Sunday, February 10, 2019

How to Write and Publish: 1-- The Persistent Idea

“I have an idea for a book, but I have no idea how to get started.”

“I’ve written some stories. How do I get them published?”

“Somebody should write my grandma’s story. She’s had an amazing life.”

“Everything that happens to me, I think of in terms of stories and devotionals, but I don’t actually sit down and write them.”

In the last month, I’ve had at least five people ask me for advice about writing and publishing. I’d like to do a few blog posts about the process of getting an idea in your head to printed words that others can read.
Today, I want to talk about that idea that keeps squirming in the back of your brain. Maybe it’s a message of encouragement for young moms.

Or poetry.

Maybe it’s insights from Scripture that strike you in your morning devotions.

It might be a little girl you knew who was so much like Junie B. Jones that you know she merits a book of her own.

The idea keeps coming back. You get busy with other things and tell yourself you’re not a writer. You tell the idea to go away. It keeps returning.

For me, it’s like a divine thumb in my back, gently nudging. I can ignore it for days or weeks, but it doesn’t go away. It’s still there when the world quiets down for a bit, or when I’m falling asleep, pushing me in a certain direction. “You have something to say. You need to say it.”

I want to say two things about this:

1.       You need to listen to that idea, examine it, take it seriously. Quit ignoring the nudge. Maybe you’re not a writer, speaker, or poet. That doesn’t disqualify you from having a voice and a message.

2.       It’s risky to take that idea out of your imagination and turn it into something tangible. As long as it’s tucked away in your mind, it’s astonishing, profound, rich, and beautiful. No one but you can see it, but in your heart you know it’s amazing.

However, if you take it out of your imagination and try to put it into actual words, it might be like a big round glowing soap bubble that pops and becomes only a slimy little spot on the ground, or a beautiful dress you order online that turns out to be way too small and shabbily stitched from cheap scratchy material.

I grew up in the Midwest surrounded by cornfields. I used to read about mountains, visualize them, wonder what they were really like. I imagined a beautiful scene of snowcapped peaks with their tops in the clouds and forests at their feet.

One day when I was maybe nine years old I decided to draw the picture I saw in my mind. I took a pencil and white paper, sketching tall mountains, clouds, forests.

The result was cruelly disappointing—my mountains looked like a set of weird flat cones with donuts around the tips.

Would I have been better off keeping the picture in my mind and not even trying to put it on paper? Maybe. But there is something courageous about taking that idea and attempting to bring it into light and space, in tangible form.

Despite that failure, I never lost my curiosity about mountains. About ten years later, I moved to Oregon and was struck with wonder at the size and majesty of Mt. Hood and all the other snow-capped, cloud-covered peaks. I never get tired of seeing them. I no longer try to draw mountains, but I take lots of pictures.

I’m proud of 9-year-old me for attempting to draw that picture.

The funny story in your imagination might seem trite when it’s written out. You might write your grandma’s story and discover that no one else is interested in it.

The deep insights into Scripture might seem silly when you type them up.

That, of course, is the risk.

And yet, there is that nudging thumb in your back.

Here is a secret: most great ideas look limp and a bit ridiculous when you first put them on paper. The difference between beginning and experienced writers is that beginners expect the process to be simple and those with experience know that it’s a long road and a lot of hard work to make the words resemble the original idea, but they also know it can be done.

If an idea keeps coming back to you, you need to listen to it. You have something to say, and you should take the dangerous step of saying it out loud.


  1. Yes, yes, and yes! Thank you! I needed to hear this.

    1. You're welcome! I love reading your writing.

  2. I'm so grateful for your bravery in listening to promptings, writing down ideas and working hard to make them meaningful. Thank you!!

  3. Thank you for this encouragement. I wonder if you might be that 'thumb in the back' for me.

  4. You so clearly articulated how I feel about big writing projects...and sometimes, I think, about other dreams in life too!

    1. I think you're right. This applies to all kinds of dreams.

  5. These are such excellent things. Thank you for writing them. I often wonder how something can be so brilliantly clear in my mind, but be next to impossible to get out on paper! If it is in my head, should I not be able to just transplant that to paper? Where is the disconnect? (Also, when I was a child, I confidently set out to draw Piglet, and was sorely disappointed what came out on paper was so far from what was in my head. I still think of that time before beginning creative projects, and so I had to smile at your mountain-drawing story.)

    1. "If it is in my head, should I not be able to just transplant that to paper?" Oh how I hear you on this one. If you ever find a good explanation, let me know.