My next entry has ran into a number of issues getting finished, and from the start, I have planned on blogging my “current” answers, so now is as good a time as any. I have taken the questions from all of the previous entries, and have left them as is, but picking the questions I wanted to answer (or wanted to force myself to answer!) To make sure this didn’t turn into a commercial, I took off the bonus question about other projects I am working on. Hopefully you have read about that on my blog already.
1. Every superhero has an origin story, and in many cases it wasn't because they specifically were planning to go into the field of superhero-ness. I mean, clearly Peter Parker didn't really want to get bitten by a radioactive spider. So what is your story that led you to spend part of your free time writing about SQL?
I was at a VBits conference in New York City, over 15 years ago (back when I was doing SQL and VB semi regularly). I met someone from Wrox and they were looking for technical editors for a VB and SQL book, and it sounded like fun. Back then books had 10 technical editors, so the pressure was a bit lower as you could be wrong and 9 other people would have checked the work as well. At the same time, the book’s editor and I started chatting about why all database design books (that weren’t written by Code, Date, Pascal, etc) ended their description of Normalization at 3rd Normal Form. So I was adamant that it would be a good idea to have a trade press book that was deeper than that, but still accessible to the average programmer. Then came my radioactive spider. An offer to write a book with an advance that was more money than I had ever seen in one place. Turned out to be a very good idea, as well as a very bad idea.
I had picked up a lot of the practical aspects of database design building several database systems, particularly my first where I had to write/rewrite/modify all of the code (800+ procedures/triggers) by hand, helping me to feel the pain of design mistakes (even though my mentors had been quite good at db design. So I picked up one of C J Date’s books, and read a large part of it, and did my best to translate the topic from a bunch of technical/mathematical jargon and contrived examples that work for explaining the topic, but never seem to resonate with trade press readers because we are generally not academic minded. We want to get things done, and ideally, well. We set a deadline of around six months, and well over a year later, I (well, we) finally finished the book. It was the longest thing I had written in my life, and it was only fair before the technical editors beat me half to death…
2. We all have influencers that have advanced our careers as writers. It may be a teacher who told you that you had great potential Another writer who impressed you that you wanted to be like? Or perhaps on the other end of the spectrum it was a teacher who told you that you were too stupid to write well enough to spell your own name, much less have people one day impressed with your writing? Who were your influences that stand out as essential parts of your journey to the level of writer you have become?
There are a few writers that I tried to learn from. Kalen Delaney was kind of my inspiration when I got started. I remember meeting her at a PASS conference and getting her to sign a copy of her 2000 book. I loved her book because it didn’t stop with “this is what to do”, but I remember it diving really deep and telling me stuff that, while perhaps not immediately useful, help you to understand how SQL Server does operations. I still have that book in my collection, and is the only book I have signed (other than the two MVP Deep Dives books that were signed at the release as our thank you to the teams.)
I also am a fan of C S Lewis’ apologetics, because, while he doesn’t dumb it down, he does speak on a level that is accessible to the average person. It has definitely flavored my writing over the past few editions, because in my head I want my writing to feel intelligent, but also very human.
My deflectors were never that vocal to tell me I couldn’t make it, but I don’t think I ever made greater than a C in an English class where writing was involved. I had always hated writing, and in retrospect I have no idea why I said yes to the book (unless it was the money :)
3. As the years pass, how has your writing changed? Do you feel like it is becoming a more natural process? Or perhaps you get more critical of your own writing to the point that it takes you longer?
A little of both. On the one hand, I can certainly write a LOT faster than when I got started. Sometimes the words will just flow naturally, and I can sit down on my laptop and Tablemate TV tray and write for hours. When I wrote the 2000 Design book, I averaged 3 pages a day (3-4 hours after my day job), when I knew what I was trying to do. Now I can easily hit 6-10 pages a day. What makes this a bit more interesting is that in 2000, my publisher did a lot more of the work. They edited for English (making me say “whilst” a lot), they redrew artwork, etc. Now almost all of that work is done by we authors, except that there are editors that tweak the English for you.
On the other hand I tend to write a bunch of text and then sit on it for a lot longer than I would like. These answers will take a few hours to write, and then a few days to re-edit and re-edit. I don’t want to get anything wrong, and even worse, I don’t want to offend anyone inadvertently.
Probably the biggest thing that has changed my writing has been SQL Saturday. Before we had so many SQL Saturday events, I was super lucky to speak once a year at the SQL PASS event. Speaking is generally where I learn what people want to hear about, and what I need to write about. If a session falls on its face, then I know that either people don’t want to hear about a topic (I am looking at you Sequence Session), or, as was the case with my first database design session, that I had a lot to learn. The fear of looking stupid in front of the crowd has always pushed me to produce and test way too much material for a session, often started from stuff I have written about in the book. The extra material I write then ends up in a blog and/or chapters of my next book. So it is kind of a symbiotic relationship between speaking and writing, and that has always worked well.
4. Assume a time machine has been created, and you are scheduled to speak to a group of potential writers, in which you and I are in attendance. Without concern for the temporal physics that might cause the universe to implode making the answer moot, what would you tell "past us", and do you think that your advice would change where you and I are in our careers now? (like would you tell yourself to get excited for the day you will be sitting here for a rather long period of time answering interview questions and not getting paid for it, instead of feeling the warm sun on your forehead?)
“Don’t. Do. It. Run away fast. If there is anything else in life you can see yourself doing with your free time. Do it.
