How to write a book in four steps (According to Genesis 1)

I am writing a book. In my optimism and naivety, I thought it might be just like writing several blog posts, then binding them together. My method in writing blog posts is as follows: have a shower, have an idea, write it down flat-out, pause, consider, tweak – and voila! Chapter finished, onto the next chapter.

Turns out, the rumours are all true – writing a book is HARD. It’s not like blogging. You can’t just have an idea and go, you have to take a step back. You have the giant idea, but you need to untangle it, separate it, pick at it until it is in more manageable chunks. You move the chunks around a bit, consider them, give them names. Only then do you fill them with words.

In other words, it is a giant administration project: untangling, sorting, naming. It is the verbal equivalent of sitting in a supermarket with a truckload of recently-delivered stock, and sifting through it, sticking labels on each part, sending it off to the appropriate aisle. It sounds decidedly uncreative. Was I getting it wrong?

I picked up my Bible for inspiration, and pondered to myself, ‘How did God go about the work of creating something?’. I didn’t have to look far.

It begins with emptiness

In the beginning…the earth was formless and empty, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters. (Gen 1:1-2)

I hear the potential in these words, the excitement of what the triune God was about to create; the Spirit of God inhabiting the emptiness, poised, hovering over the timelessness and potential of pre-creation. Usually, when I look at a blank screen, I do as all true writers do – I panic.

But on a good day, I feel that same excitement, the hovering of an idea. And sometimes I even have that sense of God’s Spirit hovering with me.

Separate, then name

The first day, God separates light from darkness, and calls them ‘day’ and ‘night’.
The second day, God separates the two bodies of water, one from the other, above and below, and calls the dividing line ‘sky’.
The third day, God concentrates on the waters below. He gathers the water in one place, so that dry land appears: land separated from water. He names them ‘land’ and ‘seas’.
He’s spent three days on creation, and all He’s done is separate and name, separate and name. God is a secret administrator. Before He gets creative, He gets organised.

I think of my boy, playing with his toys. He does the same: gathers the Lego characters together: ‘This is the house. This is the mummy and this is the little boy.’ It’s intuitive. He separates and names them. This naming is the necessary precursor to the play.

In sermon-writing it’s the same process: separate the passage, name the sections, fill with explanation, illustration, application. I find it when I do pastoral counselling: we have to untangle first, separate out the emotions, give them names – then the words flow and the healing comes. Even with baking, we separate the ingredients and measure them before we combine them and fill the container.

On the fourth day, God makes the sun, moon and stars. (He makes lights to fill the darkness.)
On the fifth day, God creates fish and sea creatures, and birds. (He fills the sea and sky.)
On the sixth day, God creates animals and humans. (He fills the land.)

I think of an artist, finishing the outline in pencil, and taking up the paintbrush and swooshing it all over the canvas, filling the shapes with an abundance of colour and texture. This is the fun part, the spilling over of words onto page, colour onto canvas, flesh onto skeleton.

See that it is good

I love that God is a poet, and that Genesis 1 is written as a poem, not as a science manual. I love that He sees His work and pauses at each stage and says that it is good; and at the end He says it is very good. It is so tempting to look at our work and be shy, and ashamed to call it good. Even though we are fallen, it is still possible for us to create things that are good, and we can call them good.

And I love that it takes time: God didn’t wave a magic wand and zap the earth into being, God the Trinity did it in stages, over a period of time. They rested at the end, celebrating all their work of creation.

This is the whole creative process: and it’s right there, in Genesis 1.

  1. The emptiness, the Spirit of God hovering;
  2. the separating and naming; and only then
  3. the filling; and finally
  4. the rest and celebration, seeing it it good.

We go through this same process every day, every time we create something.

I stare at the words, absorbing my discovery. My creative process mirrors God’s.

I don’t know why this should surprise me. After all, God is creator, painter of life, writer of redemption story. We are created in His image, and we are imprinted with that same desire to create.

