In the past three weeks I’ve been asked several dozen times: How does it feel to sign a book publishing contract?

The one word answer is “surreal.”

I’ve aspired to be a published author since I was a small child. Next to becoming a professional baseball player, it was my top career choice whenever I was asked, “What do you want to be when you grow up?”

For more than 40 years I’ve always believed this day would come.

Although, I never, ever expected it would happen the way it did.

I finished writing “Crosswinds” in January of this year. With the help of a good friend who has lots of ties to the book publishing industry serving as my unofficial literary agent, I submitted my manuscript to Next Chapter Publishing. I was told it could take months before I would hear anything and should be prepared to receive the traditional rejection letter in the mail.

And so I did.

In my free time, I began working on the sequel to “Crosswinds,” thinking that by the time I could finally get a book publisher to look at my manuscript, I would have most — if not all — of the second book finished.

I was pragmatic, trying to keep a lid on my expectations.

Then I received the surprise of my life.

I had no idea my family and co-workers were capable of keeping a secret, but they pulled it off — and managed to lure in Ellis County Judge Carol Bush to be part of the conspiracy.

As I later found out, Next Chapter Publishing decided almost immediately they wanted to publish my book. But instead of calling me up, scheduling a meeting and offering me a contract, they thought it would be a good idea to put together a surprise announcement party, video my reaction and use the video as part of the marketing campaign for the book.

A date was scheduled and between the publishing house, my wife Kathy and apparently all of my co-workers at the newspaper, the conspiracy began.

My managing editor Aaron Schwaderer was tasked with getting me out of the office and to Johnny Carino’s at 2 p.m. on Saturday, Feb. 22.

As the story goes, Aaron’s response was, “How in the world am I supposed to get Neal out of the office? He never leaves.” Several of the conspirators later admitted to telling Aaron, “We don’t care how you do, just do it — and don’t let the cat out of the bag.”

Panic stricken, the week before the big surprise Aaron sees the county judge walk in the door of the paper to pay for her campaign ad. He pulls her aside, fills her in on the conspiracy and begs her to help lure me to Carino’s on Saturday. She agreed.

A few days before the surprise, the judge calls me, alludes to a meeting Saturday with Congressman Joe Barton, and although very sketchy with the details, I was led to believe there would be a big announcement and I’d have the scoop. She even offered to pick me up.

Of course I agreed.

I walked into Carino’s expecting to meet the Congressman. Instead, I see my family, everyone from the newspaper and lots of friends applauding.

And then my oldest son Zakk stands up. I thought he was in Mexico working on a project with his engineering company. Then I see my youngest son, who is in college at Texas Tech in Lubbock. My daughter Emily and granddaughter Kyns were there. They had even arranged to fly my mom in from South Carolina to be there for the big announcement.

I was absolutely dumbfounded — which you will see on the video.

It took a while for the shock to wear off (and by the way I’m still upset that so many people I trust and love were able to keep that big of a secret from me).

At one point, I turned to Judge Bush and asked, “Does this mean I’m not meeting with Congressman Barton?” She shook her head. I asked, “Does this mean I’m not getting a scoop?” The room erupted with laughter.

It doesn’t happen very often, but I have to admit I was scooped on one of the biggest stories of my life. And yes, I’m still miffed about not being the first to know.

I spent the next two weeks vetting and negotiating points of the contract and on March 7, I signed the deal giving Next Chapter Publishing English language rights to publish and distribute “Crosswinds.” Ellis County Commissioner Paul Perry was on hand and volunteered to sign as my witness.

Please check out the video at: http://youtu.be/QRT0UIkA0T4

The book is scheduled for release in late summer.

“Crosswinds” is a fictional novel. While everyone expects me to give a quick and easy answer when asked what kind of book is it, I can’t.

The setting for the book takes place in the Charlotte Douglas International Airport during a storm when all flights have been delayed. A young sailor (Bobby) on his way to his first duty station walks into the airport’s only smoking lounge and bums a smoke from an older gentleman in a blue jacket (Jack) sitting at the counter. The two strike up a conversation and end up spending the next 18 hours together as Jack provides Bobby with valuable life lessons by sharing his experiences, each story giving readers a front row seat to a journey through Jack’s past.

The theme of the book (and title) is revealed about mid-way through the novel as Jack explains to Bobby that God doesn’t make mistakes. Often we set out on a journey when a crosswind blows us off course. Instead of getting frustrated by the delay and/or change of direction, if we are observant, we will discover that God had a reason for altering our course — often times blowing us into the path of a stranger who can change our life, or for us to change their life.

While the book is fictional, the inspiration came from the scores of people whose paths have intersected mine and because of that unexpected encounter, have changed my life for the better.

I would love for “Crosswinds” to do well commercially and be made into a movie, but I’m really pleased as punch that it’s getting published — which opens the door for publishing my next book, “Wind Speaker,” which picks up the story five years later when Bobby gets out of the Navy.

Look for “Crosswinds” at ebook outlets and bookstores in late summer. In the meantime, please check out the video of my surprise book contract announcement at http://youtu.be/QRT0UIkA0T4 and follow updates on Facebook at facebook.com/TheNextChapterPublishing

As for my non-fiction work, just keep reading the Daily Light. I’m truly blessed to be able to make a living doing what I love and have no plans to slow down.