Practical insights for writers from author and developmental editor Jessica Morrell

Neil Gaiman on the writer’s lonely road

Written By: Jessica Morrell - Aug• 16•17

It’s not a bad thing for writer not to feel at home. Writers–we’re much more comfortable at parties standing in the corner watching everybody else having a good time than we are mingling. ~ Neil Gaiman

The purpose of being a serious writer….

Written By: Jessica Morrell - Aug• 06•17

The purpose of being a serious  writer is not to express oneself, and it is not to make something beautiful, though one might do those things anyway. Those things are besides the point. The purpose of being a serious writer is to keep  people from despair. If you keep that in mind always, the wish to make something beautiful or smart looks vain in comparison. If people read your work and, as a result, choose life, then you are doing your job.

~ Sarah Manguso


Written By: Jessica Morrell - Aug• 01•17

Remember you love writing.

Written By: Jessica Morrell - Jul• 27•17

Remember you love writing.  It wouldn’t be worth it if you didn’t. If the love fades do what you need to and get it back

Remember writing doesn’t love you. It doesn’t care.  Nevertheless, it can behave with remarkable generosity. Speak well of it,  encourage others, pass it on.

A. L. Kennedy

Word by Word: Openings make a promise to the reader

Written By: Jessica Morrell - Jul• 11•17

It’s full-on summer. and nights are again growing quiet after the raucous explosions from Fourth of July celebrations. Roses are spilling over throughout town, heat blasts from the sky until it bakes everything below including the miserable clay soil I’ve inherited in this yard, the roads are filled with campers and trailers, vacationers heading to the coast and mountains,  rafters heading to the mountain-fed rivers, and kids in my neighborhood are on an endless loop of scootering down the hill past my house.

I’m starting a series here called Word by Word, because that’s how writing happens and because what I notice and prize most is how writers choose precise words to handle precise jobs that need handling. Sentence by sentence.

Bill Johnson, an author with intellectual heft, wrote a book  A Story is a Promise: The Spirit of Storytelling. In this helpful manual he describes how your opening paragraphs make a distinct promise to readers that the story needs to deliver. Johnson writes, “A story’s opening scenes are vital. If they don’t suggest a story’s promise, that story risks either not fully engaging or losing the audience.” Hang on to that thought.

Summers seem perfect for reading what a friend calls potato chip books. Especially in summer because it seems like summer is when I got to read a LOT when I was kid, although I was always reading. They’re books that are perfect for a crowded  airplane, a beach trip, or a bad cold. You don’t need to think too much, just keep turning the pages and enjoy. Like one potato chip after another. Oh, and make mine barbecue, please.  Lately I’ve been reading Chuck Wendig’s Miriam Black series. Miriam has the unfortunate ability to ‘see’ a person’s exact moment of death if she brushes against his or her skin. It’s not a pleasant gift as you might imagine More like a curse. And while I’m reading this series like I’m gorging on salty junk food, I’m noticing the techniques and devices he uses. And there is lots to admire, particularly the risks he takes with creating a vulnerable badass female anti-hero, an urban fantasy/horror world where there are lonely highways, lots of dive hotels that just might crawl with bedbugs and lice,  language that rockets into your bloodstream, and the nastiest of the bad guys. But I especially like to enjoy Wendig because he’s a demon god on a word by word basis  and his vocabulary for this series is scary, scabby and sassy.

Let’s return to the promise contained in story openings. Here’s the opening to Thunderbird the fourth book in the series: (the language below is R rated)

“Miriam runs.

Her feet pound asphalt. Ahead, Old Highway 60 cuts a knife line through red rock and broken earth, the highway shot through with hairline fractures.Big clouds scattered across the sky like the stuffing from a gutted teddy bear. The side of the highway is lined with gnarly green scrub brush, plants like hands reaching for the road,hands looking to rend and tear. Beyond, it’s just the wide open nowhere of Arizona: electric fences that contain anything, craggy rocks and and distant peaks like so many broken teeth.

Run, she thinks. Sweat is coming off her hair, into her eyes.  Fucking hair dye. Fucking spray gel hair bullshit. Fucking suntan lotion. She blinks back sweat carrying all those chemicals, sweat that burns here eyes. Don’t pay attention to that. Just run. Eyes forward. Clarity of thought and vision. Or something.

Then her foot catches something–a rock, a lip of  cratered asphalt, she doesn’t know, and it doesn’t matter, because suddenly she pitches forward. Hands out. Palms catching the macadam, bracing herself so her head doesn’t snap forward and crack in half like a tossed brick. A hard pain jars up her arms, through her elbows like a flicker of lightning. Her hands sting and throb.

She gets up on her knees and then starts coughing.

