4 min read

The First Step

The First Step
"Pen and Paper" - Stable Diffusion 2

I've recently started on a new project with my friends at O'Reilly Media to write a new book titled Learning OpenTelemetry along with my colleague Ted Young. This marks my second project with O'Reilly, and I'm excited to get back to writing professionally.

Some have asked in the past, "What's it like to write a book?" Not a bad question – certainly better than asking authors if they're in it for the money. In the interests of documenting the experience, I decided to use this newsletter as a sort of 'living addendum' to the book, giving you a peek behind the scenes of how I write, the back-and-forth of editing, and so forth.

I've just started the writing process, so I don't have a huge update right now. Instead, I'll give you a brief overview of how we got to where I am now.

The Story So Far

Let's go all the way back to when this starts: 2018, O'Reilly Velocity in New York City. I was a fresh-faced engineer working at Lightstep, doing my best to spread the word of Distributed Tracing to anyone that would listen. I had spent the last few months bemoaning the relative paucity of published books on the topic, and was regaling one of the O'Reilly events staff about as much when she suggested I speak to an acquistions editor to pitch the topic. It just happened that one was attending the event as well, and wouldn't you know, Distributed Tracing was on his radar as well.

Shortly after this conversation, I received the first critical part of the book - a proposal. The book proposal is what it sounds like, a high level summary of the business case to the publisher about the title, the author(s), how many pages the book will contain, etc.

Distributed Tracing in Practice's Book Summary from the original proposal.

The proposal, ultimately, is about making the business case for the publisher to invest in the book itself. In the case of Distributed Tracing, we significantly de-risked the case by not asking for money to write it (as I was effectively being paid to write the book by my job), but it wasn't a certain thing by any means.

Writing a book proposal is challenging, especially if it's your first! You need to include a rather detailed outline of the content (but not too detailed), you need to estimate how many pages you're going to write (and they hold you to it), you need to include a timeline of when you think you can deliver the manuscript (and they absolutely hold you to this). To be clear, I made quite a few guesses here that were only educated as a reader, and some of them turned out to be staggeringly incorrect – my initial timeline for the manuscript was 'complete draft in 4 months', for example! Reader, it may not shock you to learn that we missed that deadline...

So You're Writing A Book

Honestly, I was extremely surprised to learn the proposal had been accepted. It's a testament to my colleagues (bhs, spoons, et. al.) who worked with me to draft the proposal and their innumerable contributions (credited and otherwise) to the final product. After signing some contracts, I was introduced to the next step in the process, the introduction of the developmental editor. She would be the one to work with us on the actual work needed to turn the proposal into a manuscript.

The proposal seemed hard to write, at the time – how could I possibly know what exactly I'd want to write about, or how long each section would be? The reality of this quickly set in as we met with our editor and started to try and nail down a timeline. It was quickly apparent our original outline wasn't organized well, especially with the amount of authors the book had. Our first meeting was in January, 2019. Weeks, and months, went by with little progress. I furiously worked myself into a corner, but by June 2019, only two chapters had been completed. The initial four month timeline was a laughable, distant, memory.

In July, things took a turn for the better. Our editor changed, and we re-structured and re-organized the content into more digestable, easily managed chunks. I took point on getting chapters written, finding new ways to keep people on point. Things were progressing, slower than I originally thought, but they were progressing! Soon enough, January 2020 rolled around, and while we were massively behind schedule, there was a light at the end of the tunnel.

Finally, in March of 2020, we wrapped up a complete manuscript and were introduced to the next important part of the process, our production editor. This is the individual responsible for coordinating the work required to take a manuscript and have it ready for print. This included tasks such as copyediting for style and grammar, figure redrawing (to make all the diagrams, charts, etc. have a consistent style), and indexing. To be honest, this mostly felt like a victory lap after the preceding fourteen months. I was travelling around the world, excitedly telling people about this new book that'd be available next month that'd explain all of their questions about tracing, and I couldn't wait to see them in-person after it was released!

Well, I was half-right, at least.

Takeaways

  • If you're thinking about becoming a published author, I say, go for it! The best reason to write a book is if you keep getting questions you're tired of repeating the answers to. People will probably keep asking those questions, but you can at least tell them to read your book about it!
  • You're gonna mess up, a lot, if its your first book. Be graceful with yourself, and communicate early about missed deadlines. It's OK to ask for help!
  • I find the best way to get past writers block is to just write. You don't necessarily have to write about what your topic is; But just write. I'm writing this to procrastinate about writing the actual book I should be writing, for example! Not writing, though, is a good way to get in your own head and... well, keep not writing. I guarantee that your editors will not judge you for things that don't make sense, they'll help you polish it, that's their job.

In the next installment, I plan to share a bit about how to go from the outline to the first draft of a chapter. Catch these updates in your inbox - sign up today!