Seattle Writing Classes Discuss Interview

Winston Churchill interviewing in Seattle Writing Classes.

Journalist interviewing Winston Churchill discussed in Seattle Writing Classes.

In my fall Seattle writing classes, I will discuss interviewing, a vastly underappreciated skill, with application in fiction writing, nonfiction writing, poetry writing and screenplays. As a former reporter and regular magazine writer, I understand how useful it is to interview subjects for background information as well as for a full profile. Many writers are uncomfortable with interviewing, so I walk people through the steps so that they will be ready to take these skills beyond this Seattle writing class.

Interviewing is an essential skill for any writer. Almost all non-fiction articles and books require some interviewing as part of the research. Novelists, poets and others frequently need to interview people. There are several reasons for interviewing: 1) Background info; 2) Support quotes; 3) Full fledged interview for profile, story or memoir or novel background.

1) Explanation of ground rules – Tell subject about yourself and your credentials. Explain where you want to publish the interview, profile, etc. Also discuss how you’ll use their answers, whether they can review the profile before it is published.

2) Contact a magazine or newspaper to see if you can get them to agree in advance to publish the interview. This helps a lot. Famous people want to know that their time is well-spent, that the interview will be published. If you can assure them of this, they’re more likely to grant the interview.

3) Time – Plan ahead: really newsworthy people are frequently difficult to get in touch with. Contact them early, and always double check date and time right before interview.


There’s still room in the fall Seattle Writing Classes. Let me know if you’d like to sign up!

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Seattle Class on Research

Seattle class in research.

Warren Winiarski: Seattle class in research helped with his interview.

In my Seattle class on research and other writing topics, I discuss how to research stories and books. Research may sound like a lot of work, but it can also be a lot of fun. In writing about apprenticing in the wine trade, I had the pleasure of visiting with Warren Winiarski, the former owner of Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars. In 1976, a Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars Cabernet won the best red wine at the Judgment of Paris, a blind tasting in Paris, France, a competition that pitted storied French wines against the best American wines. The Americans were supposed to get trounced. Instead, American wineries like Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars triumphed, accelerating the growth of the California and the U.S. wine industries.
As I tasted through his Arcadia Vineyard and later sampled a 2013 Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars SLV Vineyard Cabernet, I was doing research for the story.

In 2007, Winiarski sold Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars to Ste. Michelle Wine Estates and Marchesi Antinori, but kept his Arcadia Vineyard. Named for Roman poet Virgil’s imaginary idyllic land, Arcadia includes soils from an ancient inland lake containing the remains of diatoms. These soils give the Chardonnay from here a lively minerality, an oyster shell taste that matches well with seafood, like a good Chablis. Winiarski bought the vineyard in 1996 partly because it provided fruit for Miljenko “Mike” Grigch, the American winemaker whose 1973 Chateau Montelena Chardonnay won the best white wine in the Judgment of Paris.
Over dinner at the Don Giovanni Bistro in Napa, I catch up with the winemaker about Arcadia’s 2016 harvest, hoping to gather insights for Crush: An Apprenticeship in the Wine Trade, a book I’m writing about working in the wine trade. Though I’ve tasted and written about wine for decades, I’m determined to delve deeper into the subject by learning about it from the ground up from some of the masters of the art like Winiarski. Now in his eighties, he remains fit, trim and passionate about wine.

Not all research is so pleasurable, but solid research underlies the best writing, whether fiction or nonfiction. I’ll be discussing research as part of my fall class, Revising Your Life, a Seattle class in research and other writing techniques. There’s still room. Let me know if you’d like some help with your own research and want to sign up!

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Shitty First Drafts, Writing Classes

Seattle Writing Classes uses text Bird by Bird.

Seattle Writing Classes uses text Bird by Bird.

