Friday, February 16, 2018

On Writing (DFIR) Books

After sharing my recent post regarding my next book, IWS, one of the comments I received via social media was a tongue-in-cheek reference to me being a "new" author.  I got the humor in that right away, but it also got me to thinking about something that I hadn't thought about in a while...what it actually takes to write a DFIR book.  I've thought about this before, at considerable length, because over the years, I've talked to others who have considered going down that path but for whatever reason, were not able to complete the journey.

Often times, the magnitude of the endeavor can simply overwhelm folks.  In some cases, events turn out to be much less easy to manage than originally thought.  In one instance, I was once asked for advice from a friend...he and two co-authors had worked through the process of establishing a contract for a book with a publisher.  It turned out that after the contract was signed, the team was assigned an editor, who then informed them that there was an error in the contract; they needed to deliver twice as many words than were previously stated, with no extension on the delivery date.  Needless to say, the team made the decision to not go forward with writing the book.

To be honest, one of the biggest challenges I've seen over the years is the disparity between the publishing company and their SOP, and the authors.  It took me a while to figure this out, but the publishing company (I can't speak to all publishing companies, just the three I've been associated with...) look to objective measures; word counts, numbers of chapters, numbers of images or figures, etc.  I would think that schedules are pretty much universal, as we all deal with them, but some publishing companies are used to dealing with academia, for whom publishing is often an absolute necessity for survival.  For many of those within the DFIR community who may be considering the idea of becoming a published author, writing a book is one of many things on an already crowded plate.

The other side of the coin is simply that, in my experience, many DFIR folks do not like to write, because they're not good at it.  One of the first company's I worked with out of the military had a forensics guy who apparently did fantastic work, but it took two other people (usually) to turn his reports into something presentable for review...not for the client, but for someone on our team to review before sending them to the client.  I recognize that writing isn't something people like to do, and I also recognize that my background, going back to my time on active duty, includes a great deal of writing (i.e., personnel evaluations/fitness reports, JAG manual investigations, etc.).  As such, I approach it differently.  I documented that approach to some extent in one of my books, providing a chapter on...wait for it...writing reports.  Those same techniques can be used in writing books.

I've been with essentially the same publishing company (that's not to say the same editor, and I haven't worked with the same individuals throughout) since my second book (Elsevier bought Syngress), so needless to say, I've seen a great deal.  I've gone through the effort (and no small amount of pain) and trials to get books published, and as such, I've learned a great deal along the way.  At the same time, I've talked to a number of friends and other folks within the DFIR community who've expressed a desire to write a book, and some who've already demonstrated a very good basis for doing just that.

Sometime ago, in a galaxy far, far away, I engaged with my editor to develop a role for myself, one in which, rather than writing books, I engaged with new authors as a liaison.  In this role, I would begin working with aspiring authors in the early stages of developing their ideas, and help them navigate the labyrinth to getting a book published.  I basically sat down and asked myself (after my fourth or fifth book had been published), "what do I know now that I wish I'd known when writing my first book?"  Armed with this information, I thought, here's a great opportunity to present this information to new authors ahead of time, and make the process easier for them.  Or, they may look at the scope and range of the process, and determine that it's not for them.  Either way, it's a win-win.

Also, and I think that this important to point out, this was not a paying position or role.  There are significant cultural differences between DFIR practitioners, and a publisher of predominantly academic books, and as such, this role needed to be socialized on both sides.  However, before either editor could really wrap their heads around the idea, and socialize it with the publishing company, they moved on to other adventures. 

As such, I figured that a good way to help folks interested in writing a book would be to provide some initial thoughts and advice, and then let those who are interested take it a step or two beyond that.

The Idea
All books start with an idea.  What is the basis for what you want to write/communicate?  When I started out with the Windows Forensic Analysis books, the basic idea I had in mind was that I wanted to write a book that I'd want to purchase.  I'd seen a number of the books that were out there that covered, to some extent, the same topic, but not to what I saw as the appropriate depth.  I wanted to be able to go to a bookstore, see a book with the words "Windows" and "forensics" on the spine, and upon opening it, have it be something I'd want to take to the register and purchase. 

