Word by Word

Practical insights for writers from Jessica P Morrell

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

7 Tricks for Writing Terrifying Horror Fiction

Written By: Jessica Morrell - May• 30•19

For more on horror stories visit Writer’s Digest here.

Keep writing, keep dreaming, have heart

From The Shadow Land by Elizabeth Kostova

Written By: Jessica Morrell - May• 29•19

“This book is a train with many cars, moving clumsily along a track at night. One car contains a small supply of coal, which spills out into the passageway when an internal door is opened. You have to step over piles of slippery black grit to get through to the corridor. Another car contains grain, shipped for export. One car is full of musicians and instruments and cheap overnight bags, nearly half an orchestra sitting according to their friendships and rivalries in the seats of the second-class compartment. Another car contains bad dreams. The final car has no seats but is instead of sleeping men, who lie crushed together on their coats in the dark.

The door to that one has been nailed shut from the outside.”

*          *           *           *            *          *           *          *          *

From this intriguing intro, the story begins on the next page with a young woman, Alexander Boyd,  arriving jetlagged in Sofia, Bulgaria in 2008 to teach English. Mishaps start the story off with her taxi driver dropping her off at the wrong hotel. This leads to a chance encounter that propels the story forward. It also creates a deepening mystery when travelers she’s helped leave behind a satchel holding an urn of human remains.

However, even before this inciting incident, mystery is shrouding the story including the phrase ‘self-inflicted exile’ dropped into the second paragraph like a grenade.  Exile never has pleasant connotations, does it? And how does this all connect to the train images in the first paragraphs?

Here’s a link to this effective opening.

Joan Didion advises

Written By: Jessica Morrell - May• 21•19

I’m not telling you to make the world better, because I don’t believe that progress is necessarily part of the package. I’m just telling you to live in it. Not just to endure it, not just to suffer it, not just to pass through it, but to live in it.  To look at it. To try to get the picture. To live recklessly. To take chances. To make your own work and take pride in it. To seize the moment. And if you ask me why you should bother to do that, I could tell you that the grave is a fine and private place, but none I think do there embrace. Nor do they sing there, or write, or argue or see the tidal bore on the Amazon, or touch their children. And that’s what there is to do and get it while you can and good luck to you. 

Writing Habits: Noticing and Nurturing your Imaginings

Written By: Jessica Morrell - May• 16•19

I preach the gospel of pay attention. In fact I preach it a lot. Because while some stories are meant to be written, must be written, it’s the smaller details that bring scenes, moments, characters to life. And for that a writer needs to be plugged in to her surroundings, an observer, a collector, a detective.

Here are some things to notice in your daily gatherings that will in turn feed your imaginings:




  • First impressions when you meet a new person, especially body language and mannerisms.
  • The varying tones in a person’s voice and laughter.
  • Fleeting facial expressions.
  • The way music makes you feel.
  • How a person walks into a room or new environment.
  • How people hold their hands, use their hands when they talk.
  • The colors and hues of sunrise, sunsets, clouds, sky before and after storms.
  • What is unsaid in a conversation, but still pulses beneath it.
  • Moon phases and what exactly waxing gibbous means and how the phases affect nighttime visibility.
  • Starlight and constellations. Two words writers: look up.
  • Smells/scents of each season and each building you enter, neighborhood you visit.
  • Background sounds–the music playing at your favorite stores, the hubbub at Costco, the other diners and kitchen sounds in a restaurant, traffic sounds including sirens wailing, freeway noise coming from far away. How do the sounds make you feel?
  • Cozy, ‘lullaby’ sounds–what sounds make  you feel safe, comforted, easy?
  • Old photos–collect them at garage sales, antique stores, flea markets.
  • Plants growing in sidewalk cracks, under logs, in shaded or overlooked places, abandoned fields or yards, empty lots.



  • How a person’s eye color changes in varying lighting.
  • How emotions are reflected in a person’s eyes.
  • How people react to surprises, shocking news, crises.
  • Body parts–arthritic knuckles and knees, the graceful lines of a young girl’s neck, the shell colors of eyelids, a baby’s joints, feet, hands.
  • The way people look when they’re diminished by grief, pain, illness. How do they hold their bodies? Where does grief reveal itself in the body?
  • The belongings/keepsakes a person holds most dear.
  • Weathered buildings, abandoned buildings, old wood and bricks, crumbling walls.
  • Portals and entries that lead to gardens, alleys, neighborhoods.
  • Sounds carried on the wind.
  • Sounds of weather, wind, and bodies of water.
  • Chalk art, children’s art, an artist’s brush strokes.

Keep writing, keep dreaming, keep collecting

Quick Take: In Springtime Collect the Senses

Written By: Jessica Morrell - May• 10•19

We’re having unseasonably warm weather in the Pacific Northwest this week, though with climate change it’s hard to tell what unseasonable means any more. I’ve got new seeds in the ground so I’m watering them twice a day, nursing along seedlings and starts. And enjoying the last of the lilac blooms.

