Saying No So You Can Write More

If you’re writing novels and doing other work as well, paid or unpaid, Saying No to other things is key to carving out time to write and to feeling happy.

For most of us, though, it’s hard to do.

So instead, if you’re like me, you become more stressed and overwhelmed. You might feel angry — at yourself for saying yes, at the people who keep asking you to do things, at your entire life or schedule.

So how do you say No?

Understand Your No

There are different reasons for wanting or needing to say No to another task or project. Here are several:

  1. It’s something we really want to do for ourselves but we feel overloaded already
  2. Someone we care about asked us to do it and we want to help that person but we feel we have no time
  3. It’s something we don’t want to do but we feel we should
  4. It’s something we don’t want to do for any reason

It matters which of the above is true because there’s no rule requiring us to say Yes or No without any conditions.

For some tasks that fall into 1-3 we might want or be able to say Yes if the circumstances were right.

So how do we do that?

Saying Yes If…

If you’re already stretched to your limit (or beyond) but want to take on something new, ask yourself these questions:

  • Could you fit in the task without too much stress a week or month from now?
  • Is there a way to narrow or limit the task so that it fits your schedule?
  • Can you think of an alternate way to achieve the same goal that will take less time or effort?

For example, I adjunct teach legal writing. My students sometimes ask me if I can help with advice on preparing for interviews or go over an article they’ve written. The demands of reviewing class work alone often make it hard to get my own writing and publishing done. But I really want to help.

So often I answer with a condition: Yes, I’d love to review your article if getting comments back to you in 3 weeks is soon enough.

Or: Yes, I’m happy to give you advice if you can stay after class one evening (rather than needing me to meet at a separate time).

If I truly can’t make time to review an entire article, I might offer to do a narrower task such as meeting to discuss proposed topics or reviewing and marking a limited number of pages with suggested edits.

At times I’ve also offered instead to connect a student with another lawyer who is more familiar with a particular area of law. (After I’ve checked to be sure that lawyer is willing to help.)

Saying No Clearly

Sometimes you just need or want to say No. But it can be tricky, even if it’s something you absolutely don’t want to do. That’s especially so if the person asking is someone you care about.

The key is to be clear so you don’t get talked out of your No.

Being clear means saying the word No without conditions. Or explanations.

Why no conditions or explanations? As soon as you add either, you’re inviting the person to come back with proposed ways you could instead say Yes. Or with arguments about why your explanation isn’t valid.

Here’s how that usually goes:

You: Sorry, I can’t come to dinner Sunday afternoon. That’s my only time to write.

Family Member: That’s okay – it’ll only take a couple hours. You can write after. Or in the morning.

You: No, I can’t. I’ve got budgets to prepare for work in the morning and plans in the evening.

Family Member: Can’t you change your plans? And why are you working on the weekend anyway? You work too much.

You get the idea.

Instead, try saying: No, it’s not possible for me to be there Sunday. I hope to make it next time.

When your family member (or friend or whoever it is) pushes back and asks why or what you’re doing, rather than get drawn in, simply rephrase your answer but say the same thing.

It’s just not possible this weekend. I’m sorry to miss it and look forward to another time.

If the person keeps pressing, it’s time to say that you need to go (hang up/leave/stop texting) but would love to talk again another time.

The Order Of No

The order in which you give your answer can help protect your relationship.

Notice above I suggested saying No (or it’s not possible) first and then ending with a statement that lets the person know you care. That’s because the word “but,” even when it’s implied as it is in the above examples, is very powerful.

In fact, most of us only hear what comes after the “but.”

Think about the classic “You’re a great person, but…” No one thinks there’s anything good coming after that. So, likewise, if you start with “I’d love to be there, but…” the listener will walk away thinking about the No.

If you flip the order, you’re reassuring the person. Your words make it clearer that saying No is about your schedule, and you value and care about helping that person or being there. (For tips on fitting writing into your schedule check out Writing A Novel 15 Minutes At A Time.)

That’s all for now. Until next time —

L.M. Lilly

P.S. The above is based on one of the chapters in Write On: How To Overcome Writer’s Block So You Can Write Your Novel. If you’re struggling to get started or you keep rewriting early chapters without moving on, you might find it helpful.


Where Does The Time Go: Tracking Time And Your Writing Life

As I talked about last Sunday in Will Eating The Frogs First Help You Write More?, it’s easy for time to get away from you, especially if you’re working full time (or more) in another job or profession, raising children, and/or have other significant life responsibilities. Even in a slow week, whatever time you thought you’d have to write can melt away.

So how do you hang on to that time so you can use it?

First, you need to figure out where your time–all of it–is really going. Then you can choose how you want to spend it.

Tracking Your Time

You already know the large tasks and responsibilities. It’s the 10 minutes here or half hour there that’s unaccounted for. It might not seem like much over the course of a morning or a day. But over a week or a month it adds up.

It’s easy to track to your time. Some people use spreadsheets or apps or special programs, but all you really need is a piece of paper or a screen (on your phone or computer).

Write down or type today’s date and the time. Yes, right now. Now write what you’re doing. A short description, like “read blog.” When you finish, you’ll write the time again, note the next thing you’re doing, and when you finish that. And so on for the next week.


One day might look like this:

If you have kids, or you work longer hours, or you’re caring for an ill relative, you’ll probably have more entries, but you get the idea.

If this sounds like a lot of trouble, remember, it’ll pay off. Because once you know what you’re doing with your time, you can make choices.

Adding And Evaluating

At the end of the week, group your tasks into categories and add up how much time you spend on each one.

