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


  1. Well DRAT/ I would have loved to have been there. The fact that I am still in Hawaii made that impossible. I have Alan's book at home. Forgot to bring it, so the pleasure of reading it will await my return. I sure could use some good writing prompts.

  2. Allen was so engaging, personable, and real with all of us. Thank you, Karol and Charlie, for inviting this amazing speaker, and thank you, Allen, for accepting!

    So many people told me it was the best Westside Schmooze ever (and they did NOT mean since Karol and Charlie took over), and that they had major revelations about their own book during it. In the form of new, key scenes that really did seem to write themselves.