Category: Writing

Keep Going: Cardio for Zombie Hunters and Writers

Digital art by Mihaela Limberea.
One of my early digital artworks.

As a writer, as an artist in any field, in fact, you need stamina. Endurance. Grit. Persistence. The equivalent of Rule #1 in Zombieland: cardio. Cardio for the brain. 

Laboring day after day, alone, with no other guidance than the vision in your head, takes its toll. You waver. You stumble and fall. You lose your way (even Dante needed a guide).

Self-doubt sets in. “Am I really doing the right thing? Should I have gone a different way? What if I fail? Is this good enough?” The inner critic gains on you; you start losing yourself, overwhelmed by his incessant, malicious chatter.

Patience wears thin. You look at the few lines you wrote and imagine the unfathomable amount of time it’ll take to stretch it in a book. A whole book. How would you ever get there? You can’t imagine it anymore.

Distractions attack your focus. You mean to check a synonym, and half an hour is gone, without a synonym to show for it. (But on the other hand, you know a lot more about the mating rituals of penguins).

Yet, somehow, you have to keep going. Keep working, keep realizing the vision in your head, despite, at times, crippling self-doubt, constant restlessness, and distractions.

How do you do that? How do you keep going when you feel you’ve spent yourself, and you don’t have anything left to give? When you can’t imagine writing one more paragraph, let alone a whole page or a whole chapter? 

Simple. Small steps. 

Forget the goal (a whole book!), just focus on the task for the day. Writing 500 words. Or 1,000. Then forget them as well. 

Write one sentence. Just one. Then the next one. Then the next one.

Don’t think, just write. One word at a time. Pebble by pebble by pebble, as Donna Tartt says*.

Successful writers are the ones who keep working, not the ones who have talent or write beautiful sentences. Yes, there may be more talented writers, and yes, some may write better than you. But this means nothing if they don’t persevere and actually finish the project. What matters, in the end, is the end result. 

So, you write one word, and another one, and another one. Day after day after day. There’s no other way.


* It is just pebble by pebble by pebble by pebble. I write one sentence until I am happy with it until I go on to the next one and write that one until I am happy with it. And I look at my paragraph and if I am not happy with that I’ll write the paragraph until I’m happy with it and then I go on this way. And, of course, even writing this very slow way, one does have to go back. One does start off on the wrong foot sometimes and a whole scene has to be chopped and you have to start over again. Generally, you know that pretty quickly though. You realize you have painted yourself into a corner and you think, “Okay I am just going to trace my footsteps back to the last solid bit of ground that I know. Look around start again and take a different tack.” It’s the way that William Styron writes and he said, when he was about my age, that he realized that he had maybe four or five books in him—the way that he worked—and he said he was fine with that. I’m fine with that too. It’s okay by me.Donna Tartt


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You’ll Always Have More Ideas Than Time

Coffee mug and notebook near a fireplace.
Photo by Rafael Leão on Unsplash

While I am working diligently on my research, I’m fighting this sudden urge to abandon the book I’m toiling on and write another book. A very compelling idea came my way. It feels so right that I’m ready to jettison the current material and just start again.

It’s a huge temptation. But is this the right thing to do?

I know it’s not. How do I know? I’ve learned it the hard way. *

A bright new idea makes current work seems dreary compared to whatever I’m working on. Naïve me abandons said dreary work to jump on board another project, so full of promises and hopes that it’s only right to do it. I enthusiastically start, work for a while, and realize that it’s become, well, dreary as time goes by. Then, I have an idea. Again. I feel stupid, but I’m not willing to cut my losses. Yet. I’ve invested in the first project, discarded all that work, started again, put in more time and effort – should I abandon this as well?

It’s a vicious circle. You’ll always have more ideas than time to execute them. It takes a lot of discipline to resist the pull of sparkling new ideas; the brain loves shiny bright objects, the rascal (this is the novelty bias at play).

I cannot afford to be seduced by new promises. It feels good in the beginning, then reality sets in, and I’ll be back to square one in no time.

Reluctantly, I write down the new idea in my Future Projects-list and go back to work.


* Remember when I said that I’d write a short story instead of the SF novel I was working on? Guess what? I didn’t finish it. Nor did I continue with the novel. Instead, I got a new idea! A non-fiction book! It’ll be great! Leave the dull stuff behind; let’s do this new, cool stuff instead!

