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.

Describing Setting: How Much 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

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.

Best,
L.M. Lilly

P.S. You can find links to my favorite books on writing, including Fiction First Aid, here.

5 Tips to Overcome Writer’s Block

5 Tips To Overcome Writer's Block graphicAll 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

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. 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. Trouble getting a novel started or stalling out in the middle? You might find Write On: How to Overcome Writer's Block So You Can Write Your Novel helpful.

Before You Create A Writing Habit

Before You Create A Writing HabitA 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. Have you created a writing habit? Let me know in the comments!

 

Avoid Dialogue And 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.

There 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.

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.

Juggling Act: Writer, Lawyer, Authorpreneur

Lawyerpreneur Podcast InterviewAuthorpreneur is how some writers who independently publish their own work describe themselves.

It pulls in the combined creative and business efforts involved in writing and publishing.

While I don't think we said that specific word, this week I had the chance to be a guest on Jeremy Richter's Lawyerpreneur podcast to talk about exactly that mix of creative pursuits.

Like me, Jeremy is a lawyer, podcaster, and writer. He devotes his podcast to the many things attorneys do both inside and outside their law practices.

We talked about my gradual shift from law to writing, the idea for my podcast Buffy and the Art of Story, productivity, and creativity.

Whether or not you consider yourself an authorpreneur, some things you might find helpful in the interview:

  • prioritizing a personal life when work is all around you
  • balancing career responsibilities with fiction writing
  • how time management and productivity change when you look at projects rather than hours
  • the pros and cons of engaging in more than one profession

You can check it out here:

Slaying Briefs, Books, and Vampires with Lisa Lilly

P.S. For more on staying centered while juggling more than one career you may want to check out Happiness, Anxiety, and Writing: Using Your Creativity To Live A Calmer, Happier Life.

Can Dreams Help You Write More?

Can your dreams help you writer stronger stories? Or more stories?

I think so, though I'm not one of those writers who ever dreamed an entire plot. But dreams often help me get unstuck, write more quickly, and solve character or plot issues.

Even if you don't typically remember your dreams, this is a technique you can try.

The steps are simple. You can remember them through the four Rs:

  • Remember
  • Record
  • Request
  • Results

(This information is based on my own experience personally and as part of different groups that met to discuss dreams, but I am not a therapist or doctor, and this isn't therapeutic advice. If you have any concerns, you should consult a mental health professional before trying a new strategy.)

How Do You Remember Your Dreams?

We all dream, but we don't always remember it. Dreams tend to slip away the moment we awaken. But most people can learn to recall their dreams.

If you want to try, set a notepad or notebook and pen near your bed right before you go to sleep. Once you lie down, tell yourself that you will remember your dreams. Then imagine yourself writing your dreams down on your notepad.

That's it.

After a few nights of doing that — or perhaps even the first night you do it — you will likely recall at least one dream.

Why Record Your Dreams?

Once you awaken and realize you were dreaming, the key is to hold onto that memory.

Before you do anything else, even get out of bed or turn on a light (unless you need one to find your pen and notebook), grab that notebook and scribble a few notes about what you remember.

Do this whether you awakened in the middle of the night or at your usual waking time.

The idea is not to write in full sentences. Instead, write words that will trigger your memory later.

For example, the scribbled notes might read as follows: Grade school? Snow. Swing set. Serpent. Red mittens. (Makes you wonder, doesn't it?)

As soon as you get up to start your day, review those notes. They'll prompt your memory. Then write a detailed description of your dream.

After doing this for a week or two you'll probably remember more than one dream per night. When I was regularly recording my dreams, I often remembered four or five of them.

If you stop here, you'll likely find yourself generating more story ideas and writing more than usual. But you can also use dreams to help solve particular story issues.


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Request Help

Now that you have access to and are recording your dreams, you can start guiding them.

Add one step to the process above.

Think about a story issue where you feel stuck. A character whose motives puzzle you.  A plot turn that falls flat. Tell yourself that you want to dream something that will help you figure out how to [fill in whatever the issue is].

When you describe the issue or concern to yourself, keep it simple.

For example, you could say to yourself: I will have a dream that will help me understand why my antagonist is so driven to hide the truth. Or: I want a dream that will help me figure out a major reversal for my protagonist in the middle of my novel.

If you feel generally stuck, you can tell yourself before you go to sleep that you want to dream something that will help you find a new direction for your story. Or create a new, more engaging protagonist.

Results

When I follow this dream process, I rarely dream about a specific character or a scene for my novel.

But my dreams are more vivid and more apt to tell a story rather than being unconnected scenes. And more times than not, during the following day something occurs to me that solves the story issue or fleshes out the character.

I hope you find this process helpful!

That's all for now. Until next time —

L.M. Lilly

P.S. Trouble getting a novel started or stalling out in the middle? You might find Write On: How to Overcome Writer's Block So You Can Write Your Novel helpful. Workbook or ebook editions available.

