Why Keep Writing Materials Handy?

I’ve lost count of the exact number of published books I’ve written. I think it’s somewhere north of thirty. Most are nonfiction but for certain, three are novels. So you might think inspiration for a new book is always within my easy reach. Well, it is and it isn’t. Let me explain.


This novel is slated for Sept. 26 release and fits the cozy mystery genre


Ideas are always floating around in the universe. You might happen on one at the same time as ten other people. Me, too. But before I spend a year writing a book based on that idea, I take time to decide if the subject is suitable and complex enough for a book. Some story ideas are thin and best suited for becoming short stories, essays, blog posts, columns, or articles.


When inspiration strikes, I certainly stop what I’m doing, get up, and jot the idea into a notebook that I keep handy for that purpose. I do this even if I’m already writing on another story. I might make a notation right then and there that the idea could easily become a novel if I can come up with a suitable subplot or setting that can enrich the story as background or even become a character for the story. I might even consider possible subplots. Or, themes. And, most importantly, characters.


Just released, this book of  guided meditations is organized around universal themes


Alternatively, you might think your idea is best suited for nonfiction. In that case, you’ll need an organizing principle–a way to organize the material so that the subject matter can be presented incrementally in chapters. Inside each chapter, you might further break down the subject with sections along with any special elements such as quotes or helpful tips or recipes.


Possibly, you might divide your subject matter into themes that span the seasons or weeks of the year. Or, you could elect to devote a chapter to each month of the year. Consider additional material such as action items at the end of each chapter or succinct summaries. Perhaps most importantly, you’ll have to decide into which nonfiction genre your idea best fits (for example, self-help, inspiration, biography, religious, family and parenting, history, reference, textbook, etc.). Fleshing out the seminal idea is often more fun than work.


Inspiring ideas sometimes take root in my psyche when I hear an interesting anecdote or learn something new in a subject that fascinates me (like the myriad ideas that came up for me during my recent reading of Daniel Lieberman’s book, The Human Body (biological anthropology). If I see value in a nonfiction book idea, I’ll jot down the idea and any tangential material it triggers with the intention of revisiting and developing that idea later at a later time.


To be released in December, this self-help book focuses on rituals to add meaning to your life



Last year, my agent mentioned two words to me. Those two words got me so excited about writing a new novel that I went to work immediately crafting a backstory and a creating a forward-moving plot. Like I said, I don’t write the whole book when inspiration strikes, but instead, do my assessment and figure out if the concept can sustain several hundred pages. I can’t give away my agent’s two words here (they’re secret until my next mystery comes out), but suffice it to say that sometimes that’s all it takes to fire the imagination. And, yes, I wrote those words down and put them over my computer.


If the plot line needs some unexpected twists, I’ll revisit my trusty little notebook, turn to the tabbed section on plot ideas, and see if one or more fits. That’s why it’s important to keep your writing materials handy. You must have a place to keep all those ideas for easy access for when you are ready to begin the work of writing your Great American Novel or best-selling nonfiction book.



Don’t Just Sit There When Inspiration Strikes

Seized by an inspiring idea for a new writing project? Don’t just sit there. Grab a pen and some paper. Capture the idea before it drifts away.

The late Madeleine L’Engle once noted that when an idea for a new project taps you on the shoulder, it’s inviting you to birth it. Here are a few simple strategies for fleshing out your idea once you’ve captured it.

1. Consider whether fiction or nonfiction treatment best suits the inspired idea.

2. Determine the best form for it–screenplay, novel, nonfiction book, stage play, or poem.

3. Figure out the heart of the project and begin working on the form it will take. If you believe it’s best suited as nonfiction, you’ll need to flesh out the focus, slant, and factor (s) that distinguish it from other projects already in the marketplace. For fiction, consider what genre it would best fit (that in turn will determine length, style, and other critical elements specific to each genre such as mystery, romance, young adult, sci-fi, fantasy, etc.).

4. Do some brainstorming. I like working with a bubble chart. My main idea goes in the middle of the page inside a bubble. Spokes radiate out into tangential thoughts triggered by the idea. This technique works well for a mystery novel, for example, that needs a few suspects and motivations for them.

5. Consider whether your inspired idea could be the base of an “empire” of information, pieces of which could be spun off into multiple stories or a series. Or, would your project fit into an already existing series of books?

6. Develop a dynamite synopsis if your idea is for a novel; create a killer book proposal if the idea is for a nonfiction book. For a nonfiction project, indicate the nonfiction category such as self-help, how-to, home/garden, cooking, psychology, history, travel, photography, biography, child-rearing, autobiography, memoir, hobby, sports, and health and wellness, to name a few.

When I got the idea for a mystery based on my real-life farmette dramas, it came after I’d had nearly two dozen nonfiction books published (some were sold into an existing series such as Adams Media’s “Everything” series of books).

I’d also established a blog and had been building a brand based on my life renovating the old farmette. My first novel–A BEELINE TO MURDER–sold as a three-book contract and featured my Henny Penny Farmette brand and a farming milieu.



Working professional writers don’t wait for inspiration to strike. That said, they don’t take it for granted. Most will at least capture the idea. That way, if there isn’t time to go to work on it immediately, they can revisit it later.
















Coming Full Circle

Even as I gear up for publicity on my forthcoming book, THE MURDER OF A QUEEN BEE, I am taking a little time to reflect on my just-finished third novel in the Henny Penny Farmette series. Deep breath. I confess I’m feeling a bit disoriented.

