Word by Word

Practical insights for writers

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.


Written By: Jessica Morrell - Nov• 01•18

NaNoWriMo prep: consider your story’s overall atmosphere

Written By: Jessica Morrell - Oct• 31•18

Yesterday there was a break in the rains and I managed more yard clean-up. I tossed out two large hanging plants with relief since I started watering them in May. Still more plants to care for, but they’re blooming away.

I want to recommend another starting place for fiction: atmosphere. Now, I’m not suggesting you skip plotting or structure, I’m suggesting you plan for an overall tone and mood from the get-go. I’ve rarely given this advice for a first draft before, but then I started reading Dean Koontz’ Jane Hawk series. And I’ve been giving a lot of thought to why the novels are bestsellers, what works and what doesn’t quite work.

In this thriller series, Jane Hawk, a rogue FBI agent, takes on government agencies including the FBI and a cabal of villains with a deadly conspiracy. The stories are dark, brutal, and scary.  As you read along, you feel prickly and practically queasy because  evil is everywhere.  And the more you read, the more you realize how the author is also inserting real-life horrors into the mix. Because we’re living them in contemporary America.

Why use atmosphere in your first draft?

  • Because it will affect your mood and approach to your story.
  • It will make you focus on creating unease–a necessary ingredient not always considered in early drafts.
  • Unease contributes to writing a page-turner.
  • Atmosphere underlines themes–even if you don’t have your themes nailed down yet.
  • It will also make revising easier once November ends.

While Jane Hawk spends a lot of time driving across the country searching for answers, a lot of  the series is set in California. Now California isn’t exactly Transylvania in the dead of winter, right?  But Koontz is a writer’s writer, and he makes most settings spooksville and dangerous. If Jane reaches a haven or safety, it’s always a look-over-your-shoulder situation and she needs to move on, not rest. And she never, ever relaxes. Too much is on the line, including the safety of her beloved 5-year-old Travis.

The story is set in the near-future and the country is sliding into chaos and lawlessness.  It opens with deadly terrorism attack in Pennsylvania as the backdrop and citizens countrywide are uneasy and fearful. Here’s a typical setting description as she’s driving.

When the wipers swept the blearing stain from the windshield, she saw the nearby Pacific, storm-lashed and misted, rolling toward the shore less like water and more like a sea of gray smoke pouring off the fires of a nuclear holocaust. The Silent Corner

Throughout the series weather is used in scene after scene, often as bookends. Jane is off the grid so uses public libraries to find information online.   From The Silent Corner before she visits a library: Still, the storm had not broken. The sky over San Diego loomed heavy with midday dark, as if all the water weight and potential thunder stored over distant Alpine had in the last few hours slid unspent toward the city, to add pressure to the coastal deluge that was coming. Sometimes both weather and history broke far too slowly for those who were impatient for what came next.

In the park adjacent to the library, following a winding path, she saw ahead a fountain surrounded by a reflecting pool, and she walked to it and sat on one of the benches facing the water that flowered up in numerous thin streams, petaling the air with silver droplets.

This place sounds lovely, doesn’t it? And don’t you wish you’d come up with petaling the air with silver droplets? In case you’re imagining the park as a place or peace or safety, forget about it. Because in fiction it really works to stage danger in benign or lovely settings.

Let’s check out the same park later when Jane is about to be  attacked and run for her life. On the flanking streets to the north and south, traffic passed: grumble of engines, swish of tires, hiss of air brakes, rattle of a loosely-fitted manhole cover, the traffic noise seemed curiously muffled, as if the park were encased with insulated dual-pane glass.

The air remained under pressure, the sky full of iron-dark mountains that would soon collapse in a deluge, the city expectant, the windows of buildings shimmering with light that normally would be faded by the sun at this hour, drivers switching on headlights, the vehicles gliding through the faux dusk like submersibles following undersea lanes.

Jane had taken only a few steps from the fountain when she detected a buzz like swarming wasps. At first it seemed to come from above her, and then from behind, but when she turned in a circle and faced again the grove of palms toward which she had been moving, she saw the source hovering twenty feet away: drones.

Did you notice how the most important word is place at the end of the paragraph? Emulate this. Notice the choice of language: hiss, deluge, collapse, faux dusk, loomed, thunder, grumble, rattle. These words stir reader’s emotions.

And you know what? The big reason this is such a gripping and terrifying series is because it seems so possible. Climate change, domestic terrorism, Russian conspiracies, bombs being sent to presidential critics, Jewish worshippers gunned down in their beloved synagogue–you name it, as a country we’re scared and we should be.

Stay tuned: Don’t be afraid of potent backstory (more on the Jane Hawk series)

Keep writing, Keep dreaming, Have heart

NaNoWriMo Prep: Getting to know your main characters, part 2

Written By: Jessica Morrell - Oct• 29•18

More rain around here, but I managed to get in a few walks over the weekend including trails at the Hoyt Arboretum, or Portland’s Museum of Trees.

