Word by Word

Practical insights for writers from Jessica P Morrell

Advice from C.S. Lewis

Written By: Jessica Morrell - Jul• 23•19

“If we let ourselves, we shall always be waiting for some distraction or other to end before we can really get down to our work. The only people who  achieve much are those who want knowledge so badly that they seek it while the conditions are unfavorable. Favorable conditions never come.”

A Read for our Times: Stones from the River

Written By: Jessica Morrell - Jul• 18•19

After trump’s latest hate rally and cries of “send her back” might I offer a lesson from history in the form of a beautiful novel, Stones from the River by Ursula Hegi? It’s the story of the rise of Hitler and how the German people were pulled into his madness and xenophobia. How easy it was to sway them, brainwash them, and demonize Jews and other minorities and outsiders.

It’s told from the viewpoint of Trudi  Montag, a dwarf, and the story begins in 1915 when she’s a girl. When you create a fictional story at least one character needs to be vulnerable—it’s why a child’s kidnapping makes such a horrifying, nail-biting tale, for example. We can all relate to feelings of vulnerability because we’ve all been children, dependent on adults for survival. In Hitler’s Germany only able-bodied Aryan types were seen as desirables and people with differences could be sent to work camps, murdered at whim, or be subject to brutal medical research.

Here is the opening:

As a child Trudi Montag thought everyone knew what went on inside others. That was  before she understood the power of being different. The agony of being different. And the sin of ranting against an infective God. But before that–years and years before that–she prayed to grow. Every night she fell asleep with the prayer that, while she slept, her body would stretch itself, grow to the size of other girls her age in Burgdorf–not even the taller ones like Eva Rosen, who would become her best friend in school for awhile–but into a body with normal-length arms and legs and a small, well-shaped head. To help God along Trudi would hang from door frames by her fingers until they were numb, convinced she could feel her bones lengthening; many nights she’d tie her mother’s silk scarves around her head–one encircling her forehead, one knotted beneath her chin–to keep her head from expanding.

How she prayed. And every morning when her arms were still stubby, and her feet wouldn’t reach the floor as she’d swing them from her mattress, she’d tell herself she hadn’t prayed hard enough or it wasn’t the right time yet so she’d keep praying….  

Keep writing, keep reading, stand for justice


Written By: Jessica Morrell - Jul• 13•19

“The architects do blueprints before they drive the first nail, they design the entire house, where the pipes are running, and how many rooms there are going to be, how high the roof will be. But the gardeners just dig a hole and plant a seed and see what comes up. I think all writers are partly architects and partly gardeners, but they tend to one side or another, and I’m definitely more of a gardener. ” ~ George R.R. Martin

In case you missed it: Ruth Reichl on M.F.K. Fisher

Written By: Jessica Morrell - Jul• 03•19

I discovered M.F.K. Fisher in my twenties, not from her many memoirs and books about food, but by reading Sister Age. It’s an odd little book. As the title suggests, it’s about aging and features essays of sorts about ghosts, elderly women on a sea voyage,  encountering death, and facing one’s later years. And, as in all her writing, Fisher manages to espouse her bold and deliberate views on the lush pleasures of life.

I then devoured all her books and memoirs on food and cooking  from The Gastronomical Me to How to Cook a Wolf and upon reading them, felt like I had joined a secret sisterhood of women who truly appreciated the sensual pleasures of food and cooking. As Reichl notes, “To Mary Frances food was a metaphor for living.”

Ruth Reichl’s beautiful tribute and memory of her last visit with Fischer is a worthwhile read. Ruth Reichl on M.F.K. Fischer Lifetime of Joyous Eat is here at lithub. And if you haven’t read Reich’s memoir, Tender at the Bone,  I highly recommend it. Here’s Fisher’s website that includes a list of her 27 books and the delightful news that an unpublished novel was discovered then published in 2016. Finally, because I’m hoping to pique your interest in this remarkable writer, here’s an interview with Bill Moyers.

