Word by Word

Practical insights for writers from Jessica P Morrell

Use Brain Science for Better Writing Results

Written By: Jessica Morrell - Dec• 07•21

Foggy, drizzly weather here in the Pacific Northwest. Last night I stepped out onto my porch to see if the moon was visible. The current moon phase is a waxing crescent. Low clouds had moved in obscuring the moon and stars, the air was cold enough to be bracing, and snow was falling in the higher evaluations.  Walking into a coldish reality is such an easy jolt to the senses.

I came back indoors and sat for a minute replaying the night scene I’d just witnessed.  Deliberately storing it away. Do you do this too? Small habits and tweaks can be so useful to writers. If you stop to focus on things that are important to you, it sharpens your perceptions and teaches your brain what you value.

I’m always  gleaning information and trying to understand how the brain and nervous system work. I’m learning that it’s easy to use the latest neuroscience research and you can too.

The brain works hard to protect humans from risk. Risk assessment happens via the reticular activating system, a gatekeeper between your conscious and unconscious mind. It filters through all the information coming in from your sensory organs including possible dangers, then reacts.  But the RAS has many tasks. It  manages what information {stimulus} you receive, arousal, and motivation. Which as you can imagine, is a huge job, but the brain has so many responsibilities such as regulating the body and creating memories. The RAS is located in the brain stem, the most primitive part of our brain. It is responsible for fight-or-flight responses, our wakefulness, and ability to focus.  It shapes how we perceive our world, dangers and all.

Our brain is inundated with millions of messages whenever we’re awake. Without the RAS we’d be overloaded with stimulus, our heads noisy and cluttered, always on the alert, never able to focus. When messages slip past the reticular activating system, they become conscious thoughts, emotions, or both. So again, the RAS works to keep us safe and sane in a sometimes dangerous world.

Learning about the RAS means writers can tap into its powers. It can helps us focus, remember, and achieve  goals. One simple trick is to focus on what you want to achieve, not on what you cannot do. Or what is clouding your attention. Stop worrying about the extra five pounds you’ve gained, or gray hairs and wrinkles, and how your neighbor doesn’t mow his lawn. Stop telling yourself your latest chapter or draft sucks.  The RAS listens to our signals and prioritizes the ones that are most important. If you focus on negative thoughts, the RAS will deliver more reasons to worry and fret.  So, feed your RAS signals that are most helpful to your writing goals. Spend time mulling over your stories instead of fretting about them,  imagining that your characters are hanging out with you. Search for the good in your work and life and the RAS will notice. And you’ll be creating new neural pathways.

What I love about studying the brain is how possible it is to change our thoughts,  the way we see the world, and ultimately our brains. Because we can train and reset our brains. Another reason to learn about the reticular activating system is that it can help us focus when we most need to focus. The RAS can filter out the white noise of your life while you write away.

So, let me repeat  this easy hack if you don’t already employ it: Take mental snapshots throughout your days. But don’t focus on sights only–weave in all your senses. Last night I could hear the wind in the trees and smell wood smoke which has natural cozy associations which further imprinted the moment in my memory. As a developmental editor, I help writers in many ways, including layering in sensory data to make their stories more immersive.

Let me give you a quick example. Charles Frazier’s Cold Mountain–one of the most immersive novels I’ve ever read–has two main characters separated by war. New to the Cold Mountain region, Ada, a minister’s daughter and genteel lady,  is struggling to survive the Civil War after her father dies. Trouble is, she has no practical survival skills and is slowly starving, but too proud to ask for help. Which is when another young woman, Ruby, comes into her life and teaches her the exhausting array of skills and tasks needed to keep them fed and warm. After Ruby’s arrival, gone are Ada’s mornings of sleeping in. Here’s a small segment of Ada adjusting to Ruby’s new regime:

So Ada would walk down to the kitchen in her robe and sit in the chair in the warm stove corner and wrap her hands around a cup of coffee. Through the window the day would be starting to take shape, grey and loose in its features. Even on days that would eventually proved to be clear, Ada could seldom make out even the palings of the fence around the kitchen garden through the fog. At some point Ruby would blow out the yellow light of the lamp and the kitchen would go dim and then the light from outside would rise and fill the room. It seemed a thing of such wonder to Ada, who had not witnessed many dawns.  Cold Mountain, Charles Frazier

There are only a few simple details here, yet the sense of dawn arriving is powerful, isn’t it? And it’s Frazier demonstrating the beginning of her character arc.

