Word by Word

Practical insights for writers from Jessica P Morrell

Readers need footholds, handholds

Written By: Jessica Morrell - May• 27•22

Readers will climb with you to the most unlikely places if they trust you, if the words give them the right footholds, handholds. ~Jeanette Winterson

Written By: Jessica Morrell - May• 06•22

Storytelling reveals meaning without committing the error of defining it. ~ Hannah Arendt

Once Upon a Time: aim true with your fantasy opener

Written By: Jessica Morrell - Apr• 27•22

Children understand that ‘once upon a time’ refers not only – not even primarily – to the past, but to the impalpable regions of the present, the deeper places inside us where princes and dragons, wizards and talking birds, impassable roads, impossible tasks, and happy endings have always existed, alive and bursting with psychic power.” ~ Stephen Mitchell

Every spring I proclaim how the Pacific Northwest is a fairyland with its massive pale pink blooms, impossibly green hues, perfumed, soft air, and wildly changeable skies. And as usual, the region has once again delivered. Amid this splendor I’ve been editing an epic fantasy novel so the challenges this genre presents writers have been on my mind. From the first must-be-transporting words to the shattering conclusion, readers demand layers of fantastical invention. It all begins with a captivating opening salvo.

“Once upon a time” or “A long, long time ago” makes a promise to your readers. Open these pages and you’ve been wrested from your 21st century sphere. You are about to enter a kind of dream world, encounter wonderment, and find age-old conflicts wearing fantastical guises.

While fantasy is untethered from our current world, as in real life, dont make promises you cannot keep. You’ve got to deliver an adventure so potent it invades the reader’s senses and alters his or her heartrate. Your adventure needs a diverse cast, a clash of titans, and the wondrous–dragons soaring overhead, ancient spells and curses, night walkers, or battles fought over lands or pride or brute necessity. Fantasies can be a retelling of real kingdoms or political intrigue or  greedy conquerors.  Yet the human element, the pains we all know such as betrayal, cruelty, loss, grief, abandonment are always in play.

Opening sentences are everything. They start the whole transporting apparatus to assure readers they’ve landed in a faraway time and place. Amid a world of richly embroidered textures, sights, tastes, smells, and sounds all while entanglements with a fascinating cast of characters are underway. A world that has a carefully built history, scenes unfolding in distinct reality replete with atmosphere, tension and mood.

Here’s what your opening is delivering:

  • Characters tossed off balance somehow by a force outside themselves.
  • A nettling question emerges that demands answers.
  • Something is amiss. The opening act creates a threat. Humans are biologically programed to respond to threat, but will go along for the ride anyway. Because, after all, the  threat is long ago and far away.
  • Introduce story people we’ll never meet in the real world. Story people we just can’t quit. People we can follow up close.  So close we can hear their laughter or scorn, smell the stink from their terror, or experience what has lit their fierce desires.
  • Readers need to care about who is threatened. Some aspect of the main characters need to be identifiable, possibly pitiful, worrying, or vexing. Has life already handed your protagonist near-starving rations or brutality? Or has a royal family member longed to escape to an ordinary life?
  • No matter if dreaded, or later regretted, a choice must be made. {Excuse the almost-rhyme.”}

“Perfect words in perfect places”

Which brings us to oh-so important first lines with those perfect words. Let’s forget about first person or third person for now. Let’s start in the midst of a powerful moment.  Don’t be afraid to startle the reader, but always create a mood and perhaps a  stirring dread. As in these examples:

“The island of Gont, a single mountain that lifts its peak above the storm-racked Northeast Sea, is famous for wizards.” Ursula K. Leguinn, A Wizard of Earthsea

“Logen plunged through the forest, bare feet slipping and sliding on the wet earth, the slush, the wet pine needles, breath rasping in his chest, blood thumping in his chest. He stumbled and sprawled onto his side, nearly cut his chest open with his own axe, lay there panting, peering through the shadowy forest.” Joe Ambercrombie, The Blade Itself

“The children were playing while Holston climbed to his death; he could hear them squealing as only happy children do.” Hugh Howey, Wool

“Sometimes, I fear I’m not the hero everyone thinks I am.” Brandon Sandborne, Mistborn: The Final Empire

“It was a felling night, and the usual crowd had gathered at the Waystone Inn. It wasn’t much of a crowd, but five was as many as the  Waystone ever  these days, times being what they were.” Patrick Rothmuss, The Name of the Wind 

“When Lilia was four years old, her mother filled a shallow dish with her blood and fed it to the boars that patrolled the thorned fence.” Kameron Hurley, The Mirror Empire

Something is surely amiss, right? I’m especially struck by the opening of The Blade Itself because I’ve hiked many a wet forest living here in the Pacific Northwest. But not barefoot. Never barefoot. And what is a felling night? Feeding a child’s blood to boars? Shiver. Make that an icy shiver.

