Writing Fiction During The Holidays

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

Christmas OrnamentI had high hopes for December.

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

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

And then…

Holiday Fun

First, the weekends filled.

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

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

It felt fantastic.

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

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

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

Too Much To Do

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

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

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

Life Happens

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

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

And you know what? That’s okay.

You’re A Person First

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


L. M. Lilly

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

Writing When Injured Or Not Well

When I was in my twenties, I developed tendinitis in my hands, wrists, and arms. I was working at a temp job as a secretary to 27 people, typing 90 words per minute all day long at a bad keyboard set up.

I was also writing a novel when I got home and playing guitar.

At the time, there wasn’t a lot of awareness of carpal tunnel syndrome, tendinitis, or other RSIs (repetitive stress injuries) from keyboarding.

Dealing With Advice

A lot of people implied or outright said that it was all in my head or due to stress. The suggestion that I could somehow fix myself simply by relaxing only made me feel worse.

My fingers went numb during the night, my hands and wrists tingled, and pain shot up my arms from my hands. Yet the doctor I saw through the company’s workers compensation policy told me to keep working unless or until there was nerve damage. Then I could have surgery, which was the only real treatment option at the time.

That struck me as a phenomenally bad idea.

I quit the job and moved home to my parents’ house in the hope that a few months of not working would help my hands heal. Instead I plunged into depression and anxiety.

Not Working, Not Writing, Not Functioning

For the first four or five weeks home, I found it very hard to get out of bed.

Once I did, I lay on the couch and watched television until the late afternoon. 

I struggled to figure out some other type of job I could do to support myself again. All my work experience, though, had to do with typing and computers. I don’t remember writing, and playing guitar hurt my hands.

I felt worthless.

The main things that I thought of as being who I was — a musician, writer, a hard worker — had all been taken from me. And I didn’t know how I get them back. (All of this also coincided with a break up with my boyfriend of six years, so I’d also lost my primary relationship.) 

In one way, whether I could write fiction or not “should” have been the least of my worries. I hadn’t made any money writing by then, so it wouldn’t help me back to living on my own and supporting myself.

Yet after my fear that I’d never be able to move out of my parents’ house again was my fear that I wouldn’t be able to write. Without writing, I wasn’t sure who I was or how much I’d get out of life.

Health And Writer’s Block

A while back I wrote an article Six Ways To Get Beyond The Myth Of Writer’s Block on issues that get labelled “writer’s block” with suggestions for dealing with each.

Looking back at the article, I realized it contained an underlying, unspoken assumption. Which was that the person who wants to write but can’t is otherwise generally healthy and physically well. (I revised it to try to address that.)

But many people live with chronic conditions that make any type of work or pursuit, including writing, far more difficult if not impossible. Many others are fortunate enough to be generally well much of their lives but nonetheless go through periods where their mental, physical, and emotional health limits whether and how much they can write.

Because of that, I’m sharing what I wish I’d known when I struggled so much with physical pain, depression, and anxiety. With these caveats:

  • What in retrospect I think would have helped me might or might not be useful for you
  • I’m not a doctor or health professional, and this is not medical, psychological, or psychiatric advice

First Things First

If I could go back, I’d tell myself that to love writing and to write can be a wonderful thing, but sometimes other things need to take priority. Things like physical, emotional, and mental health.

I felt I had to figure out all at once (a) all my health issues, (b) a new occupation, and (c) how I’d ever write again without severe pain.

And I felt like a failure because I couldn’t.

Now I’d tell myself that before I could write I needed to be sure I kept breathing and stayed alive. If I was able to write and it helped me do that, great.

If writing made me feel worse, though, then it was okay, and quite possibly necessary, to mentally set it aside for a while and focus on whatever would help me keep functioning.

No Overnight Fixes

While I rarely feel the extreme anxiety I experienced during the year and a half I moved back in with my parents, I’ve had a few times nearly as bad.

Likewise, life events sometimes trigger weeks or months of depression. It’s like a broken bone that hasn’t quite mended. Stepping a certain way or falling sometimes breaks it again.

