Writing When Life Throws You A Curve

How do you stick with your writing when life throws you a curve?

Maybe you create a list of goals for your writing. Or choose one project to finish this year: a novel you started last year, a series of short stories, a book on how to cook gourmet meals.

Then something happens.

A flood damages your home, you need to care for an ill friend or family member, you become injured yourself. In addition to your grief and learning to cope with the change in your life, you may feel more frustrated, depressed, or anxious because you can’t write or aren’t progressing the way you feel you “should.”

What do you do? 

You Don't Write With Your Toes, But…

In late April I broke two bones in my foot.

One was a major bone on which you put all your weight, so instead of a walking boot for a short time (as one of my friends had for a stress fracture), I had a series of different casts that reached to my knee. I had to stay off of my foot entirely for over 10 weeks, spent 3 weeks in a walking cast, and am still rehabbing so I can eventually walk without limping.

When the doctor told me the treatment plan, though, I figured it wouldn't interfere with my writing. After all, I don’t write with my toes.

It turns out wearing a cast makes it hard to find a comfortable way to sleep, to sit at a desk, and to get around even at home. Things like brushing my teeth and making the bed took twice if not three times as long as usual on crutches. And I was exhausted. Not only from lack of sleep but because it takes a lot of energy for your body to heal.

It seemed like I'd be struggling forever, and spending a lot of time at home alone didn’t help my state of mind.

So though my fingers could still type, I didn't write all that much. But I learned a lot.

Feel free to adopt what helps you and ignore the rest.

Remember: It's A Long Game

Whether you’re recovering from a physical injury, dealing with emotional pain, or experiencing other acute stress, you may well find you're less able to write.

If you can keep your writing schedule and it helps you feel better to do it, then of course go ahead.

But if not, remind yourself that it's okay to do less. Finishing a novel or building a writing career is a long game. As Anthony Robbins says in Awaken The Giant Within, most people overestimate what they can do in one year and vastly under estimate what they can do in 10.  

Slowing down or taking a break entirely doesn’t mean that in the long run you won’t reach where you hope to be.

Do Something Different

During the first few weeks of my recovery I had trouble focusing enough to write or read much. But I did two things that ultimately helped me feel better and sparked new ideas.

Each time I iced my foot I watched a segment of the Lizzie Bennet Diaries, a modern-day take on my favorite book of all time, Pride and Prejudice, told as a video blog. In doing so, I engaged with a new (to me) form of storytelling and delighted in a different spin on a story I loved.

That reminded me how much I love the audiobook edition of Pride and Prejudice narrated by Shiromi Arserio.

I started listening to it at night when I couldn’t sleep. The narrator has a wonderful voice, and hearing the book again was like visiting old friends.

Now that I'm doing better, I added a new book to my list of non-fiction books to write over the next 9 months: Pride, Prejudice, and Plot. In it, I plan to use Jane Austen's classic to illustrate the simple plot points from my guide to plotting, Super Simple Story Structure.

If people find that book helpful and enjoy it, I plan to write Pride, Prejudice, and People, a study of characterization.

Choose A Smaller Or Writing-Adjacent Task

You may not be able to keep writing when life throw you a curve, at least not at the same pace or on the same project.

But you may be able to write or plan something else.

Perhaps a short journal entry each morning. Or maybe you can do something to help create or plan your story, such as imagining a scene or interviewing a character in your mind. 

Appreciate What You Can Do

It’s easy to think about what you’re not doing. But rather than thinking about the hours you don't spend writing in a day or week, give yourself credit for the fifteen minutes you do.

Be Guided By Your Feelings

Sometimes something you think will help makes you feel worse. For instance, at first I thought that since I had to spend so much time at home sitting or lying down I’d be able to add to the roster of writing podcasts I listen to.

But that made me feel depressed.

It emphasized what I wasn’t doing and left me feeling as if I were behind everybody else. I cut back to the two podcasts that for me are the most helpful and encouraging: The Creative Penn and the Sell More Books Show. And even those I sometimes put off listening to for a day or two until I was in the right state of mind.

It’s also important to pay attention to what makes you feel better.

The Lizzie Bennett Diaries were so absorbing that they took my mind off of my pain and elevated my mood. That’s why I binge watched them.

That’s all for today.

Until next Friday —

L. M. Lilly

P.S. For thoughts on writing and chronic health or wellness issues, see Writing When Injured Or Not Well.

Writing The Zero Draft Of Your Novel

The Zero DraftAt a Sell More Books Show Summit I attended author Rachael Herron used a term I hadn't heard before: the zero draft.

By this, she meant the initial very rough draft–so rough you'll never show it to anyone–of a novel.

That phrase fits my first draft of a novel perfectly.

My zero drafts:

  • ramble
  • include storylines that trail off to nowhere and others that start mid-stream
  • include incorrect character names and characters who disappear
  • are filled with errors.