This is why I started documenting the process of writing my book here on the blog. This serves a dual purpose: first, I’ll be less prone to chase new ideas, and second, I’ll have to finish it. Don’t underestimate the power of social accountability to keep your promises.


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Nothing Is So Intimate as Writing a Book

An open notebook
Photo by Kiwihug on Unsplash

I know I’ve been secretive about the book I’m working on, but I can’t help it. It’s too fragile a thing to be exposed to the world. A small plant, a tiny greenhouse flower that still needs nutrients, and water, and a lot of tender care and protection before it’s ready to be planted in the garden to stand on its own.

Maybe I doubt it’s a good idea after all, and I don’t want my bubble to be burst yet.

Maybe I’ll change my mind and go into a different direction.

Or maybe I’m not ready to bare my soul yet. Nothing is so intimate as writing a book, pouring your soul on the page, and sending it out in the world, alone and vulnerable. 

As Vita Sackville-West said, “The book the one is writing at the moment is really the most intimate part of one, and the part about which one preserves the strictest secrecy. What is love or sex, compared with the intensity of the life one leads in one’s book? A trifle; a thing to be shouted from the hill-tops.”  (in a letter to Virginia Woolf on July 24th, 1929, from the book The Letters of Vita Sackville -West and Virginia Woolf, edited by Louise DeSalvo and Mitchell Leaska).


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Perfect Is the Enemy of Done

A book and a notebook on a desk.
Photo by Aaron Burden on Unsplash

Many people dream about writing a book but never get past talking about it.

Some start but get stuck “researching,” afraid that they may miss something essential if they don’t read that next book. And the next one. And the next one, in a never-ending stream of self-deceit.

Others start but never finish because they’re continuously tinkering with it, adding a word here, another there, shuffling paragraphs around, the eternal Joseph Grands. They’re not adding new material propelling the book forward, just recycling old stuff.

It doesn’t have to be perfect. Perfect doesn’t exist. We’re only deceiving ourselves thinking that one more day, one more week, one more month to put the finishing touch on that artwork, on that project, will miraculously transform it, making it perfect.

Perfect is the enemy of done.


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What Should I Write About?

Close up of a vintage style typewriter with the paper in it saying "Chapter I".

Every morning it’s the same. I’m ready to start writing, and I’m just paralyzed by the white page in front of me. What should I write about? How should I start? 

I read about writers who stop working for the day when the writing is going well, in the middle of a paragraph, and I never understood it. I felt compelled to finish whatever I was working on, wrapping the day’s work nicely, put a bow on it. I couldn’t leave anything unfinished. 

But lately, it dawned on me that leaving the work when I knew what I was going to write was the perfect way of ensuring I would get started in the morning – because I knew exactly how to continue. And in writing, the hardest part is to begin, at least for me.

The problem is me, of course. I don’t always follow my own advice. This is why I’m back at “What should I write? How should I start?”.


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How to Create a Project Plan for Writing a Non-Fiction Book

A pile of books, an open book, and a cup of coffee on a table.
Photo by freestocks on Unsplash

I should probably have started my book writing log with this post, but hey, better late than never!  This post is about creating a project plan for writing a non-fiction book.

At Microsoft, I used to manage large global projects, and I always used a project plan. So, when I wanted to write my first non-fiction book, my first step was to figure out what I needed to do by when. 

I spent quite some time on this. Managing large projects has taught me that careful planning is essential. It’s well-invested time. Later on, when you have a lot to do, and life starts whirling around you at lightspeed (as it will do), you’ll be thankful that you don’t have to think about what’s next. You’ve done all thinking in the planning phase, so you can just have a look at your plan and go do the next tasks. Easy.


How to Create a Project Plan for Writing a Non-Fiction Book

I used these two books: Robin Colucci, How to Write a Book That Sells You and Tucker Max & Zach Obront, The Book In A Box Method; they complement each other well. 

Robin Colucci offers a checklist on her website, and I used that as my foundation. It didn’t include the research part, even though she talks about gathering your research etc., in the book. I’ve read a lot of books on writing non-fiction, and not one mentioned research at all. 

I searched online, and Cal Newport’s article on how to build a research database was best in its simplicity. Read my earlier post about my research database; you can download my database template if you’re interested.

