Dialogue Tags That Distract Your Reader

Recently I read a novel where the dialogue and dialogue tags distracted me to the point that I almost couldn't finish the book. Which is too bad, as it's a mystery/thriller, and I love its concept.

Extreme Dialogue And Tags

Here's an example of a dialogue section I made up that's a little extreme but isn't far from what's in the book:

“Hello!” Sharon shouted. “It is great to see you, Jack!”

“Hi, Sharon, I am happy to see you, too,” Jack commented. “How is it going?”

“Good. Did you hear there was a fire in the grocery store?”

“Yes, that is so terrible!” Jack exclaimed.

There are a few things here that make the dialogue distracting and hard to read. All can be easily fixed.

No Contraction Action

First, the dialogue includes no contractions.

Blog Post Graphic Dialogue and Tags That Distract Your ReadersThere are times people choose to speak without contractions, usually for emphasis: “I did not take that last cookie.” (I didn't, really.) “You are not going out again tonight.”

But most, though not all, English speakers in the U.S. use contractions the majority of the time.

That's why the above phrases “how is,” “it is,” and “I am” all feel a bit clunky and awkward.

You can definitely write a character who doesn't use contractions or rarely uses them. But you should know why that is. For instance, someone in the habit of writing or speaking in formal settings, such as a professor, might use fewer contractions. Or a character might come from a country where contractions aren't common.

Or the character might be trying to sound formal or highbrow.

If you decide a character won't use contractions for whatever reason, though, be sure other characters do use them. That way you'll show a contrast in speaking styles and won't confuse the reader.

And if all your characters are going to avoid contractions, as Sharon and Jack do, you should have a good reason for that. One that's clear from the story.

Otherwise, your reader will spend time wondering why they talk that way. Or, worse, stop reading because the dialogue feels unrealistic.

Exclamation Nation

If you text or email a lot, it's easy to get into the habit of using a lot of punctuation. In short messages, we need it. Maybe some emojis, too, to convey tone. Otherwise a note that says “Good luck” can be read as encouragement, sarcasm, or skepticism.

“Good Luck!” ūüôā is more likely to convey heartfelt encouragement.

In a novel, though, it's better to convey tone through the word choice itself. Or through a character's actions. For example:

  • Sharon threw her arms around Jack. “Jack, great to see you. It's been forever.”
  • Sharon hugged Jack.¬†“So glad you could make it after all.”

The second one not only conveys Sharon's happiness, it gives us a hint of conflict. It suggests Jack told her before the scene started that he probably wouldn't get there. That suggestion makes us wonder what changed.

The dialogue as originally written, though, distracts from the story. Because right away the reader wonders why Sharon is so excited about just saying hello to someone.

Also, exclamation points are meant to convey significant emotion. If every other line includes one, it loses its power. (Find out more about what to leave out in 3 Things To Omit From Your Dialogue.)

Dialogue Tags: She Said, He Said

Writing the word “said” over and over can feel repetitive. But for readers, the word is almost invisible.

On the other hand, words like exclaimed, murmured, and shouted can be distracting. First, we're not used to seeing them. Second, as with exclamation points, it's stronger if your dialogue or the character's actions convey the way your character is speaking.

If the actions or words show the manner of speaking, then the dialogue tag is redundant:

  • She slammed her hand down on the table. “I've had it with this,” she yelled.

The “she yelled” just doesn't add much. You can leave it there, but the lines are more powerful without it.

More troubling is where the descriptive tag and the dialogue don't match.

  • Ellie opened the door. “Good morning,” she shouted.

The above example makes the reader pause and wonder why the character is shouting. If she's yelling to someone on the other side of the street, it makes sense, but you'll need to tell the reader that.

Right now, it reads as if she might be yelling at someone standing right in front of her.

In contrast, if you use “said,” the reader doesn't wonder about the line but instead reads on for what happens next.

If you feel you simply have too many “saids” in a row — particularly if you're releasing a book for audio, where repetitive words stand out more — try instead using an action.

In the last example, you can drop the dialogue tag entirely.

  • Ellie opened the door. “Good morning.”

The action tells us Ellie is speaking. If you want to go further and show Ellie's emotion or more about the situation, you could change the action. Both of the following convey different moods and change reader expectations.

  • Ellie banged the door open. “Good morning.”
  • Ellie eased the door open. “Good morning.”

Notice that both also suggest to the reader how Ellie might have said the words “Good morning.” Angrily or loudly in the first example, quietly in the second.