And that's the good parts.

For me, though, starting with a zero draft is the most effective way to get a novel written.

What works for me may not work for you, but if you'd like to write faster or are having trouble finishing your novel, why not give it a try.

The Zero Draft Frees You

Though I didn't use the phrase Zero Draft, for all the books I've published, both fiction and non-fiction, it's exactly what I write first. (Typically I do a rough outline before the draft, but you can write the zero draft on the fly if you'd rather.)

Allowing yourself to write a draft that makes no sense and has all the faults I mentioned above shuts off the editor side of your brain.

It's the best way I've found to write and finish fast because you know the draft will be bad and unreadable. You know you won't show it to anyone. Ever.

So there's no reason to go back and fix anything as you write. And there's no reason not to keep writing all the way to the end.

Plot And The Zero Draft

For me, the zero draft revolves around the plot. I want to get my story on paper so I can see how well it works and improve it later.

This draft is where I see if my rough outline truly works.

Usually the first half follows the outline very well, though I often realize there are gaps I need to fill in so that it makes sense. The climax also usually remains as I expected, at least from a big picture sense.

I know who wins and who loses, so to speak, and often where the climax will happen.

Typically I change what happens from the mid-point to the three-quarter point. Sometimes that's because my feel for the story and characters changes as I write. Or I realize what I thought would be a dramatic turn doesn't truly grow out of what came before it or feels dull–like merely more of the same.

On the fly, I try out a new three-quarter turn, making notes in brackets about what might need to change in the pages before.

Because of these changes, the last third of the zero draft is often what I think of as thinner than the first two-thirds.

But that's okay.

Later I'll rearrange and expand. My changes to the first two-thirds when I rewrite almost always require that and guide me when I revise the last third.

What Not To Worry About In Your Zero Draft

You can write the zero draft fast because there are a whole host of things that usually slow the writing process that you can ignore:

  • Continuity

This is a big one.

When I write the zero draft, I don't worry about changing a plot line in the middle of the book. If I'm concerned I'll be confused later I write a note in brackets and bold, something like: [change so Cyril stalks Tara before she meets him].

This approach saves you from going back and revising the early chapters, or perhaps the first half, of your novel each time you have a new idea.

Skipping those on-going revisions saves you a lot of time if you reach the end and realize you don't need that character after all, or you're dropping that sub-plot that seemed so brilliant when you were halfway through.

  • Character Development

To love your story, your reader needs to be engaged with your characters. But the zero draft isn't the time to worry about that.

If I know the character well and the words flow about that person, I include as much about the character as I want.

But if I simply need a character to fill a certain role–sidekick to the antagonist, alternate suspect in a suspense novel, protagonist's boss–and I haven't worked out who that person is, I simply write that character doing whatever it is I need the character to do.

Some characters don't even get names.

I just finished a zero draft of The Charming Man, Book 2 in my Q.C. Davis series, and I've got characters “named” Neighbor1 and Neighbor2.

  • Line Editing

Now and then in a zero draft I'll craft a sentence or paragraph that does exactly what I need and has a nice ring. Those sometimes survive to the final novel.

Most of the time, though, the lines will be rewritten for one reason or another. Many of them will be cut.

So as long as you've got what you need so that you understand it, don't worry about things like perfect grammar, ideal sentence construction, or using the same word too often.

Just write.

After The Zero Draft

Once you have your zero draft on paper, you'll probably feel two things:

(1) Happy you finished (so celebrate!)

(2) Overwhelmed about what to do next

Rachael Herron suggests going through the zero draft and writing one sentence on an index card or sticky note for each scene. (You can also do this using Scrivener or some other software that allows you to write the digital equivalent of index cards or post its.)

This process gives you an overview of your plot.

I love this method, as it gives me a chance to see the gaps, the disconnections, and the lack of logic. (Did I mention my zero drafts are awful?)

I then rearrange and make notes on what I need to add.

After that, I revise the zero draft, again focusing mainly on plot but also on adding the characters I need and dropping the ones I don't. I don't try to write in depth scenes. My goal is for the story and the cast of characters to make sense.

Once that's done, I set the book aside for at least a week before I start the real revision process.

Which is a subject for a future article.

Until next time —

L.M. Lilly

P.S. If you’d like to know more about the five-point plot structure I use, or want to try applying it to an outline or rewrite of your novel, download these Free Story Structure Worksheets.

Lowering Stress And Anxiety

When I'm juggling too many responsibilities and start feeling anxious, I often end my day by reading a page or two of Don’t Sweat The Small Stuff..and it's all small stuff: Simple Ways To Keep The Little Things From Taking Over Your Life.

