The Writing Vacation

Last week I wrote about 7 ways to fit in writing a novel when you work more than full time. That article included tips that applied any time throughout the year.

There's another great way to enjoy getting a concentrated amount of writing done, and that's to take a writing vacation. It can be a day, a week, or more, and it doesn't need to cost a lot, or anything at all.

Why a writing “vacation”?

Thinking of the time away from your work as a vacation makes it easier to carve out the time because vacation is fun. How often have you thought to yourself, “I should make some time to write” and not done it? That's because put that way, it sounds like an item on your endless To Do list. When it's a vacation, it still takes effort to arrange, but it's designed to make you happy, not add work to your week or month.

Also, when you're working tons of hours at your “first” career or job, taking time away to write is relaxing and fun. I usually came back to my regular work refreshed and excited.

Finally, “vacation” implies to other people that you'll be away and should be contacted only in a true emergency. If you tell people you're taking a vacation day or week, most will at least try to respect your time. Tell them you're taking time to write and they'll contact you just as if you were at work.

How to plan a fun, productive writing vacation

At home or away, here are a few things that'll help you enjoy your writing time and use it well:

  • Decide in advance which writing project to focus on
  • Set a goal that fits the time you have. A 1-day vacation goal might be writing a few paragraphs about each of your characters, a first draft of a novel chapter, or a plot outline (check out my Super Simple Story Structure if you'd like a quick guide–it's 99 cents (or free if you are a Kindle Unlimited subscriber), and it includes links to free worksheets). If you have a week and you already know what will happen over the next quarter of your book, you might set a goal of a 50 pages or more.
  • Figure out before you go/stay home a place to write where you can turn off your Internet connection and your phone
  • If you get a lot of email or calls, put an Out of Office message on both just as you would if you were on another type of vacation
  • Don't tell anyone unless you absolutely must that you're taking the time to write
At home writing vacations

If you're planning your writing vacation at home, there are a few additional points.

People

If you have a live-in partner, spouse, and/or children, the at-home vacation only works if they will not be there during the day. It's next to impossible for people you live with to view you as “not there” and leave you alone, and it's on you, not them, to be sure your writing time is sacred. If your home is occupied during the day, find a separate space in advance. Some possibilities are coffee shops, libraries, office sharing spaces, or the home of a friend who lives alone and is away at work during the day.

Pets and Chores

If you have a pet, do whatever you normally would if you went on vacation or were away at work. Get (or keep) a dog walker, feed the cat first thing in the morning the same time you would if you were going to work.

Also, no squeezing in a few chores. (No, not a single one, not even laundry if you will have no socks tomorrow.) Deal with it all just as if you were truly away and there was no possibility of doing any of these things.

If you go away

Ideally, go away alone so you won't be tempted to skip writing and go sightseeing or sip cocktails and chat with your friend/spouse/significant other. But that's not always possible, and if your partner or another person in your life will be upset by you going away alone, that's important too.

One solution is to plan a trip where the other person can do something fun. If your spouse loves to do yoga, go to a yoga retreat with plenty of activities for him/her during the day while you write. Or go to one of those areas of the world that you have no interest in seeing but your friend has been dying to visit, so long as that person is okay sightseeing alone. Or suggest that's a great time for your spouse to visit that in-law you can't stand or that best friend she or he would rather hang out with alone while you stay home and write.

Whether alone or with someone else, check ahead of time so you're sure there will be a place you can write undisturbed. It's also helpful if you landlock yourself. Find somewhere with food options in walking distance, then take public transportation or a cab or airport shuttle there. Without a car you won't be as tempted to leave to do something other than write.

What else to do during your vacation

You won't be able to write 24 hours a day, and most people won't be able to write 12 hours a day for that matter. And if you do, you may find yourself feeling depressed and isolated.

So wherever you take your writing vacation, plan some other relaxing activities. Have a nice dinner somewhere with a view, take a walk on a beach, catch up with your friends and family after your writing day is finished. Bring books to read or line up shows to watch, especially if both are something you never get enough time for the rest of the year.

However you handle it, a writing vacation can be a wonderful way to make progress on your novel away from day-to-day stresses.

Have you taken a writing vacation? Please share your experiences in the comments.