And though my fingers rarely grow numb, if I am at the keyboard too long, my hands still get sore despite the many accommodations I’ve made over the years. (Those accommodations include using ergonomic keyboards, dictating, switching computers, stretching more, and taking regular breaks.)

If I’d know that decades later I’d still be dealing with many of these issues, maybe that would have made me feel worse.

Multiple Keyboards and RSI

But maybe not.

Because for me the hardest part was that I kept wanting to wake up one day and have my old life back. I only started to feel better emotionally and mentally when I realized that wasn’t happening. That the only place I could start from was where I was.

Accommodations And Work-Arounds

In the long run, my need to find a new type of work led to my retraining and becoming a paralegal and later a lawyer. As a result, a decade later, I was far better off financially and professionally than I had been when I developed the tendinitis.

For the physical aspect of writing, and generally to deal with my on-going hand, wrist, and arm pain, I made dozens if not hundreds of small changes like the ones I mentioned above, as well as lifestyle changes.

There were changes as small as:

  • leaving the aspirin cap off so I didn’t hurt my hands with the safety top on the bottle
  • paying someone more than I earned per hour to clean my small apartment so that I didn’t cause burning in my arms by scrubbing
  • learning that running cool water over my hands for five minutes or holding a cold soda can could ease pain temporarily

Adjusting Your Writing Routine

I also had to adjust my writing routine. I’d once written for 1-3 hours at a time and focused on writing novels only.

Now sometimes for days or weeks or months at a time I couldn’t do that, so instead I did some of the following:

  • Visualized scenes in my mind
  • Interviewed my characters in my mind
  • Wrote by hand in very short bursts (as writing by hand also made my hands worse)
  • Wrote very short poems (less than a page each)
  • Used an old tape recorder to record scenes (this was before any decent dictation software was available, and I couldn’t have afforded it even if it had been)

Some of these strategies came in handy years later when I was working so many hours that for stretches I could only write in small increments of time. (See Writing A Novel 15 Minutes At A Time.)

Flexible Writing Goals

I also found that I needed to be far more flexible in my goals. Though it definitely took me a long time to make peace with that.

If you’ve read The One-Year Novelist, you know I am big on setting specific goals with time frames. When I struggled with depression, anxiety, and physical pain, I had to adjust that strategy.

During the worst of my depression, I didn’t set any writing goals at all. If it made me feel better to write, then I wrote. Otherwise, I didn’t.

When my depression became more manageable and my tendinitis was slightly better so that I could work at a job though still in a lot of pain, I started writing in a journal when I could. From an emotional perspective, that was an easy way to write because I never show my journals to anyone.

But I didn’t set any goals for writing a certain amount per day, week, or year.

I had a general goal in mind wanting to write another novel. But I didn’t worry about when I would be done. I just aimed to finish at some point down the line.

That was unusual for me, because I love lists and plans. They help reassure me that I won’t lose track of anything and ease my anxiety.

In the darkest times, though, lists and plans made me feel worse. They emphasized what I felt I “should” be doing and couldn’t.

So if I could go back, I’d tell myself to try letting go of lists and plans now and then. They can be useful tools, but they’re not the right ones for every circumstance.

That’s all for today.

I hope some of my story gives you some ideas or inspiration if you’re struggling with injuries or health issues.

Until next Friday —

L. M. Lilly

P.S. For more on anxiety and well-being, you might find Happiness, Anxiety, and Writing: Using Your Creativity To Live A Calmer, Happier Life helpful.

Playing More Could Help Your Writing

I finally watched Stranger Things, the Netflix series about frightening forces at work in a small town.

The first episode starts with four boys playing a role-playing game that includes monsters.

A few of my games.

When one boy disappears, the others draw from the rules and the magic of their game to help search for him. As is also true in many Stephen King novels, magic and imagination are key to confronting evil.

Play is key to real life, too, especially for writers.

There’s a reason we often get our best story ideas or solve a plot issue as we drift off to sleep or when we dream. To be creative, our minds need to relax and rest and play.

But it’s not easy to play.