I need to know more, don’t you?

Keep writing, keep dreaming, have heart

April

Written By: Jessica Morrell - Apr• 02•22

Between the lines: Mood

Written By: Jessica Morrell - Mar• 18•22

Just as every dark and stormy night, party, holiday, or bustling office on payday are infused with mood, so are scenes in fiction. Mood infects and reinforces the reader’s emotions, aids in understanding key moments, and enhances his or her enjoyment of the story events.

Mood is the feel or atmosphere or ambience of a story or scene. ALL writing should evoke a mood.

Mood is omnipresent like the soundtrack of fiction. As with movies, without a soundtrack, fiction is not complete and captivating. Mood makes readers worry about heroines stranded in lonely castles and fog-bound moors. It feeds suspense and tension, and is in fact inseparable  from them. It is essential to genres like horror, thrillers, and action, but is necessary to every moment in every story where you want a reader to feel a certain way. You can stage your characters in dramatic events but without setting up the proper mood, the characters’ actions will fall short.

Mood is what the reader feels while reading a scene or story. It’s not the reader’s emotions, (though mood is designed to influence them) but the atmosphere (the vibe) of a scene or story. It’s the tornado heading for Dorothy Gale’s Kansas farm. In the film, once the viewers spot that towering tunnel and witness winds lashing the countryside, fear sets in. Will Dorothy make it to cellar in time?

It’s what the reader notices, what gets under his or her skin. Not all readers will experience/perceive the same mood from a scene, although the writer tries to achieve a particular feel common to every reader.

A quick example from everyday life–candlelight is soothing and soft; overhead fluorescent lights are harsh and even irritating.

Tip: Mood should change and vary as the story moves forward. Moods in subplots should vary from the main storyline.

Why Mood?

  • Deepens the reader’s experience.
  • Creates cohesion.
  • Enhances tension and suspense.
  • Evokes emotions, creates emotional connections to the characters and their situations.
  • Works with reader’s nervous system.
  • Underlines themes.
  • Mood helps fiction become more immersive, alive, lifelike and creates a backdrop for drama.

Mood as Backdrop

Peter Heller’s brilliant novel The Dog Stars takes place in a future where the world has been ravaged by a pandemic that’s killed off most of the population. If that wasn’t bad enough, the natural world is dying off too. He wrote it in 2012. I’m a sucker for a postapocalyptic novel, even when they’re shockingly prescient. I cannot recommend enough this beautiful, compelling, heart-wrenching story that invaded my thoughts for days while reading it. This backdrop to the state of affairs the protagonist Hig exists in, is dropped in on page 6.

In the beginning there was Fear. Not so much the flu by then, by then  I walked, I talked. Not so much talked, but of sound body—and of mind, you be the judge. Two straight weeks of fever, three days 104 to105, I know it cooked my brains. Encephalitis or something else. Hot. Thoughts that once belonged, that felt at home with each other, were now discomfited, unsure. Depressed, like those shaggy Norwegian ponies that Russian professor moved to the Siberian Arctic I read about before. He was trying to recreate the Ice Age, a lot of grass and fauna and few people.  Had he known what was coming he would have pursued another hobby. Half the ponies died, I think from heartbreak for their Scandinavian forests, half hung out at the research station and were fed grain and still died. That’s how my thoughts are sometimes. When I’m stressed. When something’s bothering me and won’t let go. They’re pretty good, I mean they function, but a lot of times they feel out of place, kinda sad, sometimes wondering if maybe they are supposed to be ten thousand miles from here in a place with a million square miles of cold Norwegian spruce. Sometimes I don’t trust my thoughts not to bolt for the brush. Probably not my brain, probably normal for where we’re at.

