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?

Ask 3 Questions To Revise A Slow SceneThat’s tough 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.

How To Revise A Slow SceneYou 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.

How To Create Your Own Writing Prompts

Prompts for writers come in all types of formats, including books, calendars, decks of cards, and magnets. You can also create them for yourself.

Create Your Own

Write On: How To Overcome Writer's Block So You Can Write Your Novel CoverStart with slips of paper or index cards. On each one write or print a two, three, or four word basic description of a person, such as “old woman,” “little boy,” “angry person.”

Write two slips for each, so that you can use the same description more than once in the same session. Fold them so you can’t see what’s printed and set them aside.

Now create slips for verbs. On each slip print a verb that requires action, such as run, jump, hit, play, touch, throw, or swim. (You only need one of each.) Fold those so you can’t read them.

People With Action

Now draw one person, one verb, and another person and put them together, adding prepositions if necessary to create a sentence. Some examples:

Angry man runs into little boy.

Middle-aged woman skips with middle-aged woman.

Little girl throws little boy.

Expand The Writing Prompts

As you write you can add nouns. Suppose your slip say this: “Little girl throws middle-aged man.” You might use that as is and have fun figuring out how that little girl is going to throw a grown man. Or you might add an object: “Little girl throws spaghetti at middle-aged man.”

These prompts are almost guaranteed to generate conflict, which is the key to a good plot.

Write for fifteen or twenty minutes about that conflict. Remember, you don’t need to love the scene as you write.

In fact, you may decide to shift gears entirely as you discover what you do love to write about. It’s all about getting words on a page and, as you do that, prompting new ideas or bringing together threads that may become part of your novel.

That’s all for today. Until next time —

L. M. Lilly

P.S. The above is excerpted from new release Write On: How To Overcome Writer’s Block So You Can Write Your Novel. You can find the ebook editions here. Or, if you like to write out exercises and answer questions on paper, you can order a workbook edition.

As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases made through this site, but that doesn’t change the purchase price to you as the buyer.

How Much Setting Is Too Much?

When it comes to describing setting in your fiction, how much is too much?

Evoking Place

On the one hand, where a book is set can encourage readers to buy it. Recently I picked up a mystery solely because it was set in Paris, a city I love.

Plus, some novels do such a wonderful job describing the settings that I find myself longing to go there. That can be true even if I’ve already found that I don’t like a place.


Author Lisa M. Lilly
Me with my first 2 Q.C. Davis mysteries, both set in Chicago.

As one example, with apologies to Londoners, it’s not a city I long to visit again. Twice was enough. Yet whenever I read Robert Galbraith’s Strike novels or J.F. Penn’s Brooke and Daniel series I find myself wanting to follow them down gloomy winding streets to discover whatever is hidden there.

As a writer, setting has always been important to me, too.

In my Awakening supernatural thriller series, my characters travel the world, seeking answers and fleeing antagonists everywhere from crowded city markets to mountain synagogues to isolated rural communities. And in my Q.C. Davis mystery series I often see Chicago itself as a character.

But while one reader might love in-depth descriptions of characters struggling to get home through a blizzard in 40 mile an hour winds, another may yawn and wonder when will the story start?

The Role Setting Plays

Describing Setting: How Much Is Too Much?If you find yourself struggling with striking the right balance, some tips from Fiction First Aid: Instant Remedies for Novels, Stories and Scripts by novelist and writing instructor Raymond Obstfeld might help.

First, Obstfeld says it’s key to figure out what role the setting plays in your story.

Ask yourself if your particular setting significantly affects your characters’ personality development or the plot conflicts. If the answer is yes, you need to describe the setting in more depth so that the reader understands how important it is.

But when doing so, Obstfeld still stresses that you should still hone in on what is significant about the setting:

Think of fiction setting the same way you might a play’s set. Most of the time a stage play uses set design to imply the larger setting.

Obstfeld suggests highlighting a specific detail rather than overwhelming your reader with every aspect of the setting or using a lot of metaphors or similes.

A great example of this comes from John Sandford’s Phantom Prey. Below is the first line of a scene where the protagonist goes to investigate a murder. It’s the only line describing the house’s interior in the scene.

Anson was leaning on the second-floor banister, overlooking the stairwell, talking to an ME investigator.

Notice the only detail is the second-floor banister that overlooks the stairwell. But it tells us about this house. We know it has at least two floors. Also, I imagine an older home because of the use of the word banister, which for me evokes an antique feel.