Most of life, especially when you’re juggling multiple responsibilities, is scheduled and goal-oriented. Writing can add to that, as fitting it in often means putting every free half hour (or every fifteen minutes) toward our latest project.

That’s a good way to make progress on a novel, and I’m a big fan of schedules and goals, lists and plans. But doing things that are solely for fun, that have no end goal, is what sparks creativity. It helps avoid writer’s block.

Also, it’s fun.

So what counts as play?

Peter Gray, Ph.D., in a blog on Psychology Today, noted that Play is:

  1. self-directed and self-chosen;
  2. an activity where the means matter more than the ends;
  3. has rules, but they’re created by the player’s minds, not required by physical necessity;
  4. is imaginative, not literal, and is in some way removed from “real life”;
  5. involves an alert and active, but not stressed, state of mind.

Over the last few years as I’ve cut back on my law practice, I’ve added more play. I’ve played air hockey and laser tag. Yesterday night I visited the Jurassic Park exhibit at Chicago’s Field Museum.

I also like board games, and next month I’m meeting with some writer friends at the Galloping Ghost Arcade. You can play arcade games all day for $20, and I’ve heard it has the classics from my childhood. (My favorites were Q-bert, Galaxian, and Ms. Pacman.)

Looking back, much as I’m happy that I wrote a lot even when I was working 55-65 hours a week at law, I’m pretty sure I would have been happier, and possibly also finished my novels more quickly, had I occasionally written a little less and played a little more.

How about you?

If you were going to write less and play more, what would you play?

Until Friday—

L.M. Lilly

Making The Most Of A Creative Retreat

Taking part in a creative retreat can enhance your writing process. It can also improve your overall life.

Religious and spiritual people go on retreat to step away from daily life and become more in touch with the divine or their best selves.

If you’re creative, a retreat serves a similar purpose. It allows you a concentrated time to connect with the artist within, to stimulate your mind, and to immerse yourself in your art without distractions.

When, where, how long, and how to structure a retreat can vary. Here are some things to keep in mind:

When Is The Ideal Time To Go On A Retreat?

The best time to attend a retreat is when it won’t cause you too much stress to be away. (This affects the length of the retreat, too–see more below.)

If you’re worried about what’s happening at home or work or feel you’re shirking your responsibilities, you won’t be able to relax and focus.

But if the only way to take part in a retreat is to check on a few projects or do a minimal amount of paid work, don’t let that stop you. If you choose the right environment, you’ll be able to do that without undermining your creativity.

Rabbit Hole retreat working session.

As far as the time of year goes, if you are concerned about your budget, look for (or organize) a retreat in the off-season, also called the “shoulder season” in the travel business. This is the time when most people don’t want to go to a particular place, but it’s still pleasant enough if your plan is mainly to write, engage with other artists, and create.

For instance, if you visit a ski resort in May, you may still find lovely hiking trails and a quaint village nearby, but you will pay lower hotel or condo rates.

I once attended a retreat in Palm Springs a month after spring break. It was very hot out, too hot for most people, so we got a great hotel rate and structured the retreat around the weather. We had indoor meetings and writing during the hottest part of the day. We met outside in the shade in the morning and after dark near the pool.

Where Is The Best Place?

With sites like AirBnB you can go pretty much anywhere in the world, so the “where” has more to do with budget and time. If you have little of both, you can organize or join in a local retreat for a day.

A day may not sound like very long, but simply to focus on your writing for one day without other distractions, and with people who share your love of the written word or of other types of art, can be renewing and give you energy throughout the rest of the year.

One-day locations can include libraries, forest preserves, someone’s home, conference rooms, college campuses, or pretty much anywhere you can host a meeting that allows for enough space.

You will also want to think about what will both stimulate your mind and help you relax, which usually involves a change of place if you can afford it.

Because I live near the heart of downtown Chicago, I like retreats that get me outdoors, ideally near a lake or a river, with somewhere that I can walk. The creative retreat I attended last year had a historic old cemetery that had lovely paths. (Perfect for writing horror.)

If you live in a more rural area, you might find a city with architecture you love or clubs that have live music you can enjoy at night that will help you unwind and feel you’ve stepped out of your day-to-day life.

