Rob St. Amant

Rob St. Amant
December 31
My roots are in San Francisco and later Baltimore, where I went to high school and college. I stayed on the move, living for a while in Texas, several years in a small town in Germany, and then several more in Massachusetts, working on a Ph.D. in computer science. I'm now a professor at North Carolina State University, in Raleigh. My book, Computing for Ordinary Mortals, will appear this fall from Oxford University Press.


JANUARY 2, 2012 8:57AM

The manuscript is in the mail

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Yesterday afternoon I submitted the latest revision of my manuscript to my publisher. My New Year's Day gift to myself. It's a non-fiction book about computers, in the general category of popular science.  This is how the process worked, if you're curious and thinking of doing such a thing yourself. (I've already told parts of this story here and here.)

 February, 2009: I start writing.

October, 2009: A couple of chapters are finished, and I've convinced myself that I can write the entire book. I send a query letter to an editor I know at Oxford University Press. I receive encouragement. 

January, 2010: I send a formal proposal to Oxford, giving an outline of the book and three chapters. The proposal is given to independent reviewers for evaluation.

March, 2010: My editor finds the first three reviews positive enough to offer me a contract. We talk about whether the book has too large a scope; my editor suggests that I break it into two books and also edit a collection of papers by others in the area. I convince her that one book is enough, for now.

April, 2010: Three more reviews trickle in, one negative. My editor tells me not to worry.

May, 2010: The contract arrives. I ask for a few small changes having to do with copyright assignment; also, we change a typo that says the book should be 280 words instead of 280 pages long.

June, 2010: The contract is signed on both sides. I have an entire year to finish writing and submit the manuscript. Sounds easy. I take my wife on vacation and spend much of the time writing.

December, 2010: My book has been taken over by a different editor. We meet face to face at a conference, and later a group of us go out to dinner together. We chat about my book, briefly.

June, 2011: Wondering whether June 1 or June 30 is the actual deadline, I decide to take the month to finish. By this time, a couple of dozen friends and colleagues (including some of you at OS) have read the manuscript, in whole or in part, and offered suggestions for improvement.

September, 2011: Five reviews of the completed manuscript come back, four anonymous and one from my editor. All but one are positive; the ambivalent review says that that the book is 80% there but doesn't yet do the job. "What?" I say to myself. "It's 95% there and it does the job just fine."

December, 2012: I've spent most of the semester concentrating on teaching and research, with little time for the book. When classes end, I take up writing again. I discover that the months-long hiatus has wiped much of the book's content from my memory. Re-reading, it's almost as if parts of the book were written by someone else. (I put thoughts of inadvertent plagiarism out of my mind--I actually did write it.) After several days, I feel more comfortable about making big changes. Chapter 6 moves to Chapter 10; I rewrite two chapters significantly; I write an introduction and a new appendix. I check that all the reviewers' concerns are handled. 

January 1, 2012: The ambivalent reviewer was right and I was wrong; my new writing and revisions are probably about 20% of the book. I think it does a better job now. I send this version back to Oxford.

Looking back, I'm surprised that it took so long. But I shouldn't be, really. I have a full-time job, and there have been other demands on my time. (I wrote a good part of the book in hospital waiting rooms, for example.) I was never able to develop a consistent writing schedule; it was a few hours here and there, the weekends, and an occasional intense few days when I had free time. I'd originally thought that it would take six months of work, off and on, to finish the writing. Instead, it's been almost three years.

But I'm happy with the result. It's an ambitious book: It covers the entire field of computing, and I've written it to be understandable to everyone--high schoolers, bloggers, poets... Okay, not everyone, but most people. The reviewers chosen by Oxford (who were almost all anonymous) seem to like it. They say I have a clear voice--something that people have said to me since I took writing classes in college, but which I've never completely understood--and that it strikes the right tone.

I think writing a book has changed how I see myself, professionally and to some extent personally. When you land a faculty position at a research university, Ph.D. in hand, it's natural to imagine that you'll make a mark on your field. Who has time for popularization of scientific and technical ideas? But the world is wide. Sharing my thoughts and experience with people who aren't my colleagues or students, in the hope that they'll find something of value, seems more worthwhile.