This novel is the second in the Henny Penny Farmette series that began with A BEELINE TO MURDER



It’s as though I’ve climbed a mountain that demanded a lot of mental and physical energy while writing and pacing to the finish on that third novel that arcs the series. And now that I’ve descended that mountain, my thoughts, feelings, and bodily energy must shift back to who I was before that story claimed most of my waking hours over the last year.


Nature nourishes the spirit and renews creativity


I think it must be true of all fiction writers that we leave bits of ourselves strewn throughout our stories. But in the end, we realize the scattered bits are and have always been part of us. After the writing is done, we relegate those bits to memory (where all our experiences in life are stored) and move back into our natural rhythm. Like flower stalks in the wind, we bend against the force and then when the pressure stops, we return upright. We are rooted as before albeit often changed.


Through the passage of time and the process of writing, I learn, evolve, grow older. During the writing of a book, I’m obliged to answer lots of questions and to dig deep into myself in order to understand the why’s. Poet T. S. Eliot ‘s lines ring true for me: And the end of all our exploring/Will be to arrive where we started/And to know the place for the first time.



“Let yourself be drawn by the stronger pull of that which you truly love.” –Rumi

With no new immediate deadline looming on a new project, I sit in my garden and write about these feelings in my journal. I watch the bees forage on the lavender and the scrub jays feed on the sunflowers that have become massive seed heads. The dry seed heads hang low on ten-foot stalks now that it’s September. The water falling from the Italian fountain coos a quiet lullaby. Breezes cool my face. Sitting, observing,and journaling is how I knit myself into wholeness again. In nature and silence and over time, I begin to feel the impulses calling me to a new beginning. I scribble out a title, describe a character, write down a name. So . . . the cycle to start a new story begins anew.

Ten Prompts to Get You Started Writing Your Novel

Where do you get ideas for your novels and how do you start writing your story? These are often the first questions a beginning writer asks a published author. For me, ideas are everywhere. You can start a story with an  intriguing character, unusual setting, a moral dilemma, or a dramatic event. All can be twisted and spun in directions to serve the storyteller’s purpose.


Perhaps the easiest way to get started is to know what subject inspires you to want to know more about a particular topic. What genres do you like to read? Before sitting down to write a novel for a particular genre, understand the criteria and constraints of that genre. In that way, you’ll avoid a lot of beginner mistakes.


Before you start drafting your story, consider the definition of the verb, “shift.” This word has huge relevance to novel writing and, in particular, to plotting. Shift means to move a person or thing to a different place or position; or, to cause something to change a belief or opinion. The emphasis is on moving.  And not simply a linear movement from beginning to end but movement with dramatic rising and falling action. It’s that kind of movement that all good stories have.


1. Choose a genre such as mystery, women’s fiction, romance, historical fiction, science fiction, fantasy, or young adult and then read books and also synopses of published books in your chosen genre. Reading stimulates the flow of ideas. Take a shot at writing a one-page synopsis of the novel you want to write.


2. Make a list of six or eight characters from the world’s political, cultural, scientific, artistic, or humanitarian arenas who intrigue you. Thinking about what you know about each character, create another list of positive traits and character flaws. Characters drive plots based on their hidden desires, goals, and the choices they make. Start your novel with an intriguing character. Even better, start your novel with an intriguing character who has a goal with high stakes if that goal is not met or a deep (perhaps dark) secret and a reason to keep that secret at all costs.



3. Select a dramatic setting. For example, think of a local, national, or world setting in which something dramatic has happened. Change the locale, spin the story in a different direction, and use an interesting character at the heart of the story to drive it forward.



4. Start with a what-if question. Imagine an ordinary day in the life of your character and change it up by asking lots of what-if questions that will then turn into an extraordinary dramatic opening to set your story in motion. It’s the equivalent of thrusting the gear shift on the engine (of your story) into driving it forward.



5. Wound your character. It’s great to have heroic characters with stellar traits and abilities. But a deep-seated wound gives a dimension that can cause a character to make wrong choices, thus creating more havoc and drama for her. This wounding can serve as a character flaw if it blinds the character in some way to staying on purpose. Plus, such a wound can cause a character to unwittingly put others at risk by making choices that avoid probing the wound. Never make life or choice easy for your main character.



6. Put two lovers together (or, an individual and the person, place, or thing he loves most in the world) and then rip them apart. Despite all odds and the desire (plus the goal) to reunite, make it virtually impossible until they overcome the final hurdle to come back together.



7. Create a catastrophic situation and characters who will prevail against all odds (man v. man, man v. nature, man v. self).



8. Imagine your character faces a moral dilemma. It could have implications for a whole community (a local doctor in a rural area with a drug problem, a church treasurer who is embezzling from a crisis fund, an auto mechanic who settles grudges by tampering with the cars of his enemies).



9. Rewrite an old newspaper obituary, changing the person’s gender. Starting with the manner of death, ask what-if questions to take the person’s life in a different direction.



10. Start with a dramatic setting–a refugee camp where a killer lurks, a river’s spring thaw exposing a body, a business torched by a rival owner, an small commuter airplane in rapid descent destined to crash.



There are as many ways to plunge into story as there are writers wanting to take the plunge. If you are one of them, there’s no better time to start than now.