I turn back to the blank screen, and feel the emptiness of it all, the fear of not having a good idea, the right words. I close my eyes, and remember that the same Spirit of God who hovered over the empty waters now hovers in my soul. The same God who made the hummingbird and humpback whale now dwells in me, and He loves to create whole worlds out of nothingness.

I take a breath. I will do this. I will gather my thoughts and have the courage to speak them. I will write this book. I raise my hands over the keyboard, and begin again.
Christianity and Creativity thumbnail - image Darren Johnson (Creative Commons License)

I have been thinking about creativity a lot lately, and I am delighted to announce that on Tuesdays and Thursdays all July some amazing guests will be writing their experiences of Christianity and Creativity, and how the two blend. This is not just on writing, but a wide variety of creative outlets, so I am hoping that it will encourage many. These people are seriously talented in their fields, and I am SO excited to have them here on my blog. Please do interact with these posts and share them far and wide!
Tue 2 Jul – Beth Morey (artist)
Thu 4 Jul – Sara Schumacher of Transpositions (academic)
Tue 9 Jul – Clive Parnell (musician)
Thu 11 Jul – Leanne Penny (on redemptive creativity – making beautiful things out of old junk)
Tue 16 Jul – Ed Cyzewski (writer)
Thu 18 Jul – Esther Emery (on creativity and creation)
Tue 23 Jul – Alice Buckley (on creativity and play)
Thu 25 Jul – John Blase (poet and writer)

(And did I mention I am SO excited about this?)
Over to you:

  • How do you exercise your creativity? (Through writing, baking, gardening, playing with children etc.?)
  • Do you see these different processes/stages in your creative work? How does it feel that God did them too?

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Photo on Christianity and Creativity button by Darren Johnson.


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30 Responses to How to write a book in four steps (According to Genesis 1)

  1. Rebecka 26th June, 2013 at 10:55 pm #

    I love this! I’ve never thought about God’s creative process before, but I thought this was really fascinating. Honestly, I’ve never thought that much about my own creative process either, but before I got M.E, I did some acting, and this reminded me of how you “find” your character and make them come alive. How awesome it’s the same process whether we’re writing, acting, playing or simply making lunch. It tells me creativity comes from God and we really are created in His image.

    I’m looking forward to the series!

    • Tanya 27th June, 2013 at 11:11 am #

      Oh – I love your insights from acting! This whole series started because I was chatting to a friend who is an actor, who was saying that the world of drama seemed so far removed from the world of church and Christianity, and we were discussing how we might integrate them more.

      Also – if you were the same person who commented on Elora’s blog – thank you! I replied to it, but it ate my reply up. (Annoying).

  2. Idelette 26th June, 2013 at 7:40 pm #

    This is great, Tanya!

    • Tanya 27th June, 2013 at 11:07 am #

      Oh yay! Thank you for stopping by!

  3. HopefulLeigh 26th June, 2013 at 6:04 pm #

    Love the connections you’ve made here! Such good insights.

    • Tanya 27th June, 2013 at 11:07 am #

      Thank you, friend! *happy dance*

  4. Mark Allman 26th June, 2013 at 5:37 pm #

    I think you spend a lot time in the gathering phase; where you gather up ideas and experiences and file them away in your mind; where you throw them all out and look at them; study them; then gather them back up to come back to again and again. This is a part of your writing I am sure Tanya; a part no one sees; a part that’s invaluable and may span a few hours or a few days or months, even years. For your writing flows from all who you are; your ideas; your struggles; your triumphs; your conversations with others; your reading; your daily interaction with all around you. Your ideas are the sketch and all the rest is the fill.

    And Tanya you do it very well once you fill in all in by putting it all on paper.

    • Tanya 27th June, 2013 at 11:06 am #

      Oo yes – gathering and filing. It makes it sound like a kind of harvest, doesn’t it? Love it.

