How to write a book

Before I begin, a word about fear. Pastor had some great stuff at the 8:30 meeting I attended this morning, so I’m glad I went even though it was early. This is really good stuff: Fear leads to inaction. Inaction leads to inexperience. Inexperience leads to inability. Inability leads to continued failure and fear. Nice system, eh?

How to break it? “You build self-esteem by doing things that achieve,” he said. And if you’re a believer, you build Christ-esteem by remembering your identity in Christ. And you slowly break the cycle.

How to write a book. Super-influential musician and producer Brian Eno once said of the Velvet Underground’s first album, “Only 1,000 people bought it, but every last one of them started a band.”

Optimizing Windows seems to be like that. About 12 people bought it. OK, maybe 30. Several (maybe a half dozen or so) of them have asked me about how to go about writing a book. One is under contract and writing his first book now. (I could maybe count Frank McPherson, but I’m pretty sure he’d already started his book long before our paths crossed so I’ll just say we influenced each other.) The most recent query was yesterday, so since a handful of people are interested in a real, live author talking very candidly about writing, I’m going to subject the 200 or so of you who read regularly to it.

This letter is edited slightly, to avoid giving away the author’s idea, and also edited to disguise the style. I don’t want to violate his confidence, but I also think the issues raised are of general enough interest to be worth posting. (But he really did call Optimizing Windows “[his] new bible” and “a really kick-ass computer book.”)

I bought Optimizing Windows for Games, Graphics and Multimedia. Damn, man, that’s my new bible. By page 39 I noticed a difference. I hadn’t even defragged yet. I’m only on page 50 or so now. Thanks a lot. I’ve been calling all my friends up and telling them about it. I’m currently taking a course to get my MCSE and I’ve learned a lot there, but this just tops it off.

One quick thing. It’s just a thought, but I’ve got this collection of useful stuff I’ve learned. Basically it’s about 45 pages long, single space, font size 10. A lot of people have been saying that I can sell it. So you, being an author of a really kick-ass computer book, I am seeking your advice. It’s quite raw, but very useful. So any advice would be greatly appreciated.

Wow, thanks! I’m flattered and humbled. Yes, by page 39 the difference should be visible. By page 75, it’ll be more visible. And after that, if you install and use one of the utilities suites, you’ll think you have a whole new computer. I hope I’m not exaggerating too much there, but when I’ve done this stuff to other people’s computers I’ve always turned heads, so if it’s not like getting a new computer the difference is at least very impressive. Not that I can take credit for any of the utilities suites–used properly, they are miracle workers, plain and simple.

Your predicament sounds very familiar. In 1997, I was working my first job (I wasn’t even out of college yet). Our standard platform was a 486DX2/50 with 16-24 MB RAM, running Windows 95, Office 97, Lotus Notes 4.5, and Netscape 4.0. It was awful. I took one of the 486s, put it on an extra desk in my office, and experimented with it. The result of that was a document, probably 10-15 pages long, full of registry hacks, control panel tweaks, files to move, files to delete, msdos.sys hacks, that kind of stuff. As my colleagues left for greener pastures, usually they’d e-mail me a couple weeks later asking me for a copy of that document. I started to realize there might be a market for the thing.

I couldn’t get any magazine editors to return my queries. Finally I just gave up on the idea. I never thought to write a book–I’m trained as a magazine writer. I got a break as a technical reviewer, which got me an audience with a book editor, and the editor made a point to e-mail me and thank me–I guess something about the comments impressed him. So I made my move. I asked him what it took to write a book besides an idea. Basically, he said not much. So I bounced a few ideas off him, including a book on optimizing Windows NT and a book on optimizing Windows 9x. He liked the Windows 9x book best. I was so excited just to be talking to a real, live editor at a respected publishing house that I was willing to publish under any terms (big mistake). But I had my foot in the door, which was what I was basically worried about. I didn’t necessarily care about making any money–not at that point at least. To make a short story boring, I took that initial document and organized it–putting together the parts that seemed to go together. The stuff on disk optimization became chapters 3 and 5. The MSDOS.SYS stuff became chapter 4. (Of course I expanded on all that stuff a bunch.) The remainder of it mostly went into chapter 2. The rest of the chapters just seemed to me to be a logical extension of the material I already had there–what was missing that I assumed all of my coworkers knew, but couldn’t assume the rest of the world did. And of course, in writing those bits, I picked up some new tricks, some not so well-known, and threw those in.

The “Games, Graphics and Multimedia” part was strictly a marketing move. My intent with the original document was to make Office and Notes run fast. What’s good for MS Office is generally good for games though.

