Save Time And Let Your Novel Ideas Simmer

We've all stared at a blank screen or page unsure what to write next. For me, it's hardest if I'm starting a new novel and I'm out of ideas. Or I'm having trouble choosing which of my novel ideas to write about.

The concept of setting your ideas on the back burner to let them simmer can help.

Doing so does 3 things:

  1. Frees your creative mind by lowering stress
  2. Keeps you from getting stuck
  3. Uses your time well (especially if you're also working at another job or career)

Less Stressed And More Creative

The concept of putting ideas on the metaphorical back burner isn't original to me.

I got it from Don't Sweat The Small Stuff and It's All Small Stuff: Simple Ways To Keep The Little Things From Taking Over Your Life. In that book, the author suggests that rather than racking your brain about a problem that makes you feel anxious, you should imagine setting it on the back burner of your mind to simmer.

That's because often the more you struggle for a solution, the more you reinforce anxiety rather than shifting your mindset to making things better.

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If you relax and let go of the problem, though, your unconscious mind is free to come up with creative answers.

In the same way, allowing ourselves to set aside concerns about finding the right idea frees our unconscious minds to sort through possibilities, make connections, and come up with entirely new thoughts.

Ones we never would have imagined if we sat staring at the blank screen.

On Time, On Schedule, And Unstuck

I'm a great believer in sticking to a writing schedule. That means if I carved out time to write, I do it whether I feel inspired or not.

If I'm not sure where to go next with my novel, though, or how to get it started, wracking my brain at the scheduled time doesn't usually help. So instead I imagine putting whatever part of my novel I'm struggling with on the back burner and turn to something else.

The something else could be a different writing project.

Maybe a short story a poem, or a chapter in nonfiction book. Ideally it's something I can easily pick up and put down.

If I really need to make progress on the novel to meet a deadline, though, I focus on a different part of it.

For example, let's say I'm stuck on the big picture idea for the next novel in my Q.C. Davis series. (The first one involved whether Quille's boyfriend committed suicide or was murdered. The second featured neighbors stuck in an apartment complex during a blizzard with a killer. The third relates to a self-help organization that has cult-like aspects.)

Right now I'm uncertain of the basic premise of the fourth book, but I can still make progress.

I might write about a new character I want to bring into the series. Or think about aspects of Chicago to highlight that haven't been in previous books. (One that will likely appear in Book 4 is the number of buildings that have multiple entrances and exits, allowing someone who knows them well to evade a pursuer.)

Writing about any of those points keeps me moving forward while leaving my unconscious mind to figure out who will be murdered and what the backdrop for story will be.

In this way, I'm more apt to stick to my writing schedule, reinforce my writing habit, and avoid getting stuck.

Using Your “Other” Work Time

The back burner concept also ensures that when you are working at another job or profession (or handling some other responsibility) you're still writing.

That's because even if your mind is completely absorbed in a non-writing task, your unconscious mind can imagine scenes, sort through plots, or generate completely new novel ideas.

You can help this process along by taking as little as five minutes before you start your day to choose a part of your novel to let simmer. Within a few days or a week new ideas or decisions will almost certainly pop into your mind.

When that happens it not only helps you make progress, it gets you more excited about your novel.

That's all for today. Until next Friday —

L. M. Lilly

P.S. For more on lowering stress and improving creativity, you may want to check out my book Happiness, Anxiety, and Writing: Using Your Creativity To Live A Calmer, Happier Life. Available in workbook and ebook editions.

Using Your Phone To Focus On Writing

Your phone can help you focus on writing or it can distract you.

The best way I've found to use it to focus is to consciously choose these 3 things:

  1. Where the phone will live while I write
  2. Who can reach me while I write
  3. How long I will write in one stretch

Where To Put Your Phone When You Write

Because you'll be using the phone's timer (more on that below), you'll need it to be somewhere close enough to hear. But don't keep the phone in the same room.

That's for two reasons.

First, studies show that having a phone within reach, even if it's turned off, lowers our mental capacity for other things. Some part of our brain is always listening for the phone.

This article about the McCombs School of Business study at the University of Texas at Austin puts it well:

The researchers found that participants with their phones in another room significantly outperformed those with their phones on the desk, and they also slightly outperformed those participants who had kept their phones in a pocket or bag.

My own experience bears this out.

When I leave the phone on the bookcase in the hallway outside my home office I feel much more focused and often forget about time passing. If the phone is within arm's length, though, my mind wanders often.

Second (you forgot there was a second didn't you?), putting the phone far enough away that I must get out of my chair to reach it ensures that I will move and stretch enough during my day.

Write Undisturbed

Most phones have a setting called Do Not Disturb (or sometimes No Interruptions).

This setting suppresses all alerts, including social media, and any notifications of texts, emails, and phone calls. When this setting is activated your phone will not ring, make any other noise, or vibrate.

You can customize the setting to allow calls from certain numbers or repeat calls from the same number to come through.

That way if, for instance, you're the person your aging grandmother depends on for a ride to the doctor, you won't miss her call.

Time To Focus On Writing

Now that you found a home for your phone and put it on Do Not Disturb, set its timer.

Choose a length of time to write that's short enough that you won't worry you're missing out or falling behind by not checking messages or social media or doing other tasks. But the block of time should be long enough that you can get something significant done on your current writing project.

For me, 30 minutes is ideal.