*          *          *



Meera Lester is the author of A BEELINE TO MURDER (Sept. 2015) and THE MURDER OF A QUEEN BEE (Sept. 2016) as well as her just-completed third novel (for Kensington Publishing) in the Henny Penny Farmette series of cozy mysteries. See, http://www.hennypennyfarmette.com


Her books are available online through Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Kobo Books, Walmart, and others as well as through traditional bookstores everywhere. Find her on Facebook.com/meera.lester and twitter.com/@MeeraLester. Also locate her on LinkedIn, Pinterest, and Google+.


Strudel, Chocolate, and Daydreams

Have you ever wanted to make the world go away for a few hours, a few days, or a few weeks? I guess that’s what vacations are for. And I haven’t had one of those in a few years. But I remember one on which my husband and I were on a mission–he wanted the find the best chocolate in the world, and I wanted to find the best apple strudel. We traveled to nine countries in Europe that autumn. He found his favorite chocolate in Belgium; I found my favorite strudel in an Austrian village.

Daydreaming and gardens go together, don’t they?


I haven’t felt much like going out into the world these days–although I’ve had BEELINE TO MURDER book publicity events in October and more coming up in November. For the last couple of days, though, I’ve been in a baking mood and just want to try out new recipes, work in my garden, watch the bees on the cosmos, and hang out daydreaming on my yard swing.


That’s not all bad because creative writers do some of their best thinking while doing mundane tasks or simply hanging out. Maya Angelou observed that every writer finds his or her own secret path to the muse. The renown mystery suspense writer Mary Higgins Clark once explained that she wrote her books after the kids had gone to bed, and she was doing the laundry. E.B. White once noted that delay is natural to a writer. “He’s like a surfer–he bides his time, waits for the perfect wave on which to ride in.” (Paris Review 1969)


So, while I hang out, I can think about which recipes to include in the new novel I’m writing. The more mouth-watering, the better. This novel will be number three in the Henny Penny Farmette series and have tie-ins to an artisan chocolatier and a winery. It should be the most fun yet in terms of the recipes. I mean even if things go somewhat badly, chocolate and wine will always make you feel better. Right?





A BEELINE TO MURDER, the first book in my Henny Penny Farmette series of cozy mysteries makes its debut today. Last night when my head hit the pillow, I reminded myself that I would go to sleep as an unpublished novelist and awaken in the morning a published novelist. Today is all about the emotional high. My box of novels arrived on the doorstep at nine o’clock. Flowers from my Scribe Tribe arrived at ten. What a joyful start to the day.


My first book in the Henny Penny Farmette series is A BEELINE TO MURDER



Getting your very first novel published only happens once in a lifetime. What an absolute thrill!


Novel writing, noted George C. Chesbro, is a “long-distance run of the imagination and will . . . .” For my Henny Penny Farmette series, I brought my whole life to the table. Agents will tell you when you approach them with a series that you can’t hold back material from the first book thinking that you’ll save something for the second or the third. If the first book doesn’t sell, you can forget about the second and third.


You have to put your heart and soul into that first novel. It’s also folly to believe you can crank it out perfect on the first draft. Great writing comes about through the process of rewriting when you can prune away excess verbiage or even entire scenes. You fix pacing, take out stumbling blocks and pitfalls, intensify emotion, write in emotional peaks and valleys, and polish to a high shine. It might take several rewrites. You might even want to deep freeze the novel to read it with fresh eyes months later.


At some future time, I want to write a blog about narrative voice. A lot of novels never find their way to publication because the editor or agent isn’t connecting with the narrative voice. I know this because I wrote five novels that mercifully will never see the light of publication because of the voice. When I wrote A Beeline to Murder, it was the voice that endeared itself as authentic and engaging to my agent and editor. Finally, I’d found it.


Over the years, I met many friends who aspired to having their first novels published. To them, I say, do not give up on your dream. Bring all your life experience to the table. Write your heart out. Rewrite until the work shines and the prose sings. And rewrite again.


The debut day of your novel will be spectacular. I know mine is.

Opening Yourself to the Wild Place Within

One of my favorite authors, the late John O’Donohue, wrote in his exquisitely rendered book, Eternal Echoes (Harper Perennial 2000), that our habits “close us off from the unknown, the new, and the unexpected.” Living life along the familiar pathways of habit, we reduce and limit our creative side, he admonished.



Similarly, when we resort to using the same words and phrases, we also limit ourselves within the reach of our vocabulary. Observing this, O’Donohue noted that when we name something, we are giving it an identity. Yet, that very name can trap a person, place, thing, idea, or experience. Names, he felt, had to be worthy and spacious and, therefore, we humans must try always to thoughtfully choose the names we give such things.

In the creative imagination or dreaming mind,  a rose can symbolize love, beauty, spiritual desire, passion and purity




I’ve thought a lot about the artistic inventiveness that creativity implies. The unnamed place deep within each of us is a limitless wild place. When we turn within, names of things and the names we call ourselves and other as well as the labels we put on things fall away. We experience the inner world without language. There are no walls to hold us. Our creative self expands in imaginative and inventive ways to touch inner landscapes, foreign and familiar. We are invited to explore, expand, and receive the unknown. The gifts therein are ours to claim.


Writers and artists are especially receptive to crossing the inner threshold where boundaries do not exist. In that void of silence, they rejuvenate their creative imaginations, receive inspiration, and become transformed by a richly imaginative landscape.