Until Friday–

Best,

L. M. Lilly

P.S. Remember to check out the Free 5-Point Story Structure Blueprint if you're in the planning stages of your novel or are just getting started and would like a guide to help figure out your storyline.

 

What Does The Weekend Mean For You?

Weekends are supposed to be a time to relax, yet most of us find them filled with all the responsibilities and tasks we didn't get to during the week. When you're also fitting writing into your schedule and/or you have a career that requires working weekends some or all of the time, that can add to the pressure. Instead of relaxing, you're stressing more because you're not relaxing.

That's why this Friday I'm recommending an episode of The Petal To The Metal where two authors talk about weekend time and the balance between enjoying life and getting things done. I was drawn to this because they offer tips and alternate perspectives and acknowledge that there's no one-size-fits-all answer. As I noted in Tips For Writing Novels While Working More Than Full Time, not everyone can follow generic advice (like get up an hour early, write every day, or write during your lunch hour). But that doesn't mean you can't finish a novel or that you shouldn't enjoy life while you do.

http://thepetaltothemetal.com/ep006/

 

Until Sunday–

Best,
L. M. Lilly

Tips For Writing Novels While Working More Than Full Time

Okay, I admit it. When I was in law school, one of the main reasons I sought a position at Chicago-based large law firm Sonnenschein Nath & Rosenthal (now Dentons US LLP) was that author Scott Turow is a partner there. It wasn’t just that I wanted to meet him, though that crossed my mind. Mostly, I figured a firm that touted a novelist/lawyer in its marketing must be comfortable with attorneys who pursued other vocations along with law.

In contrast, at the other big law firm where I interviewed, a partner glanced at the one line on my resume about fiction writing and said, “You know, you won’t have time to do that here.”  Points for honesty.

As anyone who practices law knows, regardless whether a firm or company tends to hire lawyers with outside interests, juggling law and the rest of life is a challenge in itself, let alone pursuing another avocation. I'm sure that's true for other professions and jobs, too, not to mention being a parent. The reality is, few people who write novels have more spare time than anyone else. And Scott Turow notwithstanding, most published authors don’t earn enough to quit their other jobs.

So below are a few suggestions on fitting writing into an already too-packed life.

(1) Seek Out Something Different

The less time you spend wracking your mind for ideas, the more time you'll have to actually write. Stimulating your mind with new activities and information can generate a lot of thoughts and ideas on which to base your fiction.

If you're too busy to add anything new outside of work, try to vary within your profession. Work with someone you don't usually partner with, have lunch (or coffee if you're short on time) with a colleague you seldom see, pick up a project that's just a little outside your comfort zone. Talk to someone whose views are completely opposite to your own.

And if you can do something new outside of work, that's a great way to get your creativity flowing. Attend a play, a movie, a concert, or just take a walk along a street you don't normally travel and really look and listen. It doesn't matter if you like what you're doing. Sometimes at a play that bores me out of my mind I come up with great new story ideas.

(2) Develop A Habit

In the classic Think and Grow Rich, Napoleon Hill said, and I’m paraphrasing, you are what your habits make you, and you can choose your habits. In that way, writing is a lot like working out (though I'm far more likely to do the former than the latter). If you need to decide every day whether to go to the gym or what time to try to squeeze it in, it's less likely to happen. Same thing for writing. But when it becomes a habit, the pages start churning out, and it feels great.

If you don't already have a habit of writing at a particular time or for a certain number of minutes or hours per week, figure out when it's most likely you'll be undisturbed, even if it's only a half hour a week on Sunday morning or Friday night. When that time rolls around, write, even if you write about how you don't have anything to write about. Or you can use that time to sketch out what you'll write about in the following session.

Once you have the habit, you can increase the amount of time you write, and the quality of what you write.

(3) Create Time

If finding half an hour a few times a week is a challenge, look first at television, social media, and video games. I’m always surprised how many television shows my lawyer friends, even those with kids, find time to watch, until I remember–they don’t also write.

If you’re already lean on recreational activities, look at your work. Is it possible to work less and write more? Some firms or companies allow reduced schedules for reduced pay. I did this for several years at Sonnenschein, though I concede with mixed results. Sometimes I still billed more hours than people on regular schedules and just earned less. On average, though, it did allow me to write more. Likewise, when I ran my own firm, after a number of super busy years, I began deliberately cutting back. First I turned down new cases other than from existing clients, then I turned down any new matters at all.

