jessicamorrell.com

The online home of Jessica Morrell, because stories matter

A wee bit of advice….

Written By: jessicap - Mar• 26•15

from Neil Gaiman

“The moment that you feel, just possibly, you are walking down the street naked, exposing too much of your heart and your mind, and what exists on the inside, showing too much of yourself . . . That is the moment, you might be starting to get it right.”file0001071880627

Keep writing, keep dreaming, have heartstatue with breasts

 

Short Story Contest

Written By: jessicap - Mar• 26•15
The Writer short story contest kicks off soon, and we want to give you a head start. Choose one of the ocean-themed quotes below as a launching point for your 1,000-word fiction story:

“The voice of the sea is seductive; never ceasing, whispering, clamoring, murmuring, inviting the soul to wander for a spell in abysses of solitude; to lose itself in mazes of inward contemplation. The voice of the sea speaks to the soul. The touch of the sea is sensuous, enfolding the body in its soft, close embrace.” –Kate Chopin, The Awakening

 “Doesn’t it seem to you,” asked Madame Bovary, “that the mind moves more freely in the presence of that boundless expanse, that the sight of it elevates the soul and gives rise to thoughts of the infinite and the ideal?” -Gustave Flaubert, Madame Bovary

“Because there’s nothing more beautiful than the way the ocean refuses to stop kissing the shoreline, no matter how many times it’s sent away.” -Sarah Kay

 The submission period for this contest is April 1 – 30. Stay tuned for guidelines, and in the meantime – get writing!

 

What’s your story?

Written By: jessicap - Mar• 21•15

What’s your story? It’s all in the telling. Stories are compasses and architecture; we navigate by them, we build our sanctuaries and our prisons out of them, and to be without a story is to be lost in the vastness of a world that spreads in all directions like arctic tundra or sea ice. To love someone is to put yourself in their place, we say, which is to put yourself in their story, or figure out how to tell yourself their story.”  - Rebecca Solnit

 

Apologies

Written By: jessicap - Mar• 19•15

My apologies for my absence from this site. I have been occupied, preoccupied with my elderly parent’s tenuous situation (they live in a remote area of northern Wisconsin) and my mother’s health. I traveled there to help with my mother’s end of life care. She died on March 7 of congestive heart failure and the funeral and wake were last week. This was followed by a week of mop-up activities, paperwork, and details that included picking out a headstone. I am forever changed. Now I’m finally back in Portland and will return to work tomorrow.

The past few months have given me much to write about so I will be turning sorrow into words.

Keep writing, keep dreaming, have heart

Thought for the day on diaries

Written By: jessicap - Feb• 24•15

“One advantage in keeping a diary is that you become aware with lanternreassuring clarity of the changes which you constantly suffer and which in a general way are naturally believed, surmised, and admitted by you, but which you’ll unconsciously deny when it comes to the point of gaining hope or peace from such an admission. In the diary you find proof that in situations which today would seem unbearable, you lived, looked around and wrote down observations, that this right hand moved then as it does today, when we may be wiser because we are able to look back upon our former condition, and for that very reason have got to admit the courage of our earlier striving in which we persisted even in sheer ignorance.”
Franz Kafka
Diaries 1910-1923

 

Quick take: Violence = consequences

Written By: jessicap - Feb• 11•15

I’ve worked on a number of manuscripts where violence happens on the page and the story just sort of moves along. Violence requires consequences–injuries, trauma, legal repercussions, banishment. It also requires enough back story to support the character committing violence. If a sweet young thing punches out an adversary, we need to believe she’s physically capable of doing so and that something  wounded or unassailable in her background or personality led her to lose it.

Godfather shooting scene     Lately I’ve been mentioning examples from The Godfather  here, so let me add  another one. When Michael Corleone, war hero and Ivy League grad, guns down Sollozzo, the family’s enemy and McCluskey a police captain, the consequences matter big time. He doesn’t just drop the gun and saunter back to the Corleone compound in Staten Island as if he’s untouchable. No, he hightails it to Sicily where he hides out, complete with bodyguards and fitting in with the local customs.