This interview contains one of my favorite all-time passages written by Fisher: “Once I was lying with my head back, listening to a long program of radio music from New York, with Toscanini drawing fine blood from his gang. I was hardly conscious of the sound, with my mind anyway. And when it ended, my two ears, which I had never thought of as cup-like, were so full of silent tears that as I sat up, they drenched and darkened by whole front with little gouts of brine. I felt amazed. Beyond my embarrassment in a group of near friends, for the music I heard was not the kind that I thought I liked, and the salty water had rolled from my half-closed eyes like October rain, with no sting to it, but perhaps promising a good winter.”

Perhaps this gives you a glimpse of why I’m such a fan.

….Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free

Written By: Jessica Morrell - Jul• 01•19

The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.

Send these, the homeless, the tempest-tossed to me,

I lift my lamp beside the golden door!

From The New Colossus, Emma Lazurus. 1883

Happy July 4th out there to any citizen who holds this message dear.

Quick take: Story=problem.

Written By: Jessica Morrell - Jun• 27•19

Fiction features a problem that needs solving and only the protagonist can solve it. In short stories the problem is often introduced by the inciting incident–an event that triggers or launches what follows. In longer fiction the inciting incident might lead to the problem. This event will disrupt the status quo, demand a response, and set actions in motion. It’s a threat that unbalances the story world and creates dilemmas that must be dealt with. So a simple plot structure is a protagonist struggling to solve an intolerable problem and re-establish order.

No matter when the problem begins (it’s always in Act One) the problem is weighty and vexing,  perhaps insurmountable. If the problem is not immediately personal,  it should become so creating a bond between the protagonist and antagonist.

As you know, in real life problems are sometimes unsolvable and don’t fit neatly into a satisfying narrative arc. Across the globe there are ‘forever’ problems of climate change, financial inequities,immigrants who need homes, corporate greed, and fascism. No shallow fixes will work, though incremental changes can chip away at underlying issues.

Closer to home, you might be dealing with a job that drives you crazy, but you cannot leave;  family members who refuse to reconcile; health or mental health issues that can only be coped with, not cured; or agonizing decisions about caring for elderly family members. In fact, studies have show that depression can be linked to seemingly unsolvable problems.

This is why some people turn to fiction. Where love wins in the end, crimes are solved and justice is served, and friends or families reconcile. But in well-told tales success never comes easy and it always exacts a toll. Often success comes from the protagonist tapping into inner resources he or she hadn’t accessed before.

A few tips: as the story progresses the protagonist formulates a plan. Now the plan can be shaky, untested, or desperate, but readers need a  strategy at work.

Force your character to solve smaller problems along the way to resolving the major story problem. A detective can dig up a much-needed witness or help a vulnerable street kid.

Endow your protagonist with specific, interesting skills and personality attributes that won’t waver and make him or her suited to the task.

Create a protagonist who is somehow lacking in something he or she needs for happiness or fulfillment. Burden him or her with emotional baggage and needs, personal demons or addictions, then toss in cast members and subplots that distract, undermine, or hinder.

Understand how the problem makes the protagonist feel in each scene: hesitant, unaware, outgunned, overwhelmed, weak, unqualified, terrified.

Setbacks and surprises should be baked into the plot.  Oh, and the protagonist should fail, fall on his face at least a few times along the way to the climax. Because your job as the master manipulator is to blindside, torment, and thwart your characters. Again and again so the outcome is in question.

Keep writing, keep dreaming, have heart

Written By: Jessica Morrell - Jun• 20•19


Books are the plane, and the train, and the road. They are the destination, and the journey. They are home. ~ Anna Quindlen

Are you using colors?

Written By: Jessica Morrell - Jun• 18•19

A pearly full moon is rising through a stand of tall Douglas firs tonight. It’s casting an enormous, mysterious glow through the upper branches.  I’m stepping out onto the porch at intervals to watch its progress, as  meanwhile the Big Dipper shines above the back door.

What color is the moon in your part of the world?