Anyway, I built on Colucci’s template, added the research part, more on editing, and created new sales and marketing sections. Her book didn’t look into that at all since she assumed you’d want a publisher. I’m not sure which way I’ll go, so I’ve added those sections but didn’t go into great details. At this point, I’m focused on writing the book, not dreaming about sales. There’ll be time for time once I start editing.

I’m still wrestling with the research part. I feel it should come before outlining the book because, although I’m clear on what I want to include in the book, changes may be needed once I’ve read the research books. I’ll update the template once I’ve been through the process and learn more.

Here’s my template. With a column for Comments, of course. Feel free to use it. And do let me know if you have any questions or feedback!


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Being an Artist Is an Act of Daring

Withered grass in the snow. Photo by Mihaela Limberea
“Is this good enough for my portfolio? Should I try taking more photos tomorrow?”

Being an artist is an act of daring. Daring to bare your soul to the world.  A creative person does his work at home and keeps it at home, away from critical eyes. An artist sends it out in the world for all to see, to enjoy it, and criticize it. This is what separates amateurs from professionals.

You know all those modern art pieces you sneered at, saying, “I could do that!”, “I could do that better!”. Well, why didn’t you? Why don’t you? 

Maybe you could. But that artist didn’t stop at talking about her art, how she was going to create this great piece, how innovative it was. She didn’t dream about creating that beautiful artwork while waiting to have more time or take another course. She acted on it. Intention and follow through. That’s why they say, “The road to hell is paved with good intentions and roofed with lost opportunities.” 

Good intentions and great plans will get you nowhere very fast. You get an excellent idea and think, “I have something here. This would be a perfect start for a novel.”. And so, you toy with the idea, dream about writing that novel, maybe even find it a catchy title. You can see the cover, with “a splendid debut”-blurb splashed over it. You write the opening lines.

The morning the first undead burst into the city, Mats woke up in a dilapidated garage, his head pulsing with the mother of all headaches. A dog stared at him, tail wagging furiously back and forth. Where the hell was he? What was he doing in this, this…place? With a terrier? If it was a terrier, Mats didn’t know much about dogs and, frankly, didn’t care. Of course, had he known about the undead, his view of things may have been slightly different.

The new genre-renewing zombie novel! And you will write it! As soon as you’ve finished that new book about writing horror, and you have a little more time to think about the plot. Days, weeks, and months go by, and you’re still re-working the first paragraph, slowly turning into Joseph Grand in the process. 

A field of ice. Photo by Mihaela Limberea
Field of Ice. Good enough?

The safest road to hell is the gradual one – the gentle slope, soft underfoot, without sudden turnings, without milestones, without signposts. (C. S. LewisThe Screwtape Letters).

A true artist dares to send out her imperfect creation in the world. She wasn’t ready to; no artist ever is. But at some point, she’s made her peace with the work. It’s not as brilliant as she can see it in her mind’s eye, but she accepts that this is the best she can do right now. 

There’ll be criticism; there always is, of course. While nobody is ever ready for it, she moves on; she releases her soul’s child to the cold eyes of critics. Her work is done.

Creative people keep their creations close; anguished, they protect them. Artists release them to fend for themselves.


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How to Build a Research Database for a Non-Fiction Book

Library Index Cards Drawer to illustrate a research database. The State Library of New South Wales, Sydney, Australia. Photo by Mihaela Limberea
The State Library of New South Wales, Sydney, Australia. Of course I visit libraries while on vacation! You don’t?

As mentioned in my earlier post, I’ve started building the research database for my non-fiction book. 

I had looked around on the world wide web earlier and found several good articles on how to do that, all more or less complicated. I’m a gal of simple tastes, so I was looking for something not too complicated or relying too much on technology. I wanted a simple solution, sustainable in the long run. I’m planning on writing more books.

Cal Newport had a great article on building a research database, and I followed that process and kept it simple with an Excel file. Newport’s article focuses on writing an academic paper, but I found it useful for a non-fiction book too.

There are more advanced ways, but I feel an Excel file meets my needs. I don’t want to over-complicate things. Apps come and go; Excel remains. Simplicity is the essence of happiness, as Cedric Bledsoe said.

The only thing that I’ve added is an extra column for Comments. Everyone with whom I worked on a project at Microsoft would recognize it. No project plan of mine would ever miss this column, ha, ha! I simply find it so useful for recording bits of information that you may need, for instance, a link to a relevant site. Once a process improver, always the process improver, I guess.

Here’s the file if you’re interested. Feel free to download it, and let me know if you have any feedback or questions.


