[I initially wrote this post for a Writer's Digest blog last spring, and I've heard so many nice things about it that I decided to publish it on my own darn blog.]
I'm coming to feel that aside from young 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?
2) A focus on the small.
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 good. You just can't. But that's all right! You can 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 go, "Hey! That doesn't suck! Now I gotta keep going!"
Your zest is awakening.
Now, what's size got to do with it?
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 two key things:
1) The big picture can be overwhelming, thus a hindrance to an artist, and
2) Small will get you to big.
[Note on photo: I took this picture of a prison wall with a seed sprouting from it in Cartagena, Colombia.]
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 should suffice.
To focus on the small, simply pay close 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. 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.
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.
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