The online home of Jessica Morrell, because stories matter

Quick Note:

Written By: jessicap - Aug• 30•14

If you have not received the latest issue of The Writing Life newsletter, please contact me.

My fall schedule will be available on September 3, and registration is now open for the Claim Your Story Conference in Ashland, Oregon on October 4. Fabulous line up of workshops! Keynote speaker is Melissa Hart talking about writing the book you want to read. She’ll also be teaching a workshop on scenes in fiction and memoir.  Brilliant author and instructor Midge Raymond will be talking about branding and publishing. I’m going to lead workshops on Brave on the Page and What’s in a Title?

And then, of course, there is Ashland, always lovely in the autumn.  Here’s a glimpse of it:

Lithia Park




Written By: jessicap - Aug• 19•14

I was just talking with a lovely, talented author about a novel she’s working on. She’s having doubts and we were brainstorming how the story could unfold. I started suggesting solutions, rattling them off… I tend to do. And  she laughed and said, “But this is so practical.”

“Well, yes. I am practical. Sometimes solutions aren’t that complicated. Sometimes it’s a structural  problem or the story needs a quirky, fun character to lighten it.”

And that’s the truth. Story problems  and writing doubts and even writing paralysis aren’t always the end of things.  Often aren’t even terribly complicated. (more on this in a later post) And often they’re the beginning of something better.

If you’re struggling it doesn’t mean you’re too old, or too young, or too hardened or too fragile or broken down. It doesn’t mean you need to wrestle with a story that’s not working for the next five years. It means you need to search for a practical way to dig out where you’re stuck. Do you know why your characters think/believe as they do? Do you know what’s screwing up your characters? Do you know how your story will end? Or what you like about your characters?

Take writing seriously, take your career seriously, but don’t turn it into a tragic exercise in self -flagellation. Don’t spend too much time worrying about why you’re writing. Write.

Here’s what I told this author who has already had four books published:  When you’re choosing/beginning a story it’s like adopting a family. Choose a family you can live with for a year or so. Choose a family so that when you sit down at your computer, you’re inspired to share their secrets and fears and joys. You’re going to have lots of intimate contact with them. You’ll be driving the same car, using the same bathroom, sleeping on the same pillow. So choose wisely and make sure some fun is involved along with the conflict and pain necessary for storytelling.

Thanks, But with Tape FlagsOne more thing: This photo arrived in my email today. Thanks so much to Alicia for sending it and her kind words about the many ah-ha moments she had while reading it.


Keep writing, keep dreaming, have heart









Quick Take: Get into your body

Written By: jessicap - Aug• 14•14

ballet girlsOur minds are crowded little places and we too often sit at our computers our breaths shallow and shoulders riding high. Or, after hours spent alone in your head it feels like an echo chamber. Yet your inner knowing is connected to your heart beat, your breath, your bones. The more you write from your body, the truer the words.

From time to time during your writing sessions, drop down into body awareness and the stillness that’s underneath all things. Not your emotions, not your thoughts, but in your body, through and through. Your bones know the truth. As does your heart. Listen in. Your body holds the knowledge your writing needs.
Feel your pulse, notice your breath. You might need to get out of your chair and assume a yoga position. Or simply sit with your eyes closed. Feel your shoulders, your fingers, the aches in your lower back. Quiet the voice or chatter that loops through your days. Slow your breath. Work at making your body quiet and soft as you release tension.

If becoming still is not your style, then dance or go for a walk, feeling your arms move through space, your feet connected to the ground.

The body, your ally, knows. Quiet makes room for inspiration.

Keep writing, keep dreaming, have heart


Writers need to stay curious

Written By: jessicap - Aug• 04•14


The great affair, the love affair with life, is to live as variously as possible, to groom one’s curiosity like a high-spirited thoroughbred, climb aboard, and gallop over the thick, sun-struck hills every day. Where there is no risk, the emotional terrain is flat and unyielding, and, despite all its dimensions, valleys, pinnacles, and detours, life will seem to have none of its magnificent geography, only a length. It began in mystery, and it will end in mystery, but what a savage and beautiful country lies in between.” ~ Diane Ackerman

horse rider sillouhette

Quick Tip: Commas

Written By: jessicap - Aug• 02•14

comma butterfly



I see this mistake often in manuscripts so just wanted to pass along this reminder about using commas to separate adjectives and after independent clauses.

From the Purdue OWL:
“Use commas to separate independent clauses when they are joined by any of these seven coordinating conjunctions: and, but, for, or, nor, so, yet.

The game was over, but the crowd refused to leave.

The student explained her question, yet the instructor still didn’t seem to understand.

Yesterday was her brother’s birthday, so she took him out to dinner.”

