Giving’s the word on World Book Night

WBNWBN copyI’m flattered and delighted to be told by World Book Night that I have been chosen as one of the givers on 23rdApril.

Last year I did this for the first time. It was exciting picking up the box of books from Tunbridge Wells library. The one I’d chosen was JoJo Moyes: Me Before You. I’d read it only because JoJo had given a talk at the Romantic Novelists’ Association (RNA). It wouldn’t normally be a book I would’ve picked up, but her talk was so fascinating I decided to buy it. What an amazing story. I couldn’t help admiring the author for tackling such a difficult subject and producing a novel that is not at all depressing – in fact, quite the opposite. (Hope I’ve whetted your curiosity and you rush straight out to get it!)

Because I enjoyed reading something ‘different’ I wanted to pass this particular title on to other people. Me Before You is not a thick book so I felt it wouldn’t be too daunting for those who may not have read a book in a long time, or who never read, full stop. Wheeling my trolleyload of books through my village on World Book Night (it didn’t have to be night so I plumped for the afternoon), I met both strangers and people I knew.

One or two refused point-blank to accept a book but most people’s imaginations were caught as they’d not heard of World Book Night. Young, harassed-looking mothers gripping their toddlers’ hands and pushing prams with dangling shopping bags told me they never had time to read, but that the book looked interesting and they promised to make a special effort. The funniest encounter was two grinning builders who came down from their scaffolding and grabbed a copy each.

I offered one to my postman who shook his head in wonder as he popped the book under his arm and turned back down my drive. Two days later a relief postman knocked on my door.
‘I just want to thank you for the book,’ he said.
‘What book?’ I was puzzled.
‘The one you gave my colleague. He doesn’t read. He’s passed it on to me. I usually only read the newspaper but I’m really looking forward to reading a book for a change. This one looks intriguing.’

And that, I believe, is what World Book Night is all about.

Moving on

crateI don’t recommend moving two houses in the space of one week into one (quite big) house, with several hundred books, but that’s exactly what I’ve been involved in lately. Thankfully, we’ve sort of settled in, although it still feels like a very warm, comfortable 4-star hotel, and we keep wondering when we’ll be made to pack up our suitcases and go home. It’s probably because everything is either painted or tiled in cream and is crying out for paint colour, loads of pictures, and, of course, all our books.

Keeping up the writing every day has been difficult. Sometimes I’ve had a change and done a spot of self-editing. A couple of times I’ve managed to have a go with the third novel of my trilogy called The Voyagers and produced 1,000 words or more at a session. I’m so near the end of the first rough draft, but still haven’t quite worked out the ending. It’s hard to feel inspired and creative when you’re surrounded by all these dozens of boxes bursting out of every room, including my study. Luckily, all the rooms are generously-proportioned, but as soon as one room looks half-way decent, the overflow has got dumped into another room, making that room worse than it was before.

I decided to pay for a professional editor to edit the first novel of my trilogy: Annie’s Story. I found her through Cornerstones, a literary consultancy whom I’ve used before to edit my non-fiction book: Seller Beware: How Not to Sell Your Business. Not long after their report and my amendments I found a publisher for the book, so I have great faith in them. I was bowled over by this editor’s very encouraging and complimentary 13-page report on Annie’s Story which I received last week. I even get to have a face-to-face with her for an hour or two, which will take place at the beginning of March. I’ll let you know how it goes.

The editor’s comments and suggestions were mostly spot on, and I’ve made adjustments where I thought appropriate. The good thing was, she didn’t highlight any structural problems or plotholes. (I nearly said ‘potholes’ as you can hardly get down the lane leading to our new house without destroying the underside of your car.)

I guess I’m nearly ready to start sending Annie out to some agents!

Bringing writers together


We happy band of writers (Portugal writing week)

Some people are marvellous about keeping in touch and bringing friends together, and we writers appreciate this more than most. This is what happened last week when my writer friend Sue invited all the women who’d met for the first time in Portugal last year to her beautiful 14th century home. We’d all shared a villa and had the most wonderful writing week. We’ve kept vaguely in contact, though not continuing the critique which we’d so enjoyed in Portugal and had all agreed was so valuable.

Sadly, Alison Morton, the sixth writer, couldn’t make the pre-Christmas reunion as she lives in France, but happily since then has become a published writer ( The rest of us had a fabulous time sipping champagne round a blazing log fire (one of the small perks of being a writer!) and catching up on our writing projects. We did remember to send you a toast, Alison.