If I could offer a single piece of advice about creating characters it would be this: Take risks with your main characters. Make them stand out from the myriads of fiction published each year. And don’t be afraid to allow eccentricities, quirks, and oddball ways of seeing reality.

More questions for your protagonist guaranteed to get your creative wheels turning:

What’s the most embarrassing thing that has ever happened to you?

What is your biggest regret?

What is your superpower?

Who do you cherish most in the world?

If you could change one thing about your world, what would it be?

If you could change one thing about yourself, what would it be?

What is your average day or schedule?

What 5-6 words sum up your values?

What do you do after a really bad day?

How do you celebrate?

Secret you’d never tell your significant other? Your mother?

What reminds you of home?

What item must you always take along when traveling?

Favorite drink?

Secret vice?

Pizza or tacos?

Favorite climate?

Reading or television to unwind?

Breakfast or coffee only?

Keep writing, Keep dreaming, have heart

Prepping for NaNoWriMo–start with character…oh and food.

Written By: Jessica Morrell - Oct• 26•18

It’s raining here, but we’ve had the most glorious spate of Indian Summer weather and the amber, lemon, and copper colors continue to bejewel the trees. I’m cleaning up the yard, moving plants, and planting bulbs. And hallelujah, I’m back to cooking hearty food–soups, stews, and a big batch of Beef Bourguignon and mashed potatoes that made me happy to be alive though I still haven’t stepped on the scale.

With November fast approaching thousands of writers are prepping for NaNoWriMo, or National Novel Writing Month. It’s a mad sprint, penning 50,000 words of a story at a frenzied speed while part of a writing community.

If you’re wise you’re already making plans for this mighty effort. I recommend a deep house or apartment cleaning and stocking the pantry and freezer. Stock plenty of protein-rich dishes ready for the days ahead. The kind you can simply thaw or nuke.  What else keeps you going? Perhaps chocolate, apples, snacks, coffee, tea, bottled water, and rewards like  decent wine for milestones achieved.

Buckle Up

But with the last weekend in October here, I also recommend that you get acquainted with your protagonist before you plunge into writing a new novel. It’s simple really; if you get acquainted with him or her beforehand, the story will unspool with more ease and speed. Because what the protagonist wants/desires and fears the most (the dreaded alternative) will be at stake in the story.

Now, it’s likely that the protagonist’s needs and goals will shift and grow throughout the story, but you need a starting point of need and imbalance. If you begin with basic dynamics of storytelling now, then by the time the conflict heats up and things are really hairy, you’ll understand your protag’s reactions and next steps.

In fiction needs and motivations create goals. The protagonist’s goals will meet with opposition from the antagonist or another force. The protagonist will struggle to overcome the obstacles. These struggles create conflict and conflict fuels the whole shebang.

Goals matter. They define fictional characters from Woody from Toy Story to Dorothy Gale to Atticus Finch.

Goals are tied to dramatic structure and prevent your characters from being merely reactive.

Fictional characters don’t give up even though goals are hard to achieve.

Goals provide action, drive stories.

Katniss Everdeen: Her path to greatness began the day of the Reaping when she steps in to save/protect her sister Primrose  from taking part in the annual and deadly Hunger Games. Leaving home with Peeta, the other Tribute from District 12,  she plans to somehow stay alive because if she dies her mother and sister will not be able to survive without her. Along the way, she trains, forms an alliance with Peeta,  collects allies and enemies, and ultimately fights to protect Peeta’s life too. By story’s end their examples show how remaining true to your principles is most important of all.

Hazel Lancaster in The Fault in our Stars: Teenaged Hazel has been dealt a lousy hand, thyroid cancer that has metastasized into lung cancer. Her first goal, to please her mother, is accomplished when she attends a support group for kids with cancer. At this meeting she makes friends with Augustus Waters who becomes her first love. She introduces Augustus to her favorite novel about a girl with terminal cancer and explains she wants to meet the author and understand what really happened to his family. You see, the motivation that drives Hazel is that she needs to believe her parents will be okay after she dies. (spoiler alert)  Along the way Hazel and Augustus travel to Amsterdam and meet the author, lose their virginity, and Hazel realizes how much she wants to live. But Augustus has been hiding a horrible truth: his cancer has returned and he has little time left.  Quite a plot twist, isn’t it? Now Hazel needs to somehow support him, cherish their last days together, then handle her grief all the while coping with her own terminal diagnosis. She comes to understand what being a survivor means and that life has meaning no matter what stage you’re at. And she comes to feel more peace about her parents, especially after she learns her mother has been getting a degree is social work.

Luke Skywalker: Skywalker is a freedom fighter from humble beginnings.  His path (and character arc) begins with a restless need to escape his dead-end existence on his uncle’s barren farm. He learns that Princess Leia is leading a rebellion against the Empire and wants to join. He longs to become a Jedi Knight, or fighter pilot especially after Obi-Wan Ben Kanobi, a desert hermit,  informs him that his father was a Jedi fighter and he has the ability to harness the Force. Still reluctant to leave his family, his mind is made up for him when Imperial stormtroopers savagely murder his aunt and uncle. He’s all in now. Skywalker begins training with Hans Solo, then learns the princess has been captured. His next goal is to rescue the princess, which he accomplishes with more than a few swashbuckling moves. This sets up his final, seemingly hopeless goal of taking out the Death Star and ultimately saving the Rebel alliance.

