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.