The online home of Jessica Morrell, because stories matter

Lia Purpura on teaching writers:

Written By: jessicap - Aug• 27•15

balletfeetHere, I walk into class thinking, Really I have nothing to say to these people, the proper study of writing is reading, is well-managed awe, desire to make a thing, stamina for finishing, adoration of  language, and so on about reverie, solitude, etc. Here, sitting down, I’m going over my secret: I don’t want to be inspiring, I just want to write and they, too, should want that – let’s all agree to go home and work hard.”
Lia Purpura

Quick take: Use Weather Verbs

Written By: jessicap - Aug• 20•15

We’ve been suffering  through a series of punishing  heatwaves stormcloud with eyehere in the Pacific Northwest and I’ve been longing for a rollicking thunderstorm to sweep through, spit out icy rain,  drench the place and cool the air. Oh, to be able to change the weather.

Which brings us to verbs, because they add oomph to your sentences. Use verbs that typically describe severe weather,  including clouds, storm fronts, waves,  and natural disasters.  TIP: Search out nouns that can be used as verbs.

icyclesThunder, storm,scorch,  blaze, scorch, freeze, boil,  cloud, bloom, flood, heat, glare (as in sun), shower, rumble, slash, burn, billow, surge, morph, drip, roil,loom, sting, flash, unleash, splinter, thresh, splinter, echo, singe, sting, crash, pour, tumble, churn, flood, chill, creep, crash, drench, flare, numb, storm, bluster, blind, soak.  Vivid verbs have muscle.

Keep writing, keep dreaming, have heart

Written By: jessicap - Aug• 07•15

 needles & threadIt’s like my whole world is coming undone, but when I write, my pencil is a needle and thread, and I’m stitching the scraps back together.

Julia Alvarez


Quoting Margaret Atwood

Written By: jessicap - Aug• 03•15

“When you are in the middle of a story it isn’t a story at all, but only a confusion; a dark roaring, a blindness, a wreckage of shattered glass and splintered wood; like a house in a whirlwind, or else a boat crushed by the icebergs or swept over the rapids, and all aboard powerless to stop it. It’s only afterwards that it becomes anything like a story at all. When you are telling it, to yourself or to someone else.”

margaretatwoodMargaret Atwood’s 10 Rules of Writing

  1. Take a pencil to write with on aeroplanes. Pens leak. But if the pencil breaks, you can’t sharpen it on the plane, because you can’t take knives with you. Therefore: take two pencils.
  2. If both pencils break, you can do a rough sharpening job with a nail file of the metal or glass type.
  3. Take something to write on. Paper is good. In a pinch, pieces of wood or your arm will do.
  4. If you’re using a computer, always safeguard new text with a ­memory stick.
  5. Do back exercises. Pain is distracting.
  6. Hold the reader’s attention. (This is likely to work better if you can hold your own.) But you don’t know who the reader is, so it’s like shooting fish with a slingshot in the dark. What ­fascinates A will bore the pants off B.
  7. You most likely need a thesaurus, a rudimentary grammar book, and a grip on reality. This latter means: there’s no free lunch. Writing is work. It’s also gambling. You don’t get a pension plan. Other people can help you a bit, but ­essentially you’re on your own. ­Nobody is making you do this: you chose it, so don’t whine.
  8. You can never read your own book with the innocent anticipation that comes with that first delicious page of a new book, because you wrote the thing. You’ve been backstage. You’ve seen how the rabbits were smuggled into the hat. Therefore ask a reading friend or two to look at it before you give it to anyone in the publishing business. This friend should not be someone with whom you have a ­romantic relationship, unless you want to break up.
  9. Don’t sit down in the middle of the woods. If you’re lost in the plot or blocked, retrace your steps to where you went wrong. Then take the other road. And/or change the person. Change the tense. Change the opening page.
  10. Prayer might work. Or reading ­something else. Or a constant visual­ization of the holy grail that is the finished, published version of your resplendent book. (from Brain Pickings) And more on Margaret Atwood here.


Quoting Saul Bellow

Written By: jessicap - Jul• 22•15
DCF 1.0

DCF 1.0

There is an immense, painful longing for a broader, more flexible, fuller, more coherent, more comprehensive account of what we human beings are, who we are, and what this life is for.”

