Reading The Newspaper Can Spark Ideas For Your Novel

I started reading the Wall Street Journal when I opened my own law practice because I wanted to better understand my business clients. But I discovered it helped my fiction writing too. Its articles sparked ideas for plot twists and character backstory.

That’s why now that my work life focuses far more on writing than law I still read it every day — in print.

Why read the news rather than watch it and why read in print?

It’s old school, but there are good reasons.

Beyond The Headlines

Television news tends to focus on headlines. Particularly whichever ones will grab the most viewers and evoke the strongest emotions.

Strong emotions are good for fiction, but they need to arise from the characters and the plot.

Because I don’t write “Ripped From The Headlines” novels, emotions aroused by a sensational news story or outrage over one political figure or another don’t help me come up with good ideas for fiction.

The types of articles that make their way into my novels tend to be on page 3 or 12. Or maybe in a separate special section. They’re not the ones that shout at the readers on page 1 or the top of the news hour.

Today, for example, on page 2 I saw an article about how law enforcement used genealogy websites to track down a man suspected of being the long-sought-after Golden State Killer. The murders occurred over 3 decades ago.

While I’m not writing about that same type of crime, I am working on a murder mystery — The Charming Man (Book 2 my new Q.C. Davis mystery series).

Almost all the action occurs within a Chicago apartment complex, River City. The characters are isolated there during a blizzard.

Inside River City

In the first book, The Worried Man, protagonist Quille talked to a lot of suspects and witnesses in person as she investigated the death of the man she loved. She used her training as a lawyer and former actress to study body language. Because she’s trapped in River City in The Charming Man, though, she can only talk to so many people.

She needs other methods.

When I saw the article it occurred to me that one additional way Quille could research her suspects’ family connections and pasts was through genealogy websites.

Articles that helped me flesh out ideas for my first Q.C. Davis mystery included ones about medical fraud, political corruption in Cook County, and the effects of suicide on family members.

As another example, years ago I saw a Wall Street Journal article about scientists isolating a gene that could allow certain species to live 1,000 years.

The question of whether such a gene could be inserted into a human intrigued me.

At the time I was working on The Unbelievers, Book 1 in my Awakening supernatural thriller series. The article prompted me to include a prophecy about The One Who Will Live Forever.

In an early draft, that prophecy referred to a child my protagonist had conceived in a supernatural way. Genetic testing revealed that the child had that 1,000 year gene.

That gene didn’t make it into the final version of the book. It turned out to be a distraction — one too many threads for the reader to follow.

But the prophecy remained, although with a different meaning. Had I not read the article I probably wouldn’t have thought of it at all.

The Beauty Of Print

I like to read articles in an actual print newspaper rather than online. Reading that way helps me generate more ideas and be more creative.

Why?

  • Relaxation/Creativity

I associate reading online with analytic thinking. That’s because the bulk of the legal research I do is through online databases.

While research and analysis are necessary for plotting, when it comes to generating ideas, I need to relax and let thoughts come freely into my mind. That’s a different kind of thinking.

Reading in print helps me access that part of my brain.

  • Focus

Studies show that when we read online our minds tend to look for the next link to click. That makes it harder to concentrate on the words in front of us.

Reading on paper makes it easier for me to focus.

  • All The Pages

I like to page through the entire paper, glancing at all the headlines.

Often the articles that catch my eye are ones I’d never see if I were on a website. I rarely click beyond the first few webpages. The rare times I do, it’s to follow links in an article or to further read about a particular topic, not to eyeball what else might be on the site.

For that reason, it helps me to look at a print newspaper where I glance through all the pages at least once.

What about you? What’s your favorite way to generate ideas for your stories?

Until next Friday —

L.M. Lilly

Getting Unstuck When You’re Writing Your Novel

We’ve all had it happen. You're at the end of a scene or chapter, or maybe in the middle, and you just can’t seem to go on.

Maybe you stare at the screen for a while. Maybe you walk away for five minutes, get a cup of coffee or tea, and come back. Maybe you take your dog for a walk.

Yet you still don’t know what to write next.

Or, worse, you think you do know but for whatever reason you’re not sitting down to write it.

This has happened to me more than once as I’ve been working on the first draft of the second book in my new Q. C. Davis mysteries series. So I've been revisiting my options for getting rolling again.

Below are the four that help me the most.

What works will vary from writer to writer, but maybe some of these will help you, too.

