J.K. Rowling on outlining, a technique taught in Seattle writing classes.

J.K. Rowling on outlining, a technique taught in Seattle writing classes.

How to Outline a Story or Book


Outlining a story or book 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. As I explain in my Seattle writing classes and online writing classes, 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 the dramatic actions in story. They help you focus on what’s essential to the story. 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 in the 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.

5) Resolution – Must fit the complication.

Writing this outline will save you a lot of time. You’ll be able to figure out in advance where the story is going. You can still change it as you go, but at least you’ll have a clear direction when you write the first draft of your story or book chapter. For more on how to do this, please consider signing up for my Seattle Writing Classes or an online writing classes.

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Andrew Waite speaks about breaking into freelance writing at The Writer's Workshop Seattle Writing Classes.

Andrew Waite speaks about breaking into freelance writing at The Writer’s Workshop Seattle Writing Classes.

In my Seattle writing classes, I invite experts to talk about their approach to writing and editing. I had the pleasure of having Alaska Airlines Magazine associate editor Andrew Waite talk to my spring Seattle writing class about how to break into freelance writing. He offered excellent advice about approaching magazines, including making sure to  read the publication before pitching.

“The best pitches reveal a sense of who we are and what we do,” he said. “We want your piece to slot in easily to the magazine. I’m looking for pitches that meet our needs, show command of writing and have an engaging hook.”

Though the magazine has a number of writers who work for it regularly, it’s always looking for new writers. He says they usually break in with shorter assignments of 300 words or less. “If you do an awesome job on a shorter story, we’ll definitely look at you for another longer story. We’re looking for writers who travel a lot, have good reporting skills, turn in clean, structurally sound copy. We like to take on new writers with fresh voices.”

The magazine considers regular freelancers as part of its staff. Such writers have a sense of what the magazine publishes and how it approaches travel, among other subjects. He suggested looking at the magazine’s editorial calendar to get a sense of what it will cover over the year.

“Pitch three months before the story should come out,” he said. “Pitch what’s unique.”

In putting together an issue, Waite emphasized the care the editors take over the editorial process. “We search for a writer for the ideas,” he said. “Then we get the ideas assigned. When the finished piece comes in, we hope it looks like the original assignment. We usually do a developmental edit for structure, content, and organization. Later, we’ll get into the nitty gritty as well as fact checking.”

He emphasized that breaking into freelance magazine writing is possible, but you have to work hard at it, something I emphasize in my Seattle writing classes. “There’s a lot hustle involved in the freelance game,” he said.


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I’m now working on the next issue of The Writer’s Workshop Review, the online literary magazine for The Writer’s Workshop. The stories have been accepted; now the editing begins, choosing the photos to run with the stories, writing the captions and headlines.

These are some of the photos to be used in the next issue:

Climbers on Old Woman Rock Formation in Joshua Tree.

Climbers on Old Woman Rock Formation in Joshua Tree.


Geoff Weigand and Jonny Woodward

Geoff Weigand and Jonny Woodward

Hangdog Days

Hangdog Days

Geoff Weigand and Jonny Woodward

Geoff Weigand and Jonny Woodward


Carol Newman and family photo for The Writer's Workshop.

Carol Newman and family. photo for The Writer’s Workshop.

Paulette Perhach speaks to The Writer's Workshop Seattle writing classes.

Paulette Perhach speaks to The Writer’s Workshop Seattle writing classes.

Pitching story ideas to magazines and newspapers is one of the essential skills I teach in my writing classes. Recently I had the pleasure of hosting Paulette Perhach, a Seattle-based freelance writer and author of Welcome to the Writer’s Life, who spoke about her approach to pitching everyone from The New York Times to Salon.

“If you’re in writing, you’re in sales,” she said. “You don’t take no for an answer; you keep the conversation going. I recently sent a letter to Salon and got a really nice rejection letter. I pitched them again and got an assignment.”

She emphasized that networking is key to getting assignments. She watches for editors calling for pitches on Twitter and regularly attends writing conferences such as AWP to meet with editors like those at the Sun.

“Be persistent with a publication,” she said. “I got a handful of assignments from the New York Times, then didn’t get any assignments for two years. I connected with the special sections editor of the New York Times and then got assignments.”

She argues that newspapers and magazines need writers, but writers need to understand the publication and be professional to get steady assignments, an approach I also emphasize in my writing classes for The Writer’s Workshop.

“Editors are you customers,” she said. “Editors need writers to fill their publication, but they want writers who are easy to work with. Read the writers guidelines. Make a list of the requirements for the publication. Be organized. Break up a story into stages: research, interview, and writing. Don’t miss your deadline. Very people do it right, and if you do it, it shows you’re a professional.”

For more on pitching publications and narrative writing, check out her book, Welcome to the Writer’s Life, or consider signing up for my winter class, The Arc of the Story.

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Dramatic Scenes in Seattle Writing Classes.

Driving makes great material for dramatic scenes in Seattle Writing Classes.

In my Seattle writing classes, I teach how to write a dramatic scene, an especially effective way of organizing stories. In my Seattle writing classes, I explain how to use dramatic scenes to give life and movement to stories, whether fiction on nonfiction. It’s a technique that also helps you as a writer organize the story. You don’t need to go into detail about everything, but rather just the key moments that made the trip memorable.

On a recent trip to England, I used dramatic scene to highlight some of the adventures of the trip. Although travel stories tend to highlight the pleasures of a trip, I also like to write about the challenges and inconveniences. One of the biggest challenges was driving on the LEFT side of the road, with a clutch in my left hand. The whole operation was widely counter intuitive, with lots of honking drivers, speeding motorcyclists and phone-distracted pedestrians thrown into the mix.

As I tell students in my Seattle writing classes, it’s a good idea to always take a notebook with you to record your adventures. I took a reporter’s notebook and filled it with impressions of the trip, especially those involving driving. The hardest part was rewiring my brain to go left, not right, at key moments. This wasn’t so hard on a straightaway, but devilishly difficult on a roundabout. I followed the car in front of me, said a prayer, and plunged through it, occasionally earning a honk or other gesture.

It was a great pleasure to return the rental car to Heathrow airport and have someone else drive into London. Once there, we took the Tube and buses around, very convenient, but not the great material I found through driving on the wrong side of the road.

For more on writing with dramatic scenes, please sign up for my winter Seattle Writing class, The Arc of the Story.

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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. 11 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, Oct. 11 at 7 p.m. in room 221 at the Good Shepherd Center in Seattle’s Wallingford neighborhood. You’ll have a chance to learn how to get started with your story, hear about our classes and enjoy some delicious Provençal food and drink. Please RSVP.

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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.

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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!

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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 nick@thewritersworkshop.net, www.thewritersworkshop.net

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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!

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