Competition v. Comparisonitis

Lake Michigan on a cloudy day.

Today four friends and I spent a few hours on Lake Michigan. We don't own a boat–we chipped in together at a charity event to share the cost of a cruise. The man who donated it owns a 50-foot yacht, and he took us around the lake.

The experience got me thinking about how often we compare ourselves to others who have more money or success than we do. In the book world, this means looking at authors who've sold a little more (or a lot more) and feeling unhappy with our own progress.

The day started when we parked near Belmont Harbor and walked along the docks. I marveled at all the people who have the money to buy and maintain boats.

I checked and Google told me the average price of a 41-45 foot boat is $250,000-$550,000.

As I'm not that much of a lake or outdoor person, I don't know if there's any amount I could earn that would make spending that much worth it to me. But I admit to feeling a twinge of envy that there are people who can afford to pay more than my condominium cost for recreation.

The middle part of our cruise involved a stop in a harbor near McCormick Center where a famous 198-foot yacht is docked. You can see it here through the window of the boat we were on. It has 6 cabins for guests and 7 cabins for crew. Its estimated value is $750 million.

The owner of “our” boat laughed at how small his yacht seemed in comparison.

Which is when it hit me–no matter where you are or how well you're doing, there's always someone doing better.

Going back to writing and selling books–if you have no books published, you might look at someone with one or two and feel like you're so far behind.

But when you do publish a first book or a second, rather than congratulate yourself and feel good, it's easy to immediately compare yourself to people who've published a seven-book series or whose books top Amazon best seller lists all the time. If you reach that mark, you might look at people who are New York Times Best Sellers or publish a book every other month.

Or maybe from the start you look at J.K. Rowling or Stephen King and think, “Why am I not there?” Or worse, think “I'll never get there.”

It can be good to look at someone who's ahead of us, who's achieved what we hope to achieve. It motivates us when we're tired or frustrated, just as runners who race with those faster than them tend to increase their own times. That's why it's good to aim a bit beyond wherever you are.

But if you look too far ahead or do it too often, it can be discouraging.

From me to J.K. Rowling is a gap that appears unbridgeable, and the reality is, few writers will ever achieve that level of fame and monetary success, though they may earn a very good living.

So when choosing who to compare yourself to, let your feelings be your guide.

If thinking that someday you could own a castle like J.K. Rowling's causes you to sit down and write when you don't feel like it or to research those advertising opportunities, then by all means do it.

But don't compare yourself to J.K. Rowling if it makes you feel hopeless or that you're falling short no matter what you do.

Instead, try looking to someone whose writing you like and who has one more book out than you do (even if that person has one and you have none). See what you can learn from that person's writing or marketing. Set a goal that's a little higher than you think you can reach and start working.

And don't forget to write down where you are now and set a time six months or a year down the road to check in on your progress. That way, when you get the book finished and published, or you reach the sales goal you set, you'll remember where you've been and you'll give yourself credit, rather than looking again to someone else and feeling you've fallen short.

And if you don't quite reach your goal?

That's valuable feedback, too. Use it figure out what you need to do differently, set a new check in date, and get back to work.

Good luck!

Until Friday–

L.M. Lilly





If You Read One Book On Marketing This Year…

If you only have time to read one book this year on marketing, the latest edition of How To Market A Book should be it.

Here's why:

Information Without Overload

Reading the book feels like sitting down and chatting with the author, Joanna Penn.

Penn covers in depth multiple ways to market your book, which could easily be overwhelming. But in her intro, closing, and throughout she makes clear that you can't do all of it, and that not every approach works or feels right to every author.

I really appreciated that because it seems every day I'm reading or hearing about something I “should” be doing to sell or market. This book includes them all, expertly breaking them down while acknowledging that it's okay to not do some of it.

Overall Marketing Principles

How To Market A Book (3rd edition) challenges marketing myths and shares marketing guidelines in the first part, which includes an overview of discoverability and other big-picture issues.

Even if you're familiar with many of these already, it's worth reading for a quick, clear overview.

Fundamentals For Success

The second part of the book gets into specifics like choosing categories and keywords for your book, pluses and minuses of publishing your ebook edition exclusively with Amazon, and pricing.

Each point includes detailed, specific information you can put into practice right away.

