Category: Writing

How to Write a Book

How to Write a Book

I admit that “How to Write a Book” sounds like clickbait, but it’ll come to that – eventually. I’m planning on documenting the process of writing my first non-fiction book here, so you’ll see how to do it, post by post.

Or, to be more exact, how I do it. There’s, of course, no silver bullet, no handy manual on how to actually write a book. If anybody claims that, they’re lying. Or delusional. Sure, you can learn some of the technicalities: show, don’t tell; kill your darlings*; beware of adjectives and adverbs. And so on. But there are no shortcuts or miracle solutions; you learn how to write by writing and reading a lot. There’s no way around it.

I’ll document what I do here, on the blog, and I hope you’ll find it inspirational, if not instructive.


My Winding Path to Writing a Book

So (gulp) writing my first non-fiction book. It’s the book I needed to read myself, a (not always so) gentle push to live my creativity, let go of the fear and just do it. Write the book. Create the collage. Take the photo. Just do it!

I always thought that I didn’t have enough time or energy to be creative, to do the things I wanted to do while I was climbing the corporate ladder. Given enough time, I’d dazzle the world with my art.

And, lo and behold! November 2019 came and I resigned my fancy job at Microsoft. “Now I’ll show them!” Or not.

2020 was NOT the year my books would be written, or stunning photos exhibited. True, Covid-19 made everyone’s lives a misery, but even so, I thought I’d do more with my freedom. Instead, I agonized about every word, every photo; nothing I did was good enough, and the fear paralyzed me.

It took most the 2020 to figure it out. I dragged myself out of the hole I had dig myself in, found new routines and created a plan. Hence, the non-fiction book.


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

Getting Started

To start with, I need to do some research. I’m sorry I cannot say more about it. I don’t like being secretive, and I’m not afraid of somebody stealing my idea. Ideas are dozen a dime; it’s the execution that counts. No, what I’m afraid of is jinxing it. (It seems I haven’t conquered all my fears, after all.) I may share more later if I start feeling more comfortable.

Before diving into that pile of books (and it’s a symbolic pile since almost all my books nowadays are electronic), I do need to have a proper reading list. I’m sure my future me will thank me.

Cal Newport has a great article on building a research database, and I think I’ll keep it simple with an Excel file. There are more advanced ways, but I feel an Excel file meets my needs. I don’t want to over-complicate things; I like to keep things simple.

That’s it for now. I’ll cover the research file in the next post.


* About killing your darlings. The saying has been attributed to many authors, from Oscar Wilde, Eudora Welty and William Faulkner to G.K. Chesterton, Chekhov and Stephen King.

King leads this attribution game nowadays, very likely due to this sentence from his excellent book On Writing: “Kill your darlings, kill your darlings, even when it breaks your egocentric little scribbler’s heart, kill your darlings.

Most scholars point to British writer Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch.“If you here require a practical rule of me, I will present you with this: ‘Whenever you feel an impulse to perpetrate a piece of exceptionally fine writing, obey it—whole-heartedly—and delete it before sending your manuscript to press. Murder your darlings.’”, he wrote in his book On the Art of Writing.


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Ray Bradbury’s Writing Advice For Writers To Be

In one of his lectures collected in the slim volume titled “Ray Bradbury: On Writing,” Bradbury talks about young people dreaming of writing a novel. His advice? Start small. Don’t start with a novel, which will take a long time to write, only to find out at the end it wasn’t good enough.

On Writing

Practice your skills, learn how to write by writing short stories. Write one short story a week. You’ll have the satisfaction of completing something in a relatively short period of time, and you’ll learn a lot. You’ll learn to compact things; to look for ideas; to see a metaphor, and how to write it. At the end of the year, there should be at least one good story. And you’re learning the craft.

Write What You Want to Read

Write what you want to read. Write about what you love, what you hate; write about what you fear; write with joy and abandon. Writing should be fun, not a chore.

Writing is not a serious business. It’s a joy and a celebration. You should be having fun at it. (…) I’ve never worked a day in my life. The joy of writing has propelled me from day to day and year to year. I want you to envy my joy.

Close up of book shelves, two of them dedicated to writing. Photo by Mihaela Limberea.

On Reading

As a writer, you should write a lot, and read a lot, too. The library is your school of writing, as it was his. Ray Bradbury never went to college; he couldn’t afford it. But he went to the library several times a week and, in his words, “graduated from the library”.

