Word by Word

Practical insights for writers from Jessica P Morrell

Silver Linings

Written By: Jessica Morrell - May• 15•20

The sky is still full  of gloom here, but it’s not supposed to rain today and the birds have lots to say. It’s getting late to plant dahlia bulbs so I might nestle some into the ground today and then attend a socially distanced, backyard dinner later.  Yesterday while I ate lunch (scrambled eggs with smoked salmon and mozzarella) I turned on CSPAN. It was a hearing on the US coronavirus response by the Energy & Commerce  Subcommittee. The silver lining is that US manufacturing of needed medical supplies might return more fully to this country. There could also be more coordinated efforts to stockpile needed supplies in the future, maybe before the next pandemic strikes.

I’m wondering if like me, you’ve found silver linings to our situation. If you’re seeing everyday kindnesses big and small demonstrated around you. If you’re cooking and baking more, gardening more, reading more, cherishing friends more, and spending more time with your kids. I hope you’re enjoying quiet streets and drivable rush hours. I hope spring is lending its usual promise of renewal.

I also hope you’re writing and noticing how downtime is creating some ease in your daily routines. However, I realize that people with children home from school might not have that luxury. But if you’re not homeschooling and turning your house into an all-day diner, maybe you’ve felt the sweet relief of downtime. Maybe you’ve realized that when you’re not multi-tasking and staying busy all the time that your creativity is enhanced. Maybe you’re even napping without guilt.

And I hope you’re filling or restocking your creative well. Returning to beloved pastimes and hobbies along with learning new skills or information. Pulling in inspiration from a variety of sources–online museum tours, podcasts, reading, watching great dramas or fascinating documentaries. Because as everyone knows, a well should never run dry and good writing comes from an interesting mind.

What I’m reading: History of Wolves by Emily Fridlund    (warning: you will be struck by writer’s envy, especially since this is her debut novel.) The story follows the teen narrator Linda who lives with her parents  on a lake shore in an abandoned commune in Minnesota. I was transported to the familiar scenes of  lake country and freezing winters and the miseries of adolescence. It’s a story twisted around secrets and tragedy spun with Gothic echoes.  She’s the kind of writer where you’re struck again and again by artful language and unexpected imagery.  I filled two notebook pages with her phrases and word magic.

What I’m listening to: Sugar Calling with Cheryl Strayed. Cheryl is phoning authors over 60 to discuss their perspectives on the way we live now. Her guests so far have included Billy Collins, Amy Tan, Margaret Atwood, and  George Saunders. Their conversations are delightful and listening in will make you feel more connected to the literary community and humanity.

Unlocking Us with Brene Brown is another worthwhile podcast because Brown is simply wise and has years of research to back up her advice about how to cope in our sometimes-harrowing times.. Here’s a link to an episode about keeping calm and dealing with anxiety.

What I’m watching: Becoming, on Netflix based on Michelle Obama’s book tour  It’s simply heartening to watch genuineness, normality, and compassion. (warning it might make you cry and want to travel back in time) Here is more info.

I cannot lie, but I love watch people cook and geek out over delicious flavors. The Chef Show on Netflix currently is satisfying that need. It’s a takeoff of sorts on the delightful film, Chef and reunites Jon Favreau the actor in the lead roll and chef Roy Choi his mentor. They cook with celebrities and chefs and their mouthwatering creations will make you hungry so consider watching with a full stomach.

As someone who once worked in restaurants I also enjoy the diversion afforded by Restaurants On the Edge. In the second season the cast travels to far-flung restaurants in need of help. I’m now convinced I want to visit Solvenia and finally learn to gather wild mushrooms. In Oregon, that is.

Then for Downton Abby and Julian Fellowes fans there is Belgravia a period drama that begins on the eve of the Battle of Waterloo. Full of scandals, scheming villains, elegant drawing rooms, and upstairs-downstairs contrasts, I promise you’ll be sucked in. I especially like how Fellowes manages to depict class differences that should make us all think about how they’re replicated today. It is shown on EPIX, but you can also stream it.

Keep writing, keep stocking your well, have heart.

A pause…

Written By: Jessica Morrell - May• 14•20

photo by Anni Roankae

If  you’ve been stopping by, thanks for doing so.

My pause here is ending and I’m going to start posting helpful advice and inspiration for writers again.

I’ve been bumbling, enjoying, deploring, gardening, cooking,  chafing, and pondering my way through our current state of at-home uncertainty.  Also dancing in my living room, connecting with friends and writers, editing, reading, and wasting time. (Pinterest–need I say more?) Then there is my usual all-day news consumption with some letup on weekends.