In her book, Bird by Bird, writer Anne Lamott talks about the need to write a “shitty first draft” in order to get to a more polished draft. Giving yourself permission to write a “shitty first draft” allows you to get black on white and begin to come to terms with your story. This is not to say that the first draft is totally undirected; I will discuss how you can use a story idea to give some kind of focus and shape to your story or book chapter. The story idea gives you a sense of where the story is headed: what kind of story is it? What is the point? How are you going to structure it? With even a limited plan, you then can proceed ahead with the draft knowing that you aren’t just spinning your wheels or “spaghetti-ing” in writer Jon Franklin’s memorable term from his book Writing for Story. Allowing yourself to write this first draft is absolutely critical to getting the story out. Once it’s down on paper, you can begin to see it’s overall shape, its strengths and weaknesses, as I discuss in my Seattle writing classes. You then can move to the second draft, where you focus on blocking out the larger structure of the piece. Franklin likens this process to the framing step in building a house, making sure that the larger structure of the piece is sounds so that you can begin work on the finer details of trimming, polishing, etc. The “shitty first draft” is a necessary step in this process, not proof that you have no talent and should take up golf instead! This is part and parcel of the writing process which we’ll discuss in my fall class, Revising Your Life. There’s still room; let me know if you’d like to sign up!

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Writing Classes and Colors of the West

Writing Classes and Colors of the West.

Writing Classes and Colors of the West.

In my writing classes, I emphasize how storytelling can bring a subject to life. It’s always rewarding to see a student use a story to help organize a story or book. I recently had the pleasure of coaching Molly Hashimoto, a local writer and artist, who told stories of her “en plein aire” explorations of the American West. I first encountered Molly’s work when I was teaching at the North Cascades Institute on Diablo Lake in Washington State. Her watercolor paintings managed to capture the special magic of that place in an unforgettable way. I was delighted when she asked me to help her with a book about painting.

The book project began some six years ago when she wrote a chapter about following in the footsteps of 19th century artist Karl Bodmer, one of her artistic heroes. He had travel up the Missouri River in the 1830 as part of a German expedition, documenting the local landscape and native peoples. Bodmer’s paintings and sketches were an inspiration for her and a priceless record of the early encounters between Europeans and native tribes.

Molly chose an appealing location to paint, the White Cliffs along the Missouri near a place called Hole-in-the-Wall, where Bodmer had completed some of his most striking images. I saw her book as a kind of quest narrative, one of the techniques I teach in my Seattle writing classes, and encouraged her to organize the story in this way. Molly took my advice to heart, refining her story and adding beautiful sketches and watercolors to enrich it. Now, her book will be published by Mountaineers Books. It’s a beautiful and instructive look at art of depicting and interpreting wild landscapes. She’ll be reading from Colors of the West tonight at 7 p.m. at the University Bookstore in Seattle. Don’t miss it!


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Razor Clams and Writing Classes

Razor Clams a model for writing classes.

Razor Clams a model for writing classes.

In my writing classes, I emphasize that the best books and stories grow out of a deep knowledge of the subject combined with an artful dramatization of it. This is the case with David Berger’s new book, Razor Clams: Buried Treasure of the Pacific Northwest.” I had a particular interest in the book because David is a friend as well as a fellow clammer. My family spent many vacations down on the Washington Coast digging razor clams. My father was not much of a hunter or fisherman, but he was mad for razor clams.

Dad often said that if you had a good vocabulary, you didn’t need to swear. But he didn’t always follow this rule. He loved to dig razor clams along the Washington Coast. We made regular family pilgrimages to Ocean Shores in search of the wily razor clam. They were especially plentiful near the surf, where you had to be quick and alert to get them.

During one trip, Dad was pounding the sand with the butt of his clam gun, trying to get the clams to show. Finally, a clam left a small dimple in the wet sand.

“I’ve got one,” he yelled, shoving the metal tube into the sand.

“C’mon, you bleep,” he said, reaching into the hole and grabbing the neck of the clam. The clam used its digger to escape. The wet sand collapsed around it. Despite the looming tide, Dad kept his back to the ocean—a mistake—so as to keep his grip on the clam.

A large wave loomed behind him. The north Pacific is never warm, especially not in winter. The cold wave crashed over him, sending him “ass over teakettle” as he would say and filling his waders. He unleashed a volley of curses, improving our vocabularies, and somehow holding on to the clam.

David’s book brought up these memories and added a great more detail and depth, something that I recommend in my writing classes. David will read this Thursday, 7 p.m. at the University Bookstore. Keep clam!



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Seattle Writing Class Teaches Power of Details

Seattle Writing Class teaches how to use concrete detail as exemplified by All the Light We Cannot See.

Seattle Writing Class teaches how to use concrete detail as exemplified by All the Light We Cannot See.

