'I realised I knew nothing about writing a book…'

In an evolving reflection on book writing, Emily Hutchinson tells us how it all started.

It’s funny how things happen. I was talking to my hairdresser and he said, ‘you know what you should do, you should write a book’. Immediately I said, ‘oh no, I haven’t got time, they don’t make any money, I’ve tried that before and gave up’.

I went away and reflected on the many conversations I’d had about writing a book. My colleague Caroline had been saying for a couple of years that we should write a book about all the work we’d been doing – especially when we couldn’t find the book we wanted to recommend to leaders in our organisation. We’d successfully written many things together – quick practical guides, conference presentations, awards submissions – and the process felt enjoyable and easy. But I still wasn’t convinced.

Then I was sent a review copy of the book #Upcycle your job, by Anna Meller, and I really enjoyed the accessible writing style. So, for some reason, I had a quick Google of the publisher Practical Inspiration, which immediately appealed to me. I saw that they were running a ‘10-day Business Book Proposal Challenge’, starting in… two weeks’ time. At the end of the challenge, one proposal would win a publishing contract!

still wasn’t sure but felt compelled to get in touch, just to see if they had other challenges planned for later in the year – surely I couldn’t fit it in right now, plus I didn’t even know what I was writing a book on, did I? Alison at Practical Inspiration did a brilliant job of persuading me… and before I knew it, I had signed up.

So the 10 days started. I had to find 30 minutes a day but immediately loved the daily tasks and the feedback from Alison. I also realised that I knew nothing about writing a book (I thought you just sat down and started writing!), but I really enjoyed the whole process of linking the book to my business (which is Alison’s approach) and thinking through each aspect: who the reader would be, what they would be looking for, what the marketing plan would be, and of course what the content would be. As part of the challenge I was in a group with some very inspiring people writing on a whole range of topics, who were very supportive and great at contributing ideas.

On each day of the challenge we completed a section of the book proposal, and at the end of day 10 we submitted them to Alison. A tense few days followed while we waited for the result. Alison hosted a live Facebook session to announce the winner, which I couldn’t attend as I was with clients. But I really couldn’t believe it when I checked my emails and saw my name next to Caroline Brown’s (my co-author): ours was one of three books that had been offered a contract. Whoop whoop was followed quickly by aargh… now we have to write the book!

One month later… Working on the book and in the book

So, we have a publishing deal on the table for our book The strengths-based organization: How to boost inclusivity, wellbeing and performance. Now just the writing bit to do… 

The follow on from the book proposal challenge run by Alison at Practical Inspiration was the six-week Boot Camp to create a structure and start the process of writing. Again, I found myself signing up with quite a bit of trepidation as to how I was going to fit it in. Alison assured me that a couple of hours a week would be enough investment. There was also a week’s catch up halfway through which was very welcome. Before we started writing (which wasn’t until week 4!), I found that I needed bigger blocks of time to be able to think. I also completed some parts more thoroughly than others as my time got very squeezed.

Each Monday we received an email with our week’s tasks. Alison splits it into two – every week we have something to do ‘on the book’ and something to do ‘in the book’. Her approach is very much about the book acting as a tool to boost business. She is realistic about how much (or should that be little?) money most people make from book sales – if you want to write a book to make money directly, then you may be disappointed. But if you want to write a book to provide information, for your own satisfaction, or as part of your business development, then great. For me it was all three. 

The ‘on the book’ tasks started with considering the thoughts that get in the way and how to overcome those. It was then all about business development and marketing; how to make writing the book part of the business rather than an extra; how to make connections with the intended audience; what the cover of the book will look like.

Very naively I didn’t realise how much planning, organising, and logical thinking was involved. The early tasks were about breaking down the table of contents (we had produced a very high level one for the book proposal). We were pushed to go through each chapter and create the next level down. And the next level. Until we ended up with 200- to 500-word sections to write. For me this strongly appealed. If I know my focus, I can write quite quickly, without much pain, and with some pleasure. What I don’t like is getting stuck on the structure or order.