Live Music

Attending a concert or other musical performance almost always stimulates ideas, brings forth new characters, or causes me to create new plot turns. Sometimes I come up with entirely new stories.

It’s not a conscious effort. That’s the beauty of it.

As the music absorbs me, my mind feels free to relax and drift, and that’s when magic happens.

While recorded music helps too, there’s something about the energy of the performers and of the crowd that makes it easy to let go of day-to-day life, concerns, and anything else occupying my analytic mind and just be.

If you haven’t tried it, in my opinion it’s worth giving it a shot no matter what type of musical performance you can get to.

For me, it really doesn’t matter if I love the music or not. It just matters that I'm there, listening and experiencing and watching.

Museums/Art Exhibits/Random Art

Much like music, viewing art stimulates creativity.

Normally I’m pretty skeptical of concepts that can’t be tested scientifically, but I just feel that the energy the artist puts into creating the work somehow comes through the art itself. Whether I like a painting or sculpture or not I feel like being near it and studying it–getting absorbed in it–transmits some of that artist's energy to me.

Also, as with attending a live music event, the energy of other people in an art exhibit or museum (or looking at a piece of art in an outdoor plaza) also adds to my energy.

Sometimes it can be a bit draining if it’s terribly crowded and loud in the area, and then I need to take a break for a while. But for the most part I find myself relaxing and focusing on the art.

I also think viewing artwork is helpful because writing is all about words on the page and what we see in our minds.

With artwork we're often looking at shapes and colors and possibly movement that someone else has created and that’s different from what we see on a day-to-day basis. Anything new like that is almost guaranteed, at least for me, to spark new and different ideas for our own work.

Finally, though I don’t do it purposely, I almost can’t help imagining the emotions of the artist or that the artist wanted to convey. Along with that often come scenes and characters. They aren’t necessarily directly related to the art, but they often speak to me all the same.

When I go back to my own work I find that I am revitalized.

Use Cards With Images

Often when I'm stuck on a scene or story I take out a deck of cards. Not regular playing cards, but some cards with striking images created by artists.

Here’s an example from a set of Soul Cards I bought in an antique and gift store once. There is probably some way to use them for people who want to try to do intuitive or psychic readings, but I don’t use them for that.

Instead, I’ll pull a card at random and stare at it for a while.

I try to let go of other thoughts the same way I would looking at a painting or listening to a concert.

With the card, though, I take it a step further and ask myself how the card makes me feel. I might write down what I feel and think or what story the card brings to mind.

Another option is to imagine you are looking at the card as your character.

How does your character feel? Does it make her feel sad? Does it make him feel happy? What memories does it trigger?

If you’re comfortable with it and you're using a deck (such as any type of Tarot deck) that assigns meanings to the images, you can use the instructions or search for meanings of the cards online.

You don't need to believe the cards actually tell the future or give true insight in themselves. (I don't.) In my view, most descriptions of most cards are general and open enough that you can interpret them in many, many ways.

This possibility of so many different interpretations allows your mind and heart to range freely and bring forth or add on to whatever is already in your unconscious mind about your characters and story.

Take A Train Ride

Another time new ideas or creative solutions to plot or character questions come easily to my mind is when I’m riding a train.

The movement of the train prompts a sort of meditative state of mind for me. I don’t read or listen to music or do work. I simply stare out the window and let my mind drift.

As with art and music, it doesn’t matter if I like the scenery outside the window or not. Whether it’s city, miles of fields of corn (I take the Amtrak through Central and downstate Illinois a lot) or a river or swamp, it helps clear my mind.

I don’t make any effort to think about anything in particular, I just let my thoughts flow.

Often for the first few minutes I’m preoccupied with day-to-day concerns. But soon I let go of all that, and thoughts simply arise.

Sometimes nothing about story or character comes to mind during the train ride, but later when I sit down at the keyboard again the words start flowing.

Why It Works

The key, at least for me, for all of the above is not to try to come up with an answer but to simply take the train ride (literally or metaphorically).

The common threads I see in all the above activities are:

  • being exposed to something new or different
  • changing a daily or weekly routine
  • feeling the energy of other people (at least through their creative work)
  • letting go of the specific purpose and being in the moment

My best guess is that’s why these activities spark ideas that help us get around blocks.

What works best for you? Feel free to share in the comments.

