Word by Word

Practical insights for writers from Jessica P Morrell

Writing a Story No one has Read Before

Written By: Jessica Morrell - Dec• 16•19

I listen to a range of podcasts, but keep coming back to two fiction series from The New Yorker. These podcasts feature readings of short stories and include conversations with the fiction editor, Deborah Treisman. In one podcast an author, but not the author of the story, chooses and reads a story from their archives and explains why he or she chose the particular story.  One of my favorite episodes features David Sedaris reading Miranda July’s short story, “Roy Spivey” and their discussing and dissecting it.  Sedaris was blown away by July’s story, claiming that it was a story that changed him and the ending devastated him. The story along with their conversation about its intricacies and power is worth listening to here. Like Sedaris the story has stayed with me and reminds me of the primal delights of a campfire tale. Of the origins of all storytelling.

I have a lovely doctor who is a voracious reader. We squeeze in discussions about books during my appointments and early in the year, she described how she’d opened a novel to begin reading and then abandoned it. She said, “I just knew I’d read the story before.”

Now, she didn’t mean she’d read that exact book before, but rather that it was predictable. Possibly stale. Not worth her time. It might not surprise you, but no sooner were the words out of her mouth when I suggested some titles. Since then I’ve been passing along some of my favorite books,many with bendy, offbeat story lines and quirky, often outsider characters. All the elements in these novels are indelible, yet somehow realistic.  On my recommendation she recently finished reading Peace Like a River by Leif Enger, can’t stop thinking about it,  and is telling friends about it. And I’m recommending this gem to anyone who stops by here. It will also stay with you, and you’ll find yourself remembering the characters long after you close the final page of the luminous tale.

It’s fun to be a book connector.

Because as you know, books are meant to be shared. To be discussed, relished, and pondered over long after the story ends.  On that note, in case you missed it, I want to nudge you toward Washington Black by Esi Edugyan. It’s a wondrous, raw, and powerful novel.

It’s a hard-to-describe story about an enslaved boy growing up on a sugar plantation in Barbados starting in 1830. The cruelty, brutality, and oppression in these circumstances can be felt. But then the novel takes a sharp turn, and shifts into an adventure and coming-of-age-story.

It’s also hard to describe how powerful and apt her language is. Soaring, lyrical, vivid, especially when she’s describing the natural world. Here are the opening paragraphs.

I might have been ten, eleven years old –I cannot say for sure–when my first master died. 

No one grieved him; in the fields we hung our heads, keening, grieving for ourselves and the estate sale that must follow. He died very old. I saw him only at a distance stooped, thin, asleep in a  chair on the lawn, a blanket at his lap.I think now he was like a specimen preserved in a bottle. He had outlived a mad king, outlived the slave trade itself, had seen the fall of the French Empire and the rise of the British and the dawn of the industrial age, and his usefulness, surely, had passed. On that last evening I remember crouching on my bare heels  in the stony dirt of Faith Plantation and pressing a palm flat against Big Kit’s calf, feeling the heat of her skin baking up out of it, the strength and power of her, while the red sunlight settled in the cane all around us. Together, silent, we watched as the overseers shouldered the coffin down from the Great House. They slid it rasping into the straw of the wagon and, dropping the rail into place with a bang, rode rattling away.

That was how it beganme and Big Kit, watching the dead go free. 

My question to you: Are you writing something no one has read before?

How would I write this?

Written By: Jessica Morrell - Dec• 13•19

It’s been said that writers live twice–once in the moment, and again while writing about what happened.

I’ve been pondering this since yesterday afternoon. A “pineapple express” weather system arrived this week bringing warmer temperatures and heavy rains coming from the Hawaiian Islands. It had rained and rained the past few days, but then I looked up from my computer as the sun appeared like a brilliant omen in the south. I changed out of my slouchy yoga pants, slapped on some lipstick, pulled on a cap and jacket,  and headed to the store–about a mile and a half away.

My plan was to pick up two much-needed items. As I was driving north the ominous, dense sky was a deep charcoal and I felt a stab of unease since it was early afternoon. I parked as the rain returned and dashed into the store berating myself for not wearing rain gear.

As I selected my items, without warning, the heavens unloaded. I was in a new building with high vaulted ceilings interspersed with many oversized skylights. And the sounds of the storm beating down on the roof and skylights reminded me of a tornado I rode out years ago. The roar and pounding blasted at my nerves and obliterated normalcy.  All around me shoppers were exchanging uneasy glances, gazing upward, kids covering their ears.

Since returning to my car wasn’t possible, I grabbed a cart in the entryway noting the hail pounding the pavement, and started shopping for more items, taking my time. As I walked around amid the clamor, I felt like I’d entered another surreal existence. Like stepping into a Stephen King story. Strangers were huddling and chatting, their expressions guarded or wondering, and the atmosphere was eerie, charged, and unsettled.

