Seattle writing classes discuss story openings.

Seattle writing classes discuss best story openings.

The opening is the most important part of any story or book, one of the topics I’ll be discussing in my upcoming Seattle writing class, Tell Your Story, spend as much time as necessary finding a strong lead. Rewrite the lead until it sparkles, presenting a lively, exciting opening to the story.

In my fall Seattle writing class, I’ll discuss the five best ways of opening a story or book: summary, scenic, anecdote, inventory and beginning at the end. Each of these techniques pulls the reader into the story quickly. The type of lead you use in a given story depends on your material and the audience you want to reach. Scenic leads lend themselves to active stories; summary and anecdotal leads often work best with more reflective stories. But there’s no rule about it; go with what works best!


These leads allow you to get to the point of your story quickly and easily, something I discuss in my Seattle writing classes. The trick is to make them appealing as well. Writers using summary leads often employ wordplay or humor to liven them up.

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.” Charles Dickens

The philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre once famously observed that “Hell is other people.” And he worked from home. Imagine if he had been one of the millions of us who are forced to navigate the psychic minefields of the modern corporation.”

Summary leads are quite effective, though they are just one strategy for a lead. In my fall Seattle writing class, Tell Your Story, I’ll also discuss how to use scenic leads, anecdotal leads, inventory leads, and starting as the end as strategies for getting a reader interested in your story immediately, something I teach in all my Seattle writing classes, online writing classes and travel writing classes.

Tagged with: , , , ,

Fishing Lessons author speaks to Seattle writing classes.

Fishing Lessons author speaks to Seattle writing classes.

Kevin Bailey knows fish.  As founding director of the Man & Sea Institute and affiliate professor at the University of Washington, he developed a deep and profound knowledge of fisheries and love of the sea. Near the end of his academic career, he wanted to learn how to tell stories about fish and fishing so that he could reach a larger audience. He enrolled in my Seattle writing classes in 2011 and began turning his rich background into compelling stories. He has published three books since, the most recent, Fishing Lessons: Artisanal Fisheries and the Future of Our Oceans, which he spoke about in my summer Seattle writing class.

“I’d written many scientific papers, but nothing for people outside of that circle,” says Bailey. “In Nick’s classes I learned about nut graphs and learned about the importance of platform.”

His latest book follows artisanal fishermen and their relationship with the larger ocean. In a series of portraits, he tells the stories of these fishermen, their success at long lining, hand lining, weir fishing and other techniques that harvest fish sustainably, both in financial and ecological terms. His ability to integrate his storytelling and scientific background makes the book an outstanding read. He’s refined the techniques he learned in my Seattle writing classes.

“After a 40-year career in fisheries, I wanted to write about the Pollack fisheries, which boomed like a gold rush,” he says. “I wanted to tell the story but I needed to interview the old guys before they died. I took Nick’s class and wrote the first chapter and workshopped it. I decided to do a book proposal.”

That proposal turned into his first book, Billion Dollar Fish: The Untold Story of Alaska Pollock and launched his writing career. “It was such a joy to write these books,” he says. “Now I’m searching for my next book…”

If you’re looking to jump start your writing career, whether in nonfiction or fiction, please consider signing up for my Seattle writing classes or one of our online writing classes!

Tagged with: , , , ,

Learn the Art of Interviewing in Seattle writing classes.

Learn the Art of Interviewing in Seattle writing classes.



Interviewing is an essential skill for any writer, one of the skills I’ll be teaching in my upcoming Seattle writing class. 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.

4) Place – Make sure it’s quiet, and in a place where you won’t be interrupted. Restaurants are not the best place to use a tape recorder.

5) Prepare – Like a good boy scout, interviewers should always be prepared. Saturate yourself in the subject. Find out everything you can about them. Ideally, you should know the person so well that you can predict with great accuracy how they will answer your questions. This is obviously much easier with a famous person. Example, when working on my first book, At the Field’s End, I interviewed the then relatively unknown Marilynne Robinson as well as the famous poet Gary Snyder. It look a lot more work to come up with questions for Robinson.

We’ll discuss all of this in more detail in my upcoming Seattle writing class. Sign up early to get a spot!

Nicholas O’Connell,

Tagged with: , ,

Touring the Colosseum: Seattle Writing Classes.

Touring the Colosseum: Learning how to tell your story in Seattle Writing Classes.

How do you tell your story? It’s such a fundamental question, but it’s not always easy to answer.

A big part of succeeding in telling your story lies in knowing how to tell a story. What is a story exactly? According to Jon Franklin’s book, Writing for Story, a “story consists in a sequence of actions that occur when a sympathetic character encounters a complicating situation that he confronts and solves.” Franklin’s definition is a great place to start, part of the reason I use it in my summer Seattle writing class.