Our creative ideas come from within our imaginations, not from a source outside of us. That’s not to say external objects or events cannot trigger an inspiring idea. Inspiration means in its most literal sense a “breathing in.”


The inspired idea takes hold in our creative imagination where we then accept, reject, make linkage with other ideas, refine, and otherwise process the thoughts that arise around the trigger. We are the progenitors and curators of the ideas that emerge from our creative processes. Thus, opening ourselves to that wild place within is vital if we are to create our art, literary endeavors, or find the way to a scientific breakthrough.



There are myriad departure points on the path inward. Classical or quiet devotional instrumentals can pull one inward. Essential oil scents or incense can also do the trick. Communing with nature, daydreaming, meditating, taking mindful walks, and writing in a dream journal about your nighttime journeys help you tap that inner wild place. There are other ways, of course. Whichever path you might choose, take time to open yourself to that wild place within and be prepared to expand your creative side.





Plot Lines, Character Arcs, and Narrative Arcs

Plot lines, character arcs, and narrative arcs are elements of the dramatic structure in storytelling. The plot of a story is like the main thread that reveals the unfolding of events.  The secondary thread in the fabric of a novel is a subplot, often call the “B” plot. The “B” or subplot intersects the main plot, either through the protagonist or secondary characters with linkage through time, place, or theme.


Pyramid of Dramatic Structure

The A plot and B plot can both have the dramatic story structure: Exposition. Rising action. Climax. Falling action. Denoument. It is often in the “A” plot line where you’ll find the character arc of the protagonist as he or she must acquire new skills to deal directly with the antagonistic elements or individuals in his/her environment as the story unfolds. But the “B” plot is different from the main plot line often because the protagonist is dealing with a personal fault or problem secondary to the “A” plot. Still, he or she must gain new awareness, skills, inner growth tools, and the like and will experience a character arc as a result of the “B” plot.


Secondary Character Arc

Not only does the protagonist’s character arc, but it is also possible for a secondary character to have an arc as well. The change can be profound in the inner life of a character. Narrative arcs and story arcs are often pictured as a half circle dome.


In a three-act structure film or novel, the main plot starts the main character through setting him in an environment as the story begins. Then comes the inciting incident or something that the protagonist must confront that starts the story’s momentum and carries the plot forward to the next (often more dramatic) incident.


First Turning Point

In a three-act structure, this opening with the second incident would be noted as the first turning point of the story. It is this first sequence of plot that sets up the drama’s story question; that story question is the one that gets answered in the climax of the book or film.


Start of the Character Arc

It is in the second act, that the character arc begins to evolve. When the protagonist tries to resolve the problem of that first turning point, it makes things worse and he must learn new skills or acquire new knowledge to deal with the worsening problem or situation. This profound change in the protagonist happens along plot line A, usually late in the second act.


Narrative Arc

Armed with knowledge or skills, but changed, the protagonist’s story reaches a climax in the third act with the rising action hitting its highest dramatic point (the climax) and then falling (resolution of problem and story question answered), followed by the denouement which completes the narrative arc of the story. The character experiences a higher level of self awareness but this does not mean the character arc is complete as the character can continue to evolve in the next novel or film sequel or story. This is the secret of storytellers: keep the beloved character evolving to keep readers wanting more of that character.

A Weekend of Mystery

Long Beach’s beautiful yacht harbor where you can walk the promenade or hop on board a boat for a 45-minute trip to refresh your body, mind, and spirit

Bouchercon 45 (an annual behemoth of a mystery conference) lived up to all its hype and then some.  I admit, as a newbie fiction author, I was slightly overwhelmed at the opulent offerings of seminars, panels, author presentations, autograph sessions, and special events during the four-day conference in Long Beach, California November 13-16, 2014.


I attended many sessions and filled an entire notebook with information and ideas. I sat in on all the cozy mystery presentations and attempted to connect with many cozy authors as possible.


Help is always advised when navigating through unfamiliar terrain and although I’ve published a lot of nonfiction and attended many nonfiction conferences, this is my first foray into novel writing and the world of mystery conferences.


I found the authors to be genuinely approachable, smart, funny, and exceedingly savvy about the genre as well as the current state of mystery publishing.


The cozy mystery presentations had clever titles like “Cute and Sweet, but with a Twist and also “A Fine Palate for Death: Dessert Wine and Crime.”


I particularly enjoyed seeing two cadaver dogs in action and hearing stories of “finds” during their handlers’ presentations.


There were panels and author signings, special events, international guests, and a silent auction–all adding up to four information-packed days of nonstop fun.


When my brain felt fried, my husband and I hopped on a boat for a cruise around beautiful Long Beach harbor. It refreshed and revitalized me so I could head back to the conference for more presentations and a visit to the large book room for my final purchases.


A meeting with my fiction editor and a lovely dinner celebrating the momentous 40th anniversary of Kensington Publishing was a highlight of the conference for me. During that dinner, I met other Kensington authors with whom I hope to have long, enduring friendships. Inspired, I could hardly wait to return home and get my fingers flying over the keyboard again!




If your prose has become less than stellar or your story seems to have lost all sense of direction or falls flat, take a moment to truthfully answer the following questions. The questions and your answers can provide clues as to how you might resurrect your project or even start work on a new story.