That long list of house projects created with such optimism–barely touched. But I have given away and sorted books, watched the sky, walked amid springtime glories, planted trees,  filled my house with lilacs and  now roses, luxuriated in the perfumed air, and am adjusting (somewhat if truth is told) to wearing a mask.  Throw in a few Zoom and Skype sessions and life is skewed, but still rich and inspiring.

That is, if I get to bed at a decent hour.

That is, if I don’t try to imagine the future.

Would love to connect with you via an email (my full name including page at gmail.com) on twitter or facebook.

Please keep washing your hands, social distancing, and supporting all our front-line heroes.  See you soon around here.

MAY

Written By: Jessica Morrell - May• 13•20

April

Written By: Jessica Morrell - Apr• 01•20

The Writer’s Way: Decisions, choices and moral dilemmas

Written By: Jessica Morrell - Mar• 16•20

The cornonavirus pandemic news is nonstop and unnerving as death tolls rise and the federal government’s woefully weak response is causing panic buying and mass confusion. I’m not going out much these days, but when I’ve ventured forth in the past few weeks the eerie, nervous atmosphere is unsettling.  A spooky, living-in-a-sci-fi movie state of mind.

Meanwhile, timing be damned, I’m reading Chuck Wendig’s apocalyptic  novel Wanderers about an epidemic of sleepwalking. Well, it’s not exactly sleepwalking, but a group of people are flocking together on a silent, trance-like, mystifying quest. They cannot be stopped; their blank-faced stares are as vacant as empty tombs, their condition a mystery, their destination unknown though they’re heading west. Did I mention it’s almost 800 pages?

The wanderers don’t eat or sleep and attempts to gather blood samples are unsuccessful because their skin can’t be penetrated. If someone attempts to stop them, amid soul-shattering shrieks, their temperatures rise and they explode. As in unthinkable bloody splatters.  Did I mention the story will not ease your worries, because as you read (it was published in July, 2019) the plausibility is skin-prickling and the science well researched?

I’m mentioning Wanderers because it has multiple viewpoints and the main characters are revealed and defined by the decisions they make in response to moral dilemmas. Because fiction tests characters. These difficult  choices between right and wrong, opposing desires and options cause tension and drama.  Because fiction provides no easy answers.

Moral dilemmas reveal:

  • backstory influences
  • convictions, positions, and beliefs
  • loyalties
  • characters’ investment in outcomes
  • character growth, arc

Back to Wanderers, because weighty decisions are made throughout the story. Compassion, common sense, and human rights are on the line. Scientists are struggling mightily with understanding the frightening behaviors. Hysteria and bigotry fuel the whole.

I’m mentioning Wanderers because moral dilemmas shape and deepen so many good plots.

The story begins with Shana waking to find her younger sister Nessie missing. The girls already have enough problems since their mother walked out on them. Nessie, 15,  is walking along a road as if in a trance, but there is no waking her, no touching her, no stopping her. As she trudges along barefoot other walkers begin joining her, mostly one by one.

Benji is a disgraced former CDC (Center for Disease Control and Prevention) scientist and virus-hunter. His backstory is key: while investigating the conditions in a giant hog-raising operation, he skewed his findings to stop the horrendous conditions he finds. Readers learn about the crowded, diseased animals living in a nightmare, the potential for a disease outbreak seemingly inevitable.

He’s pulled into the story when a computer called Black Swan insists that he join the scientists and government agencies attempting to solve the situation. Can he redeem himself and learn why the wanderers are afflicted before its too late? Since he’s broken the rules before will he break them again?

Shana, terrified for her sister,  chooses immediately to stay close to protect her mile after mile. At first her father begs her to return home, back to the obligations of their farm and cheese-making operation, but she insists Nessie needs her and the police escort cannot keep her safe. Even though her sister is unreachable, even though she’s scared. After Shana and her father argue and she tells him they feel abandoned by both parents, he buys a ramshackle RV and joins Shana and the shepherds. Shepherd is the term applied to family members and others who accompany their loved ones.

Then there’s Matthew Bird, a small-town pastor who is inspired to preach about the wanderers, connecting them to the End Times and satanic influences.  Unfortunately the conservative preacher has played into the hands of right-wing extremists.And who will stop the extremists who want to take out the wanderers?

A brain-injured former cop is drawn to the pilgrims and immediately risks all to stop a shooter.  An aging rock star comes aboard. He has a deeply-held secret that threatens all aspects of his life. In fiction, it’s important to force characters to choose when he or she would rather avoid it.

