Author Lawrence Wright interviewed by Nicholas O’Connell of The Writer’s Workshop about his Pulitzer Prize-winning book, The Looming Tower, (2006) about the events leading up to 9/11, the novel, The End of October, (2020) about a fictional plague, and recently, “The Pandemic Year,” a nonfiction piece in The New Yorker about COVID-19 which he’s turning into a book of the same name.
J.K. Rowling uses dramatic scene in her Harry Potter books, a technique we teach in writing classes at The Writer’s Workshop.
SUMMARY SCENE OPENINGS – WRITING PROCEDURE
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Scenic writing is the basis for some of the most moving, satisfying, sophisticated works of literature, something I teach in all my writing classes. It is especially effective in bringing readers into the story because it helps them create a world, a world that you the writer have inhabited and can share with the reader through words. Scenes present a visual, sensual world the reader can inhabit, a kind of imaginary garden with real toads, whether that’s the world of the astronaut program of Tom Wolfe’s The Right Stuff, the vast landscapes of the Southwest in the work of Terry Tempest Williams, or the hard-bitten, humorous Irish Catholic childhood of memoirist Frank McCourt.
1) SETTING THE SCENE
a) OPENING SENTENCE: Find a sentence that creates suspense and foreshadows what will happen. This makes clear to the reader that information in summary lead is important and needs to be read.
b) SETTING DETAILS: Provide details that suggest what will happen in scene. These should be chosen for their inherent interest, color and humor and also for what they illustrate about main point of story. The best scenic details do double duty, both painting a picture and creating suspense.
c) NUT GRAPH: After sketching in the scene and introducing the people, the writer makes a transition to the action. This transition is crucial, often spelling out the main point or alerting the reader that something important will happen in the scene.
This transition usually leads to a nut graph, a paragraph that suggests or explains the larger point or goal of the scene and furnishes its larger context. It’s called a nut graph because it puts all of these things together in a nutshell. Who? What? When? Where? And most importantly, why? As in, why should the reader care? What will the scene accomplish?
2) DESCRIBE ACTION
a) BEGINNING – Show how it gets started. Describe the important events that precede the scene.
b) MIDDLE – Describe how it builds, highlight the conflict.
c) END – Describe how it gets resolved; answer all the necessary questions. Don’t leave the reader guessing. The writer Anton Chekhov said that if a gun appears in the first act of a play it must be discharged by the end of the play.
a) UNPACK THE SCENE – Explain what happened in the scene and why it’s significant. What point does it illustrate? Too much symbolism and obscurity will result in confusing and frustrating the reader. how to compose dramatic scenes.
I teach writers how to compose dramatic scenes in all my writing classes for The Writer’s Workshop, including Seattle writing classes, online classes and travel writing classes. Take a look at my website for more: www.thewritersworkshop.net!
Narrative writers organize their books and shorter pieces in terms of a story or chronology, probably the oldest and most compelling way of relating information. In Aspects of the Novel, E.M. Forster speculates that the earliest storytelling took place around a campfire after tired bands of Neanderthal hunters had killed a woolly mammoth. Natural selection favored hunters who told a well-crafted, suspenseful story; those who rambled endlessly or droned on about their personal exploits were hit over the head with a club.
Good story ideas for narrative writing meet the following criteria:
E.M. Forster, story ideas for writing classes.
1) BASED ON SCENE – Organized around one or more scenes. Unlike a feature story, these pieces should be composed almost entirely of scenes. There can be passages of narrative summary that provide background information, but these should be incorporated into or around the scene.
2) EMPHASIZE CHARACTER – Elucidation of character lies at heart of these stories. They can convey information, but this should be done through the personalities central to the story.
3) ENCOURAGE CURIOSITY – Writers should appeal to readers’ curiosity, pulling them along with suspenseful storytelling, not letting them go until the end.
