Practical insights for writers from author and developmental editor Jessica Morrell

Fill your ears with the music of good sentences….

Written By: Jessica Morrell - Nov• 16•17

“Fill your ears with the music of good sentences, and when you finally approach the page yourself, that music will carry you. It will remind you that you are a part of a vast symphony of writers, that you are not alone in your quest to lay down words, each one bumping against the next until something new is revealed. It will exhort you to do better. To not settle for just good enough. Reading great work is exhilarating. It shows us what’s possible. When I start the morning with any one of the dozens of books in rotation on my office floor, my day is made instantly better, brighter. I never regret having done it. Think about it: have you ever spent an hour reading a good book, and then had that sinking, queasy feeling of having wasted time?” ~ Dani Shapiro

What Writers Can Learn from Good Night Moon

Written By: Jessica Morrell - Nov• 15•17

What stories are embedded in your memory? Why do they keep resonating as years go by?  In The Atlantic’s By Heart column Celeste Ng describes how she was influenced by Good Night Moon, a story she read again and again to her toddler son.  Read it here.

“For the first three years of his life, my son insisted on hearing Goodnight Moon before bedtime. Like most babies, he was not a good sleeper by disposition—but reading seemed to help, and this book specifically became part of his whole wind-down ritual. By now, I have read Goodnight Moon literally over a thousand times. As I read it again and again, I started to wonder: Why is this the book everybody feels a child must have? Why is this the book you’re sent by all your relatives and friends, people who must know you already have a copy—but want to give you another one, just in case?

It’s a very odd book, after all. There is no real story. The story is: The rabbit goes to bed. That’s it. The text is just a list of items, and the artwork has no action in it. And yet, it really does capture something for us. Something more powerful than just pure nostalgia could explain.

We cannot help but answer the question why which, for me, is the fundamental question of fiction.” 

keep writing, keep dreaming, have heart


Gail Godwin on Characters

Written By: Jessica Morrell - Nov• 08•17

     The characters that I write are all parts of myself and I send them on little missions to find what I don’t know yet. ~ Gail Godwin

NaNoWriMo tip: Feature your protagonist’s worst fear.

Written By: Jessica Morrell - Nov• 07•17

Reading fiction makes us scared. And I’m not talking about only horror or thrillers. If a reader isn’t afraid about what awaits the central characters, and if the main characters aren’t vulnerable, then the story won’t work properly and readers won’t lose sleep to discover if the character survives.

In Anthony Doerr’s All the Light We Cannot See readers follow a  blind French girl, Marie-Laure, and young German soldier, Werner Pfennig, in Germany and occupied France. The backdrop for the story is the period surrounding World War II before D-Day.  Marie-Laure understandably fears being alone amid a world gone mad. And indeed, she ends up alone because the Nazis capture her Papa and she’s left to survive by her wits and senses and the lessons her father has taught her.

Werner and his sister are orphans and as a techno-prodigy who can build and fix radios he’s swept up into the relentless Nazi machine. He joins Hitler Youth wanting to escape his fate of becoming a coal miner–his chief fear.  However, he’s a gifted boy. His mind is too active, curious, and mechanically inclined for this dark and brutal work.  But will he survive while tracking down the Resistance radios operating in France? Will he come to realize the truth about the brutal regime he serves?

Another technique Doerr used was to introduce Marie-Laure and Werner during their childhood before the war. As in real life, meeting characters when they’re children makes readers invest more in them.

It’s an intricate and carefully plotted tale with many of the events drawn from history. Their paths collide by story’s end and the novel makes us think about the most vulnerable victims of war. Doerr discusses how he came to write their stories here.

Circumstances are a huge factor in creating fiction–in this novel Werner is born in a mining town and Marie-Laure loses her eyesight at six.  Circumstances will be linked to the trajectory of your plot. In All the Light We Cannot See the Germans occupy Paris  in 1940 so Marie-Laure and her father flee to the Saint-Malo on the coast of Brittany. Her great-uncle Etienne lives there, but he’s a recluse suffering from the effects of WWI.  The French  oppose the Nazi occupation and form the Resistance. Marie is drawn to help and is an asset because of her blindness and youth. The story also includes a rare and cursed jewel that increases the ante because a Nazi  sergeant major knows of its existence. He’s been tasked to collect French artifacts that Hitler covets. And woven through the story is magic of radio waves and their practical role in the war.

She cannot say how many others are with them. Three or four, perhaps. His is the voice of a twelve or thirteen-year-old. She stands and hugs her huge book to her chest, and she can hear her cane roll along  the edge of the bench and clatter to the ground. Someone else says, ‘They’ll take the blind girls before they take the gimps.’ The first boy groans grotesquely. Marie-Laure raises her book as if to shield herself.

NaNoWriMo tip: Plot is People. Give all your major players an agenda.

Written By: Jessica Morrell - Nov• 03•17


Plot is people. Human emotions and desires  founded on the realities of life, working at cross purposes, getting hotter and fiercer as they strike against each other until finally there is an explosion–that’s Plot. ~ Leigh Brackett




NaNoWriMo tip: Live your story

Written By: Jessica Morrell - Nov• 02•17

As a writer I need to have my story festering around in my head all the time, so that when I sit down to write its as though I’m writing from memory, rather than from imagination. ~ Ann Cleeves

If it’s November….it must be NaNoWriMo

Written By: Jessica Morrell - Nov• 01•17

It’s that time again. And I’m not talking about all the Christmas folderol in the stores already. Writers everywhere know that November is the month for joining National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo). Time to hunker down, write your heart out at a dizzying pace, aiming for 50,000 words by December 1. On November 1, 2015 I wrote a long, detailed, and dare I say, practical post about the whole matter of writing fast and smart. You can find it here and it’s called NaNoWriMo Hacks & a Bit of Tough Love.

