Word by Word

Practical insights for writers from Jessica P Morrell

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.

Every Day is Earth Day

Written By: Jessica Morrell - Apr• 22•19

Happy Earth Day to all.

I’ve been planting trees and shrubs this spring, added a new raised bed for growing vegetables, and will plant more pollinators to attract bees, including lavender, Russian sage, poppies, and sunflowers. Here’s a list of pollinators that might work in your yard.

As writers there’s so much we can do to support our endangered planet. Here are a few suggestions:

Stay on top of the latest scientific findings on climate change. Here’s a list of 101 sites with credible research.

Talk about the climate changes you’ve noticed in your lifetime, including hard data.

Use fewer plastics.

Add weather to your stories and don’t be afraid to write dystopian or  plots that warn of the dangers of environmental changes.

Read the best writers on the topic: It’s Not Coming; it’s Here, Bill McKibben on  Our New Climate Reality Robert Macfarlane’s beautiful books will awaken something in you, I promise. I’m a devoted fan of Craig Childs’ work. This essay, Raven, printed in The Sun magazine will illustrate why he’s a writer worth reading. Diane Ackerman is another writer you’ll want to emulate and I guarantee her words will linger within you.

365 books that can start your climate change library can be found here.

Keep writing, keep dreaming, protect our planet











11 Authors on Their One-Word Titles

Written By: Jessica Morrell - Apr• 19•19

Book titles are hard. They need to be memorable, indicate the genre or what the book is about, create buzz, and have pizzazz. The title is likely the most important marketing decision you’ll make.

And then there are one-word titles which might be the hardest ones to get just right. If you’re considering a one-word title, this article published by Merriam-Webster is a small gem. Because as the subtitle says, there is an art in telling an entire story with one word. Stephen King’s Misery, A.S.Byatt’s Possession, and Chuck Wendig’s Wanderers are among the titles.

Keep writing, keep dreaming, have heart

Written By: Jessica Morrell - Apr• 11•19

As a writer you try to listen to what others aren’t saying….and write about that silence. ~N.R. Hart

5 Clunkers to Eliminate in your Writing

Written By: Jessica Morrell - Apr• 02•19

The first thing I notice when reading an opening paragraph is if a writer uses precise, fresh language. In case you’re having problems seeing your dull choices or bloopers here are some you can fix or avoid:

  1. Said exclamations: Today’s readers are sophisticated and understand when characters are talking and that at times the character’s voices and emotions change. The notion is the ‘he said, she said’ parts of fiction appear invisible. Readers understand that a character might sound shrill by the circumstances and dialogue spoken so you don’t need to proclaim, Mary Ellen shrieked shrilly. Never write Jason emoted, pleaded, bantered, snarked, smirked, blasted, bleated, peeped,groused. Now occasionally in the midst of a horror story you might want to underline how terrified a character is, but consider dabbing these attributions in only for the most terrifying or surprised moments.
  2. Clichés.  Oh how, I hate thee. Eliminate all your I took a deep breaths. Ditto for eyes widened, out of the corner of my eye, jaw dropped, raven locks, and steely blue eyes. Then there is:  Each and every, knife to my heart, piece of cake, fire in the belly, he/she took my breath away. And before you write about your characters staring into each other’s eyes, think about how often it happens in real life and how often it happens in your stories.
  3. Mind matters, especially in first person. You don’t need to report on how the character is reviewing things in his/her mind because this distances the reader and reminds her there is a narrator instead of the reader living amid the story world. So eliminate ‘mind raced‘ ‘thoughts raced‘ ‘mind’s eye‘ (a truly lame term), and ‘searching her mind.
  4. I saw. If you’re writing in close first person you don’t need the I saw or I looked part of the sentence. Example: I saw ahead of me three leprechauns frolicking merrily in the grass. Instead: Ahead three leprechauns frolicked merrily in the grass. Why? The reader wants to pretend that he or she is spotting the leprechauns along with the character. Also describing the leprechauns implies the narrator or character is seeing or observing. No need to state it.
  5. Prepositional phrases. Prepositions are the carbohydrates of language. Of course we need them for clarity, but use with care. Instead of book of poetry, poetry book. Instead of tower of flames, towering flames.

So here’s the trick: Don’t always use the first word or phrase that pops into your head because  you might be using rusty, old clichés. Or fix these dullards when you edit. Like stock still, fast asleep, choking back tears, stirred up a hornet’s nest, did a double take, under the radar, and never in her wildest dreams.

