Nicola Stevens - 1. Writing Business Books

nicola.jpg There are many other opportunities for aspiring writers than writing merely fiction books. The posts on Fusion View have generally focused on novels and so has the conversation in the comments section. It struck me that this does not give a very wide view of the book world. So, as part of the Getting Published series, I have asked Business Coach and Mentor, Nicola Stevens to share her experiences of writing business books.

Nicola heads her own company, Nicola Stevens and Associates, whose mission statement is “People excel in an atmosphere where they can communicate honestly and without fear” which, to me, is a very powerful statement indeed. She works with business on leadership and management in issues of Corporate Governance, Boardroom dynamics and change. I asked her for a short piece about her work, writing business books and her fusion background and she came back with five A4 pages of information. I was going to try and edit it but then decided that much of what she says is so interesting and useful that I have decided to keep most of her original text.

So here is Part One of Nicola’s exclusive advice for those who may thinking about writing business books and anyone who may be curious about excelling in business:

Beginnings as a Business Writer

As a Coach and Mentor, I have written many articles that have been published both in the Arts and Business world. As a result, I was approached by a business colleague, France Kay to co-author the book, which was published as Making Management Simple. The books publishers, Howto, then asked me to write Learn to Coach. I am currently finishing a book on The Art of Mentoring for the Property Sector for EG Books, publisher for the property sector, and just started a new project co-authoring with Frances again - the working title being Get a Grip Girls to be published later this year by Foulsham.

Making the writing work

To be a writer, I think you need to have that capacity to enjoy discovering the unknown and have an ability to know enjoy not being in control. Even writing business books, which in theory sound as though they are very organised and factual, are a roller coaster of ‘what happens when” and how to show and tell the story – the information – as a fictional work. Business books also need magic of readability, need to make facts into an interesting subject.

I learnt so much co-authoring Making Management Simple - about the technical process of writing. Where information needs to be, how the information flows for the reader. In a hotel lounge off the M4 near Swindon, Frances and I got together to divide the book chapters between ourselves and agreed some guidelines. We met a month later to see how we got on, raise questions we had and read each other’s work out loud. We refined our guidelines, finished our parts of the manuscript, and sent if off the publisher 3 months later

Business Expertise

I am the Director of Coaching and Mentoring in my own company. I work with the human dynamics of business or the cause organisations and individuals serve - the human side of competitive intelligence that makes them successful and sustainable

My background is in child development and psychology, but in between travelling in my twenties, I found myself working on projects for all sizes of organisations and different individuals that would say; “I don’t know what I need, but I need someone to help”. I worked with business leaders through “conversations on the sofa” ie asking questions to get the principles involved to clarify what was happening for them, the impact on others, their expectations, and how to move forward. I dealt with human dynamics in issues such as discharges of bankruptcy, entrepreneurs taking their companies for a flotation, merging organisational cultures and emergency succession planning. At the same time, they needed to continue to run the day-to-day business, often running old and new processes concurrently until transition had been fully implemented. Sometimes it was to take time out to reflect and plan the future.

I became known for dealing with difficult situations sensitively, being trustworthy and confidential coupled with the ‘irritating habit’ for remembering facts and wishes from past conversations and holding this information in a way that kept the person accountable and responsible for their actions, impact and leaning. I also got to know the organisation from the top – it was usually the CEO or owner who employed me - to the workers at the coalface of the organisation, euphemistically called the bottom. I usually had no job title, my work was project based, linked to the implementation of the organisation’s strategic aims and objects, planned and unplanned change. I was answerable to the CEO only………. Oh and I always used everyday language and did not get sucked into sector or management jargon so everyone understood what was needed.

Being a keen believer in continual professional development (CPD), I realised my work would come under the heading of the emerging profession of coaching and mentoring. I attended the first coaching course in City University to review, clarify and refresh my learning, which I continued for the next three years with the Coaches Training Institute. I continued my CPD as a mediator, working with families and chemical substance misuse, coaching and mentoring supervision and, of course, my own coaching CPD with psychology supervisors, business organisational mentors.

Current work

My work now includes issues such as re-building trust in the Boardroom, facilitating roundtables on matters of Corporate Governance, Social responsibility (CSR), cross sector collaboration on topical themes, such as, diversity and inclusion (D&I) responsibilities and sharing best practice. I also implement frameworks to achieve success through setting up internal and external mentoring programmes and skills training. This is the human side of organisational and competitive intelligence that responses to the professional skills of coaching and mediation to create and hold a safe and courageous space to allow these discussions, agreements and on-going action to make a positive impact – holding the players accountable and responsible.

