Word by Word

Practical insights for writers from Jessica P Morrell

Quick Take: What’s the Worst Thing That Can Happen Next in my Novel?

Written By: Jessica Morrell - Nov• 09•21

Here’s an easy-to-use technique especially helpful for anyone writing a first draft. I’m looking at you NaNoWriMos.

Fiction is many things, with carefully placed underpinnings that form the structure and happenings–from bumping into an old friend to dodging-bullets-exploits–written in scenes. Scenes are where change happens.  Fiction is a log of sorts depicting changes occurring as the story moves along to the final shift or blowout, the climax.

Change creates threat. Threat creates conflict, tension and suspense, all necessary ingredients in storytelling.

New-to-fiction writers learn fast that negative changes outnumber positive ones in fiction.

As your story seesaws and morphs along, altered circumstances and threat create dire consequences. Fear of these consequences motivate your protagonist to act.

And because threats are ongoing in storytelling, they will meet reactions and resistance. Someone must confront, decide, fight back, avoid, flee from,  Whenever you write a new scene ask yourself what’s the worst thing that can happen next? Lightning strikes? A scary diagnosis? The protagonist’s ex moves back to town? Pulled over by cops? A death in the family? Fired from work? In turn, the scene’s outcome  propels the story ahead.

Keep writing, keep dreaming, keep plotting dire consequences for your beleaguered protagonist

Cheryl Strayed on Grit, Healing, and the Writing Life

Written By: Jessica Morrell - Nov• 04•21

I’ve used the word grit more in the past  few years than I have in my lifetime. And, alas, in the past few months I’ve needed so much grit and resiliency that I’ve had to dip deep into my reserves.  I dare not run low.

If you’re also needing more steel in your backbone, read Cheryl’s wise words. Oh, and she’s as wonderful and real in her everyday life as she on the page and in other circumstances.

You can read it here at LitHub How Cheryl Strayed Learned to Ride into Battle.  Because sometimes we need to be warriors as writers, parents, political activists, and planet guardians.  She writes: “You have to acknowledge that often the best things you do are painful and complicated and difficult and exhausting and require us to be out of our comfort zone.”

Keep writing, keep learning, nurture grit


Written By: Jessica Morrell - Nov• 01•21

For NaNoWriMo Scribes

Written By: Jessica Morrell - Oct• 31•21

I’m always thinking in stories, aren’t you? Yesterday I visited a nearby farmer’s market, not imagining it would be overrun with merry kids in costumes. I’d just heard that there was a shortage of costumes because of global shipping slowdowns, but this wasn’t in evidence as the witches, superheroes, and ghouls dashed around accepting treats, trailed by adults trying to keep them in sight amid the crowd.

I’d stopped in because I’m running low on local honey and had a chance to chat with a beekeeper. He explained his wares, gesturing at the rows of jars winking amber in the sunlight,  pointing out which ones were harvested in spring, mid-summer, and late summer. I chose a late-summer wildflower jar and another gathered from fireweed. The honey in the fireweed jars was pale, almost like melted butter.

Chamareanaion angustifolium or fireweed, is often the first plant that sprouts after a forest fire. It’s found in the Pacific Northwest and a few other regions of the world. He explained that fireweed grows mostly at higher elevations in the Cascade Mountains. Ever since we talked I’m trying to remember where I’ve seen it while hiking. I live  near old forests and  wild regions and am going to be on the lookout for this plant. This year he was required to pay $500 fee to place his hives near the plants and his equipment needed to be bear-resistant. Trouble is, the bears got in anyway. More than once.  I drove on to my next errands thinking about the scavenging, destructive bears, the pink blooms bringing new life to a scarred region, the beekeeper driving his hives into the mountains. I remembered how a few years ago a bee colony arrived in the cypress trees in my former backyard. I found a couple through a local beekeeper’s organization who captured the queen and then watched the colony follow her into a special box. They took them home to begin their hives, their faces  as happy as children on Christmas morning.

Speaking of busy creatures….Thirty days has November….And for thousands of writers around the world, it also means National Novel Writing Month, usually called NaNoWrMo. As you’re buckling in, stocking up, or outlining, I’ve got you covered.

Check out  this  practical article on Hacks and a Bit of Tough Love, because it’s all about survival when you have a 50,000-word, 30-day goal. There are more than a dozen articles stockpiled here if you’re in need of inspiration, just use the search feature.

Good writing to all. Believe in yourself. Be kind to yourself. Don’t forget to hydrate and get adequate sleep.

Stay curious. As you go about your days away from your computer, notice, notice, notice. And allow big and little stories to land within. Don’t brush them away; follow the wisps and threads and memories.



Basics for a worthy protagonist {aimed at NaNoWriMo writers especially}

Written By: Jessica Morrell - Oct• 29•21

Thousands of writers around the world are getting ready to buckle in for NaNoWriMo, an accountability community and method for writing 50,000 words during the month of November. Fifty thousand words of a novel, that is.

No matter your writing level, your story needs a kickass main character. Now, I don’t mean you need a brawler, a bully, or beast to headline your story–instead, you need someone who readers have never met before. An unforgettable someone who fascinates and captivates.  Someone who readers can care about, empathize with.

A story person who can carry the weight of the storyline.

Create a worthy protagonist: 

A fictional person who is about to face some of the most interesting events and hardest challenges of his or her life. Elizabeth Bennet of Pride and Prejudice is a good example.

A protagonist who has skin in the game. Elizabeth’s situation–living with her family because she has no means of support–means she is in an inescapable position.

A character you can pile on troubles and miseries and he or she won’t topple. Well, maybe topple, but then is capable of rising again to face the challenges of the story events. This means your protagonist can stand up to his or her opposition, enemies, and travails, however difficult.

