Word by Word

Practical insights for writers from Jessica P Morrell

Routine, be it ever so humble…

Written By: Jessica Morrell - Jan• 04•21

There’s  often gloom outside my windows as I sit here lately, punctuated with storms and downpours. Sun breaks do occur, but mostly I’m grateful for this infernal wet after last year’s droughts and too-close-for-comfort wildfires.

And these smudgy skies are good for reflection and planning. Now that the holidays are over I’ve been shoring up my routines and habits. Like many people, the pandemic threw off  me off balance.  I found myself exhausted, wooly-headed, and gripped with bouts of lethargy. Distracted and resentful that a trip to the grocery store was fraught with life-threatening danger.

Now, I don’t have kids at home squinting over laptops and emptying the refrigerator. I also don’t live with annoying housemates, nor have I been suddenly cut off from work buddies since I’ve worked at home for years. But in the Before Times I lived among fictional dystopian scenarios, not living through actual ones. This particular dystopian reality has shaken me and sometimes isolation is chokingly real. As the pandemic death toll climbs and new strains are morphing, I’m venturing out less and less often. Sure I text with my besties, but I’m also taking part in fewer live conversations and actual gatherings. Did I mention it’s been raining a lot?

Which means I’m rethinking things so I don’t lose connections to people who mean a lot to me. Which means I cannot drift, waste time, or ruminate too much on sad news and wretched circumstances.  Which means I cannot spend hours doomscrolling or switching on CSPAN or newscasts, agitated and worrying about might be.

Passionate about politics for decades, this whole political mess in Washington has been a distraction beyond description. On days when it seems more theater than reality I can scarce turn away. On days when it seems democracy itself is on the line, I’m bedeviled and pissed off. I follow House votes, Senate floor arguments,  committee hearings, pundits pontificating, historians explaining, Justice Department machinations,  protests growing shriller, and study reporting,  political columnists, newsfeeds, Twitter feeds, voting lines, and lawsuits. The list goes on and my inbox runneth over. The drama, the stakes, the ire all draw me in like a cartoon magnet until too often I look up guiltily to acknowledge another hour has vanished.

While smugly informed, gentle reader, you might recognize the results were chronic stress. Making me jittery and struggling to concentrate.

Too often missing the poetry of everyday life, including its wonders and tiny miracles.

Enter routines and habits to the rescue. Routines are a lifeline. Scaffolding. I’ve written about it here before. I’m starting small on re-upping former habits because small successes are easy to keep repeating, laying the ground for bigger accomplishments. For example, for some odd reason I stopped wearing earrings. It doesn’t seem like much, but I love earrings, own many pairs, some dear to me. So I’m wearing earrings as I have for years.

This might sound trivial, but this bitsy practice still shifts energy,  gives me a pick-me-up.

My life unspools best when my surroundings are orderly. Since childhood I’ve made my bed every morning. I vacuum regularly, give the house a good cleaning every season, washing curtains, moving furniture to vacuum behind, cleaning windows. My Midwestern ancestors were good housefraus, lives structured around meal making, housework, and laundry. Their houses smelling of lemon Pledge and baking bread. Despite this upbringing and spending years in restaurant kitchens, I’ve also fallen into a wee bad habit of abandoning dirty or greasy pans to soak in the sink. Sometimes a day or two passes and I ignore them or guiltily replenish the sudsy water from time to time. I hadn’t realized how much I dislike scrubbing pans until my energy was depleted. So I’m no longer allowing pans to fester no matter the elbow grease required.

As long as I’m confessing, I’m also removing clothes from the dryer right after it jingles merrily. Because I’ve been ignoring it, though I did step into the laundry room and push the button to send the clothes round for another fluff. This too might sound trivial, but I’ve noticed that procrastination leads to more slacking. Mail and recycling piles up. Clothes and items to be donated mound on the only chair in my bedroom. Or I end up with an office cluttered with papers and detritus. Which is why I’m starting small.