Think Small To Overcome Writing Fears

When I ask people what stops them from writing a novel, they often tell me about their fears. Fear of success, fear of being judged, fear of failure.

While there's no one-size-fits-all way to conquer fear, I've found one approach nearly always helps:

Think Small.

The Small Picture

Eight years out of college I decided to attend law school at night while working full time. I talked to an acquaintance who'd gone to law school the same way, and he gave me the best advice I ever got.

He told me to think only about what I needed to do for the semester I was in, and to forgot about how I was going to get through the entire four years. That would be overwhelming, he said.

I realized he was right. I had already decided to go to law school, so I knew where the finish line was. And all I could really affect was my work in each class as I took it. Which meant there was no point in looking too far ahead.

The same advice applies to writing.

Once you decide to write a novel, thinking too much about how much time it will take, whether you know enough about writing to finish it, or whether anyone will like it when it's done undermines your motivation.

One Scene At A Time

No one writes a novel in one sitting.

Now and then you hear a story about someone hiding away for a few weeks or a month and banging out a best seller. Maybe it's true. And maybe those stories are missing something — such as the author is a Pulitzer-Prize winning journalist who wrote 8 novels before and spent 2 months outlining this one.

The point is, however quickly or slowly you write, every novel is written one scene at a time. (Or, literally, a word, line, or page at a time.)

So if you find yourself worrying about whether you can finish a novel before you've started, ask yourself if you can write one scene that might belong in that novel. Or, if that feels overwhelming, one paragraph that might fit into a scene that might fit into your novel.

Breaking it down that way makes it easier to find time to write. And, perhaps more important, to enjoy writing and let go of what others might think of the finished product. And if you decide later a scene isn't working, it's easy to change, cut, or move it around in your story.

Plotters, Pantsers, and Writing Fears

I fall somewhere between a plotter – someone who maps out the entire novel in advance – and a pantser. A panster, also known as a discovery writer, wings the whole writing process.

For me, knowing the key plot turns before I write speeds my process and alleviates my fears about finishing, as I know where I'm headed.

But regardless how much you plan, you still can only write a scene at a time. For that reason, if I'm in the middle of one scene and have an idea for another, I type a quick note to myself about it in boldfaced brackets, then keep going with the current scene.

That note often becomes the starting point for my next writing session or my next scene.

Give it a try and see whether thinking small helps.

That's all for now. Until next time –

L.M. Lilly

P.S. If you want to try out the plot turns and story structure I've found helpful, download these free story structure worksheets.

5 Ways To Relax And Write

As I write this, people all over the world are staying home to slow the spread of the new coronavirus, and writers all over the world are struggling to relax and write. For those of us who can’t do other work, it seems like we ought to write more.

Yet the news, our own fears, and the change in routine all can make it harder, not easier, to tap into our creativity.

Here are 5 ways, though, that you might be able to help yourself relax and get your stories written.

But first: I am not a doctor, therapist, or medical provider, and these suggestions aren’t meant to take the place of professional guidance. If you’re struggling with mental or emotional health issues, please reach out to a trained professional or talk with your doctor.

Not Sleeping – Creatively

The other night I joined a Zoom call with multiple people to celebrate a birthday. Almost everyone on it said they're having trouble sleeping.

It’s been a little more challenging for me too. I find it harder to fall asleep, and I’m more apt to awaken during the night.

While sleeping less isn’t ideal, it is a great time to consider your characters’ backstories. You can imagine their childhoods, key moments in their lives, and what they want most in the world.

Let go of the story you’re working on now – untwisting plot issues may keep you awake or raise anxiety about getting pages or words written.

Instead, let your mind wander and see what pops into it about your characters.

Put Your Plot – And Yourself – In Motion

When I’m feeling blue or tired, moving helps. Walking, dancing, aerobicizing.

The great thing is that repetitive, aerobic motion can also help your mind relax and roam freely. And once you relax, you tend to generate ideas. You might come up with a great non-fiction book topic, solve a thorny plot problem and get your novel unstuck, or discover the start to that short story you’ve been wanting to write.

Bonus: Not only are you more likely to relax and write, you’ll probably feel more energetic and upbeat too.

Expand Your World

When I’m feeling like I’ve spent too much time inside or alone, I use my imagination. I remember trips I’ve taken and places I went, drawing on all my senses.

All of these can be rich sources for adding depth to your stories. Towns, buildings, or countryside may become settings in your next novel. New people you met can be the basis for character traits or entire characters. The smells, tastes, and sounds you experienced and anything you saw and touched can add richness to the way you write describe scenes.

Binge Watch With A Purpose

If you have access to a streaming service (or DVD box sets), this is a great time to rewatch a series you loved. This time, in addition to enjoying it, think about why you love it so much.

Is it the characters? Now that you know where the series takes them, consider how the writers and actors built these characters for you step-by-step. Ask yourself what worked and what didn’t.