Since those balmy Portuguese days, we were pleased to learn we’d all made plenty of progress. During that holiday week I’d had an email from Iain Dale of Biteback Publishing saying he loved my book Seller Beware: How Not To Sell Your Business, and that he wanted to publish it, so it was nice to tell the girls who hadn’t made it to my Mayfair book launch that it was now out in paperback and ebook. Gail began an MA creative writing home-study course in September and loves it, Grace is continuing her PhD on the history of slavery, Carol McGrath had her debut historical novel published this year (, and Sue has started a new novel and writes a daily blog within her local writers’ group ( It shows what a determined lot we are!

Sue was deep in the preparation of a proper sit-down lunch for 45 female friends (no, this is not a typing error) the following day with only one lady whom she employs to help her. We writers were strictly banned from the kitchen. (I love those kinds of rules.) Sue is an amazing cook, and the sheer number of hot and cold dishes she brought to her enormous dining room table (all homemade by her) was mind-boggling.

I was one of the lucky ones staying for two nights. My bedroom window looked out across miles of countryside with nary a building in sight and the room was surprisingly warm, but Sue suggested I switched on the electric blanket, something I haven’t slept in for maybe 40 years or so. I turned it off before I snuggled in, as I had visions of Sue finding a pile of ashes (mine!) the next morning, and I have to say I had the best two nights’ sleep I’ve had in literally years. Maybe that’s the secret for all us insomniacs. I urge you to try it.

But most important of all, stay in touch with your fellow writers. It can be quite a lonely life and I’ve always found that writers are the friendliest people ever. They’ll cheer you up when one of those evil rejections plops through your letterbox, they’ll encourage you to carry on regardless, and they’ll open a bottle of bubbly when that thrilling phone call or email comes through telling you a lovely agent wants to represent you, or an even more lovely publisher wants to publish your precious book.

Happy writing!

Mixing Writing With Pleasure

OklahomaIt’s hard to concentrate much on my writing projects this week as I’m singing in OKLAHOMA! at the Assembly Hall in Tunbridge Wells. You know, the theatre with the bum-numbing, shifting-in-three seats. I’m only a chorus girl which may not sound too taxing until you step onto the stage and the lights are on you and you have to remember that you’re an alto so mustn’t forget to harmonise when your brain is screaming to sing the melody. That’s the only pressure – oh, and remembering which side of the stage you’re supposed to come on. But it’s all great fun, and when the audience show their delight in loud, prolonged clapping and whistling, I can barely sing the last notes of the encore I’m so overcome.

But somehow this week I’ve managed over the last couple of days to plug on with Book 3 of my trilogy: The Voyagers. Gone will be the fairy-tale world of this week: the last notes of the orchestra died away, the stage lights dimmed and cut, and the final curtain fallen. I may look in the cold light of the real world next week at what I’ve written and see a load of unconnected nonsense, but I hope not. My aim is to have taken the story further towards its inexorable ending – maybe not quite such a fairy-tale ending as OKLAHOMA! but satisfying and hopeful, nonetheless.

I wonder if other writers feel the same way if their usual routine is broken up beyond recognition for a few days or even weeks and months. This can happen if you suddenly have to take the role of carer (I’ve had that too for the last year), or become poorly yourself, or there’s a family problem or an unusually heavy workload to plough through. I suppose the only antidote is to adopt a new routine as quickly as possible which will allow some space and time, however short, to write. Yes, the writing might need a whole lot of polishing when you are back to normal, but maybe coming out of your regular routine will have thrown a fresh light on your writing project and you will tackle it with all the vigour and determination it deserves.

LadyMag_HarryOh, I did have a small publishing success recently. I sent a short piece to The Lady magazine (the one with Prince Harry on the cover) for their regular column The Lady & I, found on their letter page My prize is a Panettone, which apparently has leapfrogged over mince-pies so far as popularity in Christmas cakes is concerned. I’m waiting for the delivery which should be any day soon, although I have such a weakness for it, if I get it too early there will only be a few yellow crumbs come Christmas!

If that happens it certainly won’t be a beautiful morning, or even a beautiful day!

The estate agent strikes back!

