Josh Irby

Live from Sarajevo

The Truth is your friend, even when the Truth hurts

This week I am doing a series on how I wrote and published my first book in one year. You can read part one here. Also, download the first two chapters of my book here for free.

The summer of 2010 I started writing my first book, scratching run-on sentences in a black moleskin. Honestly, I had no idea what I was doing. I couldn’t even decide whether to write in past or present tense.

Then, I found what would transform my scribbles into a solid story—an honest community.

Photo credit Vox Efx (creative commons)

Photo credit Vox Efx (creative commons)

The biggest roadblock I faced in writing a book was an enormous one. I did not know how to write. Then I met Karen.

Karen teaches writing and film in California. She is the friend of a friend. She was passing through Sarajevo and agreed to help me with the book. Her first response to the handful of pages I let her read was, “Is this all? You can do better than this.”

That was the birth of the kind of community I needed. Not a “pat you on the back” community or a “you can do it” community but an honest “this sucks, you can do better” community.

If I was going to really complete a book in the next nine months, I needed to quickly learn to write. I needed people who would help me divide the good from the bad. I needed the truth. Karen gave me that.

A few months after our first meeting, I sent Karen a section of the book and eagerly awaited her response. When the document arrived back in my inbox, I opened it to find more “red” than “black.” I could barely make out my text for all the comments.

“Stop using semicolons!”
“This is a hallmark ending!” (not a good thing)
“Use a dictionary!”
“This doesn’t make sense.”
“Don’t be manipulative with your writing.”
“You can do better than this!”

At first, I was hurt. I poured my heart and soul into those chapters and she jabbed the sharp end of her pen into it until the blood flowed. Then, I went back to work, changing chapter endings, fixing punctuation, and making the book better.

I was learning a valuable lesson. The truth is your friend, even when the truth hurts. (tweet that?)

This process continued the entire year. I reworked the same chapters time and again until at last the comment read, “This is good.” And you know what, I believed her. I knew she wasn’t just trying to be encouraging. She meant it.

It never became less painful to have my writing ripped to pieces. But I built up a tolerance to the pain. I knew the pain made me stronger and my book better. I began to welcome the pain and the clarity it brought. And little by little I learned how to write.


Karen was only one part of the community I formed that year. Michael added his encouraging voice and detailed eye. He also lent me his couch when I needed to get away and write for a week. Nicole drastically decreased the amount of grammatical errors. Mike edited and pointed me towards the help I needed. Sean helped me understand the publishing process.

The book was a community effort.

But it wasn’t just any community, it was an HONEST community.

That community and my ability to endure the truth’s pain were tested days after I finished the second draft of the book.

From the beginning of the writing process, I decided to make the book a combination of the past and the present. Young people today don’t read many historical biographies. By adding my own story into the mix, I hoped to help the younger generation digest the history.

I finished the second draft near the end of April, one year after deciding to take up the project. I sent it to a few people to read, including an aunt who is a writer. She replied within a few days.

Her words stung: the structure of my book didn’t work, the historical sections were not descriptive enough, my story didn’t go anywhere.

It was a Friday afternoon when I read her email. I remember because I spent the weekend fretting over her comments. Had I wasted the entire year? Would I finish in time? What was I going to do?

Monday morning I woke up and cut my story out of the book. It was a sort of author’s suicide. Then I marched off to language class.

My language teacher Sandra is half instructor and half counselor. I told her about my aunt’s comments and the weekend and the dissection I had done that morning.

She interrupted me. “You can’t do that. I just finished your book this weekend and your story is my favorite part. It ties the past to the present and gives the reader time to process what they are reading.”

We talked about the book for a half hour and I left class convinced to add myself back in.

Following language I had coffee with a friend who also read the book. I told him about my crazy weekend—my literary suicide and resurrection. Then I asked him what he thought of the draft.

“It’s average at best,” he replied.

I know he said a lot more but those are the words I remember. Average at best. As I walked home from the café I was broken. Maybe average is the best I can do. At least I will have something to distribute for Miss Irby’s anniversary event, even if it isn’t good.

I called my friend Michael and told him about the past three days. He listened and said a few encouraging words. By the time I reached my house, I knew what I needed to do.

For the next month I worked 40 hours a week on the book.  I added chapters and made my story stronger. I edited the historical sections and added more descriptive language. During those 30 days, the book was born in its true form.

None of that would have happened without an honest community. The desire to finish was so strong I would have quit before the work was done. The truth spoken by trustworthy people prevented me from stopping at average.

The truth is your friend and true friends speak the truth.

How has the truth helped you? Let me know in the comments.

(Find out how my book made it into bookstores in the final installment, When you don’t know what to do, keep moving forward)

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