A few more thoughts on tough choices:

  • Principled choices and decisions will always create actions and consequences. They always drive the story forward.
  • Unprincipled choices and decisions typically cause chaos, pain, and also propel the story ahead. An example from Jurassic Park happens when the park employee-computer whiz leaves the grounds to sell off dinosaur DNA. His actions, taken during a horrendous storm, opens a Pandora’s box of disasters and life-and-death consequences.
  • The ramifications from all important decisions should be long lasting.
  • The higher the stakes, the higher the drama.
  • The choices often underline the genre type. A suspense story is often based on finding justice so decisions will hold a lot of weight and consequences.
  • Don’t provide characters easy answers. Corner them, stress them out, push them past their limits.
  • Know your fictional casts’ moral codes.

Search out the important dilemmas in stories, noticing the enormous variety and possibilities. Are there shades in right from wrong? Is the crime story about sorting real justice from mob justice; truth from lies? Are actions based on loyalties,  faith, science?

Keep writing, keep dreaming, keep washing your hands

And please consider supporting indy bookstores and small businesses.

The Writer’s Way: Perfecting Character Reactions

Written By: Jessica Morrell - Mar• 02•20

Overcast here this morning, the plum trees are blossoming in pale pink splendor,  and the few tulips that the voles didn’t eat are ready to bloom. I’m not above staging an all-out war on rodents, but I might need to plant tulip bulbs in pots from now on.

I’ve been working on manuscripts lately where I’ve noticed that the characters’ reactions to events, stress, or trauma are sometimes bland or repetitive. That is, every time a character is afraid, has misgivings, or worries he or she feels it in  his or her stomach. Or hairs on the back of her neck rise. Or eyes go wide with surprise.  Or worse yet, characters rarely react or react inappropriately as the dialogue just rattles along with nary a raised heartbeat or adrenaline rush.

But it’s in responses to pain, fear, and loss that make  a character indelible. Because characters are best revealed under stress. And as in real life, our responses to trouble define us. If your characters don’t feel, neither will your readers. And if emotions don’t lead to further actions, then part of fictional chain is missing.

This means a writer’s job is to garner emotional expressions from a variety of sources. One method is to study actors, observing facial expressions, gestures, and body language. This is especially powerful during live theater performances. I especially pay attention to how actors walk onto the stage conveying the essence of their roles with posture, costumes, gestures, voice quality. Try noticing your first impressions of every actor you’re watching in films and television. It’s also fascinating to notice if your first impressions are accurate.

I’ve seen two live relays  from Moscow of the Bolshoi Ballet at a local theater this winter. And I’ve come to understand why the troupe is legendary in their 243rd season. Before the performance a host explains the story that is about to unfold and interviews dancers and others involved in the production.  It’s fascinating to watch the dancers demonstrate how they’re conveying emotions via movement and grace. Embodied. Emotion in motion. Because ballet is about putting movement to the feelings expressed in the music and moment.

Choreographers don’t simply teach dance steps, they teach how to interpret feelings. I also saw a recent Metropolitan Opera showing of Porgy and Bess. Frederick Ballentine who plays Sportin Life explained how the choreographer Camille Brown taught him to become wolf-like and predatory via his body language. He creates such dynamism in the role and I couldn’t keep my eyes off his lithe, slippery moves.

There has even been a study done of human brains reacting to dance steps and the emotions they portray. The study showed that even when a dance wasn’t choreographed to depict emotions the audience still tried to create a narrative from what was unfolding. You can read about the study here.

Along with studying professionals and people you encounter in daily life, really  sink into your characters when you write. If your character is being chased by a monster where and how would he/she feel the terror and panic? What about handling a difficult physical challenge like climbing a rock face? If your character loses someone how will he/she react? Where does he/she hold grief? I recently lost a beloved aunt before Christmas and came to understand the expression heavy-hearted because it felt like there was a large stone lodged in my chest. When I read her obituary and studied the photo next to it with her smiling eyes, the reality of her death hit hard as a punch.

I’ve mentioned here before that often writing action scenes is akin to method acting, but this suggestion bears repeating. As you write the scene, you try to feel what the character feels. If you cannot conjure the emotion in the moment, then you dredge up memories. So if your character has just lost a beloved spouse, then you remember back to your own losses, especially the potent ones. If I was writing the scene I’d remember my mother’s funeral. I’d remember leaving behind a relationship and the bewildering grief of starting over.

Your next step is to find fresh expressions to convey the loss. This is where close reading and recording other writers’ language comes in. Expand your characters’  reactions by recording the best ones you encounter in your writer’s notebook. And while you’re not going to lift them word by word, I can assure you that jotting down examples will prime your creativity.

One more thought: read outside your comfort zone whatever that might be. I promise it will expand your repertoire of emotional responses.

Keep writing, keep dreaming, have heart

 

 

March

Written By: Jessica Morrell - Mar• 02•20

Read Poetry Every Day

Written By: Jessica Morrell - Feb• 20•20

Read poetry every day of your life. Poetry is good because it flexes muscles you don’t use often enough. Poetry expands the senses and keeps them in prime shape.  It keeps you aware of your nose, your eye, your ear, your tongue, your hand. And, above all, poetry is compacted metaphor or simile. Such metaphors, like Japanese paper flowers, may expand into gigantic shapes. 