My bedtime routine that begins with turning down the heat and checking the locks and ends in bed with a book is a comforting anchor to end my days, so now I’m homing in on my mornings. For years I woke at dawn and wrote first thing until about 11, then showered and took a break. But my sleep habits these days are erratic, my editing projects demanding, and the aforementioned obsessive news consumption highjack my mornings. Thus, I’m avoiding my  phone and iPad first thing. Leaving the TV off.  Writing before editing. It’s blissful.

Because I’m re-establishing structure throughout the day. Foundations. Sanity-producing order. Which leads to productivity.

I’ll report back here as I rebuild my scaffolding, limit my doomscrolling, and wrest back my time for more writing. Because this all has to do with peace within and accomplishment. And I’ve got some fabulous, positive writing techniques to share, so stay tuned.

What I’m reading: Alison Luterman’s essay Fire All Around in the January issue of The Sun.

Keep writing, keep dreaming, have heart

Write a new story in 2021

Written By: Jessica Morrell - Jan• 01•21

2020 was a cruel, exhausting, nightmarish, wrung-out, surreal shambles of a year. So much to bear, grieve, and confront, sometimes with heart-hammering fear. So many adjustments to make amid an onslaught of shocking death tolls and Biblical plagues including swarmclouds of locusts.  In the West the wildfire damage and scars have brutally changed the landscape and ruined lives. Black and brown citizens are still being murdered by police.  So much loneliness and aching for those we could not spend time with.

But here we are at the beginning of another January. Working remotely and wearing masks and waiting for our vaccines. Wary yet clinging to hope.

Whatever you wrote or did not write, lullaby yourself because whatever you’ve chalked under 2020 is okay. And a do-over is possible.

If you wrote regularly you have much to be proud of.

If you finished a big project or  took part in NaNoWriMo you’re a warrior.

Not so much accomplished? Give yourself gentle pass.

Fallow fields can still grow.

You made it through hard times. You witnessed. You managed by innovating and reinventing and caring. You dug deep into your own depths of resilience. Hugging your own empty arms

Turn the page and write a new story in 2021.

Even though large swaths of our future is unknowable, we can still  make doable plans, choose attainable goals.

Mine are simple. Do the hard things. Seek out silver linings. Keep appreciating small wonders. Celebrate what deserves celebrating.  Love deeply. Read more poetry. Support writers, musicians, and artists.

Experiment with and invent new recipes. Buy carryout food from locally-owned restaurants.

Practice kindness and grace. Use my voice. Notice the world through a writer’s eyes. Gather words. Capture thoughts onto the page. Write letters.

Hike new paths. Breathe in the Pacific.  Meet new trees. Grow new flower varieties. As I said, doable.

If you still need a New Year’s boost, here’s a performance by poet Amanda Gorman, “The Miracle of Morning.” She’s a former Youth Poet Laureate who published her first poetry collection at 16.

Keep dreaming, keep bearing witness, have heart.

And please wear a mask.

January

Written By: Jessica Morrell - Jan• 01•21

And so 2020 ends…

Written By: Jessica Morrell - Jan• 01•21

I hope you have many reasons to celebrate a new year. I hope you have writing projects that challenge you, friends who cheer you,  and a pile of thick books that will last through this next season.

Thank you to anyone who has stopped by. There’s been heartbreak and upheaval in my life this past year, but like you, I believe in truth, and the power of stories to connect and heal us.

Let’s begin anew. And nurture the ‘invincible summer’ within.

 

 

Stalk your Calling

Written By: Jessica Morrell - Dec• 10•20

We can live any way we want. People take vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience–even of silence–by choice. The thing is to stalk your calling in a certain skilled and supple way, to locate the most tender and live spot and plug into that pulse. This is yielding, not fighting. ~ Annie Dillard, Live Like Weasels 

December

Written By: Jessica Morrell - Dec• 01•20

“Gratitude is the memory of the heart.” ~ Jean-Baptiste Massieu

Written By: Jessica Morrell - Nov• 25•20

Never has there been a more important time, year, season to focus on gratitude and extend it whenever possible.

Wishing all a day of peace, hope, and thankfulness.