Look for these things:

  • Tasks you could spend less time on by being more efficient
  • Activities you could skip
  • Tasks you can group together
  • Time spent unintentionally
Spending Less Time

Tasks you can spend less time on each week are ones that could be done more efficiently another way without harming your life. For example, if you can take a train to work rather than driving, you might free 40 minutes a day for writing while you commute.

If you spend an hour and a half a week driving to and from the grocery store and shopping, you might be able to free half that time by shopping on line and having the groceries delivered.

If you watch news 30 minutes a night to keep up with current events, look for a website that provides highlights you can read in 10 minutes a day. That saves 2 hours and 20 minutes a week. Which means you could write for 2 hours and still have an extra 20 minutes one day if you want to read a news story in depth.

Skipping Time

You’ll probably find some activities you don’t really need to do. Maybe you went on-line to pay bills, which should have taken 10 minutes, but spent another 20 scrolling through social media sites or articles. Or you watch more TV than you realized.

Whatever those activities are, consider each one. All of us need time to wind down and relax, and if those activities help you do that, you don’t want to cut them completely.

But be sure whatever it is actually helps you relax. Does reading social media posts help you unwind or make you angry? Does watching a talk show before you go to bed help ease you toward sleep or get you thinking too much about world events, kicking your brain into high gear?

If it is quality relaxation time, consider cutting it by half for week so you can write and seeing how you feel. You might find that works out fine. If not, you can experiment and adjust.

If the activity isn’t helping you relax, cut it completely and write instead.

Grouping Tasks

When we switch from one task to another, we lose time. We spend a few minutes figuring out what to do next, putting together what we need for that task or getting ourselves situated for it, and adjusting our mental state.

By grouping similar tasks, you can cut that time without losing out on anything you want or need to do.

For example, once a week I take out my calendar, my general To Do lists, and my list of monthly goals and I write a rough schedule for each day of the following week. It takes me about 15 minutes a week but saves me about 15 minutes a day.

Similarly, if I need to shop on-line, I try to cover all my shopping for the next week or two in one 30-minute session. I visit Peapod to buy groceries and Amazon for things like office supplies, bird food, soap, etc.

If I’m working on a legal matter (which is rare, as I don’t take a lot of legal work anymore), I set aside an entire morning to research, write, and make phone calls on the same case. That way I get my file materials and shift my brain into lawyer mode once that week, rather than shifting constantly between fiction and law.

Unintentional Time

All of the above should help you spot unintentional time–time on tasks that don’t matter and to which you don’t mean to devote minutes let alone hours.

If you’re talking to or texting with your brother because you want to catch up and care about your relationship or there’s something important to discuss, that’s intentional. If you’re reading emails with links to articles that don’t interest you or answering texts from a friend who doesn’t have enough to do at work and is just passing the time, that’s unintentional.

With each activity, ask yourself if it makes you happy or serves a purpose that matters to you. If not, that’s time you could spend writing instead.

All the examples I gave might or might not be ones you personally can use.

You may never watch news or TV. You may work a much longer day at your office or devote your evenings to your kids, only turning back to your own tasks after they’re in bed. And that’s exactly the point of doing the time audit. It lets you can figure out where your time is going, find whatever pockets there that allow some flexibility, and choose how best to use them.

Even if you find only 30 minutes a week, that’s significant–it’s a little over 2 extra hours a month that you can write. And, as we talked about in Writing A Novel 15 Minutes At A Time, you can get a lot done in a lot less time than that.

Good luck!

Until Friday–

L.M. Lilly

Will Eating The Frogs First Help You Write More?

You’ve probably had it happen at least a few times in the last few months. It’s Sunday night. You look at the week ahead and think, OK, it’s not too crazy. I see an hour (or maybe two) when I can write.

Is your writing a frog or an ice cream sundae?

But then on Monday your boss hands you a new project, or your child gets the flu, or the roof starts leaking. That hour or so that looked open becomes a time for crisis management. On Tuesday you really need to get caught up on what you missed on Monday.

On Wednesday, time somehow gets away from you, and by Thursday you’re exhausted. You may as well just try again next week.

And so it goes when you’re juggling a full time regular job or profession and trying to write on the side.

Next Sunday we’ll talk more about where and how that time from Wednesday on disappeared.

But for today, let’s talk about frogs.

If you’ve read much on time management, you’ve probably heard the “eat the frogs first” approach. But in case not, here it is in a nutshell.

The idea is that most of us don’t want to eat frogs–the popularity of Hugh’s Frog Bar in Chicago notwithstanding. The frog represents the task you dread and keep putting off. But as you push it toward the end of your day, it weighs on you, sapping your energy and making you less productive. So if you eat the frog first thing in the morning, you feel better, work faster, get more done, and, in a way, create more time for what you love.

So can the frogs first theory help you write more or at least more often? To answer that, let’s first look at how you see your writing.

Is Your Writing A Frog?

First off, to you, is writing a frog? In other words, is it a task you want or need to do but dread? Or is it fun, a reward, what you long for, like an ice cream sundae? (If ice cream sundaes aren’t your thing, fill in your favorite food.)

To find out if writing is a frog for you, ask yourself:

  • Do you fear doing it “wrong?”
  • Are you worried you’ll freeze up and stare at the blank page for half an hour getting nowhere?
  • Does the idea of finishing a story or novel and getting a rejection or bad reviews keep you up at night?
  • Are you excited to sit down at the keyboard?
  • Does time fly when you start to write, so that you’re surprised to discover 30 minutes or an hour has passed?
  • Do you feel more relaxed and energized after you write?

If you answered yes to one or all of the first three questions, writing might be a frog. If you answered yes to one or more of the second three, you might be in ice cream sundae territory.

