The Writing Trail§
by Russell Dyer
published: april 18, 2015; revised: september 11, 2017; readers in past month: 131
I’m getting ready for my first book party, which is in a few days. One of the preparations is to organize a display of my books and other writings that led to my new book — as well as my writing career. I had to dig around to find some things to show everyone and I had to order some books. But I have now a good accumulation from my writing trail for the display.
You can see how the book display will look in this photograph. There’s quite a story behind all of this. It’s the story of my writing career so far: how it started and the milestones along the way. I’ve put red numbers in this photo to be able to point to each in this lengthy post.
Testing an Idea
The first significant step started with my reading of the book by Washington Irving, A Tour on the Prairies. In the early 1800s, some friends of Irving were planning a trip through the then U.S. territories, from around West Virginia, running south along the Allegheny mountains, heading west to Oklahoma. He wrote short accounts of his travels along the way and mailed them back to a Boston newspaper for publication. He later put them together and published them as a book (number one in the photo). I had to read this book for a literature course I took at U.N.O. when I was working on a Master’s degree in English.
For me, writing a book seemed an unsurmountable task. I couldn’t imagine writing so much on one basic theme. When I read Irving’s book, though, I saw that he had pieced together a book just by writing about his adventure while on vacation with his friends. He wrote one chapter at a time and let the progression of the journey lead him through completion of the book. It was just a matter of telling the story well, but in writing at each stage. I told myself I could do this and challenged myself to start writing.
The idea of writing a book and getting published was daunting. Instead, I tried my hand at writing an article of my experiences in my daily life. At the time I was only a short time in the computer world. So I wrote an article about learning the computer operating system called, Linux. At that time, installing and using Linux was unbelievably difficult. It had been a frustrating experience for me, but I learned plenty about computers in the process. I had reached a point in which I could laugh about it, so I wrote an article making fun of myself and others who have gone through it. I sent it to the Linux Journal and they published it on January 10, 2001. I called it, On Becoming a Linux Geek — you can see a copy of it in the photo and can still read it on their site. I was paid only $75, but it was well received. I received emails for a few years afterwards from people who thought it informative and hilarious. Getting paid is nice and useful, but people reading and enjoying what I wrote is the best part of being a writer.
Writing a Book for Myself
Having written a few articles for Linux Journal, as well as some essays for school, I decided to try my hand at larger tasks. To attend a training course for my job, I had to go to Denver, Colorado for nine days by myself. I took advantage of the fact that the company was paying all of my expenses during this trip by doing plenty of sightseeing: I went to a few museums, some great restaurants, saw a couple of live performances, and drove through Boulder and into the mountains. It was plenty to take in alone, so I bought a leather bound journal and recounted my experiences along the way, much as Washington Irving did. You can see that journal on top of the pile in the photo (number two).
I wrote on the front side of each leaf, saving the left pages for pasting ticket stubs, post cards and other memorabilia of the trip. I wrote all of the way to the end of the journal, writing the last page in the airplane as I was returning home. It’s not well written and may not be a particularly interesting read. However, the exercise served its purpose: I proved to myself that I could write a lengthy story, even if it was a story dictated to me by occurrences in a confined time. I wrote a book.
I would write two more journals of other adventures and many more articles, though, before I would try to write a book for publication. But the psychological barriers were coming down and I was seeing that it was possible.
Becoming a Professional Writer
In the midst of these travel journals, I lost my job. This was in October 2002 and only a few weeks after I had separated from the ex-wife. I tried looking for a job, but the economy in New Orleans was weak at the time. There were very few jobs working with computers and I was qualified for none of them. On my resumé, I had mentioned that I had written articles for the Linux Journal. To be able to add something else to that, I decided to try to write an article for another magazine. I looked around on the web and found that Unix Review would take articles. So I wrote one for them. The editor, Rikki Endsley liked what I wrote and said she could take an article a month from me if I wanted to write more.
Since I was out of work and needed the money, my friend Richard Stringer encouraged me to write articles, regularly. At first I wrote for Unix Review, but in time for other magazines. I wrote articles for ten magazines in all and was publishing about one article a week. I still didn’t have a job. I was becoming a professional writer, instead. I wasn’t writing fiction or anything all that interesting to read — unless you were a techie — but I was a writer and I enjoyed that.