Spring is the time to collect delicate and audacious colors, to breathe in new scents, to feel the sun on your skin as if for the first time. Are you writing it down? Touching velvety petals? Letting the smells of fresh-cut grass transport you back in time? Watching the many color changes as the trees transform from pale buds to deep green? Observing roses opening?

When you write, are your stories set firmly in a particular season? Can readers feel the air, smell lavender or wisteria wafting in an open window? What are the sounds of each season?

Keep writing, keep dreaming, have heart

From an Editor’s Desk: Eliminate Junk Words

Written By: Jessica Morrell - May• 07•19

I work as a developmental editor and my clients include beginning writers, authors with a dozen or more books published, and indy-published authors. My focus is on the larger issues in their manuscripts such as does the story arc work, are the characters believable and consistent, and are individual scenes pulsing with tension and purpose. In the midst of  nitpicking my way through manuscripts I include line and copy editing. Because I want the sentences to be grammatically correct and every word counts. And though my office looks like a wind storm blasted through decluttering sentences gives me a thrill. And if it sounds like my life is dull, you could be right.

On this site you can click on my Cheat Sheets link and find lists of vivid verbs and modifiers you don’t need. (I’m in the midst of updating them, so please check back including Amp up Your Language.) Because most of us use go-to words that aren’t necessary to tell the story. We use them out of habit or laziness, or because no one has pointed out that you don’t need them. In the spirit of writing clean, crisp, and intelligently here’s a reminder about words you usually don’t need.

Breathing, deep breaths, barely breathing, inhaling, exhaling, and  other lung movements.  Many writers of all levels reveal their characters’ emotions and reactions using their breath, lack of breath, breathlessness, or as their main method of reacting  and showing emotion. “I took a deep breath” is a phrase I’ve seen so often it’s a cliche.  Unless a character has the breath knocked out of him or is in the midst of childbirth, avoid focusing on breath as your main means to create emotion. Instead collect a variety of mannerisms, reactions, gestures, and body language individual to each character.

Down or up. As in Rachel sat down. Now Rachel can collapse into a chair, or sidle into an empty seat in a dark theater, or ease onto a sofa, or flump onto a bed. Sit and sat means a person is lowering himself or herself.  As in down. More accurately sit means supporting your weight on your buttocks.

Question your use of up. It seems so innocent, doesn’t it?  Blithe stood up. Stood means up because standing means a person is upright, supporting himself on his feet.  Denzel stood, joining the screaming fans. Also do not write grabbed up; grabbed suffices. Avoid appending up to spoke, hurry, lift, climb, and rose.

Really. I mean really? Do you need it? Is the weather really cold or is it frigid or dangerously cold?

Literally means exactly as described or in a literal or strict sense. It does not mean quite, actually or really. Wrong: I was so mad I was literally shaking like a leaf and red-faced. Or, I was so terrified I literally jumped out of my skin. Or, Her death literally brought me to my knees.  Better: The playoffs were watched by literally millions of fans.

Basically, essentially, obviously, basically, totally. Hint: question every adverb you use with an -ly ending because many are so overused they’ve become meaningless. However the larger issue is many people sow these words into their stories without understanding their correct meanings mostly to maximize or intensify. Over time many adverbs have become meaningless. Basically means at a basic level or fundamental sense, not almost or mostly. Essentially means the essence of something or in an essential manner, not almost or often.  Practically means in a practical manner not almost or mostly. Totally means completely, in every part, not really.

Just. No, I’m not just kidding. Too many of us (guilt-hand raised) use this one out of habit.

Moments. I’ve read manuscripts where characters pause or think or kiss for only a moment hundreds of times throughout the story. There are plenty of ways to describe brief actions or thoughts.

That. If a sentence works without that ditch it. Easy, right?

Suddenly. Because if you’re reading fiction you assume that actions, twists, and surprises will happen abruptly. They are devices used to increase tension and suspense. No need to announce it.

Hopefully doesn’t mean ‘I hope.’ But it might convince an editor you’re not the wordnik he or she wants to work with.

Towards, backwards, forwards, upwards, downwards.  Replace with toward, backward, forward, upward, downward.

Keep writing, keep dreaming, have heart


Written By: Jessica Morrell - May• 01•19

Join me in Bellingham, WA on Thursday, April 26 for Chanticleer Author’s Conference

Written By: Jessica Morrell - Apr• 23•19

For a half-day workshop

Secrets of the Dark Arts

A practical approach to re-visioning, rewriting, and revising. It’s for fiction writers though will be helpful if you’re writing memoir. There are also several openings available for Saturday and Sunday sessions. I’ll be teaching 3 workshops on Immersive Fiction on Friday, Saturday and Sunday. (the Friday sessions are filled)  Find the details at this link and register at the Chanticleer site. And indy authors–Chanticleer has answers for you.