Monday, 31 March 2014

The Business of Writing is No Joke

I've been running my own small business, together with my husband, for twenty-two years and it's been a complete joy (well most of the time anyway). To start with, there were only two of us. He was an education consultant; I had a 'proper job' but looked after the books and administration in my spare time. It took about two hours a month. 

Then we got a bit braver and took on an employee, then another one. Before we knew it, there were eleven of us plus a group of sub-contractors and we had to start thinking about holiday entitlement, health and safety policy and other administrative systems. I left the 'proper job' to join the team full-time. I spent about a third of each month running the company and the rest on my own projects.

The team shrunk back to four and then there were just the two of us. We used sub-contractors from then on to fill the gaps. We moved offices four times, bought (and later sold) what seemed like vast quantities of stationery, office equipment and filing cabinets; at one point, we had nine of those, all full of paper.

The focus of the work shifted several times; the education consultancy waned as my pharmaceutical projects grew.  At one point, we had two suites of computers and provided software training on behalf of Business Link in Kent. My husband moved from education administration into tutoring. I gave up the technical work and began writing full-time. Today we think of ourselves as writers, publishers and tutors.

Soon after we set up the company, we wrote our objectives on a flip-chart. There were income targets, profit targets, client targets - and right at the bottom: "To still be having fun in twenty years' time." And you know what? We are! And for me, part of fun has always been looking after the systems, making the numbers add up,  keeping the papers in order. Over the years, I've learned a lot; made some mistakes; put them right; and identified the simplest way to run our small business. These days it takes me one day a month.

But I know that's not a typical reaction to business systems. And I also know many writers hate the idea of losing creative time working on a spreadsheet or filling in forms. For the past few years, I've been presenting sessions on The Business of Writing at the Swanwick Writers' Summer School. I've also blogged about it.

So, the purpose of this post is three-fold: to remind writers they are not alone in wanting to make their business as simple and time-efficient as possible; to reveal my shiny new cover; and to say that if you see an advert on 1st April for the first in a new series of ebooks on The Business of Writing, it's not a joke.  It really does exist - and there will be more later in the year!

Monday, 24 March 2014

Sun, Sea and Suits

[For twenty-plus years I travelled the world, helping companies make pharmaceuticals safely. Most of my trips were to Russia and the former Soviet Union countries. Occasionally, I got invited somewhere completely different.]

In the daylight, after a night when I didn’t get eaten alive by mosquitoes, as I’d expected to, things start to look a little better.  However, I still can’t get over the feeling: ‘wrong time, wrong place’.

We reached Mahe yesterday.  If I was on holiday, I’d be ecstatic.  This tropical island has exotic plants and birds, constantly high temperatures, wonderful fish both in the sea and on the barbecue  and a relaxed atmosphere.  Unfortunately, I’m on a business trip, complete with smart suit and laptop.  This is certainly not a typical business destination and frankly, I’m feeling outside my comfort zone.

There are no business hotels here.  My bungalow is a gentle stroll up the hill from the ocean.  At dead of night, when the birds and insects are quiet, I can hear waves breaking on the shore. 

My room is clean and functional.  I’d found it occupied by a small gecko that disappeared into the roof as soon as I arrived last night.  Rather worrying, that.  I’m much happier when I know where my room-mates are.  Pillows, towels and shelves are decorated with waxy orchid petals.  There is no wardrobe, just a small alcove for my clothes.  The bathroom is tiny, and I am sharing it with more wild-life including a giant beetle.  It’s a friendly co-existence so far, although as the newcomer, I’m treating the original occupants with respect. 

At six fifteen in the morning, I sit on the veranda, surrounded by trees and plants whose names I can only guess at.  I recognise the coconut palm, plus several plants I am used to seeing in pots at home, but that’s about it.  Birds fly around my head without fear.  The sun is rising and a gentle breeze blows which will keep the worst of the heat at bay.  Maybe things are not so bad after all.

For breakfast, we enjoy fresh paw-paw, coconut, banana and avocado.  Fascinating to think most of these were picked this morning from the surrounding trees. The other (human) residents of the property wear bikinis and trunks to the table. They smile at my formal attire and I feel their sympathy wash over me as I pick up my briefcase and head for the car.

Working in Seychelles is an interesting experience, with little or no formality.  Our host, a government minister, meets us in open-necked shirt and no jacket.  At lunchtime, we head for the Pirates Arms, described as the place to eat.  My colleagues look over-dressed in their suits and ties. 

After work, I take a long swim in the warm waters of the Indian Ocean, surrounded by small silver fish seemingly fearless.  I walk the length of the beach with my companions, watching the sun go down before heading off for another wonderful fish supper.  My phone call from home, listing the day’s messages, is an intrusion.  I realise how quickly this idyll has won me over.

The next morning it is raining hard and the islanders are delighted. They are desperately short of water, although this seems hard to believe when one looks at the lush undergrowth.  These rainstorms are short-lived; no doubt we are in for another hot and sunny day.

