Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Brainstorming With The Westside Writers Schmooze!!

We begin this Schmooze blog post with a moment of silence for the poor, little possum Karol ran over on her way home from the January 11th Westside Writers Schmooze…

Ahem. OK. Where were we? Oh, right –

Unfortunate vehicular possum-slaughter aside, it was a great night!

The community room at the Fairview Branch of the Santa Monica Public Library was jam-packed again this month with just shy of 40 Schmoozers. Our goal for the evening was to come up with techniques and strategies to get our brains cranking on all cylinders writing-wise for the coming year.

After intros and announcements –

  • Everyone should enter the SCBWI L.A. Annual Conference Scholarship Contest! (deadline is February 4th, for details, click here)
  • Registration for the Creative Toolbox Graphic Novel event is live! (click here)
  • Registration for the LA Writer’s Day will soon be live! (actually, it now is live, click here)

...We got our brains warmed up by listing our writing resolutions for the new year. These could include projects we wanted to start, work on or finish, bad habits we wanted to break/good habits we wanted to develop, creative mountains we wanted to climb, degrees of fame we wanted to achieve, etc. We furtively scribbled down our deepest, most cherished dreams, carefully folded the paper and labeled it “To Be Opened January 11, 2013,” one year from the date of the Schmooze…

Then Charlie and Karol told everyone to TEAR UP THEIR LISTS! As the broken and befuddled (yet dutiful) Schmoozers ripped up their dreams, Charlie explained that the subject of the evening was brainstorming and brainstorming is about letting go of plans.

“It’s not about working real hard with a goal in mind,” Charlie went on (which he tends to do—go on and on and on). “It’s about opening yourself up to possibilities. It’s about creating the situation where your brain is tickled, prodded, teased and played with so that IT, not you, can solve your problems. It’s about process rather than results, exploring rather than finding.” (See? Told you he goes on and on.)

Incredibly, despite the pleading, Charlie didn’t stop there. He went on to encourage everyone to embrace ruin, explore ideas that will absolutely lead nowhere, break rules, write “wrong” just to see what happens, collect stories from everyone you meet, ask stupid, weird, existential questions – like you’re stoned, 20 and up at 4 AM in your dorm. The point, he said, is to push your brain into new, odd places, to investigate other ways of seeing, thinking, feeling.

To relax and have some brain-fun!

Karol finally managed to wrest the floor from Charlie before he could regurgitate every last tedious shred of his extensive research (by which we mean that he typed the word “brainstorming” into Google…but hey – he did spend HOURS combing through the 6,490,000 pages!).

We then opened up the floor to the Schmoozer-group, asking:

What are your favorite brainstorming techniques?

The response sounded a little like this…

We jest! But, really Schmoozites, it DID take you awhile to respond.

A few techniques mentioned were:

  • Free writing
  • Thinking of a childhood moment when you were different and exploring why
  • Daydreaming (Karol swears this is a legitimate creative tool!)
  • Starting a story in the middle or end rather than at the beginning
  • Lying down and gazing at the sky or ceiling
  • Bouncing ideas off others (critique groups, kids, etc.)
  • Writing in a different language (for the one or two of us who are capable of this and whose abilities have earned Charlie’s undying enmity)
  • Putting yourself in the “right frame of mind” – with familiar TV shows, inspirational books and even Facebook! (BEWARE FACEBOOK, Charlie interrupts. It will suck your life away and leave you a shallow husk. He’s sure that’s why he’s so husky.)
  • Make a “Mind Map,” a visualization of your story ideas and key points

The idea of going on an “Artist’s Date” (from Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way) was discussed. When you write, you’re “emptying the well” to a certain extent. Taking yourself out somewhere fun and unusual (museums, parks, strangers’ offices) is a way to replenish your creativity.

Karol shared her popcorn metaphor – just as it takes time for oil to heat up to the optimum temperature for popping corn, so, too, does your brain need time to “heat up” when it’s working on a story. Eventually, those first few kernels will start to pop, then a few more, then a BUNCH more…and before you know it, you’re brain’s well on its way to popping up a huge vat of delicious, salty story ideas and solutions!