Action Items For Your Writing

  • Do a word search for “not” and “is” and other words that signal phrases where contractions can be used instead. Unless there's a reason for avoiding a contraction, use one.
  • Try searching for all the exclamation points in your dialogue. If you don't truly need one, drop it. If there's a reason for the excitement, see if you can convey it through the characters' words or actions instead.
  • Search for quote marks and review your dialogue tags to see how many synonyms you use in place of the tag said. Consider replacing them with said or with a character action.

That's it for now.

L.M. Lilly

P.S. The more developed your characters are, the easier you'll find it writing dialogue for them. Creating Compelling Characters From The Inside Out can help.

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Writing The Zero Draft Of Your Novel

The Zero DraftAt a Sell More Books Show Summit I attended author Rachael Herron used a term I hadn't heard before: the zero draft.

By this, she meant the initial very rough draft–so rough you'll never show it to anyone–of a novel.

That phrase fits my first draft of a novel perfectly.

My zero drafts:

  • ramble
  • include storylines that trail off to nowhere and others that start mid-stream
  • include incorrect character names and characters who disappear
  • are filled with errors.

And that's the good parts.

For me, though, starting with a zero draft is the most effective way to get a novel written.

What works for me may not work for you, but if you'd like to write faster or are having trouble finishing your novel, why not give it a try.

The Zero Draft Frees You

Though I didn't use the phrase Zero Draft, for all the books I've published, both fiction and non-fiction, it's exactly what I write first. (Typically I do a rough outline before the draft, but you can write the zero draft on the fly if you'd rather.)

Allowing yourself to write a draft that makes no sense and has all the faults I mentioned above shuts off the editor side of your brain.

It's the best way I've found to write and finish fast because you know the draft will be bad and unreadable. You know you won't show it to anyone. Ever.

So there's no reason to go back and fix anything as you write. And there's no reason not to keep writing all the way to the end.

Plot And The Zero Draft

For me, the zero draft revolves around the plot. I want to get my story on paper so I can see how well it works and improve it later.

This draft is where I see if my rough outline truly works.

Usually the first half follows the outline very well, though I often realize there are gaps I need to fill in so that it makes sense. The climax also usually remains as I expected, at least from a big picture sense.

I know who wins and who loses, so to speak, and often where the climax will happen.

Typically I change what happens from the mid-point to the three-quarter point. Sometimes that's because my feel for the story and characters changes as I write. Or I realize what I thought would be a dramatic turn doesn't truly grow out of what came before it or feels dull–like merely more of the same.

On the fly, I try out a new three-quarter turn, making notes in brackets about what might need to change in the pages before.

Because of these changes, the last third of the zero draft is often what I think of as thinner than the first two-thirds.

But that's okay.

Later I'll rearrange and expand. My changes to the first two-thirds when I rewrite almost always require that and guide me when I revise the last third.

What Not To Worry About In Your Zero Draft

You can write the zero draft fast because there are a whole host of things that usually slow the writing process that you can ignore:

  • Continuity

This is a big one.

When I write the zero draft, I don't worry about changing a plot line in the middle of the book. If I'm concerned I'll be confused later I write a note in brackets and bold, something like: [change so Cyril stalks Tara before she meets him].

This approach saves you from going back and revising the early chapters, or perhaps the first half, of your novel each time you have a new idea.

Skipping those on-going revisions saves you a lot of time if you reach the end and realize you don't need that character after all, or you're dropping that sub-plot that seemed so brilliant when you were halfway through.

  • Character Development

To love your story, your reader needs to be engaged with your characters. But the zero draft isn't the time to worry about that.

If I know the character well and the words flow about that person, I include as much about the character as I want.

But if I simply need a character to fill a certain role–sidekick to the antagonist, alternate suspect in a suspense novel, protagonist's boss–and I haven't worked out who that person is, I simply write that character doing whatever it is I need the character to do.

Some characters don't even get names.

I just finished a zero draft of The Charming Man, Book 2 in my Q.C. Davis series, and I've got characters “named” Neighbor1 and Neighbor2.

  • Line Editing

Now and then in a zero draft I'll craft a sentence or paragraph that does exactly what I need and has a nice ring. Those sometimes survive to the final novel.

Most of the time, though, the lines will be rewritten for one reason or another. Many of them will be cut.

So as long as you've got what you need so that you understand it, don't worry about things like perfect grammar, ideal sentence construction, or using the same word too often.

Just write.

After The Zero Draft

Once you have your zero draft on paper, you'll probably feel two things:

(1) Happy you finished (so celebrate!)