Use commas to separate two or more coordinate adjectives that describe the same noun. Be sure never to add an extra comma between the final adjective and the noun itself or to use commas with non-coordinate adjectives.

Coordinate adjectives are adjectives with equal (“co”-ordinate) status in describing the noun; neither adjective is subordinate to the other. You can decide if two adjectives in a row are coordinate by asking the following questions:

  • Does the sentence make sense if the adjectives are written in reverse order?
  • Does the sentence make sense if the adjectives are written with and between them?

If you answer yes to these questions, then the adjectives are coordinate and should be separated by a comma. Here are some examples of coordinate and non-coordinate adjectives:

He was a difficult, stubborn child. (coordinate)

They lived in a white frame house. (non-coordinate)
She often wore a gray wool shawl. (non-coordinate)
Your cousin has an easy, happy smile. (coordinate)

The 1) relentless, 2) powerful 3) summer sun beat down on them. (1-2 are coordinate; 2-3 are non-coordinate.)

The 1) relentless, 2) powerful, 3) oppressive sun beat down on them. (Both 1-2 and 2-3 are coordinate.)

Here is the link to more punctuation guides.

(For those of you who are not entomologists, that is a comma butterfly above.)

                  Remember these guys? SilenceOTLambs_085Pyxurz

Characters We’ve Never Met Before

Written By: jessicap - Jul• 21•14

Fiction readers want to meet story people that they cannot meet in the ordinary world. They also want these people to possess complicated world views and unexpected moral codes. The cast members of Mario Puzo’s The Godfather are splendid examples of this. It’s one of the first novels that depicted mafia families in a sympathetic light and as anti-heroes,  business men who aren’t above snuffing out the competition. Remember that one of the keys to creating anti-heroes is their unorthodox morality. The Godfather

The pitch for the saga is: Don Corleone, an aging patriarch of an organized crime dynasty transfers control of his clandestine empire to his reluctant son Michael. Michael Corleone has a character arc we never saw coming when we first meet at his sister Connie’s wedding to Carlos–the event that begins the story.  In the beginning he’s the beloved youngest son, war hero, and Ivy League graduate.  His role in the family is that he remain untainted and uninvolved in their illegal enterprises. That all changes at the story’s midpoint when he kills a rival family head and a crooked police captain and then goes into hiding in Sicily. By the ending he’s the head of the family and is taking out his enemies including  Carlos, his brother-in-law, because he betrayed his brother Sonny.

Two of the main themes of the story are  respect and loyalty.   However, Michael exacts revenge for disloyalty by murdering within the family, something that his father Vito wouldn’t have sanctioned.  And the loyalty he earns as head of the family is mostly based on fear, not respect. The Corleone family members and their cronies have become iconic fictional figures over the years, as befitting the complexity of the story and its characters.

The Ocean has a Voice

Written By: jessicap - Jul• 10•14

One of my favorite aspects about the Oregon coast is the sound of it. The gulls shrieking overhead, the restless waves crashing in or thundering in during a storm, the wind, the movement of tides. But before I lived near the Pacific, the earth’s largest ocean, I lived in the upper Midwest. The ancient shores of Lake Superior, the largest freshwater lake in the world, and Lake Michigan the eastern border of Wisconsin, were also wide and cold and storm-tossed. I visited these lakes often and when I was traveling to Lake Superior it was in search of old forests and stillness.

You see the Upper Midwest was mostly clear cut by Weyerhaeuser by 1900 so there were few tracts of native trees left. The forests were cleared to make way for crops, were cleared to supply timber to a growing country, and generally because of thoughtless and wanton foresting practices. A mind-boggling amount of trees were removed. During the 19th century, these vast forests yielded more money and created more millionaires than did all the gold mined during California’s Gold Rush. Most of these forest were not replanted although in the 1930s the CCC replanted thousands of acres of forests. I’ve hiked in these young forests and I’ve also I’ve hiked in tree farms owned by timber companies where the ecosystem has been destroyed. There are no native plants, birds and few animals. A spooky, weird silence often pervades.

So what does this have to do with writing? All writers need a place of solace and renewal. A place or way for words to take their form. For me it’s the Pacific and old forests. For me it’s being among the majestic and feeling the interconnectedness of nature.

On the fourth of July we hiked in a wilderness region where there was cathedral silence, except for the waterfalls 2 trickle of brooks and burble of small waterfalls. I could feel the mystery and ancientness of the place as we walked (and huffed) in hushed reverence along rugged terrain. The air smelled like loam and ferns and moss. All around were a hundred shades of emerald, wild flowers—lupine, asters, columbines, Indian paint brush, rhododendrons, and bear grass like Dr. Seuss plants. As we climbed higher there were vast, steep valleys and mountainsides of trees. The world was endless and yet I felt like I belonged.