It’s not right or wrong to feel either way, and it might change  depending what else is happening in your life or what project you’re working on. I feel a little froggy about non-fiction and outlining fiction. First drafting and editing (at least once I’ve decided where I’m going) is an ice cream sundae with super dark chocolate fudge sauce for me.

Making Good Use Of Your Frogs

For your froggy writing tasks, try eating the frog first. Yes, some days you’ll need to deal with the leaking roof. But the next day, rather than diving into your catch-up tasks, unless there’s a true emergency, start out with 30 minutes of eating the frog.

Choose one specific writing task or project, set your timer for 30 minutes, and do only that. See how much you get done and if the rest of your day goes more smoothly. If so, frogs first is your best approach.

If you still have trouble sitting down to write, try the bigger frog approach. Presumably you want to write or you wouldn’t be reading this article or struggling to fit in writing.

So think of that responsibility or task you’d really love to get rid of so you can write, but you’re struck with it. Maybe it’s filling out a report for your boss or ferrying your kids to a track meet or cleaning the bathroom. That’s the bigger frog.

First thing in the morning, think about that task looming over you and how you can put it off for 30 minutes if you write instead. That should get you sitting at the keyboard (assuming it won’t make your kids late for the track meet.)

If that works for you, keep using the bigger frog approach.

Ice Cream With A Cherry On Top

If you love writing, if it’s your catnip or ice cream sundae and you still put it off, your issue may be too many frogs. Or a too highly-developed streak of responsibility.

In other words, you feel like you need to eat all the frogs before you allow yourself to do what you really love.

There are good things about that. It’s probably why you’re a great parent or you excel at your job or profession or everyone turns to you when there’s a challenging task that must be done.

But it’s okay to spend some time on what you love even if everything else isn’t finished. Because the reality is–everything else will never be finished.

How to deal with that and not feel too uneasy about your other responsibilities? Pick one day a week when it’s okay to eat dessert first. Or, if that’s too disturbing, to at least eat dessert mid-day.

Allow yourself Monday and Tuesday to focus only on your other responsibilities. Or pick two big frogs a day to eat first. But after those two frogs each day, or when Wednesday comes, take 30 minutes to do what you love.

Shut the door, turn off the phone, sign off the Internet, and write. Immerse yourself in your fictional world. Tell yourself that when you come back, you’ll be that much more effective and capable because you’ll be refreshed and energized. And you know what? It’s true.

Whether you eat frogs or dessert first, I hope this helps you fit in your writing.

Until Friday–

L.M. Lilly




Writing A Novel 15 Minutes At A Time

If you’re writing a novel or planning to, you’d probably love to write every day for 1-4 hours. The reason an hour, or at least 30 minutes, is ideal is that most of us need a few minutes to get focused, immerse ourselves again in our story, and write.

If you only have 15 minutes, though, you can make a lot of progress on your novel, no matter where you are in the process.

Below are 10 suggestions for what to do with 15 minutes:
  • Think about a scene you’re struggling with. What does each character in the scene want?

If the characters’ goals don’t conflict with one another, change one goal so it does and reimagine the scene. Try out any idea for the new goal, no matter how out there. It’s only 15 minutes!

  • Imagine the next scene you plan write. You probably see it, right? Now engage all your senses. 

What do you hear? What do you smell? If your character is eating, how does the food taste? What can your character(s) feel? Is the air warm, freezing, humid?

  • Think about the last scene you wrote or the next one you plan to write. Imagine that scene from a different character’s point of view.

You may discover it works better, and if it doesn’t, you’ll still have gotten an important perspective on it that will make your original viewpoint richer.

  • Brainstorm (or write down) 3 obstacles that block your protagonist from achieving her or his main goal in the novel.

If you already have obstacles to the goal, imagine ways to make those obstacles more formidable.

  • Imagine your protagonist on a 30-minute coffee date with someone she or he wants to make a good impression on.

What are 3 things your protagonist would make a point to avoid saying about herself or himself?

  • Same question for your antagonist.
  • Midpoints in novels are a challenge for many writers. A Midpoint typically requires a commitment or vow from the main character (think of Scarlett O’Hara vowing to never be hungry again) or a major reversal.

Brainstorm ways your character could make a commitment or suffer a reversal at the Midpoint of your novel.

Beginnings and Endings
  • Brainstorm first lines for your novel.

If you’re having trouble, remember first lines you’ve loved, search for classic first lines on your phone or laptop for inspiration, or look at books on your shelves if you have access to them right now.

  • Think about the first scene of your novel (whether you’ve written it yet or not) that features your protagonist. What does the protagonist want  in that scene and what is blocking getting it?

If you’re not sure, experiment with different options. If you know, come up with 3 ways to make the character’s goal more significant or the obstacles to achieving it greater.

  • Brainstorm strong chapter endings.

A good chapter ending urges the reader on to the next chapter. This can be a hint of things to come, an open question (why is the police detective calling the protagonist?), or a genuine cliffhanger.

Finding 15 minutes

The great thing is that you can think or write about most of the above suggestions wherever you are–standing in line, riding a bus, waiting to pick up your child from school, walking to or from the store (though be careful not to bump into anyone).

If you’re about to check your email or social media account and there’s no need to do so, you can think or write for a few minutes instead.

Also, if you just got home from work or put your two-year-old down for a nap and you feel too worn out to write, you can choose an option from the list above to consider.

If all you do is think about it for 15 minutes, you’ll have made progress on your novel. If it reenergizes you and you’re able to carve out some more time to write, that’s a bonus.

Until Friday–


L.M. Lilly

P.S. For help plotting a few simple points so you make the best use of your writing time, you may want to check out Super Simple Story Structure: A Quick Guide To Plotting And Writing Your Novel (available in audio, workbook, and ebook editions).