I couldn’t help but soak in all I was seeing, hearing, and feeling, and wondering how I might write about it. How I would evoke the primal fears that come with nature’s harsh punishments or a startling changed reality. After the hail and deluge stopped it took me awhile to arrive home because streets were flooded and a sense of vulnerability never left me.

How are you gathering up these moments, both small and dramatic?The emotions that go along with them?  How do you make stories from everyday living?

 

Tuesdays and Productivity

Written By: Jessica Morrell - Dec• 10•19

Tuesdays are one of my favorite days of the week. The weekend is in the rear view mirror, I feel in gear and focused, and accomplishing everything on my to-do list seems possible. That is, if I don’t think too hard about what needs to be completed before Christmas.

As 2019 closes I’m pondering what I want  to achieve in 2020 and auditing what I accomplished this year. And the thought came to me, what if I treat every day like Tuesday with focus and a certain peace? What if I resume some former habits and stop answering emails when I start the day?  What if I snatch every spare minute for writing and spend less time following politics, logging onto Twitter and Pinterest?  What if I stop being busy and start being more prolific?

For me it all starts with identifying how I spend my time.

How about you? How are you ending your year? How do you fritter away writing time? What are your plans for 2020? Are they solid, doable, detailed, and specific?

Keep writing, keep dreaming, stay focused

 

 

 

 

 

 

Sarah Water’s 10 Rules for Writers

Written By: Jessica Morrell - Dec• 09•19

The Guardian’s Rules for Writers is a great resource. Here’s the link to Sarah Water’s ) rules. I especially liked her advice in number 9.

“Pace is crucial. Fine writing isn’t enough. Writing students can be great at producing a single page of well-crafted prose; what they sometimes  lack is the ability to take the reader on a journey, with all the changes in terrain, speed and mood that a long journey involves. Again, I find looking at films can help. Most novels will want to move close, to linger, move back, move on, in pretty cinematic ways.”

December

Written By: Jessica Morrell - Dec• 01•19

Winter Landscape, Caspar David Friedrich

A Guide to Using Semi-Colons

Written By: Jessica Morrell - Nov• 26•19

In my work I see writers struggle with certain punctuation marks again and again. The culprits are semi-colons :, em dashes, and the ubiquitous comma ,. Like me don’t you wonder who the heck came up with all these rules?

But all grousing aside, they’re brilliant little traffic signs and help move readers through text.

Here’s a simple, but elucidating guide to using semi-colons from Merriam-Webster.

If you’d like to learn more about a lexicographer’s gig working for Merriam-Webster, I can heartily endorse Kory Stamper’s memoir Word by Word: The Secret Life of Dictionaries. It’s fascinating, fun, witty, and might make a great gift for the word nerd on your holiday shopping list.  And here’s more information about the book from The New Yorker. Stamper also hosts videos at several sites online.

Fiction is About the Cost of Things

Written By: Jessica Morrell - Nov• 26•19

Fiction is about the cost of things. The plot should always somehow scar or wound the protagonist and put something valuable at risk.

Protagonists suffer. Period. Paying heavy costs make characters relatable. I swear by these statements. Use them to guide your storytelling because it creates stakes, motivation, and tension.

Fictional characters take more risks than ordinary humans. Typically not all risks pay off.  Along the way friendships, allies, freedom or safety might be lost. Such is the cost of fiction.

How much will he or she suffer?  Sacrifice? Regret?

Before I go further, it’s important to point out this doesn’t mean your protagonist will always be a martyr or your story ends in tragedy. But everything can be on the line in the fictional universe: friendships and allies, family, love, prestige, honor, trust, hope, money. Betrayals might happen. Long-held secrets revealed.  Obviously these possibilities create emotional distress.

Not to mention to physical costs like  pain, injuries, and body parts. Think Katness fighting for her life in The Hunger Games and going deaf in one ear. Then she’s forced to fight for Peeta’s life because he’s been badly injured.(In the book, not the film series, he loses a leg)

Speaking of body parts: remember the suffering doled out by psychotic fan Annie Wilkes in Misery?

MISERY, Kathy Bates, James Caan, 1990, (c)Columbia Pictures/courtesy Everett Collection

Gulp.

Because bad things happen to our favorite characters. Really bad things. Your character’s suffering will always reveal his or her depths and strengths. Suffering always advances the plot. If it doesn’t, leave it out of your story.

Let’s look at some examples:

Jem Finch loses his innocence when he realizes the depth of racism in his small town in To Kill a Mockingbird.  

Rocky Balboa is brutally beaten and loses to Apollo Creed. But he goes the distance and wins love.