Think in pictures, vignettes, and scenes so you can re-create them on the page.  Strive to always capture meaningful moments.  This is why it helps to stop time whenever possible by focusing your attention, deliberately storing images. Train yourself to become a visual thinker. If you’re ‘not a visual type’, then study how other people do it from advertisers to public speakers. Pay attention to your dreams and write them down if possible. Take notes on books you read, films you watch, hikes  you take.

And work at giving your RAS a jolt from time to time like stepping out into a cold night. Play music to either soothe or energize while you write. Recently I suggested here that like me, you visit a library or bookstore, go to the shelf where your future books will be housed, and imagine your titles there. It’s a simple trick to cue your reticular activating system. Vivid, clear intentions communicate to your conscious mind which in turn communicates to your RAS and subconscious. In turn, they help you achieve goals because they expect the goals to happen.

Keep writing, keep dreaming, have heart



Written By: Jessica Morrell - Dec• 01•21

Written By: Jessica Morrell - Nov• 29•21

Think of everything that happens at the very beginning of a story: The reader makes decisions about the story. They haven’t yet committed to completing it and they are feeling their way around how much they want to commit. Your reader is not a penniless and weary traveler who will be happy to take any bed you can offer. They are discerning, with plenty of money for a night’s sleep and if you show them something uninspired, they’re off to the next inn. You have to work to get them to stay with you.” – Brandi Reissenweber

We live by stories

Written By: Jessica Morrell - Nov• 28•21

We tell stories. We tell stories to pass the time, to leave the world for awhile, or go more deeply into it. We tell stories to heal the pain of living. ~Niall Williams

Wishing you a lovely day of gratitude

Written By: Jessica Morrell - Nov• 25•21

I hope kindness, laughter, and comfort is found at your table today.

And I hope the many words you’ve harvested find a home in your readers’ hearts.

Written By: Jessica Morrell - Nov• 24•21

Living the Writing & Reading Life

Written By: Jessica Morrell - Nov• 19•21

The light is changing day by day, hour by hour. Through the rain-streaked glass, this morning’s sky features silvery tones and mystery.

The National Book Awards were revealed Wednesday and it’s an exciting lineup. Jason Mott’s Hell of a Book has been on my radar for a while so this recognition has nudged me to pick up a copy.  The subtitle is That Altogether Factual, Wholly Bona Fide Story of a Big Dreams, Hard Luck, American-Made Mad Kid. The genre-bending novel has two narratives running through it with an author tour as the scaffolding.

All That She Carried: The Journey of Ashley’s Sack, a Black Family’s Legacy by Tia Miles also is genre-bending considering the author is a history professor. The nonfiction story  follows a family’s history going back to girl being separated from her mother and sold into slavery and her sack of keepsakes given to her by her mother that survived generation after generation.

Books change lives. Books can also build lives.  If you’re a fellow bookworm you cannot imagine a lifetime without the affirming, healthful habit of reading. Your brain has been shaped by reading. All those neural pathways we’ve laid down will help our brains stay stronger as we age. And pondering, analyzing what we’ve read is deliciously rewarding and translates to other areas of life.

Why are we reading, if not in hope of beauty laid bare, life heightened and its deepest mystery probed? Why are we reading if not in hope that the writer will magnify and dramatize our days, will illuminate and inspire us with wisdom, courage, and the possibility of meaningfulness, and will press upon our minds the deepest mysteries, so that we may feel again their majesty and power? What do we ever know that is higher than that power which, from time to time, seizes our lives, and reveals us startlingly to ourselves as creatures set down here bewildered? Why does death so catch us by surprise, and why love? We still and always want waking. We should amass half dressed in long lines like tribesmen and shake gourds at each other, to wake up; instead we watch television and miss the show.” ~Annie Dillard

Reading magnifies my days. How about yours?

Thinking about you NaNoWriMo writers out there. I hope your back is holding up, you’re well-fed, somewhat rested, and have spun out a magical tale. On the other hand if you’re living amid dust bunnies, pizza boxes, and dirty dishes, that sounds productive. If your dog is lonely, your family neglected, we get it. Whatever it takes. Your efforts matter, no matter how shaky. Because words matter.

