Word by Word

Practical insights for writers

Stephen King on the real muse

Written By: Jessica Morrell - Dec• 13•18

There is a muse but he’s not going to come fluttering down into your writing room and scatter creative fairy-dust all over your typewriter or computer station. He lives in the ground. He’s a basement guy. You have to descend to his level, and once you get down there you have to furnish an apartment for him to live in. You have to do all the grunt labor, in other words, while the muse sits and smokes cigars and admires his bowling trophies and pretends to ignore you.

Do you think that’s fair? I think it’s fair.

He may not be much to look at, that muse-guy, and he may not be much of a conversationalist (what I get out of mine is mostly surly grunts, but he’s got the inspiration. It’s right that you should do all the work and burn all the midnight oil, because the guy with the cigar and the little wings has got a bag of magic. There’s stuff in there that can change your life.

Believe me, I know.

~ Stephen King

Quick take: backstory on a ‘need to know’ basis

Written By: Jessica Morrell - Dec• 06•18

I was teaching in Manzanita, a sweet coastal town when I mentioned that  backstory in Act 1 should be dispersed on a ‘need to know’ basis. I also told the writers gathered how I read and analyze the openings of at least two novels every day. It’s part of my ongoing skill-building and awareness that I’m striving for. There are so many ways to start a story and when one of my students or clients isn’t getting it right, I need to communicate effectively about why it’s not working.

In the worst openings not much is going on or even suggested.

In the worst openings the threat that opens the story isn’t potent enough.

In the worst openings the threat is smothered under static descriptions and clutter.

Start clean. Introduce a threat. The threat should shove at least one character off balance. At least one character should be under some form of stress or appear vulnerable. Someone in your story needs to be vulnerable throughout. Vulnerability is what creates reader empathy.

Your opening is a portal into your story world. Respect the portal.

Here’s an example from a novel I just finished reading.

The preface introduced an all-powerful white nationalist convict who has hundreds of men on the outside doing his bidding.

Chapter 1 introduces Polly, the protagonist and person in his headlights, so to speak. Notice the sizzle factor? The novel is She Rides Shotgun by Jordan Harper. It won the Edgar award for best new novel.

She wore a loser’s slumped shoulders and hid her face with her hair, but the girl had gunfighter eyes.

Gunfighter eyes just like her dad, her mom would tell her, usually after  a few whiskey pops when Mom could talk about her ex-husband without the anger she carried for him for poisoning her. She’d crunch ice and tell Polly about that special type of pale blue eyes. How Wild Bill Hickok and Jesse James and fighter pilots had them. How sniper schools hunted for recruits with those washed-out blues. Polly didn’t tell her mother what she really thought, but if she had she would have said all that stuff about gunfighter eyes sounded like bullcrap. Polly couldn’t have gunfighter eyes because she wasn’t a gunfighter. Polly did no violence, not to anything but the skin around her fingernails and the flesh of her lips, both of which she chewed raw. 

So Polly didn’t think much about gunfighter eyes. At least she didn’t until the day she walked out the front door of Fontana Middle School and stood there staring into her father’s eyes.

Gunfighter eyes, no lie. There were faded blue just like her own, but with something under the surface of them that made Polly’s heart beat in her neck. Later on she learned that eyes don’t only reflect what they’re seeing. The also reflect what they’ve already seen. 

Polly had not seen her dad in nearly half her eleven years, but she knew him without a doubt. And seeing him standing there she knew something else too. He must have broke out. Her dad was a bad guy and a robber and he was supposed to be in jail. …

If you’re thinking the gunfighter eyes are a recurring motif, you’d be right. This story has much to appreciate, a quirky and unique protagonist, characters I’ll meet in the real world, a profound character story, and a twisted and darkly complicated coming-of-age story.

Keep writing, Keep dreaming, Have heart

The first duty of the novelist is to entertain.