(2) Overwhelmed about what to do next

Rachael Herron suggests going through the zero draft and writing one sentence on an index card or sticky note for each scene. (You can also do this using Scrivener or some other software that allows you to write the digital equivalent of index cards or post its.)

This process gives you an overview of your plot.

I love this method, as it gives me a chance to see the gaps, the disconnections, and the lack of logic. (Did I mention my zero drafts are awful?)

I then rearrange and make notes on what I need to add.

After that, I revise the zero draft, again focusing mainly on plot but also on adding the characters I need and dropping the ones I don't. I don't try to write in depth scenes. My goal is for the story and the cast of characters to make sense.

Once that's done, I set the book aside for at least a week before I start the real revision process.

Which is a subject for a future article.

Until next time —

L.M. Lilly

P.S. If you’d like to know more about the five-point plot structure I use, or want to try applying it to an outline or rewrite of your novel, download these Free Story Structure Worksheets.

Your Story Needs A Truth Teller

Does your story need a truth teller?A character who is a truth teller can be your best friend as a fiction writer. This type of character creates genuine conflict and makes it easier to reveal exposition in a quick, natural way.

But first, what is a truth teller?

Truth Tellers

You probably know a truth teller, or maybe you are one. That's the person who, whether you ask or not, will tell you when a color looks bad on you or your boss's critique of your skills is spot on or your novel drags in the middle.

The truth teller isn't trying to make you feel bad. They're giving honest feedback, at least from their perspective, because they believe that honesty is the best policy. Plus, the feedback might help you.

If you need straightforward, unfiltered information to improve your life, a truth teller is the one to ask.

Cordelia in Buffy the Vampire Slayer is a truth teller.¬†Admonished for being tactless, Cordelia responds: “Tact is just not saying true things.”

Elizabeth Bennet, protagonist of Pride and Prejudice, is also a truth teller, a characteristic she learns to temper a bit during the course of the novel. But early on, and sometimes without knowing all the facts, she freely tells other characters when she thinks their choices, life philosophies, and behavior are in error.

Genuine Conflict Among Friends

Genuine conflict arises out of differences between characters that can't easily be solved. In contrast, false conflict exists where two characters could simply speak to one another and clear up the misunderstanding between them.

Unless you weave in very strong reasons why those two characters don't talk, false conflict frustrates readers. They can tell when you artificially create conflict by having characters hold back things they normally would share.

Genuine conflict is fairly easy to create between a protagonist and antagonist, as those two characters should have contrary goals. But creating conflict between your protagonist and their friends or allies is also key to keeping a plot or subplot engaging. That's a little harder to do because they're all on the same side.

That's where your truth teller comes in.

Sometimes, though it's not their goal, truth tellers hurt other people's feelings. Your protagonist may not want to hear about their missteps or flaws just now, which can lead to an angry response. Also, like anyone else, truth tellers can be wrong. In which case their tendency to speak without thought can cause a lot of harm if the listener doesn't remember that it's one person's view, not gospel truth.

Further, most people engage in denial at times or put off dealing with issues or habits that cause them trouble. The truth teller, though, won't have it. They'll call your hero on attempts to avoid, delay, or deny, forcing issues out into the open.

Finally, because they're not spending energy sorting out how to say something diplomatically or on whether something ought to be said at all, the truth teller often spots trouble and gets to the heart of it quickly. This is fantastic if you've got other characters who tend to miss warning signs, overthink, or hesitate to act.

The truth teller pushes them, and the story conflict, forward.

Easy Exposition

Because the truth teller forces issues and speaks without a filter, this character can bring out exposition in a natural way.

In real life, most people don't repeat background the¬†other person they're talking to already¬†knows. For example, I wouldn't say to a friend,¬†“The other day¬†I saw¬†your ex-husband, John, who drove you into bankruptcy and gave signs even when you were first dating that he was terrible with money but you ignored them.”

Not only would my friend already know the history, she probably wouldn't appreciate what sounds like a criticism for not heeding early warning signs.

That's why a character who makes that kind of statement sounds clunky and forced.

A truth teller character, though, might very well say something like: “Hey,¬†I ran into John.¬†Too bad you ignored all those early warning signs and let him drive you into bankruptcy before you divorced him. But at least he seems pretty unhappy, too.”

Now you've shared back story with your reader through a character who has a tendency to point out flaws or mistakes, so it's believable. You've also started a potential¬†conflict. John's ex will¬†likely react defensively, maybe by explaining why they didn't see those early signs. Now you've revealed exposition in a way that's always interesting — through conflict.

I hope that's helpful!


