What I learned writing my first non-fiction book

Book cover showing a beach with seagulls

I am so excited to announce that I just released my first book, “How to Respond to Code of Conduct Reports.” You can download it for free from my business website. The book is based on a short guide by Mary Gardiner, and edited by Annalee Flower Horne. Responding to code of conduct reports is incredibly difficult and easy to get disastrously wrong. This book will help community leaders get their response right, the first time. If you know anyone who manages a community or organizes a conference, send this link their way—they will thank you!

At 43,000 words, this book is by far the longest piece I’ve ever written (technically novel-length!). I’m used to writing articles for online reading, where the goal is to communicate your idea in as few words as possible, and every word over 700 is a growing liability. Until now, the longest thing I’ve written was a 15 page conference paper. I honestly did not know whether I could write an entire book; I was afraid that I would get bored or distracted or be unable to push through any difficult parts. Now that I’ve actually written the book, I want to share what I learned.

Editors make good writers great

I was worried that I wasn’t a good enough writer to write a high-quality book, and it turns out that I was right about that. My first draft was terrible! I mean, truly bad and dull. But the book’s quality improved dramatically every time an editor made a pass over it. It’s at least twice as good as it would have been without my professional editors, Annalee Flower Horne, Y-Vonne Hutchinson, and Paloma Figueroa. My volunteer reviewers helped quite a bit as well, but the major breakthroughs in organization and content came from paid professional editors. Investing a few thousand dollars in professional editing turned this book from a disjointed collection of tips to a structured, readable, comprehensive reference.

Slow but steady gets the book done

While I was writing this book, I was also working part-time as a consultant teaching Ally Skills Workshops. I wanted to know how many hours I spent on this book, so I tracked my writing hours on my calendar. I spent 136 hours writing or editing this book. My paid editors spent 32 hours editing, and I estimate my volunteer reviewers spent a total of 50 hours. I based the book on a short outline written by Mary Gardiner, which I estimate took 10 hours to write. The final word count was 43,000 words, for a totally unscientific result of 43,000 words/228 hours = 189 words per hour of writing/editing work.

In terms of elapsed time, I started writing on February 21st and finished my last edits on November 27th, for 280 days or almost exactly 9 months. I wrote on 59 days during that time. On days that I wrote, I wrote for an average of 2.3 hours, with 3 hours being the most common amount of time per day. For the first draft, I wrote several days a week for 2.5 months, and then wrote about 5 days a month thereafter. The months of June, July, and August were extremely busy for me in terms of workshops, travel, and illness, including two weeks of time off. As a result, I did not write at all during the month of June and only 2.5 hours in August. Initially, I thought this was a sign that I would not finish the book, but once my workload was back to normal, I was easily able to put in a few days a month until it was ready.

In the end, I was able to write a novel-length book in 9 months by writing 2-3 days a week for an average of 2.5 hours a day for 2.5 months, followed by 6.5 months of writing and editing a few days a month. This fits in pretty well with what I’ve read about how many fiction writers work.

Writing breaks help, not hurt

I was surprised how helpful writing breaks were. My previous career was as an operating systems programmer, where every hour I spent away from the code made me less able to work on it. Often I’d have to spend the first hour of work just reloading all of the information about the code into my brain. To speed this up, I kept a file named “STATE” in which I would write down my current understanding of the problem before I stopped work each day, and then read it when I started work in the morning. I subconsciously expected something similar when I came back to the book after a month away from it and dreaded coming back from my first long writing break.

Instead, taking a few weeks or months away from the book made me a better editor, precisely because I no longer had all the “state” of the book loaded into my head and I was approaching it more like the reader would. For example, I figured out that the introduction needed to tell people how to use the book, not summarize what was in the book.

Writing breaks can include writing other projects! Near the end of the book, I decided to take a week’s vacation, and ended up spending 5-8 hours a day working on a blog post on an entirely different topic. It still felt like a vacation from writing the book (other than my eyes being a little tired).