NoI’m incensed with yet another round of newspaper articles and TV programmes presenting estate agents as the scum of society. Last Monday evening on Dispatches: The Property Market Undercover was yet another programme portraying wicked and wily estate agents.

I’ve decided to strike back!

First of all, these programmes point the finger at London agents. London does not represent the rest of the country in any business, let alone estate agency. But it would be nice if the presenter would mention that!

Secondly, these cut-and-thrust London agents, because of impossibly-high targets, represent only a tiny percentage of estate agents nationwide. I have been an estate agent for thirty years; most agents I have dealings with are doing a decent job. Unlike corporates who are tied to financial service companies, the independents are not all pushing financial services down gullible first time buyers’ throats; they live in their community and genuinely enjoy helping people to secure their dream house. In my area of Tunbridge Wells I haven’t come across the kind of London agents on Dispatches who refuse to take an offer seriously unless the buyer goes through them for the mortgage. (This, by the way, is an illegal practice.)

Thirdly, the reporter in these programmes does not attempt any balance. I would like to invite one of them to spend a week behind my desk and let him or her have first-hand experience of the general public when they are involved in buying and selling a house. Even the nicest sellers shout at us for problems we have no control over. Occasionally, we get an apology when they have calmed down but not before we, the agents, have been shaken up. And there is a tiny percentage of sellers who are extremely rude, and even threatening.

small_houseUnfortunately, many sellers insist we put the property on the market far higher than our valuation, yet according to the latest headlines in the newspapers it is the estate agent who is forcing the prices up. Why don’t people realise it is impossible for us to manipulate the housing market economy?

Now we come to the buyers. I’m afraid to say they more often than not lie about the position they are in regarding their own property or status. Out of the ones who say they are ‘cash buyers’, there might be one in fifty who has pound notes in the bank. Also, buyers often delude themselves and us about the progress of the sale of their house. They don’t always let us know when it’s fallen through because they are fearful of losing the property they want. Sometimes they tell us theirs is under offer, then we find out they don’t even have it on the market. And what about buyers who lead the seller right up to exchange of contracts and then tell the agent they will not exchange unless the seller reduces the price, anywhere from a few thousand to tens of thousands of pounds?

The seller can use a similar ploy – the dreaded gazumping. A buyer comes along and offers more for a property which has already gone under offer. The seller is tempted to take it, which can be a bad mistake. The original buyer is elbowed out, the new buyer is in. The new buyer has a survey done and comes back with an offer lower than the original one, but it’s too late for the seller to change again and s/he has to swallow it or lose the house s/he wants. But the public are apt to think encouraging gazumping is in the agent’s interest as they will gain more commission because of the higher price. If they cared to work it out they would see the difference amounts to a bag of peanuts.

Occasionally, the seller and buyer try to save stamp duty by putting forward a whole load of expensive fixtures and fittings for separate negotiation. This often involves a substantial figure. Solicitors are now on to this ploy as many of the items such as carpets, curtains and light fixtures should have been included in the sale anyway.

Yet all these points are rarely communicated to the public. Instead, they are brainwashed into thinking estate agents are the pits, though a necessary evil.

The core reason why buyers and sellers are able to work the system is because of the way we conduct property transactions in this country. There is too long of a lead-up to contracts exchanging with no commitment, giving plenty of time for sellers and buyers to do anything, behave in any way, despicable or otherwise, right up until exchange of contracts. And believe me, they do.

Phew!!! I feel much better for that!

An evening with Mrs Moneypenny


Photo from

I’ve recently joined Women In Journalism (WIJ), and they’ve had their last two meetings at the University Women’s Club on which I have waxed lyrical in previous blogposts here and here.

Last Monday the speaker at WIJ was the most charismatic, clever, witty, erudite, fast-talking Mrs Moneypenny (Channel 4’s Superscrimpers). She spoke for well over an hour without a pause or an ‘um’, and had our full attention on what to do as ‘ambitious women’.
superscrimpWe screeched with laughter when she came up with true-life anecdotes, mostly of her family. I didn’t know she was also a stand-up comic and had just come back from the Edinburgh Festival. Somehow, I never think of a stand-up comic as writing a weekly column for the Financial Times. But she does.