Until next Friday-

L.M. Lilly

Chickens, Eggs, and Sales (Advertising Your Book Before You Get Reviews)

A question I often get is how to advertise a newly-released book that has few or no reviews.

This issue causes a lot of stress for self published authors, including me, because it’s the old chicken and egg problem. It’s hard to sell books if you don’t have reviews. But it’s also hard to get reviews without a lot of sales.

The best places to advertise e-books are always evolving.

That’s why I periodically search the Internet for articles with up-to-date lists.

Best Book Promotion Sites 2018 is a good example of this type of resource. It includes descriptions of many sites as well as bonus discount codes for some of them.

Caution When Advertising

Below are some advertising options I’ve used in the past–and intend to use in the future–for new releases.

A few things to keep in mind before you advertise:

  • It’s often hard to make your money back on advertising, particularly in the beginning when your book has no reviews.

For this reason, I try to keep my advertising spending at a level I can afford even if it takes a long time to sell enough books to make a profit or cover the cost.

  • The options below are ones that I found helpful, but results vary depending on your genre, the price at which you're offering your book, whether your cover appeals to your target readers, your book description, and how readers feel about your first few pages (among other things).

So sites that worked well for one of my books may not be helpful for one of yours, or for a different book I published.

  • Before you advertise anywhere, sign up for the newsletter or study the books listed on the site.

That way you'll see whether the books being promoted are similar to yours.

  • I also find it helpful to see how high advertised books rank on Amazon on the day of the ad.

This gives some clues to whether the platform is effective. Keep in mind, though, that authors may be advertising on more than one platform at a time, so a book in the Top 100 overall or for a category may have gotten there based on a combination of ads.

Digital Book Today

Digital Book Today offers a New Release option for Kindle books. The feature has no minimum review requirement. For 14 days, your Kindle book will be featured on the website's New Release page and will be included in a dedicated blog post with just 2 other books.

Right now it costs $30. 

The site also offers some genre-specific pages, including one for Mystery, Suspense, and Thriller, which is where I’ll be advertising my new mystery release The Worried Man for 30 days beginning on May 1 (the ebook release date).

While I haven’t found Digital Book Today webpage listings to be as effective as enewsletter options, which go directly to readers' In boxes, I have seen boosts in sales when I listed my books there.

Digital Book Today also offers some listings for free.

Bargain Booksy

Bargain Booksy lists ebooks on its site and in enewsletters.

You can advertise ebooks on numerous platforms, including Kindle, Kobo, Nook, iBooks, and Google Play, as well as include a paperback link and an audiobook link. You can list books that are priced anywhere from Free to $5.

Bargain Booksy’s website says that it has no minimum review requirement, but “every book goes through an editorial review process. If your book does not meet our editorial guidelines, we will email you within 72 hours and issue a full refund on your payment.”

So far, I have not had a book turned down for lack of reviews when it was a new release. I suppose that might happen, but why not try and see?

The price for listing in the enewsletter varies based on genre.

For mystery, right now it is $55. (This site is the only other one so far where I've scheduled a new release ad for The Worried Man.)

Q.C. Davis Mysteries, Book 1

Free books can be listed on Freebooksy, a related site/enewsletter.

Fussy Librarian

Fussy Librarian is also a website and enewsletter service.

If you have a new release, you can advertise there before you have reviews so long as you have another book with an average rating of 4.0 with between 10 and 19 reviews (or an average rating of 3.5 you have more than 20 reviews).

Fussy Librarian also lists ebooks on multiple platforms and includes an audiobook link, which is one of the reasons I like advertising there.

As most of my books are wide (meaning they are available on multiple ebook platforms), I prefer advertising venues that allow me to list all my links. Also, I've found that when I advertise a discounted Kindle book on Fussy Librarian, I often see additional audiobook sales.

The prices for Fussy Librarian vary by genre and by whether your book is offered for free or at a discount. Right now to list a Mystery/Female Sleuth, it's $18 if the book is offered at a discount.

Fussy Librarian also offers an enewsletter dedicated solely to free ebooks.

AwesomeGang

AwesomeGang will include books in its enewsletter that have no reviews.

According to the website and an interview I heard of the founder, that’s because he had trouble getting noticed when he had new books and he wanted to offer an option for authors in that same position.

Listings are available free or for $10.

I’ve only used AwesomeGang once when the service was just getting started, and I couldn’t tell whether or not it really boosted my sales.

For the price, though, I feel it’s worth trying again in the future.

