Writing Fiction During The Holidays

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

Christmas OrnamentI had high hopes for December.

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

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

And then…

Holiday Fun

First, the weekends filled.

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

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

It felt fantastic.

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

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

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

Too Much To Do

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

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

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

Life Happens

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

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

And you know what? That's okay.

You're A Person First

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


L. M. Lilly

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

The Body And Metaphor

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

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

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




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

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

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

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

And maybe that’s the metaphor.


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

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


Story Conflict Starts With Characters

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

But first, a few quick tips.

Life Is Hard

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

Strong Antagonist = Strong Story Conflict

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

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

To find out more about the course click here.

Good luck with your writing!

L.M. Lilly

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


Mind Map Your Novel

If you're struggling to sort out the plot of your novel and outlining isn't working (or just isn't for you), try a mind map. A mind map is a non-linear way to plan before you write. I've used it for non-fiction books, legal briefs, and novels.

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

Here's how to do it.

The Blank Page

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

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

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

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

The Smaller Bubbles

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Mind Map Spokes

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

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

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

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

And so on.

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

When The Map Is Full

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

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

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

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

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

I hope that's helpful.

L.M. Lilly

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



Make Your Writing Life Easier

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

Because life is challenging enough these days.

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

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

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

Read on for how you can apply these suggestions.

Make Decisions Once (And Only Once)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Create Your Own Rules

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

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

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

Make Starting Simple

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

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

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

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

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

Easy Entry Points

Look for an easy entry point to your writing session.

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

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

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

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

Make Use Of Your Tech

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

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

Some examples from my writing and publishing work include:

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

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

I hope that was helpful!

L. M. Lilly

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

Two Characters Talking Can Be Thrilling

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

But there are ways to make it fascinating.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Can you use any of these techniques in your writing?

L.M. Lilly

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



Using Beta Readers To Improve Your Novel

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

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

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

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

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

I hope it's helpful!

L. M. Lilly

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


How To Revise A Slow Scene

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

That's toHow To Revise A Slow Sceneugh feedback to hear, especially if you thought what you wrote was gripping.

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

Here are three questions to ask yourself:

1. Do you need the scene?

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

2. Is it all exposition or backstory?

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

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

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

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

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

Ask these 3 questions when you rewrite a slow scene.You can also look for a way to convey the backstory through conflict. If your plot revolves around Anora's career you might try something like this:

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

“Driving fast makes me nervous,” Anora said.

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

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

3. Does it include unnecessary detail or repetition?

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

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

A few things to look for as you revise:

  • “Hello, how are you?” dialogue

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

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

  • Repetitive description

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

If not, cut it.

  • Telling what you've already shown

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

All that is already there.

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


L.M. Lilly

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

Addressing Beta Reader Comments On Characters

When your beta reader says, "No one would ever do that."Writers' group members and beta readers (readers who give feedback on early drafts) can offer valuable help. But they don't always phrase their comments in a way that's easy to listen to.

Or to apply to your manuscript.

Over the next few months I'll talk about types of comments you're likely to get and some tips on how to make the best use of them.

Today's Beta Reader Comment:

“No one would ever do that (or say that or feel that)” – referring to something your character says or does.

Two different things could be happening here.

First, maybe your beta reader finds it especially hard to step outside their own experience. For instance, if as soon as they became a parent, they never rode their motorcycle again because of the risk, they'll never believe a character who is a parent would ride a motorcycle. Full stop.

Second, however clear it is in your mind, you may have failed to show why your character does or says the particular thing they did or said (or felt).

Also, both of the above could be happening.

What To Do About It

In either case, check the feedback from your other readers and see if anyone else was confused. That will help decide if this reader can be helpful or might be too stuck in their own life experience.

Creating Compelling Characters From The Inside OUtBut — and this is an important but — even if everyone else got it, ask yourself why your character made that choice or said what they said.

Is it something in the character's background? Does it relate to a fight they had earlier in the week? Do they have a particular goal that leads them to behave as they do?

Then look again at whether that's on the page. If not it's not there, weave it in.

Going Forward

On a related note, should you keep the beta reader who can't step outside their own experience (if you truly believe that's what's happening)?

I have one reader like that, but I keep asking her to read because her life experience is fairly broad and many of her comments are spot on. And even where I suspect the issue is unique to her, it helps me to check and be sure I've fully developed my characters.