 

Vincent van Gogh – The Harvest – Van Gogh Museum

From an Editor’s Desk: Follow Their Eyes

Written By: Jessica Morrell - Nov• 24•20

With the holidays upon us, I’m especially grateful  for all the good things and people in my life, the small joys that bring so much simple pleasure. A walk with a friend, an engrossing novel, spring blooms, autumn leaves, watching seasons change, the first sip of tea in the morning, dinner simmering in the kitchen.

This space is for writers searching for fresh ideas to improve their craft.  I teach topics I believe can be helpful to writers at all stages and share issues I  notice in writers’ manuscripts. I’m generally mentioning habits and failed techniques that sink a story, but of course, I work with writers who demonstrate brilliance, imagination, and a thoughtful approach to storytelling.

But into every writer’s life problems rear their snaggly heads.  At times we lapse into dullness, we lean on crutch words, we make typos and gaffs. Our plots wander, our characters confuse, and our endings fall flat. Because writing is hard. And writers are at a natural disadvantage  because we use computers and the familiarity of our words on the screen breeds a kind of blindness. Sometimes the more often you read your own words, the less you’re able to identify their strengths and weaknesses.

With that in mind, I want to call your attention to a simple technique in writing fiction: using characters’ eyes to reveal emotion and  meaning. This is a reminder to  pay more attention to how your characters look, stare, and express emotions. If eyes are the windows to the soul, then match your characters’ expressions  to the exact emotion or reaction needed. Here are suggestions for getting it right.

  1. Figure out your crutch phrases and go-to moves. A few that appear too often  are eyes widening, teary eyed, blank stares,  blurred vision, stared straight ahead, watched like a hawk, she looked him straight in the eye, eyes darting, piercing stares, blinking back tears, eyes narrowing, smoldering looks, deep-set eyes, and steely-eyed. There are also cliched colors like baby blue, emerald, and chocolate.
  2. Make certain that the character’s eyes are appropriate to the scene. Too often characters gaze down at the floor or at their hands. Now, these gestures typically indicate discomfort or avoidance, but sometimes readers just sow them into a scene when that’s not the intended effect.
  3. Don’t feature all your characters  reacting the same way.
  4. Avoid strangeness and viewpoint slips such as His eyes smiled at me or Her face fought against tears.
  5. Ditch the hobbit staring. Hobbit staring is a term I learned from a movie buff friend. He coined it from the Lord of the Rings films when the camera lingers too long on stares between two characters as if that demonstrates some deep meaning or message. Because often it does not. Then the filmmakers apply it to other staring contests, versus, say, heartfelt dialogue that could be more direct and meaningful.
  6. If you’ve watched the delightful and deservedly popular series The Queens Gambit you’ll notice characters staring at each other a lot. Because it’s appropriate. Because they’re seated a few feet across from each other in earnest and sometimes excruciating combat.  Because they’re often trying to psych each other out.
  7.  Question every tear. I sometimes ask writers to count every scene where a character ends up weeping, wet-eyed, or with tears leaking down wet cheeks. This request comes from noticing how weeping and sobbing are overused resulting in melodrama, excess sentimentality, or depicting a character as too emotional for her own good. And the good of the story. Too much weeping and the story gets soggy and dull. And please, just forget single tears. Please.
  8.  Mix it up. Often a writer’s most used crutch words are look and see. However, in real life people gape, squint, spot, gander, gawk, ogle, stare, gaze, study, inspect, scan, scout, spy, study, inspect, notice, note,  peek, peep, peer, and rubberneck.
  9. Expand  your repertoire of descriptions: haunting, beckoning, steady, stormy, mocking, mournful, lifeless, sultry, goopy, teasing, pitiless, glassy.
  10. Stir in a little weirdness. Many people have mismatched eyes. Then there are droopy eyes, people with different colored eyes, bloodshot eyes, Rasputin eyes, lazy eyes, buggy eyes, one working eye, wandering eyes, piggy and close-set eyes.
  11.  Study how and when successful authors use close-ups. If you never focus the camera lens on a character’s face during an emotionally-charged scene, then readers cannot enter the moment and feel what the characters are feeling.
  12. Study actors. Notice how their eyelids raise a bit to show interest or droop to indicate the lack of interest. Note how they leer, seduce, flash anger, hide their true feelings. If you’re serious about writing your job for the rest of your life is to notice subtext. And that often begins with the eyes.