I was doing fine writing articles, but I wasn’t making much money. I was struggling financially and I was having to hustle constantly to stay in the game. I realized at this time that there wasn’t much money in books: I would be lucky if I would make as much money per hour of my time by writing books instead of articles. But I felt that I needed to write books to get established, so that I might be able to one day get a stable job as a writer.
Approaching my First Book
If I was to write a book, I needed to specialize in something. I tried a few topics before I found a niche for myself: I started writing primarily about MySQL software. It was still fairly new and not many people were writing about it. Best of all, it was growing rapidly in popularity and there weren’t many books about it. So I concentrated my efforts on writing about MySQL. In time I had a column in a magazine about MySQL. To get more involved, I went to the first user conference for MySQL in Orlando. I met the founders of MySQL, Monty Widenius and David Axmark, as well as the new CEO, Marten Mickos. Marten saw my name tag and recognized me from my articles and spoke to me. I was getting noticed and was enjoying it.
In thinking about writing a book on MySQL, I considered which publisher I would target. I decided I liked the books by O’Reilly, so I focused on them. For each major software, they had a set of books: a Definitive Guide, a Nutshell book, a Learning book, a Cookbook, and a Pocket Guide. The Definitive Guide and the Cookbook had already been written. In fact, I interviewed the writer of the Cookbook, Paul Dubois for a book review. I thought about trying to get the contract for the Nutshell or the Learning book, but felt they were more than I could possibly do. So instead, I focused on the Pocket Guide. Although it would be only about sixty pages long, it was still daunting to me. Before writing to O’Reilly, I decided to try to write a rough draft of it. To visualize it as I was writing, I even printed it once on my home printer and bound it (number three).
Before I had gone far with this exercise, though, someone else wrote and published the Pocket Guide for MySQL. That was disappointing. But it wasn’t a complete waste of time. It got me closer psychologically to writing a book on MySQL. I was beginning to believe it was possible and that I would do it.
A friend of mine, Jerry Neumeyer used to say, “I like anything that likes me.” He said this in reference to women. He said that if he was in a bar and a woman entered, he might look at her and think she looked nice. If she looked at him and smiled, she looked better. If she came over and talked to him, he would think she was beautiful. If she would leave with him and later have sex with him, she was the most beautiful woman in the world.
With Jerry’s philosophy in mind, I decided to apply it to O’Reilly and its editors. I determined who edited the MySQL books, and then I wrote and published reviews of any books they edited — even if they weren’t about MySQL. If I didn’t like a book, I didn’t write a review of it. But if I did, I praised it and the editing in my review. After a year of that, since the editors had come to know of me, my friend Richard encouraged me to write a proposal for a book on MySQL. Based on some comments from Kathryn Barrett, the publicist at O’Reilly who sent me books to review, I proposed a book on administering MySQL — something different from their usual line-up. They rejected it, but Kathryn said that the editors wanted to get me to write a book for them based on the quality of my reviews.
A couple of weeks later, one of the editors, Andy Oram called me and asked if I’d like to write the Nutshell book. It was intimidating, but I knew that I would regret turning it down. I also knew that accepting would be what I needed to get myself to write and publish a book. So I accepted enthusiastically and hoped for the best.
It was quite a struggle writing the Nutshell book. It pushed me beyond my writing habits and skills, but I managed to do it. I wrote MySQL in a Nutshell (number four), finishing in the middle of 2004. It was published in January 2005.
Permanence as a Writer
I did it. I wrote a book and it was published. I was worried when I started and along the way that I wouldn’t be able to do it and that I’d have to return the royalty advance I was paid. However, within three months after it was published, all of the money I was advanced was paid back by book sales. By the second quarter, I was being paid additional royalties. In time, the book was translated to Polish, German, Japanese and Chinese (number five). They sold over thirty-thousand copies.
In the midst of writing articles on MySQL and having just finished my first book on MySQL, I was contacted by Joe Pendleton, who was head of sales at MySQL. He asked me if I’d like to work for them as a sales engineer. I said I’d like that. So he had someone call me and interview me for the job. I didn’t get the job, but Zak Greant, the community advocate at MySQL, encouraged me to watch their site for other jobs. A couple of months later, there was an opening in documentation. I applied for that, but didn’t get it either. However, I made a good impression. So when the job as the editor of their knowledge base was created, they called me, rather than advertise the position. By December 1 of 2004, I had my first job as a writer — and as an editor. You can see my business card from those days in the photo (number six).
