writng 411
  • Best Writing Advice of 2016

    Who doesn't want to start the new year off with some great writing advice?

    The Atlantic recently compiled the best advice from last year's articles and interviews with writers. Check it out here. 

    Are you feeling optimistic about the new year? I am! I've written out my writing goals and I'm keeping myself accountable. And I have the whole family on a meditation kick. So far, so good. 


  • Plot Development

    it is a cool foggy day in Los Angeles - my favorite kind of day to drink tea and write!

    I am reposting my post on Plot from my time as artist-in-residence at the Annenberg Beach House this winter. 

    A few days ago I had the great pleasure of visiting the new Broad Museum downtown and it got me thinking about the connection between perspective and plot. I was staring at these colorful orbs by Jeff Koons, appreciating how abstract they were. 

    But when I walked around to the other side of the exhibit, I realized they weren’t abstract at all, they were tulips. It completely changed the way I looked at the work of art. 

    I think this related to novel writing, in the sense that when it comes time to plot out your writing, you need to know your own perspective. What are you ultimately trying to say in your work? Once you figure out what you are trying to say as a writer, you can move on to what your characters are trying to say. Are they reinforcing what you’re trying to say? Opposing it? Saying it in a different way? Once you figure out your perspective, you’re ready to plot. 

    In last week’s blog entry, I talked a bit about the importance of characterization in writing. Today, I’m going to focus on plot. 

    I have to say, that something has changed in the way I approach plot with my new project compared to how I’ve written novels in the past. 

    Previously, I’ve done a very organized job of plotting out my entire novel before I begin writing. It’s not to say that this plan won’t change once I begin writing (it always changes) but I have a linear sense of how it will all take shape. This time around and for the first time, I’m writing more towards the energy of the story. That is to say, I’m following the characters and writing in a nonlinear fashion. As I’m doing this, I’m piecing together these plot points into a linear fashion. 

    No matter which method you use to write, when it’s all said and done, you will have a story with a beginning, a middle and an end (the middle is always the muddiest bit to write.)

    In its most simplistic terms, plot is rising action that leads to a climax and then is followed by falling action. (Think in terms of the shape of a triangle, the apex being the moment of climax) but when you’re writing something 200, 300, 400 + pages, getting this action to up the ante with each chapter can be challenging. 

    I like to think of plot as a bunch of mini plot triangles, strung together, all with their own moments of rising action, climax and falling action. 

    If your story is essentially about one character, this can be easier to organize. My current novel explores three different characters, with distinct story lines, so I have to stay vigilant about how I keep track of their information and with what happens to them in each chapter. 

    Even though I didn’t complete the draft of my novel in a linear fashion, I did spend a long time plotting everything out ahead of time. For me, I write faster when I know where I’m going. 

    There are many methods one can use in order to plot out their work. I would argue they all have one thing in common – the notion of starting a novel with an idea and expanding outward. So how can this help you with your work?

    1. In one sentence, write down what your novel is about. 
    2. Expand this into three well-crafted sentences. 
    3. Expand this into one paragraph. 
    4. Expand this into one full page adding important plot details. 
    5. You can keep expanding outward, perhaps writing a full page per chapter on your book. 

    Before you know it, you’ll have a complete and detailed outline of what you want to happen in the novel. Here’s where you can see where the holes are, what questions need to be answered, what concepts need research, where your characters perhaps lie flat. 

    There are many online tools that can help you plot your novel. Feel free to check them out!

    Try this Plotting Worksheet from Annie Neugebauer  

    How to Plot in 5 Steps 

    Creative writing templates to kick off your novel

    There’s an endless supply of books for writers all geared around how to plot a novel. My favorite of these books is actually geared towards screenwriters, but can certainly be applied to a novel. It’s Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat, which takes you step by step through plotting out your story. 

  • Character Development

    I'm going to repost some of my blog entries from my time as writer-in-residence at the Annenberg Beach House in Santa Monica. 

    To read the introductory post, click here. 

    It’s no secret that plot and character development are the keys to writing great fiction. Today, I wanted to focus on character.

