My Secrets for Writing a Book in Just One Year
How I learned that writing a book takes more than just typing chapters.
A few months ago my friend and colleague, the fabulous Rochelle Gold, said, “Wow, Mark, you wrote that book in a year.” And I thought to myself, “Hey, I guess, I did.”
A book, a whole book was drafted in the academic year 2018–2019 and was published the following year. You can see for yourself right here! So, yes, basically I wrote this book in a year.
Okay, that’s a lie. So what’s the truth?
To write this book, I needed to overcome paralyzing writer’s block, pursue mountains of research, take dozens of baby steps, and face plenty of haters (both external and internal) and rejection (including from the press that ultimately published it). Oh, and I had to get out of my own damn way.
But it happened. Here’s how. Maybe my story can help you.
Many people want to write a book. Few start. Far fewer finish.
15 years ago, I had an idea. What if we could read computer code as a cultural object? What if we could see the meaning of computer source code. Not reading it like poetry, but maybe the way archaeologists read an ancient pot. People were already explaining the meaning of hotels and theme parks and even the Sony Walkman. Why couldn’t we do the same with code?
So, I wrote this blog post and held my breath to see what would happen.
And nothing did. But I did at least decide to try the idea in another venue. A conference. That done, I turned it into an article. (We’re up to 2006, in case you’re keeping track.) When I presented that article at a major academic conference (MLA), I figured my work was done. We all now had permission to interpret code. Let’s go! Only, nobody did.
So I gave a few more conference presentations and waited again. Still nothing.
Then, about the time I had given up, an undergraduate from my writing class came along. He was struggling to find something stimulating to pursue. Yes, he had found his way to a neuroscience major, a rigorous interdisciplinary field if there ever was one, but he wanted more. I encouraged him to read this book, it’s a “how to make the most of college book,” then go talk to one of his professors about their research interests. And he picked me.
Here I was. Cynical. Frustrated. Dejected that people all over the world were not reading code. Maybe it was a bad idea. I felt like Sean Connery in that movie where he plays a poor version of JD Salinger, holed up in his apartment.
And now, this student was trying to drag me back, wanted to study how to read code with me. But how could I help? I could only offer an independent study, and I felt sorry for him. Not only did we not have many relevant texts, we did not have any peers for him. So, we convened the first Critical Code Studies Working Group. Putting out a call through social media, we had 100 scholars of all levels and many academic disciplines show up. We had arrived!
So, with that rolling along, I put together the book proposal for the first book on Critical Code Studies and sent it off to MIT Press. I could not wait to move the field forward and with the momentum of the Working Group, I could not see how we could go wrong. The time had come! Until, they rejected it. Not just Reviewer #2, but Reviewers #1 and #3. Totally and utterly rejected. That was 2010.
(Now, before I go on, I should note that the reviewers’ feedback was actually quite helpful. IN RETROSPECT. One reviewer pointed me toward the case study format the book now has. And all the reviewers helped me see how I could speak more clearly to multiple audiences, especially to those in computer science! In fact, I’m glad that the book I was going to write then was not published. I just had too much to learn. But I was still beside myself that having coined “Critical Code Studies,” I couldn’t write the book on it?!
And that wasn’t all. Someone had thrown the project of Critical Code Studies to the programming community on a popular website, and they had pounced on it like it was so much misguided red meat. (Here’s a little article about that interaction with left my ego with not a few little bumps and bruises.)
So, I did what anyone else would do. I buried myself in inactivity. I moved the prospectus to the “I’ll get to it later” pile, and I moved on.
Well, maybe not exactly….Cue Rocky montage!
I started working on what at the time seemed “other things.” I co-wrote two collaborative books, 10 PRINT and Reading Project (both had code reading in them) and wrote conference papers and articles about Critical Code Studies. This is the important part. As with the initial idea, these later pieces were drafted as nascent seeds, presented or published, which led to lots of feedback. (Sound familiar, writing teachers out there?) Over time, I amassed quite a stack of material.
That said, I still couldn’t seem to get back to that book. I wrote a pile of different opening chapters. Many prospectuses (prospecti? — I was prospecting but not hitting anything that looked like gold). And each time I went back home to visit my family in Pittsburgh to see my folks and a very encouraging uncle, I had the same report on the book: nothing.
Part II, the comeback!
So, what did it take to turn things around? Well, in part, the Wizard was right. I was working on the book all along. But it didn’t feel that way. I would say 5 major factors helped me turn things around.