1. Have I tired of my story? If so, why?

2. Do I know what is and isn’t working? Or, do I need professional help to figure this out?

3. Have I resorted to lazy writing (instead of searching for those perfect nouns that suggest specificity and using active verbs instead choosing passive, weak ones?

4. Do I know what my story’s protagonist wants and needs?

5. Have a I created a worthy adversary for my main character? In certain genres, such as the dramatic thriller, a worthy adversary can shine a spotlight on the talents and skills of the protagonist.

6. Is my main character a cardboard cutout or fully imagined with a past history, a current life problem pressing upon him or her that requires a solution, and intriguing possibilities for a future, depending on choices he or she makes?

7. Have I created a roller coaster plot with rising and falling action to push the story forward and also occasionally pull it back or spin it in a new direction?

8. Have I written my story in a cinematic way so that my words conjure vivid mental images for my readers?

9. For each character, are his or her dialogue patterns unique and does the dialogue ring true when that character opens his or her mouth to speak?

10. Have I chosen a universal theme–one that will have wide resonance?

11. Does the beginning of my story start in media res or take too long to get going?

12. Have I used details, situations, and dialogue to create sufficient verisimilitude?

13. Would the introduction of a ticking clock (something that has to happen or a problem that must be solved within a certain time) help create drama in my story?

14. Have I created scenes with sufficient rising tension (the heart and soul of dramatic writing)?

15. If working within a particular genre, do I have a full and complete understanding of the required elements of that genre and have I implemented them in my story?


As the author of your story, only you can truly answer these questions. If you answered no to many of the questions,  revisit and revise your story to change each no into a yes.


What To Do When Your Story Has Gone Flat

When authors tire of working on a book, it’s often because they have either written their protagonist into a corner and don’t know how to get him or her out. Or, the author hasn’t figured out how to keep stuff happening (often the solution is to create a new problem).


When I feel the story is going flat, I use a simple technique to get it all going again.  I ask myself what can go wrong for the protagonist? What else can happen to ruin his or her day? What new problem might boomerang to create other challenges and issues?


I forget the name of the author who advised, “Put your protagonist up in a tree and throw rocks at him or her.” In other words, don’t ever make the solutions easy, don’t give your main character easy outs. If you offer easy solutions, the story will lose momentum and the main character will not seem as strong. Easy outs demonstrate lack of ingenuity. You don’t want creative laziness or weak writing to be the reason your book is rejected by a publisher. Remember that in dramatic writing as in art, put the lightest light against the darkest dark and you create drama. It’s powerful, dramatic writing that keeps readers turning pages.


And Then What Happened?

Do the work of brainstorming your story before you begin to actually write scenes. Know where your plot is going based on the choices your protagonist and other important characters make. That means you have to know a lot about that main character. If you are not an outline type of person, create a storyboard of stick up notes–one per scene and arrange them on a wall or table until the story is finished.


Know your protagonists’ wants and needs (a person’s wants and needs can conflict) and give the lead character an issue or problem or challenge to make him or her vulnerable so we’ll care. A Hollywood screenwriting teacher that I admire has counseled writers to create strong, believable protagonists that we care about so that the audience knows who to root for and to clap for at the end of the movie.


Don’t put all the back story in the opening of your book. Most first novels get pages cut and one of the biggest reasons is that they have dumped all those tedious little details about the protagonist’s life in the opening of the book. No. Don’t do that. Start on a day that is different with a critical situation that plunges us headlong into the story.


Aim for three scenes to a chapter and write good, tight transitions. Get into the scene late and out early and milk the drama.


Fingers to the Keyboard, Regardless of Whether or Not You Feel Inspired

Don’t wait for inspiration; it might not ever come. Working writers write. Period. Inspiration is a gift. A visit from the Muse is a blessing. Getting lost in the flow of  Kairos (God’s time) might happen, but don’t count on it. Get into the habit of placing your fingers onto the keyboard and pushing words out, whether reviving a story or starting a new one. And keep asking and answering those story questions. You might be surprised to discover how much your story begins to excite you again. Or, you might experience the stirrings of a new story that has picked you to give it life.




I just finished my first novel, a cozy mystery. Actually though, it’s my sixth novel, but I’ll get to that in a minute. The point I want to make is that the world is full of great starters, but far fewer finishers. Although I’ve written and had published nearly two dozen books, I’ve had my share of false hopes hung on half-finished projects.  I’ve written five novels that will never see the light of publication, but I did finish them. Making myself finish those stories taught me something about myself and also about my own writing process. I found ways to tunnel through obstacles and I learned to devise techniques to keep myself inspired and the project on target.


What Happens When Inspiration Fades?

Whether writing a short story, novel, or screenplay, most writers seem to share a heightened sense of enthusiasm that inspires them to work hard in the earliest phase of a project. Unfortunately, few writers keep fingers to the keyboard when inspiration fades. When the muse withdraws, even then, they must still keep typing words, figuring out plot twists, imagining powerful dialogue, creating verisimilitude, and dreaming of how to push the story forward. Perhaps you’ve experienced  the “sagging middle” of a book.  It often occurs before quitting.


What Are Your Reasons for Quitting?

