Josh Irby

Live from Sarajevo

When you don’t know what to do, keep moving forward

This is part of  a series on how I wrote and published my first book in one year. You can read part one and part two first, if you want. You can also download the first two chapters of my book for free.

From fall 2010 into spring 2011 I rushed to finish my first book, a 65,000-word historical biography and personal memoir. The clock ticked towards the release date on the 100th anniversary of the death of my subject, Adeline Pauline Irby—British citizen, Bosnian hero, and my cousin

I planned to print a thousand copies of the finished draft and hand them out for free on the streets of Sarajevo.  In the end, my expectations were too low.

Photo credit Steve Bullivant (Creative Commons)

Photo credit Steve Bullivant (Creative Commons)

 I was new to writing and naïve about the publishing process. I thought it worked like this:


As the work progressed, I got the feeling there might be more to publishing than these three tasks. I met with a friend whose organization publishes and distributes books.  He is a detail person. During our one-hour coffee, I filled a page of notes.

Turns out publishing a book is more complicated than I thought.

Translate into Bosnian
Design layout
Edit again
Design Cover
Edit again
Send to Printer

It was overwhelming. But I decided to keep writing and figure everything out later.  I now realize I stumbled upon an important principle:

When you don’t know what to do, keep moving forward. (you can tweet that if you want)

A few months later, when I was 2/3 the way through the first draft, I met another friend for coffee. (In Sarajevo, all good things happen while drinking coffee) We discussed my progress on the book and he asked if I had considered publishing it with a local publisher.

I told him I planned to self-publish. While answering, a thought took over my mind:

I am self-publishing not because publishers rejected the book, but because none have seen it. I am going to give the book away for free because I don’t believe it is worth more.

I was taking the easier path to avoid rejection. My reasons were only excuses. The greatest limitation on the success of my book was how well I thought it could do.

Directly across from the coffee shop was one of the top bookstores in the country. I got up and crossed the road. After talking to a couple of sales associates and a manager, I had a card and a number to call. I came back to my friend who was still sitting in the coffee shop.

“How did it go?”

“Well, it’s not a ‘No’.”

Empowered by my non-rejection I decided to try a second publisher.

There was a bookstore in the center of town that I frequented once or twice a week. My daughter took ballet lessons across the street and while she practiced, my son and I read books. After a few months, I knew all the workers on a first name basis.

I called the store manager and explained my situation. He told me he would call back. The next day he did. We had an appointment with the Vice President of the company.

reading with Elijah

Reading in the bookstore with my son.

There are times when the world makes no sense, when we grasp for meaning in the midst of pain or loss.

There are other times when the world bursts with meaning and purpose, when we are carried along by an invisible hand. Sitting across from the Vice President of one of the top publishers in the country, I felt that way.

What if my daughter had not taken ballet? What if my son and I had not picked that bookstore? What if? All these things were too complex for me to control or plan. From the time I met Miss Irby in my Atlanta living room there was a gravity leading me to this point.

It is not that these things would have happened no matter what; I think I could have missed out. However, it was not my own doing.

I think this “it was meant to be” feeling accompanies many important projects. You move forward in belief that there is something there, and then, along the way, it all makes sense.

There’s “magic” in movement. Good things happen when we aren’t standing still. The key battle is to keep shuffling forward in faith that God is unraveling an even better story than you can imagine.

The Vice President agreed to publish the book. And that was only the beginning.

My wife walked into a new teashop in town the next week to see what they offered. Sarajevo is more of a coffee town so she was surprised to see a gourmet tea shop. In her usual friendly way, she met the owner and manager. As the talked she mentioned I was writing a book about a national hero.

He responded, “Oh, my girlfriend writes literary reviews for a national magazine.”

The next thing I know, I am sitting across from her for an interview. The next month, they printed a four-page article on Miss Irby, me, and the book.

Other strange things happened. I was on a Bosnian talk show and interviewed on the evening news. The press event was published in the back page of the biggest newspaper in the country. The British Ambassador attended the book release and spoke on my behalf. Meeting Miss Irby spent eight months on the Top Ten Bestseller list in Bosnia.

Strange things happen when you get moving.

I think back to all the times I almost quit because I thought I didn’t have what it takes. Well, I didn’t. But with God’s help, a number of God-given friends, and the character built along the way, the task was completed.

And best of all, I discovered a love for writing I never knew was there.

Do you have a similar story? How have you seen movement become meaning?

About Josh