I heard of the book long before I read it, but avoided it because the title made me think it was about learning to be a slacker. It's not. It's about how to be relaxed and happy while still working hard and achieving goals, something that I'd thought impossible. Successful people are supposed to be super-stressed, right?

It takes only a few minutes to read one of the short, quick sections. You can go through the whole book in order or skip around. Some great parts include Be Flexible With Changes In Your Plans and If Someone Throws You A Ball, You Don't Have To Catch It.

If you're struggling with too much to do, too little time, too much stress, or all three, a few minutes a day with this book can make a huge difference.

Until Sunday–


L.M. Lilly


Is This Blog For You?

An experience last spring started me thinking about writing a blog for people who write, or want to write, novels while pursuing another career or profession.

Buyer's Remorse…

I was in Austin, Texas, waiting for an airport shuttle in the hot sun. And I wasn't otherwise feeling great. I couldn't shake a cough I'd gotten weeks before, my shoulder bag was filled with law student papers to grade, and I was starting to feel some buyer's remorse.

008My destination was a two-day writing/self-publishing conference. I'd done something I never did in my life as a lawyer. Before researching the people hosting the conference, I paid the registration fee and bought my plane ticket.


Joanna Penn, an author/entrepreneur whose podcast taught me a ton about publishing over the past two years, was speaking. I wanted to meet her in person. Also, I figured if she was involved, it must be a worthwhile event.

The night before my flight, though, I listened to the Self-Publishing Podcast by the three authors hosting the conference. And thought, Oh no.

Info And In-Jokes

The hour-long podcast episode included some information I found useful.

The rest struck me as mainly inside jokes and infomercial. Plus, it was all jumbled together, so I couldn't simply fast forward to the content. Don't get me wrong, a lot of seminars of any type could benefit from more humor and fun.

But here I didn't get the inside jokes because I wasn't a long-time listener. And my sense of humor on the rest differed from that of the hosts.

Careful Time Management

Most of my living is made as a lawyer. One who usually has more work than I want and struggles to carve out time to write and for a personal life.

So whether I'm listening to an hour-long podcast or attending a seminar, if half of it is giggles and digressions, I'd rather be working on my own writing, getting my legal work out the door, or doing something fun that's unrelated to either.

As I stood in the hot sun outside the airport that day, I wondered if I'd taken four days off of work (counting travel time) for a spoonful of information.

What Professionals Look And Sound Like

Finally, little of the podcast fit with my idea of how professionals act.  And I wanted to learn from professional writers and marketers.

My idea of professional is drawn from the legal field. And law is a client service business. Most of my clients are corporations. A Fortune 500 company is unlikely to hire a lawyer who chortles through a presentation, says “like” a lot, or repeatedly goes off on tangents.

Too many stories about your pet or your spouse or what you had for breakfast and the client is wondering if this is how you always work, mentally tallying exactly how much each tangent costs, and thinking about hiring a more focused attorney.

Because I need to meet those standards, I usually look for them in the people I choose to learn from.

But that view can cut out a lot of people in the world of self-publishing and writing. People willing and able to share useful information.

A Kindred Spirit

I wasn't the only one concerned. Another woman waiting for the shuttle and I introduced ourselves. It turned out she also was an attorney. She signed up for the seminar based on a friend's recommendation.

Like me, she later listened to one of the podcasts and was having reservations.

Happily, our concerns proved to be baseless. The next morning the hosts started by saying they knew not everyone who attended was a long-time fan. They promised to keep their banter to the first half hour. Which they did.

A Learning Experience

That half hour of banter included not only jokes but the hosts' experiences starting and growing their publishing business, all of which I found useful.

The remaining speakers each day also gave detailed and entertaining presentations on writing, marketing, and self-publishing. The presenters and attendees were upbeat and excited about their work. I felt inspired and better-informed when I left.

The other attorney/author I had met at the airport felt the same way. We were both glad we attended.

Yet both of us, had we listened to the podcast before committing to the conference, probably would have skipped the entire experience.

And so this blog.

This Space Is For You If…

Many attorneys, business people, and other professionals have called or emailed me over the years to ask me about writing and publishing. I'd love to think it's because they loved my novels. But most contact me without ever having read them.

Instead, what interests them is that as a writer, lawyer, and adjunct professor of law, I probably have similar ideas to theirs about what indicates success or professionalism.

We also likely have similar constraints on our time.

If in addition to writing, you're also pursuing another career (be it as a lawyer, a stay-at-home parent, a business person, or another professional or pursuit) your time is limited.

So my goal is to share with you what I learn in a quick, clear fashion.

I listen, read, and put into practice as much as I can about marketing, publishing, and writing. While I can't promise to have all the answers, I'll share what I find most useful and include links if you want to learn more.

If you have topics you'd like me to cover, feel free to post them below or email me at [email protected]

Until then, wishing you a productive, not-too-stressful week,

L. M. Lilly