Think back to high school and/or college when you had that writing assignment. You turned it in to your teacher and when you got the paper back, you got a C. Now imagine that instead of giving it to one person to read, you give it to millions. Of those millions, you will be lucky if hundreds read it. Of those hundreds, you will easily get a failing grade from 10% of those people, no matter how good your writing is. If you are lucky, a few of the sane readers who disagree with you will explain in detail their problems with your writing. Unfortunately you will often get the insane ones who write ‘it sucks, and his mother should be ashamed of raising a child that would turn out such dreck.’
Finally, you will do most of your technical writing for no pay. None. And when you do get paid, not only will it often be less than minimum wage, getting paid will empower the person paying you to bend your ideas to meet their needs.
If you are still listening to my speech and haven’t run out of the room screaming… it isn’t all bad…
Those people who disagree with you, listen to them. You will learn more from an intelligent bad review than you will from a completely favorable review. (Though the favorable reviews do balance out the bad ones to keep you sane.) And the sting of the bad reviews will drive you to avoid making the mistakes that lead to bad reviews. And even if you never make one shiny nickel writing, doing the proper preparation to write about a topic will leave you with a deeper knowledge of the topic you write about. And since you probably make your living with the product you are writing about… it will pay off in the end. ”
At one time in my life, I considered being a pastor. I went to my pastor, Dr Allan Lockerman and asked what I needed to do. He said the same thing to me. Is there anything else you can see yourself doing? I was just becoming a decent SQL programmer, and I said that I loved what I was doing. He told me to keep doing it for now, and so far it has stuck.
As it turned out, I love SQL, and (after getting through the aforementioned pain,) I love writing about it, and truly I love everything these things have given me. I have enjoyed my 9 years as a Microsoft MVP, brought about at least in strong part with the books and blogs I have written over the past 11 or so years. It has actually become a kind of addiction. If I am not writing, I am preparing to write or prepping a presentation (which is just like writing in front of a live studio audience).
5. What would you say has been your greatest success story as a writer, even if it was not a commercial success? And conversely, have there been any projects that were just complete disasters that you probably could have looked back and realized that before you got started?
My favorite success has been as a writer and editor of the SQL MVP Deep Dives and SQL MVP Deep Dives 2 books. First off, because I was able to work with my favorite people, with 53 MVPs working on the first book, and 64 on the second, you just can’t beat that. We made well into the 5 digits for a couple of great charities with these books, and delivered a heck of a great bit of content, with ~15 page chapters on a very wide array of topics that would be useful to any SQL DBA, Programmer, or Data Architect.
My biggest failure would have to what I can see now was the quality of my first book, the one with my picture on the cover (I never loved that aspect of Wrox books, but my photographer did a decent job in any case). I was new at writing, and hadn’t had the experience of being ripped apart from some of the great people who reviewed my book. It wasn’t bad because of the great technical editors I had working with me (some of them were very brutal in their reviews which I really appreciated…after the book was finished!). I still hear about people having that book on their desk and really liking it, but if I could I would love to do an exchange program to get one of the later books in their hands.
For the 2005 book, I met the most horrifically wonderful editor I have ever worked with, Tony Davis (@TonyTheEditor). He took my first draft of pretty much the entire book and ripped it apart and helped me put it all back together again. When we finished (months after I had expected to be finished!), the book was so much better and I I still work with Tony blogging and writing with Simple-Talk). And definitely no slouch, Jonathan Gennick (@JonathanGennick) has guided me to even greater heights over the past two editions. That is one of the big downsides to writing books, unlike the Internet where you can replace material, books exist forever…
6. Finally, beyond the "how" questions, now the big one. There are no doubt tremendous pulls on your time. Why do you do write?
I must admit that I started this ongoing series of blogs to figure out just why I do this. Because there must be a good reason for it that I can glean from other’s answers. For all I can gather, I write because I do.
When I got started, I wanted in on the gravy train that book writing offered. Of course, a lot of changes were in store for the technical book business with the Internet providing more and more material for less and less. So while I have bought a few interesting trinkets now and again from my writing proceeds, the grand riches were never quite there. As I alluded to in my past me speech, I certainly don’t do this for the money at this point.
In some part, I find I do it a bit out of ego. I have produced 5 versions of the Pro SQL Server 20XX series, and when I think of letting someone else take it over, I just can’t stand to consider it. I know it will occur some day, but I don’t want to forecast when. The fact is, when I have no idea how to make the next edition better, I will probably give up. I truly hope that ego isn’t ever my only answer to the why question, but it certainly does fit in.
The answer I am most pleased with is that I do it to keep up. By forcing myself to write about the subject, I keep up with the latest version of SQL Server even if it takes a few years to actually get to the point of using the product in day to day work. For example, for 2005 I wrote a chapter in Pro SQL Server 2005, where I covered all of the new T-SQL features in SQL Server 2005. I learned the features very deeply, and to this day can use most of them without a lot of assistance from the F1 key. Writing gives me the impetus to learn features that are then useful day to day.
So my wishy washy answer is that I get a wee bit of money, a modicum of ego boost, and lots of deep practice of my favored trade, but I still hope that a future interviewee with provide me with that “aha!” answer that helps me to figure out why I keep doing this to myself.
Here I usually recap and comment on the answers given, but instead, I am going to ask you to do the same. In the comments, please say anything you want to, ask any questions you want to ask me or future entries, suggest future entries, etc. I will respond and answer any questions you want to hear too.
How long did it take? Quite a few hours over several days over a few weeks… Whew…