Practical insights for writers from author and developmental editor Jessica Morrell

Hooked: The Dropper by Ron McLarty

Written By: Jessica Morrell - Aug• 17•18

We’ve got a few days respite from the heat here and the wildfire smoke that was choking our region has dissipated, though fires are still burning. The good news is that one fire to the east of the Cascades is nearly contained.

Ron McLarty wrote one of my favorite all-time novels, The Memory of Running. If you’ve never read this big-hearted book, I cannot recommend it enough. And it follows one of my favorite protagonists, hard- luck Smithy Ide. I was thinking about McLarty a few days ago and realized I hadn’t kept up with his writing career and was happy to discover that he’s written two books I haven’t read yet.

Which brings me to The Dropper, a book I’ll be buying in the next few days. I wanted to point out the elegant opening paragraphs because they’re a terrific example of how to hook a reader. It does so with a sorrowful narrator looking back at his life with regret, guilt, and nostalgia. A narrator-protagonist, who at 87 has upended his life and moved to England.  And his name is Shoe Horn.

The Dropper, Larry McLarty:

My brother, Bobby Horn, has lived in my dreams for seventy years.  He stands bouncing his ball in the shadow of the special school for special people, staring out at a world he cannot understand. He is fifteen, and his sweet, beautiful round face perches on that tall skinny body like a new moon. He sways and jerks his hands and shoulders but keeps his eyes on some distant mystery. I stand facing him night after night, year after year, decade after decade, and while Bobby Horn remains unchanged, I have shriveled into an eighty-seven year old man slowly disappearing from this earth like smoke from a cigarette.

For some years now, when I wake from this dream, I must lie still in my bed until whoever I might be returns and fills me. I lay staring at the ceiling wondering if today I will not come back but linger inside the dream to face my brother forever with shame and sorrow. I catch my name and say it for one more day.

“Shoe Horn. Shoe Horn. Me.”

I struggle from my bed into a chair by the window and look out over the Irish Sea. Yes. I remember now that I have come back. Back to familiar smells and murky skies. I light a cigarette, my eighty year habit, and gasp between puffs.

“Shoe Horn.”  I say to the sea.

Three days ago I closed my shop and left East Providence, Rhode Island, for England. For Barrow-in-Furness for the life I must call upon and be sure of. This day I will walk through the places and people of that life again and left my old bones do the remembering. I’ll start at St. Mark’s Church. Yes. That minister. How can I remember what he said as if it was only yesterday and I was seventeen once more.

“Some say it’s Death, Some say it’s darkness,

I say it’s a game of light.”

I’m old enough to report that the dead and long-ago dead visit my dreams and I wake with a churn of sadness and relief.  I need to find out what the title means. I need to understand Bobby Horn’s vision of a distant mystery. ‘Game of light’ has been playing in my imagination since I encountered the words yesterday. And why Shoe Horn?  Want to join me in reading this beauty? I promise you’ll be in the capable hands of wise and wily storyteller.

Keep writing, keep dreaming, have heart

Amp up Tension Word by Word

Written By: Jessica Morrell - Aug• 13•18

Here’s a project I’ve been playing with –1130 words that will amp up tension in your writing.

Because no tension, no propulsion.

Because no tension, no unease in your readers. And you want your readers worrying, fretting, wondering. Not to mention frayed nerves. (You’ll find more information on tension and how to achieve it in the pdf I’ve attached below.)

Meanwhile, yet another heat wave starts baking our region today. Color me parched.

Here you go: Amp up language list

Keep writing, keep dreaming, have heart


Written By: Jessica Morrell - Aug• 01•18

We’ve almost limped through another heat wave around here and it’s ending not a moment too soon. I’ve been living in Oregon since 1991 and the weather has profoundly changed in these past 27 years. I never imagined unrelenting sunshine could be so punishing. When I first arrived here I’d marvel at natives splashing around in the wet without umbrellas or rain gear, raving about the endless rainfall that fed our emerald landscape, and wondered if they were all mad. Now there is rain in the forecast for Friday and I’m practically giddy. Typically we get little or no rain in the summer, and it’s tinder-dry around here, forest fires are raging in the West, so any moisture is welcome.

August, named after Augustus, the first Roman emperor, always seems like the beginning of the end of summer, the school year beckoning. When I was a kid, the “dog days” named for the Dog Star, Sirius or the hottest, most humid days meant that although heat dazed, we were forbidden to swim in the local creeks and rivers because of algae blooms. So we just slumped around the house and yard, rode our bikes to the library. It was a good month for Popsicles and fat novels and running under the sprinkler. And while I’m no longer the Popsicle type, I’m ordering a few thick novels that will take me through the month.

Here is a link to information on Sirius, the Dog Star, the brightest star in the night sky.

As summer slips away, snatch spare minutes and hours for your writing. When autumn arrives you don’t want to feel as if  you’re starting over or struggle to regain your writing rhythms. Take your laptop to the park, the beach, the back yard. Look around, then really feel the ambience of the day. Perhaps slip some of the ease or tenor of the day into your writing.

Look ahead. August means another year is winding down so keep writing, keep dreaming, have heart.

PS Just for fun here is the link from the Oxford blog about the names of the months. I like their emphasis on Oxford being a living dictionary and, of course,  their mad love of language. Check out their thesaurus for synonyms for august as an adjective.