L. M. Lilly

P.S. If you're looking for more on characterization, you might find my book Creating Compelling Characters From The Inside Out helpful. Available in ebook and print formats here.

Happier, Healthier, Simpler Writing

Is writing fiction making you happier? If not, and that's one of the reasons you write, you may want to make a few changes.

I love writing, yet last year it started to feel like a grind. Or a day job. I decided to shift my approach to writing and life. I wanted to make life and writing simpler, happier, and healthier.

Simpler Writing 

If you're feeling overwhelmed or burnt out, you may be trying to do too much at once.

Happier, Simpler, Healthier Writing As one example from my life, rather than trying to write or edit a non-fiction book while I first draft a novel, I've shifted so I focus on one book at a time.

Once I finish a draft or rewrite, I let it sit and work on the other book.

I meant to do that before, but often found myself switching between the two in the same day. All that did was make me feel more stressed. I didn't finish either book any faster because my brain needed downtime.

Also, I plan to edit and release one or two more Buffy and the Art of Story books before I write another new non-fiction book. The Buffy books are based on my podcast of the same name.

It takes work to shape them into book form. But it's less work, and far simpler, than creating a brand new book. And a lot of readers have asked for those books. So why not get those done rather than start from scratch on something different?

(Don't worry, there will be more Writing As A Second Career books. The next one will likely be about writing fascinating exposition.)

Happier Life, Happier Writing

What do you enjoy doing? If you're working a day-to-day job, caring for others, and writing (or 2 of those 3), you may forget what it's like to do something just for fun.

I made a simple change for myself on that front. Each morning, I open the blinds, then write 2 pages in a journal before I do anything else. The view out my bedroom windows is an east view. While I can't see Lake Michigan (I live about 2 miles from it in Chicago), I do see lovely parts of the skyline with the sunrise in the background.

Since I started this in January I've seen more sunrises than I did in the last few years. (I had a habit of leaving the blinds down until an hour or so after I got up.) I discovered each one is both beautiful and different from the day before.

And seeing the light so early puts me in a great mood.

I also I made a list of other things I enjoy and want to do more of. Some are as simple as seeing a movie at the theater. And reading more fiction for the sheer fun of it, not to study a particular genre or writing style.

Health First

If your health suffers, it's hard to keep writing.

I started thinking more about this after I got Covid toward the end of last year.  And after I watched the Sex and the City follow up series And Just Like That.

One of the characters is younger than me, has no obvious health issues, yet is written as if they've got one foot in the nursing home. This shocked me. I found it vastly unrealistic based on my own life experience and that of most people I know. (I keep wondering if the writers are in their 30s and think anyone older than 40 is elderly.)

But it brought home to me how lucky I've been health-wise. And while not everything is in our control, there are things I can do to give myself better odds.

As a result, I ordered a food processor and two new cookbooks on whole foods and vegetarian recipes. I'm not giving up meat or cheese, as I love both. (In my view, life is barely worth living without cheese.) But I have made them a much smaller part of my weekly eating. And have been eating fewer processed foods.

As a side benefit, cooking a meal at lunch time is a great way for me to break up my day of working at home.

I also walk each day outside. (Today in the snow, though it's nearly spring.) It elevates my mood. And I've seen lots of statistics on how much it helps blood pressure, cholesterol, and blood sugar regardless of weight.

Plus, often my best fiction ideas come to me when I'm taking a walk. And if I increase my daily walking from half an hour to forty-five minutes (one of the goals I haven't quite met yet) who knows? Maybe I'll discover more and more great ideas for books.

That's it for now. Hope you're writing's going well.

L. M. Lilly

P.S. Is one of your goals this year to write a novel? You might find my course How To Plot Your Novel: From Idea To First Draft helpful. Learn more by clicking here.

Writing Fiction During The Holidays

Are you writing fiction during the holidays? If not, or not as much as you expected, you're not alone.

Christmas OrnamentI had high hopes for December.

In the fall, I taught a legal writing class and released a new non-fiction book. (Fiction Writing As Your Second Career – more on that here.)

But I made little progress on the rewrite of my latest novel. As I graded the last student papers, though, I felt so excited. Finally, stretches of open time in which to write. Or, in my case, rewrite.

And then…

Holiday Fun

First, the weekends filled.

The law firm where I do some project work hosted a gathering in New Orleans. I'm in Chicago and the firm's home office is in Denver. I hadn't seen everyone since about a year before the Covid pandemic began.