4) CONFLICT AND RESOLUTION FORMAT – The story has to be organized around a conflict, whether an external one like climbing a mountain, or an internal one of overcoming stuttering. Most of the best stories have a conflict that embraces both the internal and the external. Example: John has to overcome his fear to climb the mountain. Melissa meets a supportive speech therapist who helps her speak normally.
5) TIMELY – Any trend or event that’s coming up can serve as a timely tie to the story. A timely angle puts your story idea to the top of the editor’s pile.
6) PERSONALLY INTERESTING – Writers usually do their best work on subjects that matter to them. Try to find topics that you are passionate about, as Gerard emphasizes in Creative Nonfiction.
7) PUBLISHABLE – Not every idea that appeals to the writer will gain favor with editors, however. Find ideas that interest you and the editor.
Flannery O’Connor and The Writing Life in Seattle writing classes.
In her essay collection, Mystery and Manners, Flannery O’Connor talks about writing as a habit of art. I discuss this approach in The Writer’s Workshop talk on The Writing Life, on Wednesday, Oct. 2 at 7 p.m. in room 221 at the Good Shepherd Center in Seattle’s Wallingford neighborhood. This approach emphasizes that writing is a craft and a daily discipline as well as an art. It relies as much on regular practice as inspiration. While inspiration plays a large part in any literary breakthrough, the habit of art gives concrete expression to inspiration, making the story or book possible. Here are some of thoughts on how to develop your own habit of art.
WRITING AS A PROCESS – Thinking of writing as a process allows you to complete a story in a series of steps, avoiding the paralysis of perfectionism. Instead, write a draft (a “shitty first draft” in Anne Lamott’s memorable phrase), organize and polish it. By breaking things down into a series of steps you increase the odds of creating something special.
SET A SCHEDULE – Set up a time to write, ideally five days a week for an hour or so a day. If possible, write for more than that. It takes practice to hone and perfect your craft. This comes by repetition. I usually write about three hours a day, five days a week, sometimes more, sometimes a little less. I schedule the time and try to stick to it.
SHORT ASSIGNMENTS – As the Chinese say, the thousand mile journey begins with the first step. Give yourself short assignments every day – a page, a lead, a character sketch. Then perhaps complete a story or novel chapter every week or so. Making steady progress increases your confidence and the fluency of your writing.
I’ll be offering a free class, The Writing Life, on Wednesday, Sept. 16 at 6 p.m. via Zoom video conference. You’ll have a chance to learn how to get started with your story and hear about our writing classes. Please RSVP.
Innocents Abroad by Mark Twain is an outstanding traveler’s tale which I reference in my Seattle writing classes, online writing classes and travel writing classes.
If you love to travel like I do, you’ve probably found the last six months a challenging time. After canceling my Travel Writing class in Spain and an assignment to ski in Austria, I have hunkered down at home to write, teach, shelter with my family and occasionally venture out to a local cafe. Such is the situation in the world today.
During this time, I’ve found great pleasure in reading travel books, something I’ve done in the past as research. Now it’s become a pleasure in its own right as well as preparation for when I can hit the road again.
I’ve been traveling vicariously with Mark Twain (TheInnocents Abroad) Beryl Markham (West with the Night), V.S. Naipaul (Among the Believers), Charles Nichol (The Fruit Palace) and Bill Bryson (A Walk in the Woods). These are some of the titles I reference in my Seattle writing classes, online writing classes and especially in my travel writing classes. Here’s more on the books below.
The Innocents Abroad, or The New Pilgrims’ Progress is a travel book by Mark Twain published in 1869 which humorously chronicles what Twain called his “Great Pleasure Excursion” on board the chartered vessel Quaker City through Europe and the Holy Land with a group of American travelers in 1867. It was the best-selling of Twain’s works during his lifetime, as well as one of the best-selling travel books of all time.
West with the Night is a 1942 memoir by Beryl Markham, chronicling her experiences growing up in Kenya in the early 1900s, leading to careers as a racehorse trainer and bush pilot there. It is considered a classic of outdoor literature and was included in the U.S.A.’s Armed Services Editions shortly after its publication.