In contrast, the first paragraph of Chapter 5 in Sara Paretsky’s novel Hardball goes into more depth as to the Chicago setting, which is key to nearly all of her V.I. Warshawski novels. The city itself matters deeply to the protagonist, V.I., so we see it in a very personal way through her eyes:

Traffic’s become like Mark Twain’s old bromide: we all whine about it, but no one tries to fix it. Even me: I complain about the congestion and then keep driving myself everywhere. Trouble is, Chicago’s public transportation is so abysmal, I’d never have time to sleep if I tried to cover my client base by bus and El. As it was, my trip home took over forty minutes, not counting a stop for groceries, and I only had to go 7 miles.

Both books fall within the same genre: suspense/mystery. And these are two of my very favorite authors. Yet their approaches differ in these passages, reflecting whether the setting is primarily key to plot (Sandford) or character (Paretsky).

That’s all for now. Next I’ll talk more about choosing settings that will have the most impact on your story.

L.M. Lilly

P.S. Looking for more help with your novel? Download free story structure worksheets and learn about other resources here.

5 Tips to Overcome Writer’s Block

Stuck? 5 Ways To Start Writing Again.Writer’s block or feeling stuck happens even to the most prolific writers. All of us struggle with what to write, or what to write next, from time to time.

If you’re feeling stuck, or you’re writing but you’re not as excited about it as you want to be, these tips to get past writer’s block might help.

1. Learn Something New

If you’re out of ideas, or you’re not thrilled with the ideas you have, try learning about a topic, person, or activity that’s new to you.

For instance, while right now it may be difficult to take up water skiing (either due to weather or travel restrictions because of Covid), you could still learn about it.

Find instructional videos on YouTube. Order books or get them at your local library (which may lend ebooks and audiobooks without the need to visit in person). Follow someone on social media who water skis and read their posts.

Does that mean you’ll write about water skiing?

Well, maybe.

But that’s not the point. I’m in the midst of reading a book one of my brothers recommended about a former United States president. He’s one I didn’t vote for, and in reading it I’m learning a ton about how his career and ideals evolved over the decades, his relationship with his family, and about foreign affairs.

None of it will appear directly in any book I’m planning, but already it’s given me new angles on certain characters and several new story ideas that aren’t about politics, but do involve conflicts similar to those in the book.

2. Let Yourself Be Bored

This is the opposite of Tip No.1 in a way. Sometimes we’re so eager to fill every moment with TV or podcasts or news that we’re not allowing our minds to unwind and become peaceful.

Just sitting and staring out the window feels like a waste of time. And it’s boring!

But letting yourself sit for a while as your mind wanders could be just what you need to allow your creative mind free range to come up with ideas. Or to unconsciously sort through the ideas you have and improve them. Or winnow some of them out so you can focus on one.

As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases made through this site, but that doesn’t change the purchase price to you as the buyer.

3. Relax To Overcome Writer’s Block

Doing nothing (see No. 2 above) may help you relax. But it may not work for everyone.

Try some other ways to relax. It can be a challenge these days when most of us are limited in what we can do as we try to keep Covid-19 from spreading further.

But some things that work for me include taking a half hour walk (even in the icy cold, which I just got back from doing), reading a mystery or horror novel, playing solitaire or memory card games, rewatching favorite TV shows, yoga, and paging through magazines with beautiful pictures.

(Yes, I still get some print magazines. That and a glass of wine or cup of tea equals a relaxing evening for me, which equals a more satisfying writing session the next day.)

This type of relaxation can help you get past writer’s block.

4. Stimulate Your Senses

If you can safely go to an art museum, you might want to fill your brain with stunning visual art. Whether you like what you see or not, it’s bound to absorb you. If you can’t go in person, there are lots of online art forums and sites.

You can also listen to music. Find a comfortable spot, shut your eyes, and listen. It’s a great way to free your mind and fill it at the same time.

Explore scent.

I find certain scents, like vanilla and lavender, help me relax. Others remind me of specific times and places. Making a point to smell candles, spices, food, or pretty much anything can stimulate your thoughts and spark your creativity.

Finally, be aware of sensations. If you’re outside, take a moment to feel that wind across your face. Focus on the fabric of your clothes. Go through your closet or your cupboard in search of different materials. Smooth, rough, textured, satiny.

It sounds a little odd, but all these sensations can bring back memories, spark your imagination, or help you enhance details when you write a scene.

5. End Writer’s Block: Set The Stage

Before they start cooking, chefs prepare (or have assistants prepare) ingredients. They sort, measure, and chop in advance so when it’s time to cook they’re ready. (Which is why it looks so easy on those cooking shows.)

