Tag: Writing Advice

If You Want to Be a Writer, Write!

A pink water lily. Photo by Mihaela Limberea

I was talking to my aunt some time ago, and I mentioned I was reading about stoicism. “Well, that’s certainly the best time to do it.”, she said as we were talking about Covid-19 just before we moved on to books.

A practical philosophy to guide you to live a better life, become a better and wiser human being, more resilient to whatever life throws at you, Stoicism is definitely helpful these days. 

But what I was thinking about, in fact, was the way you could apply it in your creative endeavors.  We’re all human beings, after all, before being artists.

Stoics didn’t give much for theories, they were more hands on. They valued action, not talk. 

Live your values, don’t just talk about them, simply put.

For an artist, it means you shouldn’t talk about the book you’re going to write, the music you’ll compose, the painting you’ll do. You should write. You should compose. You should paint. Then you can talk about it.


Don’t explain your philosophy. Embody it, said Epictetus.

Waste no more time arguing what a good man should be. Be oneMarcus Aurelius advised.

If you want to be a writer, write. Don’t talk about writing.


As a beginner, it’s easy to get caught in appearances. You know, people-watching at a café, scribbling ideas onto a Moleskine notebook. Buying the latest and greatest writing software and gadgets. Tinkering with a website. And so on.

But these are all, well, appearances.

What you don’t see when reading a good book is the toil behind it. The time on the chair, the long hours spent staring at the blank page, the despair, the self-doubt, the inner criticism, the endless edits, the re-writs, time after time, day after day. Writing is a hard business, as Hemingway once said. *

Don’t be one of those people sitting at the café, sipping their latte, and talk about writing a book. Stop talking and start creating.

You become an artist by doing the work of an artist, not by talking about it.


* letter to Maxwell Perkins, 1938 from Selected Letters


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Spend It All

Close up of a palm leaf. Photo by Mihaela Limberea

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 (b. 1945), American author. Her book Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, a “sustained nonfiction narrative about the fields, creeks, woods, and mountains near Roanoke, Virginia,” won the 1975 Pulitzer Prize for General Nonfiction.


To read more quotes, click here.



All Creation Is an Act of Faith

Reflection of reeds in the lake water. Photo by Mihaela Limberea

All creation is an act of faith. Faith in yourself and your capacity. Your skills. Your persistence. Your vision. Especially your vision.

As an artist, you don’t have a blueprint, a manual to show you the way. No IKEA how-to-kit. “Follow these steps, assemble these parts; here’s the final product.” Only the vision in your mind, of what it could be.

At times, you may waver. Self-doubt creeps in. You run into a problem, and your vision seems to be more and more a fata morgana, a mirage drawing further and further away.

Other times, you cannot be even bothered to do the work. “What’s the use? It’ll be useless. It’s such a bad idea.”

That’s fine, in fact. Self-doubt is an artist’s constant companion. We have to learn to live with it. Acknowledge it, look it in the eye, and keep working. 

There’s no other way.


If you hear a voice within you say you cannot paint, then by all means, paint, and that voice will be silenced.
― Vincent van Gogh


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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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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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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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How to Do Research for a Non-Fiction Book

Stack of old books.
Photo by Chris Lawton on Unsplash

When we moved from Switzerland to Sweden in late 2019 I decided to do a Kondo review of our possessions. I didn’t want to bring old stuff into our new home and new life in Sweden. It was a signal of new beginnings, with a clean slate.

Old stuff in the huge garage or the bomb shelter … OK, that sounds crazy. Let me explain. Yes, we had a bomb shelter room, with a heavy, thick steel door like a bank vault, complete with six field beds, a chemical toilet, and an air filtering system. It’s a requirement when building a house in Switzerland. If it made me feel safer? I don’t know, but it was perfect for additional storage with 25 square meters.

This brings me back to the move. The extra storage area meant that even more stuff found its’ way there. Some things were easier to throw out than others. Books and my archive papers were hard. 


I had the idea of my non-fiction book for a few years and had started collecting material, even though I wasn’t sure how I could write it when I was working more than full-time and was utterly exhausted during the weekends. But I kept at it because I knew the day would come.

So here I was with boxes of papers, ready to start my new life as a writer, at last. I couldn’t leave all that behind now, could I? What I did, in the end, was a quick scanning, removing duplicates or outdated papers. There were still too many boxes, but I did what I could.

Now to the “how” part. 


How to Do Research for a Non-Fiction Book

1) Preparation

To lose a passport was the least of one’s worries: to lose a notebook was a catastrophe,” travel writer Bruce Chatwin said. All research starts with a notebook. A kernel of an idea, an overheard conversation, something the neighbor said, a book I’ve read. I write it all down in my little Moleskine notebook that I always carry with me. Nowadays I use the iPhone’s Notes app as well.

As my intentions became clearer, I wrote a few points that would later go into the book outline. Nothing detailed yet, just high level, to provide directions.

Once I had a pretty good idea about what kind of book I wanted to write, I bought a few folders in clear pretty pastel colors and organized the papers I already had. This helped me better understand where I was going with the book.

2) Online Research

Then on to do some online research, starting with Google Scholar, and expanding from there. I did a quick check on what others have written on the subject, and their sources, as they’ve already done their research.

I follow a few writers in my areas of interest; many of the experts in their field would have a homepage or a blog, and often, they would list recommended books. A pre-validated list, that’s gold.

3) The Library 

Libraries are magical. Imagine all that knowledge, free for anyone to grab! Non-fiction books are organized by topics, so this step is relatively easy. I just went to the relevant shelves and browsed. I’m pretty good at scanning books quickly, and my list grew pretty fast.

The advantage of “real” books is that you can browse through whole books fairly quickly; with e-books, it’s much harder.

4) Analyze Sources

I like to think I’m pretty good at evaluating sources, but a formal test is always good. I use CRAAP (an acronym for Currency, Relevance, Authority, Accuracy, and Purpose). I also prioritize primary sources (first-person accounts) before secondary sources whenever possible.

5) Organize the Material

Now, the tricky part is keeping track of everything you’ve found. Enter the research database. I’ll write a separate post on this.


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Authors Should Be Good Gods

Frozen lake and snowy trees. Photo by Mihaela Limberea

If authors are gods, sole and powerful creators of fictional worlds, they should be good gods. Even if characters are put through hell (and they should, if the book is to have any verisimilitude), there should be a meaning to their suffering. Poetic justice, if you will. It doesn’t necessarily mean a happy end. But something that makes senseHe who has a Why can endure any How, as Nietzsche put it.

This is what makes the Greek tragedies so powerful. The hero’s journey is tragic, yes, and we wouldn’t want to be in their shoes, to have to face those choices. But they find a meaning to their suffering, eventually, when all is revealed at the end.


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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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