Writing as a Business Activity

As a result I am asked to write about some of these themes – and sometimes I feel moved to capture the information and on-going debates to map thought leadership trails and processes for future reference and learning. I feel, personally, a strong motive to include writing as a business activity so that others coming behind on the same path will know what has gone on before. It is my contribution to cutting across silos of thought and stops wasting time re-inventing the wheel. Then others will be up to speed to contribute to the debate, bring their perspective and added innovative thinking to the discussion.

Researching a book

Well several stages happen concurrently at the beginning, and the time line for them has varied enormously from a matter of hours to months depending on publisher’s engagement with the project and the stimulus for the project. These all include research stage, interviewing people, case studies, structure of the book and writing stage

For instance, the latest book – working title ‘Get a grip girls’ – came together in a matter of moments. Frances and I were sitting on the train bouncing down to the London Book Fair and we simultaneously said we wished women would stop pulling the victim card and get a grip. As we finished the sentence together with the same words, we scribbled down a sentence to explain the idea to a publisher we were due to meet, pitched her the idea, wrote the synopsis on the journey home and each picked one of the chapters to write. In the next week, I found a box (essential equipment for my research and data gathering) scanned though all my archive files for relevant information and statistics and wrote the first draft of my chapter, using the framework we had discussed. On this occasion we wanted to start with a story or fable to sent the tone for each chapter and agreed we would add quizzes and exercises to stimulate the readers thinking, illustrate hypothesises and focus on possible solutions.

Professional grounding

Generally, first there is the idea or concept, which in my case is based in existing experience and knowledge but comes for a curiosity stimulated by a mixture of instinctive gut feel to an unresolved, changing or new influences that I experience. I am a great one for running a personal straw poll to test my thoughts and feeling by speaking to others, reading from lots of difference sources, collating relevant information and scribbling notes that are all thrown into a labelled box sitting in a corner of my office.

In the case of Learning to Coach I agreed to do write the book providing it was not just another coaching book, but actively seeked to examine the differing influences in the world of coaching, to lay out the fundamentals of the skills and processes and set a stake in the ground that there was a profession called coaching, this was how the reader could identify it and that it did not matter if you were a highly successful CEO, and trained psychologist or known as the best listener in the world, these experiences and talents did not make you a coach. You needed to be professionally trained to coach, although your previous experiences would still be an asset to you and your future clients.

Confidentiality issues

I gather my research and case histories from contacts, and any leads I am given or contact directly. In all cases I find most people like to their contribution to be anonymous. I also change names too in case histories. I find that people are more open and honest if they know there is confidentiality is assured.

The waiting game

Personally I prefer to write books that will be backed by a publisher. But however slowly or quickly the writer gets the idea, initial research and writing together, everything seems to stop as you wait for the OK from them and contracts are exchanged. During that period I am adding current articles, scribbling more notes and tossing them into the labelled box. After gently reminding the publishers I still exist, finally some months later they give the go ahead, we agree delivery dates and I start writing the whole draft, typing up the scribbled notes, adding resourced material, working out the diagrams needed creating what I call the Master first draft, which includes further reading list, bibliography and appendix. A lot of this reference information will have already been gathered in the labelled box, and I usually get my assistant to type in and check the facts.

Working with a publisher does mean that as a writer you need to be flexible around your idea and accept that they are taking your project because it will be good for their business. They do see your book as a product and will require that it is shaped to fit their business profitability. Don’t forget though, all publishers have a different stance in the publishing arena, so the same idea can be presented in many differing ways. So it is not so much finding a publisher, but finding the right one for you with which you can mutually collaborate.

I will state here that writing is a hard work, both physically and mentally. A writer needs disciple to complete the project and hit deadlines. Lofty thoughts, finding muses and living a life of French cigarettes, wine and anti social behaviour will not make you a successful writer. The writing stage means you block out all social contact, create writing shifts try to fit around your day job – so 5 – 7.30am slots before the day starts and 8 – midnight slots for the evening. Weekends disappear. You do need to look at the diary, and plan your writing time and give yourself mini deadlines and breaks. It takes time to work out what suits you best, and from personal experience, modes of writing might change. Do the best you can, and keep your co-writers, editors and anyone else involved informed of progress and challenges. Having co-authored and sole authored books I am happy to write in both ways as the each has it own advantages.

When you have sent off the master first draft to the publisher, they will assign you an editor who will take you final process of editing, book covers and the final drafts, towards the exciting bit of seeing your book completed and in the bookshops.