Among the Believers: An Islamic Journey is a book by the Nobel laureate V. S. Naipaul. Published in 1981, the book chronicles a six-month journey across Asian after the Iranian Revolution. V.S. Naipaul explores the culture and the explosive situation in countries where Islamic fundamentalism was taking root. His travels start with Iran, on to Pakistan, Malaysia and Indonesia, with a short stop in Pakistan and Iran. Like the best travel books is prescient, indicating what was about to unfold in the region.
The Fruit Palace is a classic travel story by Charles Nicholl, chronicling his quest for ‘The Great Cocaine Story’. The book is set in the eighties in Columbia and describes not only the cocaine trade, but the wonder of everyday life in the country. The Fruit Palace is a little whitewashed café that legally dispenses tropical fruit juices as well as a meeting place for black marketers. It’s here that the story begins.
A Walk in the Woods: Rediscovering America on the Appalachian Trail is a 1998 travel book by writer Bill Bryson, describing his attempt to walk the Appalachian Trail with his friend Stephen Katz, a less than competent outdoorsman whose foibles contribute mightily to this entertaining book. It’s a hilarious account of their adventures and misadventures, with Bryson’s trademark humor coming to the fore.
Seabiscuit serves as an outstanding example of narrative in writing classes from The Writer’s Workshop.
In these tumultuous times, it seems hard to imagine how things can return to normal. How can we get through Covid, police brutality, protests, riots, high unemployment and general malaise? One of the best ways to find hope in dark times lies in reading about other challenging periods in our past. Some of the most remarkable achievements took place during similarly perilous moments.
Here are four outstanding books that illuminate how our country negotiated difficult circumstances and emerged stronger from them. In addition, these books serve as great examples of narrative writing, the subject of my writing classes at The Writer’s Workshop. These books provide useful perspective, dazzling form and wonderfully satisfying summer reading:
Seabiscuit by Laura Hillenbrand – The story of Seabiscuit, an American thoroughbred racehorse who became the top money-winning racehorse in the 1940s. High-strung, talented and rebellious, the horse languished until a washed up cowboy and horse whisperer, Tom Smith, became his trainer, won his trust and turned him into a champion, serving as a beacon of hope during the Great Depression.
The Devil in the White City by Erik Larson – This New York Times bestseller tells the story of the architect who planned the construction of the great Chicago World’s Fair of 1893 and the serial killer who used the fair as a lure. Erik Larson recounts the tale of the architect and the killer in a spellbinding narrative style, demonstrating how to use scene and characterization to bring a story to life
The Boys in the Boat by Daniel James Brown – This nonfiction classic celebrates the 1936 U.S. men’s Olympic eight-oar rowing team—nine working class young men who surprised the elite rowing teams from the East Coast, Oxford and Cambridge, and finally the Nazis as they rowed for gold in front of Adolf Hitler. Set against in the Great Depression, these young men reminded the country of what can be done when everyone quite literally pulls together.
The Autobiography of Frederick Douglas by Frederick Douglass – This outstanding 1845 memoir and treatise on abolition was written by Douglass, a former slave and renowned orator about his time in Lynn, Massachusetts. It’s the most famous example of the slave narrative, a literary form used by many former slaves and which has served as a great inspiration for contemporary black writers such as my former professor and mentor, Charles Johnson. The book is a gripping read, with a strong narrative voice and style that fueled the abolitionist movement in the early 19th century in the U.S.
Not only do these books offer hope in tough times, they serve as great examples of narrative writing and useful models for your own work. If you’d like help in learning how to tell YOUR story, please consider signing up for one of my Seattle writing classes or online writing classes through The Writer’s Workshop. Let me know if I can help you tell your story!
Molly Woolbright speaks about book promotion for The Writer’s Workshop Seattle writing classes.