If that's not an option, consider buying time. With the advent of virtual assistants and a sharing economy, almost anything can be outsourced. This is especially wonderful when you can pay someone less than your time generates in your own profession. If you earn two-four times as much per hour at your day-to-day paid work than you would pay someone to clean your home, remodel your bathroom, grocery shop, do your taxes, wash your car, fix typos in your manuscript, or keep your financial books up to date, do what you do best, and pay someone else to handle those other tasks. You can then use the extra free time to write.

(4) Harness Your Unconscious

Much of the creative process takes place behind the scenes. Even if you’re extremely busy, your unconscious can come up with story ideas and scenes and flesh out characters. The key is to stimulate the unconscious without stressing out. One way I do this is to ask myself a question before I fall asleep or head to the office, such as–when I was plotting The Awakening–“Where is the most unnerving place for Tara to be confronted by a stranger who claims to know the meaning of her pregnancy?”

If I ask a question like that every so often, then put it out of my mind, eventually a scene or idea pops into my head.  (In that example, the scene takes place just before midnight in a deserted Laundromat where Tara works. The stranger enters as she's closing for the night.)

(5) Use Your Downtime Well

One of the things I love about TV law shows is how no lawyer goes to court and sits forty minutes waiting to give the judge a status report. You also never see lawyers waiting at the gate when the flight to the deposition is delayed.

In the real world, most of us spend some time waiting. That’s why I carry a note pad everywhere and pull it out if I have more than five minutes. (You can also use the note function on your phone for this, but judges frown on lawyers appearing to be emailing or playing on their phones while in the courtroom so I carry paper.)

I particularly like scribbling about characters, because if I’m cut off in the middle, it doesn’t matter. In fact, my unconscious will probably keep going with the train of thought. Now and then I write snippets of dialogue or openings for scenes. While the legal pad pages rarely make their way to my writing desk, and the exact words almost never get typed into a manuscript, my thoughts flow more freely when I do have time. It’s a big part of why I’m usually able to turn out pages as soon as I sit down to write.

You can also use time stuck waiting in line to observe fellow customers. Notice their chins, their noses, how they carry themselves, their expressions. Think about how you'd describe them in writing. This can be especially helpful if your physical descriptions of characters tend to get repetitive or rely too much on describing eye color, hair color, and height.

You can find specific writing/thinking prompts for short time periods in Writing A Novel 15 Minutes At A Time.

(6) Set Small Goals.

Most professionals are goal-oriented people. That’s how we got where we are. Large goals, like writing a best-seller in two years, are inspiring, and they work well when pursuing a pre-set program like graduate school. But they also are too easy to put off truly pursuing until tomorrow.

So break those goals down. If you have a regular schedule, your first-draft goal could be a page a day or seven pages a week. If you have an erratic schedule, a goal of a number of pages per month or per three months may work better. One of my best writing instructors, author Raymond Obstfeld, called this latter approach the spare change method. Rather than writing X amount per day or week, you throw whatever you can into the writing equivalent of the spare change jar. So when I practiced law full time, one week I might have written 4 pages, the next 10, then next none, but at the end of the month, I’d written 30 pages.

(7) Write Something Bad.

If you’ve tried cases for twenty years, you might be able to think through an opening argument the night before trial and give it the next morning. But when you started out, you probably outlined the argument, practiced ten times in front of a mirror, and tried it out on a colleague or two. Yet, for some reason, many of us insist on trying to make every sentence of our fiction perfect the very first time.

Hemingway said all first drafts are sh*t. I find this very freeing. Many of my first drafts are rambling or too sparse (or both) and include pages that ultimately don’t need to be there. A first draft is a thing of beauty not because it’s perfect, but because it’s done. Trying to write well the first time out can keep you from writing at all. So the biggest key to finishing–no matter how much time you have or don't–is being willing to write something bad. Then you can revisit, rewrite, and polish all you want.

