Best Books to Read During Covid Pandemic

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.

How to Submit Stories to Literary Magazines

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!

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, Oct. 2 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 Spanish food and drink. Please RSVP.

How To Write for Magazines

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 have experts talk about how to write for magazines, among other topics. Alaska Airlines Magazine associate editor Andrew Waite talked to my summer Seattle writing class about how to write successfully for magazines. He offered excellent advice about working with editors, including making sure to read the publication before pitching.

“If I haven’t worked with the writer before, I like to write out an outline of how I would write it,” he says. “What’s the lead, nut graph, etc. I want this piece to come in as close to being finished as possible. Make sure you’re on the same page up front. If I have the outline I have an idea of what it’s going to look like. It likely won’t need a major rewrite.”

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.

 

How to Outline a Story or Book

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.

Break into Freelance Magazine Writing

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.

 

The Art of the Pitch For Freelance Writers

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.

How to Write a Dramatic Scene

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.

The Writing Life from The Writer’s Workshop

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

THE WRITING LIFE WITH THE WRITER’S WORKSHOP

 

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.

Five Best Openings in Seattle Writing Classes

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!

SUMMARY LEADS

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.