In my fall Seattle writing class, Revising Your Life, I emphasize how using concrete detail can conjure a world and bring it to life. I just finished a novel which provides a masterful example of how to do this. Anthony Doerr’s, All the Light We Cannot See, brings to life the hardship and atmosphere of WWII Europe, telling the story of Marie Laure, a blind French Girl, and Werner, a German orphan, whose lives illuminate the larger story of the period.

Though I have read many books about WWII, none of them brings to life the hardships of the period as clearly as this one. Werner escapes the orphanage by learning to build and fix radios, a skill highly prized by the Nazis, who soon send him to an elite military academy to train and become indoctrinated into the Nazi world view. His younger sister, Jutta, objects to his attending the school as she believes it will turn him into one of them. The difficult moral problems each of these characters is forced to confront testifies to the subtlety and sympathy of Doerr as a writer. There are no easy answers to such questions.

Frederick, one of Werner’s friends at the academy, refuses to cooperate with commandant. The other boys then set on him, beating him nearly to death. There is no easy way out of Werner’s dilemma. He keeps his head down and mouth shut and succeeds at the school because of his prowess at fixing radios. This talent soon leads him into the German army where he specializes in tracking radios used by the enemy.

The book alternates between Werner’s and Marie Laure’s point of view. While Doerr employs a more conventional point of view with Werner, he uses a braille-like approach with Marie Laure. There is so much amazingly tactile writing in the book, first about Paris where she grows up, and then about St. Malo, a luminous city on the north coast of France, where the book’s climax takes place. I won’t give away the ending, but it is satisfying, haunting, and surprisingly optimistic, making it a worthy recipient of the Pulitzer Prize.

My fall Seattle Writing Class, Revising Your Life, will emphasize how to use concrete detail in your own work. There’s still room. Let me know if you’d like to sign up!

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Seattle Writing Course Addresses Self-Publishing

Emilie Sandoz-Voyer talks to The Writer's Workshop's Seattle writing course about self-publishing.

Emilie Sandoz-Voyer talks to The Writer’s Workshop’s Seattle writing course about self-publishing.

In my Seattle writing courses, I tell students that once upon a time, writers would send out manuscripts to traditional publishers until they got a contract. If they tried and tried but got no contract, some of them would send the manuscript to what was called a vanity press, a company that published the book for payment by the author. Such “vanity” books had little cachet or influence and often promptly disappeared, though it must be noted that Henry David Thoreau’s Walden was first published in this manner and has sold thousands of copies. Most of these titles however disappeared without much of a trace.

Now, with the advent of Amazon’s CreateSpace and other publishing tools, the world of self-publishing is gaining new cachet. For this reason, I invited Emilie Sandoz-Voyer of Girl Friday Productions to speak about the latest trends in self-publishing for my Seattle writing course, Writing for Story.

“I shepherd authors through the editorial and publishing process,” she said. “Self publishing is my bread and butter. What does it mean to be a self published author? It means you are the publisher, writer, editor and producer, uploading your title to be available on Amazon and other places. You’re a publishing entrepreneur. It can be overwhelming at first, but there are resources available and it’s become easier to self publish your book.”

Sandoz-Voyer emphasized you have to think like a publisher if you choose the self-published option. Who will buy your book? How will you get copies to them?

“Amazon’s CreateSpace service books will ship via Amazon, a great option for self published authors.” she said. “You can also go through Ingram Spark or Lightning source. You can go through more than one channel. You’re the publisher, not the distributor, and you keep all your royalties.”

Keeping all your royalties sounds very appealing. What’s not so appealing is doing everything a publisher does to come up with a professional quality book. Writing the book is just one aspect of this, as I remind students in my Seattle writing course.

“I highly recommend hiring editors to polish that prose, so it looks professional,” said Sandoz-Voyer. “Hire a cover designer to make your book stand out.”


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Hemingway’s Influence on Seattle Writing Courses

Hemingway biography informs Seattle Writing  Courses.

Hemingway biography informs Seattle Writing Courses.

In my Seattle writing courses, I emphasize how studying great writing is an essential part of learning to write. There are many outstanding writers, but Ernest Hemingway serves as an important inspiration for many writers, including myself. There is much to learn from Hemingway: his precision with language, saying the most complicated things in pithy, surprising way; his hypnotic prose rhythms, some of which he borrowed from Gertrude Stein; his utterly unflinching portraits of people, not all of which were particularly flattering but many of which get burned into your memory, for example, the old man and waiters in the story “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place.”