Side Note: For some reason a memory pricked at me recently. Years ago when I first moved to Portland, before my first book was published, whenever I visited bookstores I’d find the section of the store where my future books would be shelved. I’d home in and find the space where my books would be located alphabetically somewhere between Mc and Mu. It was a powerful exercise in belief.

I recommend using it if you’re not published yet.

Keep writing, keep dreaming, have heart


Quick Take: Writing fiction is like adoption

Written By: Jessica Morrell - Nov• 17•21

This morning’s sunrise was a lovely lavender-pink and the sky is the palest blue. The a.m. newscast featured images of the flooding in northern Washington and British Columbia–the aftermath of the ‘atmospheric river’ that has drenched this region. More results of climate change that so desperately needs addressing. But I’ll stop preaching because I’ve got a reminder for fiction writers, especially those who are new to this endeavor.

Beginning a story it’s like adopting a family.

Choose a family you can cohabitate with for a year or so since typically that’s how long it takes to complete a novel.

Choose a companionable bunch so that when you sit down to write you’re inspired to share their secrets and fears and joys. After all, you’re going to have lots of intimate contact with them. You’ll be eating the same meals, sleeping in the same bed, driving  together in the same car.

This means you might want at least one easygoing type in your cast. Or maybe someone who always has a hilarious quip at the ready. Possibly add a cast member who is gregarious and helps reveal what needs revealing.

So choose wisely and make sure some fun is involved along with the conflict and pain necessary for storytelling. Make sure your heart races a little when you’re writing exciting scenes about story people you’ve come to know deeply.

Keep writing, Keep dreaming, Have heart


Writers ‘bring yourself again to the bare room’

Written By: Jessica Morrell - Nov• 16•21

“Begin with bleakness. Bring yourself to the bare room. Voices will assail you, reminding you how many times you’ve been hit on the head, hard, reminding you of the bad genes, the narrow valley in Bohemia where your ancestors left their lives as factory hands, as milk maids, with their natural and legitimate children in tow, and walked to Trieste and boarded ‘the big boat’ right out of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, out of history, out of the looming world war to give up their names at Ellis Island and live many long years, long enough for the mutation to work its will. Forget that. It has nothing to do with what you face. Your sirens will begin to sing electronically; your digital imps will call you personally, offer something you’ve never had and always wanted. Ignore them. The house is a shambles, your potted plants are parched, your Queen Charlotte violets cannot go another minute, the cat wants attention. Shine ’em on. Begin again with bleakness, with the bare room. You need stimulants, you need caffeinated beverages. This is totally allowed. Mr. Coffee is your only servant, your only friend. Bring yourself again to the bare room. Be prepared to stay.”—Marsha De La O, author of Antidote for Night

Thresholds and Turning Points =Escalation & No Turning Back

Written By: Jessica Morrell - Nov• 15•21

Outside my window the massive Douglas firs are swaying in the wind. We’ve got a ‘pineapple express’ blasting through the region. It’s a weather system, or atmospheric river, churning in from the south Pacific bringing warm temperatures and downpours to the already rain-soaked Pacific Northwest. In fact, there are now flooding and mudslides happening with more rain on the way.

Enough about the weather. I want to talk about the thresholds and milestones that happen in storytelling, including films. These milestones are given different names by various experts. Most commonly they’re called turning points or plot points.

I was recently working on a client’s manuscript  and an important scene was taking place in an early chapter creating the first major turning point. It features two main characters about to make love for the first time. It’s a crucial scene because everything in the story will change after this, the stakes will rise, serious repercussions will shape their futures. It’s an especially important scene because it’s the tale of forbidden love and once they’ve crossed this line they’ve admitted censure and danger into their lives. My job is to help the writer make the scene more momentous and intense, making sure the scenes contain enough emotional clout. Because these essential moments need to create major ramifications.

Turning points are irrevocable changes staged as events or scenes, and are where the story shifts in a new direction. They’re also thresholds so characters pass through into a new situation. These moments,  always shown via action, usually have an emotional change that comes with them. Before this event things might return back to normal; afterward, it’s a whole new game. As I’ve mentioned here before effective fiction takes your main characters into new physical and emotional territory. Turning points are the thresholds to the other side. They signal the reader that danger and shifting tides lie ahead.  I like to think of them as one-way gates.