Book Promotion During a Pandemic
Promoting a book is challenging enough in normal times. Doing this during a pandemic makes it even more problematic. Nevertheless, it can be done successfully, according to Molly Woolbright, the publicist at Sasquatch Books, who visited my spring Seattle writing class, The Nature of Narrative.
“I will broadly describe how a publicist at a traditional publisher approaches a book’s campaign and hopefully demystify the process,” she said.
Woolbright emphasized that the digital aspect of marketing has taken on new importance in a time of social distancing. In the past, book tours and talks made up a significant part of the marketing plan. With those options limited or nonexistent, other strategies need to be developed, including talks and meetings via Zoom and other web conferences.
She detailed a number of effective ways of getting the word out about your book. I’ll include the highlights of her talk to my Seattle writing class, The Nature of Narrative, below:
Overview of Book Publicity
An in-house publicist at a traditional publisher works on a variety of books at a time, striving to secure a mix of trade reviews and regional and national media for each. From the general public’s perspective, a book campaign is typically about 3 months long; from an author and publisher’s perspective, the work begins at least 6 months before a book is published.
About 6-8 months out from publication
Advance reader copies (otherwise known as ARCs or galleys) sent to media outlets that work far in advance, including: Print magazines, Trade journals (Publishers Weekly, Library Journal, Booklist, etc.), Podcasts.
About 1-2 months out from publication
Finished copies sent to media outlets that work on a shorter timeframe, including: Newspapers, radio, TV, blogs.
Often overlooked in favor of bigger or more prestigious national media outlets, your local newspaper, magazines, blogs, radio, and TV stations are a great starting point to build buzz (while still striving for national hits). The Amazon algorithm is fed by any and all publicity, and local media is more likely to take notice.
Optimizing Your Author Platform for Media
Book promotion, regardless of genre, is often more about the author than the book—it’s about you and the expertise you can provide or discussions you can spark. Whether you’re working with an in-house publicist or you’ve hired a freelancer, one of the most helpful steps you can take to assist her efforts in securing media is to boost your online presence.
From a publicity perspective, a website is the most useful asset you can have as an author. Whereas social media is ephemeral, a website offers a consistent representation of you and your work. Think of it like a toolbox where journalists/reviewers/editors can go to find more info.
For more on book promotion and writing technique, please consider signing up for my next Seattle writing class, online writing class or travel writing class through www.thewritersworkshop.net.
If there’s any silver lining to this Covid 19 scourge, it may be that people now have time to read and write. Some people are writing about how their lives have changed. Others are writing about anything but Covid, relishing a break from the constant barrage of negative news.
I’ve included below some books to get you through the Great Pandemic, including accounts of previous pandemics and titles serving as wonderful distractions.
Best Books to Read During Covid 19 Pandemic
The Plague By Albert Camus a pick by The Writer’s Workshop.
1) The Splendid and the Vile: A New York Times bestseller by Erik Larson about the Churchill family in the first year of WWII. Covid may be bad, but Western Civilization was at risk in WWII. Even if you think you know the history of the period, you’ll hear many fascinating stories about surviving the Blitz, fighting among the cabinet, smoking cigars, drinking champagne, and Churchill wandering around the house naked.
2) Barbarian Days: A Surfing Life by William Finnegan, winner of the Pulitzer Prize: The memoir of an obsession, an addiction, an entire world in and of itself. I know almost nothing about surfing but I got sucked in by the beauty and precision of the language,
the crazy ass characters, the danger and challenge of it all. It’s a rich, funny, evocative book, with wonderfully detailed description of a fascinating subculture.
3) World War Z by Max Brooks: If you think we have it tough, read this book to understand just how challenging an outbreak can be (makes the Corona virus look like the common cold). This 2006 zombie apocalyptic horror novel is written from multiple points of view to demonstrate the chaos and devastating global conflict against the waves of zombies. Never dull.