There were differing opinions on whether research helps or hinders brainstorming, with Schmoozers weighing in on either side. But that friendly disagreement brings to light perhaps the most import thing we can say about brainstorming techniques: Figure out what works best for YOU and go HOG-WILD!

After all this brainstorming on, er, um, brainstorming, it was time for us to roll up our sleeves and do a couple fun brainstorming-type writing exercises.

The first involved exploring a situation via the five senses. As a group, we came up with this scenario – an 8 year old is stuck on an airplane for 5 hours – and then, together, we filled in a chart like the one below.

The results were spectacular!

The taste of the stale recycled air…the smell of food some smart passenger had thought to bring onboard…the feel of kicking the seat in front of you…the cacophony of cell phone conversations held by people desperate to pass the time…and these are just the tip if the iceberg-of-awesome the Schmoozers came up with!

We realized we probably never would have come up with all these wonderful details if we hadn’t approached fleshing out the scene in this way.

Next, Schmoozers tried the exercise on their own, using their own projects and/or scenarios. Schmoozers were generally surprised and pleased with the results, with some amazed at how easily minute details of scenes-not-yet-written flowed out and others realizing they needed to figure out how some specific things might smell.

The group was generally in agreement that this exercise could really help writers who find themselves “stuck in action” and needing to add more depth and shading to their scenes.

The next exercise involved making “Lists With Attitudes.” We asked Schmoozers to imagine how their protagonist might catalogue the things in her bedroom or his reasons for asking his crush to the prom. Next, we said to imagine how different those lists might be if, for example, they were made by the protagonist’s archenemy or jealous younger sibling.

This exercise was a bit hit as well, with one Schmoozer going as far as saying he was “stunned” by the results!

Well, shucks. All in a day’s work, folks!

That about wrapped up our Schmoozerific brainstorming Schmooze, but here are a few links to free software and websites that might help further:

The Heart of Innovation: Listen to your Subconscious Mind:


First Diverge, Then Converge


10 Brainstorming Tips For Writers


FreeMind - free mind mapping software


Free downloadable mind mapping templates


Inspiration - Idea Generator software (free trials)


The next Westside Writer’s Schmooze is Wednesday February 8th and...drumroll, please...it's Picture Book Critique night!

Even if you’re not a picture book writer or don’t have a manuscript to bring – come anyway. The writers who do bring material will really appreciate your feedback. Besides, what writer worth his or her salt turns down any opportunity to load up on yummy snacks, huh??

Until then –

Keep passing the open windows,

Charlie & Karol

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Westside Illustrators Schmooze with Soooz

Westside Illustrators Schmooze

Monday Evening, January 16, 2012
7:00 pm - 9:00 pm

(note new venue) 445 Fifteenth Street, Santa Monica, Ca 90402

Topic: 'Happy New Year, Happy Serious Planning!'

Let's take our monthly challenge for a spin
"Baby Steps....Dream Big...Start Small"

We'll turn our baby steps into leaps!

Map out your individual plan...

Where do you see yourself in 3 years? or 1 year? or next month?

Looking forward to seeing you all!

Come prepared to participate, ask questions and be inspired!
Let's enjoy a fun creative evening together & move forward in our common pursuit of making a contribution to the world of children's illustration and literature!

Next meeting... February 20

RSVP???... YES...if you can... SuzyBlock@gmail.com

WHERE???.. NEW VENUE 445 Fifteenth Street, Santa Monica Ca 90402

5 blocks north of Wilshire, halfway between Montana and San Vicente.

A two story Spanish style private home with a flag pole in front.