So how could I turn down a weekend-long party in¬†New Orleans? And I'm so glad I didn't. It was wonderful. I ate good food. Saw beautiful architecture. Visited the WWII museum (worth a visit whether you are a history buff or not — I am not). And connected with my colleagues and met many of their friends.

It felt fantastic.

Then I had a chance to join a friend for a weekend trip to Geneva, Illinois. It's a suburb filled with antique and gift shops, a historic courthouse and inn, and the Fox River. It was all decorated beautifully for the holidays.

Haven't had that much fun in forever. I expected to have a similar time in Galena, Illinois, this past weekend.

Now you might think, as I did, that I'd write a lot during the weekdays despite all the weekend fun. And that was the plan.

Too Much To Do

But busy weekends meant taking care of things like eye doctor visits, renewing my driver's license (which took 2 trips to the DMV), and finishing holiday shopping during the week.

Also, I usually do many of my Buffy and the Art of Story podcast work on Saturdays. That, too, needed to get done during the week. As a result, I barely got halfway through the novel rewrite.

Still, things looked promising. This week and next were meant to be premium writing time other than Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. But while I was traveling, I got sick.

Life Happens

Despite being exposed a few times, until now I avoided Covid. It hasn't been terrible, possibly because I had a booster shot in October. But I spent my last weekend trip in my hotel room either in bed or wrapped in a blanket. And since I got home I've mostly needed to rest. Today's the first day I spent more than 15 minutes at the computer without feeling exhausted.

I'm still too fuzzy headed to address the intricate plot rewrites I need to make in my cold case double murder mystery.

And you know what? That's okay.

You're A Person First

There are times to push through with writing fiction. In other words, to write whether you feel like it or not. Sometimes if you don't,¬†you'll never¬†get that first 1,000 — or last 1,000 — words on the page.

But we are not only writers. We're humans.

And the last couple years have been hard on most of us. You might have been ill yourself. Or lost someone you loved. Pandemic concerns might have isolated you and taken a toll on your mental, emotional, or physical health. Your creativity may have suffered from lack of new experiences or input.

So if you're enjoying this holiday season and feeling renewed and happy but you're not writing, could be you need this joy more than you need to write for now. And if you're not feeling so great and you're not writing, take a moment now to consider what will help you feel better. If it's diving into your fictional world, great. Write whatever you think you'll enjoy most.

But if what you need is to rest and you're able to, do that.¬†Read a book, take a nap, binge watch TV. (Among other things,¬†I'm rewatching Vampire Diaries — yes, again. Who knew it was a Covid treatment?)

And if you're not feeling great but still have way too much do for the holiday to rest, take a breath. You'll get through it. Your writing will still be there in the new year.

That's all for now. I hope you are finding some joy and peace this holiday season. Feel free to Reply to this email and let me know how it's going.


L. M. Lilly

P.S. I recently learned (due to a subscriber kind enough to email me — thank you) that my course¬†How To Plot Your Novel: From Idea To First Draft was showing as closed to enrollment. That should be fixed now. If you tried before to enroll and it didn't work, you can sign up on this page. Apologies for any inconvenience!

The Body And Metaphor

The Body S5 E16 (Buffy and the Art of Story Podcast) Is Death The Antagonist?Is there metaphor in The Body?

One thing I love about Buffy the Vampire Slayer is the way the writers use metaphor. That's part of why I started the podcast Buffy and the Art of Story.

Yet the first time I watched one of the most well-known episodes, The Body, from Season 5 I thought it lacked metaphor entirely.




But looking closely at The Body for the podcast I began to wonder.

Throughout, the episode shows Buffy and her friends dealing with the aftermath of Joyce‚Äôs death. Not only grief, but parking tickets, paperwork, rules at the morgue ‚Äď and the body.

Then there’s the final fight with the vampire, which Whedon describes (in the commentary on the DVD) as less cool kick boxing and more gross wrestling match.

Because everything is harder in the midst of grief, after someone you love dies. Day-to-day life doesn’t stop. It just gets harder.

And maybe that’s the metaphor.


Listen below (or find links here to your favorite podcast apps) for more about the story elements of The Body on the Buffy and the Art of Story podcast:

P.S. Looking for help structuring your story or novel? Find free worksheets and more information here.


Story Conflict Starts With Characters

Story Conflict Starts With Your Main Characters Creating a strong story conflict starts with your protagonist and antagonist. The sample section below of How To Plot Your Novel: From Idea To First Draft shows how to do that.

But first, a few quick tips.

Life Is Hard

Make sure life is hard for your protagonist. Choose a goal that's difficult to reach. And remember, if you're writing a novel, the goal needs to be challenging enough that it takes the whole book for the protagonist to succeed or fail.

