Vision: A Resource for Writers
November 2002, I was browsing the web looking for computer books. I realised
that one of the major UK publishers -- in business for over fifty years, and
famous for a line of self-instruction texts -- didn't have one on the Linux
for those not familiar with it, is the brainchild of the brilliant Finnish
programmer, Linus Torvalds. It is an alternative operating system for not only
on PCs, but also servers, Macintosh, and other top-end machines such as the
Alpha. It has its own desktop environment, and is very easy to use once you have
it set up and spectacularly reliable. I've been using it for about six years now
and it's never failed on me.
spent a few hours cruising around the web, first to convince myself that the
book didn't exist, and then to learn more about the publisher. I finally tracked
down the editor of the series and wrote a long e-mail detailing my experience
with Linux and what I'd already written, and describing the sort of book I
thought would fill the gap in their list.
I hit SEND.
I thought, that was a waste of an afternoon. I've been sending proposals,
even completed manuscripts, to publishers for sixteen years now and collected
enough rejection letters to wallpaper the bathroom.
and a half minutes later I had a reply to the e-mail. The editor wanted to see a
jubilant gibbering later I sat down to put the submission package together. I'd
been asked to provide a sample chapter, synopsis and my curriculum vitea.
The CV -- a brief biographical resume of career and training -- was easy.
As a software contractor I keep it permanently on file.
together the synopsis wasn't that difficult. I wandered around for a few days
with a notepad, adding topics that I thought the reader had to know, crossing
off ones that were too advanced, and shuffling the order around.
I suffered agonies of indecision until everything clicked into place and
I had twelve chapter headings, broken down into apparently endless sub-sections.
came the sample chapter. I know what textbooks ought to sound like:
"...this result, which is a lemma, of MacWombat's theorem is left as an
exercise for the reader."
that didn't seem to sit with the publisher's upbeat "You can do anything if
you try" approach to self-instruction. I had to break down the barrier of
respectable academia, drop the stuffy, passive voice and language and simply
chat to the reader. This was the beginning of wisdom for me: the realisation
that the way I would teach Linux to someone sitting next to me was the way to
write the book.
is, of course, always the proverbial insect in the unguent, the pinch of sand in
the sugar bowl. The first thing a new user has to do with Linux - and therefore
logically the subject of the first chapter - is install it. And installation is
one of the trickiest things about Linux.
managed it. The text went through a string of rewrites before I was happy, but
in the end I got there. Not by trying to make it sound easy, but by being honest
about the problems, and describing what can go wrong and how to recover from
parcelled it up and sent it off, and then went away for Christmas.
left it alone - editors don't like to be chased - for a week or two. Then very
timidly I enquired if it had arrived.
had, the editor liked it, and she was going to put it to the committee.
e-mail arrived. "That's it," I muttered, "the rejection."
Bear in mind they every book-length submission for sixteen years had
ended in a rejection.
was the acceptance.
I e-mailed everyone who had been involved, and ran around in a state of
limited-sanity euphoria for the rest of the day.
contract turned up in the post a few mornings later. I hadn't used an agent and
my normally tame lawyer confessed to not knowing a lot about publishing.
Society of Authors in London has a scheme for the newly-published. It lets a
first-timer join as soon as he has an offer, and use their contract vetting
service on the first contract. I sent off my cheque for £80 and a photocopy of
the contract. They then lost the contract, found it again, apologised for the
delay and sent me a three-page fax of things to query. I edited these into an
e-mail and sent it off. To my enormous surprise the publisher agreed to almost
every point, and at once sent out an amended contract.
signed it and sent it back, and by return another envelope arrived - with a
cheque for the first half of the advance.
it all became very real. I'm a proper writer. I get paid.
was just over two months ago, and I have four more months before the deadline.
The book is taking shape - I'm over half way with the first draft - and it's
well on schedule.
non-fiction market is out there. If there's any subject that you care enough
about to have studied it in depth, and if you can master the mechanics of
getting what you know down on paper, you stand a good chance of making a sale.
you want to try, I would like to offer three tips to help you.
Be PRECISE. Make everything as accurate as is humanly possible.
Check your references, and try out your instructions exactly as you have written
them. Don't trust your memory when you can look things up.
Be PROMPT. Do what you say you will by the time you agreed to do
it. Reply quickly to e-mails, and get the proposal in a few days before the
Be PROFESSIONAL. Get names right, send things to the correct
address, format your manuscript properly - there are plenty of articles to tell
you how. Avoid gimmicks, say what you mean in the covering letter and above all
stick to the point.
I'd like to offer a few words about writing to a deadline. It's easy to think
you can work all day and night, seven days a week, on a project that interests
you. Your body will not agree. It will come up with all sorts of reasons why you
should be in another profession, in another country or in hospital. Pace
yourself. Take at least one clear day a week off. Get out occasionally, ride a
horse or shampoo the cat. Don't agonise about a wasted day when the bank makes a
total flamingo of a simple transaction, and you spend six hours listening to
their hold music. These things even out as long as you keep up a steady,
sensible rate of work.
above all enjoy doing it.