca Woodhead speak (see Authorpreneurship and Fishnets:Swanwick Day 4). My suggestion would be to go to Rebecca's website and start learning about how to really network.
  • Making Contact 1: Make sure you are contactable at all times.  The best ways to do this are by email and mobile phone.  When you are starting out, you can't afford to be choosy over when you work or when you talk to people.  You are there when they need you - or you are not there at all.
  • Making Contact 2: Establish a presence on the Internet.  That doesn't mean spend huge amounts of time or money developing an all-singing, all-dancing website.  That can come later.  For now, all you need is the equivalent of an electronic business card.  Invest a small amount of money in a suitable domain name.  It makes the business look bigger than it is and allows you to have a suitable email address.  An address like mybusiness@hotmail.com is a dead give away that you are a small outfit.  An address like myname@mybusiness.com looks more professional.  Use the templates and site-builder software that come with many of the web-hosting services.  You can develop a simple, professional-looking site in less than an hour.

Monday, 27 August 2012

Business Plans for Writers

The starting point for every new business should be a good, clear business plan — and our writing business is no different.  It’s an important tool, for example, in talking to potential financial backers, whether that’s the friendly local bank-manager (and I bet there are some of those out there, somewhere) or Great Aunt Lucy, who’s loaded and looking for a safe investment for her cash. But more importantly, it’s a great way of organising our thoughts and plans into a logical framework before taking that step of ditching the day job.

A business plan shouldn't be a complicated document to develop. Our business plan is a road map for our business.  We probably won't have to look at it too often once we get started and know where we are going.  But it's a great planning tool when we start out.  It can also be useful to revisit it every year to see whether our predictions were correct and to check whether our objectives are still the same as before or whether we need to change direction.

Preparing a business plan is a simple process that can be done easily in a short space of time. In fact, it’s something we should be able to do in our lunch hour (or at most, a week’s worth of lunches) by thinking about a series of questions. However, it is an important first step in getting our business started.  Here are my top tips for writing that first business plan.
  • What do I write? In other words, what are you going to sell to people?  It may be fiction: short stories, novellas or novels.  It may be non-fiction: articles for magazines, newspapers, websites; textbooks or how-to books on your specialist subject. Starting out, it’s likely to be a mix of the above and it may well always be a wide range. You need to start with a clear idea of the type of writing you are going to offer.
  • Who will buy my writing? Who are the people that need your writing?  Are you selling to other writing businesses (editors or publishers of books or magazines); to non-writing businesses (whether that’s a large corporation that needs your expertise in writing technical reports or copy for their annual report or the guy down the road who needs helps writing the copy for his new website); or direct to your readership (self-publishing)?
  • How will I promote my writing? This is critical.  If you don't promote writing, no-one will know about it and you will have no customers.  The answer to the second question is critical here.  Once you know who your customers are and where to find them, you can plan your promotional campaigns.  These can be a simple as word-of-mouth networking or as complex as a full marketing campaigns with advertisements and give-aways. They will almost certainly contain a large element of social networking, so if you are someone who sniffs at the thought of using Facebook, or refuses to even learn what Twitter is — get over it! (Mind you, that’s not you, is it?  After all, you found your way to this blog.)
  • What should I charge for my writing? You need a clear view of the appropriate price for your writing.  If it is too high, people won't be willing to pay.  If it's too low, people may be suspicious of the quality and go elsewhere.  Have a look at what the competition is doing and decide on the right level to pitch it at. (But remember that people will tend to pay less for an untested product, so be willing to compromise until you have a track record.)
  •  What are the financial issues? Once you have a clear view of what you are going to sell, to whom, how and at what price, you can then do the sums and see whether it's going to work or not.  Make a sensible estimate of expected sales over the first year, remembering that it might be slow to start with.  It's better to be pessimistic at this point.  If you underestimate, it's not a problem.  If you overestimate, you could get into difficulties.  Then estimate the costs that you need to spend in order to support that level of sales.  Remember to consider direct costs like materials (although for a writer, these are relatively low, unless you have shiny notebook syndrome) plus indirect costs like electricity, postage and internet charges.  Compare the money coming in with money going out.  Is there likely to be a surplus or will you need to make up a shortfall to start with?  If so, identify sources of finance, whether it's selling the car, borrowing from friends or relatives or going to the bank for a loan.