I don’t want to be confused: we are nine years out. The flu killed almost everybody, then the blood disease killed more. The ones who are left are mostly Not Nice, why we live here on the plain, why I patrol every day.

Mood sets the stage

“Stop that you’ll fall.”

A week’s worth of snow has compressed into ice, each day’s danger hidden beneath a nighttime dusting of powder.  Every few yards my boots travel farther than my boots intended, and my stomach pitches, braced for a fall. Our progress is slow, and I wished I’d thought to bring Sophia on a sled instead.

Reluctantly, she opens her eyes, swivels her head owllike, away from the shops, to hide her face in her sleeve. I squeeze her gloved hand. She hates the birds that hang in the butcher’s window, their neck iridescent feathers cruelly at odds with the lifeless eyes they embellish.

I hate the birds too.

Adam says I’ve given the phobia to her, like a cold or a piece of unwanted jewelry.

“Where did she get it from them?” he said when I protested turning to an invisible crowd, as if the absence of answer proved his point. “Not me.”

Of course not. Adam doesn’t have weaknesses.

This is the opening salvo for Hostage written by Clare Mackintosh, a ‘locked room’ thriller. The locked room in this story is a London to Sydney flight.  It feels like a thriller doesn’t it? Those creepy dead birds, dangerous snow, and the husband-wife conflict signal something bad is going to happen.

TIPS

Mood is created by a range of literary devices–setting, conflict, imagery, sensory details, characters reacting and responding in scenes. While setting is most commonly used to induce moods, descriptive language is a potent tool and that decreases or amps up tension. In Dean Koontz’s novel The Face a horrific storm lashes Los Angeles a few days before Christmas adding a delicious shiver of danger and tension. The weather is referred to in each scene, causes things to happen and creates an ominous, the world-is-askew mood. For example, he writes, “In the witches’ cauldron of the sky, late-morning light brewed into a thick gloom more suitable to winter dusk.”

  • Mood is created on a word-by-word basis by choosing sensory details that stir emotions, but also by orchestrating pacing. Slow down for important moments, places readers need to savor. Pacing naturally speeds up when excitement is high, conflict is intense, action is nonstop. Short sentences and paragraphs communicate excitement, urgency, panic, anger, shock, and violence. Short sentences land a gut punch and demand readers keep zipping through the text.
  • While most stories, especially short stories,  have an overarching atmosphere, the ambience or vibe of a story will change over time and change in intensity.
  • Examples of mood: spooky, light-hearted, gothic, sexy, peaceful, ominous, brooding, funny, suspenseful.
  • Mood is linked to tension and suspense and getting under your reader’s skin.
  • Use mood to foreshadow.
  • A vague or pallid setting will create vague and pallid emotions/reactions in your readers.

Keep writing, keep dreaming, have heart

Writing is…

Written By: Jessica Morrell - Mar• 02•22

MARCH

Written By: Jessica Morrell - Mar• 02•22

Fiction Needs Closeups Too

Written By: Jessica Morrell - Feb• 25•22

Cold  weather all week here and my container plants are covered.  My bulbs are  emerging and they’re covered too, but so far freezing temperatures  didn’t take out any weeds. A gardener can dream.

And I cannot look away from the heartbreaking horrors in Ukraine. Utter madness. I realize how hard it is for writers and artists to keep working amid the dread and worries, but try we must.

Let’s move on to using closeup “shots” of your characters in fiction. Filmmakers have a large repertoire of techniques that writers are wise to study and borrow. Closeup camera angles are powerful in film and an important technique fiction writers need to emulate throughout their stories.

I write many, many notes and suggestions to my editing clients, some within the pages of the manuscript, some included in a long, detailed memo.  At times I suggest a wide angle or establishing shot to introduce setting and atmosphere–especially helpful when a character arrives at a new place or when major action is about to go down.

However, I’m certain that every story I’ve worked on needed more ‘closeup’ shots of characters, so I suggest when to bring the viewpoint– fiction’s camera lens–closer.  In film or television the director and cameraman have lots of choices about how to use distance to achieve drama.  There are full shots, medium, long, POV, closeup and extreme closeups. A closeup shot tightly frames the actor’s face and signals significance. They’re typically used to portray deep emotions and create connection between audience and actor.  There are also ‘extreme close-ups’ where the camera lingers on a subject, usually the actor.  But close-ups can also focus on hands and body parts, props, jewelry, or other objects of interest.