Do the same thing with the plot of each episode or the series as a whole.

Late last year I started doing this type of rewatch and analysis of Buffy the Vampire Slayer for my podcast Buffy and the Art of Story. Now I’m examining other series I love as well.

Getting To Know You

Even if you can’t meet in person (and so many of us can’t these days), you can probably connect via online tools or by talking on the phone. When you do, it’s easy (and normal) to fall into talk about worries and fears about the virus, the economy, and other issues the world faces now.

But why not use the time in a different way, to really get to know one another?

Ask a parent or grandparent to tell you about their first job, or the person who most influenced them, or pretty much anything you’ve never talked to them about before. Ask a friend to tell you something they’ve never before shared that happened to them.

These types of topics can help you feel closer in these challenging times. And there’s a side benefit for your writing. The more you learn about and understand other people, the more nuanced and well-rounded characters you’ll be able to create.

So you can connect, relax, and write all at the same time.

I hope the above helps during this challenging time.

Until next time –

L. M. Lilly

P.S. Trying to get your novel started? Stuck in the middle? Super Simple Story Structure: A Quick Guide To Plotting And Writing Your Novel might help.

Find Time To Write By Scheduling Realistically (not Aspirationally)

Okay, whether we’re talking about how to find time to write or anything else, I feel sure aspirationally is not a real word.

But I bet you get what I mean.

Most of us are overoptimistic, or aspirational, about how much we’ll get done in a set amount of time. Which often means that unexpected issues or events hijack the time we set aside to write.

So how do you ensure you find time to write?

Start by blocking your time for the year, but do it realistically.  Which means:

  • Expect the unexpected
  • Plan for things to go wrong
  • Schedule breaks

What Does It Mean To Block Your Time?

By blocking I mean scheduling your time in batches of tasks for a long period, such as six months or a year.

It’s not about putting To Do lists into your calendar, though. It’s about setting aside chunks of time for the things you want and need to do.

Some blocks will be the same every day or week. For example, every weekday I block 7-7:30 for yoga or other exercise. I block time to prepare for the podcast I host and record (Buffy and the Art of Story), time to record, and time to edit.

When I’m teaching for a semester, I block out the hours I’ll teach, my office hours, and three hours for grading assignments and preparing the week’s lecture.

I also block writing time. Right now it’s three afternoons a week.

Find Time To Write & For Fun

For some days or weeks, though, I override all the regularly scheduled programming to take time off.

How does that help me find time to write?

I used to think it wouldn’t. So I never included time off in my calendar, figuring I'd relax when I got everything else done. (Which never happened.)

In other words, when I didn’t plan breaks or fun, I put both off. And ended feeling so burnt out that I'm sure I got less done in the time I set aside to write.

That happened because we all need downtime, and writers and others pursuing creative endeavors especially need it. Because that’s when our unconscious minds relax and come up with new ideas. It’s when creativity occurs.

So include time in your calendar to do things you enjoy simply because you enjoy them.

Plan to spend time with the people you love. To do nothing. Or see a movie. Read a book.

Whatever is fun for you, make at least a little time for it, even if it means you write a little less.

Expect The Unexpected

Most things that throw off our schedules aren’t really unexpected.

Maybe the particular problem is. You don’t know the car will break down this week, or your son will need to stay home from school ill, or your in-laws will visit, or just as you finish that report your boss wanted the entire computer network will go down and wipe it out.

But you do know that life almost never runs exactly as expected or planned.

Instead of being surprised each time and having to steal time from your writing schedule or your free time, block out an hour each week to finish things you didn’t get to because the unexpected happened.

Are you saying you don’t have an extra hour each week? If so, I believe you. I’ve been there.

But the reality is that over time you’ll use that hour per week whether you block it or not. The only difference is by not planning for it, you’ll feel even more stressed because you’ll think about everything else you meant to get done during it.

In my view, better to take that hour away from something else when you’re planning. Then when things go wrong, you can say, “Oh, right, good thing I planned some extra time.”

Recognize Overoptimism

The other reason it’s so hard to plan an hour a week for overflow is that most of us plan to do too much.

On the one hand, it’s great to set high goals and expectations. If I aim to finish my novel in six months and instead I finish in nine, perhaps I've still written the book a lot faster than if I had aimed for a year.

But it you get a lot done yet also always feel you’re racing the clock or falling behind, you’re probably being unrealistic and overoptimistic. And likely all that’s doing is stressing you more rather than helping you find time to write.

Instead, consider blocking 1.5 to 2 times as long as you think something will take into your schedule. So if you think you can finish a novel in a year, block out a schedule that lets you finish in eighteen months.

If you get done faster – wonderful. Next time you can shave off some time.

And if you get done as planned – also wonderful. You were realistic! And less stressed.

That’s all for today. Until next time—

L.M. Lilly

P.S. For more on how to find time to write when life events interfere, check out Writing When Life Throws You A Curve.