Written By: Jessica Morrell - Dec• 05•18

The first duty of the novelist is to entertain. It is a moral duty. People who read your books are sick, sad, traveling, in the hospital waiting room while someone is dying. Books are written by the alone for alone. ~Donna Tartt


Written By: Jessica Morrell - Dec• 05•18

Emma Donoghue on writing:

Written By: Jessica Morrell - Nov• 28•18

Writing stories is my way of scratching that itch; my escape from the claustrophobia of individuality. It lets me, at least for a while, live more than one life, walk more than one path. Reading, of course, can do the same.

Still time to sign up for Fiction Masters workshop in Manzanita

Written By: Jessica Morrell - Nov• 28•18

Folks, there are several spaces available for Fiction Masters workshop in lovely Manzanita. Great way to spend a Saturday at the coast with like-minded writers.

Here are the details:

Fiction Mastery

Crafting a novel is a long, difficult slog even for the most experienced writers. So many decisions and choices, so much fine tuning and revising. Here’s some help: A three-part workshop of specialized techniques for creating a deep, vibrant, and unified story that immerses readers into a vivid world with believable and fascinating characters. The session includes hands-on exercises to help you identify your strengths and weaknesses.

Part 1: Deep viewpoint

What is the key to creating emotional connections between your readers and your characters? It’s deep viewpoint, the sense that readers are immersed in a character’s life and dilemmas. In fact, the reader becomes the character.  We’ll discuss and practice how to eliminate distance, how to dramatize true-to-life emotions, and how to develop an authentic voice.

Part 2: Subtext: The river of emotion beneath the story

Life is often lived between the lines, and scenes often simmer with unspoken emotions beneath dialogue and action. In this session subtext will be explained with examples from various genres. We’ll  discuss nonverbal communication and how to render it onto the page and how to hint at lies and secrets in scenes. We’ll investigate various methods to insert subtext—innuendo, gestures, pauses, misdirection, colors, clothing, setting details—in other words, the nuanced moments that are not directly represented.

Part 3: Tension on every page

Fiction isn’t written to make readers happy. Its purpose is to jangle their nerves, make their hearts race, give them goose bumps, and disturb their sleep. We’ll explore the recipe for tension that jabs at the reader’s senses creating a force field and underlying every scene.  We’ll discuss how to worry readers by using language, peril, discomfort, prolonging dread, cliffhangers, fish-out-of-water scenarios, time running out, and other elements.

December 1, 2018

Hoffman Center, Manzanita, OR


$99 Contact Hoffman Center for payment




Word of the day: Sternenzelt

Written By: Jessica Morrell - Nov• 19•18

Sternenzelt: literally “star tent”; an expanse of star-filled sky stretched out above an observer; the celestial canopy in all its sheltering, shattering extent. (German)

And for more info on seeing the night sky check out this site. From Robert McMarfarlane (@RobGMacfarlane)

keep writing, keep dreaming, keep collecting language


Written By: Jessica Morrell - Nov• 15•18

Books are many things:

lullabies for the weary.

ointment for the wounded.

armour for the fearful, and

nests to those in need of


Glenda Millard, The Tender Moments of Saffron Silk

NaNoWriMo Week 2: How’s your ANTAGONIST coming along?

Written By: Jessica Morrell - Nov• 09•18

Well, I made it through the election, champagne and all. I’ve been working with a historical fiction writer, writing a short book about resonance (More on this soon), chopped and simmered another batch of soup–Italian wedding, picked more late-harvest tomatoes, visited an art show that has stayed within me, walked amid the golden colors of this ongoing autumn, and have started shopping for the holidays.

And you, of course, have been writing. Those of you who are immersed in NaNoWriMo, I hope you’re thriving,  having some fun, and experiencing creative breakthroughs. Don’t forget about quality protein and outdoor excursions. Be kind to your back.