JustKindleBooks

JustKindleBooks sends out enewsletters and lists books on its site.

Despite its name, it includes links to both Kindle books and iBooks.

Listings cost between $18 and $38 depending upon the features you want.

I could not find a review requirement on the website. The site does state, however, that authors are better off launching a book promotion “after your book has some reviews.”

I agree, but in my opinion, it's sometimes worth spending to get some initial sales. Those may in turn generate reviews, making advertising more effective in the future.

Books Butterfly

Books Butterfly provides many options over a wide range of price points for advertising your ebook in its enewsletter, on several websites, and through its social media pages. You can include links to multiple platforms.

I did not see any review requirements listed.

The cost ranges from $50 up to thousands of dollars, so I personally use some caution in using this service.

The site offers a guarantee of sorts for some of the promotion options if you don’t sell as many books as projected. Read the fine print, though, as there are caveats on that guarantee.

Book Zio

I also did not see a review requirement anywhere on this site.

The cost ranges from free to $49. You can include links to multiple ebook platforms.

I advertised The Awakening, a supernatural thriller, through Book Zio and was very happy with the sales, but at that time the book had about 100 reviews. I do plan to try for The Worried Man, but probably when I have at least 10 or 20 reviews and am offering a significant discount, as I feel I'll get the best results then.

Ereader News Today

For me, Ereader News Today, or ENT, has been one of the best places to advertise. Through its newsletter, I have usually sold enough books to pay for the ad the day it runs and earn some extra money.

As with Book Zio, though, I have not used it when I had a low number of reviews.

Also, it’s unclear whether a book with no reviews would be accepted.

The website says “while we do not have a minimum number of reviews [that] are required, we do look at the reviews to get an idea of how well the book has been received by those that have read it.”

Further, the site says that it will accept preorders and, if those books have no reviews, ENT will consider reviews of previous titles.

Both of these comments suggest to me that you probably need to have some reviews to be accepted by ENT. Personally, though, I'd submit a book regardless and see what happened.

The cost varies by genre and by the price at which you are offering your book. For mysteries, right now it is $45-$120.

If you found other places to list books with limited or no reviews, I’d love it if you'd share them in the comments so that other readers can see them.

Until next Friday–

L.M. Lilly

iPhones And The Art Of Writing Simply

Consider this sentence:

In order to make a determination regarding whether negotiations should be entered into at this point in time, an evaluation of benefits and detriments was made.

If your brain turned off after the fourth or fifth word, it’s not because you’re not a lawyer. Or, if you are a lawyer, it’s not because you’re not a smart lawyer.

It’s because it’s a terrible sentence.

Try this one instead:

To decide whether to negotiate now, we weighed the pluses and minuses.

The second sentence says the same thing as the first, but using 12 words instead of 26. And the 12 words are simpler and clearer.

The rule of keeping it simple applies to other types of writing too.

Compare my poorly-written version of a sentence from Joy Fielding’s The Wild Zone (see page 113 of Pocket Books paperback edition) to the real thing:

Mine:

At that very moment, she made an identification of the vehicle as the automobile she’d been followed by the night before, which vehicle she’d made the assumption was owned by the detective who had been hired by her husband.

The real sentence:

She’d recognized the car immediately as the one that had tailed her the night before, the one she’d assumed belonged to a detective hired by her husband.

Why Simple Is Better

In both pairs of examples, the second sentence is easier to understand and more likely to keep the reader’s attention. That matters to me no matter what I’m writing.

In law or for business, I usually write to explain something to someone – whether it’s a client, a colleague or a judge – or to persuade someone to see things my way. It’s harder to do either if I make the reader struggle to understand me or, worse yet, to stay awake. When

I write fiction, obviously I want and need to capture and keep the reader’s attention. Excessive words bog down a story and can bury the even most exciting plot twists and characters.

Simplifying my writing also allows me to cover more ground.

In my law practice, I’m usually bound by a page limit. If my sentences are twice as long as they need to be, that means I can make only half the arguments or must cut some of the examples or cases that support those arguments.

And even if I don’t need my whole page limit, I’d rather send a court or a client a well-written 7-page document than a cumbersome 15-page one. In fiction, clearer, cleaner sentences allow me more space to develop character, advance the plot, or describe the setting.

For these reasons, over half my writing time is spent cutting. (I’m not alone in this – the saying “If I had more time, I would have written a shorter letter” has been attributed to many people, including Voltaire and Mark Twain.)

