The Four Major Takeaways I Learned from Writing My First Book

Now that my book, Get After It: Seven Inspirational Stories to Find Your Inner Strength When It Matters Most is published, I felt it was important to reflect on the major lessons I learned the process of writing the book and sharing them with everyone in the hope that they might make the same right decisions I did and avoiding the ones I got wrong.

Overall, I have four major takeaways:

  1. Switching from a full-time schedule to a part-time schedule at work was critical;
  2. My writing process, although different than a standard approach, was the right approach
  3. Feedback from others throughout the process was tough but 100 percent necessary
  4. I found out that I could work from home without being overtaken by my home’s distractions

Switching from a full-time schedule to a part-time schedule at work was critical: As I state in the afterword of my book, all of us are limited to 24 hours in a day, seven days a week, and 365 ¼ days per year. That’s a scientific fact. The choice we do have, however, is how we spend that precious time. I knew that working five days a week, including the commuting time, took about 50 hours of my Monday through Friday schedule. That left evenings and weekends for my free time, some of which I dedicated to teaching music lessons, spending time with friends and family, and exercising. On top of that, I recently wed my wonderful wife and I needed to ensure I invested the time to build a strong foundation of my nascent relationship. Simply put, if I wanted time to write a book and all of the tasks involved with that, while dedicating the time to Abby that I knew was necessary, in addition to the other things I spent time doing, I had to create more time outside of those tasks.

I switched from a full-time to a part-time schedule. Yes, it was a 40 percent pay cut as I went from working five to three days per week. As a GS-13 officer at CIA, you can do the math as to how much money I was giving up, but I assessed that it was worth it. The Mondays and Fridays I spent working on my book allowed me to accomplish my goal of etching my legacy into history, while providing the time I needed to develop the early stages of my marriage and allowing me to still do the other things I liked doing.

Now that the book is complete, I’m not sure I’ll go back to a full-time schedule, as I think I’ve got the writing bug and just want to publish more books!

My writing process, although different than a standard approach, was the right approach: Most of the time, it is important to follow a specific process for writing a book: think of an idea; write an outline; run it by a few people to get feedback; refine the outline; start writing; don’t stop writing; get it edited; publish the book. My situation was a little bit different. My idea for my book was not a fictional story I thought up in my mind, rather a compilation of stories from my life about which I had already journaled. In a sense, the words were already there, I just had to figure out what they meant.

One of the lessons I learned in being an intelligence analyst was to consider all the information available, so I scoured my Google Drive and hard drive on my computer for any journal entry I had ever written, whether it was my overseas logs from Iraq, Bahrain, and Jordan, personal musings from year to year, or even checking my written travel journal which I kept in my nightstand. Anything that had any sort of story about me was something I needed to consider.

The next step was to figure out what I didn’t have and ask myself the question, “Is there anything that happened in my life that isn’t written down here that would be worth considering?” Answering this helps you fill in what we call “intelligence gaps,” things that we think exist but don’t have the information or answer to at the moment.

When pouring over everything, I learned I had about 500 pages of single-spaced, Microsoft Word text and that I needed to go through all of it. I bucketed the information into categories: long-term stories, short-term happenings, military-themed writings, and more. I read through all of the information from August through September. The next step was to tackle each story one by one and apply the same intelligence principle above to each story: what did I have in the story and what was I missing?

I worked on each story one at a time, which I think allowed me to stay focused and make progress. I can only imagine that jumping from story to story back and forth would only confuse me and delay my process. As I finished each story, I published them on my website’s blog and shared them on social media asking for comments. Ensuring I had readers’ feedback was critical in knowing if I had a compelling story or not.

All of the stories were complete by February, at which point I knew it was important to get feedback on the book as a whole. As an incentive to get prereaders, I offered signed copies of the book as well as a raffle for an Amazon gift card. Out of the 15 or so people who said they would be willing to give my book a preread, I received follow through from six, which I thought was a good sample, especially considering the diversity of the readership. One was a public relations and journalism specialist, one was a doctor, one was a naval aviator, one was a former CIA senior manager, one was a coworker, and two were friends my wife and I met on a cruise. Having this diversity of though and background was critical in knowing that I had a product that could appeal to all groups of people.

I compiled all the feedback, made the necessary edits and changes, and submitted the book for a professional edit. After making the last few tweaks, I had a product I was proud of, something that incorporated feedback, and a set of stories that were truly impactful to me and, I hoped, the rest of the world.

Speaking of feedback, feedback from others throughout the process was tough but 100 percent necessary: As I finished writing each chapter, I published each on my blog and shared them via social media, mostly through my Facebook and Twitter pages. The purpose was to get the stories out there and get feedback on them. What did people like about a story? What did they dislike? Did it flow well? Was I missing something? How many people read the story?

These are open-ended questions with answers that have the potential to be hurtful. Having someone tell you they didn’t like reading a story about a personal time in your life can be gutting. What do you mean you didn’t like my story when I had five heart surgeries and then climbed Mount Everest? (That’s an actual story from author Rob Besecker who wrote a book about it). My stories were a bit less dramatic in comparison, but still important to my life.

That said, the feedback was necessary. If a large percentage of readers couldn’t relate to a story, was it worth putting in the book? If seven chapters were great but one was “meh,” did I want to keep it in?

Through the course of my postings, I tracked the metrics and the responses and found the answer to that exact question. Seven of my stories were good, one was not. Most were written with a good story line, one was not. It was important not to take the feedback as a personal attack. They were only trying to make my stories better, and that was the important point: make the stories better, perhaps more appealing to a wider audience, to help me spread my work as wide as possible.

I found out that I could work from home without being overtaken by my home’s distractions: I knew that working on a book would require focus, so I wanted to work on it from a location that would minimize distractions, which I assumed meant not working from home. As a member of the Army and Navy Club in downtown Washington, DC, I had access to the club’s library, which was quiet and rarely had people in it. I decided that it would be smart to use the library for my work.

Working out of the club, however, meant some inconveniences: the librarian told me that I needed to wear a button-down shirt, though I didn’t need a jacket. Jeans were not permitted anywhere in official club spaces, which meant that I needed to dress in business casual to go there. The club had several food options, but I didn’t want to spend $20 – $30 per meal, so I decided I would have to pack my lunch. The club also had a gym, and I figured that it made sense to exercise while there.

On the mornings I went to the club, I’d put on fancier clothes than I would have normally donned; packed a lunch and snacks; packed workout gear; grabbed my laptop, mouse, and power cord; put on my bike helmet and rode to the club.

You might be able to tell that I realized this system just wasn’t worth it. Although initially scared of distractions of working from home, it was worth it to have the convenience of actually being home and not having to dress up, pack my stuff, bring a lunch, etc. I had the food, comfort, amenities, and technology I needed right in my condo, rather than taking it with me and finding it elsewhere. Did I occasionally watch an episode of American gladiators at 1 p.m.? One or two. Were there days where I was in front of my computer screen from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m.? Yes, most of the time.

Working from home, in the end, provided a quality space for me to work and get after it.

My book, Get After It: Seven Inspirational Stories to Find Your Inner Strength When It Matters Most is available on Amazon and other online booksellers in eBook and paperback.

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