Obviously closeups are intimate because they’re revealing. They showcase significant emotions, realizations, decisions,  and important moments or actions.  They also reveal when characters have something to hide.

Romance films and dramas employ these shots especially when characters are surprised, shocked,  filled with dread, or when feelings shift. Closeups, naturally,  are often used in horror and suspense films to increase the audience members’ heartbeat. Alfred Hitchcock was fond of using them, such as in the grisly shower scene in Psycho. You know the one.

Uses for closeups:

  • Convey important moments, reversals, revelations.
  • Enhance threat and danger.
  • Enhance evil and malevolence.
  • Shock value as when a monster or villain is in the frame.
  • Focus on, reveal a character’s state  of mind.
  • Slow the pacing.
  • Portray damage, pain, the cost paid by characters.
  • Allow readers to see the world through the character’s eyes.
  • Reveal closeness, intimacy, estrangement, coldness between characters.
  • Suggest or define character arc.
  • Show other ‘sides’ of a character, including subtler traits.
  • Illustrate a character’s emotional bandwidth, as in how she or he handles the best of times and the worst of times.
  • In scenes that contain violence, brutality, or horror, a closeup amplifies the dangers as in the ‘here’s Johnny’ moment in The Shining when Jack Torrence, played by Jack Nicholson is terrorizing his family. Notice how it’s clear that he’s sunk into madness.

As you’re revising, make sure that during the most poignant moments in the story, readers are pulled in. Allow your readers to witness emotions flickering across the character’s face. Let them sense what’s churning beneath a character’s exterior.

Keep writing, keep dreaming, use your voice

Before children speak, they sing

Written By: Jessica Morrell - Feb• 17•22

Deliberate Practice

Written By: Jessica Morrell - Feb• 10•22

I’ve been watching the Olympics this week and last night was thrilled when 22 year-old Nathan Chen won the gold medal in men’s figure skating. Mixed in with the events were various interviews and backstories on the athletes, including  their previous wins and losses, personal tragedies, and injuries.

Before Malcom Gladwell wrote in Outliers: The Story of Success that mastery requires 10,000 hours or ten years of deliberate practice I’ve recognized this truth because I know successful authors who put in thousands of hours at their craft. Noticed how performers, musicians, writers, and athletes have perfected their expertise by years of unstinting, deliberate practice. The playground kids hitting hundreds of free throws a day. The athletes getting up a dawn for early practice before school. The chess masters hunched over the board and studying long-dead grandmasters and their wins.  Chen spending so many hours of his childhood on the ice since he was three.

There are debunkers who claim Gladwell’s assertion isn’t true. Claims are that it’s an overgeneralization and misinterpretation of the research. That it’s not the quantity of the practice, but rather the quality of the practice because not all practices are equally helpful. Here’s what I think: the exact number of hours needed to write a quality novel or memoir or screenplay can never be adequately measured. But it requires an immersion, obsession, and undaunted practice. It requires carving out time,  getting up early and staying up late and missing out on ‘normal’ life at times. It requires lifelong learning and commitment to getting better. I’ve met writers who write a lot but their commitment to the craft isn’t strong. As in their writing stays at the same level, the vocabularies similar in whatever they write, similar plots and ploys repeated.

Writers need their own version of the ‘quads’. As in the quadruple axels on the ice that require precision and becoming stronger and smarter day after day.

Precision in writing can apply from the word level to themes to storyline. Putting down the perfect word in the precise place its needed. Learning to use figurative language. Plotting a series of twists in your storyline.

After Chen won gold NBC featured film clips of him as boy, including him on the ice as a toddler. Then there was an interview when a reporter asked the eleven-year-old about his skating goals and he said he planned on being in the 2018 Olympics. The reporter’s voice was syrupy and almost condescending as in “isn’t it adorable when kids dream.”

But dream he did. And then hit the ice. And placed a disappointing fifth place in the 2018 Olympics and kept going, including attending Yale and finding a balance between skating and real life. This week he had disappointing performances in the team event and short program. Then yesterday in men’s figure skating finals Chen competed against the best skaters in the world and landed six quads, a history-making achievement. He envisioned success and you can too.

What’s your dream and are you putting in the hours? Are you growing? Do you believe in yourself?

Keep writing, keep dreaming, put in deliberate practice