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Let’s Talk about Your Book

An Interview with Susannah Pfalzer, Managing Editor of The Pragmatic Bookshelf

by Michael Swaine

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  What’s the secret to writing a good book for the Pragmatic Bookshelf? How do you get started? How do you keep writing when it gets tough? Susannah tells all.  

Susannah Pfalzer is the managing editor of the Pragmatic Bookshelf. In this writing-focused month, it seemed like the thing to do to chat with Susannah about writing a book for the Bookshelf, and about writing in general.

ms: Susannah, why would anyone want to put themselves through the hard work of writing a book?

sp: Every author has a different story to tell about what motivates them to write. Some authors fall in love with a particular tool and want to bring it to wider attention. Others find a need that hasn’t been met, that their book can fill. Still others have a brand-new idea they must share. Each author’s story is as individual as their books.

ms: It’s still hard work, though. Any advice on how to keep going when it turns into hard slogging?

sp: The one thing that will keep you going during the highs and lows of writing a book is your passion for your topic. If you write about something you really believe in, something you’re excited about and want to share with the world, then your enthusiasm will keep you moving ahead—and your readers will feel it, too.

ms: Pragmatic Bookshelf books have a distinctive style. What constitutes good writing for us?

sp: Our books tell a story. We call it the “hero’s journey,” in which the hero—the book’s reader—starts out knowing little. Slowly, as the book progresses, the reader gains competence and confidence, becomes comfortable and experienced. The reader reaches the end of the book well equipped to go off on their own. To get the reader to that level of competence, we focus on keeping books hands-on and tutorial. We see the reader as an integral part of the text—they’re working along with the author to code and learn and create.

Beyond that, we stay fluff-free. We publish short, targeted, meaningful books that get right to the essence of the technology or concept. Our books are conversational, friendly: like a friend or mentor talking to you over lunch.

Above all, we should feel the author’s enthusiasm. Readers are investing their time in reading several hundred pages—the book should keep them involved, engaged, and excited about the book’s topic.

ms: OK, say I’ve seen a need that isn’t being met, and I want to write a book that meets that need. How do I get started?

sp: For starters, don’t overthink it. Don’t sit down expecting to write perfect prose on the first try—or even the tenth. You can start in a couple different ways. You can outline what your first few chapters might cover, and then start writing based on your outline. Or you can just start writing, feeling your way into the material, not being afraid to throw away the first few tries and start over. Don’t get attached to the particular words, sentences, paragraphs you’re writing. Don’t spend so much time crafting one paragraph to perfection that you discover hours have passed and that one paragraph is all you have to show for that day’s work. What’s important is simply getting it down.

That’s why National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) and our own PragProWriMo program stay focused on word count and page count—if you spend years crafting your paragraphs into shapely things of beauty, you might have one fine chapter to show for your trouble, but you won’t have a book.

Write first. Edit later.

ms: And how long does it take? Do I have to take time off from my regular job, or can I write this book in my spare time?

sp: You don’t need to quit your job and devote yourself to an ascetic life as a writer. In fact, the opposite is true. A few weeks ago, I was fortunate enough to meet physician and bestselling author Abraham Verghese. He was asked about his advice for aspiring writers. His answer: keep your day job. You’ll be able to write more freely without worrying about where the next paycheck will come from.

None of our authors write full time. They have jobs and family responsibilities, and they fit the writing in where they can. The key success factor here is carving out that time to write.

ms: How do I do that?

sp: Think of it like an exercise program—creating a habit of writing, just as you’d create a habit of working out at a certain time.

Start by setting aside a specific time to write, either every day, or a few times a week. Once you’ve got that schedule in place, then be consistent about sitting down and writing at that time, even if you don’t want to, even if you have other things you’d rather be doing.

The thing is, the longer it takes to write a book, the harder it is to write. You lose momentum, work and life issues come up that take you away from the book for longer and longer stretches, and the finish line gets further out of reach. Writing consistently and regularly keeps you on track and gets you finished sooner.

ms: When developing software, programmers have a lot of options for getting feedback. They can run tests that tell if their code is correct, they might pair with another developer or check their code into a repository where others view it. But writing a book is an isolated and ambiguous exercise. So with this book that I’m writing, how do I know that I haven’t gone completely off the track? What kind of support can I find at the Bookshelf?

sp: There’s certainly that raw work of sitting and writing and coding. But then, as chapters are submitted, the book takes shape as part of a larger process of feedback: from the book’s development editor, me, the publishers, and numerous technical reviewers. Many of our books become beta books—they’re sold as ebooks while the writing is still in process, and readers are able to interact with the author in a book forum and to submit errata.

With so much community involvement, the book becomes tuned to readers’ needs. It’s more correct, because it’s been technically reviewed and read closely by beta book buyers. And it’s been crafted, in a very deep and involved way, in tandem with a development editor, so that the writing and structure reflect the book it’s meant to be. Over many iterations, the book becomes shaped into a more perfect version of itself.

ms: You mentioned PragProWriMo. Could you explain what that’s all about?

sp: We started PragProWriMo last year as a counterpart to National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo). The idea is to spend the month of November writing a book, just as thousands of other writers are doing that month. We’re asking writers to set a goal of writing 60 pages, to write every day, and to post progress to our forum.

This year, we’re involving our current authors, too. This month will be an excellent chance for our current authors to get ahead with their books, and for new authors to start writing. We’re building in support with daily Twitter updates via @pragprowrimo and our PragProWriMo forum. On the forum, we’ll have writing tips and advice, support, and a place to discuss progress and post your weekly word count. With all the support you’ll have during this month, there’s no better time to start writing.

ms: How did last year’s PragProWriMo work out?

sp: We’ve signed two authors who started their books during PragProWriMo last year. At the end of November, you’re welcome to submit a proposal for the book you’re writing to us, as well. Or you can keep it to yourself, self-publish it, submit it elsewhere—what’s important during PragProWriMo is simply the act of writing.

ms: OK, let’s talk about the payoff. Does anyone actually make money writing books today? What’s the experience of our authors?

sp: For any book—technical book, novel, how-to book—sure, there’s always the chance of hitting it big. Dave Thomas has posted some statistics on what you might expect to earn writing books for us.

But that’s not why you should write a book. If you go into it only to make money, you’re writing it for the wrong reasons. Write your book because you have something that you must say, something that needs to be heard, and something you need the space of several hundred pages to say.

That said, you want to be rewarded too. And that’s a job in itself. In fact, our authors’ real work often begins when the book is done, because that’s when they get out there and work on promoting their book. Our authors write articles, speak at conferences, blog, and do everything they can to build a name for themselves in the community. A few other success factors: writing on a current, trending topic. Being the first book in a particular subject area. But above all, becoming known and respected in your community.

ms: I guess I’ve been harping on how much work it is to write a book, and I’d hate for that to be the main takeaway for anyone reading this. Because writing a book, a book on a subject you really care about, is also a lot of fun. Isn’t it?

sp: It’s fun. It’s thrilling. It’s exhausting. It’s time-consuming and often life-altering. It’s fun in the way running a long race can be fun, or doing something new, different, and a little scary that you’ve never tried before. It’s an experience you’ll never forget.

ms: It is. Well, thank you, Susannah. I’ll catch you in the PragProWriMo forum.

sp: Great. I hope a lot of people reading this check in there, too.

Susannah Davidson Pfalzer is the managing editor at Pragmatic Bookshelf.

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