Lessons Learned and Evolution in Writing

I’ve been writing, professionally, since about 2000, when I signed my first book contract for Microsoft .NET E-Commerce Bible. Since then I’ve written literally dozens of books, large and small, and I’ve recently moved into fiction. I feel like I’ve learned a lot along the way – mainly by muddling through – and I thought I’d share, for anyone who might be interested.

Writing technical books is fairly straightforward, provided you’re writing about something you know. My first book was probably a bit more of a brain-dump that I’m happy admitting to, but it was an opportunity for a patient, superhuman editor to guide me through some of the basics of English that my high school career never bothered with. Things like “active voice” were all-new to me, and she coaxed me through the grammatical minefields quite deftly. I don’t pretend to be close to perfect, but I’m far better than I was.

Writing at the time, for me, was a matter of coming up with an outline that included everything. Take Microsoft Application Center 2000 Configuration & Administration as an example: all I really had to do was make sure the outline touched on all the major features, write about those features, and the book was done. Two months, tops.

I think my first major improvement probably came in Managing Windows with VBScript and WMI, the book that really “put me on the map,” career-wise. It’s where I first took the time to really think about sequence in a book, about building an outline that built gradually and continually throughout the book. I still feel it was clumsier than it could have been, but it led directly to the sequencing of Learn Windows PowerShell in a Month of Lunches, a book – and a series of books – I remain immensely proud of. It was the first time I narrowed my scope down to a very specific audience, and set out to tell a story to that audience, and that audience alone. I knew the book would be of limited use to those outside the target audience, but felt the target audience was big enough to warrant the special focus.

(By the by, you may not even be aware of all the stuff I’ve written. If you’re curious, I’ve a page that lists most of it.)

Outlines are a huge part of my writing process. They’re why I largely don’t suffer from writer’s block, I think. I do a very detailed outline, down to 3rd- or 4th-level bullets, before I write a thing. That lets me make sure I’m touching on everything I want (the outline serves as a checklist), and it lets me sequence things, so that I’m not covering something new until I’ve built up to it properly. It’s lets me largely avoid foreshadowing (“we’ll talk about that later,” a “technique” I hate in tech books). Before bed each night, I read my outline for a given chapter, and then sleep on it. I tend to wake up ready to write that chapter, with each bullet becoming a heading, and with just a few paragraphs under each heading.

What I never learned to write, after dozens of paper and ebooks about technology, was dialog. So when I wanted to try my hand at fiction… well. Dialog is important in novels, right? So when I wrote A History of the Galactic War, I decided to play off a conceit I got from World War Z. That book’s schtick is that it’s a collection of newspaper articles and such, arranged to tell a story. My schtick is that the book is actually a classroom textbook from 1,000 years in the future, teaching young people about the war that had happened in their past. It let me tell a story without dialog. I practiced adapting my outlining technique to fiction, which worked well, and focused on building the story without dialog. Indeed, the book has very few characters apart from the Major People of History that you’d expect a historical textbook to contain.

I then felt ready to get real. Alabaster was a story I’d had in mind for years – I’d even published a short teaser treatment here on my blog, forever ago – and I felt it was time to get started. My goal with Alabaster was to create a trilogy (which now includes Onyx, the second book) and to focus on the Amazon Kindle Unlimited / Kindle Owners’ Lending Library audience. The books aren’t too long (about 42,000 words and under 190 pages in print), they connect directly to one another, and they’re a nice, quick read that’s meant to keep you engaged. I didn’t feel up to the narrative task of building a whole Tolkein-esque world, but instead wanted to write something very story-driven, with a bit of mystery to it that the characters could unlock over time.

That geared me up for Power Wave, another fun, casual read in the superhero genre. I love the genre, and I had a great “how heroes got their powers” idea, and felt it would be a cool story to work through. I wanted heroes who were more workaday and less glam, and wanted to try and do a bit more in the way of setting the stage that the players were on.

All of that led to The Never, the first fiction story I ever wanted to write. It’s based on the Peter Pan stories, but it casts Peter almost as a background character, let alone the Darling children, who are only seen at a distance. Instead, I wanted to tell the story of the fairies (Tinkerbell couldn’t have been the only one), and of the place where Neverland itself is. I wanted to account for the main events of Barrie’s original stories, but cast them as part of a larger world that a selfish little child like Peter would never have noticed or cared about. It draws heavily on the characters of Celtic mythology, liberally sprinkled with names from Shakespeare and other sources. It’s the first fiction book I had to research, because I wanted everything to “fit.” I have a dog-earned, Post-In flagged copy of Peter and Wendy that Christopher gave me in 2002, which I used to make sure Part 2 of my book was on-track, story-wise. The Never does more scene-building and character-building than I’ve done before, and by the end I really felt like the characters were people, not just characters. I understood their motivations, and the world they moved in feels more fleshed-out in my head. The Never isn’t an “easy read;” in print, it’s over 300 pages, and it’s close to 80,000 words – my first “full-length” novel.

I fully intend to keep growing. I’ve gotten in the habit of writing a sample prologue or chapter for a book (like this one), that I use to kind of capture the idea for later. I might wind up never using that original treatise, but it’s a handy way of getting an idea into a preservable form.

I guess if there’s a final takeaway from all that, it’s this: if you think you want to write, just do it. The first effort doesn’t have to be perfect, but it’s a necessary step. There’s no point in “waiting until you’re ready,” because until you try and learn, you’ll never be ready. Every time you do it, you’ll be readier than last time, and you’ll never be “perfect.” And that probably applies to other things you’ve maybe wanted to do that weren’t writing. Just do it. Turns out Nike had it exactly right all along.

By the way – if you’d like to follow my writing, and get discounts on new book releases, I’ve a mailing list for that. I’ll also post treatises from time to time and get feedback and input. I don’t use this for anything else, and you probably won’t even get an email a month from me. It’s run via MailChimp, so (a) you can leave anytime you like, and (b) your work email will probably block it anyway.