Word by Word

Practical insights for writers from Jessica P Morrell

From an Editor’s Desk: Writing Suggestions

Written By: Jessica Morrell - Feb• 09•21

I’ve been purging my office and as I  toss old receipts and rearrange books I’m finding scraps of paper with scrawls and tidbits on them. So I’m lassoing all these jottings. A single word on the back of an envelope says ‘waft’.  Now, waft is in my vocabulary, and I’ve used it in writing, but these lists always inspire me. Another envelope back includes: pinprick, squatter, fusty, quisling, shacky, gawk, wheedle, moonwalk, shirk, bupkis, wraith, servile, scuttle, torpor, badger. Because if you’re not constantly gathering words you’re not growing as a writer.

My next step is to figure out where to record these snippets.  If you’re an analogue type like I am, you might have notebooks stashed all over the place. In fact, I’ve decided to stash one in my car’s glove box. Wondering why I haven’t done this years ago since I often hear information on NPR that  I scribble on my hand as I’m driving. I’ve written here before about keeping a writer’s notebook, a lens to the world. Some jottings will land in my current writer’s notebook, while others will end up in specific ongoing projects.

Another notes says: Ruminate Productively. Question thought cycles. This one struck me hard. There was a tragic death in our family 3 weeks days ago and during the final weeks of  my niece’s life, my thoughts returned again and again to her suffering. And her parents’ suffering. And, of course, I suffered too, sad, worried for them all, grieving the unfairness of her shortened life.  I also tracked memories along years of family events and unearthed painful memories and tracked over old scars. In other words, unproductive ruminations.

The Poet’s Garden Vincent Van Gogh

Sometimes it felt like I needed a lifeline to yank me free of this painful undertow. So I’ve turned to poetry before falling sleep and reading verses during the day. Such solace. And I’m falling into the poems and marveling at the poet’s imagery and turns of thought. Poetry can teach all writers. Can help heal bruised and shattered hearts.

Here’s another morsel:  Track complicated emotions and contradictory thoughts. Since I’ve been quarantining for about a century now I’m getting worn down from too much time spent inside my head. Some days thoughts go skittering into strange places which then scare up unexpected emotions. Not always welcome emotions.  So, as I ‘hear’ unhelpful inner talk, I try to stop myself. Then I backtrack into whatever I was thinking or feeling. Slow it all down and linger there. Figure out where the thought originated. Listening in to a hidden (or noisy) part of myself. Then, as I’ve been telling myself for years, thoughts aren’t like the weather. I can do something about them; question or entertain them, discard, or act on them. Instead of allowing a storm to brew.

If you’re not prone to rumination be on the lookout for these complicated emotions on a screen or while reading a novel. For example, don’t you love it when you witness a  cocktail of emotions flicker across an actor’s face? Maybe as a painful realization dawns or a joyful understanding  blooms. How would you write that? Sir Anthony Hopkins starring in The Remains of the Day as the fusty head butler is an excellent example of how tiny face muscles can express a wide range of emotions.

But let’s get back to contradictions. I taught online workshops last fall  and in one workshop on subplots I explained the potency of contradictions while writing fiction. Contradictory needs and wants (or desires) within your main characters create delicious conflict. In The Remains of the Day, Hopkin’s character  Stevens is at war with the truth. He’s blinded by his loyalty to his employer, a Nazi sympathizer, and clings to his duties instead of risking emotional intimacy–needs he dare not admit to. His elderly father dies alone while Stevens  tends to an important dinner party and ignores the housekeeper’s–played impeccably by Emma Thompson– interest in him. The film is based on The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro and is written as a first-person account by  Stevens, a sometimes unreliable narrator.

You often see this dynamic at work in romance plots and subplots. For  example, a woman is attracted to bad boy types, but deep down she longs for marriage, stability, and kids. This scenario played out in Bridget Jones Diary by Helen Felding where readers and viewers recognized what was best for Bridget, but she did not. Bridget was beginning a new year and diary by vowing to cut down on cigarettes, alcohol and calories. Also on her  list was to find a stable man, but of course, chaos ensued in the form of  a fling with a bad boy. He was played with aplomb by Hugh Grant in the hit film version, while she overlooked stable lawyer Patrick Darcy (Colin Firth) until it was almost too late.

Or a former addict or alcoholic has become clean and sober. All is well, until he is somehow triggered and then slips back into the bottle or ends up visiting his dealer. Meanwhile, as your reader is begging “do not go into that liquor store. Do not screw this up.”  And this means  your reader might be feeling contradictory feelings too–sympathy for the addiction, but enraged at the character for buckling under pressure.

Contradictions create suspense and tension. Stay tuned because I’m going to cover this in more depth in the future.

This note was scrawled on a legal pad as I was reading a recent client’s manuscript: Villains MUST deliver. If you plop a villain or villainous group into your story they need to embody some form of evil and profound threat. He/she/they cannot remain offstage throughout.  If your villains don’t threaten or scare your protagonist up close and personal, then fix the bad guy or your plot.

These days my notebooks are filled with mannerisms and reactions from the novels I read. I’ve written here about crutch words, but in my work I notice that writers use the same emotional responses in their stories. Characters repeatedly look down, shrug, or are wide eyed. I read a novel recently where the author used ‘deadpanned’ five or six times. By the third deadpan, I was wincing.

Another reason to study other writer’s techniques is to create a more immersive reading experience. If you nail aftermaths or the viewpoint character’s experiences  they will resonate with readers.  Such as: startled chuff of laughter, a brittle silence settled between them, staring at him with dead, dark eyes, she flinches, settling uncomfortably, his heart started clattering around in his chest.

Here’s an easy one to adopt. As you build your career, beware of  comparing yourself to other writers. Especially writers who have been toiling away longer than you. Now, you can learn from other writers, emulate other writers. But if you read your favorite author and all you can do is groan about how you’ll never get to his or her skill level, then your thoughts are unproductive. Or if you’re stabbed by jealousy when friends land a publishing deal, you’re being small. Write more, envy less.

Write your first draft with everything you’ve got, but know this: you cannot revise a truly dreadful first draft. Just like you cannot breathe life into a corpse. Sometimes you need to start over. Or put the whole thing away for weeks or months. Or start a new story and let this one simmer on the proverbial back burner.  Making these hard decisions often come from honest, knowledgeable feedback. And sometimes, sadly, you sometimes need to pull the plug on a flimsy first draft.

Keep writing, keep dreaming, have heart

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