His colorful life played a larger role in his writing. For this reason, I picked up Hemingway: A Life Story by Carlos Baker. It was published in 1969 and gives an encyclopedic account of his life. Sometimes there’s too much detail about his life, but then you can just skip a few pages. Hemingway comes across as a very complex personality, an extremely ambitious young many, driven to excel in whatever he tried, desiring admiration, displaying strength, endurance, hating politicians, intellectuals, and lap dogs. He was both shy and an incredibly braggart. He could be a warm and generous friend but could turn on friends quickly. He was a perpetual student, reading widely, studying nature, becoming an expert on topics like bull fighting, trout fishing and big game hunting.

In my Seattle writing courses, I emphasize the need to show or demonstrate in your writing rather than simply summarizing. Hemingway was a genius at this, working hard to get the details right and true so that a reader could conjure the whole picture in his or her mind. The Baker biography provides much lavish detail about Hemingway’s life. It’s not as luminescent as his own work, but does provide an important background to it.

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Hemingway and Travel Writing Classes

Hotel Florida and Travel Writing Classes.

Hotel Florida inspires travel stories, travel writing classes.

In my travel writing classes, I like to emphasize how using scenes and concrete detail can make a place come to life as Ernest Hemingway did in A Moveable Feast and other works. I recently returned from teaching the Travel, Food and Wine Writing class in Spain and while there, took a tour of Hemingway’s Madrid which provided a fascinating look at his time there. The visit inspired me to read, Hotel Florida, by Amanda Vaill, a fascinating account of the intertwined lives of Hemingway, Martha Gellhorn, Robert Capa, Gerda Taro and others who went to Spain to capture the stories and images of this horrific conflict which served as a precursor to World War II.

The book begins in 1936 with a scene of Franco boarding a plane in the Canary Islands for Spanish Morocco to lead his troups onto the mainland of Spain in a carefully planned military coup against the democratically elected Socialist Government. So began the Spanish Civil war, a conflict that tore apart the country and helped touch off a global conflict. There have been many books and histories about the war, but Vaill breaks new ground in using six true to life characters–Hemingway and others–to tell her story. This gives the book a freshness that’s appealing. Hemingway found in the conflict a way to boost his writing career as his experience as a war correspondent helped provide the material of For Whom the Bell Tolls, a novel that confirmed and expanded his reputation. He also fell in love with Martha Gellhorn, an ambitious and extremely attractive young journalist who became his third wife. The book chronicles their blossoming romance amid the bombs, shells, atrocities, and excitement of this important conflict, illuminating the lives of Hemingway and others who told the story of the war.


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Writing Classes Emphasize Storytelling

Writing Classes Emphasize Storytelling as In the Garden of Beasts

Writing Classes Emphasize Storytelling as In the Garden of Beasts

In my writing classes, I emphasize the need for strong storytelling skills as a way of reaching a wide audience. I just finished a book that demonstrates this exactly: Eric Larson’s In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler’s Berlin.

The work of narrative nonfiction tells the story of William Dodd, American Ambassador to Germany during the years 1933 to 1937 when Hitler and the Nazi Party were taking power in Germany. Dodd spoke German and loved the country, having received his Ph.D. in Leipzig 40 years earlier. When offered the post of ambassador for President Franklin Roosevelt, he accepted and brought his family with him, including his daughter Martha, an attractive and flirtatious woman who had just separated from her husband and was in the process of divorcing him. Martha caught the eye of a number of high-ranking figures including Adolf Hitler, Gestapo Head Rudolf Diels and Soviet attaché and secret agent Boris Vinogradov. The book does a great job of providing a view of the Third Reich from the ground up, Martha’s encounters with these men vividly illuminating the personal side of these men, a side often ignored in the histories of the era.

Larson is particularly good at using characters, including Martha, to tell the larger story from the inside out, one of the strategies I encourage my students to follow in my Seattle, online and travel writing classes. Martha is the principal point of view figure in the book which traces her early enthusiasm for Germany and the Nazi party. This enthusiasm gives way to uneasiness, dread, and open hostility as she sees the regime for what is truly is: a murderous, inhuman machine. It’s truly a gripping read from the opening which graphically details the wounds of a young American doctor who found himself in the wrong place at the wrong time, one of many such early warnings of Nazi brutality. Put it on your reading list!

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