  “Art has something to do with the achievement of stillness in the midst of chaos. A stillness which characterizes prayer, too, in the eye of the storm… Art has something to do with an arrest of attention in the midst of distraction.”                                                       ~ Saul Bellow

Art and literature — what of them? … We are still able to think, to discriminate, and to feel. The purer, subtler, higher activities have not succumbed to fury or to nonsense. Not yet. Books continue to be written and read. It may be more difficult to reach the whirling mind of a modern reader but it is possible to cut through the noise and reach the quiet zone. In the quiet zone we may find that he is devoutly waiting for us. When complications increase, the desire for essentials increases too. The unending cycle of crises that began with the First World War has formed a kind of person, one who has livd through terrible, strange things, and in whom there is an observable shrinkage of prejudices, a casting off of disappointing ideologies, an ability to live with many kinds of madness, an immense desire for certain durable human goods — truth, for instance, or freedom, or wisdom.”  From his Nobel acceptance speech

Quick take: Aim for Messy Emotions

Written By: jessicap - Jul• 09•15

Storytelling must give readers an truck messemotional experience. To bring about emotions in your readers stir in thorny situations that bring up messy emotions. By messy I mean the ones your characters have difficulty managing, perhaps would prefer not to feel or even acknowledge. Messy can also means complex–the character is feeling a troublesome brew of emotions, possibly difficult to sort out.

This means you’ll be orchestrating scenes and scenarios that are difficult for your characters to survive on some level. Not every scene needs to be life or death because that would create an implausible melodrama.  Instead keep in mind that most scenes are based on change and humans are most off-kilter during change. Loss and leave taking are especially difficult–leaving home, leaving behind a lover or friend or homeland,  saying good-by to a dying person. Sometimes messy emotions happen amid disasters or chaos. At times they’re caused by moral ambiguity. In turn these scenes bring about tension….a crucial ingredient in storytelling. Since your story must appeal to a broad range of readers, a range of emotions should be brought to life.

Everyone has a different definition of difficult emotions but this brief  list will get you started: panic, fear, jealousy, anger, rage, guilt, disappointment, frustration.

Here’s the key technique to making them work in your stories: when the emotions occur in your character readers need to be able to identify the source. A wife who freaks out/overreacts when her husband lies to her is insecure because her former husband cheated on her. A child who feels bereft when left at boarding school has a cold and unfeeling parent.

The second trick to making it all work: No matter how ravaged or heartsick or worn your characters become in the course of the story, your readers still find them knowable and fascinating, and possibly want to meet them.

The third trick: Give your characters rich inner lives and strong interpersonal relationships, whether romantic, family relationships or friendships, or work partnerships. This means loyalty will be in the mix and loyalty can often become complicated.

The Homesman was adapted from Glendon Swarthout’s novel, The Homesman 2and stars Tommy Lee Jones and Hilary Swank joined in a remarkable undertaking.  I’m mentioning it because it explores the ravages of heartbreak and mines deep and sometimes uncomfortable and stark truths about women’s lives. It’s a dark and darkly funny revisionist Western about a claim jumper (Jones) helping (out of desperation) a determined woman (Swank) transport three utterly broken women back East. The women have descended into psychosis after facing unbearable losses and will leave behind the barren prairie, bleak sod houses, and their mystified and frustrated husbands. It contains remarkable acting and a series of strange twists, and most of all, messy emotions. I recommend the novel also.



keep writing, keep dreaming, have heart

In case you missed it….

Written By: jessicap - Jul• 07•15

pinpall machine     Writerly  gatherings from  the internets:

1. 20 Amazing Writing Residencies  You Should Apply for is here. 

(This list is from 2014, but the residencies are still viable.)

2. Sadly, the final Scratch magazine is online. The topic, fittingly, is The End. Sigh.

3.  How to Master Anything, at Any Age. The 9 concepts are here. Applies to writing like butter on toast.  

I especially like #8 Master the fundamentals. Launch into the learning process by studying the most fundamental principles. Mastering these will lay a foundation for more complex understanding, creative bursts of inspiration and higher levels of achievement. This kind of proficiency will, in turn, develop our brain in ways that allow us to grasp other subjects and practices more deeply.