Short-Term Marketing

Part 3 covers short-term marketing issues like getting reviews and using paid advertising. This part is especially valuable because you can implement these strategies whether or not you have an author website or platform. I only finished the book last week but already I've referred back to some of the topics.

Building A Platform

The next section focuses on long-term marketing by building your author brand.

It includes specific, practical advice on building a website, email marketing, blogging, podcasting, book trailers, PR, and more. I plan to use the podcasting section as a step-by-step How To guide if my plans for a starting movie podcast next year come to fruition.

Book Launches

The last section details book launches, addressing differences between indie and traditionally-published authors, soft launches, relaunches, and numerous other things you need to know.

You'll also find a launch checklist, which is another example of how practical and clear the advice in How To Market A Book is.

The book also includes an appendix with questions to answer if your book isn't selling. It functions as a perfect recap of everything covered, and I plan to review it every few months as a refresher.

Until Sunday–

L.M. Lilly

P.S. I'm gradually building a list of helpful books on writing. If there are any you think should be added, please note them in the comments or email me: [email protected]


Making The Most Of A Creative Retreat

Taking part in a creative retreat can enhance your writing process. It can also improve your overall life.

Religious and spiritual people go on retreat to step away from daily life and become more in touch with the divine or their best selves.

If you're creative, a retreat serves a similar purpose. It allows you a concentrated time to connect with the artist within, to stimulate your mind, and to immerse yourself in your art without distractions.

When, where, how long, and how to structure a retreat can vary. Here are some things to keep in mind:

When Is The Ideal Time To Go On A Retreat?

The best time to attend a retreat is when it won't cause you too much stress to be away. (This affects the length of the retreat, too–see more below.)

If you're worried about what's happening at home or work or feel you're shirking your responsibilities, you won't be able to relax and focus.

But if the only way to take part in a retreat is to check on a few projects or do a minimal amount of paid work, don't let that stop you. If you choose the right environment, you'll be able to do that without undermining your creativity.

Rabbit Hole retreat working session.

As far as the time of year goes, if you are concerned about your budget, look for (or organize) a retreat in the off-season, also called the “shoulder season” in the travel business. This is the time when most people don't want to go to a particular place, but it's still pleasant enough if your plan is mainly to write, engage with other artists, and create.

For instance, if you visit a ski resort in May, you may still find lovely hiking trails and a quaint village nearby, but you will pay lower hotel or condo rates.

I once attended a retreat in Palm Springs a month after spring break. It was very hot out, too hot for most people, so we got a great hotel rate and structured the retreat around the weather. We had indoor meetings and writing during the hottest part of the day. We met outside in the shade in the morning and after dark near the pool.

Where Is The Best Place?

With sites like AirBnB you can go pretty much anywhere in the world, so the “where” has more to do with budget and time. If you have little of both, you can organize or join in a local retreat for a day.

A day may not sound like very long, but simply to focus on your writing for one day without other distractions, and with people who share your love of the written word or of other types of art, can be renewing and give you energy throughout the rest of the year.

One-day locations can include libraries, forest preserves, someone's home, conference rooms, college campuses, or pretty much anywhere you can host a meeting that allows for enough space.

You will also want to think about what will both stimulate your mind and help you relax, which usually involves a change of place if you can afford it.

Because I live near the heart of downtown Chicago, I like retreats that get me outdoors, ideally near a lake or a river, with somewhere that I can walk. The creative retreat I attended last year had a historic old cemetery that had lovely paths. (Perfect for writing horror.)

If you live in a more rural area, you might find a city with architecture you love or clubs that have live music you can enjoy at night that will help you unwind and feel you've stepped out of your day-to-day life.

Remember that you will want some options for recreation. Part of creating is relaxing and enjoying life, and part of getting ideas is feeding your mind and heart and soul.

You'll also need to be sure your location has resources you'll need, such as WiFi or a kitchen (if you're bringing your own food).

How Long Should The Retreat Be?

As mentioned above, you can do a retreat for a day if that's what's workable in your budget and timetable.

If you can manage it, though, I find a week away is ideal.

The first day usually is a travel and transition day where you'll still be thinking about your regular work and life. The next few days you can gradually immerse yourself in whatever projects you've chosen to focus on. The last few days allow you to truly unwind and relax, which leads to a return with renewed energy and excitement.