Writing a Novel
Since the beginning, my desire has been first to be a writer and second to be a novelist. While establishing myself as a writer, albeit a technical writer, I continued working on a Master’s degree in English and I wrote some short stories in the hopes that one day I would write novels. One of the short stories I wrote was called The Digital Hypochondriac. It was a fun story based on my friend, Richard Stringer and me. The main character, a computer programmer has a friend who often thinks that his computer has a virus: the friend is a digital hypochondriac. My friends liked it, so I wrote two more stories based on the main character, including his attempts to meet women.
I showed these stories to my editor for the Nutshell book, Andy Oram. He suggested I write more such stories, but string them together with a plot and a sub-plot to turn them into a novel. I did this and it led me to writing my first novel, In Search of Kafka — which Andy edited. You can see in the photo (number seven) the different printings I made of it along the way until I finalized it and published it through Amazon’s publishing subsidiary.
A Commercial Sense
I haven’t sold many copies of my novel. That’s disappointing, but not because of financial concerns — certainly I could have made much more money had I spent the same time writing technical articles. It’s disappointing because I would like people to read and enjoy my novel. That mindset, though, that commercial attitude is what has driven me to become successful as a technical writer: to write what sells and brings me money now. But it has deterred me from doing what’s necessary to become a successful fiction writer.
Still, I have pushed myself to start writing a second novel. I’m about a third done writing it. If I could get myself to focus on it, I could probably finish it in a few weeks of intensive writing. Instead of finishing, I wrote a second edition of my Nutshell book (number eight). The second edition is much better than the first. My writing style improved and there were great reviews of it and fine praise from many readers. When that book was finished, instead of going back to my novel to finish it, I wrote another book on MySQL, this one on MySQL Replication (number nine).
The Learning Book
When I finished writing the first edition of the Nutshell book, while it was going through technical review before being published, I pitched my editor to let me write the Learning book on MySQL — this was eleven ten years ago. However, my editor had asked someone at MySQL to review my book. This would-be reviewer read a few pages and spotted what he thought was an error. He also misunderstood the point of the book. So he wrote a negative email to my editor pointing out the error and saying the book wasn’t what he expected and refused to spend any more time reviewing the book. I proved to the editor that this reviewer was wrong, showing him pages in the official documentation proving me correct and showed how the reviewer’s expectations were erroneous. The editor understood and agreed, but he was leery about engaging me for another book. This reviewer had tainted my reputation with the editor. He suggested that we wait to see what the other tech. reviewers say and how the book is received when it’s published, before agreeing to accept another book from me.
When far higher than expected sales and good magazine reviews came in, I asked my editor if I could start writing the Learning book. He then said the contract to write it was already given to someone else. I was very disappointed and frustrated at this. There were three writers involved and they were paid a large advance. It took them several years to write and publish the Learning book and the results were not good. I heard that the sales never paid back the money the writers were given in advance. Plus, there were many bad reviews written on it. My editor eventually wrote me an email saying that he wished he had given the contract to me when I asked. I felt justified, but was disappointed at not having written this book.
About two years ago, my editor wrote me saying they were considering publishing a second edition of the Learning book. He asked me my opinion about it. I said it was a good idea and I’d like to write it. He agreed to let me write it. I also said that I wouldn’t want to write a second edition of the first Learning book. Instead, I wanted to start fresh with a new book and give it a new name so it wouldn’t be a second edition of the old one. The marketing people at O’Reilly agreed to this idea based on the bad reviews and sales of the first book. Since I was working at MariaDB, the makers of the software which is an offshoot of MySQL, we decided to include MariaDB in the book. That solved the problem of editions.
So, eleven years after I first pitched my editor to let me write this book, after two years of writing, editing, and tech. reviewing and all of the rest involved, it’s done. I’ve written Learning MySQL and MariaDB and it has been published (number ten). It’s been quite a journey and it’s not over. Still, it warrants celebrating this milestone. So this week I’ll have a book party with my friends.