- A new platform
- Smaller steps
- Lots of conversations
- Facing the fear
Time. I finally came to terms with the fact that I could not teach a full load, help raise my family, be a good husband, and write the book. My university had this new policy where teaching track faculty could apply for a book writing sabbatical. A SABBATICAL! Yes. I had been teaching for 20 years and had never imagined I’d get such a thing. So I applied and only on the second try, got it.
Also, for the year or so that I was actually doing the typing part of the writing — because again I do count the thinking and talking and reading as writing — I protected my book writing time jealously, saying no to many other cool writing opportunities. There’s just only so much time in the day.
A new platform. This may seem like the ultimate First World writer’s problem, but I was tired of seeing my words stretched out in Times New Roman on Word or Google Docs. That was the platform I had failed on (my words). I needed to see these ideas fresh. In walked iBooks Author (which is free on Macs), and I was hooked. Seeing the text in book-like form helped me to think right away about the reader’s experience of the text — not as lame some word processor doc — that’s for term papers — but as a (remediated) book. Now I could write my book in book form, if that makes any sense.
Smaller steps. All along the way, I kept seeking opportunities to present ideas in conferences and publish smaller pieces in journals and other venues. This led to guidance by some incredible editors, including Jessica Pressman, Lisa Swanstrom, N. Katherine Hayles, Jentery Sayers, Joseph Tabbi, Dee Morrison, Steve Tomasula, Matt Gold, and Lauren Klein, to name a few. Each of them helped shepherd these smaller chapters, helping me to clarify the ideas.
Lots of conversations. Aspiring authors undervalue the importance of conversations in the writing process because it does not involve the production of written words. But I cannot undervalue the importance, the idea-changing value, of the many, many conversations I have had with friends and family, colleagues (including my wife’s computer science colleagues) and acquaintances, and especially my frequent collaborator Rob Wittig about the book. Sometimes the conversations were about the process, other times about the ideas. Sometimes the conversations were in person chats, other times online discussions as in the case of the various Critical Code Studies Working Groups, during which I thought through the ideas with my peers. These conversations always moved things along, even when my friends were basically telling me they had no idea what I was talking about. My friends and peers forced me to make the ideas clear. Their questions helped refine the ideas. Their pushback helped me see what was truly worth arguing.
Facing the Fear
But there was one more obstacle. Myself. I had to get out of my own damn way. For 10 years, I had been working over material, but I had been afraid to return to the book-writing mountain. What if the idea was just no good, I’d ask, and then respond on behalf of all my doubters. I took their place.
I had to sit down and face not even so much the fear itself as the fact that the fear and doubt were standing in my way. I mean, I knew I had something to say. I knew that the ideas were at least weird, if not interesting. But I had to face the fact that my feelings — not my ideas — were keeping me from writing.
The solution to writer’s block is not always applying “the seat of your pants to the seat of the chair.” Sometimes you have to recognize the hurt and fear that have taken your seat at the writing desk, uninvited.
Once I could admit that the only thing standing in the way of my writing was me — that my feelings were having real power over me — I could then try to cope with them. They weren’t able to paralyze me in quite the same way once I admitted they were there.
And one more thing. All throughout the process, I had to rely so heavily on friends. Jessica Pressman and Jeremy Douglass in particular. Max Feinstein, who found the draft of Critical Code Studies in his cynical prof’s waste bin. Craig Dietrich and Erik Loyer, who built a platform for CCS into Scalar. Tara McPherson, who helped me toward that sabbatical. Doug Sery and Noah Wardrip-Fruin of MIT Press and the book series, who never stopped believing in the book. All the participants in the Critical Code Studies Working Group. And many others, especially and including my family. (Could I have even tackled assembly without my awesome EE wife?)
Oh, and I strongly recommend a power song. Some motivational songs to help you through the blech parts because there are plenty of those. My students taught me this trick a long time ago. Here was mine:
So, the tl;dr
- Write and share a little at a time
- Seek feedback
- Be open to revision
- Take the support of your family
And then the biggest ones:
Be honest with yourself about your emotional relationship to the process and the material.
Even if the final product will have one author’s name, you are never writing alone.
Even if just through citations, your writing is not the product of a solitary mine. Welcome conversations. Welcome feedback. Rely on anyone with the kindness to encourage you.
Because when it comes write down to it, writing is a process and, more so, a journey with others. And that process is never simple. And, if it’s worthwhile, it is never easy. And most of all, at least when you’re writing a book that contains ideas truly important to you, it probably won’t take just one year. And, when you finish, you’ll be grateful that it didn’t.
Oh, and you can see more about Critical Code Studies and that book here.