This is known as mise en place, and it’s part of writing too. It’s essentially getting all the prep work out of the way, or setting the stage, so you can focus.

Take a moment now to think about what you need to get started with, or return to, a writing project.

Does one of your characters still need a name? Do you know what the next major turn is in your story? Is your computer keyboard at a comfortable height?

Whatever you need to be ready to write the first word, or the next word, take 15-30 minutes to take care of it now. Then when it’s time to write you’ll be ready.

That’s all for this month. Hope these tips on overcoming writer’s block help your 2021 start well!

L.M. Lilly

P.S. Looking for more help with your novel? Download free story structure worksheets and learn about other resources here.

Before You Create A Writing Habit

4 Tendencies That May Motivate You To WriteA lot of writers (including me) believe creating a writing habit is key to writing more. But recently it hit me that, in a way, that advice puts the cart before the horse.

Because different things motivate different people.

Which means that creating a habit (or trying any other strategy) may work great for one person but make it harder for another to write.

Here’s what I mean.

Before You Create A Writing Habit

In the book The Four Tendencies, author Gretchen Rubin writes about research showing people tend to find ways to meet goals in four main ways. Understanding your main way can make it much easier to do what you want to do.

These tendencies explain why using a word count chart helps me finish a first draft on time, causes another writer to say, “Why would I ever do that?” and leaves another less likely to write and more likely to feel guilty about not writing.

Here’s a thumbnail of the tendencies Rubin talks about. (Any errors are mine. You can visit her website or read the book for more information if you like.)

The Upholder

If you fit this tendency you meet your own goals and other people’s expectations. It’s probably easy to form habits, including a writing habit, and you usually get the things done that you want to do whether or not anyone else pushes you to do them.

One downside, though (which I’ve experienced), is you may be so driven that you meet everyone’s expectations plus your own, leaving little time to relax.

And you may forget to ask whether the goals you set for yourself six months ago still make sense.

The Obligor

If this is your tendency, you do everything you promised anyone else you would do. Friends, family, and coworkers all know they can rely on you.

But you may find it hard to get done what you want to do if no one else asks or requires you to do it. For example, if you and a friend agree to go to the gym at seven a.m. each day, you’ll be there to meet your friend even if you have to drag yourself out of bed.

But if you decide on a solo early morning exercise plan, you may very well skip it after the first day. And then feel upset about what you see as a lack of follow through.

The Questioner

Questioners want to know why they should do things.

If you tend this way, you will do something if your questions are answered and you feel satisfied the reasons for doing it are solid. This is true whether it’s a personal goal or one someone else expects you to take on.

On the upside, once you’re convinced, you follow through. Also, you’re unlikely to take on too many projects without thinking it through. But the downside is you might spend a lot of time on questions about why, what’s the best way, and where to start, which can hinder getting your projects off the ground.

The Rebel

If you have Rebel tendencies, you may resist all expectations – your own and anyone else’s. If someone tells you to do something, you immediately don’t want to do it.

You may find a lot of motivation, however, if someone tells you that you can’t do something.

For example, if an English teacher told you you’ll never be a writer, you might work very hard and take great delight in proving him wrong.

On the upside, you’re unlikely to be defined by others’ expectations. On the downside, you may find it hard to meet even a goal you chose yourself, or to set a goal in the first place, as it feels too confining.

All four tendencies can overlap according to Rubin, but she believes everyone tends toward one more than the others.

Writing Habits And The Tendencies

You’re probably already thinking about how these tendencies apply to writing. It’s the first thing that occurred to me, too, when I read the book.

As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases made through this site, but that doesn’t change the purchase price to you as the buyer.

Upholders And Inner Goals

Because Upholders feel best when they meet their own inner goals, setting clear ones is key. To Do lists, charts, and tracking how much you write are probably great motivators. (I love to check off boxes!)

It’s also important to take time regularly to reassess your goals – and your obligations to others – to be sure they still make sense.

If you set a goal of writing 3 romance novels, for example, but after you finish the first one you realize you don’t like writing romance, it’s okay to reconsider the goal. You may still go ahead with it, or not, but you’ll have made a choice.

Obligors And Accountability

Obligors need outside accountability.

Rather than giving yourself a hard time if you don’t finish that writing project on your To Do list, enlist someone else who can help you stay on track.

You might find a writing buddy and agree to meet for dinner every two weeks. If you don’t get your pages written, your friend will have to buy you dinner. While at first look it sounds like it should be the other way around, you’re probably more motivated if your lack of follow through inconveniences your friend, not you. (You don’t want your friend to have to spend more money because you didn’t write your pages, right?)

