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Zest + Small Things = Great Writing (Guest Blog by Elizabeth Sims)

Recently I was asked to talk to a group of 'beginning writers'. Mind you, these people were adults; it's not like they were in the first grade just learning how to spell c-a-t. I talked to them about the same things I discuss with experienced writers: how to be free and pour it out. I'm coming to feel that aside from small children, there really is no such thing as a beginning writer. Practically everybody has some writing experience! Making the transition from 'beginner' to 'writer' is simply a matter of finishing a writing project, whether a short story, essay, article, or book.

What does it take to finish something worthwhile?

Two ingredients:

1) Zest.

2) A focus on the small.

Let's talk zest. Also known as passion, verve, or enthusiasm.

Zest is what you have when you feel strongly about your subject, or when you feel excited about the act of writing. I'm working with a fellow who is writing his first novel, set in the world of international sport. Even though he's not very experienced, his writing is exceptional because he's so passionate about his subject. He is determined to get his novel finished and start sending it out. Zest is his fuel.

A writer without zest will not write much of anything that is worthwhile. You just can't. But in the short term, that's still all right! You must simply write, dammit, zest or no, and by writing—just by sticking with it, keeping your pen moving or your fingers going on the keyboard—you will eventually write a piece of a sentence or even a whole sentence that sounds OK. You will say, "Hey! That doesn't suck! Now I gotta keep going!"

Your zest is awakening.

What about focusing on the small?

I used to think that 'the big picture' was the main thing. But over the course of my writing career I've come to realize that the big picture can be overwhelming, thus a hindrance to an artist; and mall will get you to big.

Often, as writers, we don't even have the big picture, as in a fully-realized plot or a detailed outline, whether for fiction or nonfiction. If you feel you need the big picture but don't have it, that can lead to anxiety and tightness.

But a general idea of where you want to go with your writing project is often all you need.

When I say focus on the small, I mean really pay attention to each piece of a scene, character, description, conversation or memory that you want to present. If you feel stuck, don't flail around looking for what should come next. Instead, try going back to something you've touched on but haven't fully fleshed out. Take one detail and write on it. Write deeper, write with more detail, write in the spirit of wanting to find things out rather than presenting them.

Say you've written a scene that ends in a dramatic moment: somebody gets killed. Maybe it feels hard to get your story going again, to ramp it up all over again. Try writing more deeply about the inner life of that victim before their life was snuffed out. Just pretend you're inside that person's head and heart and see what happens. What do you find there? How might it fuel the rest of your story? For one thing, you can do a lot more with the people who knew that victim in life.

If you write in the spirit of discovery, you'll be propelled forward by your subject. Go along for the ride! Don't try to steer, just hang on and keep going! All kinds of wonderful things will happen: you'll find new vectors to explore, you'll learn things about your subject you didn't know before, you'll realize that you ought to explore this territory next, tell that anecdote next, introduce a new character so as to fully bring to life one you've already got, and so on. And as we know, lots of little things can add up to a big thing.

This, by the way, can also lead you to your Zest moment!

So if you simply keep doing that, every writing session, you will be awestruck by the number of projects you start, finish, and ship out into the world.

Elizabeth Sims is the author of the Lillian Byrd crime novels and the Rita Farmer mysteries, and she is also a Contributing Editor at Writer's Digest magazine. Her newest book from Writer's Digest, You’ve Got a Book in You: A Stress-Free Guide to Writing the Book of Your Dreams, is now available. You can learn more about Elizabeth at

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