      Thanks, Mark

  5. Amy Young 26th June, 2013 at 5:37 pm #

    Tanya, I had one clear book in me (it’s the one I’m trying to get an agent for … hehehe, I learned a lot through the process. Silly me, thought you wrote the book first.). Whether is ever sees the light of printed day, I’m OK because I wrote it to get me out of a work depressive funk/horrible dark hole that couldn’t be spoken of. If nothing else, it showed me it could be done. Now, as to other books I want to write, those are just floaty ideas and I think are going to look much more like the process you described above.

    As to the creative series …. I love it! My oldest niece (age 12) is a poet. She’s written over 100 poems and processes life and her feelings through poetry. At times, I wonder “where did you come from?” and I see how she might have fit in another era more naturally than the one to which she was born. But then, I think, every era needs such poets (one of my favorite lines: wind, oh glorious wind). Two other nieces made me the most wonderful welcome home sign with every letter a separate illustration. I hope that we fan all four of their creativity and not squelch it! Looking forward to the series 🙂 Amy

    • Tanya 27th June, 2013 at 11:05 am #

      I’d love to hear more about your book… And I am also of the opinion that it is better to write the book first – when it’s a really important, personal book and one that needs to be birthed out in pain and delight. I don’t want anyone ripping it from me and moulding it into something else. Do you know what I mean? Some things are too important. (Though naturally it would be nice to believe that the precious work of art is also jolly marketable…) Addie Zierman wrote the book first. I think Micha Boyett also did that. Sometimes artistic control is more important than sales. (This is what I am telling myself!)

      I love that your niece is writing poetry already! I think I was about fifteen when I started writing poetry. It was such a life-preserver for me.

      Thanks for coming by. I think I probably owe you an email! (I owe so many emails – why is it that I’m so great at social media and so terrible at replying to emails??)

  6. Abby Norman 26th June, 2013 at 2:55 pm #

    This is BRILLIANT! I am almost done with fill, then I will be ready to see that it is good. OOOoooof.

    • Tanya 26th June, 2013 at 4:30 pm #

      Thanks, friend!
      I like that there’s a fourth stage. We’ll get to that bit, won’t we? 🙂

  7. Kiki Malone 26th June, 2013 at 2:03 pm #

    Thanks for your recent post on your “muse”. I wrote about your post today on my post. Keep us informed on your book and writing process. I bless you with words and ideas and tenacity and energy today to run joyfully in the things set before you. Tally-ho!

    • Tanya 26th June, 2013 at 4:30 pm #

      I’ve literally just come from reading your blog! How COOL! Thank you for my blessing. 🙂

  8. Sipech 26th June, 2013 at 10:57 am #

    I certainly agree with the idea of breaking down ideas before you begin. Though I adopt this for some blog posts, which invariably makes them much longer than originally intended. For example, I wanted to write a post on discipleship by looking at the character of Simon Peter (after whom I named!). But to try to deal with this thoroughly, I found myself having to compare the accounts of his words and actions across the Synoptics, in John, in Acts, his own letters and in non-canonical sources. The one blog post quickly ballooned and I now have about 30 blog posts, all in draft form, each looking to be 1,000-3,000 words long. In other words, this is turning into a book. This has been going on for nearly 2 years and I doubt I’m a quarter of the way there.

    I’m not a naturally creative person. I’m more inquisitive and I write as a means of exploration of things which are already there, rather than as a means of construction ex nihilo. As such, I doubt I could sit down with the aim of writing a book. Rather, my means of writing is to think through a topic in great detail, ask questions and then try to answer them. If that ends up book length, so be it.

    All the best as you continue to plug away.

    • Tanya 26th June, 2013 at 4:29 pm #

      I LOVE this! Love the fact that you are so thorough and dedicated to accuracy and insight. Love the fact that you are secretly writing a book.

      And though I know what you’re saying in claiming not to be a creative person, you blatantly are. There are different methodologies perhaps, but I loved seeing just how much ‘methodology’ and ‘orderliness’ went in to God’s creation of the world. Plus, to be inquisitive about the things that are already there is virtually the definition of a poet. Don’t you try and disguise it – you’re creative. 🙂

      Wishing you well – I know you will complete it.

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