Do You Question Needing A Writing Habit?

Given that Questioners need reasons, if that’s your tendency, take some time to ask yourself why you want to write your novel (or screenplay or story).

Write down as many answers as you can. Do you want to become famous? Make money? Feel the satisfaction of saying you’re done? Share it with an audience? Enjoy the process?

Review your answers down the road if your motivation flags. You also may want to plan times when you revisit your questions. Asking new ones may bring out new reasons and enhance your motivation.

Rebellion And Creativity

If you have Rebel tendencies, freedom and creativity likely motivate and excite you far more than schedules, deadlines, and To Do Lists.

So if a set schedule makes your blood run cold, or if it makes writing feel too much like work, you don’t need one.

Perhaps instead you can see writing as your private time, set aside for just you and no one else. Time no one else is entitled to claim.

On a long writing project, you may want to jump around, writing the scenes that interest you most during any particular writing session rather than writing straight through in order. Or you may want to have various projects in the works so you can always choose the one that appeals to you rather than feeling like you’re sitting down to do your homework.

I hope these thoughts are helpful.

L.M. Lilly

P.S. Looking for more help with your novel? Download free story structure worksheets and learn about other resources here.


Dialogue Tags That Distract Your Reader

Recently I read a novel where the dialogue and dialogue tags distracted me to the point that I almost couldn’t finish the book. Which is too bad, as it’s a mystery/thriller, and I love its concept.

Extreme Dialogue And Tags

Here’s an example of a dialogue section I made up that’s a little extreme but isn’t far from what’s in the book:

“Hello!” Sharon shouted. “It is great to see you, Jack!”

“Hi, Sharon, I am happy to see you, too,” Jack commented. “How is it going?”

“Good. Did you hear there was a fire in the grocery store?”

“Yes, that is so terrible!” Jack exclaimed.

There are a few things here that make the dialogue distracting and hard to read. All can be easily fixed.

No Contraction Action

First, the dialogue includes no contractions.

Blog Post Graphic Dialogue and Tags That Distract Your ReadersThere are times people choose to speak without contractions, usually for emphasis: “I did not take that last cookie.” (I didn’t, really.) “You are not going out again tonight.”

But most, though not all, English speakers in the U.S. use contractions the majority of the time.

That’s why the above phrases “how is,” “it is,” and “I am” all feel a bit clunky and awkward.

You can definitely write a character who doesn’t use contractions or rarely uses them. But you should know why that is. For instance, someone in the habit of writing or speaking in formal settings, such as a professor, might use fewer contractions. Or a character might come from a country where contractions aren’t common.

Or the character might be trying to sound formal or highbrow.

If you decide a character won’t use contractions for whatever reason, though, be sure other characters do use them. That way you’ll show a contrast in speaking styles and won’t confuse the reader.

And if all your characters are going to avoid contractions, as Sharon and Jack do, you should have a good reason for that. One that’s clear from the story.

Otherwise, your reader will spend time wondering why they talk that way. Or, worse, stop reading because the dialogue feels unrealistic.

Exclamation Nation

If you text or email a lot, it’s easy to get into the habit of using a lot of punctuation. In short messages, we need it. Maybe some emojis, too, to convey tone. Otherwise a note that says “Good luck” can be read as encouragement, sarcasm, or skepticism.

“Good Luck!” 🙂 is more likely to convey heartfelt encouragement.

In a novel, though, it’s better to convey tone through the word choice itself. Or through a character’s actions. For example:

  • Sharon threw her arms around Jack. “Jack, great to see you. It’s been forever.”
  • Sharon hugged Jack. “So glad you could make it after all.”

The second one not only conveys Sharon’s happiness, it gives us a hint of conflict. It suggests Jack told her before the scene started that he probably wouldn’t get there. That suggestion makes us wonder what changed.

The dialogue as originally written, though, distracts from the story. Because right away the reader wonders why Sharon is so excited about just saying hello to someone.

Also, exclamation points are meant to convey significant emotion. If every other line includes one, it loses its power. (Find out more about what to leave out in 3 Things To Omit From Your Dialogue.)

Dialogue Tags: She Said, He Said

Writing the word “said” over and over can feel repetitive. But for readers, the word is almost invisible.

On the other hand, words like exclaimed, murmured, and shouted can be distracting. First, we’re not used to seeing them. Second, as with exclamation points, it’s stronger if your dialogue or the character’s actions convey the way your character is speaking.