Monday, 20 August 2012

Objectives That Help, Not Hinder

Recently, someone asked me “how do I deal with multiple projects; how do I sort out what I should be doing?” My immediate response was that she should work on her time management. [See 'Time Management for Grasshoppers, June 2012.] My more considered answer is that even before managing time, we need clear objectives. If we don’t have objectives, we don’t know what we need to do — and we don’t know how we’re getting on. Have we exceeded our expectations; are we getting along OK; or are we getting to the stage where we should think of doing something else?
For an objective to be helpful, it needs to be written in a certain way. I want to be a successful writer, working away in my cottage in the country with roses around the door. The second part of that objective is clear and measurable — and the roses have been spectacular this year, despite the weather. The first part is no help to me at all. What does successful mean? What am I going to write? How will I know when I get there? [Please note, I said ‘when’ rather than ‘if’. We’ll talk about positivity another time.] If our objectives are too vague, too numerous or too unrealistic, they will get in the way. Here are my top tips for setting helpful objectives.
  • Work out exactly what you want to achieve.  For example: ‘to increase the number of magazines buying my articles or ‘to increase the number of articles each magazine purchases’ are more specific than ‘to increase my level of sales.
  • Put a number to it so you will know whether it is achieved or not.  For example: ‘to add five new magazines to my portfolio’ or ‘to sell one article per month’ are measurable targets.
  • Objectives can be tough — it’s called having stretch targets and it can push you to achieve more than you expected — but there is no point in setting objectives that have no hope of being successful — that’s just demotivating and a waste of time.  For example: ‘to increase my output of sold articles by 500% in year one’ is probably not going to be achievable, whereas ‘to increase my output of sold articles by 100%’ is probably achievable but difficult.
  • You are running a business, so your objectives must be relevant to the business. For example: ‘to spend 10 hours per week updating my website’ is precise, measurable and achievable, but unless it is linked at some point to an increase in business, it is just playing. [I’m not saying there’s necessarily anything wrong with playing, so long as you don’t kid yourself that you are moving the business forward at the same time.]
  • Have a time-frame for achieving each objective. For example ‘to increase my output of sold articles by 100%’ without the addition of ‘in year one’ is meaningless.  Sure, you can do it at some point, but if you don’t have a milestone to work to, it could take 35 years and that’s not a particularly stretching objective, is it?

Friday, 17 August 2012

Swanwick 2012: day 7

...and in a flash, it was gone!

Swanwick Day 6: It Doesn't Happen By Magic

It's all a bit of a blur: Malcolm Chislholm showed us how to use Twitter and Facebook; how to set up a website for free - and how to publish a POD book via Lulu. Elsewhere in the Hayes, Della was teaching a class how to write erotica. It is Thursday, so there were baked potatoes for lunch - and ice-cream!

At the AGM, we cheered the departing committee members and applauded the incoming ones. Martin Brocklebank spoke for all of us when he said 'the magic of Swanwick doesn't happen by magic' and we acknowledged the huge amount of work that went into organising this year's wonderful summer school. Xanthe was awarded the quaich. Phil Collins, Alan Green and Zana Lamont won the prizes for Write, Camera, Action.

The dregs party was on the lawn, despite the chill breeze, and we drank wine. We sang 'show me the way to go home'; not quite the same as Katy's red. red rose. We sang it so badly the first time, Joyce made us do it again! Dinner was roast chicken - and we drank wine.

Five copies of Writers' and Artists' Yearbook were awarded for the best tie-breakers in the Chairman's competition (whisper - and I won one of them). The wonderful Helen Lederer kept us roaring with laughter throughout her talk and especially reading her 'sexy' short story. We followed tradition and sang Auld Lang Syne  - John Lamont made sure we got the words right and didn't hold hands too soon.

We retired to the bar or the vinery to chat; some stalwarts sang in the lounge. We drank wine.

We went to the last night disco - when did sixty minutes become so long, and legs become so old? A man in a kilt danced with a chicken. Did I mention we drank some wine?