Keep writing, keep dream, have heart


Written By: Jessica Morrell - Apr• 01•19

Written By: Jessica Morrell - Mar• 29•19

“It is a great privilege to make one’s living from writing sentences. The sentence is the greatest invention of civilization. To sit all day assembling these extraordinary strings of words is a marvelous thing. I couldn’t ask for anything better. It as near to godliness as I can get. The great thrill is when a sentence that starts out being completely plain suddenly begins to sing, rising far above itself and above any expectation I might have had for it.” ~ John Banville 

Introducing Unforgettable Secondary Characters

Written By: Jessica Morrell - Mar• 16•19

There are so many tricky aspects of crafting fiction, so many techniques to master. And then there’s revision with all it’s myriad decisions. Many writers can struggle creating vibrant and complex secondary characters. After all, complicated main characters are hard enough to create. Memorable co-stars, however, can make or break a story. I always view them as a measuring stick for a writer’s prowess.

Here’s a vivid example of a memorable secondary character from Leif Enger’s beautiful Virgil WanderHis name is Rune–so here’s a simple trick, give your characters resonant names. In this case, rune has mystical, mysterious associations. The day after the protagonist Virgil survives a car accident in the opening moments of the story he walks to the waterfront of the forbidding, ever-changing Lake Superior. Enger is introducing an oft-used device: a mysterious Stranger comes to town.

I ended up at the waterfront. It’s not as though there’s any other destination in Greenstone. The truth is that I moved here largely because of the inland sea. I’d always felt peaceful around it–a naive response give it fearsome temper, but who could resist that wide throw of horizon, the columns of morning steam? And the sound of a continual tectonic bass line. In a northeast gale this pounding adds a layer of friction to every conversation in town.

At the foot of the city pier stood a threadbare stranger.  He had eight-day whiskers and fisherman hands, a pipe in his mouth like a mariner in a fable, and a question in his eyes. A rolled-up paper kite was tucked under his arm–I could see bold swatches of paint on it.

There was always a kite in the picture with Rune, as it turned out.

He watched me. He carried an atmosphere of dispersing confusion, as though he were coming awake. “Do you live in this place?” he inquired.

I nodded.

“Is there are motor hotel? There used to be a motor hotel. I don’t  remember where.”

His voice was high, with a rhythmic inflection like short smooth waves. For some reason it gave me a lift. He had a hundred merry crinkles at his eyes and long-haul sadness in his shoulders.

“Not anymore–not exactly.” If I’d had more words, I’d have described Greenstone’s last operational motel, the Voyageur, a peeling L-shaped heap with scraggy whirlwinds of litter roaming the parking lot. Though technically “open,”  the Voyageur is always full, its rooms permanently occupied by the ower’s grown children who failed to rise on the outside.

“Oh well,” he said, shaking himself like a terrier. He peered round at the Slake International taconite plant, a looming vast trapezoid which had signified bustling growth in the 1950s and lingering decline ever since. Its few tiny windows were whitewashed or broken; its majestic ore dock rose out of the water on eighty-foot pilings and cast a black-boned reflection across the harbor. No ship had loaded her in so long that saplings and ferns grew wild on the planking. We had a little forest up there. I looked at the  kite scrolled under his arm. He’d picked the wrong day for that, be then he looked like a man who could wait.

He said, “You here a long time?”

“Twenty-five years.”

At this something changed in him. He acquired an edge. Before I’d have said he looked like many a good-natured pensioner making do without a pension. Now in front of my eyes he seemed to intensify.

“Twenty-five years? Perhaps you knew my son. He lived here. Right in this town,” he added looking round himself, as though giving structure to a still-new idea.

“Is that right. What’s his name?”

The old man ignored the question. He pulled a kitchen match from his pocket, thumbnailed it, and relit his pipe, which let me tell you held the most fragrant tobacco–brisk autumn cedar and coffee and orange peel. A few sharp puffs brought it crackling and he held it up to watch smoke drift off the bowl. The smoke ghosted straight up and hung there undecided.

Did you notice how this small scene multi-tasks? Here’s a review of Virgil Wander because I’m hoping you’ll read this beautiful story.

Techniques to borrow:

  • Sharply observed first impressions (carried an atmosphere of dispersing confusion as though coming awake, a good-natured pensioner making do without a pension, looked like a man who could wait)
  • Props (kite and tobacco, kitchen match, pipe)
  • Smells (tobacco)
  • Iconic or mythic comparisons (rune, mariner in a fable)
  • Indelible physical features: (fisherman’s hands, question in his eyes, a hundred merry crinkles as this eyes and a long-haul sadness to his shoulders)

Here’s a tip: When you need to describe a character or objects or setting ask yourself what does this remind me of? As you walk around your world, really notice your surroundings and ask yourself the same question.

Keep writing, Keep dreaming, Have heart

Written By: Jessica Morrell - Mar• 03•19


Written By: Jessica Morrell - Mar• 01•19