Word by Word

Practical insights for writers from Jessica P Morrell

Written By: Jessica Morrell - Jan• 28•20

Write with your eyes like painters, with your ears like musicians, with your feet like dancers. You are the truthsayer with quill and torch. Write with your tongues on fire. ~ Gloria Anzaldua

The Writer’s Way: A secret to creating characters: Enduring Traits

Written By: Jessica Morrell - Jan• 12•20

A  rainy week in the Pacific Northwest with snow on the way (hooray!) and I’m starting slow today, drinking my morning Earl Grey tea. In my book Bullies, Bastards, & Bitches: How to Write the Bad Guys in Fiction I dove deep into the topic of character traits. I explained that main characters will possess a hierarchy of personality traits and their primary  traits–the ones that define them–will remain stable throughout the story.  And this is important: these traits will be tested again and again as a story progresses. While your protagonist might change by the story’s end, these traits will not. This creates the cohesion a story and character arc needs.

It also creates delicious tension. Because if a protagonist has a personal moral code, what will he or she do when faced with a moral dilemma?

I’ve been thinking about these enduring traits lately and how these traits are showcased again and again as the story progresses into Act 3 and the climax.

Here’s an illustration from Katniss Evergreen of The Hunger Games YA dystopian series with a focus on the first book in the series. I’m using Katniss (again) because she’s forced to survive under crushingly brutal circumstances,  and her traits, introduced in the first moments of the story, amplified in the inciting incident, are deepened throughout the story. They’re evident in the climax when Katniss and Peeta decide to commit suicide rather than live under a corrupt and depraved regime.

Profound questions hang over the story–why does a heartless society turn children into ruthless killers for the entertainment of elites? How do the citizens go along with it? What does this suggest about human nature or is this only a sick dystopian version of humanity? Can murder ever be justified?  Since this isn’t a happily-ever tale, what becomes of these killers when they return to  society?

With such extreme life-or-death stakes, it’s necessary to craft a complicated, bigger-than-life protagoist with complicated traits.  Suzanne Collins made Katniss lionhearted. How else could she survive in such a savage culture?

Katniss’ main enduring traits:

  • Courage
  • Intelligence
  • Resourcefulness
  • Loyalty
  • Integrity
  • Compassionate

The Setup: In the opening moments of the story, readers and viewers find Katniss heading out into the woods to hunt an illegal act made necessary for survival. This foreshadows her skills and reveals her grit and independence.

The inciting incident that kicks off the story happens during the yearly Hunger Games ceremony. Katniss courageously chooses to take Primrose’s place when she’s ‘reaped’ and participate in the deadly  Games in her stead. Prim is her younger sister, their father, a miner has died in a mining accident, and Katniss struggles to help keep the family alive. Luckily her father taught her how to hunt because he’d traded game in District 12’s black market.

Complications and Reversals: Katniss and Peeta arrive in the Capital to begin training for the Games, gain notoriety and thus admirers and backers,

And then comes the dreaded test–because fiction requires tests–competing in the Hunger Games Arena. She avoids the traps in the first moments in the arena and takes off on her own, showing her strategic thinking.

Trapped in a tree by the Careers, her resourcefulness and prowess with a bow comes into play when she knocks down a nest of tracker jackers, deadly bio-engineered insects. The attack kills off some of her competitors as the survivors take off, desperate for relief.

She’s turned the tables with the help of Rue, and they become allies. But in a key scene, Rue is murdered and Katniss’ compassion comes into play when she honors her friend by laying out flowers on her body. These sort of gestures are naturally not allowed amid the barbarous Games.

Katniss’ courage is again displayed when after honoring Rue, she faces the cameras signaling her defiance and sparking a revolution. Because a protagonist’s actions should cause ramifications and consequences.

When Peeta, also an ally, who has befriended her family in past, is injured, Katniss rescues him and nurses him back to health.

Her courage and resourcefulness highlighted when she returns to the cornucopia, creates a distraction, and steals valuable supplies to keep herself and Peeta alive.

The Not-so Happy Climax: A moral dilemma further underlines her key traits and values as her and Peeta refuse to bend to the evil system of the ruling government.

Katniss growths throughout the story, but her enduring traits remain the same. It’s one of the keys of writing consistent and potent characters.

A side note: while Collins has been criticized for some aspects of her series, one thing that she gets right is her world building, how there is no safe place in this twisted culture. It creates nearly relentless tension and haunts every part of the story. If you’re working at increasing tension in your storytelling, her techniques are worth examining.

Here’s a link to Bullies, Bastards & Bitches on amazon.

Here’s a link to Bullies, Bastards & Bitches from Writer’s Digest that includes free downloads.