Monday, 17 March 2014

Writerly Thoughts: A Round-Up

Usually I have no difficulty finding something to blog about, especially now that two weeks each month are taken up with interviews and book reviews. But this week, my head's full of so many writerly thoughts, I haven't been able to sit down and compose a full article. So instead, here's a round-up of a few writerly things going on in this part of the country at the moment.

Romantic Novel of the Year Awards

Good luck to all the authors shortlisted for the RNA awards, which are being announced this evening in London. Special wishes to Margaret James, member of Exeter Writers, who is shortlisted for the Romantic Comedy Novel, for The Wedding Diary.

Exeter Novel Prize

The team at Creative Writing Matters are busily baking cakes (at least that's what they've promised us) and buying champagne ready for this Saturday's announcement of the inaugural Exeter Novel Prize. The winner will receive £500, sponsored by Exeter Writers. Good luck to all the shortlisted novelists, especially Exeter's own Su Bristow. The ceremony will take place in St Stephen's Church in Exeter, starting at 2pm.

Coastal Zoo Launch

At the same time as the ENP is being announced, Exeter Writers will be launching their latest anthology Coastal Zoo. Featuring pieces from many of the members of EW, it also contains the winning entries from the short story competitions run over the past five years. Get your copy from St Stephen's on Saturday afternoon or direct from Exeter Writers

Chudleigh Literary Festival

Planning is in full swing for this year's Chudleigh Literary Festival. Several years ago, I stood on the lawn at Dartington, celebrating the 20th Ways with Words. At the time, I noted on my blog it would be good to do something similar in our own home town, Chudleigh and in 2011, we ran a low-key, one-day event, which was a great success. And now, the Chudleigh Literary Festival is 4 years old! This year we have a one-day history writing workshop; a second day of short workshops for writers; a 'meet the authors' supper; a guest speaker for all lovers of words, both readers and writers (in previous years, we've had Ann Widdecombe, Simon Hall and Nicholas Parsons; this year it will be writer and comedian Tony Hawks); and poetry workshops and a poetry competition for the children in the primary school.  We're nowhere near as big as Ways with Words, but we're growing! 

Monday, 10 March 2014

Elizabeth Chats With... Author David Hough

[My guest this month is author and fellow Swanwicker David Hough.]


Thanks for dropping in, David. Let's start at the beginning; what is your earliest memory — and how old were you at the time?

It was the late nineteen forties and I would have been about four years old. The war was ended but housing was difficult. We lived in a Nissen hut on a disused RAF airfield just outside Bath. I had a toy truck which I took apart and asked my father to rebuild as a working engine. No way, was the essence of his reply, but I didn’t understand. I wasn’t in the least technically minded then and I haven’t been ever since.

What was your favourite subject at school — and which was the lesson you always wanted to avoid?

My favourite subject was English. We had no television at home and in my spare time I immersed myself in books. Was it any wonder, then, that I loved anything to do with literature when I was at school? My parents thought I wasn’t up to a grammar school education so I went to a technical school in the City of Bath. It was fortuitous that the school (in those days) had an excellent academic record. And we had an excellent English teacher (a Welshman) who was able to capture my imagination in class.

The subject I hated most was mathematics. My parents were wrong, I was an academic at heart and anything beyond the written word bored me. Ironically, I had to work so hard at trying to understand mathematics that I won the school prize for maths after getting outstanding GCE results. Which probably proves nothing at all, except that pure slogging hard work can achieve results.

That's interesting, David. I suspect most people would have avoided the subject and thereby done badly, not well.  Next question: if you had to escape from a fire, what three things would you take with you?

Firstly, my laptop because it has all my writing stored in its memory. It also has the most important family photos and videos stored in its memory. Such things, once lost, cannot be replaced for future generations. Secondly, my wallet because it has all the necessary cards and ID that I need to survive in the modern world. Thirdly, the nearest of a number of books I have inherited from previous generations.

David, I have three things to say to that answer: back up; back up; back up! (Having said that, that's something I tend to let slip on occasion; must back up my files when I've finished this post. So, David, how do you relax?

With a book. If I don’t have a book in my hands I have to be doing something.

If you knew you only had 24 hours left, how would you spend them?

I would choose to spend the time with my family. It doesn’t matter where, as long as I could be with them one last time. Of all the things I have in this life, nothing is more important than the family that will carry my genes into future generations. They are all individuals in their own way, all special in their own way, and all important to me.

If you could change one law, what would it be?

I would make all social drug-taking in any public place  or any other place where children are present  illegal. And that includes the use of the drug, nicotine. Apart from protecting children, probably the most important reason, I also see it as a way of setting them an example.

If you were a car, what type would you be — and why?

Photo: Norbert Schnitzler
I would be a rather aged and run-down Ford Sierra. A good family run-around in its day, but now past its sell-by date and needing a lot of attention to keep it vaguely roadworthy. In its heyday it carried my children to and from school and outdoor activities, carried them to and from teenage assignations, took us all on holiday. Now, the paintwork is dull, the springs are worn and the upholstery shows signs of wear and tear. But it still plods along in its own sweet way.