After 30 minutes, I walk over to the phone to shut it off. I then reset the timer for 3 to 5 minutes and stretch during that time. Doing so helps me alleviate aches and pains from sitting too long in one position. I also look at messages to be sure none require an immediate response.

If I still have time in my day to write, I reset the timer for 30 minutes.

You can repeat this process as many times as you want to. But even if you only write for one 15-30 minute block you will make progress.

That's all for today. Until next Friday —

L.M. Lilly

P.S. Not sure what to write during that 30 minutes? If you're having trouble getting your novel started or you're stuck in the middle, Super Simple Story Structure: a Quick Guide to Plotting and Writing Your Novel might be able to help. It's available for multiple e-book platforms, as an audiobook, and in a workbook edition.

Create A Fiction Mission Statement

Lately I've been thinking about creating a fiction mission statement for my most recent series.

A mission statement can help you figure out how to brand and market your writing. It can also motivate you to start or finish a novel. And help you generate or refine ideas.

But first, what is a mission statement?

And why should you create one for your fiction?

Fiction Mission Statement Defined

A mission statement is a summary, or sometimes a tag line, about the purpose and values of an organization or person. Corporations and non-profits often use mission statements to guide their growth or focus the people who work for them.

The idea of creating one for fiction isn't original to me.

I began thinking about it while reading Kristine Kathryn Rusch's blog posts and her book Creating Your Author Brand. Rusch talks about her overall author mission statement: All genres all the time. It makes clear that she likes to write in multiple genres.

But she also has one for each of her pen names.

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For Kristine Grayson, the statement is It’s Not Easy To Have A Fairy Tale Ending. In Rusch's words, that tells readers that “Grayson will always be goofy paranormal with a touch of romance, usually focusing on myths or fairy tales or both.”

Marketing And Mission

As the above examples show, once you know your mission statement, it's a lot easier to describe your work to potential readers.

That's something many novelists, including me, struggle with.

I like to write long. My emails are long. My first drafts of blog posts are long. Most of my short story attempts turn into novels.

So whether I'm at a party or creating an ad, telling someone in a few seconds what my books are about poses a real challenge.

Once I create a fiction mission statement, though, I know how to convey both what I'm writing and why.

Motivation, Ideas, And Mission

The why helps me sit down to write (or stand and dictate) whether I feel like it or not at any particular moment. Because now writing is about more than simply my personal love of writing and desire to publish books.

It's about making a difference to readers.

For example, I'm writing a suspense/mystery series now because that's what I've most enjoyed reading over the last 5-10 years.

But I chose the specific main character, setting, and types of crimes for a few reasons:

  • I wanted to write about amazing and wonderful places in Chicago.

So many people hear only about the bad aspects of Chicago, and some of those appear in my books. But readers also get to visit great restaurants, outdoor paintings and sculptures, the expanding river walk, Lake Michigan, and all sorts of other beautiful places.

  • I'm tired of mysteries, thrillers, and suspense novels that show women being tortured or victimized. 

In real life, the biggest dangers to women are the people (usually the men) they know. Fiction is not real life, and I haven't stopped reading books where women are victims. Also, there are sometimes women victims in my books.

But I write about crimes that are committed by someone who knows the victim, and victim more often is male.

Also, the Q.C. Davis books are first person, and the protagonist is a smart, creative female lawyer.

The reader sees the story through her eyes as she tries to unravel the mystery. Not through the eyes of a victim or a perpetrator. So the emphasis is on solving the crime and seeking justice, not on committing crime.

  • Showing many sides to issues and people matters to me.

While in a murder mystery the villain generally is, well, a villain, I mostly try to avoid black-and-white answers and characters who are all good or all bad.

The same goes for the issues that form the backdrop for the crimes.

Book 2 in the Q.C. Davis series touches on immigration because a missing college girl may have let her student visa lapse, which makes her sister afraid to contact the police. That sets up a reason to come to my protagonist for help.

The few characters who talk about immigration (where the plot requires it) hold different views from one another.

My main goal is to entertain.

But after that I hope that readers on any side of the issue will gain a little better understanding of a perspective unlike their own.

Writing out the above aims gave me a way to sort through potential plots for Book 4 (Book 3 comes out November 4). It's also giving me ideas for publicity and marketing, which I'm focusing on more now that the series is well underway.

For instance, I'm kicking around a theme about how the protagonist is a sort of ambassador for Chicago. And thinking about putting together “Quille C. Davis' Guide to Chicago” as a giveaway for mailing list sign ups.

An event or book bundle with other mystery authors who address social issues in their books also might work.

What's Your Mission?

What matters most to you when you write a novel? Do you see themes that appear again and again in your fiction?

If so, try using them to formulate your mission statement.

Good luck! Until next Friday–

L.M. Lilly

Happiness As An Author

This week I was interviewed by Joanna Penn about writing, juggling multiple careers, and happiness on The Creative Penn podcast.

It was such a thrill to talk with Joanna, as I've been following her since I started publishing my novels in 2011.

Among other things, we talked about:

  • Using your writing skills to create more joy and lessen stress and anxiety (more on these topics in Rewriting Our Lives For Happiness And Calm)
  • The pluses of having another career or position in addition to writing
  • Solving problems or meeting challenges through many small changes or actions rather than one big fix
  • Using affirmations to increase happiness and find solutions

You can listen here or below:

That's all for today. Until next Friday–

L.M. Lilly