Keep writing, Keep dreaming, Stay inspired

For Portland-area writers: join me at a Power Writing class

Written By: Jessica Morrell - Jan• 09•20

It’s still foggy here this morning and I enjoy gazing out at the contrast of the fog muffled against the tall Douglas firs that line this property. I’ve got ongoing editing projects and my own projects so yesterday when I was driving to meet a client for lunch I was ‘writing’ in my head. Later I came home and translated those ideas into a document before they disappeared. I hope you all have methods for capturing all your ideas because I know how easily they can  and will vanish if not captured.

In my work as a developmental writer I also line edit and enhance language to make it more potent, sensory, and resonant. Not only have I learned a lot of tricks over the years, but I’ve also been studying the history of English for the past 18 months and am looking forward to explaining how understanding Anglo-Saxon origins can pump up your writing.

This means I’m stoked to share a lot of new techniques in my classes, including my upcoming Power Writing class.  If you live in the Portland, Oregon area, join me at the Mt. Hood Community College main campus in Gresham on Tuesday afternoons from 3-6 starting on January 21.

The class is listed here.

The  registration info is here.

Course description:

Powerful writing simmers, brims, sweats on the page and slips into the reader’s brain, senses and emotions with a compelling vibrancy. With this in mind, Power Writing offers a means to put your thoughts into words, improve and energize your writing style, and breathe life into sentences.  Sessions will illustrate how to create writing that is sensory and grounded while using sounds and precise language and images to communicate meaning. We’ll also focus on voice, how figurative language adds ‘music’ and depth; how to employ high-energy verbs, ‘word grenades,’ and sound bursts for punchier prose.  Other devices will be explored to help writers create more immersive stories and essays that leave a lasting impression. The sessions will include writing exercises, examples, and handouts.

Tuesdays, 3:30-6:00

January 21-February 25th

Mt. Hood Community College, Gresham, Oregon


Keep writing, keep dreaming, write with power


The Writer’s Way: you need to care deeply about your protagonist

Written By: Jessica Morrell - Jan• 04•20

It’s impossible to write about a main character you don’t care about. And care deeply. When I say care, you can actually pity the poor sod {Quoyle in The Shipping News}, or disagree with his morality as when you write an anti-hero like Scarlett O’Hara or Tyrion Lannister of the Game of Thrones series.    Many readers find anti-heroes  likable or relatable,  but so must the writer/creator. Because fiction writing requires a serious emotional and intimate involvement.

Ideally you’ll find your protagonist fascinating, indelible, someone you can cohabitate with for at least a year.Because between first drafts and final revisions it will take at least a year to finish your novel  Naturally this can work for short stories too, but the duration is often shorter. This means your main player needs to be fun to write.

I’ve known writers who have fallen out of love with their characters and it ain’t pretty. Especially if they created a series character. Typically they discover their creation feels stale or predictable. Similar to a failing relationship in the real world. Like those glum couples you spot in restaurants not speaking to each other; sitting in slumped misery or apathy. Of course I’m nosy and apt to spy on my fellow diners and I’ve been noticing these miserable pairings for years.

Back to you and your main characters. Think long haul. Lasting commitment, curiosity, or admiration. Think not being judgy. A few suggestions for you:

  • Character first. Plot is people.
  • Create an intricate backstory that will cause motivations.
  • Give it time. It doesn’t need to be an instant attraction or intimacy, but your character should pique your curiosity.
  • Discover what in your character’s nature validates his/her humanity. Makes him or her worthy of your reader’s time.  Some of the best protagonists are not immediately sympathetic or understandable. It can take readers time to understand them. But that’s okay. Because there will be tests along the way that reveal his/her true nature.
  • Your protagonist needs traits you admire, even begrudgingly.
  • Figure in your protagonist’s chief vulnerabilities, then exploit them.
  • Understand how your character’s triggers, reactions or overreactions under duress.
  • Consider working out your demons through your protagonist. Is he or she insecure? Will he feel misunderstood? What about rewriting your awkward adolescent years through your character?

The Writer’s Way: Your Ideas Won’t Always Work Out

Written By: Jessica Morrell - Jan• 02•20

Story ideas often come to writers as a fleeting spark of an idea or feeling. Maybe it comes from meeting an interesting stranger. Maybe it comes from a childhood memory or looking back at a life-altering trip. Or perhaps you’re trying to rewrite a difficult situation you’ve always wished you’d handled better. Maybe you spot a person on the street who reminds you of someone from your past. Maybe that person broke your heart.  Or bullied you when you were a kid. Or she/he is the one who got away.

Perhaps you have no idea where your story idea came from.

Sometimes a story comes from asking what if. What if dad never left us? What if an adult with a family runs away from home?  What if I never met ___? What if a corpse is discovered missing its fingerprints?  What if someone refused to keep family secrets?

All these ideas have potential….BUT ideas are the easy part of writing. A spark doesn’t always ignite into a flame. A spark doesn’t always equal a plot.

So you need tools and criteria to judge your ideas. Visual artists have a great advantage over writers because an artist can place his painting in front of a mirror. The mirrored image will be so distinct that the artist will see it anew. Writers, alas, can’t use the mirror trick.