The reasons for quitting on a project are seemingly endless–no time, need to make money, lack of enthusiasm, loss of inspiration or interest, or your project is too similar to another. Some writers fear not being able to sufficiently lift their project out of mediocrity or they fear the opposite, dizzying success. Perhaps you are listening to an inner critic that tells you that the work isn’t good enough or will never sell. The voice of the inner critic has to be silenced when it’s the voice of the creator you need and want to hear.


When Your Project Demands Your Unique Voice and Vision . . . Write

My  own moral imperative is to finish what I’ve started. My ideas . . . your ideas are just as important as the next person’s. The inspiration for your particular story didn’t tap someone else on the shoulder and whisper,”write me . . . give me form.” It chose you. Quitting is not a good habit; finishing what you start is.

At one time or another, I’ve experienced all of the excuses for quitting. But I believe my reputation as a writer is only as good as my word. I feel honor-bound to do what I have promised, whether that promise was made to an editor, agent, and publisher or to myself.


What Message Does Completion Communicate?

Finishing what you start communicates to publishing professionals that you have staying power. It shows that you know how to complete a project, and that is huge! Why do you think first novels must be completed before being considered by an agent or publishing house? Those professionals need to know you can reach “the end.” They have to know you can pull the plot all the way to finish, orchestrate character arcs, and deliver a satisfying conclusion. They have to believe that you know what you are doing in order to invest in you, the writer.


What Will Be the Future of Your Project?

Once you have finished your project, you get to decide how to deliver it as your gift to the world–that is, through conventional sources (like traditional publishing companies) or to release your project as an e-book on your website or on Amazon.com or elsewhere. Through e-publishing venues, you might even decide to release your book in chapters (for sale). But for all those options, you have to finish.


Discover the Gifts

That brings me back to my opening–I just finished my first mystery. Will it sell? This, I do not know. What I can tell you is that I have an agent, and we both believe the project has a good chance. When I started this book a year ago, I wasn’t even sure of some of the plot twists and the ending, but here I am with a completed, polished manuscript. I am now writing two new book projects. Both evolved from that initial mystery. Just imagine what gifts your story might hold for you.


Novel writers can benefit greatly from an understanding of the blocking process, used by screenwriters. A really good story will take your reader on a fictional heart-stopping ride, flying along as if on a high-speed bullet train, rising and falling, until your story finally crescendos in a climax and slows with a satisfying conclusion and denouement.


If the term “blocking” is unfamiliar to you, it might be because it’s a word used more in the world of screenwriting than in fiction writing. Blocking means choosing which beats of a story best reveal what happens and then arranging the beats in a way that provides the greatest drama for your story.


Paul Lucey, teacher, screenwriter, and author of Story Sense (McGraw Hill 1996), concluded that blocking is one of the two master skills that screenwriters must have. Dr. Lucey noted in his book that the other is the ability to imagine both characters and scenes in the mind until the characters through action and dialogue in scenes become interesting and entertaining.


Characters with contrasting personalities when in the same scene tend to create conflict, rising tension, and drama. When characters have different needs and desires and want different outcomes for situations, they can take the plot in different directions.


The plot of the story rises and falls as a result of the scenes, each having a beginning, middle, and end. Scenes can be filled with varying degrees of tension. Scenes can create story questions, present choices, push forward or pull back or shift the direction of the story. Once you know the beats of your story, you can decide the best way to write those beats into scenes.


So how do you block out the beats? It’s pretty simple, really. Think about all the incidents involved in the totality of the story you want to tell. Now create a master list of those incidents.


Dr. Lucy notes that the blocking doesn’t come until after you have not only the basic idea for your story but also the other elements: theme, concept, conflict, problem, etc. The plot beats can take the form of a list, an outline, or prose.


What you want to avoid is a flat plot where nothing really happens, the characters are happy, and life is wonderful. Conflict creates drama. How much better it is to create conflicts with villains who are tightly wound or problems that are not easily solved or characters who are on a collision course.


Try plotting a story using the blocking method and see if it works for you. The three-act story structure that movies and television shows follow works well for novels, too. Likewise, a good rule of thumb to follow for a novel is to write three scenes per chapter with major action-packed or tension-filled or “big” scenes scattered appropriately along your rising and falling plot line. When you know where you are going with your story, it’s easier to work with the plot. And blocking is a great tool.








Someone I respected and loved long ago told me that there is a multitude of great starters but not so many great finishers. After hearing that comment, I never again started something that I didn’t finish, especially a book. I’ve had published nearly two dozen of them, albeit in the mass market nonfiction category.

During my young adulthood, I wrote five novels (too verbose, too complicated, too uninteresting, too long) that mercifully will never see publication. I was young and didn’t have the advantage of the life experiences that I now have. In 2011, I started a mystery, a genre in which I had never written. I felt pretty confident I could create three-dimensional characters. I believed I could make my dialogue sing. My settings came alive. I understood theme, and knew how to create a sense of verisimilitude. But I saw plotting as my Achilles heel.

Mastering the plotting of the mystery presented a vertical learning curve for me. It was like a complex puzzle that I assembled and then disassembled to create a compelling narrative that would read like a roller coaster ride. So I started the story with a brainstorming map that became an outline of scenes. This project wasn’t just about writing a story, it had to present a complex and complete little puzzle for my readers to solve.

In November 2011, I realized that starting the project would be easy. There is an exhilaration in every new beginning that propels you forward.  I wrote away, submitting pages every couple of weeks to my writer friends for a critique. One of them lobbied hard to get me and our other workshop writers into Camp Nano this summer. It’s a virtual camp during the month of July where you set a goal to write a certain number of words for your novel (so do your cabin mates) and you all try your hardest to achieve the goals you’ve set.