If you could meet one person from history, who would it be — and why?

I would want to meet Charles Darwin in order to ask him how he coped with the ridicule he was subjected to after the publication of his Origin of Species. He was a pioneer in his field, but was treated by many as a charlatan. How did it affect him, how did he come to terms with the criticism he received? Did he ever regret putting his theory in the public domain?

Upload a picture or a photo that best represents you, and tell us why (and it doesn’t have to be a portrait, although it can be).

This is my family; my wife, my offspring, their partners and our one gorgeous grandson (second one due soon). Without these people I wouldn’t be the person I am. Without me, they wouldn’t exist. So I choose this as a representation of me, and what I am. My happiest times are when I can be with my family.

What would you have printed on the front of your T-shirt?

Get on with it. Life is not a rehearsal.

Of the books you have written, which is your favourite?

King’s Priory. It’s my favourite because it encapsulates my personal philosophy that we each have a purpose in this life. That purpose varies from person to person and most people never do get to work out what it is. The ones who do stumble upon their life’s purpose are the lucky ones. They have the chance to achieve something special while in their earthly existence.

Thank you David for sharing your thoughts and memories with us. Readers: you can read more about King's Priory and David's other books here.

Thursday, 6 March 2014


[Today's snippet of new prose comes from another Write Invite entry; I came fourth with this piece based on the trigger 'racing'.]  

The notice was on the board when we arrived back at school at the end of the Easter Holidays: 'Scholarship to Summer Training Camp'. Apparently one of the old boys - or 'alumni' as Headmaster 'Micky' Mouseton insisted on calling them - was involved in running a training event for promising athletes during August each year. Seems old Micky had managed to persuade him to offer a free place to someone from our school this year.

Now, I'm a fair athlete myself, although Ma says I shouldn't boast, and I thought I'd have a go at that - it didn't look like we were getting a holiday this year, and at least it would be a break from the same old shops and parks around here. There's not much competition in the running stakes, not at this school anyway. 

The notice said the winner would be whoever finished top of the race league at the end of term. So the following evening I turned up for running practice with all the other hopefuls. True, my trainers were old and battered; my kit was handed down from my elder brother and already half a size too small, but I didn't think that would matter when I started running.

And then I saw Roddy - the new boy who'd just moved into the area. He was in the same class as me, but I'd not had much to do with him so far - he seemed a bit snobby to tell the truth. I'd already spotted there was a fair bit of cash in the family - it was obvious from the quality of his school uniform - didn't look like his mum shopped in Matalan.

And when I caught a look at the trainers he was wearing, my heart sank. State of the art, although not brand new; he'd obviously had a good bit of running practice. Looked like I'd got some competition after all. And as I strolled up to the little group waiting for practice to start, I heard Roddy speak:

"Yes, I've won quite a few races; my trainer says I could win far more if I practised a bit harder."

There was one girl in the group I didn't recognise; stunning looking, with long golden hair, big boobs and a bottom that would have given Kylie a run for her money. It looked like Roddy was successful in the girl stakes as well as running.
Now, I bet you think this is going to be a take on the tortoise and hare scenario, don't you? That the poor boy worked harder than the rich kid, beat him in the final race and snatched the scholarship from under his nose. Well, life's not like that! With better equipment, money to spend on private one-to-one training and, if I'm honest, a bit more speed than me, Roddy beat me in nearly every race and topped the league with no problem at all.

So in August, Roddy went off to the Training Camp to enjoy his prize, while I stayed at home, wandering around the shops or lazing in the park. Mind you, it wasn't all bad; the girl with golden hair wasn't Roddy's girlfriend; she was his sister. And what with it being her first summer in this town, and with her brother being away, she spent most of the time wandering around the shops or lazing in the park too. Result!

Monday, 3 March 2014

Tidewater Murder by C Hope Clark

This is the second in the Carolina Slade series of mysteries and anyone who’s read my review of Lowcountry Bribe will know how highly I rate Hope’s writing (not to mention the generous support she gives to writers everywhere via FundsforWriters). Her second novel does not disappoint.

Carolina Slade is moving home, with her two children, hoping to leave behind memories of a bad husband who turned out to be really dangerous. A call from co-worker and friend Savvy pitches Slade into another mystery, more danger and further trouble with friends, colleagues and part-time lover, Special Agent Wayne Largo.

Slade is impetuous, fiercely defensive of her friend – even when the evidence all points to Savvy being involved in crooked deals – and at times, downright irritating. But I guess that’s the point. Hope doesn’t write boring characters; she invents real-life, flawed individuals, then throws them into exciting situations.

If you are a fan of Lee Child, if you like Harlan Coben's thrillers, but especially if you love sassy female protagonists, this is a great read, highly recommended.

[In addition to the monthly posting, you can read more of my book reviews on Elizabeth's Book Reviews .]