Stories consist of a “series of actions,” not description, analysis or editorializing, but taut, discreet, dramatic actions. Most stories begin with a “complicating situation,” something that threatens the main character or throws him or her off balance, requiring the character to act so as survive the threat. Great and sympathetic characters struggle to overcome the threat, battling along the way, and so creating the drama of the story. By the end of the tale, the character needs to overcome the complicating situation to end the story with the proper resolution.

Having just returned from Italy, I have a number of fascinating stories to relate. As I sit down at the computer, the experiences are fluid and fresh: memories of touring the Roman Colosseum, seeing the famous frescoes of the life of St. Benedict at Monte Olivetta Maggiore, and hiking the spectacular Path of the Gods along the Amalfi coast. Early on, the memories have little structure to bind them together. As I write them down, I ponder Franklin’s definition and try to apply it to them. As I do this, I write an outline of the story in advance, which allows me to organize the story. This is one of the principal assignments in my summer Seattle writing class, Writing for Story, one of the keys to learning how to tell your story. Let me know if you’d like to sign up!

Tagged with: , , ,

In Medias Res Openings in Seattle Writing Classes.

In Medias Res Openings in Seattle Writing Classes.

In my summer Seattle writing class, we’ll discuss In Medias Res openings, one of the most effective ways of opening a story. To write in medias res, you’ll need a strong scene from the middle of your story. Pick the most vivid and dramatic moment in the story, for example, when you’re rappelling off a mountain, the canoe is about to go over the falls, or the killer is making his last stand, or the argument is reaching its climax. You’re looking, in other words, for a scene that has conflict and drama. These qualities are essential to any in medias res scene, because they will bring the readers quickly into the story.

After finding the scene, divide it in half. Use the first half of the scene in the in medias res lead and save the second half of it for right near the end of the story. By dividing it in half, you’ll create suspense within your story. The reader will get hooked on the first half of the in medias res scene and then read to the end of the story to see what happens. In the process, readers will finish the rest of story.

After putting first half of scene in lead, make transition to actual start of story. For example, tell how you came to make a rafting trip down the Salmon River. Readers will follow this discussion because it will reveal whether you survived going over the falls. From time to time, foreshadow the falls and give the reader hints about what is going to happen.

Once you’ve reached the point where the second half of the in medias res scene occurs, insert it without repeating the opening scene. Just use summary or a repeated detail to remind the reader of what happened at the start of the story. Then go through second half of scene. End with a conclusion that makes sense of the trip and gives the reader a sense of what you learned from it.

Tagged with: , , , ,

Mindy Halleck speaks to Seattle writing classes of The Writer's Workshop.

Mindy Halleck speaks to the Seattle writing classes of The Writer’s Workshop.

In my Seattle writing classes, I teach students the full range of narrative writing techniques as well as how to get published, including social media and book promotion. Now, obviously you have to write at a high level to get published, but you also need to be savvy about promotion. Mindy Halleck, an award-winning author and social media master, gave a superlative talk to my spring Seattle writing class about book promotion and author platform. These are subjects many writers would love to avoid, but as Halleck pointed out, you have to know something about them if you want to succeed as an author.

“If you want to be published,” she said, “you’ll want to learn what I have to say.”

Halleck insists writers need a brand, a website and a social media presence. She advises people to start small and build from there. While many people say this, usually publicists, Halleck’s opinion carries considerable weight because she’s also an author, who has to balance the need to write with the need to publicize her work.

“You need a platform if you want to sell books,” she told my Seattle writing classes. “You need an assortment of ways to engage your target market. The platform is the way you connect with readers. This matters whether you’re self published or traditionally published.”

Halleck is an award winning fiction writer, novelist, and social media and writing instructor. In 2014, after many years as a non-fiction author she released her debut novel, Return To Sender, a literary thriller set on the Oregon Coast in the 1950’s. In talking about social media to my Seattle Writing classes, she brought a refreshingly practical and pointed perspective to the discussion. She offers tips on all of this if you subscribe to her newsletter at

For more on book promotion and narrative writing, please consider signing up for my summer Seattle writing class, Writing for Story.


Tagged with: , , ,


Writing for Story: Seattle Writing Class.

Writing for Story: class text for summer Seattle Writing Class.

In my Seattle writing classes, I’ve learned that structure is the biggest challenge for most writers. While most writers understand sentence structure and paragraphing, they have trouble organizing paragraphs into a larger story. This is one of the things we’ll discuss in my upcoming summer Seattle writing class, Writing for Story. One of the best ways of structuring a story is to begin with an outline, This needn’t run pages and pages: sometimes even a simple three or four sentence outline can do the trick, such as the one I’ll explain below. By using this outline, whether for a story or book, you’ll discern out the larger shape of the story in advance. If you fail to do this, it’s like building a house without a strong foundation; it can easily collapse.