A ten-day or two-week retreat might also work, though for some people being away that long creates anxiety.

It also can become tiring. If you're in close quarters with a small group, that's a lot of time to coexist. It's also a lot of time to be away from the people you care about and usually see in your life. Sometimes, though, especially if you have a particularly stressful work life, two weeks is perfect for getting away.

What Are Some Way To Structure The Retreat?

Unlike conferences, which are typically about attending organized sessions where experts speak, retreats are about getting your own work done.

If you're looking for critiquing and instruction, you'll want to find a retreat with other writers who are around your skill level or better and/or that's run by an instructor from whom you'd like to learn.

For novelists, these types of retreats often involve exchanging 1-3 chapters and perhaps an outline in advance. The participants and instructor critique the pages, usually both in writing and in person. Everyone retreats to their rooms (or their spaces outside) and rewrites for a few hours, then the pages are exchanged and critiqued again.

If you're looking less for critiquing and more for inspiration and focus, you can look for a retreat that involves exchanging work with others to read but not to critique. This provides accountability to someone else. You can also ask for positive comments only or have the others simply relay back what they recall about the story so you can see if you've conveyed what you'd hoped.

This is most helpful if you are a beginning writer and need encouragement and accountability but feel critiques might inhibit your process.

Finally, you can go on a retreat where you don't share your work at all (or where you and a coauthor work together but don't share with anyone else). In this type of retreat, there are typically hours throughout the day when participants work on their own projects. They then come together for meals or to unwind and talk at different times during the day.

The advantage of this type of retreat is you clear out the rest of your life to focus on one or two projects. You also have the support and stimulus of talking with other creative people.

I just returned from this kind of retreat. It helped me generate ideas for a second book in my new mystery series and fill in chapters in a book I'm working on about character development. I also learned about string theory and the universe, as the game designers on the retreat are creating a game that includes those concepts. I'm not sure how that will play into my fiction in the future, but I'm sure it will.

All these types of retreats should also provide you time to absorb the creative work of others. I reread two novels (The Dead Zone and Gone Girl) on retreat and annotated them to use as examples in my book on characters. I also started a third novel, a mystery, that I'd never read before.

In my normal life, I can't read that much.

If you can do a retreat this year or next, please consider it, especially if you're feeling burnt out or stuck in your writing or you are longing to surge forward and reach a new level.

Until Friday–

L.M. Lilly

P.S. For more about the retreat experience, particularly about feeling as if I were in an almost magical place away from “real life,” check out my author blog from last year's Rabbit Hole Retreat.

Finding The Right Writing Conference Or Retreat For You

Crooked Lake at Rabbit Hole Retreat.

The title of this Friday's post/recommendation is long, partly because the topic–choosing a writing retreat or conference–is more involved than it first appears.

I decided to post about choosing a retreat or conference because I'm on a creative retreat now. My first idea was to find and link to a comprehensive list describing multiple events and listing the location and cost for each.

It turns out a list of writing conferences, though, is (1) not that hard to find and (2) not that helpful.

Each conference or retreat has pluses and minuses, but those vary depending upon your goals. Likewise, which ones will be most helpful will depend as much on where you are in your writing career as on the quality of the retreat.

Playing Mysterium at the Rabbit Hole Retreat.

So before you do an Internet search or find a listing in a magazine of conferences, I suggest reading this article from The Write Life.

It discusses (a) the difference between a conference and a retreat, (b) general events versus genre-specific ones, (c) fitting your trip into your budget, and (d) figuring out your personal goals for the event.

Rainy day on Rabbit Hole Retreat.

Until Sunday, when I'll share more on how to make the most of a creative retreat

L.M. Lilly

Canva (Tools of the Writing Trade No. 2)

Canva is a DIY graphic design site that can help your writing career.

Whether you've had books published by a traditional publisher, publish your own work, or hope to do either, part of being an author is sharing your work and letting people know about you.

Many of us are introverts, though, and/or dislike or fear being “salesy.”

Social media is one way to connect with potential readers in genuine ways, and Canva offers a good tool for making your posts more engaging and fun. Canva can also help you create book covers.

What You Can Do On Canva

Canva offers a Do-It-Yourself platform for graphic design.