Caroline (my co-author) and I also hadn’t signed the publishing deal yet. Having never seen one before, it was very hard to know what a ‘good’ deal looked like. There are many different ways of publishing, and each have costs and benefits. Self-publishing means that everything is within your control, but you also carry all the costs and have to do all the marketing (so you need very good networks and money to invest to make it look professional). Paying a publisher to help you get published can be a good option – you pay them a fee (to cover their costs), but then get a better percentage of any sales. Or the publisher funds the process, but you get a lower percentage return of sales. Unless your book happens to be a bestseller, the revenue is likely to be low, so the third option (if you can get a publishing offer) seems a good one.

One month later… Like starting a business

So, then the harder part starts. Now the guided sessions and weekly reminders stop and I just have to write… and write… and write. 

While the writing was hard to fit in, we also had the excitement of signing the contract and the first task of designing the book cover. This is like starting a business – one of the most enjoyable parts can be designing your business cards and your website. It’s all very creative, and about this amazing ‘thing’ that you are going to make real in the future, but without the realities of actually doing the ‘thing’.  

For me this all really helps with the motivation. Whereas just writing a book with no external obligations (apart from perhaps having told some people) can be hard to keep focused on, the marketing aspects which come with a publishing deal make it far more tangible. It also makes it slightly scary – what if I still can’t write it, or what if it’s just really rubbish? These remain possibilities, but as we did a ‘fears’ exercise at the beginning of the Boot Camp, they are already out there and can be put to one side!

The key to writing is to make it about the business, which Alison really emphasised. Although I’m frustrated at my pace of writing, I’m also continually delivering workshops and presentations and having conversations about the very stuff that I’m writing about. And when I get to write, it informs my thinking so that I run better workshops and deliver more comprehensive presentations. Fabulous.

Another first during this period was being interviewed for my first podcast by HR Uprising. I had no idea how this worked or what I would say, but Lucinda was excellent at putting me at ease and the conversation flowed. I met Lucinda through the book challenge, and she was one of the other winners of a contract, and so we are sharing the journey (although she is way ahead of me!). When I listened back to it, I was even pleasantly surprised, and was able to point people towards a summary of the strengths approach. This was of course one of the reasons we wanted to write the book – to have something to refer people to.

One month later… Getting the words down

After the slight chaos of juggling school holidays over the summer, it feels like there’s a bit of space. I used the summer to catch up on some reading related to the book and do a little more writing. But now I have a rare opportunity of some work having been cancelled which gives me some free days to write – hurrah!

So, I write. And I’m loving it. My approach is to not re-read what I’ve written. Alison says to just get the words down for the first draft, accepting that it will need a lot of work afterwards. So, here I am on 15,000 words – a third of the way towards my end word count of 45,000 words. I’ve also realised that the structure I worked out at the beginning isn’t quite right, but I’ve decided to just write bits that I know need writing. And there’s a lot of it. 

It helps having a second author. Caroline is far better than me at sorting out the structure and shuffling things around. She is also prolific with a red pen and will slash and burn what I’ve written. It’s a lot easier for her to do this, reading it with fresh eyes than it would be for me to do. Caroline is an engineer and not a psychologist, so where I might think something is fascinating, she might see the lack of relevance to our potential readers. 

We’ve realised that we missed out a crucial bit of advice from Alison which was to decide on the ‘look’ of each chapter. Do we want to start with a quote? Do we want summary points at the end? Do we want to use boxes to highlight points? We’re not sure yet, so it’s another thing to make a decision on. 

In the meantime, I’m aiming for 22,500 words by the end of the month – the halfway point in quantity, even if the quality needs quite a bit of work!

Emily Hutchinson is Associate Editor Books and Director EJH Consulting Ltd. Come back soon for the next instalment from Emily.

See also Emily's 'shelfie' from 2017.

Do you have your own book writing experiences to share? Why did you decide to write a book? What did you learn? How did you go about it? Society members can use the comment function below; or get in touch on [email protected] or tweet us @psychmag and let us know!

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