    There’s an arc that needs to happen with the characters you write, whether your writing a 400-page novel or a ten-page short story. The character has to change. This doesn’t mean they have to become better or learn something (although this can be satisfying for a reader)  but they do have to begin one way and end another way. 

    (An example of how a character can start on a high note but end on a low note can be found in my short story, Plush, originally published in Booth Literary in February, 2014. Here, the main character goes from being full of pride, boasting that he ranked as the number one cuddler at his job to feeling defeated by the end of the story, when he realizes how immobile his life really is.)

    One great tip that is oft repeated is to make sure your likeable characters have an unlikeable trait and that your antagonists have something we can all relate to. This ensure that you are writing well-rounded characters. 

    But where does one get the inspiration for their characters? The answer is simple: all around us. 

    Writing can be a primarily private exercise. This is why I have loved my time at the Annenberg. It has transformed the privatization of my writing life into a public engagement. I am used to being at my home office, sometimes in pajamas, shutting out the the rest of the world, so that I can better enter the world in my head. But you can’t write in a bubble forever. And I think that one of the best strategies to overcome writer’s block is to get out into the world and observe. Writers are like ornithologists tracking birds - like Jane Goodall following primates. We are the recorders of human behavior in all of its grit and glory. 

    I spend a good amount of my time here on the veranda overlooking the beach. People pass by the beach path on bike, segway (the non self-igniting kind), roller skates and on foot. Each person I see could easily turn into a character if I took the time to flesh them out. One woman that particularly struck me the other day was dancing her way down the bike path. Dancing! I had to know more. 

    What kind of music was she listening to?

    Did she dance around all the time or just on this bike path?

    Did anyone ever tell her to stop?

    Did she do this often or was today the first day she was inspired to dance?

    Had she been formally trained as a dancer?

    It doesn’t matter what the real answers are to these questions. I am a fiction writer. I get to fill in the lines. She is someone who will stick with me for a long time and should you find a woman dancing through life in the pages of my next book – you’ll know who inspired it. 

    In the meantime, here are some tools for writing memorable characters:

    11 points from Writer’s Digest 

    25 things a great character needs from Terrible Minds 

    12 character writing from Writing Forward  tips

    dynamic characters

    Oodles more resources here for writing characters fromNanowriMo including character questionnaires and online ways to catalogue and keep track of your characters.  

  • Unpacking the Elusive Writing Process

    Save the date:  February 9, 2016 at 6:30p.m. 

    I'll be moderating this panel at the Annenberg Community Beach House as part of my time as artist in residency. 

    (no, I'm not living here - everyone keeps asking me that, although it would be dreamy!)

                                                                         Zsuzsi ponders

    Join authors Zsuzsi Gartner, Matthew Specktor, Andrea Quaid and Jennifer Caloyeras as they discuss and take questions about their various writing strategies. How do we get from A to Z? How do different mediums and platforms affect the writing process? Do different projects merit different approaches? Can the process of creative writing be taught? 

    Zsuzsi Gartner is the author of All the Anxious Girls on Earth, and editor of Darwin’s Bastards: Astounding Tales from Tomorrow. Her most recent book, Better Living through Plastic Explosives, was a 2011 Scotiabank Giller Prize finalist. She is the founding director of Writers Adventure Camp at The Point in Whistler, B.C. She’s at work on a novel.
    Matthew Specktor is the author of the novels American Dream Machine and That Summertime Sound, as well as a nonfiction book about the motion picture The Sting. His writing has appeared or is forthcoming in The Paris Review, The Believer, Tin House, Black Clock, and, among other publications. He was a senior editor and founding member of the Los Angeles Review of Books.
    Andrea Quaid is co-editor of Acts + Encounters, a collection of works about experimental writing and community. Recent critical and creative publications include the American Book Review, BOMBlog, Jacket2, Lana Turner, LIT and the Los Angeles Review of Books. She teaches in Bard College’s MAT Program (Los Angeles) and Language and Thinking Program (New York) as well as California Institute of the Arts. Currently, she is writing a book on contemporary experimental women’s writing and the literary epic.