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You should have sent them the 280-word manuscript and demanded payment. That would have taught them.
Good one, Con. The funny thing is that it actually took a few go-rounds to fix this. The editor sent the corrected document up the chain, and it would come back to her with the correction undone. All that sort of stuff is hidden from me, for better or worse. I'm thinking "better".
There is a history at the OUP in taking the esoteric and presenting it in a way that a big chunk of the masses, washed or unwashed can understand. When Charles Williams was working there mid 20th century and an active member of the Inklings, I like to think he had an influence in the populist appeal of CS Lewis, both in his writings and his radio presentations. I don't know if that's true, but it fits the time, setting and personalities.

You've long demonstrated an uncanny ability to slide concepts into the brains of others Rob, with wit, humor and a not so subliminal parsing to the kernel of it all.

I'm not surprised at all at your success, in the past and pending. My heartiest congratulations. (There is a hint in your words above that concerns me, I hope for all good things for you this year and to all those whom you love.)

Absolutely. Good for you! Keep us posted so we can all grab a copy when it comes out.
Thanks for your thoughts, Barry! (Life goes on.)

OUP has put out some excellent, accessible books on science for the lay reader. I especially like The Selfish Gene, which might be their best selling book of this kind (though I haven't checked), and a series of books by philosopher Andy Clark on the nature of the mind. I haven't explored a lot of their catalog, and I didn't realize that there was a relationship to C.S. Lewis, whose work I also like, though in a much different way.

OUP doesn't have a significant computer science division, but maybe that will change. My connection came through the work I do and contacts I have in cognitive science.

By the way, I loved your year-end collection of photos, but I had nothing really to add to your post. Which, I suppose, means that it worked well standing along. :-)

Thanks for the encouragement, Steve. You're familiar with the process--write, write, write, then sell, sell, sell.
Rob, congratulations and thank you for the time line. Interesting the way the process works; both your writing and the way it dovetails with the publisher's reviews. Please do let us know when it's available!
Hi, Smithery! Thanks. The entire process was much more involved than I'd expected, with a lot of people taking part. We tend to think of writing as a solitary activity, and for me it is, but it turns out that's not all of it. It's partly because of the nature of commercial publishing--I realize now that my impression of writing a book was a better match for self-publishing, in which you just write, revise, and then send it off. But I've gotten such value from external comments that it makes the book seem almost like a collaborative effort.
Rob, congratulations on the completion of the manuscript, and good luck on its public reception! I am in awe of people like you (and my professor dad) who can write a book while holding a full-time job. What an amazing accomplishment.
Thanks, Steve! Me, I can't see myself surviving at the front a high school classroom for more than ten minutes, so we're even. :-)
Very exciting news. Congrats! Did you write the manuscript using only "0"s and "1"s? Will you ask the OUP for a couple additional galley proofs so you can send them to your devoted readers (yes, this is a very broad hint)? Next stop: The Daily Show or Colbert Report. Let's push some paper.
I would crush Colbert. :-)

But I was serious about avoiding technical jargon as much as possible. In my proposal I suggested a blurb that included this line: Good explanations [of computing] rarely need to get down to the level of ones and zeroes...

We'll see how well it works, whenever the book comes out.
You have a great skill for communicating Rob, IMHO. May have taken longer than you expected but there IS that life thing. This is a huge success story and I say congratulations!
Congratulations, Rob. I'll look forward to reading it.
Thanks, trig! Thanks, High Lonesome!

Success is yet to come, but I'm hopeful.
I'll read it somehow! Maybe my library will carry it!

The ability to write clearly, thereby making the complex understandable, is rare and enviable. You have it.
Oops, I think I forgot to rate!
will it be out on Kindle?
Hi, Snippy! Libraries tend to carry the kind of book I'm writing, so I hope you'll be able to find a copy.

Hey, Julie! I hope it'll be on the Kindle. A lot of Oxford books are. There's still a lot that I don't know about the book, though. I don't know how much it will cost or how broadly it will be marketed. We're even still talking about a title, oddly enough. (The marketing and publicity departments apparently need to weigh in. They hated my first title, How to think about computers if you're not a computer scientist. Other titles that have been floated include Computing 101, Computing for Ordinary Mortals, and a bunch I don't remember any more. The trick, I think, is to be appealing enough that someone might casually pick the book up, while not being deceptive about its contents. That's hard partly because there are so many books on the market that tell you how to use your computer, which this book isn't at all about.)
Outstanding - and congratulations!
Thanks, Owl! It's something of a relief to have the book out of my hands, but it'll inevitably return for a few more changes, I think.