Notice how the protagonists’ goals powered the story?

Getting to know you….

So how are you going to get acquainted with your protagonist? There are lots of questionnaires available online to create a physical presence and backstory. I’ve got one here amid my cheat sheets.

But it seems to me that walking along or imagining characters as  if they’re with you, their creator,  can be one of these best methods of getting to know someone. Especially if you want to learn what makes them tick. Or in fiction speak, their motivations.   Motivations stem from a character’s past, basic nature and personality, and compelling circumstances.

Let’s repeat: Motivations create needs which create goals which fuel conflict = story.

Just try it. Step outdoors and plan to walk for at least a mile with your invisible pal at your side. What would your character notice or remark on? How does he/she hold his/her body? Fast walker? Ambler? Quiet? Hates exercise? Feels most alive when moving? What’s on his or her mind? Distracted? Preoccupied? Impatient?

You know those moments in life when you’re walking along with a friend and a profound truth slips into the conversation? Maybe it’s a tidbit or a bombshell or sharing a long-ago memory. We all have wounds and they’re often twined to a character’s internal goals and secrets.  Those are the moments, the gold you’re searching for.

And although time is short with November looming, how about a short road trip with your character riding shotgun? Or can he or she tag along when you’re running errands or chauffering the kids?  Have you ever noticed how some people are a delight to travel with and some people are a nightmare? Which one is your protagonist? A nervous, watchful traveler? Open to adventure? Afraid of the unknown? Chatty? Reticent?

Shaping your protagonist’s goals

What’s wrong or not working in his/her current situation?

What about emotional needs from the past? In other words, what’s screwing up  your character?

What first, clear-cut action step can the protagonist take toward his/her goal? Remember, a protagonist’s goals work best if they’re relatable, visible, and barely achievable. Side note: some of a character’s goals will remain ‘invisible’ since they’re inner, emotional, personal growth goals.

What is the impetus to push your protagonist toward that goal? The inciting incident such as Prim begin chosen to participate in the Hunger Games? The first plot point when Hazel meets Augustus at the support group?

Keep writing, keep dreaming, have heart

And thanks for stopping by




Walt Whitman on the secret of writing

Written By: Jessica Morrell - Oct• 23•18

The secret of it all, is to write in the gush, the throb, the flood, of the moment–to put things down without deliberation–without deliberation–without worrying about their style –without waiting for a fit time or place. 

I always worked that way. I kept the first scrap of paper, the first doorstep, the first desk, and wrote, wrote. No prepared picture, no elaborated poem, no after-narrative, could be what the thing itself is. You want to catch its first spirit–to tally its birth. By writing at that instant the very heartbeat of life is caught.  ~ Walt Whitman


Fiction Mastery workshop December 1 in beautiful Manzanita, OR

Written By: Jessica Morrell - Oct• 17•18

No matter where you’re at in your writing career, this workshop will give you insights that create a more nuanced, polished, and compelling story. And it takes place at the Hoffman Center in Manzanita, one of the most charming towns on the Oregon coast. You’ll find the details for payment and registration here.

 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. Space is limited and reservations required.

November 3, 2018

Hoffman Center, Manzanita, OR


$99 Contact Hoffman Center for payment


For what it’s worth; it’s never too late from F. Scott Fitzgerald

Written By: Jessica Morrell - Oct• 09•18

For what it’s worth; it’s never too late, or in my case, too early to be whoever you want to be. There’s no time limit, stop whenever you want. You can change or stay the same, there are no rules to this thing. We can make the best or the worst of it. I hope you make the best of it. And I hope you see things that startle you. I hope you feel things that you never felt before. I hope you meet people with a different point of view. I hope you live a life you’re proud of. If you find you are not, I hope you find the courage to start all over again. ~ F. Scott Fitzgerald

300 new words in Scrabble dictionary

Written By: Jessica Morrell - Oct• 05•18

English is an ever-evolving and vital language. Influenced by  everything from hip hop to high tech  to Facebook, it reflects an ever-evolving culture. Proof: Merriam-Webster has just published the sixth edition of The Official SCRABBLE Players Dictionary updated with 300 new words. It seems to me that in the Scrabble world that’s a lot. Some of them like yowsa, ew, and ok seem like no-brainers. Others like facepalm, emoji,  bitcoin, hivemind, beatdown, and listicle attest to how times are a-changing, wouldn’t you agree? Then there’s frowny, an old word brought back into common usage. I plan to start using it. Find more information about the new words including 106 two-letter words here.

Keep writing, keep dreaming, have heart


Written By: Jessica Morrell - Oct• 02•18