The dramatic outline allows you to chart the emotional peaks and valleys of the story so that you’ll know where you’re heading when you sit down to write. The five short statements below describe the major actions in the story. There is one statement for each major focus. This is not like the outline you wrote in English composition class; these statements highlight on the dramatic actions in story. They help you focus on what’s essential to the story, one of the things I address in my Seattle writing classes. This is a conflict—resolution outline, with the conflict introduced in the first statement, developed in the next three statements, and resolved in the last statement.

1) Complication – Make it simple and active. Have you chosen active verbs to show action? Is the main character included statement? How will you illustrate the main action? Do you have the source material for this? Is the action dramatic enough?

2) Development Action – Clear, cogent, related to complication.

3) Development Action – Clear, cogent related to complication, tied to previous development, tied to main character.

4) Development Action — Clear, cogent related to complication, tied to previous development, tied to main character.

For more on dramatic outlines and Seattle writing classes: Writing for Story.

Tagged with: , , ,

Captain Ahab and Seattle writing classes.

Captain Ahab and Seattle writing classes.

In my writing classes, I emphasize the need to bring people to life on the page. Strong characters are the heart and soul of every great story, whether fiction or nonfiction. To make your story compelling, you have to ensure that readers care about your characters, whether in an epic like Moby Dick or a nonfiction book like Basin and Range.  Even a topic as seemingly dull and unpromising as Great Basin geology can enchant readers if the story comes through someone who cares deeply about it. This is exactly the strategy John McPhee employs in his book, Basin and Range. McPhee is a writer interested in everything: the Merchant Marine, Russian Art, the Swiss Army, the cultivation of oranges, the building of birch bark canoes, the collection and consumption of road kills. Yet he doesn’t assume a similar level of interest from his readers. Instead he courts them by seeking colorful individuals through whom he tells the story and so entices readers into the subject. In Basin and Range, he chose the geologist Kenneth Deffeyes.

“Deffeyes is a big man with a tenured waistline. His hair flies behind him like Ludwig van Beethoven’s. He lectures in sneakers. His voice is syllabic, elocutionary, operatic. He has been described by a colleague as ‘an intellectual roving shortstop, with more ideas per square meter than anyone else in the department–they just tumble out.'”

McPhee’s quick character sketch provides readers with a glimpse of the energetic, idiosyncratic geologist, the kind of man who should prove a worthy guide to the narrative. McPhee selected Deffeyes as the central character for his personality and familiarity with the Great Basin. The geologist serves as the entry point into the subject. Though him, general readers learn to care about such arcane subjects continental drift, subduction zones and seafloor spreading. They might never crack the cover of a geology textbook, but once they get to know Deffeyes, chances are, they’ll be hooked.

We’ll discuss how to create strong characters as part of my upcoming Seattle writing classes. There’s still room; let me know if you’d like to sign up!



Tagged with: , , ,

Seattle Writing Classes and The Writer's Workshop Review.

Seattle Writing Classes and The Writer’s Workshop Review.

In my Seattle writing classes, I emphasize that 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. In my Seattle writing classes and as the publisher/ editor of The Writer’s Workshop Review, which just published its twelfth 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!

Virginia Smyth teaches students how to make the perfect pitch in Seattle writing classes.

Virginia Smyth teaches students how to make the perfect pitch in Seattle writing classes.

Pitching story ideas is a critical skill for every freelance writer. Virginia Smyth, the executive editor of Seattle Magazine, recently spoke to my Seattle writing classes about how to make the perfect pitch.

“One of the most important questions in a pitch is, ‘Why now?’” she said. “We try to always have a timely angle for our stories.”

Smyth encourages potential freelancers to read the magazine carefully so they’ll know what it publishes. She says that every magazine has a formula, with columns, features, and other kinds of stories. For example, Seattle publishes a lot of stories on the food and dining scene in the city.

“When you pitch, I don’t care why you want to write the story,” she says. “Why is it right for the magazine? Make me think it has to be in my publication. I want to know why it’s right for Seattle. Do your homework. Be familiar with the publication, I get a lot of pitches where it’s obvious the writer has not read the publication.

“What’s the tone? What the demographic? Most publications have Writers guideline to help with this. Think of the elevator pitch: sum it up in three to five sentences. Make sure there’s a hook. What is great about the story? Use the pitch to demonstrate your writing style.”

Making the perfect pitch, also requires that you mention the research that you will do for the story.

“In another paragraph, tell what sources you will use. What are your sources? Why are you the right person to write the story? I’m working on a story with a writer about the Native American community. Why are you the right person to tell the story?”

Make sure to include examples of your previously published work, preferably as links, when you’re making your perfect pitch. “I want to have some confidence that you can tell the story for the magazine,” she says. “Then wait 30 days or so before getting in touch again. Be persistent but don’t stalk.”

Tagged with: , , ,