Strong Antagonist = Strong Story Conflict

Also, a strong story conflict requires a strong antagonist. Your antagonist's one job is to push against the protagonist. Make sure your antagonist is tough to beat and has a deep desire to achieve their goal.

Learn more on your main characters and plotting your novel in this sample section from How To Plot Your Novel: From Idea To First Draft:

To find out more about the course click here.

Good luck with your writing!

L.M. Lilly

P.S. Looking for more help with your novel but not sure about an online course? You can get free story structure worksheets here.


Mind Map Your Novel

Creating A Mind Map Of Your PlotIf you're struggling to sort out the plot of your novel and outlining isn't working (or just isn't for you), try a mind map.

A mind map is a non-linear way to plan before you write. I've used it for non-fiction books, legal briefs, and novels.

Using this technique helps me let go of my concern about what plot turn or scene (or non-fiction topic) comes first. Instead, I focus on what needs to happen as it occurs to me, then expand on it.

Here's how to do it.

The Blank Page

Mind Map for Mystery NovelStart with a blank page. It can be notebook paper, butcher paper (as in my photo), or your screen if you have a program that allows for bubbles, lines, and words.

In the center, draw or circle or oval. In a few words, fill in your key conflict.

Is it solving a murder? A young man in love with someone out of reach? A superpowered protagonist who needs to defeat the villain?

Whatever it is, include it. Now you're ready to think about what will happen in your novel.

The Smaller Bubbles

Anywhere on the page, write a short phrase about something your protagonist needs to do to come into conflict with the antagonist. If you know character names you can include them. If you don't know, just describe the characters. Circle the phrase and draw a line connecting it to your main conflict.

For instance, say you're writing a romance with a protagonist named Gabriela who will fall in love with a teacher and eventually live happily ever after.

You might write “Gabriela and good-looking teacher clash, then fall in love” in the center circle.¬†And in a smaller bubble you can write “Gabriela meets teacher at bowling alley.”

You don't need to know when she'll meet the teacher yet or why either character is at the bowling alley.

Now think of something else your protagonist needs to do. Or write about the antagonist. In our romance, you might write “Antagonist goes bowling.”

Again, you can place this bubble anywhere on the page. Also, this event can happen at any time in the novel. Once you've filled in a number of events, start thinking about what leads to them or happens because of them.

The Mind Map Spokes

Going back to Gabriela, you can draw spokes jutting out from the bubble about her meeting the teacher at the bowling alley. For each spoke, write ideas about what happens once she meets him, such as:

  • She drops a bowling ball on his foot
  • He had a bad day at work and is rude to her
  • Her best friend flirts with him

You don't need to be sure about any of these ideas. You may use all of them or none of them later. Also, it's okay if you only write one idea for now. Or if you start with a different bubble.

You can also draw other spokes and bubbles to cover what happened before Gabriela met the teacher. If any of those event trigger other ideas about what needs to happen before that, draw spokes jutting out from them.

And so on.

When you run out of ideas, walk away. Take a walk, make dinner, or do something else on your To Do list. When you come back, odds are more ideas will have sprung to mind. Fill those in, too.

When The Map Is Full

Whenever you feel ready, look over your map as a whole. Write in any other ideas, using as many spokes and bubbles as you need.

Then consider in what order these scenes or events need to occur. You can write the phrases on index cards and lay them out in a rough chronological order. Read through them and if something seems off, move the cards around.

Or put the phrases on a list and number the list in order.

You'll probably number and renumber a few times before you feel satisfied.

Once you do, though, you've got an outline of your novel. Without ever officially outlining it.

I hope that's helpful.

L.M. Lilly

P.S. For more on painlessly plotting a novel, check out Super Simple Story Structure: A Quick Guide To Plotting And Writing Your Novel.



Make Your Writing Life Easier

A lot of writing and marketing advice adds to your To Do list. Let's talk instead about how to make your writing life easier.

Because life is challenging enough these days.

Also, for most of us, writing started as a passion. Whether you're trying to earn money at it or just fit it in as an unpaid pursuit, making it easier makes sense.

5 ways to do that (more on each below):

  • Only Decide Once
  • Create Your Own Rules
  • Making Starting Simple
  • Create Easy Entry Points
  • Use Tech Well

Read on for how you can apply these suggestions.

Make Decisions Once (And Only Once)

When I looked over how I spent my time in 2021, I asked how I might save time this year without getting less done or spending more money.