In retrospect, the importance of writing breaks shouldn’t have been as much of a surprise. Fiction authors talk all the time about “putting away a manuscript for several months” before coming back to edit it. For the last few years, my main writing activity has been writing blog posts, most of which I work on once every 2-3 weeks for several months before I publish them. (Noticing that I usually finish these blog posts, even though they take months to write, is one of the reasons I thought I could write an entire book.)

I love to write

My biggest fear was that, without an external deadline or contract, I would get bored with the book and not finish it. A lot of my writing experience has been under time pressure: a conference paper submission deadline, writing a news story for an online publication, pumping out copy for a fundraiser. I used to stay up late at night, writing furiously and feeling alternately elated and miserable. The best thing I can say about writing this way is that it cured me of writer’s block. After leading five fundraisers for the Ada Initiative, I can always write something—maybe not a good something, but a something that can at least be edited into the semblance of goodness.

I was curious to see how I would write when my motivation was entirely self-imposed. While there were a few days during the first draft when I was watching the clock as I pounded out uninspired dreck at the coffee shop, I always at least began the day excited about writing. I often wrote in the evenings or on weekends because I couldn’t stop thinking about what I wanted to write next. I initially used my tricks to force myself to write—going to a coffee shop, writing on planes or trains, reserving time on my calendar—but after a while I realized that I could write even without creating an artificial sense of commitment.

Being able to take breaks while writing instead of working furiously straight through to a deadline made writing much more enjoyable for me. My goal is to continue writing in such a way that I’m rarely or never pounding out content for a deadline a few hours away.

Ebooks are a mess

I decided to “publish” the book by hosting ebooks on my business website (although I may upload to online book retailers later). I looked forward to generating ebooks from my original manuscript (in Google Docs) because I knew it would be a hilarious, bug-ridden disaster and I would have to solve all sorts of strange problems. I was not disappointed. Google Docs has an option to download an EPUB which… is formatted with un-reflowable text! Calibre will make a MOBI file… which cannot render the border of a table! I have an entire document outlining different ways to generate different ebook formats and what the bugs are in each method.

Once I succeeded in generating error-free ebooks, I discovered that using Amazon’s Send to Kindle email address adds new bugs. For example, side-loading the MOBI format via USB onto the Kindle Paperwhite produces a document with the correct start page (the first page after the Table of Contents). But sending the same MOBI via email runs it through Amazon’s publishing machinery, which for no discernible reason resets the start page to a few pages after the Table of Contents. I discovered that this is related to Amazon Kindle Unlimited pages-read scamming: to increase their payouts, authors “stuff” ebooks full of extraneous material, put the thing people actually want to read near the end, and set the start page several thousand pages into the ebook. Since Kindle Unlimited authors get paid relative to the pages read of their books, this fraudulently increases their payment. As a result, Amazon now resets the start page to what they think it should be if it passes through their publishing machinery (which happens to be the wrong page in my case). Send to Kindle via email to the Kindle app on iOS also mangles the formatting badly, despite it displaying correctly on the Kindle Previewer in phone mode. If you run into these bugs, I recommend sideloading the book via USB.

Here are the methods I ended up using to generate the different formats:

  • PDF: Download as PDF from Google Docs
  • EPUB: Download as .docx from Google Docs, use calibre to generate the EPUB with the “add an extra space after each paragraph” option turned on
  • MOBI: Use kindlegen on the EPUB generated by calibre
  • AZK: Generated by calibre from either EPUB or .docx (not sure which)

The best way to find typos is to publish

It’s true: the best way to find typos in your manuscript is to share it publicly. I even found one link that had the exact same error in four different places! (Sorry, Kara.) Fortunately, all I have to do to correct typos is regenerate the ebooks when I feel like it and upload them to my website again. If you find a typo, please email me at contact@frameshiftconsulting.com.

Thanks for reading, and I hope you download and enjoy my first book, “How to Respond to Code of Conduct Reports!”