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Just Do It!

Close up of a vintage-style typewriter with the words "Just do it" typed on the page.

Just Do It may or may not be a morbid slogan, but it’s a darn good one. Write every day. Just do it!

By writing every day, painting every day, touching the piano tangents even when we’re not “feeling like it,” we stay attuned to the craft magic, and we learn. Small steps every day build up experience and skills over time.

We learn discipline. We learn patience. We learn that creativity is not inspiration, something that strikes mysteriously one moment, but a habit. The habit of daily practice.

The body is smarter. It has muscle memory. You sit at your desk every day, you take up your pen or your brush, and you start. Small things; a few words, a few sentences. Nothing scary or demanding. The play of shadows and light on the wall. The well-known fragrance of the incense sticks. The hot tea mug in your hand. The body remembers the clues. You’re primed for creating. 

Just do it


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Progress Report. Or Lack Thereof

So much for building my research database. I didn’t make as much progress as I thought with it. I did get started as planned, but it’s slow-moving.

Oh, there are reasons. Of course. There are always reasons.

We had to pick up the artworks we left for framing and pick frames for the next ones. Because of the pandemic, there’s no drop-in, you have to make an appointment, and we cannot always control the timing. It seems everyone is framing pictures on Lidingö these days; the place is bustling.

A framed picture of three drawings by Keith Harrington.
Exhibit no. 1: one of the framed pictures I had to pick up.
It consists of three large Keith Haring postcards from the Haring exhibition at the National Gallery of Victoria in Melbourne 2019.

The new desks for the home office were finally delivered, too, and I had to vacate the office to have them assembled, then re-decorate the room.

The cat had her final X-rays for her broken paw, and we had to go to the vet one more time.

We had a lot of home deliveries too.

The deer knocked off the bird feeders.

The dog ate my homework.


Life happens. There’s always something, and if I have to wait until everything is in order to write, the right planets and stars aligned, I will get nothing done.

I have to work through all this. Despite all this.

I’m also plodding, like competing-with-a-tortoise. Once I pick up speed, and I’ve got going, it’s smooth sailing, but I have a long start sequence. Too long.

The smallest disturbance or interruption derails me, and the re-start is slow. I need to work on my attention and my focus. I was spoiled by working at home alone for over ten years, comfortable in my routines, and free to work and take breaks as I pleased.

With my husband working from home too now and sharing an (albeit large) room, I find the smallest interruption disruptive. I need to shift my mindset to allow that I’m no longer working alone instead of trying to recreate those ideal conditions that no longer apply. I realize now that I was set in my ways, trying to force this new life into the mold of my old one.


The last couple of weeks have been better, in fact. I try to compartmentalize things and think, “oh, new compartment,” when there’s an interruption. Then I get back to work by switching to the “work compartment.” It does take a few minutes to shift my focus back to whatever I was doing, but it’s better than the muttered resentment and the longer focus loss. It’s still work in progress, and I think I like the progress, if you’ll forgive the pun.

Anyway. I’ve started building my research database. Yawn. Before I started, I was looking forward to work on the reading list, because, you know, books! But once I started, the boring emerged, and I started to fantasize about reading the books, not merely write a list. Why is the promise of future work more appealing than the work you’re currently doing?

Close up of a vintage-style typewriter with the words "Just do it" typed on the page.

Mindset. It’s all about the mindset. I need to work on the list so that I can read the books. As simple as that. Just do it.


By the way, do you know where that Nike slogan comes from? It’s a pretty morbid story. Facing execution for murdering two people, Gary Gilmore’s last words were, “Let’s do it.” That was 1977. A decade later, Dan Wieden, an advertising executive, pitched the slogan “Just do it” to Nike and, eventually, succeeded. The slogan, inspired by Gilmore’s words, aired in 1988 and, at the time, struggling Nike became the sport and fashion giant we know today.

And here’s another example of me going off on a tangent instead of working on my list. I admit it was far more rewarding checking the internet for a murderer’s last words than working on my Excel file. Now I understand why people kill their internet and delete all the apps on their phones. I’m not sure I could go that far, but I’d better go back to work.

Do you know what happens if you type “go back to work” on Google? You’d see all these Covid-19 related regulations about returning to work after a lockdown.

Results of a Google search

Right, I’ll go back to work. For sure. Right away. Just give me a sec. Any time now.


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