Being in nature brings with it a heightened sense of awareness. It’s immersive like writing. Natural spaces stimulate your imagination and creativity, and spending time outdoors enhances cognitive flexibility, boosts serotonin, improves attention span and problem-solving abilities. Studies have shown that even 20 minutes spent outdoors increases energy levels. It also helps prevent the eye problems that occur from hours of sitting at a computer. It helps fill the big empty of the writing life.

Of course everyone has their own solace. I’m a jittery type and easily feel pressure and angst. I need to unplug, forget deadlines and worries. After I’ve been in a forest something in me is stilled, but at the same time I feel more alive.

And when I return to my desk the writing is my resting place, my solace.

Keep writing, keep dreaming, have heart


Time is all we have

Written By: jessicap - Jul• 01•14

About twenty-five  years ago when I was in deep distress over a painful marriage, the need to leave it and a teenaged daughter who was enraged about my choices, I was desperate for answers, trying to figure out how I’d landed in such an unhealthy marriage. It was the late 80s and I went to therapy. A lot of therapy. I uncovered childhood traumas I hadn’t dealt with, confronted my low self esteem, and started building hope for a better future. It was a miserable era and I whined too much, drank too much, wallowed in self pity too much. I didn’t write a lot back then because I was too self absorbed. Of course, now I’m fully aware that all of us suffer at some time, some more than others,  but back then I was  using suffering as my identity. And that’s just plain pitiful.

During all this searching and wallowing I sought help from a woman who kept reminding me that people are timeless and limitless. Her words didn’t have much meaning back then, but  I’ve always clung to them and lately I’ve been rolling them around within. After all, July begins today which means we’re at the half-way mark for this year. Like me, are you struck by how fast time passes?  I mark the seasons through gardening and colors and the way the air feels on my skin, the light at dawn and dusk, the birds that visit. The seasons keep me grounded and engaged to this vast, spinning planet, but still they whiz past too quickly. bird-flying child drawing

Let’s bring this around to writing. Storytelling in all its forms is a timeless and ancient endeavor. As necessary to humans as air, fire, water. As precious as emeralds and songbirds. Writing is a beautiful way to spend a lifetime, another way to nurture our planet and fellow citizens.

But there comes the thorny issue of time. It seems there is never enough of it, especially in these golden summer months. All of us are pulled by other demands, from children to careers to aging parents. This means that hours we devote to writing need to be immersive, focused, and devotional. When you write you need to feel timeless and limitless, as if all that exists is you and the story.  With writing you need to enter a chamber, a place within where your stories live. Often connecting to these stories isn’t through conscious toil, as in ‘should I introduce my antagonist in this scene?’ Or through editing and revising which is done with the conscious mind–too many short sentences in a row, tighten the dialogue, punch up the action scenes.

Instead, your inner storyteller can be found in the dark, in the strata of the subconscious, or in the layers where dreams happen. We all have different ways of connecting with these layers, with achieving the marvelous flow that only happens when words pour out like lava. Until you have your writing practice nailed down or magical access to your subconscious,  start by focusing as tightly as possible. Handle the scene in front of you. If another idea for a scene swoops in, note it with a few words,  then gently, gently turn back to your scene, your sentence. Just stay there, allowing movies to play out, or characters to start chatting. Or follow your character, feeling what she feels. Noticing what she notices.  Just stay there.

Keep writing, keep dreaming, have heart






Written By: jessicap - Jul• 01•14

fireworks multiple

Quick Take: beware of thumbnail sketches

Written By: jessicap - Jun• 19•14

Avoid thumbnail sketches  or police blotter descriptions  whenever a new character steps into your book. (The suspect was a Latino male, 6 feet, medium build, scar on left cheek, tattoo of snake on right shoulder,  wearing black jacket, jeans and sneakers)This technique tends to feel contrived especially if used too often. A character doesn’t need to be described all at once, you can layer his or her appearance into the story in increments.  Here’s another example of piling it on: Allison, a 30-something,  5 foot 8 redhead, with heavily-mascaraed blue eyes and legs for days strolled into the restaurant her green eyes flashing. Her hair was shoulder-length, her figure striking, her fingernails painted a garish purple. She wore what looked like a real mink jacket over a tight, black dress and teetered on dangerously high heels. This is also direct characterization.

drag queen Pretend that you’re walking into a room and seeing your character for the first time. What are your first impressions?  Can you feel the force of his or her personality? Does he or she remind you of  a celebrity? Someone you know? It’s not all about the specifics of appearances—some people arrive on the scene full of confidence, some are hesitant or nervous. Why? Some people stand erect, some slouch. Some have lovely voice qualities, some people bray. Some wear too much cologne, some smell of fresh air or machine oil.  Use clothes, setting, and possessions, including large possessions such as cars to reveal characters.