Your friends or critique group can help you discern weak story concepts versus potent story concepts. But over time you’ll need to find ways to judge your own work. Here are a few suggestions:

  • Does your idea foment or riot within you? Do your main characters get your heart pumping? Demand to be heard?  Demand to be shaped into a tale?
  • Can you ‘see’ the story in a series of vivid scenes?
  • Can you boil down the story into a few vivid sentences?
  • Can you ‘hear’ the main voice of the story already? Does the voice come naturally or easily as if from some untapped part of you?
  • Does a major twist come to mind?
  • Can you imagine the ending?
  • Can you plot the causality–as in one scene leads to the next, then leads to the next.

Keep asking yourself questions about what comes next or the protagonist’s core traits or how you can complicate things. Perhaps a false accusation or betrayal might help shape the story. Perhaps a lie or secret lies at the heart of things. And what about the themes? Can you offer fresh insights about human nature? Create characters your reader has never met or imagined, but always wanted to?

Keep writing, keep believing, have heart

The Writer’s Way is a series of posts I’m creating in 2020  suggesting how to shape a complex story and how writers persist and create despite the noise of the world, the tug of reality and day-to-day obligations.

A new year, a new word

Written By: Jessica Morrell - Jan• 01•20

Fresh beginnings are so promising aren’t they? The new, unknown and possible all before us. An empty road leading toward the future. Or like an untrammeled wilderness in the cold, an empty sky, a blank page.

If January 1 is your blank book, what do you intend to fill it with and how will you accomplish it? And what will guide you?

I have a simple suggestion for some extra guidance. On this first day of 2020 consider choosing a single word that will enhance your commitment, lead you onward, awake what is dormant in you. A word compass that will guide you forward, remind you of your goals and beliefs when you’re weary or discouraged. A word that contains your vision of the coming year.  This is sometimes called a ‘word of the year’ and it holds your mindset, focus, and intentions.

I find that this word provides better guidance than making resolutions. It’s a personal North Star. It underlines what is possible.

Here are a few suggestions: Write, Balanced,  Strength, Strong, Grace, Unstoppable, Limitless, Healthy,  Rebuild, Persistence, Abundant, Creative, Discipline, Bold, Passionate, Grounded,
Consistent, Intentional, Brave, Focused, Gratitude, Courage, Thrive, Authentic, Present, Powerful, Potent, Progress, Power, Powerful, Plenty, Potential, Possibility

Suggestion 2: Make it visible. Write it down then place or post it where you’ll see it many times in a single day. I write mine in my writer’s notebook and day timer and sticky notes I place around the house.

Suggestions 3: If the perfect word doesn’t immediately occur to you, don’t fret. Brainstorm or trust that it will arrive unbidden. Or ask for it.

Keep writing, keep believing, have heart


Written By: Jessica Morrell - Jan• 01•20

Science Fiction and Fantasy Mix Familiar and New to Create Language

Written By: Jessica Morrell - Dec• 23•19

Science fiction and fantasy writers are often burdened with inventing a vocabulary for their story world that deepens and explains an alternate reality. Because a crucial part of any culture is its language. They’re called constructed languages.  The best methods of using language to authenticate your fiction often lies in blending the familiar and new, including fresh word combinations.

This short piece by the folks at Miriam-Webster have examples examples of how this is done in the Star Wars universe. It’s easy to identify terms that have entered everyday usage —stormtrooper, droid, the dark side, the Force, and Jedi.

JK Rowling author of the Harry Potter series is known for creating spells from Latin terms (Avada Kadavera) and coining fresh word combinations like parseltongue for the language of snakes and serpentine creatures.  Humans who can speak this language are called parselmouths. She also brought us dementors, muggles, and death eaters. Here’s an updated Harry Potter vocabulary guide that proves the richness of Rowling’s language that anchors the Potter world.

George R.R. Martin also boldly mixes old and new in his Game of Throne series set amid the continent of Westeros. The rich and extensive vocabulary includes the Unsullied, eunuch warriors who were former slaves,  greyscale, an incurable, disfiguring skin disease,  sellsword, a mercenary for hire, turncloak for traitor, wildlings, a derogatory term for people who live in the far north, and wargs, people who can enter and control the minds of animals.

However, Martin went a step further and invented 11 new languages such as Dothraki and Valyrian. (The Star Wars series has 68.) These important languages in the HBO series were expanded by hired consultants who matched words with the culture and history. And wouldn’t you know it, people around the world are learning these invented languages. There’s also the Common Tongue spoken by most citizens of the kingdom, the Old Tongue mostly spoken north of the Wall, and the True Tongue spoken by the mysterious children of the forest.

And just for fun, here’s a link to a glossary list of sci-fi terms from   Writers Write.

Keep writing, keep dreaming, have heart

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?