If the actions or words show the manner of speaking, then the dialogue tag is redundant:

  • She slammed her hand down on the table. “I’ve had it with this,” she yelled.

The “she yelled” just doesn’t add much. You can leave it there, but the lines are more powerful without it.

More troubling is where the descriptive tag and the dialogue don’t match.

  • Ellie opened the door. “Good morning,” she shouted.

The above example makes the reader pause and wonder why the character is shouting. If she’s yelling to someone on the other side of the street, it makes sense, but you’ll need to tell the reader that.

Right now, it reads as if she might be yelling at someone standing right in front of her.

In contrast, if you use “said,” the reader doesn’t wonder about the line but instead reads on for what happens next.

If you feel you simply have too many “saids” in a row — particularly if you’re releasing a book for audio, where repetitive words stand out more — try instead using an action.

In the last example, you can drop the dialogue tag entirely.

  • Ellie opened the door. “Good morning.”

The action tells us Ellie is speaking. If you want to go further and show Ellie’s emotion or more about the situation, you could change the action. Both of the following convey different moods and change reader expectations.

  • Ellie banged the door open. “Good morning.”
  • Ellie eased the door open. “Good morning.”

Notice that both also suggest to the reader how Ellie might have said the words “Good morning.” Angrily or loudly in the first example, quietly in the second.

Action Items For Your Writing

  • Do a word search for “not” and “is” and other words that signal phrases where contractions can be used instead. Unless there’s a reason for avoiding a contraction, use one.
  • Try searching for all the exclamation points in your dialogue. If you don’t truly need one, drop it. If there’s a reason for the excitement, see if you can convey it through the characters’ words or actions instead.
  • Search for quote marks and review your dialogue tags to see how many synonyms you use in place of the tag said. Consider replacing them with said or with a character action.

That’s it for now.

L.M. Lilly

P.S. The more developed your characters are, the easier you’ll find it writing dialogue for them. Creating Compelling Characters From The Inside Out can help.

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Writing Deadlines Can Lower Your Stress

It sounds strange to think of deadlines as a way to lower stress. For most of us, forces and people outside ourselves impose deadlines on us.

It can make us feel anxious and rushed, especially at our day jobs.

In my work as a lawyer, deadlines created a lot of stress. Because I both wanted to produce the best work possible and finish on time.  Often that meant I worked a lot of late hours and weekends.

For that reason, I resisted setting hard deadlines on my writing.

While I do set word count goals and am pretty good at meeting them, when I do things that can’t be easily measured by a number I lean toward simply spending as long as needed to get a task done.

What’s the problem with that?

Getting It Done Or Making It Perfect?

If getting it done to you means turning out a perfect product or the best you can possibly do ever, every project can take nearly endless hours. The result is that I end up working more and more and getting less done overall.

So not giving myself a hard deadline creates more stress and frustration.

Especially when I suspect what I’m doing is not a great use of my time.

What’s Worth Your Time

For example, if my audience cares far more about getting my next book sooner than whether I edited every single breath sound out of my podcast, then it makes more sense to stop spending 2 hours a week editing out breath sounds.

Yet it’s hard for me to do that because I want the best possible recording out there.

Deadlines Help You Choose

Finally it hit me that when I have external deadlines and multiple projects, I’m always deciding what’s worth the time and what’s not. Or, put another way, what tasks increase the benefit to a client (or a boss or customer) enough that I need to do them and which ones do not matter much or at all to them. Those things can be sacrificed to get other work finished on time.

Without hard deadlines, though, everything feels equally important whether it is or not.

Because of that, I now not only set deadlines but limit the time I spend on certain tasks if there’s something more valuable I could do.

And more valuable includes setting aside time each week when I just relax and have fun. Because to have a happy life, not just a productive one, means enjoying it.

More Deadlines, More Happiness?

And that is the last key to making deadlines you set for yourself lower your stress instead of increase it. If you figure out what tasks to cut to meet your deadline, you can set aside some of that time for yourself.

Because deadlines can prompt you to think carefully and make better choices about your work, using them helps create more time to enjoy life.

I hope that’s helpful as you look forward to the rest of the month!

L.M. Lilly

P.S. While its title worried me (I thought it might be teaching me to cram far too many more things into my schedule) Extreme Productivity: Boost Your Results, Reduce Your Hours turned out to be very helpful in organizing my time — and freeing more of it to relax. You might find it useful, too.


As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases made through this site. But that doesn’t change the purchase price to you as the buyer.