I didn't want to rabbit on for too long (I dislike listening to myself talking), and was uncertain about what people would most like to hear. An experienced author told me that people love to know about you as a writer, so I gave a little background (writing from childhood, through the teenage years, put off by doing a degree in literature, small success in the 1980s but not enough income, and a subsequent career writing about everything from corrosion in central heating systems for British Gas to articles on the applied arts for newspapers and magazines).
I mentioned that I'd had the idea that writing novels might be a nice little earner in my retirement, which elicited hollow laughter from my husband when I practised my speech on him. He was right to be cynical – so far, I would say expenditure has outweighed income by a factor of several thousand to one, when you take into account all the course fees, books on writing, conferences, agency fees, association fees etc I have shelled out in the past few years.
But it also led me to think about just what all that money I've spent has done – and I really surprised myself.
- What I have learnt. On my very first course (in Castle of Park, Aberdeenshire) I thought I could write, and that all I had to do was learn a little more about structuring a novel. After all, I'd been writing all my life – professionally for much of it. Right? Joke. With every book I have written (around eight now, I think), I have learned more and more. Some of this has come via courses, but a lot of it is down to simply writing. The more you write, the better you get.
- Friendships. Starting with that first course – where I met the tutor Anita Burgh, Jo Thomas (now a best-selling author) and Elizabeth Garrett (whose seaside cottage I have been privileged to visit on many occasions), I have made friends not only in Scotland but quite literally all over the world. Writing is no longer a lonely business, it leads via the virtual world to the unlikeliest and richest of friendships.
- Experience. I've learnt not just about the craft of writing, but also about the world of publishing and how it operates (and how it is changing it the digital world); about how to publish a book yourself in ebook format and in paperback; about social media and how to harness its power; about how to promote your own book in a digital world; about the American Inland Revenue Service – yes, you do need to enrol in order to get UK taxpayer exemption from US taxes; and many other surprising things. I've built my own website, written countless blogs for other hosts and hosted many writers on my own blog, learnt how to Tweet and use Twitter management tools, how to use Facebook, and about LinkedIn and Pinterest and Goodreads and a myriad other web-based sites and tools that would otherwise have remained a mystery.
- Publication. Because I self published and became more confident about the fact that readers actually like what I write, I was offered a publishing deal. And that has led to a whole host of further new experiences. Being featured in my publisher's catalogue. Seeing my book cover prominently displayed at London Book Fair. Selling foreign rights. Hearing that my latest title is to be promoted by WH Smith Travel.
The list goes on. Not bad, eh? I haven't made my money back – not yet anyway – so perhaps as an investment it hasn't really paid off. But I do have faith in myself and, more importantly, my publisher has faith in me, and perhaps one day my pounds will multiply.
If they don't, what have I lost?
Truthfully? Nothing. I believe my investment has already been repaid a millionfold. I write professionally crafted, very readable books that people enjoy, my skills across many areas have improved out of all recognition and, most importantly, I am now the proud member of a worldwide community of writers.
Not a bad investment, don't you agree?