The coughing jag isn’t brief She plants her hands on her knees and hacks hard, and between hacks she wheezes, and between wheezes she just hacks harder It’s a dry cough of broken sticks and dead leaves until it’s not–then it’s wet, rheumy, and angry, like her lungs have gone liquid and have decided to disperse themselves up out of her mouth.”

Whew. Not exactly a stroll in the park, right? And it fulfills my first commandment for a story opening: a character must be knocked off balance along with my second commandment: openings must always raise questions that need answering. Like what the heck is Miriam doing running along Highway 60? And it makes a cold-hearted promise of more pain to come.

  • cuts

  • gutted teddy bear

  • electric fences

  • gnarly

  • jars

  • pitches

  • sting

  • rend

  • tear

  • burns

  • throb

  • cratered asphalt

  • knife line

  • wheezes

  • hacks

  • broken sticks

  • dead leaves

  • rheumy

  • craggy rocks

Word by word. What say you?


Written By: Jessica Morrell - Jul• 01•17

Quick Take: Everything has structure. Get over it.

Written By: Jessica Morrell - Jun• 29•17

I sometimes hear grumblings about story structure. As in a structure equals manacles or some form of onerous constraints.

Or story structure is for wimps; real writers plot by the seat of their pants and the fairy whisperings of muses.

But here I sit typing on a laptop, a machine with a screen, keyboard, off/on switch, memory, hard drive, and such all working together to fabricate an amazing tool. I’m wearing a shirt. It’s cotton and blousey and has sleeves and a simple neckline. It’s a pattern that’s been around for hundreds of years sort of like peasant tops of old and has a pocket–a marvelous invention, though I don’t really it on my blouse. My capris don’t have pockets–where they’d be more useful. My feet are bare. They’re attached to my body by bones, muscle, nerves, blood. I am not about to complain how every body requires lungs or a heart or a liver or spleen. Or how my body houses 50 trillion cells because most of us realize that the human body is the most intricate of systems.

But writers complain about the architecture  needed to hold together a story I’m just plain baffled. As in stories should be fanciful confections or concoctions spun together without recipe or rigor.

As they drive in engineered cars, and live in  engineered homes, and cross water in structures and board structures to fly above clouds. All invented with thought and planning and expertise. I prefer planes that have perfectly syncopated parts and boats that will stay afloat.

When I bake I follow a recipe because I want cakes and bread to rise and dough to become crispy cookies and piecrusts to remain flaky. Now, cooking as in concocting a pasta sauce or spice rub is another matter–I often wing it. But, I have years of experience winging it because I’ve worked in the profession and began cooking since I was about eight.

Most everything has a structure from molecules to music to moonwort. As I’m typing this I’m remembering my high school Earth Science and Biology classes. We learned about the glacial history of Wisconsin, we dissected frogs, we squinted into microscopes trying to identify minuscule life forms. I had problems identifying those little globs, but our teachers were on fire with this knowledge.  They knew so much. It was years later that I became fascinated with human cell structure. In my old age I plan to carve out time so I can learn more about how cells receive information. Because somehow our cells are listening in on our lives as we go about making breakfast and slipping the key into the ignition.  

Here’s the thing: Structure communicates. Humans seek out patterns all around them and seek to understand patterns. Our brains also seek out narrative forms—a beginning, middle and ending. Cause and effect. Problem and solution. From chaos to order.Injustice becomes justice. Lost becomes found.

Our brains recognize balance and stasis and  crisis. A conclusion that reflects certain values or precepts. Even in sleep narratives appear in our dreams and nightmares. It’s crucial that our hardwired brains can sense the structure beneath the story. Without this structure readers aren’t  as engaged. They sense the needed forward movement/engine of fiction.  They sense when a story doesn’t provide catharsis. Readers likely aren’t aware that they’re responding to inner workings or frameworks, just as when you when the plane lifts off , you’re not aware of every bolt and design decision that creates aerodynamics.But you trust they exist. That engineers and  designers and mechanics built that sucker striving for perfection.

Stories communicate why and how people change. Stories test humans or characters and characters struggle and change and win or lose. As you write you don’t need to pause every 20 pages and ask yourself if your story needs a new twist or reversal. It doesn’t mean you’re constantly plotting like you’re building a Tinkertoy tower. You think about what you’re going to write before you begin and perhaps sketch a rough outline. You understand that your story will tame the chaos or solve the problem that the beginning introduces. This is not oppression people, because even if you choose to ignore the architecture of your story, you’ll end up with one anyway.

But somewhere along the way I suggest  you learn about the underpinnings and then you simply write. With joy and ease if you’re lucky. No pocket protectors or nerd  gear needed. Give  yourself room to uncover, discover as you go along. Improvise. Stalk your characters. Listen in for secrets and expect to make sudden connections that you didn’t expect to happen.

When you read a book you enjoy ask yourself what elements in  the story spoke to you. And notice structure everywhere from snowflakes to leaf patterns to anthills.