I set a goal of 10,000 words. Easily attainable if you’re not doing a thousand other things like I am. On July 1, we started typing our stories. My goal was to finish what I had started in 2011, the mystery.

Today, I did finish. I typed the words, THE END (after posting 18,000 words; my novel is 65,000) and retreated to my garden to enjoy what was left of the rest of the day. Tomorrow I start the rewrite and polish, confident that I will finish it, too.





At 4:00 p.m. Pacific Time today, I logged into Camp Nanowrimo and officially became a “camper,” meaning I promise myself and my cabin mates to crank out 10,000 words (or more) during the month of July.

Imaginary marshmallows and hot chocolate aside, this is serious stuff. I wrote a novel during the last Nanowrimo I participated in, and I am using the camp to polish that work for publication. Having my cabin buddies cheering me is one factor that I think could ensure my success. Another is having the one-month deadline. I thrive on deadlines and finishing what I start is a point of pride. So I’ll give this month over to editing and polishing my manuscript to high gleam.

I count myself fortunate to have known my cabin mates for years. A few years ago, I moved across the United State to the opposite coast. I have since moved back, but my friends call different parts of the country home. Yet, our love for each other and our deep respect for the mysterious process of writing has served as a bond to keep our group connected. We found a way to maintain our friendships and work on our favorite writing projects via virtual meetings.

Even if we didn’t sign up for the camp together, I believe it would still be worth participating in the camp. You can choose to be cabin mates with others based on criteria such as age, genre of your project, or by similar word count goal.

What could be more fun than spending a month in a virtual cabin writing your heart out with other campers doing the same. I suspect there will be campfire stories, S’mores, and maybe even some sing-alongs, all virtual, of course. But the words on the page that you produce could spell success when your Nano novel is published, as many have been. I hope to see you around Camp Nanowrimo in July. It promises to be grueling, but also loads of fun.




If your novel has been written and rewritten and still isn’t working, consider “deep freezing” it. You want to send the novel out when you can feel proud of the work you’ve done, and if it isn’t ready, don’t send it. Put it away for a while.

After weeks or months of not reviewing and reworking it, you could find that when you return to the material you have a fresh perspective.

Distance from the novel enables you see it anew. You’ll notice if it has momentum. You can see how and where the words sing on the page or slow the narrative. You might observe problems with the plot, discover a cardboard character, or find weak or excessive verbiage, cliches, and clunkers. With a fresh perspective, you’ll possibly see places where the dialogue–that you once believed was inspired or even brilliant–does not ring true.

With your new, fresh perspective,  review your story for the following:

Character–Important story characters will be three dimensional

Dialogue–Must ring true for the character who speaks it; ensure the dialogue patterns of your characters differ (otherwise, they sound the same); also, invest your dialogue with subtext to get the most out of it (the words themselves or the way the words are spoken reveals information about the story or the character who is speaking)

Plot–Great plots often include twists

Pacing–You can speed the pacing of a scene (and increase tension) by using monosyllabic words in short sentences or slow pacing with longer sentences using polysyllabic words

Tension–Each scene will have some element of tension that rises and falls, creating momentum; if your story departs from the problem your main character is facing, the story will lose its tension and dramatic momentum

Momentum-Without momentum, the story stalls; you might add momentum by inserting into your narrative a ticking “clock” to exert pressure upon a character to do or achieve something against the constraint of time

Narrative hills and valleys–Hills are points of high dramatic tension and valleys are brief periods of relief before the next scene’s rising tension ensues

Texture–Use specific details to add textural layers to your character or story

Show; don’t tell–Avoid telling the reader something when you can show it; for example, instead of  telling the reader that “the man had ugly fingernails”  help the reader to see the character’s nails as “ragged, stained brown by years of tobacco use”

By taking the time to let your novel cool off before tackling the review and rewrite, you will find it easier to massage the material into leaner, stronger, and more compelling prose that lifts your story into the realm of extraordinary–what readers want.



Every writer eventually settles on the way of writing that works best for him or her, whether working from stream of consciousness or an outline. For new writers of novels, working from an outline might be a less frustrating than writing as a stream of consciousness. Now this seems counter-intuitive, doesn’t it? But think about the problems of going the distance, of actually finishing the book when you start the writing process with just a character or a setting or a critical situation, using creative imagining alone to push the story forward. If you don’t know where the story is going or how it ends, you might write a whole lot of material that won’t hang together as a compelling story.

Every story has a beginning, a middle, and an end and there must be some sort of conflict and rising tension. Also, there must be story questions that get answered and new story questions that will be raised. It is easy to get off track when you do this work as a stream of consciousness. The storyline gets muddled. When the writer loses focus and direction, the reader gets confused.

One way to outline a novel is create at least three scenes for each chapter. Once you have done this preliminary work, you can add more scenes if they are needed. The outline becomes the skeleton on which you will flesh out your story. It means you do a lot of the hard thinking that goes into a compelling work of fiction ahead of the actual narrative writing. The outline enables you to keep your story on track. A quick glance at the outline and you can see the types of scenes, where the dramatic action is in the story, how the roller coaster of fiction that you are writing is rising and falling, how and when your protagonist’s character arcs, and when the story climax occurs.  Looking at the outline, you can decide which scenes to plant clues (especially important in writing mysteries), add details of foreshadowing, or decide whether or not you need one or more subplots.