Juno MacGuff not only gives up her baby, but learns that the adoptive father-to-be is a man-child. She’s forced to risk giving her baby to a single mom instead of the stable couple she’d hoped for.

Woody of the Toy Story series loses friends, risks his pride, leadership role,and life, battles greed and heartlessness. All these costs bring him maturity and wisdom.

Katniss Everdeen risks her life to take her sister’s place in the deadly Hunger Games.

In The Godfather the Corleone family loses their oldest son in the mob war that breaks out. Unfortunately it was Sonny’s impetuousness that started the war. The inciting incident, or catalyst in the story is a meeting between the Corleone family and a representative for the Tattaglia family. This issue on the table is investing a million dollars to get into heroin-trafficking business. Sonny, going against protocol, reveals his interest in the money-making scheme.

After an attempt on the godfather’s life, and with the body count rising,  Michael the youngest son, commits murder and is forced into hiding. The story follows his profound character arc from war hero and college graduate to cold-hearted mob boss. He loses his humanity with each power move and act of revenge.

Bad decisions often make things worse. Because fictional characters screw up a lot. Which brings on more misery, self-doubt, and need for more risks.

Questions to consider when plotting:

Is the cost justified?

Will readers realize the cost or sacrifice is too great before the protagonist will?

Does the protagonist understand the cost involved or is he or she naive? Untested?

Can you make the toll affect several aspects of the protagonist’s life? Can the plot exact physical, emotional, financial tolls?

Will the cost involve another character? A vulnerable character?

Will the protagonist be exposed, peeled bare while paying the cost?

Will other characters try to dissuade the protagonist from paying the price?

Can you make the cost or sacrifice or pain visceral and believable?

Can you identify the cost in stories you read and films you watch?

Keep writing, keep dreaming, have heart

Yoga for Writers

Written By: Jessica Morrell - Nov• 20•19

I don’t know about you, but I spend time every day trying to undo the effects of sitting in front of a computer. Always stretching and bending and taking breaks.

Here’s a yoga routine suggested by one of my medical providers from Yoga With Adriene.

The novels I remember best

Written By: Jessica Morrell - Nov• 20•19

“The novels I remember best have empathetic characters whose motives I understand–even if I don’t agree with them–and a plot I can’t stop thinking about. The best novels make me think–that could happen, and what would I do if it happened to me?”  ~ Amanda Patterson

Reading Deeply and Roddy Doyle

Written By: Jessica Morrell - Nov• 15•19

Bleak November skies this morning and the impeachment inquiry is airing on television. These days I feel like I’m taking a law course by following the news and activities across our government. Make that several courses.

When I’m reading a new author or a beloved author with a new book out I often research the author, reading interviews, articles, reviews. Usually I wait until after I’ve read the book, but sometimes, especially if I’m disappointed in the book, I’ll read reviews wondering what others have thought of the story.

While a compelling novel or insightful nonfiction book stands alone, there’s so much to be learned by following an author’s career and knowing more about his or her background. It’s akin to listening to a performance of a Beethoven symphony and knowing that he was deaf or near-deaf when he composed it. Adding the context of his handicap and daily life deepens your appreciation.

All writers need to read deeply. After reading for enjoyment, we read to discern themes and techniques, structure, and language. Study how author’s create secondary characters in a few deft strokes. Or how the story moves in and out of time. Study techniques you’re trying to strengthen. I’m certain I learn something with every book or short story I read, not to mention a well-written opinion piece or investigative journalism. This means I underline, make margin notes, jot in my notebook (there is one in every room of my house), ponder reasons why the writer made certain choices. I’m always analyzing and it adds a lot to my enjoyment.

Now these points  probably aren’t news to you. But also consider my suggestion about researching authors. What risks did the writer take telling the story? Elizabeth Strout’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Olive Kitteridge is a good example–a woman’s life told in 13 short stories. Olive is a singular character–waspish, difficult, enormously complicated, and a fascinating oddball. And Strout creates her with fascinated empathy and the more we read about Olive, the more compassion we feel toward a character suffering from unspoken grief.

What obstacles did the author overcome along the way? Stephen King has been open about his addictions and physical ailments and tedious recovery after being hit by a drunk driver. His omnivorous reading habit.  What habits sustain your favorite writers? Who has influenced them? What place has shaped them?

And while you’re at it, whenever you’re hanging out with a family member or friend, ask him or her what he or she is reading. Then ask why and what they think about the book, what they’re learning and taking away from it. Ask what single word defines the protagonist.

I’m currently reading, Smile by Roddy Doyle. And here’s an article about his career that was published in The Guardian in 2011. I was struck by his comments about how Dublin and Ireland were modernizing as he was growing up. It reminds me of his earlier book The Commitments.

Writers follow threads. Writers read for meaning.

PS The Guardian regularly publishes an excellent series featuring writers, called A Life in Writing.