4) The Plague by Albert Camus:
Published in 1947, this novel tells the tale of a plague overwhelming the French Algerian city of Oran and the doctors, vacationers and fugitives who seek to survive it. The novel is believed to be based on the 1849 cholera epidemic in Oran. The Plague is an existential classic, posing searching questions about the nature of honor, goodness and meaning in an absurd world.
5) The Earthsea Trilogy by Ursula K. LeGuin: The original trilogy takes place in a magic land resembling the San Juan Islands in Washington State, inhabited with wizards, dragons and other magical creatures. Start with A Wizard of Earthsea, then continue with The Tombs of Atuan, and the superb The Farthest Shore. Wonderfully imaginative and distracting from the current Covid crisis while deceptively wise and insightful.
6) Love in a Time of Cholera by Gabriel Garcia Marquez – A novel of astonishing power, with the main characters Florentino Ariza and Fermina Daza falling in love in their youth. Eventually, Fermina rejects Florentino in favor of the accomplished Dr Juvenal Urbino, who is committed to eradicating cholera. After many decades of marriage, he dies trying to get his parrot out of a mango tree. Having lived separately over five decades, Florentino and Fermina resume their romance, which despite the years, blossoms into true love.
7) Zone One by Colson Whitehead – This 2011 post-apocalyptic novel takes place after a global pandemic has laid waste to civilization, turning the infected into flesh-eating zombies. “Mark Spitz” and fellow sweepers who have survived the apocalypse patrol New York City, killing zombies so as to make Manhattan habitable again.
8) Pale Rider: The Spanish Flu of 1918 and How it Changed the World by Laura Spinning – The current Covid crisis draws comparisons to The Spanish flu of 1918-1920 , one of the greatest human disasters of all time. It infected a third of the people on Earth–from poor immigrants of New York City to the king of Spain and Woodrow Wilson. In this narrative history, Laura Spinney traces how the pandemic killed 50 and 100 million people as it traveled the globe, exposing mankind’s vulnerability and decisively altering politics, race relations, medicine, the arts and religion.
9) War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy: If you haven’t yet read this amazing novel, now is the time. The novel chronicles Napoleon’s invasion of Russia in 1812 and follows some of the
most well-known characters in literature, including Pierre Bezukhov, the illegitimate son of a count who is fighting for his inheritance and yearning for spiritual fulfillment; Prince Andrei Bolkonsky, who leaves his family behind to go to war, and a unforgettable cast of characters whose lives are irrevocably changed by the war. Should be on every literary bucket list.
10) The Decameron by Giovanni Boccaccio: A story about a group of seven young women and three young men who escaped the Black Death by sheltering in a secluded villa outside Florence. The tales of love, sex and misfortune remain entertaining and titillating. Buy a used copy and look for the underlined spicy bits. The work had wide influence, including on Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales.
If you’d like to write your own story about the pandemic, consider signing up for an online writing class with The Writer’s Workshop.
“The Thin Crust” from The Writer’s Workshop Review.
Literary magazines occupy an important niche in the publishing world. They publish longer, more artistic stories that would make a tough sell in a commercial magazine. Many bestselling memoirs such as Kathleen Norris’ Dakota grew out of shorter stories published in literary magazines. They are one of the few markets that publish short fiction. They pay little or nothing other than extra copies but are prestigious and can serve as an important stepping stone in a literary career. As the publisher/ editor of The Writer’s Workshop Review, which just published its 14th edition, I read a lot of manuscripts and accept only a small percentage of them. Here’s some advice about how to win acceptance at a literary magazine.
FIND A THE RIGHT MAGAZINE: Duotrope’s Digest is an excellent place to start. For a small monthly fee you get access to a searchable database of over 2000 different literary magazines. You can peruse the magazine rack at a good bookstore like Seattle’s Elliott Bay Book Company to find a home for your story. Googling the term, literary magazines, will also turn up a lot of potential target publications. As I emphasize in my Seattle writing classes, read the magazine to make sure it’s an appropriate fit for your story. Half of all stories are rejected simply because they are not the right fit for the magazine.