The power of silence

Written By: Jessica Morrell - Jul• 26•18

When we write we are wrapped up in words. Descriptions, expositions, verbs, adjectives, and conversations. A great way to get wrapped up. However, don’t forget the enormous power of silence. The dirty look, the words we wish we’d said but didn’t, the cruelty of a withheld compliment, the generosity of withheld cruelty. Think of the worlds you can create with silence. Overcoming silence when we speak different languages, when we are tongue tied and shy, when we have been silenced. Judicious use of silence might be the biggest noise you make. ~ Carmen Walton

Make Them Sweat

Written By: Jessica Morrell - Jul• 22•18

I’m so happy we had a few days of milder temperatures. Another heat wave is beginning today and lasting through the week. I’ve developed systems for keeping my hanging plants alive, and so far they’re all still blooming. Early mornings spent watering as the day began simmering, meant I returned indoors already slick with sweat. And thirsty. And not for the first time I wondered how people living in hot climates were adapting to climate changes. And how places where it’s not normally hot will cope with the challenges of high and sometimes dangerous temperatures.

Which brings me to writing about people and climate and weather and stress. Because people, including people in fiction, sweat. A natural biological reaction designed to cool the body. People who spend time outdoors can also end up with a sunburn. Sunburn is painful and peels and blisters.  Hot temperatures weary and can cause heat stroke and exhaustion and all sorts of health problems including organ failure and death. In fact, heat kills more Americans than other natural disasters.

Heat infiltrates every part of life. Gardens wilt and crops fail.  Car interiors are punishing. Swimmers take dangerous risks and drownings happen. Dogs pant and seek shade. In our region lightning strikes  cause forest fires.

Heatwaves and excessive heat have widespread consequences. In  fiction all weather should create consequences and reactions, even balmy weather.  Sustained heat will cause bigger dangers and ramifications. Droughts devastate agriculture and economies. Power shortages and outages happen.  Ice caps melt. Sea levels rise. Fields dry out and reservoirs shrink. When forests burn, smoke chokes the air and areas are evacuated.

If you’re writing any story where heat or exertion are going on, your characters need to react with realism, authenticity, and with lingering effects. A heat wave means waking up to a stifling apartment if you don’t have air conditioning. Day after sweltering day. In your historical novel set in the 1800s during summer (or even spring or fall) afternoon temperatures can be sweltering and punishing. Kitchens will be hellish. Ladies in the household might lie down for a nap wearing only a petticoat. Fieldhands drenched and parched and bent.

In dystopian fiction where climate change has caused  worldwide changes (called cli-fi) sobering realities shape the story. Often a collapse of the electrical grid or massive droughts are happening  or have occurred. Systems, institutions, and characters will suffer and  on every level.  It’s crucial that the inner rationale for how the situation came to be is established and consistent. Day-to-day survival might be medieval and punishing. The people  hungry and exhausted. Thirsts unquenched, fires unstoppable. Crops will fail or be raised using old-school techniques. Dust storms will swallow the landscape.

In every season notice the effects of weather and climate. In my book Between the Lines I wrote a chapter called Sensory Surround and make this point: Writers sometimes add weather to scenes, but then don’t portray the characters affected by it. For instance, a blizzard rages in a story, but then characters don’t shovel the sidewalk, slip on ice, or become chilled when outdoors. The furnace never fails and the pipes never freeze. Or, it rains in a scene, but no one becomes drenched, or jumps around puddles, or turns on the windshield wipers.

One more thing while we’re on the topic of sweat. People and characters can also sweat from anxiety, a panic attack, fever, or hot flashes. Excess sweating can be embarrassing. (been there) Sweating also can be an indication of an illness and medication. Puberty and pregnancy can also cause sweating.

I’m focusing on sweating here because it’s universal, it’s visible, and it’s another way of depicting a character reacting. So how often do your characters sweat?

You can order my book here.



Tim O’Brien on fiction

Written By: Jessica Morrell - Jul• 12•18

The goal, I suppose, any fiction writer has, no matter what your subject, is to hit the human heart and the tear ducts and the nape of the neck and to make a person feel something about what the characters are going through and to experience the moral paradoxes and struggles of being human.

Word of the day: littoral

Written By: Jessica Morrell - Jul• 01•18

With thanks to Robert Macfarlane (@RobGMacfarlane)

Littoral: a shoreline region or  related to the shoreline of a sea or lake; occurring at the edge of things. It also means the zone between high and low tide marks on the shoreline. In marine biology the definition is more complex and refers to the zone and conditions of tidal currents and breaking waves. Here is a link to the Encyclopedia Britannica.


Written By: Jessica Morrell - Jul• 01•18

A love letter to words

Written By: Jessica Morrell - Jun• 28•18

I like words. I like fat buttery words, such as ooze, turpitude, glutinous, toady. I like solemn, angular, creaky words, such as straitlaced, cantankerous, pernicious, valedictory. I like spurious, black-is-white words, such as mortician, liquidate, tonsorial, demimonde. I like suave “V” words, Svenghali, svelte, bravura, verve. I like crunchy, brittle, crackly words, such as splinter, grapple, jostle, crusty. I like sullen, crabbed, scowling words, such as skulk, glower, scabby, churl. I like Oh-Heavens, my-gracious, land’s-sake words, such as tricksy, tucker, genteel, horrid. I like elegant, flowery words, such as estivate, peregrinate, elysium, halcyon.  I like wormy, squirmy, mealy words, such as crawl, blubber, squeal, drip. I like  sniggly, chuckling words, such as cowlick, gurgle, bubble and burp. ~Robert Pirosh from Letters of Note

here is Pirosh’s  letter this opening paragraph is from


punctuate effectively

Written By: Jessica Morrell - Jun• 25•18

When speaking aloud, you punctuate constantly–with body language. Your listener hears commas, dashes, question marks, exclamation points, quotation marks as you shout, whisper, pause, wave your arms, roll your eyes, wrinkle your brow. In writing, punctuation plays the role of body language. It helps readers hear you the way you want to be heard. ~ Russell Baker