Who You Gonna Call? Informal Networks

I’ve just returned from a packed weekend at my first Winchester Writers’ Conference. This event, which has been running for the past 33 years, was the brainchild of the wonderful Barbara Large, who has just stepped down from her role as Director (although we got the feeling she wouldn’t be disappearing completely from the scene).


The weekend was a mixture of master classes, short talks and the brilliant one-to-ones, the opportunities for delegates to spend time in front of agents, publishers or authors, pitching their latest work in progress. There was anticipation, there was relief, there was laughter, and there were tears. But whatever the emotions we felt as each fifteen minutes slot was finished, we had been given the opportunity to learn from the industry experts.


And that’s the topic we’re moving on to next. We’ve identified our business objectives and made our plans; we’ve decided on our business structures; we’ve set up our financial systems; we’ve even done a risk assessment (well, we have done that after last weeks’ posts, haven’t we?). We’re now going on to think about our support network — and we all need one of those.


Next week, we will look at the professional support structure and think a bit more about the experts we might need to consult in running our businesses. Today, we’re going to think about another aspect: our informal networks. If there is one memory of Winchester that is stronger than any other, it’s the sight and sound of hundreds of writers talking, swapping notes, and learning from each other.
Writing is a lonely business! We spend hours hunched over a notepad or a keyboard, often staring at acres of white space; and when the page or the screen is full of words, we look at them and wonder if they are any good or whether we’re wasting our time. At other times, with our business hats on, we stare at the spreadsheet, the cash book (or the carrier bag full of receipts) and try to work out what it all means (and why we’re doing it)? In most businesses, there would be other people we could talk to, performance standards to measure ourselves against, even rules and regulations we could follow. But, our business isn’t like that. And there will be times when it will all seem too difficult to carry on. But it’s our business! We can’t just stop doing it — or at least, we shouldn’t!


So we need a support network, and the best place to start looking for this is online. There are many established writing communities on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Google+ (and any other network we might be using). And the beauty of social media is that if we can’t find what we want — we set it up for ourselves. Whether we think we will get support from old college friends, from business people in our own town, or from someone across the world, it’s all possible via the internet. [In fact, I’ve been chatting, I mean talking business, with a friend in Australia just this morning.]


When I started my small business more than twenty years ago, the internet wasn’t available — at least not for ordinary people — so all our networking was done face to face. Even today, when we are all connected and online (some of us far more than we should be!), it’s still good to get out there and talk to people. A smiley face is no substitute for the real thing.
Remember we are business owners, and as such, some of our problems will be shared by people in totally different fields of work. Most towns have general business networks, whether they are called business guilds, chambers of commerce or something more fanciful. For example, I am a member of the wonderfully-named Ladies Do Latte, a group of 400+ business women across the South West of England. Networking groups provide the opportunity to pick the brains of people who will have the same business issues as us, even if their product or service is totally different. And of course, there is always the chance of picking up new projects while chatting to someone over breakfast or lunch.


Local writers’ groups are great for helping to improve our writing craft; for critiquing; and for finding like-minded people to share a stall at a book fair; collaborate on a writing project; or act as beta readers. But, there are many other opportunities for writers to get together, whether that’s via national organisations such as the Society of Women Writers and Journalists (SWWJ) and the Romantic Novelists Association (RNA) or more regionally-based ones such as the West Country Writers’ Association (WCWA). All these groups have meetings, which range from annually to monthly. The London Book Fair has traditionally been an industry event, focussed on the agents and publishers more than the authors. However, with the growth in indie publishing, this is becoming another useful place to meet people.
I started this post by talking about the Winchester Conference. There are a number of other such events running throughout the year and I’m going to finish by giving a plug for my particular favourite, the Writers’ Summer School at Swanwick. This runs for a week during August, has been doing so for the past 65 years and has a dedicated ‘family’ of writers who attend each year, who are very welcoming to any ‘newbies’ and are always willing to help with problems anyone has, either with the craft of writing or with the business side. Of course, I might be biased, as I teach The Business of Writing at Swanwick each year, but if you are looking to spread or set up your informal face-to-face network, then a conference is a great way of doing it. I look forward to meeting some of you there.
By Elizabeth Ducie

Elizabeth Ducie was a successful international manufacturing consultant, when she decided to give it all up and start telling lies for a living instead.

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