I want you to live the fever pitch. I want you to go to the library. The great thing about libraries is surprise, isn’t it? To pull books off the shelf and not know what they are (…).

What Should You Read?

Read and learn from the best. Every night, before going to bed, read one short story, one poem, one essay from various fields. Do this for a thousand nights, and you’ll have a solid education.

Ray Bradbury’s Recommended Reading

Short Stories

Short Stories

  • Roald Dahl
  • Guy De Maupassant
  • John Cheever
  • Richard Matheson
  • John Collier
  • Edith Wharton
  • Katherine Anne Porter
  • Eudora Welty
  • Washington Irving
  • Melville
  • Edgar Allan Poe
  • Nathaniel Hawthorne

Essays

Poems

  • Aldous Huxley
  • Loren Eiseley
  • George Bernard Shaw
  • G. K. Chesterton

Go back and read the classics.

  • Shakespeare
  • Alexander Pope
  • Robert Frost

My Reading Education

I grew up in a home where there weren’t many books, but the ones we had were all classics. There was a book series collecting the classic works of both Romanian and foreign authors of all time. That was a gold mine for a child with an inquisitive mind, thirsting for knowledge, curious about everything. My parents didn’t forbid me to read any books; thankfully, they didn’t practice age-appropriate reading.

So I grew up reading Jules Verne, Daniel Defoe, and Mark Twain’s children’s books. In fact, my sister read them to me before I could read them myself. You could say I was primed for reading (thank you, sis!).

But I also read Balzac, Dickens, Leo Tolstoy, W. M. Thackeray, Emily Brontë, and Charlotte Brontë. I probably read Anna Karenina, Vanity Fair, Wuthering Heights, and Jane Eyre a dozen times before I went to university.

Book Cover of Anton Chekhov Stories. Photo by Mihaela Limberea
My edition of Chekhov’s Stories.

At the university, we were required to read the classics. I was one of the few students who actually read the whole list.

They’re classic for a reason: they’re well written and show us the universal in people, humanity, our world. They endured hundreds, if not thousands, of years. Which best-sellers of today would still be best-sellers in fifty years?

Long story short, reading classic works is a good, free education. I would add Anton Chekhov, Sake, and Katherine Mansfield to Bradbury’s list of short stories.


I leave you with the best quote from this lecture (The Hygiene of Writing).

Don’t live on your god damned computers and the internet and all that crap. Go to the library.


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Just Squander Yourself

Waves crashing on the beach. Photo by Mihaela Limberea
Waves crashing on the beach, Fregate Island, Seychelles.

The task is always to write every single piece like it’s your only one. It has to have that energy. Use your best material now. Just squander yourself. Enjoy it. I don’t want to read anyone’s tepid writing.

Parul Sehgal 

The quote comes from this excellent interview with Parul Sehgal, book critic at The New York Times, and former editor and columnist at The New York Times Book Review.

One of the few things I know about writing is this: spend it all, shoot it, play it, lose it, all, right away, every time. Do not hoard what seems good for a later place in the book, or for another book; give it, give it all, give it now. The impulse to save something good for a better place later is the signal to spend it now. Something more will arise for later, something better. These things fill from behind, from beneath, like well water. Similarly, the impulse to keep to yourself what you have learned is not only shameful, it is destructive. Anything you do not give freely and abundantly becomes lost to you. You open your safe and find ashes.

Annie Dillard

Annie Dillard, along the same lines.


How To Handle A Creative Block & Avoid Distraction

Creative Block?

As creators, we’ve all been there, showing up to do the work, and nothing happened. Going through the motions, following the ritual (you do have a ritual?), yet the creative spark is gone, not even smoldering ashes left. The empty page.The blank canvas. The feared creative block. “Is it all gone? Will I ever be able to write anything? What’s happening?” That’s scary. I know it because I’ve been there. Too often.

Try Visual Writing Prompts

One of the tricks I’ve learned to jumpstart my writing when I feel stuck is visual writing prompts. I would pick a random photo and force myself to write the beginning of a story based on the image. Something short and easy to get me going. You can see an example at the end of this post.

I try not to use one of my own photos but something completely different, to force my brain into something new. A site such as Unsplash, offering free photos for download, is great for the purpose. (I may want to use a text in the future, so it’s good to know I won’t need to worry about licensing).

