Word by Word

Practical insights for writers from Jessica P Morrell

Fiction Needs Closeups Too

Written By: Jessica Morrell - Feb• 25•22

Cold  weather all week here and my container plants are covered.  My bulbs are  emerging and they’re covered too, but so far freezing temperatures  didn’t take out any weeds. A gardener can dream.

And I cannot look away from the heartbreaking horrors in Ukraine. Utter madness. I realize how hard it is for writers and artists to keep working amid the dread and worries, but try we must.

Let’s move on to using closeup “shots” of your characters in fiction. Filmmakers have a large repertoire of techniques that writers are wise to study and borrow. Closeup camera angles are powerful in film and an important technique fiction writers need to emulate throughout their stories.

I write many, many notes and suggestions to my editing clients, some within the pages of the manuscript, some included in a long, detailed memo.  At times I suggest a wide angle or establishing shot to introduce setting and atmosphere–especially helpful when a character arrives at a new place or when major action is about to go down.

However, I’m certain that every story I’ve worked on needed more ‘closeup’ shots of characters, so I suggest when to bring the viewpoint– fiction’s camera lens–closer.  In film or television the director and cameraman have lots of choices about how to use distance to achieve drama.  There are full shots, medium, long, POV, closeup and extreme closeups. A closeup shot tightly frames the actor’s face and signals significance. They’re typically used to portray deep emotions and create connection between audience and actor.  There are also ‘extreme close-ups’ where the camera lingers on a subject, usually the actor.  But close-ups can also focus on hands and body parts, props, jewelry, or other objects of interest.

Obviously closeups are intimate because they’re revealing. They showcase significant emotions, realizations, decisions,  and important moments or actions.  They also reveal when characters have something to hide.

Romance films and dramas employ these shots especially when characters are surprised, shocked,  filled with dread, or when feelings shift. Closeups, naturally,  are often used in horror and suspense films to increase the audience members’ heartbeat. Alfred Hitchcock was fond of using them, such as in the grisly shower scene in Psycho. You know the one.

Uses for closeups:

  • Convey important moments, reversals, revelations.
  • Enhance threat and danger.
  • Enhance evil and malevolence.
  • Shock value as when a monster or villain is in the frame.
  • Focus on, reveal a character’s state  of mind.
  • Slow the pacing.
  • Portray damage, pain, the cost paid by characters.
  • Allow readers to see the world through the character’s eyes.
  • Reveal closeness, intimacy, estrangement, coldness between characters.
  • Suggest or define character arc.
  • Show other ‘sides’ of a character, including subtler traits.
  • Illustrate a character’s emotional bandwidth, as in how she or he handles the best of times and the worst of times.
  • In scenes that contain violence, brutality, or horror, a closeup amplifies the dangers as in the ‘here’s Johnny’ moment in The Shining when Jack Torrence, played by Jack Nicholson is terrorizing his family. Notice how it’s clear that he’s sunk into madness.

As you’re revising, make sure that during the most poignant moments in the story, readers are pulled in. Allow your readers to witness emotions flickering across the character’s face. Let them sense what’s churning beneath a character’s exterior.

Keep writing, keep dreaming, use your voice

Before children speak, they sing

Written By: Jessica Morrell - Feb• 17•22

Deliberate Practice

Written By: Jessica Morrell - Feb• 10•22

I’ve been watching the Olympics this week and last night was thrilled when 22 year-old Nathan Chen won the gold medal in men’s figure skating. Mixed in with the events were various interviews and backstories on the athletes, including  their previous wins and losses, personal tragedies, and injuries.

Before Malcom Gladwell wrote in Outliers: The Story of Success that mastery requires 10,000 hours or ten years of deliberate practice I’ve recognized this truth because I know successful authors who put in thousands of hours at their craft. Noticed how performers, musicians, writers, and athletes have perfected their expertise by years of unstinting, deliberate practice. The playground kids hitting hundreds of free throws a day. The athletes getting up a dawn for early practice before school. The chess masters hunched over the board and studying long-dead grandmasters and their wins.  Chen spending so many hours of his childhood on the ice since he was three.

There are debunkers who claim Gladwell’s assertion isn’t true. Claims are that it’s an overgeneralization and misinterpretation of the research. That it’s not the quantity of the practice, but rather the quality of the practice because not all practices are equally helpful. Here’s what I think: the exact number of hours needed to write a quality novel or memoir or screenplay can never be adequately measured. But it requires an immersion, obsession, and undaunted practice. It requires carving out time,  getting up early and staying up late and missing out on ‘normal’ life at times. It requires lifelong learning and commitment to getting better. I’ve met writers who write a lot but their commitment to the craft isn’t strong. As in their writing stays at the same level, the vocabularies similar in whatever they write, similar plots and ploys repeated.

Writers need their own version of the ‘quads’. As in the quadruple axels on the ice that require precision and becoming stronger and smarter day after day.

Precision in writing can apply from the word level to themes to storyline. Putting down the perfect word in the precise place its needed. Learning to use figurative language. Plotting a series of twists in your storyline.