Thursday, 16 August 2012

New-Time Publishing and Old-Time Music Hall: Day 5 at Swanwick

Wednesday already! Normal weather conditions have been restored; it poured at Swanwick today there was no sitting outside this afternoon. The inspiration, enthusiasm and chattering are still evident but they seem interspersed with periods of quiet and everyone seems very tired. There is an air of winding down about the Hayes tonight.
I started my day by taking a seat in Butterly 1, somewhat surprised at the almost completely female and slightly over-excited audience waiting for Peter Jones to talk about e-publishing until I realised I was in Sharon Kendrick’s class on writing for Mills and Boon and beat a hasty retreat to Butterly 2. Peter told a packed room about his publishing journey and the success he has achieved with his book How To Do Everything and Be Happy. He also generously shared his 17 point plan for successful marketing (well, he shared the first six tools before we ran out of time, but the rest will be in the handouts he tells us). We discussed the importance of a cracking title and how a bad cover can kill a book. There were a number of delegates with experience of Print on Demand, so we swapped notes and shared experiences. I certainly feel much better equipped to consider all options for publication (as advised by Rebecca Woodhead) and to make an informed choice.
My own session on Writing as a Business was scheduled for this afternoon. Having arrived at Swanwick with my slides all ready (a rare occurrence for me); having printed off a copy and prepared my notes yesterday; and having run through the material several times, I was still adding extra bullet points and changing words at the last moment. I guess a writer really does find it hard to stop editing! We had a good crowd for the session, and despite jokes about ‘having nothing better to do’ and ‘coming in from the rain’, everyone seemed to be there because they were interested in the topic apart from one gentleman who wandered in looking for the police forum. We tried hard, but were unable to persuade him to stay with us instead. I’m not going to comment on how the session went; I could be considered biased. However, it would have been nice to have longer for the discussions that popped up all over the room.
Our guest speaker, David Nobbs, had the main hall rocking with laughter as he described a lifetime in comedy, encompassing That Was The Week That Was, The Two Ronnies and The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin among other. This led on to our own home-grown comedy, with The Swanwick Players presenting an Old Time Music Hall. It was sometimes chaotic, sometimes a little off-key but always hilarious. We got the chance to belt out a few songs at the tops of our voices. It was exactly what we expect of Swanwick and the small, but perfectly-formed audience loved every moment of it.

Wednesday, 15 August 2012

Authorpreneurship and Fish-Nets: Swanwick Day 4

It’s been another brilliant day at Swanwick, but I can’t help thinking that when I said at lunchtime I’d enough material to write today’s blog — I should have actually written the thing right then. Instead of which, I’m sitting in my room (missing the karaoke) having spent the evening learning about Mills and Boon heroes (more of which anon) and laughing at the Write Camera Action plays. This might be a short one.

Today has been mostly about e-publishing. We were all inspired by Rebecca Woodhead, whose talk this morning was nothing like we’d expected it to be. She barely touched on the ‘techie’ stuff at all. She did introduce us to some new terminology: reticular activating and limbic systems, but we’ll pass over that quickly. She also related the story of her horrific car crash at the age of 10 and her determination to not let it hold her back.
Rebecca reminded us that the job of a writer is not to put ink on a page, but to tell stories and to inspire people. She talked about the importance of the story of the book, rather than the story in the book. She told us to reverse the classical ‘What do we do? How do we do it? Why do we do it?’ Start with the ‘Why’ and the rest will follow.  She also encouraged us to look at the options of traditional publishing and self-publishing and make a business decision on which is best for each of us (or each of our books). Finally, she made me realise that I am an authorpreneur (and that I’d done it without knowing what it meant — or even hearing the word before).
Rebecca then joined Jan Davison, Jonathan Telfer and Alan Samson on the e-publishing panel. There were some great questions and discussion, but there were two highlights for me: the moment when Stella Whitelaw told us that one of her titles was Amazon’s book of the month (although she had no idea how or why); and the moment when the inimitable Bev Thompson tackled Alan Samson about a broken promise from Orion and elicited his agreement to look again at the manuscript. Way to go, ladies!
Tuesday afternoon is always a quiet one at Swanwick, with many of the delegates out on the excursion. Those of us who stayed behind wrote, read, chatted or slept — in any combination of the four. And that brings me back to the Mills and Boon heroes — or sexy sheiks as guest speaker Sharon Kendrick called them. She took us through the typical M&B plot (to the bemusement of some of the guys in the room) and explained why a sheik, a property developer or in fact anyone who is super-rich, has his own plane and doesn’t have to work many hours per day, makes a good hero, but a teacher, a farmer or an athlete doesn’t.
In Write, Camera, Action, we were treated to eight specially-written short plays, hilariously presented by members of the Swanwick community. Each play was very different and all were ably acted; it would be difficult to highlight any of the actors (although we had to do just that during the voting). Suffice it to say that Marian’s fish-nets made a welcome return to the stage in her leather-clad, motor-biking Granny and ‘My Old Man’s A Dustman’ will never be the same again!

Monday, 13 August 2012

Titantic Tweets and Furious Facebooking

Well, it’s been a strange day and a long one. It started with a (virtual) Welsh Male Voice Choir in ‘Lift Up Your Hearts’ and finished with Elvis and family going to see Oliver in Jean Sutton’s traditional Monday night quiz.

