Seattle Writing Class Teaches Power of Details

Seattle Writing Class teaches how to use concrete detail as exemplified by All the Light We Cannot See.
Seattle Writing Class teaches how to use concrete detail as exemplified by All the Light We Cannot See.

In my fall Seattle writing class, Revising Your Life, I emphasize how using concrete detail can conjure a world and bring it to life. I just finished a novel which provides a masterful example of how to do this. Anthony Doerr’s, All the Light We Cannot See, brings to life the hardship and atmosphere of WWII Europe, telling the story of Marie Laure, a blind French Girl, and Werner, a German orphan, whose lives illuminate the larger story of the period.

Though I have read many books about WWII, none of them brings to life the hardships of the period as clearly as this one. Werner escapes the orphanage by learning to build and fix radios, a skill highly prized by the Nazis, who soon send him to an elite military academy to train and become indoctrinated into the Nazi world view. His younger sister, Jutta, objects to his attending the school as she believes it will turn him into one of them. The difficult moral problems each of these characters is forced to confront testifies to the subtlety and sympathy of Doerr as a writer. There are no easy answers to such questions.

Frederick, one of Werner’s friends at the academy, refuses to cooperate with commandant. The other boys then set on him, beating him nearly to death. There is no easy way out of Werner’s dilemma. He keeps his head down and mouth shut and succeeds at the school because of his prowess at fixing radios. This talent soon leads him into the German army where he specializes in tracking radios used by the enemy.

The book alternates between Werner’s and Marie Laure’s point of view. While Doerr employs a more conventional point of view with Werner, he uses a braille-like approach with Marie Laure. There is so much amazingly tactile writing in the book, first about Paris where she grows up, and then about St. Malo, a luminous city on the north coast of France, where the book’s climax takes place. I won’t give away the ending, but it is satisfying, haunting, and surprisingly optimistic, making it a worthy recipient of the Pulitzer Prize.

My fall Seattle Writing Class, Revising Your Life, will emphasize how to use concrete detail in your own work. There’s still room. Let me know if you’d like to sign up!

Seattle Writing Course Addresses Self-Publishing

Emilie Sandoz-Voyer talks to The Writer's Workshop's Seattle writing course about self-publishing.
Emilie Sandoz-Voyer talks to The Writer’s Workshop’s Seattle writing course about self-publishing.

In my Seattle writing courses, I tell students that once upon a time, writers would send out manuscripts to traditional publishers until they got a contract. If they tried and tried but got no contract, some of them would send the manuscript to what was called a vanity press, a company that published the book for payment by the author. Such “vanity” books had little cachet or influence and often promptly disappeared, though it must be noted that Henry David Thoreau’s Walden was first published in this manner and has sold thousands of copies. Most of these titles however disappeared without much of a trace.

Now, with the advent of Amazon’s CreateSpace and other publishing tools, the world of self-publishing is gaining new cachet. For this reason, I invited Emilie Sandoz-Voyer of Girl Friday Productions to speak about the latest trends in self-publishing for my Seattle writing course, Writing for Story.

“I shepherd authors through the editorial and publishing process,” she said. “Self publishing is my bread and butter. What does it mean to be a self published author? It means you are the publisher, writer, editor and producer, uploading your title to be available on Amazon and other places. You’re a publishing entrepreneur. It can be overwhelming at first, but there are resources available and it’s become easier to self publish your book.”

Sandoz-Voyer emphasized you have to think like a publisher if you choose the self-published option. Who will buy your book? How will you get copies to them?

“Amazon’s CreateSpace service books will ship via Amazon, a great option for self published authors.” she said. “You can also go through Ingram Spark or Lightning source. You can go through more than one channel. You’re the publisher, not the distributor, and you keep all your royalties.”

Keeping all your royalties sounds very appealing. What’s not so appealing is doing everything a publisher does to come up with a professional quality book. Writing the book is just one aspect of this, as I remind students in my Seattle writing course.

“I highly recommend hiring editors to polish that prose, so it looks professional,” said Sandoz-Voyer. “Hire a cover designer to make your book stand out.”


Hemingway’s Influence on Seattle Writing Courses

Hemingway biography informs Seattle Writing  Courses.
Hemingway biography informs Seattle Writing Courses.

In my Seattle writing courses, I emphasize how studying great writing is an essential part of learning to write. There are many outstanding writers, but Ernest Hemingway serves as an important inspiration for many writers, including myself. There is much to learn from Hemingway: his precision with language, saying the most complicated things in pithy, surprising way; his hypnotic prose rhythms, some of which he borrowed from Gertrude Stein; his utterly unflinching portraits of people, not all of which were particularly flattering but many of which get burned into your memory, for example, the old man and waiters in the story “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place.”