Which brings us to  storytelling and your antagonist.  The antagonist is the person who forces your protagonist to change in the way he or she most needs to change. Antagonists are the main force that shape the protagonist’s character arc. They teach the protagonists the lessons needed to grow and they accomplish this via conflict and opposition.

On Day 9 of NaNoWriMo most writers have hit the 10K mark. That means your antagonist is now in play. In some stories such as a romance,  he or she is the co-star. Sometimes the role isn’t as important as the protagonist; in some stories the antagonist is a threat so potent that he/she shapes the trajectory and tone of the story. Because high-profile antagonists can run the table. And can be scary badass nightmares.

But let me clarify before we go further: the antagonist isn’t necessarily a bad guy or villain, though he/she can be. A villain is a subset within the antagonist role,  identified by his values, morals, and methods, along with direct antipathy  toward the protagonist. He is the most potent threat to the protagonist.  A villain’s actions will always have huge ramifications and create hardships and danger. A villain in the story means it has a darker tone and aura.

The main difference between villains and antagonists is that the villain’s presence in the story will always cause fear and apprehension in the reader. If the reader is not afraid of him/her, then the character is not an effective villain. Fear in humans is much more complex and unsettling than it is in animals. It has many degrees, physical reactions, and can be linked with other emotions that are activated while reading. Fear is unpleasant and yet thrilling, and a villain’s role in the story is to stir these emotions to the boiling point.

Here are some suggestions for writing the all-important antagonist:

Introduce the antagonist with flair. From the first words, this character must be memorable, charismatic, and intriguing.

The first quarter of your story sets your antagonist in motion. This means his or her first moves create consequences and a messy aftermath. These actions further push the plot rolling along  or set up the rising action–events leading up to the climax.

The antagonist also exists to reveal as much about the protagonist as possible, showcasing the protagonist’s primary traits in events that force him to act in specific ways. So while revealing the protagonist’s flaws and weaknesses, the antics of the antagonist also reveal his strengths and over the course of story events serves as the catalyst that reshapes the protagonist’s self concept. The main antagonists in the Harry Potter series–Malfoy, Snape, and Voldemort– are great examples of this.

The antagonist also exists as a contrast to the protagonist, to provide an opposing or at least different morality, viewpoint, and values. When an antagonist starts messing with your main character, then questions arise: Will the protagonist rise to the occasion, muddle through despite doubts and misgivings, falter, or succeed despite flaws and fears?

The more potent your antagonist, the more you need to know what makes him or her tick. As in backstory, motives, and goals. All need to add up to a seemingly unstoppable, unbeatable force and serious opposition.

You are setting the stage for a showdown or stand-off between the antagonist and protagonist. This is the major component of rising action.

You can create more than one antagonist. A good example of this is found in The Fault in our Stars. It has three: cancer and its grim realities, Peter van Houten, an author who has lost his daughter to cancer and wrote a novel about it, and Augustus Waters who shows Hazel how to love and really live with a fatal illness.

They all force Hazel, the protagonist, to rethink her values, outlook, and concerns. In other words, they force her character arc to unfold.

Stay tuned: The Role of Inner Conflict

Keep writing, keep dreaming, have heart

NaNoWriMo Writers: plotting suggestions

Written By: Jessica Morrell - Nov• 01•18

A few suggestions:

  • Don’t edit–this is a first-draft mad dash.
  • Remember your story is essentially a problem that needs solving. Not your problem, the protagonist’s problem.
  • Keep asking yourself ‘what’s the worst thing that can happen next?’
  • Remember you’re sending your protagonist into new emotional and physical territory.
  • Start at least one subplot. This subplot should also complicate the protagonist’s goals.
  • Know your protagonist’s main emotional wound, sometimes called baggage in real life. How is it going to affect his or her ability to solve the story problem?
  • Allow the overall atmosphere and mood to creep into the story world.
  • Carry a writer’s notebook everywhere you go. You never know when a brilliant solution is going to appear.