This is the third summer I lived here and I’m still landscaping the front yard and creating a secret garden in the back. Ahead there’s lots of fencing, digging, edging, planting, and path laying.  I’m establishing the flower beds with deliberate color schemes. Lots of deep blues, purples, lavender, rich pinks. One bed is based around shades of sunshine and orange, and includes a pale rose, with variegated shrubs and cedars as a backdrop. Across the yard I’m creating a new curved bed of dahlias in wine, garnet, and berry shades. It will partially encircle a bench that in turn faces a bed of blushing bride hydrangeas lining the back of the house. Did I mention hole digging? And figuring out archway-slash-dramatic entrances?

Do you ever feel kind of invaded by or drunk on color? I know I do.  Season by season.

With summer only days away in the Northern Hemisphere, are you observing all the shades around you, while slipping them into your writing? Are you adding new colors to your repertoire: bone, alabaster, currant, merlot, sea glass, apricot, honey, marigold, butterscotch, daffodil,  flaxen, plum,  cobalt, ocean, sage, iron, onyx.

Keep writing, keep dreaming, have heart

Each person has a song….

Written By: Jessica Morrell - Jun• 16•19

Each person whoever was or or is or will be has a song. It isn’t a song that anybody else wrote. It has its own melody, it has its own words. Very few people get to sing their song. Most of us fear that we cannot do it justice with our voices, or that our words are too foolish or too honest, or too odd. So people live their song instead. ~ Neil Gaiman

Why So Many Adults Love to Read YA

Written By: Jessica Morrell - Jun• 12•19

Summer might be only a week away, but temperatures are hitting near 100 today. I’m in a bit of trouble in the watering department because I’ve been buying more than my share of ‘rescue’ plants lately. A nearby Fred Meyers garden department marks them down and I’m lured to them like other people might be to stray kittens.  Yesterday I came home with a Miss Kim lilac, 2 hydrangeas, 2  sunflowers, and 2 others whose name escapes me, but they’re pale purple and flourish in my yard.  I plant a lot of purple and blue.

This summer I have a new raised bed that’s 4X8 and 2 feet high. I’ve planted 7 tomatoes with an emphasis on Brandywines, my other bed has at least 8 volunteer tomatoes in it, the beans are off to a slow start, the basil loves this hot weather, mint is spreading as fast as I contain it,  and I’m battling slugs because apparently they adore tomato leaves.So gardening is taking up a lot of time, my back complains, and the results are soul-satisfying and delicious.

Ever since I learned to read I’ve spent many languorous hours in the summer reading. I was thinking back to that first week or two when school was over and summer stretched so full of promise and books and small adventures.

If you’re like me your to-read pile of books doesn’t diminish, it grows. And grows. And sometimes topples over.   And then if you mix in books you plan to reread… well, a  vacation cannot come soon enough.

As if your book collection isn’t big enough, I want to suggest that you also read YA (young adult). You’ll be in good company because 55% YA books are read by adults. In this Atlantic article Caroline Kitchner, a professor of young adult literature (what a great gig!) outlines why YA fiction is so compelling.  I agree with John Green that the emotional intensity and freshness of YA pulls me in, especially in a coming-of-age story where the protagonist is experiencing ‘firsts’–first love, first great loss, first taste of independence, first major moral dilemma.

Reading YA can teach writers how to get their story off to a quick and rollicking start because often the inciting incident occurs on the first page. YA literature can teach how to craft fiction on a budget since these novels typically fall into the 55-75,000 word range. And it needs to be said; some of our best contemporary writers are writing young adult fiction.

Here’s the middle grade (ages 9-12) novel  I’m reading now by the talented Randall Platt, Professor Renoir’s Collection of Oddities, Curiosities, and Delights.  It’s set in 1896 and is about a real-life giant girl, Babe Killingsworth. By her 14th birthday she measures 6’9″ and weighs 342 pounds. She lives in her father’s barn with the animals she loves. She doesn’t go to school because she can’t fit at a desk and the teasing from the other kids is unmerciful. Oh, and her pa is about to sell her off to a traveling carnival and Professor Renoir, a man of dubious reputation. I don’t know about you, but I adore a good misfit story.

Keep writing, keep reading, have heart