And from October 31, 2014 here (Slightly Crazy: Map Your Course to Survive NaNoWriMo) is a list of the essentials every novel needs:

  1. A knowable protagonist who will fascinate readers.
  2. A problem that needs solving or a goal that needs reaching.
  3.  An understanding of your protagonist’s inner and outer desires.
  4.  An interesting/workable locale.
  5.  A menace/threat hanging over the protagonist.
  6.  An antagonist.
  7.  How it will all work out.

Good luck. Write fast, don’t edit, don’t look back, live the story. If you get stuck jump past that scene and carry on. Keep asking yourself: what does my character want. Then block that desire.


Written By: Jessica Morrell - Nov• 01•17

Write for the night: Dire Consequences

Written By: Jessica Morrell - Oct• 31•17

With All Hallow’s Eve here I’m still reading the Shirley Jackson anthology (with growing admiration) and I’m still unsettled by what happens in her stories and how her twisted mind works. Reading along I’ve been thinking a lot about how stories function and how fear is wired into our bodies and brains. Some theories suggest our most primal fears reach back thousands of years when humans were prey. Gulp. You might argue in this era of terrorism and unstable people owning military weapons we still are.

Many genres are embedded with doom and come with mega stakes: Horror, dark fantasy, thrillers, psychological suspense and thrillers, dystopian sci-fi.  Demons, monsters, murderers, computers gone rogue, soul-stealing dangers abound. Woven throughout the sense that something dreadful is going to happen…. which brings us around to consequences. The cause and effect of storytelling.  Our deepest-held fears, our night terrors come true. Justice or injustice delivered. Consequences whisper with every screeching floor board, every lurking shadow. Consequences too horrible to be entertained. Consequences torment the characters and thus the readers.

Consequences like Heath Ledger’s Joker knows where you live and what makes you tick, and has a sick prank in mind just for you.

Consequences like you woke up one morning and a huge dome has mysteriously landed on your town separating you and the townspeople from the rest of humankind.

Consequences like a man-eating shark is marauding the coastline near Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts.

Consequences like the White Walkers, a giant army of ice monsters who have the ability to raise the dead. Led by their king, accompanied by hordes of the undead, they are stalking humans, storming south.   Oh, and if they reach Westeros they could usher in a long winter that would wipe out everyone and everything.

Consequences are especially deadly in horror fiction because the monsters and bad guys seem unstoppable. The monsters can be lizard-like or zombies or heartless serial killers. The man-eating shark’s hunger is unquenchable. The killer’s needs and will seem boundless.

So how do you create compelling consequences? 

Establish what is at stake, the dreaded alternative. Consequences matter. The Game of Thrones series begins with evidence of the white walkers and the dangers they present. Some of the most powerful stakes are established before the story begins.

The protagonist has a lot to lose. His or her actions will always bring about consequences. Often  a test is involved.

Consider adding unintended consequences.

Your protagonist needs to experience consequences early in the story and then keep them coming.

At least one character must be especially vulnerable. In Game of Thrones think of bumbling Sawell  Tarly of the  Night’s Watch. As the series goes along he is saddled with Gilly, a wilding woman and her baby. Their relationship turns to romance and Sam is allowed to travel to the Citadel to become a maester. Despite an exhausting workload he begins searching The Citadel for a weapon or clue to fight the white walkers. Is the fate of the kingdom in his hands? Because Sam is bumbler. His father despises him. He doesn’t always listen to Gilly when he should. (Clue: as the series goes along men not listening to women creates serious consequences and ultimately starts shifting the power to women.)

Sam and Gilly and baby Sam also illustrate a simple dynamic: they love each other. In fiction if a character is loved or beloved the consequences have more weight.

Feature your protagonist screwing up. Just think of all the spats Harry Potter got involved with. Not to mention many of them were with his friends. And remember how many times he screwed up spells and other Hogwarts lessons.

Give your protagonist important decisions and moral dilemmas with mega ramifications. Protagonists always pay a price for success or goals accomplished.

Make the consequences visible, public, not only personal or internal.

If possible feature time running out or a deadline.

If possible feature poetic justice. In real life criminals often get away with crimes, incompetent politicians are elected to office. Fiction reinforces our moral codes.  Shakespeare’s plays often feature this device as does Jane Austen’s stories. This means that not everyone will live happily ever after.

Write for the Night 1: Pull readers in from the first sentence

Written By: Jessica Morrell - Oct• 24•17

Yesterday was dazzling and golden, the kind of autumn day many of us dream of.  I spent time outdoors deadheading flowers and sweeping up after a big storm blasted through over the weekend.  I drove through town after a medical appointment gaping at leaves transformed into burnished and magical hues.

I’m reviving an old reading habit, reading stories inspired by the season. In November I plan on reading Truman Capote’s The Thanksgiving Visitor and in December his A Christmas Memory. (‘Oh, Buddy, it’s fruitcake weather.’) Yesterday I finished reading Shirley Jackson’s We Have Always Lived in the Castle one of the most unsettling stories I’ve ever gotten lost in. I read the final creepy 30 pages after dusk fell.

When you write horror and psychological suspense it’s important to create a penetrating tone and establish intrigue from the opening page. I was yanked into the story’s disturbing reality within the first few sentences:

Notice: the protagonist’s last name is Blackwood not exactly a cheery moniker; her sister is Constance (a clue to her personality and role in the story) and the final word in the paragraph is dead–a deliberate, emphatic choice. Then there is her longing to be born a werewolf and a mention of poisonous mushrooms. Menace creeps in immediately and never lets go. And Mary Katherine is a fascinating character, an unreliable narrator, and a feral,  witchy young woman.

Keep writing, keep dreaming, have heart