Remember that you will want some options for recreation. Part of creating is relaxing and enjoying life, and part of getting ideas is feeding your mind and heart and soul.

You’ll also need to be sure your location has resources you’ll need, such as WiFi or a kitchen (if you’re bringing your own food).

How Long Should The Retreat Be?

As mentioned above, you can do a retreat for a day if that’s what’s workable in your budget and timetable.

If you can manage it, though, I find a week away is ideal.

The first day usually is a travel and transition day where you’ll still be thinking about your regular work and life. The next few days you can gradually immerse yourself in whatever projects you’ve chosen to focus on. The last few days allow you to truly unwind and relax, which leads to a return with renewed energy and excitement.

A ten-day or two-week retreat might also work, though for some people being away that long creates anxiety.

It also can become tiring. If you’re in close quarters with a small group, that’s a lot of time to coexist. It’s also a lot of time to be away from the people you care about and usually see in your life. Sometimes, though, especially if you have a particularly stressful work life, two weeks is perfect for getting away.

What Are Some Way To Structure The Retreat?

Unlike conferences, which are typically about attending organized sessions where experts speak, retreats are about getting your own work done.

If you’re looking for critiquing and instruction, you’ll want to find a retreat with other writers who are around your skill level or better and/or that’s run by an instructor from whom you’d like to learn.

For novelists, these types of retreats often involve exchanging 1-3 chapters and perhaps an outline in advance. The participants and instructor critique the pages, usually both in writing and in person. Everyone retreats to their rooms (or their spaces outside) and rewrites for a few hours, then the pages are exchanged and critiqued again.

If you’re looking less for critiquing and more for inspiration and focus, you can look for a retreat that involves exchanging work with others to read but not to critique. This provides accountability to someone else. You can also ask for positive comments only or have the others simply relay back what they recall about the story so you can see if you’ve conveyed what you’d hoped.

This is most helpful if you are a beginning writer and need encouragement and accountability but feel critiques might inhibit your process.

Finally, you can go on a retreat where you don’t share your work at all (or where you and a coauthor work together but don’t share with anyone else). In this type of retreat, there are typically hours throughout the day when participants work on their own projects. They then come together for meals or to unwind and talk at different times during the day.

The advantage of this type of retreat is you clear out the rest of your life to focus on one or two projects. You also have the support and stimulus of talking with other creative people.

I just returned from this kind of retreat. It helped me generate ideas for a second book in my new mystery series and fill in chapters in a book I’m working on about character development. I also learned about string theory and the universe, as the game designers on the retreat are creating a game that includes those concepts. I’m not sure how that will play into my fiction in the future, but I’m sure it will.

All these types of retreats should also provide you time to absorb the creative work of others. I reread two novels (The Dead Zone and Gone Girl) on retreat and annotated them to use as examples in my book on characters. I also started a third novel, a mystery, that I’d never read before.

In my normal life, I can’t read that much.

If you can do a retreat this year or next, please consider it, especially if you’re feeling burnt out or stuck in your writing or you are longing to surge forward and reach a new level.

Until Friday–

L.M. Lilly

P.S. For more about the retreat experience, particularly about feeling as if I were in an almost magical place away from “real life,” check out my author blog from last year’s Rabbit Hole Retreat.

Mother’s Day Thoughts

Happy Girls Tamburitza Orchestra 1947

Because it’s Mother’s Day, this Sunday I’m taking a moment to remember my mom.

I like to think my love of creative pursuits came from her. She told me she would have liked to go to college and to become an author, but women in her time rarely went to college or pursued careers. She did, though, play in an all-female Croatian Orchestra, The Happy Girls Tamburitza Orchestra, during the WWII years.


My Mom and Dad in 2006 on their 50th Wedding Anniversary

This is my tenth Mother’s Day without my mom. There are so many things I wish I could talk with her about. Her life was ended in 2007, as was my dad’s, by someone else’s choice to drive while intoxicated.


As we move toward the coming Spring and Summer holidays, please celebrate safely.

Happy Mother’s Day to all.

Until Friday–


L.M. Lilly