 

 

 

Character arcs happen mostly in action

Written By: Jessica Morrell - Nov• 09•20

Historical Accuracy and other Peeves: Skip the hugs and kisses.

Written By: Jessica Morrell - Nov• 09•20

With apologies–an early draft to this article was mistakenly published before it was completed. Updated November 17.

Obviously I’m not alone in declaring this a humbling, angst-filled, anxiety-inducing year. Did I mention fattening?  Like many millions around the world, I’m following the COVID numbers with growing horror and paranoia. I’ve been wearing a mask and scrubbing like a surgeon since March and cannot imagine why other people simply don’t use common sense and seek reliable news sources. Don’t get me started on governors that won’t protect the lives of their citizens with mandates.

I’ve been limiting my exposure, meeting a few friends distanced and outdoors, am not traveling, and have rarely eaten in restaurants. I missed my father’s 90th birthday because he lives more than 2,000 miles away. Like millions I’m exhausted by an administration that refuses to admit they lost an election. Lately I’ve been chased from my home by a mouse invasion because I’m unable to share my residence with rodents of any sort and poison takes awhile to go through a population.

My plans for Thanksgiving are still not firm even though our family gathering would be small. This midafternoon the Portland sky was so black and foreboding it looked like a horror film imposed on top of another horror film. Then I slept through the crashing downpour that ensued. Because I feel like a could sleep for a month. Did I mention it’s sloshy wet and mostly gray here?

All I know for sure that it’s soup and reading weather.  I’m grateful for my clients and their stories that give me lots to ponder, and stories wherever I encounter them. I’m currently watching a  British crime series with only 4 episodes called Collateral. It begins with an unlikely event, the murder or a pizza delivery guy and is twisty, layered, and well acted.

My  current read is Joe Abercrombie’s The Blade Itself  a gritty fantasy in The First Law series. I’m on book one and it’s long and the editor in me wants to dig into it with knives and scalpels, but then maybe I was a surgeon in a previous lifetime.  I mostly want to get to book 2 Before They Are Hanged, because I’ve read the opening and it’s far stronger, the language is more appropriate, and the whole seems more plausible in a grimdark sort of way.

I’m reading it because I’m analyzing grimdark fantasy of which Abercrombie, George RR Martin, and other mavens are shaping unsettling, haunting realities. Need I mention I’m escaping into worlds more improbable than this one?

Grimdark is boundary pushing. It’s influencing entire genres.  It’s a subgenre that’s takes an anti-Tolkien approach with more grit, realism, violence, and sex.  Science fiction and dystopian fiction also fall under this category. You’ll often find hard-bitten anti-heroes leading the casts, brutality, ash, and ruin. Stories also hearken back to the earliest legends and tales, along with echoes from history.

Which leads us windingly to appropriateness and accuracy when writing fiction. If you’re stopping by here, no doubt, you know just how hard it is to write any kind of fiction. You also know that when  you’re writing a story that veers far from your everyday reality that it requires a lot more work and objectivity. Sometimes it’s hard to really see what you’ve got on the page, how your story holds together.

That’s where educated readers come into the picture.

Editors notice a lot. Our attention is piqued by voice and  language, moves on to plots and the pitfalls therein, and slams on the brain brakes at inaccurate details.

Let’s consider one such problem.   First, a confession: I’m not always comfortable with PDAs–or Public Displays of Affection. Especially teenagers pawing each other at the mall. Even close-up kisses in movies aren’t my thing. On the other hand, football fans exchanging a celebratory touchdown smooch meets my approval. I could watch babies and toddlers cuddling and loving up  their moms and dads and siblings all day. I can’t get enough of babies.

But I’m also averse to PDA in fiction where it doesn’t belong. Turns out there are lots of stories where it’s erroneous or silly.