A character with realistic and possibly relatable flaws. In Pride and Prejudice Lizzie Bennet possesses a sharp tongue that matches her quick wit, but she’s also prone to jump to conclusions {prejudice} and might be prouder than is good for her…

A character who is complicated and complex, which in turn leads to inner conflict. This means protagonist battles his/her circumstances hindered by his or her personality, nature. 

Use characters with significant histories {backstory} that cast a shadow onto the present. Typically this means past traumas or troubles that somehow mess with his/her ability to face the story conflict and hardships. In Pride and Prejudice Elizabeth Bennet’s family is dysfunctional, in that the father is uninvolved and distant, their mother is an ambitious busybody, and her younger sisters will chase any man in a uniform. Which is going to lead to a scandal that the family might not recover from.

Lizzie’s older sister Jane is typical of a woman of her times–Regency England–who seems to accept society’s norms and has a sweet disposition. Oh, and low expectations. Lizzie, on the other hand, is different from her sisters–a reader, a dreamer and yet a realistic type because she’s aware of her family’s flaws and disapproves of her father. But importantly, she’s a woman who will not marry unless her beloved is a perfect match.

But the ultimate backdrop for this story comes from England’s inheritance laws. The family’s five daughters unable to inherit their family estate because they’re female, which creates a threat that hangs over the story. All stories need an overarching threat. Think worst-case scenario. Here’s an excellent explanation of the Regency English era.

Fiction typically, but not always, is told from the protagonist’s viewpoint. The pov character is the reader’s entrée into the story world, the lens we view the story through. The prideful Lizzie provides access into society’s norms and expectations for females. Thus, she serves as a reflection of the story’s themes and premise. {It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of good fortune, must also be in want of a wife.}

If Pride and Prejudice was told from elder sister Jane’s or Lydia’s viewpoint it would be a far different tale. Less complex and involving, since Jane isn’t exactly a firecracker and 15-year-old Lydia’s agenda is all about romance with a dashing soldier, Mr. Wickham. No matter that his agenda is ungentlemanly at best. Then there’s the matriarch, Mrs. Bennet,  who is well aware of the unfairness of inheritance laws and is determined her daughters will be married because that’s all the security they can hope for. While Mrs. Bennet is realistic, it’s doubtful she’d provide an honest perspective.

Keep writing, keep dreaming, have heart


Merriam Webster adds 455 New Words

Written By: Jessica Morrell - Oct• 28•21

English, the ultimate mongrel language, is always evolving.

And word geek that I am, whenever new words are added to the dictionary I’m fascinated and excited. How about you? For example joining the party: whataboutism, amirite, digital nomad, and dad bod.  

Many words reflect contemporary circumstances such as long COVID, super-spreader, and vaccine passport. There’s also astroturf which means political messages, campaigns, and organizations that seem like a grassroots efforts run by ordinary people, but are actually backed  by a powerful group. You can read more here.

And don’t be afraid to invent your own word mashups and search out inventive, resonant word pairs. I jot them down….honeymoon luster, fawning prig, feral cunning. 

Keep writing, keep dreaming, keep collecting fresh language.

Interested in working with me?

Written By: Jessica Morrell - Oct• 23•21

Hey writers,

I’m a developmental editor and have a rare opening coming up on my calendar, that is time to work on a new manuscript. If you’re interested drop me a line via my email at jessicapagemorrell at gmail dot com.

Will be happy to explain the process, pricing, and edit a sample so you can determine if we’re a good fit. I work with both fiction and nonfiction authors and specialize in suspense stories.

Looking forward to hearing from someone in Writing Land.

Meanwhile, keep writing, keep dreaming, have heart

Write from your depths

Written By: Jessica Morrell - Oct• 22•21

Jeanette Winterson on the power of language

Written By: Jessica Morrell - Oct• 21•21

For me, language is a freedom. As soon as you have found the words with which to express something, you are no longer incoherent, you are no longer trapped by your own emotions, by your own experiences; you can describe them, you can tell them, you can bring them out of yourself and give them to somebody else. That is an enormously liberating experience, and it worries me that more and more people are learning not to use language; they’re giving in to the banalities of the television media and shrinking their vocabulary, shrinking their own way of using this fabulous tool that human beings have refined over so many centuries into this extremely sensitive instrument. I don’t want to make it crude, I don’t want to make it into shopping-list language, I don’t want to make it into simply an exchange of information: I want to make it into the subtle, emotional, intellectual, freeing thing that it is and that it can be.

~ Jeanette Winterson


Read poetry, read poetry, read poetry

Written By: Jessica Morrell - Oct• 17•21

Corn Picking, Afternoon Break

I needed a heavy canvas jacket riding the cold red tractor, air like an ice cube on bare skin. Blue sky over the aspen grove I drove through on the way back to the field, throttle wide open, the empty wagon I pulled hitting all the bumps on the dirt road. In the high branches of the aspens little explosions now and then sent leaves tumbling and spinning like coins tossed into the air. The two-row tractor-mounted corn-picker was waiting at the end of the corn rows, the wagon behind it heaped so high with ears of corn their yellow could be seen a mile away. My father, who ran the picker was already sitting on the ground, leaning back against the big rear wheel of the tractor. In that spot out of the wind we ate ham sandwiches and doughnuts, and drank hot coffee from a clear Mason jar wrapped in newspaper to keep it warm. The autumn day had spilled the color gold everywhere: aspen, cornstalks, ears of corn pitched high, coffee mixed with fresh cream, the fur of my dog, Boots, who was sharing our food. And when my father and I spoke, joking with the happy dog, we did not know it then, but even the words that we carelessly dropped were left to shine forever on the bottom of the clear, cold afternoon. Tom Hennen, Darkness Sticks to Everything

Keep writing, keep dreaming, immersive yourself in words