The new territory can also be new spiritual territory, where principles, beliefs, and hearts are tested. Also, they are often tests and reveal what your protagonist is made of.

And while turning points shift the direction of the story, keep in mind is that they’re also emotional turning points. I was thinking about them yesterday and how they snatch a protagonist from his or her comfort zone and thrust him or her into a threatening situation.

Let’s look at The Hunger Games to help identify these crucial moments. It’s the first book in Suzanne Collins dystopian series that takes place in Panem, a country that’s formed after the collapse of North American governments. The inciting incident or catalyst happens on Reaping Day, an annual lottery where each of Panem’s 12 Districts must send two ‘tributes’ to participate in the state-sponsored, fight-to-the-death Hunger Games while the whole country watches the gruesome contest. Because the underlying brutality of the governing regime is an omnipresent threat.

The story reprises the virgin sacrifices that existed in many cultures along with nods to mythical happenings.  But then Collins has borrowed liberally from mythology and gory human history including a mashup of Dust Bowl imagery, a  Nazi-like regime including  the architecture, symbolism, and vicious stormtroopers, along with a hideous disparity between the classes.

At the Reaping Katniss Everdeen volunteers to replace her 12-year-old sister Primrose in the deadly Games. This creates the central dramatic question: Will Katniss survive?  Then Peeta Mellark is chosen from District 12 too, and wouldn’t you know it, they have some history together because one of the rules of storytelling is Complicate, Complicate, Complicate. Katniss and Peeta leave home for the Capital {(a threshold} and that’s when readers and movie-goers find out just how twisted and corrupt the Panem leadership is.

It turns out that Peeta is secretly in love with Katniss. Because Katniss needs to win to save her family, this is another complication in an already ghastly competition. Does she care about him too? Will she be forced to turn into a soulless killer to survive? The turning points that follow keep changing and pushing ahead the plot’s trajectory, but all affect her goal to survive.

Katniss and Peeta decide to become allies and feign love in order to increase their chances of survival. Because the heartless denizens of the Capital love a love story in the midst of their killing field. Back in District 12 Katniss had learned to hunt to feed her family since her father had died in a mining accident. During the exhibition before the Games she gains notice for her archery skills.

Another turning point happens when the tributes enter the Arena–a nightmarish landscape where the rules keep changing, monsters and walls of flames appear out of nowhere. And can we just reiterate that these are children and teens operating in this whole blood-soaked nightmare?

The youngest tribute from District 11 is Rue and she represents innocence and all that’s wrong with the government and Games. Though agile and wily, she seems doomed or at least underestimated.

Once the Games begin in the mad scramble to secure weapons and supplies Peeta and Katniss become separated. Katniss has been chased up a tree for safety and that’s when she hears a bird-like call. Rue is nearby in a tree. She warns Katniss of a nearby nest of deadly tracker-jackers (genetically-modified bee monsters). Katniss saws off the branch and the tracker jackers swarm on their adversaries. The girls become allies and readers and viewers recognize that Rue is surrogate for her sister Prim.

As allies they concoct a plan to destroy the Cornucopia, a huge stash of weapons and supplies. Returning to Rue after Katniss succeeds, she witnesses her being murdered by another tribute. It is a major turning point in the story.

The fallout cannot be overstated:

  • Katniss changes from a hunter to a killer, first taking out Rue’s murderer.
  • The story slows down briefly so Katniss can process her grief and feelings.
  • The slave-like conditions the citizens of Pandem live under is emphasized by Rue’s senseless death.
  • It reinforces Katniss’ desire to survive–she will win for Rue.
  • Later Katniss compassion toward Rue saves her own life because Rue’s district sends her food.
  • Katniss openly defies the Capital when she rings flowers around Rue’s corpse, showing her affection and respect.Copyright Lions Gate Entertainment
  • Then with the cameras rolling and Rue’s corpse Katniss stands and salutes, marking her defiance and the beginning of a rebellion. We’re talking major ramifications.

Before: Rue and Katness are allies and sisters in the struggle for survival.

After: The alliance is shattered and Katniss would rather die than let the government win or steal her humanity.

What is the before and after status in your turning points?

Keep writing, keep dreaming, have heart

P.S. Rue’s death scene is here

The Toy Story series has terrific examples of thresholds that are easily identified because the characters often land in a new setting as they pass through each threshold.

* Still photos copyright Lion’s Gate Entertainment