Thursday, February 23, 2012

You Say You Want to Write a Book? (Part 1/2)

Consultants are the kind of people who like to share what they know (usually at a reasonable price), so many consultants get the notion of writing a book. They might have already been speaking at conferences, delivering courses, and writing articles or blogs; a book is the logical next step.

I've met numerous people who said they were writing a book, thought they were writing a book, planned to write a book, or hoped to write a book. Most of them never do. As one example, I met a consultant in 1996 who told me he was co-authoring a book with another experienced writer. Periodically over the years he has said that they were still working on their project. However, they've never finished their opus.

Most of the people I know who never quite finished a book didn't treat it like a project. At least in my experience, writing a book takes a lot of time. If you're serious about getting it done, you have to elevate it to a suitable priority in your work queue. This often means turning down paying work to free up time to devote to the book. This is a tough decision to have to make for many consultants. You also need to instill discipline into your writing approach. I know one author who sets aside several hours every single morning, starting about 5 a.m., to write. I’ve never been that dedicated, but whenever I decide to write a book, I do carve out the necessary time to get it done.

If you see a book in your future, think about why you want to write it. Certainly, having books to your credit looks good on a resume. Writing books gives you credibility and visibility in your industry. It's also fun and exciting to be able to tell people about "my book." I get a lot of personal fulfillment and pride from having written multiple books (seven so far), particularly when people tell me they found them useful and interesting. Perhaps you want to write a book that you can include with classes you teach, or to give away as a marketing tool to promote your company's services. Whatever your reason, keep it in mind and in focus as you structure the book and explore publishing alternatives, just as you manage the vision and scope of a software project.

Sometimes you just feel that you just have to write a book to tell a story you wish to share. That was the case both with my first software book and with my most recent book, a memoir of life lessons titled Pearls from Sand: How Small Encounters Lead to Powerful Lessons. I described this feeling to another aspiring author about ten years ago. I said, "There was a book inside of me that just had to get out." He stared at me as though I came from another planet. I guess he hadn't experienced that same emotion, although he professed a desire to write a book himself. I never learned what his motivation was, though.

I knew quite early in my software career that I wanted to write a book, but I wasn’t sure what to write about. A little book-writing safety tip: having a topic in mind is a good starting point. Two events converged to lead me to my first book, Creating a Software Engineering Culture, which was published in 1996. First, I had written an article by that same title for Software Development magazine. More e-mails poured in after that one article than for all the other articles I've ever written—combined. "Hmmm," I said to myself, "perhaps there's something there." Second, I happened to win a door prize at a conference presentation at about the same time, which was a copy of the speaker's book on software management. As I was reading the book on the airplane home, I said to myself, "I can write a better book than this." So I did. But it wasn't easy.

Where do you learn how to write a book? Nothing I studied in high school, college, or graduate school prepared me for writing a book, other than what I learned from writing my PhD thesis in organic chemistry. So, I really had no idea what I was doing when I embarked on Book #1. My inexperience showed in the original manuscript. One reason I'm writing these posts is to help the aspiring author avoid struggling as much as I did for lack of a mentor.

At a meeting of the Editorial Board for the journal IEEE Software one year, I sat down with two other highly experienced authors and compared notes. Among the three of us, we had published something like eleven books by that time. We discovered that we all took different approaches to book-writing. I prefer to work from an outline that will meet my objectives for the project, which I then flesh out chapter by chapter (not necessarily in sequence). One of the other authors said, "When I conceived [Book X], I didn't know exactly where I was going with it, so I just started writing and watched what happened." That free-form approach wouldn't work for me, but it served this respected author well on the innovative topic he was trailblazing. You’ll need to figure out what writing method will work best for each of your own book projects.

(If you found this article helpful, please consider making a donation to the Norm Kerth Benefit Fund to help a consultant who has been disabled since 1999 with a traumatic brain injury from a car accident. You can read Norm's story or donate here. Thanks!)

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