Something else to consider is that you do not have to have a new or original idea.  I wrote Windows Registry Forensics because there was nothing out there like it.  But I wrote Windows Forensic Analysis because I wanted to take a different approach to what was already out there...most of what I found didn't go into the depth that I wanted to see.

When I was employed by SecureWorks, I authored a blog post that discussed the use of the Samsam ransomware.  Kevin Strickland, a member of the IR team, took a completely different approach in how he looked at some of the same data, which ended up being one of the most quoted Secureworks blog posts for the entire 2016 year.  My point is that it doesn't always take an original idea...sometimes, all it really takes is a different way of looking at the same data.

Structure Your Thoughts
It may not seem obvious, but structuring your thoughts can go a LONG way toward making your project an achievable success.

The best way to do this, that I've found, is to create a detailed outline.  Actually write down your thoughts.  And don't think you have to do it all at once...when I wrote personnel evaluations in the military, I didn't do it one sitting, because I didn't think that would be fair to my Marines.  I did it over time...I wrote down my initial thoughts, then let them marinate, and came back to them a day or two later.  The same thing can be done with the outline...create the initial outline, and then walk away from it.  Maybe socialize it with some co-workers, discuss it, see what other ideas may be out there.  Take some of the terms and phrases you used in your outline, and Google them to see what others may be saying about them.  You may find validation that way, like, "yeah, this is a good idea...", or you may find that others are thinking about those terms in a different way.  Either way, use time to develop your ideas. I do this with my blog posts. Something to realize is that the outline may be a living document; once you've "completed it", it will likely change and grow over time, as you grow in your writing.  Chapters/thoughts may be consolidated, or you may find that what you thought would be one chapter is actually better communicated as two (or more) chapters.  And that's okay.

What I've learned over the years is that the more detailed your outline is, the easier it is to communicate your ideas to the publisher, because they're going to send your idea out to others for review.  Much like a resume, the thought behind your outline is that you want to leave the person reviewing it no other option than to say, "yes" the clearer you can be, the more likely this is to happen.  And the other thing I've learned is that the more detailed the outline, the easier it is to actually write the book.  Because you're very likely going to be writing in sections, it's oh, so much easier to pick something back up if you know exactly where you left off, and a detailed outline can help you with that.

Start Writing
That's right...try writing a chapter.  Pick one that's easy, and see what it's like to actually write it.  We all have "life", that stuff we do all the time, and it's a good idea to see how this new adventure fits into yours.  Do you get up early and write before kicking off your work day, or is your best time to write after the work day is over?

Get someone to take a look at what you've written, from the perspective of purchasing the finished product.  We may not hit the bull's eye on the first few iterations, and that's okay. 

Get your initial attempts reviewed by someone you trust to be honest with you.  Too many times over the years, I've provided draft reports for co-workers to review, and within 15 minutes received a just "looks good".  Great, that makes me feel wonderful, but is that realistic for a highly technical report that's over 30 pages long?  In one particular instance, I rewrote the entire report from scratch, and got the same response within the same time frame, from the same co-worker.  Clearly, this is not an honest review.

In the early stages of writing my second book, I had a reviewer selected by the publishing company, and I'd get chapters back that just said, "looks good" or "needs work".  From that point on, I made a point of finding my own reviewer and making arrangements with them ahead of time to get them on-board with the project.  What I wanted to know from the reviewer was, does what I wrote make sense?  Is it easy to follow?  When you're writing a book based on your own knowledge and experience, you're very often extremely close to and intimate with the subject, and someone else how may not be as familiar with it may need a bit more explanation or description.  That's okay...that's what having a reviewer is all about.

At this point, we've probably reached the "TL;DR" mark.  I hope that this article has been helpful, in general, and more specifically, if you're interested in writing a DFIR book.  If you have any thoughts or questions, feel free to comment here, or send them to me.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

The suggestion about getting someone to read, comment or ask additional questions fairly early in the process is, I think, very useful.

The NMAP book was written chapter by chapter, which was then posted to a semi-open mailing list (nmap-writers), whose members, in return for early access, also were kind of expected to ask questions, comment and generally discuss areas where they found unclarity, and so help improve the text as well as the structure. Many of those discussions lead to changes in the text, one or two (I think) even lead to minor changes in how NMAP collected and presented information.

Fyodor can probably comment on if he found it a useful form of ... call it rapid prototyping applied to books.