Writing more simply sounds, well, simple, and it is when comparing two sentences the way I did above.

Looking at an entire manuscript, though, can be daunting. So I’ve tried to break down some points I look for when editing.

  • Get rid of words you don’t need:

Lawyers in particular love unnecessary words, I suspect because we spent a lot of money to go to law school and we want to sound like it.

“Attached hereto is the aforementioned contract” sounds like something a lawyer would write. On the other hand, “the contract is attached” is just plain English.

One place to spot words you can cut is in prepositional phrases.

In the sample sentences, I changed “in order to” to “to.” Similarly, “at this point in time” became “now” and “at that very moment” changed to “immediately.”

Using the Find function in Word to search for prepositions, especially “of,” “at” and “to,” is a great way to discover phrases you can simplify. Read each phrase and ask yourself how you might say it in one word or, at most, two.

  • Don’t just be — do:

Another way to make writing sharper is to write in active rather than passive voice.

Active voice: “her husband hired a detective.”

Passive voice: “A detective was hired by her husband.”

“We evaluated” (active); “an evaluation was made” (passive).

Active voice shortens sentences and makes them easier to read and understand. It also keeps the focus on the actor.

If you won an award or a race, don’t you want people to know you won it? And be excited about it? “I won the race” sounds a lot more exciting than “A race was won” or even “A race was won by me.”

Of course, sometimes you want to be anonymous. In his 1987 State of the Union speech, President Reagan didn’t say he’d made mistakes regarding the Iran-Contra scandal, he said “serious mistakes were made….” Who made them? Perhaps no one will focus on that.

Another time for passive voice is when you use it to emphasize the object of the sentence.

For instance, if you and your friend have loved every book that won an Edgar Award, and you want to persuade your friend to read a particular writer, you might say, “An Edgar Award was won by this writer.” The point is “wow, an Edgar Award, that writer must be amazing.”

Yet another reason to use passive voice is when you don’t know who performed an action: “A tower had been built in the village” might be the only way you can frame a sentence if you don’t know who built the tower.

Short of a good reason to use passive voice, however, phrase all your sentences in active voice and see how much more compelling it makes your writing. You can find passive voice by searching for the “to be” words — was, were, is, are. The word “by” also often signals passive voice (think “was followed by” or “was loved by” or “was won by”.

  • Trade nouns for verbs:

I also look for instances where I can substitute a verb for what I think of as a noun phrase. (English teachers or editors out there may know the technical term for what I mean.)

The phrase “enter into negotiations” is an example of what I call a noun phrase – it uses the noun “negotiations” as part of a phrase that conveys an action. But one verb – negotiate – can say the same thing.

Similarly, above, the verb “assumed” replaced the noun phrase “made the assumption.”

As with minimizing passive voice, this type of editing not only eliminates words, it makes the sentences more active and interesting.

While doing this, you can replace a noun not only with a verb, but with a stronger verb or a verb that’s more commonly used or easier to read.

“I talked with Beth” flows better than “I had a conversation with Beth” or even “I conversed with Beth.” Similarly, “I had an argument with Beth,” might become “I fought with Beth.”

  • Trade verbs for better verbs:

Replacing a verb plus an adverb with a stronger verb also helps writing clip along.

A few examples:

  1. Walked swiftly: hurried
  2. Walked casually: strolled
  3. Laughed nervously: tittered

You get the idea.

Find the adverbs by searching “ly”.

Also, even if the “to be” words aren’t part of a phrase that’s in passive voice, consider replacing them with a more interesting verb. “I felt sad” conveys stronger emotion than “I was sad.” “I grieved” sounds even more vivid.

Everything I've read about Steve Jobs said he always focused on simplicity in his designs.

I saw this the first time I got an iPhone and compared it to my Blackberry. (Remember those?)

The Blackberry had all kinds of icons for different functions, but after six years I only knew how to do two things on it – call and email. I hesitated to switch to an iPhone because I couldn’t imagine what else I’d do with it.

Within two months of owning one, it had become my daily alarm clock, back up GPS, radio station, oven timer, weather channel, and Internet browser. And, oh yes, I call and email with it.

So borrow a page from Apple's playbook and don’t clutter your writing with words that take up space and seem too cumbersome to figure out.

Instead, have some fun and write the iPhone version of a legal brief, novel, or business letter.

Until next Friday–

L.M. Lilly