      What poetry? Any poetry that makes your hair stand up along your arms. Don’t force yourself too hard. Take it easy. Over the years you may catch up to,  move even with, and pass T.S. Eliot on your way to other pastures. You say you don’t understand Dylan Thomas? Yes, but your ganglion does, and your secret wits, and all your unborn children. Read him, as you can a horse with your eyes, set free and charging over an endless green meadow on a windy day.

~Kurt Vonnegut

The Writer’s Way: Stocking your writer’s notebook

Written By: Jessica Morrell - Feb• 06•20

Before I went to sleep last night I paged through  my latest writer’s notebook.  The two tools that inspire me most are reading widely and analytically, and keeping a notebook. Writers need tools for flat and unenthused times, need word collections to spark fresh phrasing, and a place to secure inspirations and notes.  My writer’s notebook is my lens, my not-buried treasure, my portable sanctuary. Notebooks old school, companionable, easy to tote around.

The first page that fell open has only one paragraph: It was November–the month of crimson sunsets, parting birds, deep, sad hymns of the sea, passionate wind-songs in the pines. Anne roamed through the pineland alleys in the park and, as she said, let that great swooping wind blow the fogs out of her soul. L.M. Montgomery, Anne of Green Gables

These evocative sentences create a tone and lovingly paint a place–Prince Edwards Island.  Montgomery’s descriptions of nature are one of her finest techniques that I study and sometimes try to emulate.

You see, I collect word pictures and suggest you do too.

Another page hosts a typical, but delicious word list because I’m always compiling words: spawn, behemoth, bleak, lament, sneeringly, grapple, succor, sprite, forsake, bedraggled, jagged, seethe, scuttle, garrulous, unmoored

Then there are word combinations jotted down: faceless behemoths, bone-deep despair, feral cunning, withering condemnation, toxic absurdity

Descriptions of characters, gestures, and mannerisms are scattered through the pages. I’m often  helping editing clients find fresh ways of expressing emotions and reveal the inner lives of their characters. Here are recent jottings: When it’s over she smiles a big hungry smile. She had a beautiful voice, burry and low.  Snores like a John Deere tractor. Shivering like a stray puppy. A weird flare of anger lanced through her. The laugh that came out of her was one of surprise. It was a pissed-off laugh, a bark of incredulity. The thought hit her in the heart like a fist.

A sound rose out of her. A low sound, an animal whine. A new fear buried itself under Shana’s skin like a burrowing tick. It was the sound of something in pain, alarmed, even full of rage.

I’m always studying and writing down all-important beginnings of essays, novels, and short stories, especially noticing the mood and tone expressed. It’s so important to establish tone in the opening pages–light, grim, unsettling–whatever is needed. When he woke in the woods in the dark and cold of night he’d reach out to touch the child beside him.Nights dark beyond darkness and the days more gray each one than what had gone before. Like the onset of some cold glaucoma dimming away the world… Cormac McCarthy, The Road

And, of course, my notebooks feature inspiring quotes: “Yes I am a dreamer. For a dreamer is one who can only find his way by moonlight, and his punishment is that he can see the dawn before the rest of the world.” Oscar Wilde

Writers need to deepen as life goes along.

Some suggestions for keeping a writer’s notebook:

  • Be sure to use a notebook that feels right, invites you in. Shopping for a notebook is great fun, but comes with decisions. Leather cover? Lined or unlined? White paper, colored paper?
  • Have a plan to use your notebook to address deficits in your style or methods. Most writers need more varied vocabularies and more imaginative figurative language. Most writers need help crafting secondary characters and creating a potent sense of place.
  • Read other writer’s notebooks or journals for inspiration such as John Steinbeck’s above.
  • Describe seasons, weather, and the sky.
  • Collect smells.
  • Keep asking yourself: what does this remind me of?
  • Really notice the color, hue of things you encounter in daily life. Everything from blossoms, hair colors, and oceans.  Don’t wait to take a trip to notice intriguing details. Then find fresh names for the colors you encounter. Pearl. Alabaster. Rose. Cinnamon. Smoke. Wine.
  • Dig into memories, churning them over to notice your latest understanding of what happened.
  • Write reviews of books and films.
  • Track your word count.
  • Start your day with your writer’s notebook.
  • End your day with your writer’s notebook.
  • Carry it with you for the unplanned pauses and lulls.

The year is still  young. Plenty of time to develop new habits.

Keep writing, keep dreaming, keep gathering from all around you

February

Written By: Jessica Morrell - Feb• 02•20