Fact checking

The transfer of factual information is usually part of my assistant’s contribution to the project and she also checks details, for example website links and attributions. A good editor will check details to make sure the information is still current at the time of printing. Otherwise it is up to me as a professional to make sure information is correct, and highlight to differentiate what are my personal thoughts, experiences, and therefore subjective, so all the information is presented in the manner that it is meant.

The Business of Business Books

For me luck being asked to co-author – and then turning that luck into future opportunity to show evidence that I was professional and I could be trusted to deliver a book that was sellable. So far I have worked with four publishers but only had books published by three of them. The publisher who ‘got away’ approached me as they wanted to have a women on their publishing list – but although they were very appreciative of my ideas kept on putting decision date back. I later found out that they had had a Boardroom takeover and were suspending all new themes while they licked their wounds. I wish they had felt brave enough to tell me months earlier so I could have got on with other projects with a clear conscience. Although I advocate that as a writer you need to be regular and honest while keeping your publisher informed, lack of informative communication from your publisher is not unusual. As I said before, publishers are business people and reputations are at stake. Take nothing personally as they are doing the best they can and if you get stuck with your writing and deadlines in the future – you will find them, in my experience, to be an wonderful support.

There is a similarity of working amongst publishers and subtle differences. I have no agent – but am considering the possibility as my writing has taken a bigger role in my working life generally and I find a valuable addition to my work and for clients benefit. So far I have found little negotiation needed. In the non-fiction arena there are set fee structures. ALL Publisher has their own fee offer – as a new writer you take it or leave it. Later you can negotiate.

Contracts are basically standard – but read carefully and discuss directly with the commissioning editor anything you do not understand, or have a general query about. It may be useful for you to already have some idea as to how you want to use the information in future. With new technology there are many more opportunities available for promotion and use of material and this is something that is worthwhile you investigating with your publisher. In my experience they have always been very helpful and open minded, taking the view that all and any exposure to the material is positive and helpful to marketing the book.

Advice for Budding Business Book Authors

Most non-fiction writers are balancing a day job with it own set of targets and expectations. This means that particularly in the final stage of writing it can only be managed if other activities are postponed. My experience has revealed that:

1. Before you start writing do an enormous food and house hold shop to include all essentials from loo paper and tissues to headache, coughs and cold remedies, frozen and tinned ready-made meals. Don’t get too fussed about household cleaning materials – you don’t notice dirt and disorder while you in the flow. Oh and don’t forget the multivitamins!

2. Tell all your friends you will not be available for a while, but you will contact them again when you have delivered your manuscript.

3. Apologise to your loved ones for any bad behaviour, moodiness and general non-emotional interaction – this is normal for writer to blank the world and get cross if even the simplest worldly thing comes in to their orbit and nothing personal.

4. Create a space that is solely yours. Somewhere you can work and not have to tidy up after each writing session. A place that can have piles on the floor that make sense to you, notes on the wall if needed to prompt you and any other aids that are helpful.

5. Lack of sleep is normal – but please factor in some days when you are allowed to sleep for 8 hours or more and there are easy tasks, such as reviewing work or research to allow you brain in relax and reflect.

6. Best to book all writing time in your diary just like you would a work or social commitment.

7. Just do it. Writing nonsense is part of the process. There is nothing like having words on a page to lead to more words. It may all sound unclear, lacking in structure and often to be repeated in several different parts of the book. Put all content down first to get a first draft, for you then to edit and add into the Master first draft.

In Part Two tomorrow, Nicola explains what Mentoring is and talks about Cross-Cultural Mentoring and her own fusion background, growing up in Singapore.

Nicola can be contacted via her website

3 Responses to “Nicola Stevens - 1. Writing Business Books”

  1. Kenny Mah Says:

    I can see why you decided to leave most of Nicola’s writing as is after reading it myself. This can easily be an entire chapter in a How-To book. I especially appreciate her stand on writing books that are backed by publishers. Makes sense to me, though others may just do it out of love, but don’t we all want our writing to see the light of day, so to speak?

    Eagerly awaiting Part II. :)

    Thanks, Nicola and Yang-May!

  2. Tina Ackar Says:

    Wow. This really is a complete overziew on the business writing process. I like the fact that she refers to the the human and unpredictable element of her work!

    I cant wait for Part 2!!!

  3. Jean Says:

    People excel in an atmosphere where they can communicate honestly and without fear which is a very powerful statement indeed.Find the right business book that encompasses everything you need to start and maintain steady growth. For further information visit the following link.
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