Flannery O'Connor and The Habit of Art in Seattle writing classes.

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.

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Innocents Abroad by Mark Twain

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 (The Innocents 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.

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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!

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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.

Long-Lead Media

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.

Short-Lead Media

About 1-2 months out from publication

Finished copies sent to media outlets that work on a shorter timeframe, including: Newspapers, radio, TV, blogs.

Local/Regional Media

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.
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Lava, 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.

If you want help with this, please consider signing up for one of my Seattle writing classes, online writing classes, or travel writing classes. I look forward to working with you!

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Ian Fleming: The author of James Bond novels.How to write a page turner in Seattle writing classes.

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. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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?




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.

Who Are You Calvin Bledsoe? The Writer's Workshop Review.

Who Are You Calvin Bledsoe? The Writer’s Workshop Review.

Morel mushroom, The Writer's Workshop.

Morel mushroom, The Writer’s Workshop.

Morel mushrooms, The Writer's Workshop.

Morel mushrooms, The Writer’s Workshop.

Lava, The Writer's Workshop

Lava, The Writer’s Workshop

Paul Hostovsky and Ona, The Writer's Workshop.

Paul Hostovsky and Ona, The Writer’s Workshop Review.

I’m now working on the new issue of The Writer’s W

Brock Clarke, The Writer's Workshop.

Brock Clarke, photo by Nate Eldridge.

The Hawks are in Love, The Writer's Workshop.

The Hawks are in Love, The Writer’s Workshop Review.

orkshop Review. Stay tuned!

Michael Silacci of Opus One Winery.

Michael Silacci of Opus One Winery.

Jeff Smoot reading at The Writer's Workshop Seattle writing classes.

Jeff Smoot speaking at The Writer’s Workshop’s Seattle writing classes.

I take great pride in seeing the students in my Seattle writing classes succeed. One of these students, Jeff Smoot, wrote the memoir, Hang Dog Days, which recently earned a runner up for the Banff Mountain Festival Book Award and the Boardman/ Tasker Award, two of the most prestigious prizes in mountaineering literature.

Jeff finished The Writer’s Workshop’s certificate program two years ago and began working on his memoir about sport climbing. Having published some 10 guidebooks, he had a lot of writing chops but needed some help with storytelling.

“I joined Nick O’Connell’s Certificate program in narrative writing as a refresher and to improve my storytelling so I could get a longstanding book project to the point I felt confident in pitching it,” he said at a talk for my Seattle writing class last Wednesday. “With Nick’s help and encouragement, it was accepted. In addition to achieving this goal, the course reignited my passion for writing.”

After writing the book, Jeff had to edit it before the Mountaineers Publishing Company would accept it. “I did my best to cut down the narrative and got it into the hands of a developmental editor who wanted to kill my babies,” he said. “Then it got into the hands of the copy editor and got cut down some more.”

Despite the pain of having some of his stories cut, he believes the process helped the book.

“It’s important to have a good editor,” he said. “You want someone who can debate. Sometimes you win, sometimes you lose, but it made the book so much better. I used to hate editors, but I loved my editor.”

Hang Dog Days chronicles the difficult birth of sport climbing in America. It is rich with the vernacular of the sport, one of the techniques I emphasize in my Seattle writing classes. “Climbing went from being a traditional sport with the adventure of ascent, starting from bottom and going to the top,” he said. “If you went to the top and came down that wasn’t the way it was done. But youth rebelled against the old guard.”

The new technique of rap-bolting, inspecting and fixing a route while on rappel, caused a great deal of controversy in the insular world of climbing. “Some bad things happened,” he said. “I received death threats from some climbers I wrote about. The book is about my growing up climbing in that era and some of the characters I hung out with like Todd Skinner who was pushing the boundaries.” Skinner died in 2006 in a climbing accident. “He’s one of the best storytellers we had and he’s gone so I have to tell the story.”

To read an excerpt from the book, click the link to https://www.thewritersworkshopreview.net/article.cgi?article_id=97.





Deep River and Seattle writing classes.

Deep River and Seattle writing classes.

2020 Pacific Northwest Book Awards  Shortlist Announced 

The Pacific Northwest Book Sellers association just announced its 2020 Book Awards Shortlist, selected by a committee of independent booksellers from Washington, Oregon, Idaho, Montana and Alaska, a non-profit trade association that supports independent bookselling, literacy and free speech in Alaska, Idaho, Montana, Oregon and Washington. Each year since 1965, the Pacific Northwest Book Awards have celebrated exceptional books written by Northwest authors.

In my Seattle writing classes, online writing classes and travel writing classes, I hope to teach aspiring authors to write books such as these. I also encourage students in my Seattle writing classes, online writing classes and travel writing classes to support organizations like this one who keep independent bookstores in business.

From more than 400 nominations, the committee winnowed 12, finalists, crafted by Northwest authors and illustrators and published in 2019. The six winners of the 2020 Pacific Northwest Book Awards in early January. For more contributor and title information, visit PNBA’s 2020 Shortlist page. Shortlist honorees will be profiled on NWBookLovers.org over the next several weeks.


2020 Shortlist:

Aloha Rodeo: Three Hawaiian Cowboys, the World’s Greatest Rodeo,
and a Hidden History of the American West
David Wolman (Portland, OR) and Julian Smith (Portland, OR)
William Morrow/HarperCollins

The Cassandra: A Novel
Sharma Shields (Spokane, WA)
Henry Holt & Company/Macmillan

The Death & Life of Aida Hernandez: A Border Story
Aaron Bobrow-Stain (Walla Walla, WA)
Farrar, Straus and Giroux/Macmillan

Deep River: A Novel
Karl Marlantes (Woodinville, WA)
Atlantic Monthly Press

Exhalation: Stories
Ted Chiang (Seattle, WA)
Alfred A. Knopf / Penguin Random House

Fall Back Down When I Die: A Novel
Joe Wilkins (McMinnville, OR)
Little, Brown and Company / Hachette

Is, Is Not: Poems
Tess Gallagher (Port Angeles, WA)
Graywolf Press

The Merciful Crow
Margaret Owen (Seattle, WA)
Henry Holt Books for Young Readers/Macmillan

My Heart
Corinna Luyken (Olympia, WA)
Dial Books / Penguin Young Readers

The Phone Booth in Mr. Hirota’s Garden
Rachel Wada, illus. (Vancouver, BC)
Orca Book Publishers

Queen of the Sea
Dylan Meconis (Portland, OR)
Walker Books / Candlewick Press

A Wolf Called Wander
Rosanne Parry (Portland, OR)
Greenwillow Books / HarperCollins