This gets me started at any time, just because I don’t have any expectations to produce something extraordinary or brilliant. I’m just supposed to write a few words; I can do that.

… And Avoid Distractions

Close up of a Small Tortoiseshell Butterfly on a daisy. Photo by Mihaela Limberea.
Don’t fly from flower to flower as a butterfly. My photo from my old garden.

However, more often than not, as my writing starts to flow, it takes me in a new direction. I’m suddenly drawn into a new story, and curiosity pushes me to continue instead of returning to what I was working on. It’s good fun, and the temptation is to go with the flow. The brain is skilled at taking the path of the least resistance, that old rascal.

This is where discipline comes in. I can’t afford to start on a new story; I have to finish what I’ve started before going in a new direction. It’s tempting to abandon the work when the going gets tough and respond to a new project’s sirens’ song. But all this approach does is make sure I don’t finish anything, ending up with many great starts with no ends. Ask me how I know.

Use a Slush File

This is where a slush file comes in handy. What’s a slush file, you ask. This is where all good but seducing ideas go. Got a great idea for a different project? I write it down and return to the project I was working on. Once I’ve finished it, I’ll visit the slush file and pick a new project.

… And Keep It Simple

My slush file is very straightforward: a bullet point list in Apple’s Notes app, points grouped by project. Something like this:

  • End of the world story, a prepper & his cousin.
    • “Prepper John” has a so-called shack middle of nowhere, in fact, a well-stored bunker. Remote island??
    • Cousin (she), a journalist, meets him at the shack for an interview on prepping.
    • Zombies!!

I keep the Notes app easily accessible on my phone’s home screen. I don’t need to search for it, or open folders and files. As soon as I get one of those tempting ideas, I just write it down quickly in Notes, and resume whatever I was doing at the time.

Photo by Alexander Schimmeck on Unsplash

Visual Writing Prompt Example

I leave you with an example of a visual prompt. I found an everyday photo of a garage on Unsplash; these are a few story beginnings I wrote. I can tell you that I’ve used my slush file after this exercise. (Yep, I love a good zombie story, I admit. And terriers called Jexy.)

  • I was tinkering with my old motorcycle in my parents’ subbasement garage, with Jaxy as sole company, when the first zombies reached Stockholm. That saved my life.
  • Having my own space was the most important thing back then. Even if it was just a run-down garage with an astronomical rent and rich in cockroaches.
  • My new home office didn’t look much to the world, but it was my own. Only Jaxy seemed to think differently and barked at the battered van. I had to agree, “some renovation needed” was an understatement.
  • 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.

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About Art and Artists

A Sea Star
Sea Treasures Photo © Mihaela Limberea

A few weeks ago, I stumbled over an interesting article about art and artists, How to Be an Artist, by Jerry Saltz, the New York Magazine art critic. The whole article lists thirty-three points and is worth reading in full. I have inserted below a few points that resonated with me. Especially the last one. LOL.

  • Tell your own story, and you will be interesting.
  • Your skill will be whatever it is you’re doing differently.
  • Writers need editors.* No exceptions.
  • Life is your syllabus: gather from everywhere.
  • The best definition of success is time – the time to do your work.
  • Be delusional: I have one solution to turn away these demons: After beating yourself up for half an hour or so, stop and say out loud, ”Yeah, but I’m a fucking genius.”

* My comment: definitely; it’s sufficient to compare Andy Weir’s The Martian (self-published) to Artemis (published by  Ballantine Books). QED. I love Science-Fiction, and I did read the whole Martian. But I wished all the time for an editor. I almost grabbed a pen and started editing it myself.


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The Theory Of Willlessness

A pine tree top against a background of dark storm clouds.
Before the storm. Photo © Mihaela Limberea

Nothing can be willed into being, only waited on, for, or waited out.

A.K. Ramanujan from “Journeys: A Poet’s Diary”

I often find myself thinking of Ramanujan‘s words, especially when the blank page stares at me, the cursor steadily flickering its accusatory blink. I delete more than I write. The inner critic is always on duty. But write I do, in the end. After all, “you can always edit a bad page; you can’t edit a blank page.” Jodi Picoult would know.