His colorful life played a larger role in his writing. For this reason, I picked up Hemingway: A Life Story by Carlos Baker. It was published in 1969 and gives an encyclopedic account of his life. Sometimes there’s too much detail about his life, but then you can just skip a few pages. Hemingway comes across as a very complex personality, an extremely ambitious young many, driven to excel in whatever he tried, desiring admiration, displaying strength, endurance, hating politicians, intellectuals, and lap dogs. He was both shy and an incredibly braggart. He could be a warm and generous friend but could turn on friends quickly. He was a perpetual student, reading widely, studying nature, becoming an expert on topics like bull fighting, trout fishing and big game hunting.

In my Seattle writing courses, I emphasize the need to show or demonstrate in your writing rather than simply summarizing. Hemingway was a genius at this, working hard to get the details right and true so that a reader could conjure the whole picture in his or her mind. The Baker biography provides much lavish detail about Hemingway’s life. It’s not as luminescent as his own work, but does provide an important background to it.

Writing Classes Emphasize Storytelling

Writing Classes Emphasize Storytelling as In the Garden of Beasts
Writing Classes Emphasize Storytelling as In the Garden of Beasts

In my writing classes, I emphasize the need for strong storytelling skills as a way of reaching a wide audience. I just finished a book that demonstrates this exactly: Eric Larson’s In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler’s Berlin.

The work of narrative nonfiction tells the story of William Dodd, American Ambassador to Germany during the years 1933 to 1937 when Hitler and the Nazi Party were taking power in Germany. Dodd spoke German and loved the country, having received his Ph.D. in Leipzig 40 years earlier. When offered the post of ambassador for President Franklin Roosevelt, he accepted and brought his family with him, including his daughter Martha, an attractive and flirtatious woman who had just separated from her husband and was in the process of divorcing him. Martha caught the eye of a number of high-ranking figures including Adolf Hitler, Gestapo Head Rudolf Diels and Soviet attaché and secret agent Boris Vinogradov. The book does a great job of providing a view of the Third Reich from the ground up, Martha’s encounters with these men vividly illuminating the personal side of these men, a side often ignored in the histories of the era.

Larson is particularly good at using characters, including Martha, to tell the larger story from the inside out, one of the strategies I encourage my students to follow in my Seattle, online and travel writing classes. Martha is the principal point of view figure in the book which traces her early enthusiasm for Germany and the Nazi party. This enthusiasm gives way to uneasiness, dread, and open hostility as she sees the regime for what is truly is: a murderous, inhuman machine. It’s truly a gripping read from the opening which graphically details the wounds of a young American doctor who found himself in the wrong place at the wrong time, one of many such early warnings of Nazi brutality. Put it on your reading list!

Travel Writing Class and Goya’s Black Paintings

Travel Writing Class and Goya's Black Paintings.
Travel Writing Class and Goya’s Black Paintings.

While teaching my Travel writing class for The Writer’s Workshop, I stopped by the Prado Museum in Madrid to see Goya’s Black Paintings. I’d written a long paper about the paintings for an art history class at Amherst College. When I traveled to Europe as part of a junior year abroad program I found them electric in their intensity, shocking in their gruesome detail. I was especially struck by the painting Pilgrimage to San Isidro and the malevolent and haunting expressions on the faces of the pilgrims. It was astounding to think that Goya actually displayed the paintings on the walls of his house. What would it be like to wake up every day and see these horrific images?

I came away from my first visit to the Prado moved by the paintings but unsure of how to interpret them. I did not return to the museum or Madrid for many years, but the images stuck with me.

This past year I planned to teach a travel writing class in Haro, about a three-hour drive north of Madrid. I decided to fly into Madrid, stay in the city for a couple nights, enjoy the buzz of the city, order some tapas and return to the Prado. How would I react to the paintings 30 years later? There was no way to know. Some paintings I’d loved over the years eventually lost their lustre. I hoped this would not be the case.

As my friend Chris Olsen and I entered the museum, we made our way toward the Black Paintings. Walking through the exhibition, I was astonished by the skill of Goya’s execution. I came away impressed by the power of Goya’s art to transform even the most horrific experience into something satisfying and strangely beautiful.

Seattle Writing Class Discusses In Media Res Openings

Seattle writing class discusses in medias res opening
Seattle writing class discusses in medias res openings.

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 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 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 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 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.

Writing Class Helps Bring People to Life on Page

Characterization in Writing Classes.
Ed Viesturs and Characterization in Writing Classes.

In my writing classes, I emphasize the need to bring people to life on the page. I recently interviewed mountaineer Ed Veisturs for a magazine story and sought to bring him to life through a focus on his efforts to climb Mt. Everest. Writing a short profile is a great way to do this, one of the techniques I discuss in my Seattle writing classes, including my summer writing class, Writing for Story. When writing profiles, I like to focus on a specific event that illustrates the person’s character. Here are some excerpt from that story.