And another thing–Michael’s double homicide is the midpoint reversal in the story. It’s a set piece and comes after he visited his father in the hospital and realizes that the Don is again being set up for murder. Later, back at home with the family and their captains around him it’s Michael’s idea to take down Sollozzo–because he’s the least likely to commit murder. In the film version the camera closes in on his battered face (McCluskey had decked him outside the hospital) and he brings up his idea in quiet, steady voice. He realizes that the assassination attempts on his father are going to continue unless they make a dramatic stand.

At first his brother Sonny mocks him, but the plan is adopted. And Michael’s character arc is taking place before our eyes. The lethal, ruthless part is beginning to show. In the next scene there is a close-up of a gun and Clemenzo teaching Michael how to shoot point blank.Godfather Michael and Clemenzo

So if your character commits violence, how does it change him or her? If it doesn’t, the reader or viewer needs to know why.

February

Written By: jessicap - Feb• 03•15

snow coating branch

Saved by Stories

Written By: jessicap - Jan• 20•15

Just after my seventh Christmas our family moved into a bigger house. By then my youngest brother Colin had been born on Halloween and the eight of us had outgrown our modest three-bedroom. The move happened over the holiday break, amid the bitter cold, my father and uncles still young men hauling sagging, stained mattresses, boxes, and furniture into our new place. Bringing in the metal smell of snow and stamping their feet to warm them before they carried our dressers up the wide stairs. The house had belonged to my great uncle who had recently died in his fifties of a heart attack, just like my grandfather had. It was a farmhouse on three acres where he raised chickens by the hundreds and it had five bedrooms so I had my own room, a graceful open staircase, and a large front porch. Because of the former chickens our soil was black and crowded with thick worms and my mother’s flowers, including those cobalt blue Bachelor Buttons I still love, were waist high.

Our small town was an unchanging place except for the time when the JCPenneys store exploded and the fire and smoke could be seen for miles. I didn’t know it then, but eight people were killed in the explosion and two more died later from their injuries.  It was a place with endless summers and forever winters with long, silent months of snow. Summers were spent roaming and jackknifing into creeks and rivers; winters on toboggan hills and skating rinks. It was an outdoor life, but besides the pleasures of that vast sky and four seasons, stories saved me. And stories were a state of mind.

It started when I was four and I’d march the mile or so to the library with my older brother and we’d haul home stacks of books to devour. I was especially fond of the enchanting picture books by Swedish author Maj Lindman and the exploits of Snip, Snap and Snur and Flicka, Ricka and Dick. Can still recall the bright-colored covers.  Sometime around first grade I discovered The Box Car Box Car Children coverChildren about four siblings who are abruptly orphaned and hide in an old boxcar. Their sad circumstances were conjured and re-enacted again and again. We hid in the woods, with only our wits to survive, no adults to interfere.  An orphan life had such appeal in a house filled with rules and recriminations and not enough money.  Then came Little Women, a gift left under our tinseled Christmas tree,  and I was Jo March and started creating my own newspapers, trying to adjust in a world that didn’t appreciate bright, lively girls. My first favorite books have stayed with me, warmed me like a campfire.

Our big house held our Colliers encyclopedias, my father’s bookcase with his beloved books from childhood, the daily newspaper, and piles of library books. Nights were quiet when I was a girl, the television on for brief intervals, all of us gathered, the surrounding night deep and starlit and silent. Reading in bed before bedtime, not knowing what the weather would bring in the morning, how high the snow drifts would be.

snow heavyI was thinking about this a few months ago when I was in Wisconsin, staying in the far north with my elderly parents. Winter had arrived early and icicles hung heavy, snow frosted every branch and object, my childhood re-created. In the evenings amid that snow globe world I read Dennis Lehane’s World Gone By about a crime kingpin, then switched to short stories in the Best Mystery Stories of 2014 anthology and The New Yorker.  And the snow kept tumbling down and the silent, faraway stars kept watch as always.

My mother, always a fierce and outspoken woman, has congestive heart failure. She’s had heart disease for 40 years so has long ago outlived her father and uncle. She’s been hospitalized a lot in the past six months and again is in a nursing home undergoing physical therapy. She plans to return home, where my parents spend their days in their TV room with a wall of windows overlooking the frozen white lake. She naps during the day, totters when she walks, clutching onto furniture, but never using a walker as she’s been ordered to and doesn’t want to die. My father doesn’t want to let her go and after 65 years of marriage they’ve come to a place of fierce devotion.