There Is No Time For Despair

Photo © Mihaela Limberea

This is precisely the time when artists go to work. There is no time for despair, no place for self-pity, no need for silence, no room for fear. We speak, we write, we do language. This is how civilizations heal. I know the world is bruised and bleeding, and though it is important not to ignore its pain, it is also critical to refuse to succumb to its malevolence. Like failure, chaos contains information that can lead to knowledge – even wisdom. Like art. – Toni Morrison

As always, books are comforting. Both to write and to read. To give away, to loan, or to borrow. To read aloud or listen to. A shelter from the madness outside. Consolation. Oh, the “sweet serenity of books,” as Longfellow puts it. 

I write a bit; I delete a bit more, pause, stare through the window at the rough sea and the white clouds of the surf. A blackbird jumps back and forth on the grass, looking for worms. The cat suns herself, lazily licking her paw. I write away the virus, the anxiety, the madding crowd.


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Writing Lately

Taking my own advice, I continue writing, despite alarmist media reports, gradual movement restriction in Sweden, and my own distraction. Creativity is hard work at any time, not only during a pandemic. So, I sit down every morning, turn on my computer, and start typing. 

I’m writing a short story at the moment. I was working on a novel but decided to pause it for a while. With a story, I can (hopefully) be done quickly, and that would give me a feeling of accomplishment. It’s also good fun writing it, and fun is a good thing these days. 

The funny thing (see what I did here?) is that I had completely forgotten about it. I had a few loose ideas, but I was working on a different thing at the time, so I just wrote them down, saved them in a “Writing Ideas” folder for later, and then promptly forgot about it. 

A few days ago, two years later, I was looking for something else and came across this file titled “The Author.” I had absolutely no idea what it was. I opened it, read the couple of pages it consisted of and, not to sound my own trumpet, but they were good! With a few funny twists thrown in for good measure. So, I grabbed the file, got to work, and ended up in that creative bubble where everything seems far away, even the coronavirus, and the world is warm, and nice, and fuzzy.

The learnings?

Koala by Mihaela Limberea www.limberea.com
A cute koala for your enjoyment. View on Black Photo © Mihaela Limberea

1) Always carry paper and pen with you and jot down any idea that you get. You will not remember it later. I’ve placed small blocks of paper and pens strategically everywhere in the house and my pocket when I’m out. You could argue, of course, that you can use your smartphone, but I favor paper and pen. I enjoy leafing through the pages, slowly, back and forth, for the incommensurable joy of the unexpected connections that sometimes may jump at you from the pages.

2) Use a folder to organize these loose thoughts so you can easily find them later. Whether the folder is digital or analog doesn’t really matter, it only needs to suit your organizational system. You do have one I trust? 

Then let them marinate for a while, while you can carry on with your ongoing projects. You can come back any time to look for some ideas when you’re stuck or ready to kick off a new project.

Chance, or fate, or just the butterfly effect may sometimes lead you to the end of the rainbow too. All you have to do is trust your creative genie.

Stay safe. Stay healthy. Stay calm and soldier on. And don’t forget to laugh. 


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Our Power Is Patience

“Novelists are not only unusually depressed, by and large, but have, on the average, about the same IQ as the cosmetics consultants at Bloomingdale’s department store. Our power is patience. We have discovered that writing allows even a stupid person to seem halfway intelligent, if only that person will write the same thought over and over again, improving it just a little bit each time. It is a lot like inflating a blimp with a bicycle pump. Anybody can do it. All it takes is time.”

Photo © Mihaela Limberea

I find solace in this Kurt Vonnegut quote in my moments of doubt, struggling with a text that doesn’t resemble in any way the picture I have in my head. I continue hammering at the keyboard, hoping to reach that exhilarating state when everything becomes possible.

From Suzanne McConnell’s book, Pity the Reader: On Writing with Style.


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Catching The Heart-Beat Of Life

The secret of it all is, to write in the gush, the throb, the flood, of the moment – to put things down without deliberation – without worrying about their style – without waiting for a fit time or place. I always worked that way. I took the first scrap of paper, the first doorstep, the first desk, and wrote – wrote, wrote. No prepared pictures, no elaborated poem, no after-narrative, could be what the thing itself is. You want to catch its first spirit – to tally its birth. By writing at the instant the very hear-beat of life is caught.

Walt Whitman on writing from ”Walt Whitman Speaks: Final Thoughts on Life, Writing, Spirituality, and the Promise of America.” You can find it here.

The New York Review of Books published the introduction (in a somewhat different form) in the April 18th, 2019 issue; a good read available here.


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