OK, so we’ve covered turning raw stuff into a book–organize and expand, basically. You can assume a standard 8.5×11 sheet of paper, single-spaced, will probably turn into two pages once typeset, due to margins and headings and other white space used to make it easier to read. So 45 pages would become roughly 90 pages in book form. After organization and expansion, who knows? I turned a 10-15 page document into a 278-page tome. I don’t know if that means your 45-pager will become a 900-page monster or not, but it might.

But there’s no point in writing something that you can’t publish. First, figure out your target audience, then tailor the book to them. My editor was always getting on to me about targetting gamers–said I wasn’t doing it enough. He was right. Once I started doing that, the book came together much better.

Next, make sure this is something that really matters to you. Kurt Vonnegut once said not to write about anything you wouldn’t stand up on a soapbox about. If it’s not the most important thing in the world to you, don’t write it. That was what went wrong with my second book. No book will ever be the most important thing in the world to me, but that second book wasn’t even in the Top 10. So, make sure you’re excited about it at first, because I guarantee you that in 6-10 months when it’s still not quite done, you won’t be nearly as excited about it. You need to have enough at the beginning to carry you through.

True story: I was at a small-venue concert a couple months after I signed Optimizing Windows. It was probably the first weeknight I took off after starting it. A girl I went to high school with (and church with years ago, before that) was there. I recognized her, and she obviously recognized me and seemed to be sending those “available” signals. Now, I never knew her super-well, but I knew her well enough to know she had most of what you’re supposed to look for: pretty, intelligent, similar values to mine, at least a little bit of a sense of humor… I didn’t pursue her. I think I said hello, but I’m not even sure of that. And I didn’t even remember the incident until a couple of weeks ago, when I found out that band was coming back to town next month. The book, at the time, was more important to me than any budding relationship could be. Maybe that makes me cold, I don’t know. I certainly was driven. I didn’t have that drive the second time around. You don’t have to be as psycho about it as I was at that point in time, but if your feelings for the prospect of writing that book don’t at least rival your feelings for the prospect of dating someone new, the book isn’t going to be as good as it could be.

Once you’ve got that, look around at other books on the market. Are you in direct competition with any of them? If you are, you have to differentiate yourself enough that someone who has one will want the other, because you can’t just write a similar book and price yours for less. Printing and distribution costs are pretty static. Two books of the same length by different publishers will cost about the same. You’ll have to be able to tell your agent (more on that in a minute) and your editors why your book is better, or why it’s different. If there’s nothing out there quite like it, tell them so, and list a few books that are out there that the people who would like your book would also like. Probably there are things that aren’t in those books that are in yours. Optimizing Windows, I think, sits nicely between Windows 98 Annoyances and PC Hardware in a Nutshell. Annoyances talks more about customizing Windows. PCHIAN talks more about hardware, and in more specific terms, than I do. But my book gives you a lot that you won’t get just from those other two.

Finally, get an agent. Most book publishers won’t talk to you without one. Get an agent excited about your book. Then it’s the agent’s job to find a publisher and negotiate. The agent takes a cut, but you’ll get a lot more with an agent than without. It’s kind of like getting a lawyer in that regard. If the agent gets you 25 percent more, it’s no big deal that you had to give him/her 12 percent because you’re still ahead. And when you have disagreements with your publisher (and you will), the agent acts as a go-between.

You might also think about a co-author. Co-authorships can be tricky. You’ll learn a lot from each other, but co-authoring is a great way to destroy a friendship (as I learned firsthand, and every editor I’ve ever talked to has confirmed). It’s kind of like playing in a band, I guess. The Beatles were once best friends. They get along now, but they sure don’t hang out together on Friday or Saturday nights. The Police not only no longer hang out together; they’ve only all been in the same place once since 1986. Yet Keith Richards and Mick Jagger have stuck together for what, 40 years? Sometimes it works great and sometimes it’s awful.

Maybe I’ve totally scared you off now, and I haven’t even talked about voice, style, research, rewriting, and dealing with an editor for the first time (it’s definitely a loss of innocence for most people). That’s not really my intent, but writing a book isn’t something most people can do casually.

That’s what I’ve learned from writing one and a half books. It’s not much but I hope it helps.

And I finally got around to putting up a picture. A picture is good for identifying with the author–I guess you trust people a little more when you know what they look like. As a columnist in college, I pushed for the student newspaper I was writing for to print columnists’ pictures (one very influential columnist there always pushed against that, mostly because he printed the kind of stuff that got him death threats). Once that particular columnist had been gone a semester, the pictures went in. And yet I’m one of the last of the Daynoters to include a picture. So it goes…

This is a newspaper photo, taken January 1996, when I was 21 and serving as a crime reporter for the Columbia Missourian. It’s a black-and-white image, printed at 85 lpi. I scanned it and did only minimal cleanup. I think it fits with the theme of the site pretty well. I wear my hair shorter now and I usually have a moustache and goatee so I don’t look so much like that anymore, but I still like it.

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