This November, I am offering two classes at the Hugo House in Seattle: Radical Essays and Personal Opinions and Building Characters from Real Life.
Saturdays at 1 p.m., November 9, 16, and 23.
In this divisive and strident cultural moment, a personal story can be a powerful thing: a call to compassion, a reminder of the complexity of human experience, a way of humanizing a political idea or conviction. In this class, you’ll explore strategies for transforming personal stories into essays that can function both as opinion pieces and as literary work. The class will draw inspiration from writers and columnists whose work combines the literary, the essayistic, the personal, and the polemical — such as Rebecca Solnit, Kathryn Schulz, Dan Savage, Timothy Egan, and the writers of the New York Times opinion pages — and from Louise Dunlap’s book, Undoing the Silence, about overcoming the barriers that make us reluctant to speak out. You’ll learn tips for structuring different forms of opinion pieces and personal stories, including op-eds and narrative essays.
You will come away from this class with:
*Writing prompts to help you extract story ideas from personal experience.
*Tools for making connections between personal stories and opinion, including “clustering” and concept-mapping.
*Tips for pitching and publishing opinion-writing and political essay.
*Strategies for plotting and structuring opinion-writing.
*A rough draft of an opinion piece or essay and/or a pitch.
Mondays at 7:10 p.m., November 11, 18, and 25.
Characters are what sell a story, turning an abstract idea into a living, breathing representation of human experience. In nonfiction and journalism, writers build characters from the raw and messy material of real life. In this three-week class, you’ll learn strategies for interviewing and digging deeply into the thoughts, habits, manners, quirks, and substance of your characters. You’ll also explore techniques for rendering yourself and others as characters through scenes, dialog, and telling details. The class will draw on examples from writers who are masters of character development, such as Susan Orlean, Isabel Wilkerson, Tracy Kidder, and Lane DeGregory.
Through reading, writing assignments, discussion, and in-class exercises, students will learn strategies for:
*Interviewing for character: how to build trust, understand motive, and extract details for building scenes and plot.
*Finding characters anywhere in the world: tools for seeking out the inner struggles, dramas, anecdotes, and hidden stories that exist in nearly everyone’s life.
*Turning yourself into a character: tips for writing your own quirks, habits, and personality traits.
*Using scenes and telling details to reveal personality and motive.
*Building stories around characters: such as the profile, the essay, and others.
Introduction to Feature Stories
A six-week class, two hours per session, at the Hugo House, last offered in Fall 2016.
The feature is a flexible narrative form that allows writers to combine a literary voice with the timeliness of newswriting—and get their work into top-tier, well-compensated publications. This generative class teaches the art and pragmatism of feature-writing. Through exercises, readings, and discussion, you’ll develop enticing story ideas and learn to weave together the characters, scenes, and “big idea” exposition that are characteristic of features.
You will come away from this class with:
*Tips for what makes a strong and publishable feature story.
*Strategies for finding a good story idea, from both predictable and surprising sources, including techniques for spinning features out of memoir and personal essay.
*An understanding of the rules and structure of a feature story—angles and nut grafs, ledes and kickers. Guidance for when to stick within these rules and when to “color outside the lines.”
*Tools for researching feature stories: using interviews to develop character; gathering facts and sensory details to craft scenes; and creating plot from real-life tension.
*Approaches for story-blocking, scene-writing, and artful exposition.
*Tips for finding your publication niche. How to research, analyze, and pitch print and online forums for your work.
*How to sing with the feature-writing chorus: Honoring your writer’s voice while accommodating the needs of your editors and publications.
You will also develop:
*A series of ideas and leads for feature stories.
* One or more draft story pitches and the tools to craft many successful features.
We will draw on examples from masters of narrative journalism and feature writing, such as Elizabeth Kolbert, Ta-Nehisi Coates, Katherine Boo, Rebecca Skloot, and Isabel Wilkerson.
The Pitch Laboratory
To pitch is to distill a story to its fundamentals. In few words, you must conjure plot, characters, story structure and execution, so that your editor trusts you and will give you a chance to grow the story into a full-fledged narrative. In this workshop, you will have the chance to bring your story ideas to life in pitch form – in order to entice editors and find opportunities for publishing your work.
The pitch laboratory will be a place of experimentation, in which we learn from each other’s story ideas and provide collective support and encouragement. You will have the chance to present your pitch to the class and receive feedback to help strengthen the pitch and increase its chances of publication.
Writers will come away from this class with:
*Tips for what makes a strong and publishable story.
*How to find a good story idea, from both predictable and surprising sources.
*Tools for researching nonfiction stories: using interviews to develop character, gathering facts and sensory details to craft scenes, and creating plot from real-life tension.
*A draft of a story pitch and strategies for making that pitch more successful.