I had a wish starting from 5th grade: to publish a book. A wish finally fulfilled this year when my first book, “Usable Software Design” became available on leanpub (sic).
So my friend Alex Bolboacă (photo) begins his account of becoming a published author: a fascinating tale that kept me glued to the screen, even though I’ve been there already, and my patience isn’t what it used to be, either. Don’t be put off by the ostensible subject matter; what little programming jargon is peppered throughout Alex’s article is incidental to the real story. Namely, what it takes to become a (self-)published author — and hopefully remain one. While the process is different for everyone, the lessons we can learn from comparing notes are invaluable.
Some of my friend’s advice should be obvious by now, as often as it’s been repeated lately, but for some reason it still isn’t: that ideas are easy and execution is hard, for instance. Or that you shouldn’t expect to get rich quick. (Seriously, if that’s your definition of success, disappointment is almost guaranteed. Sorry.) There’s less obvious advice, too, that I second, such as to rely on beta-readers rather than editors (because editors by definition don’t see your book the same way as readers), and to keep control of the finished work, which pretty much means self-publishing. But then there’s stuff not everybody tells you, or worse, they give you the entirely wrong advice. By way of contrast, Alex gets it right.
Motivation: If you want to write a book, pick a subject you care deeply about. A vague desire to write about something simply won’t give you the strength to finish. It’s not as easy as some people seem to think! As an aside, that’s why I dislike writing prompts: because trying to approach random subjects that mean nothing to you will feel like pulling teeth, and practice will turn into a chore — the last thing you need. Sure, writing is a craft, and that takes exercise. But you’ll find plenty of issues that move you, and venues to tackle them. Why waste energy on boring school-like assignments?
Working style: Too much writing advice I see online is a rigid list of checkpoints: you should do this, and then that, in this way and no other. But that’s just the tendency of successful people to think their pet method is some sort of magical recipe. You’re not [insert famous writer]; what works for them will fall apart in your hands. So figure out your own process. How often to write, how much at once, whether to outline first, when to edit… it’s all personal.
Speaking of which: Alex advocates the popular “crappy first draft” technique, presumably because it works for him. But in my experience, that just leads to endless editing afterwards, with results that never feel quite right to you. (Readers won’t notice.) That’s why I take the time to write as well as I can the first time around. It’s slower to begin with, but saves a lot of time and trouble down the road.
(That said, I do approve of editing piecemeal whenever you don’t feel like writing, instead of in a big push at the end. In programming we call it “continuous refactoring”, and it’s highly effective in reducing the tedium, not to mention how much easier it is than waiting to do it all at once.)
Impostor syndrome: Another open secret these days is that all creators feel like they don’t really “have it”. We all worry that nobody really cares about what we have to say. Am I even good enough to play with the grown-ups?
The answer, of course, is the emperor is naked. Nobody’s magically competent. We all kind of do our best, getting up when we stumble and moving on, having learned a little better. But you can only make progress if you start in the first place. So get started.
You will, however, need patience. See, what Alex isn’t telling you is that he was in a writing circle twenty years ago, getting his feet wet, and later spent more time blogging or writing technical documentation. He didn’t simply sit down one day and decided to write a book with no prior writing experience. (He’s also an avid reader.) There’s a reason most famous writers weren’t even heard of until they were well into their forties. Here I am at 39, content that my seventh book or so is actually selling for a change, and not even in numbers.
But, hey, just like Alex, I’m living a lifelong dream, and the friends I made along the way, like the things I learned about myself, were totally worth it. And this is why you should go read his story if you haven’t already: because you’re not alone, and you deserve to know it. Have a good read, and dare expand your horizons.