Set A Single Goal (And Stop Managing Your Time)

Time management gives me the chills.

When I’d been a lawyer for about three years, the large law firm where I worked sent an email about a time management seminar. A slow week for me was working 55 hours, and I was writing a novel on the side.

I saw the email and literally thought, “I don’t have time.”

Plus, the description reminded me of something I read once about stress management seminars. Most people attend not to lessen stress but to learn to take on more of it. This seminar sounded like a way for my firm to teach me to cram more into my schedule.

No thanks.

But can you cram in less and get more done?

The best way I’ve found to do that is to set a single overarching goal for the year.

The Single Goal

Choosing one major goal for the year creates time.

Most articles and advice about goals stresses ensuring that by a certain time or after certain steps, you’ll achieve something measurable. As an example, simply stating that my goal is writing a novel, particularly if I tell other people and add a time frame (such as “within a year”), makes it more likely I’ll do it.

But that’s only part of the benefit. An overarching goal helps you make the best use of the limited time you have and, more important, causes you to spend less time on tasks that won’t get you where you want to be and don’t add to your enjoyment of life.

Without goals, we can check things off To Do lists all day and feel like we’re accomplishing a lot without achieving what we truly want in life.

How Making One Decision Creates Time

No one schedules time to stare at a blank screen or an overflowing To Do list feeling overwhelmed. It just happens, and it not only takes up time, it undermines us. We feel less able to get things done and less sure we’ll reach our goals.

That in turn takes more time as we mentally reevaluate whether we set the right goal, whether we have time for this whole writing thing anyway, and whether we’d be happier focusing on something else.

Choosing a single main goal for the year eliminates those countless minutes (which eventually add up to hours).

Let’s say your overarching goal for the year is to finish one novel. That doesn’t mean you can’t write anything else. But your time split for writing will be 80/20 or 90/10 in favor of the novel. Not a short story or article or blog post. You do those things if you feel good about your progress on your novel for the week or month, but the novel comes first.

In other words, if you only have 20 minutes, you know what you’re working on.

Or let’s say you have books published and your main goal is to increase your earnings. You’ll still need to write, but you will need to devote significant time to business pursuits. You’ll probably do a 50/50 split between writing and business.

That’s where I am this year. My overarching goal is to earn $50,000 in gross income from royalties by the end of the year, which is a significant increase for me. (I wrote it on this index card to remind me.) To pursue this, I’m splitting my time equally between writing and business.

Breaking It Down

You’ll still need to know what to do with each small segment of time, especially if you have many other responsibilities and are likely to have only short bursts of time to write.

The single goal gives you the framework. Once you set it, break it down.

For the novel example, if you’re starting from zero, depending on your own writing process the pieces might be:

  • Characters
  • Plot/Outline
  • Scenes
  • Organizing Scenes Into Chapters
  • Revisions Of Plot
  • Revisions Of Dialogue
  • Copyediting

Now if you have 15 minutes, you can start on the next task on the list. In 15 minutes, you can write a few paragraphs or sketch out bullet points about a character (try my free Character Creation Tip Sheet for some questions to ask yourself). You can figure out one major plot point. If you’re standing in line for groceries, you can imagine a single scene in your mind so that when you get the next 15 minutes you can start writing it.

For me, if I have 15 minutes, I might watch a section of the Ads For Authors course I’m taking or listen to 15 minutes of a marketing podcast or research the latest book promotion sites by running a quick Google search.


The single goal also ensures you focus on what matters. If you’re like me and you like goal setting and lists (I love lists), you’ll probably set other goals for the year or month, and that’s good. You can see the top of my monthly goal sheet in the photo below the index card.

Your single major goal will help you decide if those other goals make sense. It also will aid you in knowing which to omit if you’ve taken on too much and which to push toward regardless.

On a task level, the single goal keeps you on track. If I’m tempted to check my KDP Dashboard (which shows book sales updated periodically) for the third time in a day, I look at my index card and ask myself if doing so will help me increase my royalties to $50,000.

The answer, all but perhaps once a week to see how different promotional efforts or ads worked, is No. Same for randomly checking Twitter.

All of the above isn’t to say that you can’t have any time where you are relaxing and not being productive in a work sense, where you’re spending time with your family or friends or reading a book. We all need that or what’s the point of life?

The single goal helps you focus and use all your time well, including short bursts of it, giving you more free blocks of time for other parts of life.

Rather than time being an unruly employee to manage or an enemy to overcome, it becomes your ally.

And who doesn’t need more allies?

Until next week—


L.M. Lilly

When Working Harder Might Not Be The Answer (Part 1)

Setting specific goals makes it more likely they’ll be achieved, whether the goal is finishing a novel, improving relationship skills, or taking a trip around the world. That’s why I’m big on setting goals. To get to them, I use lists and schedules. (I like lists. I’m one of those people who adds a completed unscheduled task onto a list just so I can cross it off.)

What’s hard for me is how closely to stick to the lists and plans when the unexpected occurs, as it always does. 

In the past, my answer was to say “I will work harder,” much like one of the animals in George Orwell’s Animal Farm. (Was it the horse? Maybe the mule, not that I want to compare myself to a mule.) I’d put my head down, cancel every non-work activity, and stick with it until I crossed off every item on the list and met every deadline.

That approach worked well in a lot of ways for decades. It’s why I was able to finish law school while working full time, write novels while billing the required hours at a large law firm, and later publish my first three novels while starting and running my own law practive.

The Illumination, Book 4 in The Awakening Series

It’s also part of why I got burnt out and often felt stressed and frustrated despite that I was doing work, both at writing and law, that I really enjoyed. Even when I was the one setting the deadlines, I resented working late every night and every weekend.