In between we learned from Meg Davis (and yes, I have checked that her name is spelt correctly) how to go about getting an agent — and what we can expect that agent to do for us once we have that magic contract. We learned about tricks that don’t work (so I might as well cancel the wine and chocolates); how some writers end up writing totally different books from the ones they are contracted to write; and why an animal narrator is not a good idea. But most of all, I learned that I need to go back home and get on with the writing — Meg advised strongly us against starting the search until the novel is complete.
As a Swanwick veteran (well, a five-yearer anyway), I now allow myself some time away from the formal timetable — the second biggest mistake of white badgers is trying to go to everything, every day, leading to lack of concentration, if not exhaustion by Tuesday! I took some time out this morning and revamped the Chudleigh Phoenix website for the 2013 short story competition that has just been launched. There are flyers in the information room and full details can be found here: http://www.chudleighphoenix.co.uk/2013comp.html.

The main event today has to be the Twitter vs. Facebook debate. Della Galton proposed that tweeting was the most effective form of social media while Peter Jones fought strongly in support of FB. Despite (or maybe because of) some strong lobbying on Della’s behalf by Jane Wenham Jones, it was a close run thing. Having settled the contentious question of secret ballot vs. show of hands, the first vote was a dead heat at sixteen each. In a move reminiscent of the factory audits I used to do in my previous day-job, ‘when you don’t like the answer, you change the question’. The second vote, on the question of which is the most useful to us as writers, the score was twenty-one to twelve in favour of Twitter. In the true spirit of the age, I provided a live commentary during the debate on both Twitter and Facebook for friends unable to be with us today (and anyone who forgot to in person). I went into the room expecting to vote for FB, but at the end of the session, I was completely convinced that Twitter was faster and easier to use.
Today’s Write About was led by Eileen West who set us the task of writing about the sea in a playful non-threatening way, but also with the inclusion of the word ‘Titanic’. There were some very creative interpretations of the word, both as a noun and as an adjective. As always, I was amazed by how much can be written in a short space of time — and by the huge number of variations around a single theme or trigger.

Oh, and if anyone's wondering: the biggest mistake of white badgers is to sit at the business end of the table at mealtimes. It's my theory that the queues outside the dining hall each day are not so much about getting a table with one's friends as getting a seat away from the serving spoons. Or is that only me?

Sunday, 12 August 2012

Swanwick: Scurrilous Rumours and Graphic Murders

A delegate has been caught in bed with one of the lecturers at Swanwick just minutes after an “individual tuition” session. Half the class walked out of the Enticing and Enduring the Media Course because it was so badly run and uninformative.

Neither of the above statements is true well, the second certainly isn’t, anyway! They were just two of the ‘news stories’ our groups had to consider running in The Swanwick Standard, an imaginary newspaper invented by Simon Hall in his excellent two-parter on how to catch the attention of the press. We all rejected stories on a Midlands earthquake and Obama’s health as not relevant for local media. Whether we ran with the international bestselling crime writer and a Society of Authors award or the bedroom habits of delegates and an outbreak of food-poisoning depended on whether the group was aiming for a red top or a broadsheet.
We practised writing press releases and soundbites; we learned the difference between plugging our work and saying ‘buy my book’. We heard that journalists see the world in headlines and that an offer to write the story will often lead to a joyous acceptance. We were told to keep an eye for quieter times, but to always be willing to contrive opportunities.

In the final part, we talked about the dreaded social media, laying the groundwork for Monday’s upcoming debate on Twitter versus Facebook. There was also a discussion about orang-utans in taxi cabs but Simon probably wouldn’t want me to mention that so I won’t.
Linda Lewis got rave feedback on her one-off session last year; so this year, she’s presenting a specialist course on how to write successful short stories. If the responses to the ‘improve the storyline’ exercise are anything to go by, there are some very dark individuals at this year’s conference. The trigger of ‘my friend joined an online dating agency’ led to several stories of murder and revenge; my own group’s contribution was so graphic, we didn’t even read it out loud. Definitely not a candidate for People’s Friend, that one!

I’ll skip over my experience in Peter Lyon’s effective dialogue workshop; there were some great scenes written and read out, but mine was definitely not one of them. I knew there was a reason why I write prose, not scripts. Must try harder! However, I had more success in Liz Goes’ Write About session, combining the trigger sentence she provided and a separate competition trigger to produce the beginnings of a short story. Writers can multi-task too!
“Are you eating properly?” asked a friend when I phoned her tonight. Er not sure ‘properly is the right word: a nice healthy breakfast of muesli and yoghurt, followed by roast beef with all the trimmings at lunchtime and a fish supper tonight; but I’m certainly not going hungry and the second helping of Eton Mess was so tiny, it hardly counts as food at all.

For the first time in my five visits to Swanwick, I've played truant tonight from the main hall and have found a tiny TV to watch the Olympics Closing Ceremony — some things are greater even than Swanwick — if only briefly.