Word by Word

Practical insights for writers from Jessica P Morrell


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


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.


Written By: Jessica Morrell - Nov• 01•19

End Strong

Written By: Jessica Morrell - Oct• 21•19

We’ve had early rains this autumn, but the colors splashed around are russet, lemon, gold and scarlet.

I’ve officially turned into one of those cranks who complain about how fast time passes. Typically, October has found me gob smacked because once Halloween is over, the runaway slide toward the holidays seems to pick up speed.  Meanwhile, I want this season to linger with its burnished hues, last farmer’s markets, dahlias still blooming.

And I want to end strong.

Unless you’re gearing up for NaNoWriMo, I encourage all who stop by here to nail your writing goals before the year ends.  To not allow the frenzy of feasts and gift giving and gatherings steal your writing time and productivity.

Because wouldn’t it be grand to celebrate your accomplishments as you sip champagne on New Year’s Eve? You could spend January 1 looking ahead and planning, feeling momentum as 2020 launches. Here are a few suggestions for getting there:

  • Figure out what matters most in the (gulp) next 9 weeks and narrow your focus. Revising a rough draft? Nailing 50,000 words in November? Executing a marketing plan?
  • Be realistic.
  • Acknowledge your kryptonite, then do something about it. I procrastinate, and sometimes after dinner, although I have plans to write or work, I dissolve into avoidance and complacency. Then I go to sleep feeling guilty and wake up unhappy with myself.
  • Recommit: Create action steps and milestones that prove you’re on track. All goals are measurable; either count the hours or words you need to get in.
  • Don’t fritter away the first hours of your day. It’s sooo easy to do. If you can, get up earlier than usual. Don’t check your phone, turn on TV, or meander around your place. Start the coffee or tea. Grab your laptop or sit at your computer and clock in.
  • Use Sundays to plan your week ahead, slipping writing time into the nooks and crannies of your schedule.
  • Join me in whittling down your procrastination list. These items steal your energy. Tackle them in small bursts and purges if necessary. Naturally your list will reflect your concerns. I managed to tame a seriously disorderly closet, and I’m hauling off stuff I no longer need. I’ve got trim to paint, raised beds to clear  out, research to complete.
  • At the same time, take some shortcuts. When you shop for groceries, add make-ahead entrees to your freezer. Buy gift cards and movie passes.
  • Take stock of your habits. Do you need to go to bed earlier, drink more water, eat better, stretch more? Do you need to spend less time on social media?
  • While parties and such might start filling your calendar, stay home on week nights whenever possible. Slip in some writing time.
  • Take care of yourself when you’re stressed, tired, overwhelmed. This is when you’ll cave to another dessert; when you’ll stop in at the neighbor’s party even though your throat is sore and you’re beat; you’ll spend money because you’re feeling rushed or guilty. Holiday traditions sometimes turn into obligations. If they no longer fit your circumstances or budget, reconsider attending and practice saying no. Choose what’s most meaningful. And keep choosing writing.
  • Schedule meals, conversations, walks with people you’ve lost touch with. Reconnecting will make the holiday season more meaningful and your future warmer.

Keep writing, keep dreaming, focus on the finish

Talking about writing with Rachel Hanley

Written By: Jessica Morrell - Oct• 14•19

I was interviewed by the talented Rachel Hanley. A few thoughts on writing and editing and persevering.  With many thanks and yes, my head shot is dated.

Keep writing, Keep dreaming, Have heart

Ben Okri on storytelling

Written By: Jessica Morrell - Oct• 07•19

The fact of storytelling hints at a fundamental human unease, hints at human imperfection. Where there is perfection, there is no story to tell.