And, finally, odds are that some other reader out there will react the same way.

That doesn't mean I'm going to alter key plot turns or add pages of explanation. If, however, I can fix the problem with a few lines, why not do it? It makes the reader experience better for everyone.

I hope that's helpful!

L.M. Lilly

P.S. For more on developing characters, you may want to check out Creating Compelling Characters From The Inside Out.


Writing With the Winter Blues

If you tend to get the winter blues, writing can become more challenging. Since we can't skip past the season (and who wants to wish away months of life anyway), asking yourself these 3 questions might help:

  1. What about winter specifically triggers feeling down or anxious?
  2. What excites you and makes you happy about writing?
  3. What small things can you do ease (1) and increase (2)?

Triggers For The Winter Blues

Your first thought might be that everything about winter affects your mood — and not in a good way. But usually there are particular parts of winter weather that impact you. And they might not be the ones you think.

For example, I always figured cold weather triggered my blue or anxious winter feelings. (Not so good given that I live in Chicago where winter sometimes lasts 5 months whatever the calendar says.)

Mind Map for Mystery Novel
Diagram created this January for the latest Q.C. Davis Mystery

But then I made a point to notice when I felt the best in winter.

It turned out that I felt pretty good when it was sunny and cold. I didn't like feeling chilled, but it didn't make me sad. In contrast, overcast gray days did. To my surprise, zero degrees and sunny was far better than thirty degrees and gloomy.

I also noticed that as my skin got drier (due to forced air heat) I felt more on edge. And because I have close vision problems it was much harder for me to read in the evening in low light, which also made it harder for me to wind down and relax.

While none of the things I just mentioned are fun, they're all a lot easier to deal with than the entire season of winter.

Consider what's happening in your environment in the winter months and how it makes you feel. You might want to jot a few notes or write a journal entry about it.

And speaking of writing…

When Writing Was Exciting

If you're already struggling a bit with the winter blues you may feel like nothing about writing makes you happy, feels fun, or fills you with excitement.

Yet I'm certain you felt that way once or you wouldn't be reading this. And you wouldn't still be trying to write unless someone's paying you a million dollars. In which case maybe focus on the million dollars.

So think back to a time when you did feel excited and happy to write.

Did you love interviewing your characters? Writing brand new scenes? Building entire imaginary worlds? Rewriting each paragraph until it sparkled?

Small Steps Address Winter Blues

Now think about some small, easy ways to address what you learned from Questions 1 and 2. Below are some examples from my efforts.

Letting In Some Light

I moved my writing desk in front of my home office window despite that it's colder there. Seeing more sun as I write on sunny days and getting even a little more outdoor light on gray days lifts my mood.

I also check the weather for the week and look for the sunniest days and hours. That's when I take a walk outdoors.

If I have to wear multiple layers and a hat over earmuffs so be it. I put those out the night before to make it more likely I'll head out the door.

For my hands, I bought moisturizing soap and shea butter hand lotion. And I got brighter bulbs that cast whiter light that makes reading easier in the evening.

Happy Writing

As to writing, my favorite parts are putting together the plots for my mystery novels. Also rewriting once I've got my first draft done. The first draft itself often feels like more of a slog to me and I prefer to write it as fast as I can.

Yet for my last novel, I rushed through the plotting stage, telling myself it was “not writing” and I “should” be writing. That led me to spend more time first drafting because I stalled out more often, uncertain which way to go.

I finished Book 5 in my mystery series on time but I enjoyed writing it a lot less. (And when was I first drafting? You guessed it. In the depths of winter.)

This time around I'm extending the plot phase. And I tried a new method – creating a diagram with magic marker on a giant piece of butcher paper. (Photo above.)

It makes me feel like a kid again to sit on my office floor and sort out my plot. And that's fun.

Your Turn

Now it's your turn. What are a couple small things you might do to address the aspects of winter that affect your mood in a negative way?

And what can you do to enhance the fun parts of your writing?

That's all for this time. Best wishes for a happy new year of writing.

L. M. Lilly

P.S. If you'd like a little more help with anxious feelings, you might find my book Happiness, Anxiety, and Writing: Using Your Creativity To Live A Calmer, Happier Life useful.