I was my own boss, but I felt as if my life were not my own.

My fear about being more flexible, though, was that if I deviated too much (okay, at all) from the list or schedule I’d eventually become someone who never finished anything and instead made excuses.

Recently, with the launch of my latest book, I ran up against this same challenge, though I’d tried hard to avoid it. One of my major goals this year was to release The Illumination—the fourth and last book in my Awakening supernatural thriller series. When I set the release date of May 15, 2017, I tried to plan well. I built in time for other efforts, as I still wear a lot of hats. I teach a writing and research class at my law school, I am a graduate-student-at-large at University of Chicago—which means I can take classes that interest me for credit though I am not pursuing a degree—and I still have a limited law practice.

My U of C class ended in March. My teaching semester ended in April. My law practice is down to a small number of cases.

May 15 should have been perfect.

It wasn’t.

First, I discovered that, contrary to my understanding, I couldn’t extend the university health insurance I’d bought through summer without taking another class. Because the Winter Quarter end date didn’t match the policy start date if I bought an individual policy, the only way to stay covered was to take a class in Spring Quarter. So I did.

The two major written assignments for the course were due within two days of my book release. The first assignment involved reading a book and writing an academic-type review of it. The second was writing a 20-30 page research paper.

Neither would have been too big a deal, even with the weekly required reading, if that had been the only thing. But of course it wasn’t.

I’d been waiting for nine months for a decision in an appeal I’m handling. Happily, when it issued, it was in favor of my client. Unhappily, my opponent decided to petition the Illinois Supreme Court to review the case. I had two weeks from when I received his petition to write my response.

When was it due? The same week as the book release.

My To Do list for the week before the book release now included:

  1. verify that all The Illumination files were uploaded properly to all five ebook platforms;
  2. schedule ads and promotions for the first book in the series, The Awakening, which is free in ebook format (it provides a good way to bring new readers into the series);
  3. prepare and send a New Release announcement to my email list;
  4. update my author website with Illumination links and the new covers I’d had designed for the previous books;
  5. post on Facebook and Twitter periodically to let people know The Illumination was coming;
  6. write a post on my author blog about the release (which also would appear on Goodreads);
  7. arrange an in-person book release party for the paperback edition;
  8. schedule a Goodreads giveaway of the paperback edition;
  9. release a paperback edition of my standalone supernatural suspense novel When Darkness Falls in time for a free day on the Kindle edition (I wanted to run WDF free the same week as The Illumination release on the theory that each drew a slightly different audience that might cross over, and I wanted the paperback available to show a comparison price);
  10. do the same for my non-fiction book Super Simple Story Structure;
  11. write my book review for class (happily, I’d finished reading the book the week before);
  12. finish my research paper (I was about half-way done);
  13. write my answer brief.

Also, Mother’s Day happened to fall the day before the book release. For personal reasons, I wanted to write a post on my author blog about my mom, as it was the 10th Mother’s Day without her.

And, expecting it to be a very quiet week, I’d planned three dinners out with friends, one of which was an already-belated birthday dinner (for him, not me).

Had I cancelled all my social plans and worked fifteen-hour days, including through the weekends, I might have gotten all of that done.

But this time, rather than saying “I will work harder,” I stopped and looked at the big picture. Yes, one goal was to release The Illumination. But what was my larger goal? That answer was pretty easy–making a decent living writing books that other people enjoy reading.

Then I asked myself why. Why was that my goal?

The answer caused me to change my approach.

How and why? Check out Part 2 next Sunday.

Until then, best wishes for a productive and not-too-stressful week.


L.M. Lilly

Self-Publishing: What To Do Yourself And Why

Writing and self-publishing involve a lot of tasks that you might be able to outsource to someone else. As I talked about in On Not Doing It All Yourself last Sunday, it doesn’t make sense to do all of them yourself if you are able to pay someone to do at least some.

But there are good reasons to take a do-it-yourself approach to some tasks. Figuring out which ones is the key to a less stressful and more productive writing life.

The No-Brainers

Money and time are the threshold questions in terms of whether to outsource. If you have no money to spare, you’ll need to start by doing tasks yourself. Later, if you earn more at your current work or at writing, you can shift to paying professionals for tasks like editing and cover design.

On the flipside, if you have almost no time to write because you work a lot, and you’re earning good money, outsourcing everything you possibly can will make sense.

Most of us are somewhere in the middle on the money/time continuum, though. If that’s true for you, the easiest tasks to outsource are the ones you absolutely don’t know how to do and have no good way of learning quickly or inexpensively.

When I published my first thriller, The Awakening, there were few easy-to-use online resources for creating your own cover, and I lacked any experience at manipulating photos or text. It never crossed my mind to design a cover myself, nor did I want to struggle with formatting a word processing file for Kindle, Nook, or any other ereader.

These days, though, almost any task relating to self-publishing can be done by the author. Sites like make it possible to create social media posts and covers without much graphic design experience. With Vellum, you can convert Word files to ebook files without any coding or programming expertise. So there are fewer tasks that clearly must be outsourced.

So how to choose which to do yourself? Once you get past the easy questions, in my experience, what it’s best to do yourself depends on three things:

(1) What you’re good at

(2) Whether performing the task helps you in other ways

(3) What you enjoy

Your Skills 

My general rule is if the end result will look as good as it will if I outsource it to an expert, and I’m good enough at it that outsourcing won’t save me significant time, I’ll probably do the task myself.

For example, for several years after college I temped as a word processor, moving from company to company and picking up skills as I went. I became very good at figuring out new software and exploring ways to make it do cool things. While the software to convert Microsoft Word to ebook formats is totally different from the word processing programs I used decades ago, I still am comfortable experimenting, and Vellum is easy enough to use, that my final product looks good.