Keep writing, keep dreaming, and just get over your whinging about structural devices.

What’s at Stake? part 1

Written By: Jessica Morrell - Jun• 19•17

Storms whipped through the region last week, the weekend was mild,  and I woke up to a pearly sky and no rain in the forecast. Since we’ve already had temperatures in the 90s the respite from the heat suited me fine and suited my garden too although the weeds are now stampeding all over the place.

I wanted to get back to a topic I was discussing here last month about some of the underlying objectives in storytelling. So let’s start talking about the stakes in your story. Stakes are intrinsic to every story. No stakes, no story. Stakes create conflict and narrative drive. Stakes make readers care.

Recently I advised a client to read Timothy Eagan’s remarkable nonfiction book The Worst Hard Times. It’s about the Dust Bowl of the 1930s and the drought and monstrous wind storms that laid waste to vast, rich grasslands from Kansas to Texas. TGetty Imageshe choking dust created 50-foot sand dunes,  killed babies and old people and cattle, drove starving families from their homesteads, and forever changed the High Plains landscape. Eagan brings the catastrophe to life through accounts of survivors and clear-eyed facts. He describes the horrors of Black Sunday when a storm so dangerous swept precious soil all the way to Washington DC. The book is so thick with tension that you’re immersed in the happenings as if they’re unfolding now. The dust storms lasted a decade and ruined 100 million acres.

The book is  mostly about those who stayed in the wasteland, who rebuilt, who survived the nightmare when the sun was blocked out by black blizzards. And the cataclysm brought on a reckoning because humans had caused this disaster with sod-busting agricultural practices in the already arid High Plains with an already unforgiving sun. Imagine all those scarred acres and acres of grassland ruined, businesses and  banks and small towns wiped out. The emptiness of it all. The enormous stakes of it all. The greed behind it.

Play for Keeps

In the best stories the characters or people are playing for keeps. There’s a reason why The Hunger Game series sold millions. Children defending themselves against other murderous children? What could be more horrific and cruel? Ordinary citizens are the pawns of an evil and vindictive government. Because villains always play for keeps.

  • What is at stake in the story is the reason readers keep turning pages and audiences keep watching.
  • Stakes communicate what your characters has to lose–and this loss needs to matter.
  • Stakes reveal the risk and consequences involved.
  • Stakes imprison the characters within the story cauldron–in other words, he or she cannot simply walk away.
  • The reader or audience must always understand what’s at stake.
  • Stakes are why the protagonist wants to escape or change the situation he/she is in or win the game or obtain the goal. 
  • Underline the importance of goals & motivation.
  • Personal or internal stakes illustrate the why of what your protagonist wants to achieve.
  • Public/external stakes create bigger repercussions, consequences.
  • Stakes force characters to make difficult choices.
  • The larger the payoff, the bigger the stakes. The higher the threat, the bigger the stakes.
  • Often the best stakes require the protagonist to make a personal sacrifice.

Quick Take: Write from emotion and imagination

Written By: Jessica Morrell - Jun• 11•17

Below me the Pacific is roaring into shore in shades of silver and indigo and white, gulls are whining and whirling in a pale sky, the air cool and deep ocean perfumed. I’ve left the Portland area for a few days to escape the pollen zone and spend time with my family. My headaches are gone and my vision no longer bleary. This day:  Laughter, jigsaw puzzle, sand, potato chips, a seascape rich and dazzling and Barbies scattered across the living room floor. A pigeon is building a nest in the corner of the balcony and kites are aloft in the wind.

And speaking of potato chips: I cannot stop turning the pages of Blackbirds by Chuck Wendig. It’s the first in his series about Miriam Black, and it’s a dark, wild ride. The kind where every character is in danger and I’m deliciously nervous.

Years ago I came across this advice from Sandra Brown that I need to pass along because sometimes we need to smash down writing myths. I’ve been pummeling this tired chestnut for years.: “The worst piece of advice I was ever given was to write about what I know. I took stock of what I knew and, from a creative standpoint, none of it was very stimulating. Nor did it have much potential for being engaging and entertaining to a reading audience. I have no personal knowledge of, or experience with, paramilitary hate groups, or heart transplantation, or escapees from a maximum security prisons, or what it’s like to be profoundly deaf. But I’ve written about all these topics, and the books became bestsellers.
I figure that if something interests me, there’s a reasonably good chance that it’s going to interest the reader, too. As I approach the keyboard each day, I remind myself to have a good time—as good a time as one can have doing the hardest work there is.”


According to Ayelet Waldman

Written By: Jessica Morrell - Jun• 01•17

Most writers  spend their lives standing a little apart from the crowd, watching and listening and hoping to catch that tiny hint of despair, that sliver of malice, that makes them think, ‘Aha, here is the story.’