There’s no magic to finding time to write, any more than there is to finding time to study in college, or to raise children, do volunteer work, or care for your parents while working fifty hours a week. There will be things you’ll miss while you sit and write, and carving out the time to write may mean, for a while at least, earning less than you could if you focused all your efforts on a more immediately lucrative profession.

But if you love writing the way I do, it will be worth it. Much as I enjoyed practicing law, nothing satisfies me more than finishing a piece of writing and feeling I’ve done my best with it. (Though practicing law did mean I eventually got to meet Scott Turow. Pretty cool.)

Until Friday, wishing you a productive and not-too-stressful week–

Best,

L. M. Lilly

P.S. If you're starting a novel and are looking for a clear, quick way to plan it without being bound to a rigid outline, try Super Simple Story Structure: A Quick Guide To Plotting And Writing Your Novel. It's free for Kindle Unlimited subscribers (reg. $0.99 for Kindle, $4.99 paperback). The Kindle version includes a link to helpful worksheets. It can save you a lot of time.

One Author’s Challenges With Assisted Publishing

This Friday I recommend a post by an author on her experience with assisted publishing. As I wrote about in Do You Need A Publisher, Part 1, these types of publishing services assist with the tasks authors who self-publish do on their own, such as uploading books to different platforms, finding a cover designer, and editing. Some charge a flat up front fee and others get paid through a percentage of royalties.

Author Maggie Cammiss thought this sounded like a reasonable deal when offered by a division of the traditional publisher who'd published the first novel in her series. Some challenges arose, though, with the paperback edition that led her to wonder.

Read about her experience here:

Getting Back on the Horse

See you again Sunday, when I'll talk about creating time to write as you manage your first profession.

Best,

L. M. Lilly

In The Beginning There Was Conflict

Before you put pen to page or hands to keyboard, there is one thing absolutely every novel needs:

Conflict.

A weak conflict–or none at all–is usually why a reader loses interest early in a novel or halfway through.

The Cardinal Rule

If you’ve ever watched a soap opera, daytime or otherwise, you know the cardinal rule. It applies to any drama or comedy, but it’s most obvious in serial television shows. Once a character reaches a moment of happiness, that character disappears until things go wrong again.

If everyone’s happy or at least content, the reader or watcher isn’t interested. Without conflict, there’s no story. There’s no suspense, no question that keeps the reader turning pages in the hope of an answer, and no one to root for or against. This is true whether you’re writing a novel, telling a ghost story around a campfire, or improvising a skit at your local comedy club.

The best way to have a strong conflict is for your main character to want something hard to achieve.

Warning: 

If you haven't read or watched Gone With The Wind, Beware – Spoliers below 

 

For example, throughout almost all of Gone With The Wind, Scarlett O’Hara is madly in love with Ashley Wilkes and wants him to love and marry her. There are many obstacles, some present from Day One, others that develop. Here are just a few:

  • He and Scarlett are unsuited to one another (she’s driven, ambitious, outspoken, high-spirited, and has little interest in book learning; he prefers a quiet and scholarly life, is reserved, refined, and has little interest in starting a business or earning money)
  • Ashley gets engaged to his cousin, Melanie, which is a family tradition
  • Scarlett marries Melanie’s brother on the rebound and is quickly widowed, limiting her social interactions, and bonding her to Melanie
  • The Civil War begins, and Ashley leaves to fight in it, perhaps never to return

As Scarlett's experiences show, life should be hard for your main character. As you plot your novel, resist the temptation to allow your protagonist smooth sailing or to make things easy. Instead, think about how things can get worse. This is one time negative thinking is a plus!

Your First Page

There needs to be conflict from the first page of your novel. There’s a saying that your protagonist must want something on page one, even if it’s only a glass of water. The reason behind that saying is that if your protagonist wants nothing, there's no conflict.

So although there’s nothing about Ashley on the first page of Gone With The Wind, nor about the upcoming Civil War, we learn in the second paragraph of the book that Scarlett’s internal nature—willful, outspoken, and “lusty with life” is “distinctly at variance with her decorous demeanor” and the strictures Southern society places on women. Because there’s immediate conflict, the reader is willing to wait a while as the larger conflicts, both personal and societal, unfold.