Also, while outsourcing saves time in preparing the ebook files, the quality control/final correction phase is quicker when I do it myself. When I outsource and review the file I get back, I have to copy and past each error and the corresponding corrections into an email or Word file to send to the conversion service, wait a couple days for a new version, and review that. When I do it myself, I see the error, correct it, review it, then move on.

Think about your skills. Are you good at software, copywriting, or graphic design?

If so, choose a project that is low stress—a novella or short story versus a novel—and experiment. You might find it’s worth doing some tasks yourself.

And if not, at least you’ve found one task you definitely want to outsource.

Does Doing This Task Help You In Other Ways?

So far, I’ve never tried designing a cover for a novel (and I don’t plan to for the reasons listed in Your Book Will Be Judged By Its Cover), but recently I experimented with creating covers on for non-fiction. There are a couple ways that helped me beyond learning how to do a basic cover, a skill I might or might not ever use again.

First, as I designed one cover, I refined my title. My first title for Super Simple Story Structure, was Five Steps to Story Structure. As I laid it out on the cover, though, that initial title looked out of balance.

No doubt a good graphic designer could have made it work. If I’d been in love with the title, I would have chucked my attempts and hired someone. But I wasn’t. So I tried using “5” instead of “Five” and played around with fonts and capitalization.

Finally, I experimented with other titles and settled on Super Simple Story Structure. The row of words starting with S makes the title look good aligned on the left. The alliteration makes the title easier to remember. And the “Super Simple” part does a much better job of conveying the point of the book, which is to make plotting a novel simple and clear.

Second, when I was designing the cover for How The Virgin Mary Influenced The United States Supreme Court, I was still writing the ebook. It started as an academic paper, but I wanted it to be easy to read and interesting to any reader who wanted to know whether the justices’ religious backgrounds played a role in their decision about religious objections to health insurance that covered contraceptives.

Pulling together background photos of the Supreme Court and a statute of the Virgin Mary helped me figure out how to focus the book. I changed an abstract discussion of Catholic doctrine into a conversation about how the Virgin Mary represents the “pure” and “perfect” woman, and how that view of women influences our culture and courts.

Had I not done the cover myself, though, I might never have found a good approach to the book.

What’s Fun For You?

I really like using Vellum to create my final ebook files. The display lets me see the book as the reader sees it and gives me a different perspective on how it appears. (For one thing, it’s caused me to write shorter paragraphs.) It’s also fun for me to play with the different styles for chapter headings and the symbols in between scenes. Finally, it kind of feels like magic to me the way I drop in a Word file and get an ebook file that looks pretty.

In short, it’s fun.

On the other hand, because I get neck and shoulder pain when I type too much, I hate making extensive revisions in Word, and I need to minimize my typing time. So when I’ve got a very solid first draft, I print it, handwrite changes, and send it to a virtual assistant to do the heavy lifting.

You, on the other hand, might like revising using your screen and keyboard and might hate spending time with a formatting program.

Which tasks you find fun matters.

Most of us already do enough work we don’t love at our day-to-day jobs or careers because it comes with the job title. Also, many people who write make more money at their regular jobs. So if writing and the tasks related to it aren’t fun, it’ll be hard to keep devoting time to them.

Finally, and most important, at least to me, is that the point is to live a happy life, not to write novels—or achieve other goals—at any cost.

So rather than push yourself to do writing-related tasks you don’t like, if you’re able, send those to someone else and save the fun things for yourself.

Until Friday—


L.M. Lilly




The Writing Vacation

Last week I wrote about 7 ways to fit in writing a novel when you work more than full time. That article included tips that applied any time throughout the year.

There’s another great way to enjoy getting a concentrated amount of writing done, and that’s to take a writing vacation. It can be a day, a week, or more, and it doesn’t need to cost a lot, or anything at all.

Why a writing “vacation”?

Thinking of the time away from your work as a vacation makes it easier to carve out the time because vacation is fun. How often have you thought to yourself, “I should make some time to write” and not done it? That’s because put that way, it sounds like an item on your endless To Do list. When it’s a vacation, it still takes effort to arrange, but it’s designed to make you happy, not add work to your week or month.

Also, when you’re working tons of hours at your “first” career or job, taking time away to write is relaxing and fun. I usually came back to my regular work refreshed and excited.

Finally, “vacation” implies to other people that you’ll be away and should be contacted only in a true emergency. If you tell people you’re taking a vacation day or week, most will at least try to respect your time. Tell them you’re taking time to write and they’ll contact you just as if you were at work.

How to plan a fun, productive writing vacation

At home or away, here are a few things that’ll help you enjoy your writing time and use it well:

  • Decide in advance which writing project to focus on
  • Set a goal that fits the time you have. A 1-day vacation goal might be writing a few paragraphs about each of your characters, a first draft of a novel chapter, or a plot outline (check out my Super Simple Story Structure if you’d like a quick guide–it’s 99 cents (or free if you are a Kindle Unlimited subscriber), and it includes links to free worksheets). If you have a week and you already know what will happen over the next quarter of your book, you might set a goal of a 50 pages or more.
  • Figure out before you go/stay home a place to write where you can turn off your Internet connection and your phone
  • If you get a lot of email or calls, put an Out of Office message on both just as you would if you were on another type of vacation
  • Don’t tell anyone unless you absolutely must that you’re taking the time to write
At home writing vacations

If you’re planning your writing vacation at home, there are a few additional points.