Certain fiction genres place huge demands on writers. Require enormous rigor and exhaustive research and multiple rewrites. Often these demands mean acquiring reams of knowledge outside  your own purview. I’m especially thinking of historical fiction, but then I’ve also worked on some dystopian fiction that lacked the internal logic and science to create the dire future depicted in the story. As part of my gig I’ve spent countless hours combing original sources, medical journals, old texts, university catacombs. I also study maps, paintings, and portraits from past centuries and suggest writers should too.

If you are writing historical fiction that takes place before the 19th century please, please lay off with the hugs and kisses. And declarations of  I love you and I need a hug. Also, just lay off the hugs.  They simply weren’t common gestures as they are now. In fact, PDAs were often seen as classless, lacking in manners. Intimate gestures mostly happened between married folks behind closed doors. (Please understand I’m not saying there was no extramarital sex.)

Bear with me because PDAs and romantic acts need to be accurate across many genres.  A Western where you’ve placed a trail boss on one knee to beg for a woman’s hand in marriage might come off as ill-suited. If you write a fantasy set in an alternate universe with swords and sorcery, but then the setting is similar to Europe in the Middle Ages, then stick to the general mores of the Middle Ages unless you’ve got a logical reason to vary things. Like your characters are visiting a brothel or a highly-paid courtesan is in the scene. Couples canoodling as they stroll down a cobbled street, not so much. A drunk pinching a barmaid’s plump arse, yes.

Also, in times you need to imagine a world of  inconvenience. For centuries open sewers were common and diseases spread easily. Many people stank. Often only the rich could afford soap and hot water to fully bathe in. Servants and slaves were typically involved in these ablutions. In centuries past teeth might be missing, but since there was little sugar, not everyone would have rotten teeth. Skin might be pox pocked, scarred, and weatherworn; then there were goiters, missing digits and limbs. Human bodies often underwent extraordinary wear and tear. And many people died young.

As I was writing this I was reminded of the Westerns I’d sometimes watch at the Cosmo theater in my home town when I was a girl. Saturday matinees often featured Westerns and I’m remembering cowboys who rode into town after a long, arduous cattle drive, but carried none of the dust and grime of the trail into the saloon with them. And the (mostly)lovely young women who worked in the saloons sometimes looked more like beauty pageant contestants than whores. And the pioneer wives were typically pink-cheeked wearing pristine aprons. Romanticized. Sanitized.

Don’t pretty up everyday life especially when it comes to relationships unless you’ve got an impeccable reason. And please don’t call them relationships. It’s a contemporary term. Of course you get to choose details that suit your cast and plot. Create complexity  and plausibility because love within a marriage wasn’t always seen as vital to it’s success. Take care with chivalry and courtly love; don’t forget the common practice of arranged marriages, along with notions about chastity, church and convent schools teachings.

Don’t forget the inherent  dangers of sex in ages past like sexually-transmitted diseases. Here is an account of a duke dying of rotting genitals. Factor in little birth control, few cures for common diseases, famines, plagues, and such and it adds up to a world where your characters might not be looking fabulous and romping it up all the time.

And when your maiden character finally succumbs, it’s likely her beloved cannot count every freckle on her henceforth covered body. Before  electricity candles, lantern, and firelight didn’t alight a whole room unless it was room where the inhabitants were wealthy. For most people throughout the ages candles were dear, as were lanterns and fuel.  And I know it sounds picky, but getting the lighting wrong is a dead giveaway that the setting details are inaccurate. As is leaving it out. Starless nights were beyond black, they were infinite, mysterious, and scary unless you were seated near a fire.

Now of course your characters can find each other under crazy circumstances and celebrate love and birth healthy children, and and even frolic naked in a meadow. But as I’ve recently reminded a talented writer: fiction is a world of threat. Even if there are giggles under the covers and orgasms along the way, bad things will happen to characters we adore. But first turn down the lights.

Winter is coming 

PLEASE WEAR A FREAKING MASK

Stay strong, have  heart, write about these crazy times even if you’re writing from loneliness or rage or outrage. Or because you’re writing from your lonesome, pissed off, heavy heart.