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The Book. August 4, 2016

Posted by mwidlake in PL/SQL, SQL, writing.
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6 comments

I’ve just added a picture to the right side of this site. It is for a book about SQL and PL/SQL. If you look at the image of the front cover, at the bottom is a list of authors and, near the end, is my name. It’s all finished and at the printers, but it is not out yet – It should be published in the next few weeks.

The British part of me wants to mumble and say “oh, yes, hmmm, I did contribute to a book… but I think you should concentrate on the chapters by the other chaps, they are proper experts, very clever gentleman and lady… I was just involved in a couple of lesser chapters…”

The part of me that spent weeks and months of late nights and long weekends writing it wants to scream “Look! LOOK! I damn well got it done! And it was way more painful than any of my author friends told me it would be as, despite their best efforts, I did not get How Hard Writing A Book Is!
I BLED FOR THAT BOOK!”

And the final part of me wants to say “If you buy this book, would you mind awfully sending it to me and I’ll cut out my chapters and paste in new ones with a few more things covered and a bit more clarity and I really should have mentioned… and I’ll send it back”. Apparently this is exactly how Douglas Adams and Terry Pratchet felt about all their books, so I feel in good company in that respect. I re-wrote one chapter 3 times and I still think I could do it better. Think? I know I could do it better!!!! Next year I’ll do it better than the current better…

How did I get involved in this… nightmare? It was Brendan’s fault. I hate Brendan. My wife hates Brendan. My cat, before she passed on, hated Brendan. When I am drinking beers with him in September, around the fun-fair that is OOW16, I’m going to suddenly turn around and hit him Really Very Hard somewhere soft. Somewhere reproductive I think…

It was, I believe, March 2015 that Brendan Tierney asked me if I had ever thought of writing a book. I said “yes” and explained how I’d had some ideas back in my Teens about what “intelligent aliens” would really be like and the oddities of people – but then found Mr Adams had covered that way better than I ever could. And then I had thought about a spoof on Dungeons and Dragons but then found Pratchett had that totally covered and I now had only one idea left… “No…” he said “I mean a technical book – about Oracle”. Oh! After all, he said, I blogged, presented and wrote articles. What was the difference?

Brendan and Heli Helskyaho had come up with the idea for a book about SQL and PL/SQL which was not an intro book and not a huge tome about all aspect of either – but more about using both languages to solve real-world issues, based on real experience. It would be aimed at those who could write reasonable SQL and who could throw together a quick PL/SQL program/package but wanted to know more about how experts used the languages based on experience. They had Arup Nanda on board already as well as Alex Nuijten and Chet Justice. I knew these people! Arup is a brilliant DBA and teacher, Alex is one of the best presenters on the circuit and Chet is Oraclenerd! All are ACE Directors. So I said no – looking at the 5 of them, I was not an expert. I’m just a skilled-but-still-learning journeyman.

At this point Brendan got tetchy at me (‘being tetchy’, for non-UK people, means ‘easily annoyed but doing a very poor job of hiding you are annoyed’). “how long have you programmed in SQL and PL/SQL?” about 25 years – before PL/SQL was really ‘out there’…
“When did you last develop a production solution in PL/SQL?” About 2 months ago – it was cool, it was fully instrumented, restartable and used plain SQL for the heavy lifting…and bulk processed the rest…
“Who’s better at this than you”. Well, Adrian Billington, Boneist Dawn, Andy Clarke… for SQL Stew Ashton, Chris Saxon is sh1t hot… “so you can name your peers?!?”.
“what is the most challenging thing you have done with PL/SQL?” – I listed a few things…

The point he was making was, I’ve used both languages for two and a half decades to solve problems others had struggled with. OK, I am not the “Best”, but I’m not bad and I’ve done things wrong often enough to learn some lessons! I know I can deliver a solid solution that will either still be working properly in 10 years or, in my eyes more importantly, telling you why it is not. And the key thing was, as Brendan pointed out, I was happy to share.

So I agreed to contribute in a minor way.

And then Chet had to pull out for personal reasons – and guess who inherited half of what we was covering? :-). I thus became an equal player. (Just a quick note, Chet stayed as our tech editor and he kept me “honest”. Everyone on the book helped me, the new guy, keep up.)

Writing a book is a lot, lot, lot harder than writing a blog or an article. I’d been told about this – I was a non-technical reviewer(*) for Jonathan Lewis’s “Oracle Core” and we talked a little about it the whole process – and there was a long, long discussion between the Oaktable members about the effort and financial reward of book authorship (“an awful lot” and “sod all” respectively). I still did not get it. If you are writing a chapter that is 20 times longer than an article it is not simply 20 times harder or takes 20 times as long. It is both, plus a dash more. Part of the reason is the need to get a flow through such a large body of text and I wanted to do that across my 3 chapters. The other is, somehow a book feels more important and you want to makes sure your mistakes are kept to a minimum – both for your own pride and so as not to mislead the reader. Also, as a shared book (and I was the only new author involved) I was very conscious of letting the side down.

So the reality was that for 6 months I worked on those 3 chapters and, during that time, I struggled to maintain my duties as a house husband, the garden went to hell and my regular exercise ceased. Occasional days were so bad that the cat went unfed and my wife had to cook her own dinner. The hard stares were difficult to take, as was my wife being annoyed with me. And I was only doing a few chapters!

But it is done and I am now looking forward to seeing a copy “in the flesh”. I think that will feel weird. One of my regrets in life is that I did not stay in science long enough to be published. I feel this makes up for that.

Would I do it again? No. I’d rather go back to commuting into London every day and I hated that.

Will I change my mind in a year or two? Maybe. I still have that one idea for a Sci-Fi book.

(*) I represented the “knows some stuff but is still learning” intended reader of Jonathan’s book – I was not correcting mistakes or advising him on technical content. I was saying “please tell me more about X as I’m still confused”. I rather enjoyed it.