And I discovered I spent a lot of time researching and deciding the same things over and over. For example, every month I advertised the first book, which is free, in my Awakening supernatural thriller series in 2 or 3 different enewsletters.

As I glanced over the list of ads, I saw that I repeated many of the same ones throughout the year, spacing them a few months apart.

Yet every month I spent 45 minutes to an hour checking to see which enewsletters had categories where the book fit, which ones covered sales outlets beyond Amazon, and which performed well for me in the past.

Based on that discovery, I created a 3-month schedule to advertise in 2 different enewsletters–ones I already researched–each month. On Month 4, I start over. It takes me all of 10 minutes to schedule. I also made a note to review and check for new places to advertise at the end of 6 months.

That's 35-45 minutes a month saved, which might not sound like a lot.

But I found 4 recurring tasks that fell in this category, bringing the total saved to 2-3 hours. I don't know about you, but I definitely appreciate an extra 2.5 hours when I can relax.

Create Your Own Rules

Take a moment to think about what you do over and over. Maybe it's deciding when to fit writing into your day or week. Or it could be a non-writing task like taking a trip to the store.

Can you create a rule, such as “I write every Friday morning from 6-7 a.m.” or “I write any time I've got at least 20 minutes to myself in the evening”?

Or maybe you can make a task automatic by going to the store every first Monday of the month to buy paper goods, cleaning supplies, toothpaste, etc.?

Make Starting Simple

When I'm outlining or first drafting it takes me a while to get each writing session started. Those phases of a novel just aren't my favorites. I find sitting down to rewrite a lot easier.

You may feel exactly the opposite. Perhaps you love exploring your story at the first draft stage but find revising tedious.

Whatever phase challenges you most in your writing life, think about how you can make it easier to get rolling. For me, that means as I'm finishing a first drafting session, I add a note in brackets to myself about what will happen next. When I'm outlining, I add bullet points to think about next time.

That way when I open the document I'm not struggling to remember where I left off. And I don't stare at the screen trying to figure out what to write next, as usually my unconscious mind has been sorting through those bullet points or notes.

What can you do to help you start your next writing session?

Easy Entry Points

Look for an easy entry point to your writing session.

To borrow an example from the world of physical health, I'm not someone who loves exercise, but I've got a pretty solid routine. That's because I start with the smallest possible step.

First thing in the morning, I roll out my yoga mat. I tell myself I don't need to use it, and once in a very great while I don't. But 49 times out of 50 once the mat is out, I start with some stretches. Then I transition into whatever I haven't done much of lately, whether it's actual yoga, physical therapy exercises for my neck and shoulders, or strength training.

Writing works the same way. When I really truly don't feel like writing the 3,000 (or 300) words I scheduled for the day I tell myself all I'll do for now is open the document. Just in case I decide to write.

Once it's open I see a line or maybe those bullet points. Usually that's enough to get my fingers on the keyboard.

Make Use Of Your Tech

So often technology frustrates and aggravates us. (More on that in Dealing With Tech Glitches That Steal Your Time.) But you can use it to save time and make your writing life easier, too.

And that's beyond the basic–and pretty amazing–ways computers already make typing, revising, and saving easier. (Yep, I started when it was typewriting on paper. Typos alone presented serious challenges, let alone major revisions.)

Some examples from my writing and publishing work include:

  • Formatting chapter headers as I write so they convert easily into Vellum (the program I use to layout ebook and print files).
  • Creating quick keys (Autocorrect in Word) for my recurring names. So qq becomes Quille, the detective protagonist of my Q.C. Davis mystery series, and b[ become Buffy for my podcast outlines.
  • Using scheduling options for blog posts and podcast episodes so that I can upload batches rather than logging in and navigating to the right screens each time.

What will make your life easier depends on your routines. Take a few minutes now to think about how you might use tech to help make your writing life easier.

I hope that was helpful!

L. M. Lilly

P.S. Wishing you could make plotting your novel easier?  Check out Super Simple Story Structure: A Quick Guide To Plotting And Writing Your Novel.

Two Characters Talking Can Be Thrilling

Two characters talking for a long time can make for a very dull story.

But there are ways to make it fascinating.

First, if one character tells the other a story filled with conflict and engaging characters all on its own, that becomes compelling. As an example, in Fool For Love, a Season 5 Buffy the Vampire Slayer episode, Buffy's enemy Spike tells her three stories. The first two are about how he killed two vampire slayers before her.

Fool For Love (Buffy & the Art of Story Podcast)S5 E7)Plenty of conflict there.

The second is his origin story. How he turned from a soft-hearted, romantic but bad poet rejected by the woman he loved into a hot vampire.

