Nick Desaulniers

The enemy's gate is down

Writing My First Technical Book Chapter

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It’s a feeling of immense satisfaction when we complete a major achievement. Being able to say “it’s done” is such a great stress relief. Recently, I completed work on my first publication, a chapter about Emscripten for the upcoming book WebGL Insights to be published by CRC Press in time for SIGGRAPH 2015.

One of the life goals I’ve had for a while is writing a book. A romantic idea it seems to have your ideas transcribed to a medium that will outlast your bones. It’s enamoring to hold books from long dead authors, and see that their ideas are still valid and powerful. Being able to write a book, in my eyes, provides some form of life after death. Though, one could imagine ancestors reading blog posts from long dead relatives via utilities like the Internet Archive’s WayBack Machine.

Writing about highly technical content places an upper limit on the usefulness of the content, and shows as “dated” quickly. A book I recently ordered was Scott Meyers’ Effective Modern C++. This title strikes me, because what exactly do we consider modern or contemporary? Those adjectives only make sense in a time limited context. When C++ undergoes another revolution, Scott’s book may become irrelevant, at which point the adjective modern becomes incorrect. Not that I think Scott’s book or my own is time-limited in usefulness; more that technical books’ duration of usefulness is significantly less than philosophical works like 1984 or Brave New World. Almost like having a record in a sport is a feather in one’s cap, until the next best thing comes along and you’re forgotten to time.

Somewhat short of my goal of writing an entire book, I only wrote a single chapter for a book. It’s interesting to see that a lot of graphics programming books seem to follow the format of one author per chapter or at least multiple authors. Such book series as GPU Gems, Shader X, and GPU Pro follow this pattern, which is interesting. After seeing how much work goes into one chapter, I think I’m content with not writing an entire book, though I may revisit that decision later in life.

How did this all get started? I had followed Graham Sellers on Twitter and saw a tweet from him about a call to authors for WebGL Insights. Explicitly in the linked to page under the call for authors was interest in proposals about Emscripten and asm.js.

Tweet

At the time, I was headlong into a project helping Disney port Where’s My Water from C++ to JavaScript using Emscripten. I was intimately familiar with Emscripten, having been trained by one of its most prolific contributors, Jukka Jylänki. Also, Emscripten’s creator, Alon Zakai, sat on the other side of the office from me, so I was constantly pestering him about how to do different things with Emscripten. The #emscripten irc channel on irc.mozilla.org is very active, but there’s no substitute for being able to have a second pair of eyes look over your shoulder when something is going wrong.

Knowing Emscripten’s strengths and limitations, seeing interest in the subject I knew a bit about (but wouldn’t consider myself an expert in), and having the goal of writing something to be published in book form, this was my opportunity to seize.

I wrote up a quick proposal with a few figures about why Emscripten was important and how it worked, and sent it off with fingers crossed. Initially, I was overjoyed to learn when my proposal was accepted, but then there was a slow realization that I had a lot of work to do. The editor, Patrick Cozzi, set up a GitHub repo for our additional code and figures, a mailing list, and sent us a chapter template document detailing the process. We had 6 weeks to write the rough draft, then 6 weeks to work with reviewers to get the chapter done. The chapter was written as a Google Doc, so that we could have explicit control over who we shared the document with, and what kinds of editing power they had over the document. I think this approach worked well.

I had most of the content written by week 2. This was surprising to me, because I’m a heavy procrastinator. The only issue was that the number of pages I wrote was double the allowed amount; way over page count. I was worried about the amount of content, but told myself to try not to be attached to the content, just as you shouldn’t stay attached with your code.

I took the additional 4 weeks I had left to finish the rough draft to invite some of my friends and coworkers to provide feedback. It’s useful to have a short list of people who have ever offered to help in this regard or owe you one. You’ll also want a diverse team of reviewers that are either close to the subject matter, or approaching it as new information. This allows you to stay technically correct, while not presuming your readers know everything that you do.

The strategy worked out well; some of the content I had initially written about how JavaScript VMs and JITs speculate types was straight up wrong. While it played nicely into the narrative I was weaving, someone more well versed in JavaScript virtual machines would be able to call BS on my work. The reviewers who weren’t as close to subject matter were able to point out when logical progressions did not follow.

Fear of being publicly corrected prevents a lot of people from blogging or contributing to open source. It’s important to not stay attached to your work, especially when you need to make cuts. When push came to shove, I did have difficulty removing sections.

Lets say you have three sequential sections: A, B, & C. If section A and section B both set up section C, and someone tells you section B has to go, it can be difficult to cut section B because as the author you may think it’s really important to include B for the lead into C. My recommendation is sum up the most important idea from section B and add it to the end of section A.

For the last six weeks, the editor, some invited third parties, and other authors reviewed my chapter. It was great that others even followed along and pointed out when I was making assumptions based on specific compiler or browser. Eric Haines even reviewed my chapter! That was definitely a highlight for me.

We used a Google Sheet to keep track of the state of reviews. Reviewers were able to comment on sections of the chapter. What was nice was that you were able to keep using the comment as a thread, responding directly to a criticism. What didn’t work so well was then once you edited that line, the comment and thus the thread was lost.

Once everything was done, we zipped up the assets to be used as figures, submitted bios, and wrote a tips and tricks section. Now, it’s just a long waiting game until the book is published.

As far as dealing with the publisher, I didn’t have much interaction. Since the book was assembled by a dedicated editor, Patrick did most of the leg work. I only asked that what royalties I would receive be donated to Mozilla, which the publisher said would be too small (est $250) to be worth the paperwork. It would be against my advice if you were thinking of writing a technical book for the sole reason of monetary benefit. I’m excited to be receiving a hard cover copy of the book when it’s published. I’ll also have to see if I can find my way to SIGGRAPH this year; I’d love to meet my fellow authors in person and potential readers. Just seeing the list of authors was really a who’s-who of folks doing cool WebGL stuff.

If you’re interested in learning more about working with Emscripten, asm.js, and WebGL, I sugguest you pick up a copy of WebGL Insights in August when it’s published. A big thank you to my reviewers: Eric Haines, Havi Hoffman, Jukka Jylänki, Chris Mills, Traian Stanev, Luke Wagner, and Alon Zakai.

So that was a little bit about my first experience with authorship. I’d be happy to follow up with any further questions you might have for me. Let me know in the comments below, on Twitter, HN, or wherever and I’ll probably find it!

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