If you have a live-in partner, spouse, and/or children, the at-home vacation only works if they will not be there during the day. It’s next to impossible for people you live with to view you as “not there” and leave you alone, and it’s on you, not them, to be sure your writing time is sacred. If your home is occupied during the day, find a separate space in advance. Some possibilities are coffee shops, libraries, office sharing spaces, or the home of a friend who lives alone and is away at work during the day.

Pets and Chores

If you have a pet, do whatever you normally would if you went on vacation or were away at work. Get (or keep) a dog walker, feed the cat first thing in the morning the same time you would if you were going to work.

Also, no squeezing in a few chores. (No, not a single one, not even laundry if you will have no socks tomorrow.) Deal with it all just as if you were truly away and there was no possibility of doing any of these things.

If you go away

Ideally, go away alone so you won’t be tempted to skip writing and go sightseeing or sip cocktails and chat with your friend/spouse/significant other. But that’s not always possible, and if your partner or another person in your life will be upset by you going away alone, that’s important too.

One solution is to plan a trip where the other person can do something fun. If your spouse loves to do yoga, go to a yoga retreat with plenty of activities for him/her during the day while you write. Or go to one of those areas of the world that you have no interest in seeing but your friend has been dying to visit, so long as that person is okay sightseeing alone. Or suggest that’s a great time for your spouse to visit that in-law you can’t stand or that best friend she or he would rather hang out with alone while you stay home and write.

Whether alone or with someone else, check ahead of time so you’re sure there will be a place you can write undisturbed. It’s also helpful if you landlock yourself. Find somewhere with food options in walking distance, then take public transportation or a cab or airport shuttle there. Without a car you won’t be as tempted to leave to do something other than write.

What else to do during your vacation

You won’t be able to write 24 hours a day, and most people won’t be able to write 12 hours a day for that matter. And if you do, you may find yourself feeling depressed and isolated.

So wherever you take your writing vacation, plan some other relaxing activities. Have a nice dinner somewhere with a view, take a walk on a beach, catch up with your friends and family after your writing day is finished. Bring books to read or line up shows to watch, especially if both are something you never get enough time for the rest of the year.

However you handle it, a writing vacation can be a wonderful way to make progress on your novel away from day-to-day stresses.

Have you taken a writing vacation? Please share your experiences in the comments.

Until Friday–


L. M. Lilly

P.S. Remember to check out the Free 5-Point Story Structure Blueprint if you’re in the planning stages of your novel or are just getting started and would like a guide to help figure out your storyline.


What Does The Weekend Mean For You?

Weekends are supposed to be a time to relax, yet most of us find them filled with all the responsibilities and tasks we didn’t get to during the week. When you’re also fitting writing into your schedule and/or you have a career that requires working weekends some or all of the time, that can add to the pressure. Instead of relaxing, you’re stressing more because you’re not relaxing.

That’s why this Friday I’m recommending an episode of The Petal To The Metal where two authors talk about weekend time and the balance between enjoying life and getting things done. I was drawn to this because they offer tips and alternate perspectives and acknowledge that there’s no one-size-fits-all answer. As I noted in Tips For Writing Novels While Working More Than Full Time, not everyone can follow generic advice (like get up an hour early, write every day, or write during your lunch hour). But that doesn’t mean you can’t finish a novel or that you shouldn’t enjoy life while you do.


Until Sunday–

L. M. Lilly

Tips For Writing Novels While Working More Than Full Time

Okay, I admit it. When I was in law school, one of the main reasons I sought a position at Chicago-based large law firm Sonnenschein Nath & Rosenthal (now Dentons US LLP) was that author Scott Turow is a partner there. It wasn’t just that I wanted to meet him, though that crossed my mind. Mostly, I figured a firm that touted a novelist/lawyer in its marketing must be comfortable with attorneys who pursued other vocations along with law.

In contrast, at the other big law firm where I interviewed, a partner glanced at the one line on my resume about fiction writing and said, “You know, you won’t have time to do that here.”  Points for honesty.

As anyone who practices law knows, regardless whether a firm or company tends to hire lawyers with outside interests, juggling law and the rest of life is a challenge in itself, let alone pursuing another avocation. I’m sure that’s true for other professions and jobs, too, not to mention being a parent. The reality is, few people who write novels have more spare time than anyone else. And Scott Turow notwithstanding, most published authors don’t earn enough to quit their other jobs.

So below are a few suggestions on fitting writing into an already too-packed life.

(1) Seek Out Something Different

The less time you spend wracking your mind for ideas, the more time you’ll have to actually write. Stimulating your mind with new activities and information can generate a lot of thoughts and ideas on which to base your fiction.

If you’re too busy to add anything new outside of work, try to vary within your profession. Work with someone you don’t usually partner with, have lunch (or coffee if you’re short on time) with a colleague you seldom see, pick up a project that’s just a little outside your comfort zone. Talk to someone whose views are completely opposite to your own.

And if you can do something new outside of work, that’s a great way to get your creativity flowing. Attend a play, a movie, a concert, or just take a walk along a street you don’t normally travel and really look and listen. It doesn’t matter if you like what you’re doing. Sometimes at a play that bores me out of my mind I come up with great new story ideas.

(2) Develop A Habit

In the classic Think and Grow Rich, Napoleon Hill said, and I’m paraphrasing, you are what your habits make you, and you can choose your habits. In that way, writing is a lot like working out (though I’m far more likely to do the former than the latter). If you need to decide every day whether to go to the gym or what time to try to squeeze it in, it’s less likely to happen. Same thing for writing. But when it becomes a habit, the pages start churning out, and it feels great.

If you don’t already have a habit of writing at a particular time or for a certain number of minutes or hours per week, figure out when it’s most likely you’ll be undisturbed, even if it’s only a half hour a week on Sunday morning or Friday night. When that time rolls around, write, even if you write about how you don’t have anything to write about. Or you can use that time to sketch out what you’ll write about in the following session.