There were about 60 of us in the audience and just one man, so not entirely sure how he slipped in. But what was incredible was a mountain of books she’d had one of the waiters lay out on the table and told us after the talk to help ourselves to one. The book Mrs Moneypenny’s Careers Advice for Ambitious Women was published last year at £9.99, so it was an incredibly generous gesture, and we all grabbed a copy.

bookBefore the talk I chatted with the woman sitting next to me, and a ten-pound note (special discount on a one-to-one) flashed from her hand to mine when she bought a copy of my book Seller Beware: How Not To Sell Your Business that I ‘happened’ to have in my handbag, so that was a small bonus.

By the way, WIJ are a very welcoming group of women and you don’t actually have to be a journalist. So long as you’re a published writer they would love to have you on board. And because they’re all dealing with the media you might meet someone who proves to be a useful contact… Why not give them a try? .

Faber Academy writing week

F&F buildingWhat a week was the last week of the short hot summer! I spent it doing a Faber Academy intensive novel-writing course called: “Summer Fiction Booster”.  If you’ve never done a Faber course you’ve missed a treat. First, it’s easy to get to, being practically next door to the British Museum (only a small distraction) and the people who work at Faber are all very friendly and helpful.

In 2011 – 12 I did a six-month advanced fiction course with Richard Skinner at Faber, and it was terrific. So when I saw this one advertised I thought it was just what I needed to push me over the half-way mark where I’d been stuck for months in Book 3 of my trilogy, The Voyagers. The course was run by the lovely Maggie Gee, but when we allowed her a day off on Thursday(!) Joanna Briscoe took the class. She was equally lovely.

There were only seven of us attendees which was perfect as it gave everyone lots of attention and a longer 1 – 1 with Maggie.  My 1 – 1 stretched to half an hour!  Maggie was so wise and encouraging and enthusiastic about all our stories which were widely different, yet we all bonded in the first five minutes.

It was great fun getting to know each other’s work, and seeing how the stories developed over the week. The group were quick to come up with ideas for plot holes (nice change from pot holes) in the critique sessions, and no matter whose work we were focused on in that particular session, it invariably had relevance to our own writing problems. Then while ideas were fresh in my mind I would stay behind in the afternoon to get on with my own writing. In five days I’d put another 3,500 words into Book 3.

I stayed at my club in Mayfair throughout the week so I didn’t have to worry about grocery shopping, cooking and all the other trivia we writers are forced to do every day. It was also an excuse to enjoy London. I saw ‘What Maisie Knew’ at the cinema, ‘Strange Interlude’ at the theatre, and listened to Mozart and Bruckner at a wonderful Proms evening. One night I had supper in a Lebanese restaurant in Shepherd Market and was joined by two handsome strangers, beautifully-dressed businessmen, one from Saudi Arabia, the other from Pakistan. We talked and laughed for four hours and I ended up giving them a bookmark each of Seller Beware: How Not To Sell Your Business which they promised to buy. If I’d had two copies with me I could have sold them on the spot (That was my own Strange Interlude. Do I feel a short story coming on?).

After all that excitement I’m home. Back to hum-drum. But writing is still the most exciting thing ever, and I’m delighted to say I’ve kept up the momentum from the week and added another 3,000 words to the novel.

Looking back, instead of calling it ‘Summer Fiction Booster’ I think it should have been named ‘A Summer Kick Up The Bum For Your Novel’.

What boosts your writing?

Dining in, in Mayfair

DB-Mayfair012_sm_crppd‘Yes, please, I said enthusiastically to the chairman when she asked if I would give a talk on my recent book: Seller Beware: How Not To Sell Your Business. I was to be the guest speaker for the summer ‘Dining In’ evening at the University Women’s Club in Mayfair. And the good news was, she said I could bring Seller Beware to sell.

As mentioned in one of my previous posts I had my launch of Seller Beware at the club in April, having been a member for twenty years. But that occasion was very definitely a party. This time it would be more formal. Now the date had come round, my heart beat a little faster. Many members in the audience would have high-flying careers, and they would have paid good money to hear the talk. I needed to up my game.

We would begin with canapés and wine in the drawing room, and then repair to the elegant dining room where we would eat, drink and not get out-of-hand merry (a big no-no at the club), before I came on. At least by then they would be a little relaxed after a few glasses of wine.