What was the weather like you when you summited Everest without oxygen?

The weather was perfect that day. It was cold but nothing I couldn’t deal with. I started out using headlamp in the dark and then it gradually got bright. It was my third attempt, and previously I had been 300 feet from the summit. For me the motivation was the mystery of the last 300 feet. At 29,000 feet, 300 feet is huge. That was the barrier I wanted to discover. I was breathing 15 times for every step take. After 15, I had to take another step. You have to do it. It’s step by step, towards a rock 100 yards ahead. That was my next goal. Then I found a another goal. You have to be focused and deliberate. If you look too far into the distance, you can’t do it.

I got to the top around 1 p.m. It was 12 hours from high camp,.

How did it feel to stand on the summit?

It was one of those dream come true moments. Growing up in Illinois, one of flattest states, I had a dream of climbing an 8000 meter peak without oxygen. I had a poster of Jim Whitaker in my room. He was the expedition leader on that climb. So I lived that dream. I achieved the goal of doing it without oxygen. I was alone on the summit. To have that place  to yourself was pretty special.


I discuss more about characterization in my summer writing class, Writing for Story.

Seattle Writing Class Discusses Dramatic Outlines


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

In teaching my Seattle writing class, I’ve learned that structure is the biggest challenge for most writers. While most writers understand sentence structure and paragraphing, they have trouble organizing individual paragraphs into a larger story. This is one of the things we’ll discuss in my upcoming spring Seattle writing class, Writing for Story. One of the best ways of structuring a story is to begin with an outline, one of the techniques I’ll discuss in my spring Seattle writing class, Writing for Story. 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 have a good chance of figuring 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. 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: Writing for Story.

Seattle Writing Class Discusses Author Platform

Text for Seattle Writing Class.
A River Runs Through It discussed in spring Seattle Writing Class.

In my spring Seattle writing class, we’ll discuss how you create an author platform. Many authors cringe at the mention of this concept, preferring to spend their time writing rather than marketing or creating a network. But the task doesn’t need to be overwhelming to create a platform that will help you sell your book, whether you’re pitching to a traditional publisher or planning to self-publish your book. The important thing is to work smart. Figure out the best way for you to create a strong platform while continuing to write.

The author platform has taken on an important role when it comes to whether or not a writer will get a traditional publishing contract — and it’s equally important to self-published authors who are serious about their writing careers.

The rise of the author platform as an industry obsession is a relatively new phenomenon. While industry folks may argue that platform has always mattered, today it’s more important than ever before. A huge shift has transpired in the past decade when it comes to what agents and editors weigh when deciding what projects to represent or publish — and in some cases an author’s star quality matters more than his or her actual book.

Author platform is more than just social media. Many aspiring authors believe that platform is all about social media, but in fact Twitter, Facebook, Pinterest, and Instagram are only small pieces of the author platform pie.

The platform is a strategy and means of selling a book. Because the book world has changed so dramatically, publishers don’t have as many predictable sales channels, and they increasingly want a sure thing when it comes to selling. They may love a book, but if they’re not sure how to sell it, they won’t buy it unless the author has a platform in place to for it. For more, sign up for my spring writing class, The Nature of Narrative.



Charles Johnson on Writing Classes

Charles Johnson Cartoon for writing classes
Charles Johnson Cartoon for writing classes.

In my writing classes, I emphasize how learning art and craft is essential to succeeding as a writer. Tonight, I’ll be interviewing my former teacher, Charles Johnson, on teaching and writing. He just published an important new book, The Way of the Writer: Reflections on the Art and Craft of Storytelling. The book grows out of his teaching at the University of Washington, where I received my Master of Fine Arts and doctorate. Here are some of the questions we’ll address:

-Why did you write The Way of the Writer? What was the impetus for it?

-What do you hope the book will do? What kind of conversations will it spark?

-How does the book grow out of your own approach to writing?

-You never attended a creative writing program. How did you find your way as a writer?

-How important were mentors like John Gardner? How would a young writer acquire a mentor?

-How was working as a journalist important to your development?

-What did art and cartooning teach you about writing?

-You say in The Way of the Writer that you avoided creative writing classes while working on Faith and the Good Thing? Why?

-Have these programs changed over the years? As a young writer today, would you be more or less willing to attend such a program?

-What would you look for in a creative writing program? What could be most helpful about such a program? What are potential drawbacks?

-Has the writing workshop approach evolved? Is it still the main pedagogical strategy of these programs? What are its weaknesses? Its strengths?

-Can craft and technique be taught?

-What cannot be taught?

The are also issues I’ll address in my spring writing class, The Nature of Narrative. I’ll be interviewing Charles Johnson tonight 7:30 p.m. at Third Place Books Seward Park in Seattle. Please stop by!

From Charles Johnson—a National Book Award winner, Professor Emeritus at University of Washington, and…