These principles are taken from Josh Waitzkin’s book The Art of Learning. He’s the chess player whose story inspired the film Finding Bobby Fisher.

4. Reminder: We all start out life abloom with creativity and wonder–this flowering is available throughout life, in every writing session.

children's bedroom creativityfrom

Keep writing, keep dreaming, have heart


From Michael Cunningham: Literature is an act of seduction

Written By: jessicap - Jul• 07•15

calla lilies redThe writer of fiction, no matter how edgy or unorthodox, is stuck with a simple and an unalterable truth. Literature is, inescapably, an act of seduction, whether the writer hopes to seduce millions with a story of an adolescent vampire in love, or a handful of readers, who are willing to take a darker, strange, more enigmatic ride. Which involves a certain element of what I’ll call: You Won’t Believe What Happened Next.

Crutch Words

Written By: jessicap - Jun• 22•15

crutchesCheck out my article about crutch words over at Insecure Writers Support Group.  Sleuthing out your crutch words will make you more secure. Promise!

In Case You Missed It

Written By: jessicap - Jun• 17•15

keypad, goldenGathering of writerly tidbits from the internets

Did you miss BEA this year? Think inspiring writers need to attend? Think again…here’s agent Janet  Reid ‘splaining things. 

Last month I attended a luncheon at the Pennwriters Writing Conference. Lucky me, it was the amazing Jane Friedman talking about using social media to sell books. She’s a whiz at all things publishing and social media. You might want to download one of her weekly goal sheets. They’re perfect for the writing life. You’ll find it at her post on list making and the creative process.

At the conference I also listened to Ridley Pearson’s keynote talk. He’s so funny and humble and real that I wish you could have all been there. The man is hard working, has a pass to get into Disney parks after hours, and is part of the band The Rock Bottom Remainders.  If he comes to your town, I recommend going to his reading-book signing or attending the conference he’s speaking at.

If you’ve never read the blog at Tor I also want to recommend it. Some funny, insightful posts on writing, plotting, the limits of fantasy, and publishing. You’ll find really fun reviews of the Game of Thrones fantasy series and television series.Ghost Hand

Author of the Ghost Hand series, Ripley Patton purveyor of myth, is an inspiring  source for all things fantasy and offers a terrific list of book recommendations. You can sign up for it here.   I believe you’ll appreciate this post on Writing for the Joy of it.  (I know, Ripley and Ridley—aren’t names fun?)



All the Light 2       I  enjoy reading author interviews,  don’t you?  Here’s one at with Anthony Doerr  talking about how he writes and how he puzzled together his latest novel. You can find the whole interview here. And if you haven’t read All the Light We Cannot See (winner of the Pulitzer) I highly recommend it. Texured, layered, thoughtful, full of heart.Jill Owens the Powells’ interviewer asked him about the genesis for this novel set during World War II.  

Anthony Doerr: “The easy answer is: It was 2004. I had finished the novel About Grace. Back when they didn’t email you the covers, I was in Princeton for a year, and they wanted me to come up to New York to see the designs. I had been scratching around for a new idea. I was riding into Penn Station, I think it was, and we were going through the tunnels underground. The guy in the seat right in front of me was on a 2004 cell phone and lost his call. He got angry, physically angry. He was rapping his phone with his knuckles.

I had my notebook with me. I was writing stuff down about how we’ve forgotten what a miracle it is to be able to speak with someone. Here I am in Hawaii using light waves to talk to you in Portland. That’s a miracle! That was not available to humans for the entire history of our species. That night I started thinking about different ways to remind the reader about how radio was so strange. To hear the voice of a stranger in your house that you couldn’t see was a total miracle in the ’20s and ’30s. I started trying to evoke that.

I had a boy trapped somewhere and a girl reading a story to him. I didn’t even know what story it was. I didn’t know the circumstances of his entrapment, anything like that. But that was the genesis, I guess. In those early paragraphs, you don’t know what you’re doing. You’re just fumbling along in the dark.

Keep writing, keep dreaming, have heart