DIRECTIONS???... http://maps.google.com/maps?oe=utf-8&rls=org.mozilla:en-US:official&client=firefox-a&q=445+15th+st+santa+monica&um=1&ie=UTF-8&hq=&hnear=0x80c2a4af8b9ee295:0x4d6f577225e2717f,445+15th+St,+Santa+Monica,+CA+90402&gl=us&ei=AAPQToqZAYniiAKg-fnPCw&sa=X&oi=geocode_result&ct=title&resnum=1&ved=0CB8Q8gEwAA

PARKING???... Residential street parking

cell... 818 389 1950

If you wish to be removed from this email list...write REMOVE in the subject line.
come visit me @ SuzyEngelmanBlock.com

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

The Westside Writers Schmooze welcomes YA author, Allen Zadoff

It was a packed house (40+ people) for the December Schmooze with special guest, Allen Zadoff. The night featured laughter, insights, inspiration, writing exercises and, of course – baked goods galore!

After brief announcements, during which Karol implored everyone to check out the awesome new issue of Kite Tales, we dove right in. Well, sort of. Often we skip the intros around the room when we have a guest speaker. But Allen wanted to know more about the Schmoozers, so we went ahead with a quick round of introductions.

As usual, the writers in attendance ranged from picture book authors to young adult novelists, with everything from cartoonists, musicians and poets in-between. One Schmoozer had come all the way from San Diego! (We think it’s safe to say that Allen was pretty impressed with our little group…mostly cause Allen said he was pretty impressed with our little group!)

More importantly, our little group was WAYYY impressed with Allen. More than one of you have gushed to Karol and Charlie that it was the “best, most inspiring Schmooze ever,” which, while fine for Allen, was hurtful and thoughtless and heartbreaking to poor Charlie and Karol. Worse, we consider it one of the best Schmoozes ever, too (at least since we’ve been leading it)!

Why was it so good? Well…

The Highly Impressive portion of the evening began when it was Allen’s turn to tell us a little about himself.

An Unexpected YA Writer (and the most inspirational story you will ever hear at a Schmooze)

Originally a theater director in New York, Allen came to LA to pursue a career as a screenwriter. After an encouraging start (he was accepted into the prestigious Warner Brothers Comedy Writing Workshop), he spent several years writing scripts on spec. (For those of you not familiar with screenwriting terms – that means he wrote scripts on his own, hoping to sell them.)

Unfortunately for Allen (but, as it turns out, fortunately for YA readers everywhere), the Big Screenwriting Break never quite materialized.

Allen hit a wall.

In desperation, he started to question whether he’d ever make a living as a writer. Fed up with trying to sell screenplays, Allen started writing personal essays for a small Japanese magazine. Instead of telling stories for Hollywood, he began telling his own stories.

It was during this period that Allen started asking himself what he considers “the more important questions:”

  • If I never sell, will I keep writing?
  • What do I really care about?
  • If I’m not trying to sell, what stories do I want to tell?

Allen ultimately realized he did want to continue writing. A teacher told him, “You’re an artist. An artist’s job is to build a body of work. Get going.”

So he did.

The Funny, Heartbreaking Guy

Allen shifted from screenwriting to a memoir and novels. He had to “unlearn” some habits he’d picked up from screenwriting, most having to do with relying too heavily on plot. He also learned that “the stakes” in stories are not continually rising like a thermometer; instead, Allen says the stakes should be at 110% from the start and stay there the whole way.

Of course, his screenwriting background wasn’t entirely detrimental. He tends to write short chapters, has keen facility with structure and forward propulsion, and he’s good at taking “notes,” screenwriter speak for “feedback.”

(As Karol promised, here’s a link to the awesome interview with Allen and his Egmont editor, Elizabeth Law, where he details his great approach to dealing with notes. Look for the “notes” part about half way through, but the whole interview is great!)

Around this same time, it came to Allen’s attention that a lot of really great stories were being told in the YA world. He cites Laurie Halse Anderson’s SPEAK as a YA novel he read early on that really made an impression on him. (M.T. Anderson’s FEED was another – which, incidentally, your humble Schmooze co-coordinator Karol gave to him!)