Further, seeds are sown about the Civil War in the very first scene. Margaret Mitchell doesn’t do that by simply telling us war is on the horizon or by giving us a history lesson. Instead, she frames the prospect of war in a very personal way to our protagonist. Scarlett is talking to twin brothers who both carry a torch for her. She wants to hear about them being thrown out of school (yet another conflict), and they want to talk about war, a subject that bores her. She becomes impatient and insists there won’t be any war.

Finally, in that very first scene, Scarlett becomes upset, but hides it, when the twins tell her Ashley is getting engaged to his cousin Melanie. This is yet another conflict that will feed into the larger story arcs.

What does this mean for you?

If you're searching for ideas for a novel, are in the midst of writing one and are stuck, or your feel your scenes are dragging, you are likely missing conflict. Look again at your main character. What does that person want and why? What obstacles are in the way? That's where you'll find your conflict and your story.

Until Friday–

Best,

L. M. Lilly

P.S. Super Simple Story Structure: A Quick Guide To Plotting And Writing Your Novel provides a clear, quick way to figure out a plan for your novel. It includes questions to walk you through the process, examples from well-known stories such as Gone With The Wind, and tips for when you are stuck. It's free for Kindle Unlimited subscribers (reg. $0.99 for Kindle, $4.99 paperback).

If At First You Don’t Succeed: Iterate and Optimize

This Friday I'm recommending a book that's a quick read with a mix of inspiration and business advice for writers: Iterate and Optimize: Optimize Your Creative Business for Profit by Sean Platt, Johnny B. Truant, and David Wright of the Self Publishing Podcast.

What I like most about it is that it encourages writers to get started or to grow their business rather than being frozen by indecision and concern about doing the “wrong” thing.

Under this philosophy, let's say you finished a novel you're pretty happy with. You spent the last two years writing and revising in the early mornings and a few weekends carved out of your other job or profession. Rather than spending two more years tweaking it for fear of rejection or bad reviews, the Iterate and Optimize approach encourages you to start querying agents or to publish it yourself and to get on with your next novel. If you get rejections on the first, or it isn't as well-received as you hoped, or you discover six months from now that the cover you got fairly cheaply doesn't match your target market, you can both improve and update the first novel and use what you learned in your second.

The book also provides a lot of solid information not only about self-publishing but about growing a business. Even if you're planning to stay focused on your current career and write on the side, and so feel you don't need to worry about the business, this is worth a read. It's quick and interesting and will give you context for the ever-changing publishing world where your books will live.

The Amazon blurb and the book itself suggest reading the authors' Write. Publish. Repeat. first. I haven't read it, so I can only say I got a lot out of Iterate and Optimize without having done so, though it's possible I missed something in the process.

Until Sunday —

Best,

L. M. Lilly

Hitting Publish: Why Your First Goal Isn’t To Sell Books

You’re publishing your first book. Your main goal is to get a lot of sales right away, right? Wrong.

Okay, not exactly wrong, as who doesn’t want a lot of sales? But starting out focusing on how many books you sell can lead to feeling discouraged, which can lead to failing to do what you need to do to get those sales.

In the beginning, you need reviews:

Good, bad, and indifferent, you need reviews of your first book. Once you have a decent cover and a solid book description, reviews are what convinces people who don’t know you to consider buying your novel. A large number of reviews shows a lot of people have bought the book, which cues readers it’s worth giving it a try.

Quantity matters:

It’s more about how many reviews than whether they are all good. In fact, most readers who see ten five-star reviews figure those are all the author’s friends, which is probably right, at least with a first book. So you actually want that person who likes one part of the book and not another to review your novel.

The occasional one-star review is not bad either. It shows your novel evokes strong feelings. It can especially be helpful if the reviewer says why she or he didn’t like the book, if it’s something that would draw in your ideal reader. For example, I had a so-so review from someone who commented “Think plot,” as a criticism of The Awakening. I was happy with that. I write thrillers. Thrillers need strong plots.

