Monday, April 30, 2012

Z is for ZEST

What is zest?

Well, other than a soap. ("You're not fully clean unless you're ZESTfully clean!" C'mon, I know you're singing it in your head.)

The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines zest as "an enjoyably exciting quality."

I want my writing to have "an enjoyably exciting quality." I want it to have ZEST! Zest is what readers crave; it's what agents and editors look for when they crack open your manuscript for the first time. So how do we get the ZEST into our writing? Here are a few things I've learned in the last few years about achieving zesty writing:

1. In late, out early. I LOVE this advice- these four little words are a perfect way to test your manuscript for zest. This basically means that you want to dive right into the action at the beginning of your story and pull out with just enough questions at the end of your chapter to leave the reader needing to know what happens next. You're writing a story, not a chapter in a textbook. You don't have to explain everything and then wrap it up neatly- you need a little bit of that roller coaster effect to get your reader's heart pounding.

For a great article about how to achieve "In late, out early", check out this post at Utah Children's Writers. 

2. Think outside the box. I know, it's totally cliche, but I think it's something every writer needs to remember- you have to find a way to stand out somehow.

When I entered the Totally Cliche writing contest, my brain started working and I started a few ideas, then promptly deleted them because I knew that every other writer would probably be doing the same thing. I started wondering what I could do with cliches that would be fresh and different. I immediately thought of my dad and the terrible puns he would tell based on cliches and I suddenly knew: a writer trapped in a world of cliches! Why not take it to the extreme and write a story filled to the brim with cliches? And that's how poor Alice ended up at Castle Cliche, with tall, dark, handsome Aman (Aman's home is his castle) who sent her on a wild goose chase.

That summer I also entered the Wedding Letters contest sponsored by Jason F. Wright. He asked for his fans to write wedding letters to his fictional couple for their pending nuptials. This project involved many virtual crumpled-up sheets of paper as I wrote what I was sure everyone else was writing- the same old advice to listen to each other, don't go to bed angry, always kiss each other goodnight, etc., etc., etc. Finally I asked myself- How can I make my letter different? I came up with the idea to write a wedding letter with marital advice that wasn't marital advice. My letter was about laundry. I explained that once you get married, the whole laundry situation changes, and I explained how important it was to do laundry together, to never go to bed with dirty laundry, and to always remember why you loved those clothes in the first place. It was a letter about laundry- but it wasn't about laundry. It was a letter about marriage- but it wasn't about marriage.

That letter became a finalist in the contest (didn't win b/c contest was based on popular vote- as in, you tell everyone you know to vote for you...I need to get to know more people!) and it stood out enough to Jason Wright (have I mentioned before that he is a New York Times Bestselling author??) that he contacted me personally to let me know how much he liked it and he even mentioned it (and me!) in a televised interview. Outside the box pays off, people!

It's time to think outside the box with your manuscript- how will your YA dystopian novel be different from every other YA dystopian novel? Why does the agent NEED to represent your book? How is this book totally yours and totally fresh? If it's still living inside the box, you need to sprinkle it with some zest and yank it out, people!

3. Watch your tone, young lady. Maybe it was because my mom was getting her doctorate in communications- specializing in nonverbal communication- while I was in high school, but boy did I ever learn that so often it's not what you say- it's how you say it!

This is a lesson that I definitely learned through blogging. When I first started my blog, The Beautiful Thrifty Life, I originally thought that I was 'supposed' to sound like a magazine. Every post had a very detached, straightforward, authoritative-sounding tone. I thought this made me sound like I was someone who knew what they were talking about. So I prattled on like that until one day I came across a blog called Thrifty Decor Chick. I grew to really love this blog, seemingly because of the great home decorating ideas and the wonderful, bright photos. However, when I took a closer look as to why I loved this blog so much I realized that it was the tone. The blogger was honest. She was funny. Reading her blog was like hanging out having lunch with a friend- not sitting alone reading a magazine article. Her tone made her come alive to me, and suddenly I realized that I didn't have to pretend to be something I wasn't- I could just sound like, well, ME!

Just like the dial tone on a phone helps you know you're connected, the tone in your story is what will connect you with your readers.

Ooh. That was good.

Finding the right tone is something that needs work in my WIP. My main character is pretty cool, but I don't think she really has her own identity yet. I'm still working on throwing some zest her way in the "tone" department and making her a little more 3-D. I like her too much for her to be a plain jane. I want my readers to connect with her.

So tell me, any more ideas on how to add some ZEST to your writing?

And by the way, thanks so much for joining us for our A to Z Challenge- hard to believe we made it through the whole alphabet already! More fun stuff in store for May...stay tuned!


  1. I know what you mean when you talk about having the 'zest' in writing. I find that it can be so easy to lose it and become in a way monotonous.

    Great post.

  2. So glad the A-Z challenge is over! MMW, please don't do it again!

    1. Ha, thanks! Yeah, I think we might be feeling the same way by now! But the good thing was that it helped us to get a little more creative with our blog posts (when you're doing it every week you can start to get in a rut) and we also got some new visitors who found us through the challenge. Thanks for letting us know how you feel- we love feedback from our readers! What kinds of posts would you like to see in the coming weeks? :-)

  3. Thank you anonymous for your comments I do appreciate your feedback. could you please let us know why you did not enjoy the challenge for this month that will help us in determining which future challenges we will partake in thank you.

  4. I generally really like this blog, but the A-Z challenge made many of the posts seem awkward and forced in their attempts to incorporate the letter. I like honest, open writing about struggles and successes that the bloggers face, but I don't like gimmicks. A blog challenge like this feels gimmicky.

  5. I was very fortunate in my letters. G, S and Y. I could incorporate the post I already had planned anyway. A little out of order, but still things I wanted to say. Thanks Anon, I do know how you feel. On my other blog, I totally felt lame some days forcing myself to come up with something. However, I think my fellow MMWs rocked it out way better than my solo A-z attempt :)



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