If you've ever seen someone post an inspiring saying across a beautiful photo of a sunrise on Instagram or Facebook and wished you could do that, Canva is one place where you can. If you want to create a Facebook ad and aren't sure how to put it together or make it the right size, the tools on Canva can help.

Also, on Canva I created this cover for my story structure book. While for my novels I hire a professional designer, I did this one to try out Canva and also to see if there was reader interest in the topic of the book before spending a lot to publish it. There has been, so later this year, I will likely have a new cover done. In the meantime, judging by sales, this one conveys the content of the book well enough.

How To Use Canva

The site provides free templates for specific social media platforms. Among others, there are Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram post templates, blog and Tumblr graphics, and ebook cover templates.

Canva also offers backgrounds, photos, and illustrations to use in those templates. Another option is to drag and drop your own images.

I created the banner on my author Facebook page using my Awakening book covers, and the banner atop this blog using Canva stock photos.

Most of the graphics for this blog were created on Canva. I plan to use the one on the right in an upcoming post. It combines three images I found when I searched for  “lists” and “categories.”

What Does Canva Cost?

You can create an account for free using your email address. As soon as you sign on, you'll see many free templates.

Canva also offers multiple photos and illustrations free. Sometimes a particular image you want will be a stock photo that requires payment. The banner for this blog includes two photos I needed to pay to use, but it was worth it to me because I really liked them.

The cost varies depending upon use. If you are using a photo in one social media post, it may cost $1. If you want to use it continuously, the same photo may cost $10.

The single-use cost of the photo appears on the left when you are choosing to incorporate it in your design, but you don't need to pay unless or until you download it for your own use. When you do, the license options will appear.

Occasionally it's disappointing to discover that a photo you loved is out of your budget for long-term use. But that's only happened to me a couple times, and given all the experimenting and free work I've done on the site, I don't mind.

Also, you can usually download a free sample of your design to try it out. It will have the word Canva written across it, but it's helpful to make sure you like what you've designed before you pay.

In the seven months I've used Canva, I've created two e-book covers, numerous blog graphics, Facebook and Twitter banners, and occasional social media posts.

All that has cost me less than $50, and I could have done all of it free had I wanted to search longer for free illustrations or photos.

I've likely only scratched the surface of how you could use Canva. If you check it out and find more amazing uses, please share in the comments.

Until Friday–

L.M. Lilly

P.S. See Your Book Will Be Judged By Its Cover for more on when to create your own covers and when to hire a designer.

Yoga And Your Writer’s Body

This Friday's recommendation is not an article to read or a show to listen to.

It's a suggestion on caring for your body, especially if you work at a job that, like writing, involves time at a keyboard.

Even if we're careful about posture (and how many of us always are?), if we type a lot during the day for work and then come home to type some more we're repeating the same motions over and over.

Our hands and shoulders are forward. If we're not careful, our head may thrust forward as well. Depending on where our screen is in relation to our eyes, our neck may be angled up or down.

If, like me, you're a fairly fast typist, that may make it all worse. On the one hand, I love that I type quickly by touch. It's as if I think and the words appear on screen.

Unfortunately, though, being a fast typist makes it harder to remember to interrupt my repetitive motions and instead reach for a mouse or shift position.

For instance, despite the mouse on my left, my default is to navigate using arrows keys on the right. That causes a knot in my right shoulder. The pain shoots up my neck and, on a bad day, can trigger a migraine.

To help alleviate strain, some writers use dictation software, standing desks, or do detailed outlines or early drafts by hand.

Massages, ice or heat, and physical therapy also can be effective.

One of the best ways I've found to counter the strain to my neck and shoulders is yoga. Many of the simplest poses are designed to open up the body, counteracting the rounding of the shoulders and releasing the muscles there.

Yoga also encourages better posture and strengthens the muscles that help achieve that.

Most days I do a 25-minute yoga routine, but I've found that as little as 15 minutes a day makes a big difference in how well I feel and how long I can write without pain.

There are courses and videos available all over the Internet. I use a series of DVDs by Namaste Yoga and occasionally attend in-person classes. Many books on yoga specifically address neck and back issues.

What exercise works best for you and is right for your body is, of course, something only you can decide, and you should check with your healthcare provider before undertaking a new routine.

