Friday, December 17, 2010

Writing Books, pt I

I mentioned in an earlier post that I felt as if I wanted to share my experiences after having written five books, and been a minor co-author on a sixth.

First, I wanted to share a bit about my history of how I got involved in writing books, just to give you some perspective. I didn't start writing books; instead, I started reviewing books and book proposals. This seemed like a great way to see what was up and coming in the industry, as well as to make a little mad money on the side (or, if the remuneration was books, to stock my library). At one point, I was working on a review and completely disagreed with something the authors stated with respect to NTFS alternate data streams; not only did I disagree with it, but I offered up some text of what I thought the section should say. In the end, the authors agreed and accepted my contribution.

When the book was published, the publisher asked the authors if they knew of anyone who might be interested in writing a book. My name was offered up along with several others, and I accepted...and began the process of discovery that has led me to this point.

Further, I do have a long history of writing, albeit not books. Like many of us, I have a public school education. 'Nuff said, right? I wrote in college. I wrote during my first career as a military officer. I wrote a thesis for my graduate degree. I have written a lot of reports since I got out of the military and began pursing a career in the information security field. I can't say that I've enjoyed all of the writing, but it does provide both breadth and depth to my writing experience. In every case, there's some bad stuff that I didn't like and leave behind, and in most cases, there are some gems that have really benefited me that I can trace back to some of that early experience.

What I'd like to do now is provide something of a process but really more of my experiences and what I've learned in the process of writing books. My hope is that someone will take a look at this and perhaps decide to pick up their pen, as it were, and put it to paper. I know that there are some really smart folks out there with some really good ideas that need to be shared, and writing a book is a great way to do that.

Why write a book?
The first thing you need to think about is, why do you want to write a book? Some folks I have met want to write a book so that home users know what to do to secure their systems, or the members of their church know more about the Internet in general. Personally, I wanted to take all that stuff I had laying around in different locations and put it in one place...yes, that's right, I use my own book as a reference. ;-) After my first book, I wanted to prove to myself that I wasn't a one-trick pony and that this was something I could do again.

If you're in a technical field, do not expect to get rich writing a book, or even several that's not a reason to write a book. It just it's going to happen. The technical field does not have the market that other genres tend to enjoy; in fact, the more technical and narrowly focused your book, the more of a niche market you'll be focused on and the less likely you will be to really "score".

There can be a number of reasons to write a book...those that I've mentioned above are just some of them. However, if you don't have a good reason or a goal that you'd like to reach, what's going to keep you going through the process?

Choose a topic
So, what do you want to write about? Clearly, if you're reading this blog, then you're interested in technical topics, including incident response and/or digital forensics. Okay, that's a good place to start. Can you narrow it down...or should you? Sometimes, taking a broad brush approach is a great way to get started on a topic. I've found that focusing very narrowly has proven to be the way to go for what I'm writing about...the narrow focus being forensic analysis of Windows systems.

However, I don't think that this process is really specific to just technical books. I think a lot of my experiences in writing books can be applied to other areas/genres, as well...such as writing children's books.

Research the topic
Look online and at bookstores to see if there are any current books that cover your chosen topic. If there are, you would have to determine how you would differentiate your book from the others. Will your book be more up-to-date, will you provide a different perspective somehow?

If there aren't any other books or resources that cover what you're interested in writing may be home free.

Another aspect of this research what will benefit you greatly is to take a look at other resources, and not just those related to your chosen topic. Look at books in your chosen genre that you've enjoyed reading, and try to determine what it is you really enjoyed about them. One early example that I found that I really enjoyed is sidebars, little snippets that usually appear on the page in a grey box that tend to pertain to what you're currently reading, even if only tangentially. I recently reviewed the Malware Analyst's Cookbook, and I really like the idea of "recipes".

Create a detailed outline
Before you begin writing your book, outline it. Yes, just like you learned in grade school...and you thought you'd never use that again, like math. Begin with a simple outline, and begin adding to it. This allows you to begin to organize your thoughts with respect to writing your book, and begin preparing for the questions you're going to eventually encounter, such as how many chapters your book will have, what topics it will cover, etc. When I've put together outlines, I've found that just the act of writing the outline has led me to the idea that my chapters need to be restructured to make better sense, and that I needed to add additional chapters, as well.

A detailed outline helps me to organize my thoughts, and see where I need to include images, charts, figures, tables, etc. Would an image here make really good sense, and would a table here that encapsulates and summarizes the last three paragraphs really be useful to the reader?

Adding detail to your outline will only benefit you in the long run. Having a detailed outline keeps you on-point and on-track, provides some structure to what you're doing while you're doing it, and can be very beneficial, particularly if you've taken additional notes and written down some choice phrases that you'd like to use.

Just so you know, both publishers I've worked with thus far have asked for this research and work (i.e., outline) to be done and submitted as part of a proposal before going forward. So, you're going to *have* to do the work, and as much as I didn't want to do it the first time, I found out that going through the process...I mean, really going through it, not just doing it to get it done...made a difference.

Seek review
Most of us in the technical field do not like to have our written matter (when we do it) reviewed. I know that. You know it, too. But know that as you begin going down this road, you're going to get tunnel vision and you won't see the forest for the trees. To use another cliche and score a hat trick, you'll be too far down in the weeds and you'll need a reality check. Find someone you trust to give you honest, thoughtful criticism. When I was writing my very first book, I got a lot of that kind of criticism from Jennifer Kolde, and I've used what I learned through our exchanges to try and improve my writing with each book. As much as you won't want to, it will only benefit you to find someone (or someones, plural) to take a look at your ideas and give you a reality check.

Know that it will suck
That's right...simply accept the fact that this will be hard. Why? If you choose to write a book, you're going to have to write, which means you'll be adding a new activity that is going to replace an old activity in your life. You may have to give something least, in part. My lovely wife, God bless her, says that when I was writing my first book, she had no idea that I was writing a book. That was because I rarely gave up our dates during that process...instead, taking her to dinner or a comedy show served as a much needed break.

Also, the truth is, most people don't like to write, especially technical people. Case notes, reports, you name it...most technical folks simply do not enjoy the act of writing.

However, with a little (okay, a lot) prior planning, you can make the process of writing a book much easier.


Andrew Hay said...

and for the record.....Harlan tried to talk me out of writing my first book in an effort to ensure I knew what I was about to undertake.

Dave Y. said...

Thanks Harlan. I, like most, hate writing. I have had this nagging feeling over the last few months that I need to start doing more writing to share information within my organization. Your article pushes me a little further in that direction.

Ken Pryor said...

Thanks for the tips, Harlan. I'm looking forward to part 2. I am fortunate in that I enjoy writing, whether it be police reports at work, poorly done fiction or blogging.

I am also quite fortunate in that I have two very good friends I am writing a book with and we are able to bounce ideas off each other as we go. This being my first attempt at writing a book, I need all the feedback and help I can get and your tips are most welcome.
Take care!