Also, there's an undercurrent of attraction between Spike and Buffy despite that they're mortal enemies. It makes us wonder – where will the evening end?

In addition, the setting and mood change as Buffy and Spike talk. And they don't just talk. They move.

First, they eat and drink beer in a dimly lit area of a bar. Then they play pool. They end by sparring in a dark alley as Buffy becomes angrier and angrier at Spike.

All of that keeps a forty-three minute episode that's mainly two characters talking fascinating.

Can you use any of these techniques in your writing?

L.M. Lilly

P.S. For more on how Fool For Love is put together, listen to Buffy and the Art of Story podcast episode S5 E7 here or on your favorite podcast platform.



Using Beta Readers To Improve Your Novel

This week I was excited to talk about using beta readers to improve your novel on the Hidden Gems Author Podcast Fully Booked.

Beta readers look at your novel early on. Ideally, they give you feedback that helps you make your novel stronger before you publish it or submit it to agents or editors.

Fully Booked EP9: Yes, you need Beta Readers. Here's why… – YouTube

Author Helen Yeomans, the Fully Booked hosts, and I covered how using beta readers can help you spot issues with common and expected tropes, plot, characterization, or pacing. Also, why it can be valuable to find readers that fall within possible audience demographics or who have unique knowledge on topics your story deals with.

Watch on YouTube above or find your favorite podcast links at Fully Booked.

I hope it's helpful!

L. M. Lilly

P.S. For more on making the most of beta reader feedback, check out Addressing Beta Reader Comments On Characters and How To Revise A Slow Scene.


How To Revise A Slow Scene

How do you revise when your early readers find a scene or scenes dull or slow?

Ask 3 Questions To Revise A Slow SceneThat's tough feedback to hear, especially if you thought what you wrote was gripping.

At the same time, you've been given a gift. Knowing when a reader feels bored is some of the most valuable feedback you can get. Because now you can revise to keep readers engaged from start to finish.

Here are three questions to ask yourself:

1. Do you need the scene?

Sometimes a scene or section of your novel feels slow because you don't need it. If you can remove it and the rest of the story makes perfect sense – and you don't lose any key character development – consider dropping it entirely.

2. Is it all exposition or backstory?

If the scene conveys information the reader needs, such as key backstory for a character, ask yourself if you can get that across more quickly. Or in a more engaging way.

For instance, let's say you wrote a flashback about your (adult) protagonist when she was ten and learned her mother died in a highway car accident.

Sounds fairly dramatic, right? But if it doesn't matter much to your present-day story, readers may very well find it slow.

Try sharing that backstory in a few sentences instead. Something like:

When she reached sixty miles per hour Anora immediately eased off the gas. When she was ten, her mother died in a highway crash. The other driver drove only ten miles over the limit, but it was enough.

How To Revise A Slow SceneYou can also look for a way to convey the backstory through conflict. If your plot revolves around Anora's career you might try something like this:

Her boss frowned. “If I knew you planned to crawl there I would've driven. Pick up the pace or we'll miss the first half.”

“Driving fast makes me nervous,” Anora said.

“Fast?” He leaned closer to peer at the speedometer, which read fifty-five. “In no universe is this fast.”

“It is to someone whose mom was killed in a highway crash,” Anora said. But she pressed harder on the gas pedal.¬†

3. Does it include unnecessary detail or repetition?

If the scene moves the story forward, look at how it's written. You may have included a lot of unneeded detail or information. Or you might be repeating too much.

Think about that friend or coworker who takes forever to tell a story and you're dying for them to cut to the chase.

A few things to look for as you revise:

  • “Hello, how are you?” dialogue

For the most part you can cut hellos, good-byes, good mornings, how was your days, etc. We all say those things in real life, at least we do if we're polite.

But while readers want the flavor of real conversation, the parts that interest them are the parts with conflict.

  • Repetitive description

If you have 3 sentences describing the icy walkway, revise so there's only one. If you include paragraph after paragraph of the viewpoint character's internal thoughts about their spouse, look at each sentence and ask if it truly adds anything you haven't already covered.

If not, cut it.

  • Telling what you've already shown

Look for instances where there's action or dialogue and you then tell the reader what it meant. In the dialogue above, for example, you don't need to add a few lines explaining that Anora's boss was irritated with her. Or that she pushed herself to drive a little faster because he was irritated, but it made her uncomfortable.

All that is already there.

I hope that's helpful. Good luck with your writing!


L.M. Lilly

P.S. Looking for help revising your plot? Download free Story Structure Worksheets here.