FOLLOW THE GUIDELINES: The magazine will spell out when and how to submit manuscripts. Make sure to follow these guidelines. Your story may never reach the right editor if you don’t follow the guidelines.
FORMAT YOUR WORK: As recommended above, follow the magazine’s guidelines. Sometimes the magazine will want the story cut and pasted into an email message or attached to the email. Some of these magazines will want hard copies. As I say in my Seattle writing classes, make it easy for them.
COVER LETTER: A short cover letter accompanying the story or as part of the email message can help your cause. List previous publications, relevant degrees, etc. These shouldn’t make a difference to an editor but sometimes they do. If you’ve got it, flaunt it. If you have none of these, just send a strong story and it will find a home.
TRACK SUBMISSIONS: Keep a record of what stories are out and where you sent them. Celebrate acceptances. Don’t sweat the rejections; there are all kinds of reasons a magazine will reject a piece. It may be outstanding, but may not fit the publication. Pay attention if an editor takes the time to give you advice about how to improve your manuscript; the editor doesn’t do this casually and may be receptive to future stories from you.
Ian Fleming: The author of James Bond novels. How to write a page turner in Seattle writing classes.
Scenic writing animates some of the most moving, satisfying, sophisticated works of literature as I teach in my Seattle writing classes and other writing classes. It quickly brings readers into the story because it helps create a world, a world that you the writer have inhabited and can share with the reader through words. Scenes present a visual, sensual dimension the reader can inhabit, a kind of imaginary garden with real toads, whether that’s the world of the astronaut program of Tom Wolfe’s The Right Stuff, the landscapes of the American South in Flannery O’Connor’s stories or the hard-bitten, humorous Irish Catholic childhood of memoirist Frank McCourt’s Angela’s Ashes. As I describe in my Seattle writing classes, Stimulus-Response scenes create a cause and effect relationship, adding pace and direction to the narrative.
How do you accomplish this? Read on.
1) SETTING THE SCENE
a) OPENING SENTENCE: Find a sentence that creates suspense and foreshadows what will happen. This makes clear to the reader that information in summary lead is important and needs to be read. In William Stafford’s memoir Down in my Heart, he uses the opening line, “When are men dangerous?” which accomplishes this perfectly.
b) SETTING DETAILS: Provide details that suggest what will happen in scene. These should be chosen for their inherent interest, color and humor and for what they illustrate about main point of story. For instance, in Down in My Heart, Stafford includes details like “loafing around in the Sabbath calm.” These details help set the scene, and also create suspense. Readers suspect that something will soon shatter this tranquility. The best scenic details do double duty, both painting a picture and creating suspense.
c) SCENE GOAL: After sketching in the scene and briefly introducing the main characters, the writer makes a transition to the action. This transition is crucial, often spelling out the main character’s goal in the scene. What does the main character want? Will he get what he wants? Will the other characters help or hinder him? What is the larger point of the scene? Why should the reader care?
2) DESCRIBE ACTION
Use Stimulus-Response to organize the action from beginning to end. The stimulus should be external, an action or a dialogue. The psychological response should follow directly from the stimulus. This response should lead immediately to another stimulus, back and forth, like a ping-pong match, until the action of the scene is finished.
What happened in the scene and what does it mean? For more, please consider signing up for my Seattle writing classes, online writing classes or travel writing classes.
First, find out what your hero wants, then just follow him!
“One false word, one extra word, and somebody's thinking about how they have to buy paper towels at the store.”
The difference between the right word and the almost right word
“The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug.”
Literature is nothing but carpentry.
Ultimately, literature is nothing but carpentry. With both you are working with reality, a material just as hard as wood.
Gabriel Garcia Marquez
There are only two or three human stories
Isn’t it queer: there are only two or three human stories, and they go on repeating themselves as fiercely as if they had never happened before; like the larks in this country, that have been singing the same five notes for thousands of years.