One of the highlights of the evening for me was having my nephew, Adam, present with his wife, Liz; they had come all the way from Tennessee. My aunt and cousin who lived round the corner in Pimlico, and who hadn’t seen Adam for thirty years were also there to watch me! None of them had ever heard me give a talk, so it had better be good, I thought, as I stood up. Not a drop of wine had touched my lips, in case it went to my head.

‘Just out of curiosity,’ I began, ‘who owns their own business?’

Out of around thirty women, at least ten raised their hands.

‘Presumably, one of these days, you’ll want to sell. But don’t even think of selling until you’ve read my book,’ I told them, waving it in the air. ‘Take heed of the sub-title: One Woman’s Road To Ruin. Reading this could save you from heading along the same path.’

There was a ripple of laughter.

Immediately, I forgot I was addressing a roomful of academics. It was as though I was talking to my friends and family about what had inspired me to write the book, the search for a publisher and how it came to be published by Biteback Publishing.(posts on 3rd & 10th November 2012 – My Journey to Publication – and Beyond, Part 1 & 2), Relating my unexpected meeting with Ian Hislop on the evening train from Charing Cross caused my audience to chuckle (post on 8th December 2012 – My Journey to Publication, Part 3), Afterwards, I answered all sorts of searching questions: how I coped; how I felt; was it cathartic to write the book; what did I hope to achieve by writing it?

The forty-five minutes flew by, and I’m delighted to say the pile of my books which the restaurant staff had displayed near the door (making it difficult for anyone to leave without one under their arm!) flew off the table.

Now, who would like to book me in for the next talk?

Radio Star!

pauldenisemartinWhat an exciting day I had last Tuesday. Paul Andrews invited me to be one of the two guest speakers on The Business Bunker Show, which is a weekly event on Tuesdays from 1 – 2.30pm. Oh, and it would be live!

I took the scenic route from Tunbridge Wells, and as the sun came out I bravely put the top down on my Mini. Maybe summer had really begun. It was the first time I’d ever been to the Marshes (the studio is in Burmarsh, near New Romney), and as I got within ten miles of my destination it struck me as a different world – flat areas of countryside as far as you could see on both sides of the small road I was driving along, and infinitely more peaceful than the mayhem on the roads in and around Tunbridge Wells.

Paul and his vivacious and rather beautiful co-producer, Jules Serkin, immediately welcomed me. Paul explained that it would be as though we were having a friendly chat rather than a formal interview with thousands of listeners.
‘How long will I be speaking?’ I asked him, thinking I’d be lucky to get much more than five minutes.
‘About twenty minutes,’ was his answer.
That’s a long time on radio. I only hoped I wouldn’t let him down.

The other guest was a very nice man, Martin Feaver. He was a consultant coach, mainly for people who owned businesses but somehow had let things get on top of them. He was introduced first, and spoke fluently and confidently. I found it so interesting I quite forgot to be nervous that I’d be next!

‘And now for our second guest, Denise Barnes – businesswoman, entrepreneur and author!’


Martin swung the microphone over to me. I leaned forward, trying to remember to lower my voice a couple of octaves and not gabble. ‘So, Denise, tell us about yourself, your business and your book.’

This was obviously where my twenty minutes came in. I started by giving some background about how I got into estate agency, then opened up my own company, and finally put it on the open market to find a buyer. And that when the business agent introduced two gentlemen who eventually bought my company, I found to my utter dismay they were not at all what they had seemed. And so after three years of misery trying to extract the money they owed me, and seeing the business go downhill, I knew it was only a matter of time before they went bust. As a kind of cathartic exercise, and at the insistence of my sister that I should write about my experience so as to warn others thinking of selling their business, Seller Beware: How Not To Sell Your Business, published by Biteback Publishing, hit the shelves in April this year.’

Even though I was wearing headphones I often forgot I was live on radio, and made a few jokey remarks at which Paul laughed heartily and came back with a few himself. When I told him I used to work in Atlanta, he shot out: ‘Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn.’ By now, I was really enjoying myself and was sorry when it came to an end. Paul gave me some extravagant praise about being a fun guest and said he will definitely be having me back in a few weeks. He said this when the red light was still on, so I shall hold him to it!

If you fancy listening to the recording which they always make for people who don’t get a chance to listen live, then go to their website and you’ll find the ‘Listen Again’ button.

You’ll hear some music, some banter between Paul and Jules, then Martin, and finally you’ll hear my dulcet tones (much lower than usual, but just as rapid). Happy listening!