Ways you can get reviews:

Getting reviews can be a challenge. Think about how many times you read a book, watch a movie, or buy a product compared to how often you review one. While I don’t have a magic formula, here are some suggestions:

  • If someone you know emails you to say something positive about the book, politely ask that person to cut and paste the comment into a review wherever the book was bought.
  • Choose a week to list the book at 99 cents and purchase ads in enewsletters that will accept new releases in your genre. Assume you won’t earn this money back, so spend only what you can afford. Remember, the goal is to generate sales and get reviews that will help sales in the long run, not to earn money right now.
  • Ask your friends on Facebook to read and review the book if they like books like yours. (So if your novel is a horror novel, write a post asking that friends who like to read horror read and review the book.) Let them know how important reviews are to a book’s success. Don’t do this all the time, obviously, but there’s nothing wrong with asking once and asking again a few months down the line. These are your friends, they want to help you out.
  • Be active on Goodreads, a social media network for readers. By active, I mean be active as a reader. Review other people’s books. Eventually as people start seeing your reviews and get a sense of who you are, they will check out what you write and hopefully post some reviews.
  • List your book on Goodreads and, if you have a paperback edition, consider running a book giveaway. This gets your book in front of a lot of readers. Ideally, the people who win the book will review it, though they may not. You can see some examples of current giveaways here. (One caveat—if you’re cost conscious, offer the book only to people in your own country. It can be very expensive to send books internationally.)
  • On author platforms that specifically allow it (such as some author/reader Goodreads or Facebook groups), post a link to your book and ask for reviews. Be sure to check the group's guidelines, though, before posting about your own book. If it’s a group that doesn’t allow that, you may find yourself banned.
  • Do an Internet search for book bloggers in your genre and contact them to ask if they would like to read and review your book. Keep in mind that bloggers get lots of requests, so check their guidelines, contact them by their preferred method, and send a short, polite request.
What not to do:
  • Don’t pay for reviews. Services that charge to list your book and make it available to reviewers are probably okay, but if you’re paying for a review, that review may get taken off the book sales platforms where it’s posted. Amazon in particular is vigilant about paid or shill reviews, some authors say to the point of taking down valid reviews that inadvertently raise flags.
  • Be wary of review-for-review exchanges with other authors. It can be tricky because whether it’s stated or not, the implication is good review for good review, as unless you’re kind of a jerk, you probably won’t feel right posting a bad review of someone’s book who praised yours.
  • Don't push friends and family members who aren't interested to post reviews. First, while it'd be nice if everyone supported what you do, people are busy, and if they're not readers, don't like the type of book you wrote, or feel awkward about telling you they didn't love the book, you'll only succeed in making them avoid you. Second, and more important for your career, it could be harmful to your novel's success to have reviews from people who usually don't read or buy books in your genre.

As author Chris Fox explains in The Six Figure Author, Amazon uses data to determine to which potential buyers to show your novel. If you write hardcore science fiction and three-quarters of the people who buy your novel the first month read mostly cozy mysteries and diet books, Amazon will likely suggest your book to strangers who read cozies and diet books. Based on their reading preferences, those people are highly unlikely to buy your sci fi novel. Which can then result in Amazon not showing it to anyone anymore, undercutting your long-term goal of selling novels. (So cheer up–when friends and family members make excuses for not reading or reviewing your book, they may be doing you a favor.)

In the end…

It takes time, but remember embarking on a career as a novelist is like building any other business. In the beginning, you spend a lot of time letting people know what you're doing and trying to bring in work. You know every single source of business personally and can trace it back to the specific pitch you made. Eventually, though, someone tells someone who tells two more people who pass on recommendations to their friends and you start getting reviews–and sales–from people you've never met.

Good luck and best wishes for productive week.

L. M. Lilly

The Hero’s Journey

If you've attended a writing seminar or read an article or post about story structure or about filmmaking, you've probably heard about The Hero's Journey. Based on an analysis by Joseph Campbell of myths across cultures and through the ages, it is used in many successful movies, including my favorite, The Terminator. Many novelists use it as well.

This Friday's recommendation is a succinct (8 minutes 40 seconds, to be exact) explanation of The Hero's Journey from The Journeyman Writer:

http://storywonk.com/the-journeyman-writer-32-beginning-the-heros-journey/

I hope you find this helpful. Best wishes for a productive and/or relaxing weekend!

L. M. Lilly

P.S. If you'd like to try a simple, quick way to plot enough of your novel to provide structure without locking yourself into a detailed outline to soon, try Super Simple Story Structure: A Quick Guide to Plotting and Writing Your Novel.