Everyone breaks and I worry how her death will affect my father. He spends his days reading and taking care of his wife. We all send him books. At times the battering grief over losing my mother, never an easy person to love, hits me like a blow to the chest. And I’m feeling my own dull ache of aging.

Reading is a quiet thing, especially at night. But sometimes when reading, a scene or dialogue exchange or  plot twist seems to shatter the night’s silence. Sometimes  a single phrase or sentence will strike with poetic clarity. The solace of a good story cannot be overstated; and stories have the power to erase a broken yesterday, push away tomorrow’s worries; ease the soul’s cry or the heart’s firestorms, or wrenching worries about the future. Push away the image of my mother clinging to me like a child and sobbing while stroking my face when I left her in November. And, as author Mary Karr observed, reading is socially-acceptable disassociation.

Lately I’ve traveled far from home and back in time…through allthelight-209x300fiction. I’ve been all over Europe via All the Light We Cannot See a luminous, fable-like story about a motherless blind girl and a German orphan who grows up to track down members of the Resistance. The story bundles a cursed diamond, mollusks, the magic of radio, locks and miniatures and life under the Nazi Occupation. I lived that story. I traveled back decades with Stephen King’s Joyland, a spooky coming-of-age tale set in an amusement park with plenty of supernatural elements and carnies and carnie patois.  My book club read it because three of us had heard Stephen King’s interview with NPR host Terry Gross and were intrigued. The teaser line on the cover is: Beyond the light there’s only darkness.

Speaking of darkness, I read Chelsea Cain’s One Kick about a protagonist who was abducted as a girl by child pornographers. Set in Portland, it’s a world far from my imaginings with a glimpse into horrors as harsh as an electric chair. Because sometimes darkness is needed to chase away your own shadows. The stack of books next to my bed never seems to dwindle since we’re book buyers, book collectors. Garth Steins’ latest book A Sudden Light awaits me as does the coming storm of my mother’s death.  And I know this: beyond the darkness are stories to help us feel deeply, reshape our thoughts, and lead us safely home.

Quick Take: Consequences II

Written By: jessicap - Jan• 17•15

gallows       All storytelling is about cause and effect. All major actions in a story should have consequences and the consequences should escalate as the story goes along. Conflict equals consequences. It’s a simple way of thinking about a storyline. The inciting incident and first plot point in Act One create the consequences in Act Two, which in turn creates the worsening consequences in Act Three.

When a story lacks appropriate and escalating consequences, the reader or viewer experience it as a plot hole or a nagging sense that something’s not right.  Good examples of escalating consequences can be found in the film The Drop originally based on Dennis Lehane’s short story  Animal Rescue. The film expands the story with added complications and backstory. The protagonist, Bob Saginowskia is a bartender in a place that stores the drops, or cash from illegal betting.Recipe for disaster, right?  Bob also rescues a battered pit bull puppy in Act One. This act entangles him with a troubled woman and her dangerous cohorts, most importantly her sociopath ex-boyfriend.

In the film version the writers have stirred in a robbery,  an investigation, the bar owners,Chechen mafia members unhappy about the robbery, and an unsolved murder. The consequences keep building until you’re wondering if any of the cast members are going to survive. Consequences heighten the stakes and create tension and suspense.

Keep writing, keep dreaming, have faith

Reminder: Making it in Changing Times on January 31

Written By: jessicap - Jan• 15•15

Cathy-Lamb-092I feel renewed and excited about a spanking new year to cast my plans and dreams onto. How about you?  If you’re looking for advice on craft, blogging, and attracting an editor’s eye, this one-day conference is for you. It’s called Making it in Changing Times because the publishing landscape is ever changing and it’s hard to stay on top of it all.  We’ll even have a workshop on yoga for writers to help you keep your body going during those long stints at the computer.  The prolific, best-selling, and fun Cathy Lamb is the keynote speaker and will share her secrets about how she’s juggled her life while writing 9 (!) novels and six novellas.

The conference is at Tabor Space is southeast Portland and costs $99 which includes beverages, lunch, and a Continental breakfast.

A serious bargain.  You can find the complete schedule, speaker bios and details here.  2015: Focus, Clarity, Direction.

Meanwhile, keep dreaming, keep writing, have faith