The stream-of-consciousness method of writing is a great way to push through a block, to lift a sagging middle of the book, or to flesh out a character. Most stories are driven by characters. If you don’t know what a character is going to do in a particular situation, try a little gestalt therapy. Ask him about himself  and type in the first thing that pops into your head. Keep asking questions and typing answers until you know everything there is to know about this character. But go beyond the eye color and the reason for the muscular build or lack of it. Make your character talk to you about his inner world–motivation, fears, hopes, dreams, and feelings of abundance and lack. Are his wants and needs in conflict or are they the same? What drives him to do what he does?

If you are new to writing, experiment with both methods of writing and see which works best for you.

Copyright November 10, 2011 by Meera Lester

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k. What does he need. What does he want. Are they the same or Most stories are driven by the characters.


Ideas for great projects like novels, scripts, and nonfiction books drift into a writer’s thoughts periodically, often when it’s least expected. But ideas are fleeting. A smart writer will jot them into a journal as soon as possible. Later, when creative fire has all but gone out, you can leaf through those journal pages to re-ignite that creative spark.

Generating ideas for fictional characters and conflict for a novel can be daunting. As Annie Dillard noted, “On plenty of days the writer can write three or four pages, and on plenty of other days he concludes he must throw them away.” Still, writing fiction opens the tap. Think of your writer’s mind as a garden hose. When you open the spigot, sludge might flow out initially but what follows is clear. The following tips can help you start the flow.

1. Write a character sketch for a character with a secret, a character with a broken heart, or a character with no conscience. Or, choose a character deeply in deb to the mafia or some unsavory individual.

2. Write a  couple of paragraphs about a setting where your story could take place. Perhaps the setting is futuristic, inhospitable, romantic, exotic, or historical. Create ambiance using words. What does your setting look like? What is the temperature? How does it feel, smell, and taste (salty sea spray, for example)? What sounds are heard in your setting? Is it light or dark? What is the source of the light?

3. Write about conflict. Will your story pit man against man, man against the System, man against Nature,, or man against himself?

Often the simple process of sitting down at your computer or notebook and letting your thoughts flow about a character, setting, or conflict can generate an entire concept for a novel or work of short fiction.  Give it a try and see for yourself. And . . .  if you are serious about wanting to crank out your great American novel, participate in Nanowrimo. November is “write a novel in a month” at Nanowrimo. See, http://www.nanowrimo.org/


Writing Against Deadline

Fiction, they say, takes as long as it takes. Like many novelists, I write nonfiction to support my fiction habit. The goal I’ve set for myself is to finish my novel by this time next year…and when I say finish, I mean the first and second drafts. As for nonfiction, I’m writing my newest book against an unbelievably tight deadline–start to finish–two and a half months  It’s only 70,000 words and I’m more than half finished as of this post, but by December 15 I will have to turn that book in. I wouldn’t be able to do it if I weren’t highly disciplined. I often work 12 to 15-hours a day because of the incredible amount of research that this book requires. It’s about sacred travel and travel books always require a lot of research. Writing is a wonderful vocation, but the hours can be long and the pay…let’s just say most of us working writers are at the bottom of the food chain. But the truth is, there’s no work I’d rather be doing. I’d be willing to be that other writers feel the same way.


How do you lift your writing out of mediocrity?

I recently had a discussion with some writer friends about the challenges of lifting your writing out of mediocrity. What, indeed, sets your story apart from the millions of stories that writers all over the world are creating every single day? For starters, my friends suggested that your story and your voice is unique. Others noted that it is the process of rewriting that brings out the elegance and shine of your prose. Our discussion inspired me discover what literary giants of the past had to say on the subject of good writing. I’m also interested in what you think.

The most essential gift for a good writer is an essential, built-in, shock-proof, shit detector. This is the writer’s radar, and all great writers have had it. –Ernest Hemingway

I try to leave out the parts that people skip. –Elmore Leonard

The role of a writer is not to say what we all can say but what we are unable to say. –Anais Nin

I’m not a very good writer, but I’m an excellent rewriter. –James Michener

The difference between the right word and the almost write word is the difference between lightning and the lightning bug.–Mark Twain

You write to communicate to the hearts and minds of others what’s burning inside you. And we edit  let the fire show through the smoke. — Arthur Polotnik


Have you ever had a great idea for a story, but just can’t seem to get started? Me too.

My friends and family can’t understand it. They think that my brain just engages anytime my fingers get near a keyboard since I have written hundreds of articles and over two dozen books for a variety of publishers. But occasionally, I will sit down to write on a topic or work on my novel and nothing happens. The words seem all jammed up inside my head. On such days, writing is hard work. Priming the pump helps.

What do I mean by priming the pump? For me, it means reading a book about my chosen topic, listening to music that relates to my topic, or doing research to get me thinking about the subject. If that doesn’t work, I move my body, literally.

Instead of stressing on not being able to produce words on the page, I get up and do something to shift the energy–wash the dishes, feed the chickens, walk in nature, do yoga, or tend my plants–in short, anything that takes me away from the work and gives my mind time to cogitate on what it is I want to write. It’s allowing the mind time to figure out how to tell the story before you actually sit down to type it.