As it turns out, his agent (the one who dubbed him the “funny, heartbreaking guy”) told Allen the new material he’d been writing was, in fact, YA.

He faithfully continued his regimen of writing in the wee hours of the morning at a coffee shop before going to his day job…and the rest, as they say, is history.

Not only did Allen’s debut novel, Food, Girls and Other Things I Can’t Have win the Syd Fleischman Humor Award,

but his second novel, My Life, The Theater and Other Tragedies, was also well received (including making this year-end list). And his memoir Hungry sold, too!

Allen’s next novel for Egmont, Since You Left Me, will be published in August. It’s the story of a teenager named Sanskrit Aaron Zuckerman who (as his name suggests) is trapped between worlds--stuck in private a Jewish School while trying to keep his yoga teacher mother from leaving the family. It’s Allen’s first novel set in Los Angeles!

He has several additional novels coming out and/or under contract as well. (He shared some super-secret details on them, but we’ve been sworn to secrecy…SEE what you miss not coming to the Schmooze?!?)

A Little Exercise To Get our Brains Moving

Once Allen finished telling us about his journey to YA Authordom, your other humble Schmooze co-coordinator Charlie commented that, after reading Allen’s aforementioned memoir Hungry about food addiction, he was afraid he might be “addicted to writing.”

Allen said that in fact you can have an unhealthy relationship to your work, and that, in his case, facing the fact that he may never sell changed his relationship to writing for the better.

That exchange provided an excellent segue to the writing exercises Allen had planned for us. They are inspired by exercises from Julia Cameron’s The Artists Way and ideas from Stephen Pressfield’s War of Art and were designed to help us let our stories write themselves.

The writing prompts Allen used were brilliant and led many of us to Major Revelations. But we ain’t gonna tell you what they were. Not out of vindictiveness (except perhaps on Charlie’s part) but because it would spoil future presentations Allen may want to give (now are you EVEN MORE BUMMED you missed the Schmooze?!?).

But we will reveal that, for Allen, “looking inside and letting the unconscious decide the story” and letting go of “trying to figure it out” on his own led to a big breakthrough.

‘K. Nuff said—loose lips and all that.

A Few Additional Tidbits

As Allen sees it, an author’s job is to ask questions and be curious: fascinating stories are written by authors who are curious and honest.

That said, an author is also basically a business owner. Development, creation of content, publicity – it’s all on YOU. In fact, Allen says he has a weekly “executive conference” with himself during which he asks, “What’s my story about?”

He shared a bunch of insightful thoughts on writing craft. Here are a few:

  • Be curious about your fears because they mirror you’re protagonist’s fears.
  • Plot can come from working on character.
  • Your protagonist wants something – and it must be a matter of life and death.
  • At the end of the second act (i.e. the protagonist’s darkest hour, when all hope seems lost), he or she must reach an ultimate defeat and subsequent surrender and become open to being in the world in a different way.

So…dear fellow Schmoozers – if you’re feeling discouraged with your writing, perhaps you’re just at the end of the second act of your (current) writing journey. Perhaps you’re merely a defeat and subsequent surrender away from it all coming together in some fabulous, unexpected way.

(Your humble Schmooze co-coordinators are certainly counting on that, though Charlie wonders how long this “end of the second act” period of his life is supposed to last…)

Alllllrighty then. Out with the old, in with the new…

On January 11, 2012, please join us for the next Westside Writers Schmooze –


Bring your brain and join us for a highly informative, hands-on Schmooze where we’ll discuss different methods of brainstorming, idea mining, research, and problem solving, whether it’s on your current project or in selecting the right Next Big Idea. We’ll also take time to set some writing goals for 2012!

You can tell how Incredibly Exciting we expect this Schmooze to be by all the exclamation points used. And if you don’t get your butt there, you’ll probably be reading the blog post a month from now and kicking yourself for missing it.


Happy New Year! May we ALL have a happy, creatively successful 2012!

(There we go with the excessive exclamation points again…)

Keep passing the open windows,

Charlie & Karol