Until Sunday, when I'll talk about Canva, a website that helps you create graphics–

L.M. Lilly




Writing A Novel 15 Minutes At A Time

If you're writing a novel or planning to, you'd probably love to write every day for 1-4 hours. The reason an hour, or at least 30 minutes, is ideal is that most of us need a few minutes to get focused, immerse ourselves again in our story, and write.

If you only have 15 minutes, though, you can make a lot of progress on your novel, no matter where you are in the process.

Below are 10 suggestions for what to do with 15 minutes:
  • Think about a scene you're struggling with. What does each character in the scene want?

If the characters' goals don't conflict with one another, change one goal so it does and reimagine the scene. Try out any idea for the new goal, no matter how out there. It's only 15 minutes!

  • Imagine the next scene you plan write. You probably see it, right? Now engage all your senses. 

What do you hear? What do you smell? If your character is eating, how does the food taste? What can your character(s) feel? Is the air warm, freezing, humid?

  • Think about the last scene you wrote or the next one you plan to write. Imagine that scene from a different character's point of view.

You may discover it works better, and if it doesn't, you'll still have gotten an important perspective on it that will make your original viewpoint richer.

  • Brainstorm (or write down) 3 obstacles that block your protagonist from achieving her or his main goal in the novel.

If you already have obstacles to the goal, imagine ways to make those obstacles more formidable.

  • Imagine your protagonist on a 30-minute coffee date with someone she or he wants to make a good impression on.

What are 3 things your protagonist would make a point to avoid saying about herself or himself?

  • Same question for your antagonist.
  • Midpoints in novels are a challenge for many writers. A Midpoint typically requires a commitment or vow from the main character (think of Scarlett O'Hara vowing to never be hungry again) or a major reversal.

Brainstorm ways your character could make a commitment or suffer a reversal at the Midpoint of your novel.

Beginnings and Endings
  • Brainstorm first lines for your novel.

If you're having trouble, remember first lines you've loved, search for classic first lines on your phone or laptop for inspiration, or look at books on your shelves if you have access to them right now.

  • Think about the first scene of your novel (whether you've written it yet or not) that features your protagonist. What does the protagonist want  in that scene and what is blocking getting it?

If you're not sure, experiment with different options. If you know, come up with 3 ways to make the character's goal more significant or the obstacles to achieving it greater.

  • Brainstorm strong chapter endings.

A good chapter ending urges the reader on to the next chapter. This can be a hint of things to come, an open question (why is the police detective calling the protagonist?), or a genuine cliffhanger.

Finding 15 minutes

The great thing is that you can think or write about most of the above suggestions wherever you are–standing in line, riding a bus, waiting to pick up your child from school, walking to or from the store (though be careful not to bump into anyone).

If you're about to check your email or social media account and there's no need to do so, you can think or write for a few minutes instead.

Also, if you just got home from work or put your two-year-old down for a nap and you feel too worn out to write, you can choose an option from the list above to consider.

If all you do is think about it for 15 minutes, you'll have made progress on your novel. If it reenergizes you and you're able to carve out some more time to write, that's a bonus.

Until Friday–


L.M. Lilly

P.S. For help plotting a few simple points so you make the best use of your writing time, you may want to check out Super Simple Story Structure: A Quick Guide To Plotting And Writing Your Novel (available in audio, workbook, and ebook editions).

Beats Explained

If you read comments in online writing groups, listen to podcasts, or read articles or blogs on the writing process, you've likely heard authors talk about beats.

A writer might say of a novel she's planning, “I've written out the beats.” An author giving advice might mention the importance of beats.

If you're not quite certain what a “beat” includes, you're not alone. Having written multiple novels plus a book on story structure, it's embarrassing to admit I didn't really understand this word everyone was throwing around. Outlines, plot points, scenes, yes. “Beats,” no.

Happily, in this episode of How Story Works, author and story expert Lani Diane Rich explains beats.

First, she talks about a narrative unit, which is a series of events that has meaning. So a beat, a scene, and a story are all narrative units. Second, a beat is the smallest narrative unit. So scenes are made up of beats. Stories are made up of scenes.

Lani also illustrates exactly what a beat is and what it does, which is what I found most helpful. Using a scene from a work in progress, she pauses after every beat to discuss why it's a beat and what it accomplishes or shows.

HSW #19. Beats All The Way Down

I hope this helps you plan or revise your own scenes and stories.

Until Sunday–


L.M. Lilly