Summer Reads for Tumultuous Times from The Writer’s Workshop

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!

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!

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.

Fish Tales in Seattle Writing Classes

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!

How Do You Tell Your Story?

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!

In Medias Res Openings in Seattle Writing Classes

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.