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How I wrote a book with a stranger, 2700kms away and the ten things I learnt

"It's being here now that's important. There's no past and there's no future. Time is a very misleading thing. All there is ever, is the now. We can gain experience from the past, but we can't relive it; and we can hope for the future, but we don't know if there is one." - George Harrison

It was mid-March 2020, and my phone rang; it was the CFO of a regular and very supportive client.

As I tend to do, I stepped away from my computer, opened the rear squeaky security door and strolled into the back yard that was streaming the western afternoon sun. I was in shorts, a t-shirt, and bare feet. I like the cool grass on my feet on warm days and feel my responses are always more considered. There is a favourite corner in my front yard where I pace when I am on the verge of closing a deal. I have completed a couple on that spot. I strolled over to that section of the yard, knowing this call would be different as the pandemic had begun to sweep across corporate Australia. Many of us were to soon work like this and continue to.

My client's voice was quiet and measured, "I am really sorry to do this, but we will have to put your engagement on hold for a bit." I think he felt worse than I did. He was the last of several clients who called me in March to pause their engagement.

My wife was busy at work as a Risk Manager at a private hospital, implementing COVID safe policies to keep her patients and staff safe while navigating the different directions from various state health authorities across Australia. My news wouldn't be a surprise to Nicole; best not to interrupt her day. Instead, I called a professional stranger that I had only met in person once in January. I wanted to let her know that I now had the time to commit to something we had discussed earlier in the year.

Michelle Stevenson lived in Perth and had helped me with some editing in December 2019. In January 2020, I was in Perth running some client strategy workshops and Michelle, and I made time to meet after a long day. I almost didn't email Michelle to confirm the meeting as I had a very early start, and it was getting well into the evening from the time zone I left. Intuition told me I should, as I wanted to start a new project.

The project required a significant amount of research and someone who could understand and possibly even anticipate my professional idiosyncrasies. Michelle seemed to have both, and I wanted her to be the editor of my next book.

Michelle felt that the book would be better if it had a co-author and suggested herself at that January meeting. I agreed as Michelle's passion for the project was evident. That was the first and last time I saw Michelle until we finished the book, captured in the photo below. It is the only in-person meeting we have ever had. I chuckle every time I recall our meeting at the Subiaco hotel with Michelle feverously scribbling down, qualifying, and building on my initial ideas.

What have I learnt in writing a book with a stranger on the other side of Australia?

1. Passion and capability will see you through the tough times. Michelle had both, and at no stage have I ever questioned either; this allowed us to focus on the stuff that mattered!

2. Know what you and your partner's strengths are, I am a structured thinker and an ideas person. I introduce lots of concepts and like to talk these through. Michelle is great at asking questions (being a journalist), tenacious with research and will not rest until things are perfect (which I sometimes miss with my every-exploring mind). She is always challenging how to make things better. The final trait we share.

3. Get in sync. Technology or collaboration platforms are helpful, but we didn't use them. We had some high-level actions lists and spoke frequently. We Zoomed less regularly; platforms like this was only used with third parties such as our editor and publicist. The tech helps you at the start but is less critical when you are in sync.

4. Know your role and follow through. This is different to what you are good at. Sometimes you need to get stuff done that you might not be good at, and this is when the passion kicks in. Michelle and I developed a good understanding of this. An example is the summary section at the end of each chapter. I drafted these, and Michelle condensed them; they are now about a third of what I prepared. But by writing them, I was able to write the prompting questions at the end of each chapter, and our readers like them.

5. Communicate when you are stuck. As we neared the manuscript's completion, we realised the first five thousand words required major rework, and I needed to do that. I couldn't find the time between client demands in late 2020, a family of five in lockdown and a wife who is a health care worker. It took me at least two months to do my piece. Michelle was very patient.

6. What is the standard or quality? We both have high standards. We briefed our partners on the quality we desired from the editor, printer and publisher. The graphics, cover and fonts were agonised over, but the quality was never compromised. By agreeing to our standards, we could focus on aesthetics, content and style.

7. Discover your process. Michelle and I discovered very quickly that I was the initiator and her the refiner. Michelle handed the research over; I shaped it as an initiator, and Michelle's editing skills refined my work. We found this process worked well, and it is something we continue today.

8. Park your ego. Working with an editor in writing a book may be intimidating, but Michelle coached rather than told and always listened. I always felt heard and considered, and apparently, I never "mansplained."

9. Be focussed but open. The book was to have a white cover, as it would sit nicely alongside my black one. I initially thought a globe of the world might depict what the book was about, but it wasn't right, and I stepped back. Michelle developed the cover with the publisher and presented it back to me. Being open and giving people space created a great outcome.

10. Understand the uncontrollable. We were ready to publish in April. Michelle was pregnant with baby Chloe due in June, and we have held off publishing as Sydney and Melbourne entered extended lockdowns. We are now scheduled for late September and intend to capture people's attention with a PR campaign in October, hopefully after people emerge from the daze of lockdown.

Would I do it again? Absolutely, thank you, Michelle.


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