    Jennifer Caloyeras is the 2016 Writer-in-Residence at the Beach House, and will be working on a novel in the Marion Davies Guest House from 1/12/16-3/15/16. Her most recent novel, Strays, is for young adults and explores an incarcerated teen's relationship with a pit bull. Caloyeras' short fiction has appeared in Booth, Storm Cellar and other literary magazines. She holds a M.A. in English from Cal State Los Angeles and a M.F.A. in creative writing from the University of British Columbia. Jennifer’s current project is her first adult novel – a mixture of humor and pathos – that explores a mother’s journey with her transgendered six-year-old daughter, and the weight of expectations parents place on their children. She will share her work with three public events, a weekly blog, and open office hours throughout her tenure (schedule below). Her website:

    Stop by early to save your seat and check out the historic site!

    Tickets are free but space is limited and reservations are required. Arrive by 15 min before start time to retain your reservation. Late seating, even for reservation-holders, is not guaranteed. To adjust or cancel your reservation for this event, email We appreciate your keeping in touch!

    Getting Here: The Beach House is located at 415 Pacific Coast Highway, Santa Monica, CA 90402 on the west side of Pacific Coast Highway. Enter off PCH at the Beach House Way traffic light.

    Parking: The parking rate is Nov - Mar: $8/day or $3/hour,  Apr - Oct: $12/day or $3/hour, payable at the park and pay machines in three areas of the ACBH parking lot. Credit cards or exact change only. Handicapped placards and Senior Beach Permits are accepted. For other parking info and lot hours, please check the website for details.

    Other events: To view & make reservations for future free Beach=Culture events, check

    General Info: For hours, events and more, visit, or call (310) 458-4904. Back on the Beach Café hours are subject to change but are generally through 3pm in the off season & 8pm in the summer, call (310) 393-8282 to confirm.

  • November is the Month I'm Getting it Done

    If I seem like I've disappeared off the face of the earth it's only because I've fallen into the hole that is NanoWriMo

    What did I just say?

    Nanowrimo stands for National Novel Writing Month, which happens to be November. The folks over at NanoWriMo have set up a wonderful universe of novel writing: prompts to get you going, motivational speakers, word count checkers and message boards message boards message boards. 

    I tend to avoid all that and really just focus on writing my seven pages a day. 

    This is my third year participating. Two years ago, I wrote a dystopic young adult novel that I am currently revising. Last year I cheated and wrote a screenplay (the rules are it should be a 60,000 word original novel.) And this year, I'm attempting my first contemporary adult novel. 

    On day two I scrapped my planned structure which changes so much, but that's what happens when the writing is compressed to thirty days. (I realized the first fourteen pages were just back story.)

    So as I was hammering away at the keys I read a tweet from my writer friend, Lael, who mentioned something about PiBoIdMo. What? Another catchy word, not word? What did it mean? Turns out it stands for Picture Book Idea Month and the challenge here is to come up with a picture book idea for every day of the month in November. I revised those rules to include a young adult concept as well. 

    So that is what I will be doing for the month of November, feverishly writing a novel and coming up with other book concepts. 

    Want to join me?

    To sign up and read about NaNoWriMo, click here

    To sign up and read about PiBoIdMo, click here. 

  • Query Help

    I like to think of myself as a query queen. That is to say over the course of my time as an author, I have sent out many queries. And I plan on sending many more because that is the first step in getting published (after all that writing and revising, of course.) I use excel to keep track of them all: who I send them to, what I've sent, when I sent it, what kind of response I get and the contact information of the person on the receiving end of my query.

    I'm currently pitching my short fiction collection. Four of the stories in this collection have been published in literary magazines (click here to see them.) And I've spent the summer finishing up revisions on my first children's chapter book, which involves a whole new set of people to query as I've never written for elementary age kids before. 

    I came across this query primer on Query Shark and thought I'd pass it along as I think there's a lot of useful information here. Remember, the query is the very first bit of writing and agent or a publisher or an editor sees, so it has to sparkle!

    Have any other great query resources? Feel free to paste them in the comment section!