Once you have the habit, you can increase the amount of time you write, and the quality of what you write.

(3) Create Time

If finding half an hour a few times a week is a challenge, look first at television, social media, and video games. I’m always surprised how many television shows my lawyer friends, even those with kids, find time to watch, until I remember–they don’t also write.

If you’re already lean on recreational activities, look at your work. Is it possible to work less and write more? Some firms or companies allow reduced schedules for reduced pay. I did this for several years at Sonnenschein, though I concede with mixed results. Sometimes I still billed more hours than people on regular schedules and just earned less. On average, though, it did allow me to write more. Likewise, when I ran my own firm, after a number of super busy years, I began deliberately cutting back. First I turned down new cases other than from existing clients, then I turned down any new matters at all.

If that’s not an option, consider buying time. With the advent of virtual assistants and a sharing economy, almost anything can be outsourced. This is especially wonderful when you can pay someone less than your time generates in your own profession. If you earn two-four times as much per hour at your day-to-day paid work than you would pay someone to clean your home, remodel your bathroom, grocery shop, do your taxes, wash your car, fix typos in your manuscript, or keep your financial books up to date, do what you do best, and pay someone else to handle those other tasks. You can then use the extra free time to write.

(4) Harness Your Unconscious

Much of the creative process takes place behind the scenes. Even if you’re extremely busy, your unconscious can come up with story ideas and scenes and flesh out characters. The key is to stimulate the unconscious without stressing out. One way I do this is to ask myself a question before I fall asleep or head to the office, such as–when I was plotting The Awakening–“Where is the most unnerving place for Tara to be confronted by a stranger who claims to know the meaning of her pregnancy?”

If I ask a question like that every so often, then put it out of my mind, eventually a scene or idea pops into my head.  (In that example, the scene takes place just before midnight in a deserted Laundromat where Tara works. The stranger enters as she’s closing for the night.)

(5) Use Your Downtime Well

One of the things I love about TV law shows is how no lawyer goes to court and sits forty minutes waiting to give the judge a status report. You also never see lawyers waiting at the gate when the flight to the deposition is delayed.

In the real world, most of us spend some time waiting. That’s why I carry a note pad everywhere and pull it out if I have more than five minutes. (You can also use the note function on your phone for this, but judges frown on lawyers appearing to be emailing or playing on their phones while in the courtroom so I carry paper.)

I particularly like scribbling about characters, because if I’m cut off in the middle, it doesn’t matter. In fact, my unconscious will probably keep going with the train of thought. Now and then I write snippets of dialogue or openings for scenes. While the legal pad pages rarely make their way to my writing desk, and the exact words almost never get typed into a manuscript, my thoughts flow more freely when I do have time. It’s a big part of why I’m usually able to turn out pages as soon as I sit down to write.

You can also use time stuck waiting in line to observe fellow customers. Notice their chins, their noses, how they carry themselves, their expressions. Think about how you’d describe them in writing. This can be especially helpful if your physical descriptions of characters tend to get repetitive or rely too much on describing eye color, hair color, and height.

You can find specific writing/thinking prompts for short time periods in Writing A Novel 15 Minutes At A Time.

(6) Set Small Goals.

Most professionals are goal-oriented people. That’s how we got where we are. Large goals, like writing a best-seller in two years, are inspiring, and they work well when pursuing a pre-set program like graduate school. But they also are too easy to put off truly pursuing until tomorrow.

So break those goals down. If you have a regular schedule, your first-draft goal could be a page a day or seven pages a week. If you have an erratic schedule, a goal of a number of pages per month or per three months may work better. One of my best writing instructors, author Raymond Obstfeld, called this latter approach the spare change method. Rather than writing X amount per day or week, you throw whatever you can into the writing equivalent of the spare change jar. So when I practiced law full time, one week I might have written 4 pages, the next 10, then next none, but at the end of the month, I’d written 30 pages.

(7) Write Something Bad.

If you’ve tried cases for twenty years, you might be able to think through an opening argument the night before trial and give it the next morning. But when you started out, you probably outlined the argument, practiced ten times in front of a mirror, and tried it out on a colleague or two. Yet, for some reason, many of us insist on trying to make every sentence of our fiction perfect the very first time.

Hemingway said all first drafts are sh*t. I find this very freeing. Many of my first drafts are rambling or too sparse (or both) and include pages that ultimately don’t need to be there. A first draft is a thing of beauty not because it’s perfect, but because it’s done. Trying to write well the first time out can keep you from writing at all. So the biggest key to finishing–no matter how much time you have or don’t–is being willing to write something bad. Then you can revisit, rewrite, and polish all you want.

There’s no magic to finding time to write, any more than there is to finding time to study in college, or to raise children, do volunteer work, or care for your parents while working fifty hours a week. There will be things you’ll miss while you sit and write, and carving out the time to write may mean, for a while at least, earning less than you could if you focused all your efforts on a more immediately lucrative profession.

But if you love writing the way I do, it will be worth it. Much as I enjoyed practicing law, nothing satisfies me more than finishing a piece of writing and feeling I’ve done my best with it. (Though practicing law did mean I eventually got to meet Scott Turow. Pretty cool.)

Until Friday, wishing you a productive and not-too-stressful week–


L. M. Lilly

P.S. If you’re starting a novel and are looking for a clear, quick way to plan it without being bound to a rigid outline, try Super Simple Story Structure: A Quick Guide To Plotting And Writing Your Novel. It’s free for Kindle Unlimited subscribers (reg. $0.99 for Kindle, $4.99 paperback). The Kindle version includes a link to helpful worksheets. It can save you a lot of time.