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December 12, 2005

Lessons Learned writing a Book.

Having finished one book (Micro-ISV: From Vision to Reality) and now starting another, I've learned a few lessons about bookwriting and large projects in general I think are worth passing on. These books are non-fiction; I don't pretend to know the ins and outs of setting scenes and writing dialog. But whether you plan to write a book, or just looking for some first-person advice on big long projects, hopefully these 5 tips will help.

#1 Write Every Day First.

Yes, before checking email, your RSS client or your favorite web sites. Before you fill your head with what other people have to say, you owe it to yourself and your future readers to write your words. We live in a world where attention deficit disorder isn't a disease, it's a way of life. Email, blogs, the web feed the disease and make the type of careful thought construction a book requires almost impossible. What I find works is when I'm ready to first sit down, I start a kitchen timer, mightily resist the urge to check email and blogs and start writing.

And yes, I mean every day. If you think you can cram and jam a book like you did when writing college term papers, you are kidding yourself and your book at best is going to mediocre. By writing every day, you effectively detail a chunk of your brain to working and improving the material you're writing. By writing everyday, you break a very large task into easy to do chunks, get into a rhythm and let good ideas percolate in between writing sessions.

#2 Keep a book log.

A really good way to track your writing, plan your interviews and get your source code or other files done is a book log. I use Excel - and you can download a copy here gratis - to track my daily book writing, list who I'm planning to interview and my efforts to get a hold of them and my non-manuscript extra bits.

Every day, I enter when I start writing, write, and enter when I'm done. Its a real feeling of accomplishment to see your hours piling up, and a real vaccination against the dreaded Writer's Block disease. If you don't see work being logged, its Red Alert time!

The more you want to interview someone for a book, the more likely that person is going to be very busy, and you will need to be very persistent. Persistent means follow up, and a log makes it easy to do that. One interview for MIVR took 6 weeks and a dozen emails to set up. But with my log, I could easily sort by Next Follow Up Date to ensure I did what I needed to do to get that interview.

I've found that most people, especially prominent people, are willing to help others out so long as are clear how you plan to use their words and ask good, well-thought-out questions. (See #3)

#3 Do your research, know your questions.

Something your friendly editor did not mention to you is even if your the world's expert on whatever you're writing about, your going to need at least an hour for research/thinking for every hour you write. Maybe more. In fact, if you are the world's expert, you're going to have to spend time thinking about how to explain your subject to someone who unlike you, isn't an expert.

A non-fiction book, by definition, is all about transferring knowledge from someone who knows what they are talking about (hopefully you) to someone who does not. When you start "uninternalizing" all that information, you've got to think and research through it.

If you're not the expert, but you're going to interview and expert, you've got to allow time to both get the basics down about the subject and to think through and write up the questions you want to ask. Nowadays, more and more interviews are done via email: well thought out questions make for really interesting answers.

#4 Cite your sources and credit others and use the net gingerly.

What's the foundation of a good book or a good blog? Credibility. There's no law that says you have to be anointed by a school, the media or anyone else as an "expert" or "prominent" before you start writing. But common sense (and common law) says you'd better come clean with your readers where you are getting your information, who your sources are and what they actually said.

One of the easiest traps to fall into, is thinking that just because it is on the web, it has to be true. At best, every web site, like everybody, has their own slant on the truth. Your job, when researching a book, is to apply your judgment to those slants, smack them together until the interesting bits fall out and keep your BS detector set on high.

When I learned to be a reporter in the last century, this was the stuff of Journalism 101: get the facts and get them straight and make sure their straight. The same principle applies to blogs as it does to dead tree media: double check your facts.

#5 Don't miss deadlines.

At least, don't miss deadlines if you want to see that book become a book. There's nothing like missing a deadline to turn your nice, warm cuddly editor into a crocodile with mean disposition and a toothache. The further into the bookwriting process, the more drastic the transformation and the negative repercussions.

There will be times when push comes to shove and you can't make a deadline. If you've been up front with your editors and let them know the second that nasty possibility became possible, and if you've been hitting deadlines up until that point, you probably will survive this close encounter of the unpleasant kind. Maybe. But publishing books is an industry: don't think for a moment your publisher who deals with this kind of crap day in and day out have patience for your version of my dog at my manuscript; they do not.

If you find yourself sinking, renegotiate your deadlines, chop what you can and hold for your second draft any problematically interviews you're still struggling to get.

Lastly, if you are thinking of writing a non-technical book, or getting heavily into the blogging scene, I strongly recommend you read Mike Gunderloy's set of 8 articles on writing. I did, before starting Micro-ISV: From Vision to Reality, and they saved my butt!



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This article was very helpful with my first attempt to write a book. If any more articles are available, please let me know. Thanks Fred

Thanks, Bob! This is exactly what I needed, since I began to write a book (in Russian) three days ago. (And already missed a day of writing :( ).

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  • Who?
    Bob Walsh, (Author, managing partner of Safari Software, Inc. a micro-ISV)
    Exploring the intersection between Getting Things Done and building a micro-ISV.
    Live from Sonoma, California USA.
    Once or so a workday.
    Because there's a way to get everything done, I just know there is!
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