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:

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. 

Saturday, 11 August 2012

Swanwick: Intelligent Silliness and Thelma’s Pants

This posting should have been a detailed account of how hard we’re all working and all the writerly activities we are getting up to. As the title suggests, I may well fail in that objective.

Joyce Ward set the tone for her Chairman’s Welcome when she informed us that the numbers are up this year; there are 3.5 women for every man; and there are 55 white badgers (or Swanwick virgins), of whom 7 are Top Writers. She didn’t tell us what this influx of youngsters has done to the average age of attendees – we were left to work that one out for ourselves. We learned that Xanthe and Peter are co-habiting in a cupboard; we whooped like an audience at The Good Old Days when the raffle prizes were announced; then applauded the winners of the annual competitions. Swanwick 2012 was thoroughly launched.
My journey to Swanwick had been less than wonderful. Stuck at the opposite end of a jam-packed train from the refreshment trolley, I was one of the few people in the carriage who didn’t come prepared with bags of sandwiches, crisps and cans of drink. I almost resorted to the emergency chocolate buttons but remembered just in time that after a week of three meals a day at the Hayes, I would look back on a missed lunch as appropriate preparation.

Arriving at Derby with more than an hour before the coach was due to leave, I expected to find myself a quiet corner of the cafe and get on with my book. What I actually found was a noisy gathering of Swanwickers that gradually swelled to a crowd as more trains arrived. We immediately fell into the usual “what are you writing” and “what courses are you going to attend or give” conversations. Within minutes, I was answering questions relating to my own topic (writing as a business) and noting recommendations for more reading around my dissertation subject. The rest of the afternoon flew by with visits to the book room, chats with old friends, plus the aforementioned Chairman’s Welcome and soon we were queuing for supper oh, how I’ve missed my annual meal-time queues!
I can report that food portions are as generous as ever and the custard is even brighter yellow than I remember it.  Only one thing marred the evening – the news that the chocolate man won’t be with us on Wednesday. How will I be able to return home without the usual ‘I Love You’ heart?
All of which brings me to the intelligent silliness (his agent’s description) of Steve Hartley, who was the guest speaker. Not having any children or grandchildren, I have to confess I’ve never read any of the Danny Baker Record Breaker series but I may well have to fix that, after hearing Steve talk about the fifteen years it took him to get published and the lessons he learned along the way. His stories about brown penguins, armpit orchestras and being banned from one primary school were memorable. His five rules for getting published are well thought through and each one was illustrated with cautionary tales. [I was particularly struck by rule four: get lucky] Steve told us he was only allowed to speak if he agreed to bring one of his props with him. No, it wasn’t The World’s Biggest Bogey. It was Thelma’s pink spotted pants and therefore, I think it is only fitting that I close this account of day 1 at Swanwick with the picture of 11 writers breaking the record for the greatest number of people in one pair of pants.

Friday, 10 August 2012

Swanwick: S Day minus 1

Every year, during the second week in August, around 300 writers gather in Swanwick for the Writers' Summer School, which has been running for more than sixty years. I don't think any of the current delegates having been going from the very beginning — but some have been attending for the past twenty or thirty years. They talk about 'the magic of Swanwick' and reminisce about the days before the rooms were upgraded to en-suite facilities and all the walkways between the conference rooms were roofed in. Throughout the year, regular attendees keep in touch via Facebook and the Swanwick monthly newsletter. They yearn for tea and cakes on the lawn; the chance to catch up with old friends; and the opportunity to peruse new releases in the book room.

I first attended Swanwick in 2006 and, frankly, found the whole experience rather overwhelming. There was a small group of us, all white-badgers (as first-timers are called) who alternated between throwing ourselves into everything that was going on (until exhaustion took over around day 4) and trying to keep out of trouble (not laughing at the serious bits or being late for notices or meal-times). It felt rather like moving to the ‘big school’ for the first time.

I returned in 2008 and 2009, during which time I learnt to be more selective about the timetable and allowed myself some down-time during the week.  I also presented a session on writing as a small business. In 2010, I managed just one day and two nights; last year, I missed Swanwick altogether due to pressure of the day-job.

This year I am returning for the whole week. This time tomorrow, I will be on a train heading towards Derby and the Hayes Conference Centre. I am looking forward to meeting old friends once more — and getting to know writers that I have so far only ‘met’ via Facebook. I am also presenting another session on the business of writing and leading a write-around hour. For the first time, I am attending not as a part-time writer of non-fiction, taking time out of the day-job, but as a full-time writer; so this year, Swanwick is part of the day-job.

I don’t know whether I will come away from Swanwick talking about magic and counting the days to next year; I do know that I’m going to enjoy the opportunity to ‘work, rest and play’ with lots of other writers over the next week - and that I will return home full of energy and ideas.