After Chen won gold NBC featured film clips of him as boy, including him on the ice as a toddler. Then there was an interview when a reporter asked the eleven-year-old about his skating goals and he said he planned on being in the 2018 Olympics. The reporter’s voice was syrupy and almost condescending as in “isn’t it adorable when kids dream.”

But dream he did. And then hit the ice. And placed a disappointing fifth place in the 2018 Olympics and kept going, including attending Yale and finding a balance between skating and real life. This week he had disappointing performances in the team event and short program. Then yesterday in men’s figure skating finals Chen competed against the best skaters in the world and landed six quads, a history-making achievement. He envisioned success and you can too.

What’s your dream and are you putting in the hours? Are you growing? Do you believe in yourself?

Keep writing, keep dreaming, put in deliberate practice

Great writing makes great demands of the writer

Written By: Jessica Morrell - Feb• 09•22


Written By: Jessica Morrell - Feb• 02•22

Been reading a lot lately?

Written By: Jessica Morrell - Jan• 21•22

Do you read more in the winter? I believe reading is better with a blanket to snuggle under. I also believe the Gregorian Calendar established in 1582 by the Catholic Church ignores the real seasons of the year. Surely the year starts in spring when nature is awakening.

The library I haunted as kid was built in 1891 and was moved to a pretty, riverside park with funding from the Andrew Carnegie Foundation in 1911. It’s the same time they developed a traveling library that included the small surrounding communities. I vaguely remember a bookmobile visiting our neighborhood and these days along with Head Start programs, the region has pop-up libraries. One of my life’s great satisfactions is knowing my books are available in my hometown library. Do you have a similar goal?

BOOKMOBILE - 1967 | Bookmobile, Mobile library, Local libraryThis is similar to the bookmobile I remember as a kid. I’m happy to report bookmobiles are on the upswing around the world.

Reading was my everything when I was a girl. True, there was a  small town for exploring, the big outdoors, trees, rivers, ice rinks, and snow–so much snow. Once I was too old for make-believe reading carried me to other places, and granted freedom.

These days reading is so much different because I read like an editor which can take some of the fun out of it. In my gig as a developmental editor I try to read widely so I’m reading a Dean Koontz thriller l this week. I’m not too enamored of it because he overuses metaphors, too many of his characters philosophize, he spends too much time in the villain’s disturbing viewpoint, and while it is layered (especially with greedy, soulless bad guys) it’s just too commercial for my taste. I’ve been skimming often and get annoyed when he uses words like ‘darkle’ more than once. And prefer the canine characters over all the others.

Some of my clients write thrillers so I’m sticking with it until the likely bitter end and I’ve jotted down several pages of notes. I’ve especially been following his use of the wind in this story because Koontz is great at using nature to increase tension and verisimilitude. And, of course, he  lards the pages with atmospherics as in ‘a wind had risen out of the northwest filling the air with whispers and moans’ and ‘wind seethed into the house, huffing and wailing.’ See what I mean?

My question to you is are you reading like a writer? Are you analyzing the choices the writer made? Can you locate the underlying structure such as the midpoint reversal? {In Koontz’s story he added more bad guys we hadn’t met before and a kill order for the vulnerable characters.} Are you making notes and underlining in books you own? Jotting down insights in your writer’s notebook? Collecting words, descriptions, and figurative language?  When you are walking or driving do you mull over what you’re reading? And let’s not overlook talking about the books with fellow writers or your book group. There’s nothing like articulating what works in the story, what distracted you amid the story, your satisfaction with the ending.

Highly recommended: Lauren Groff’s Matrix. It’s set in a medieval abbey and loosely based on the life of poet and mystic  Marie de France. What I most appreciated about this story was the accuracy of the research and language, and how the story simply stayed with me, if I was reading it or not. The characters followed me, whispering, and it was as if I could smell the world, feel the seasons overlaid on the world I live in.

Here are the first captivating lines:

She rides out of the forest alone. Seventeen years old in the cold March drizzle, Marie who comes from France. 

It is 1128 and the world bears the weariness of late Lent. It will soon be Easter which arrives early this year. In the fields, the seeds uncurl in the dark, cold soil ready to punch into the freer air. She sees for the first time the abbey, pale and aloof on a rise in this damp valley, the clouds drawn up from the ocean and wrung against the hills in constant rainfall. Most of the year this place is emerald and sapphire, bursting under dampness, thick with sheep and chaffinches and newts, delicate mushrooms poking from the damp soil, but now in late winter, all is gray and full of shadow.

How could I not read on?

I’ve come to believe she’s one of our best living writers and reading another of her novels is my reward for finishing the gory thriller. I’m looking forward to leaving the world of evil where I rarely venture any more.

PS Finished the dreadful Koontz novel by skimming and skipping though much of it. Too many themes crammed into the story with a silly, muddled, saccharine ending tied up in a giant happily-ever-after bow mixed in with horrors. It’s obvious Koontz is deeply saddened or disturbed by our contemporary society and government. As he should be. Never again.

Write against patterns

Written By: Jessica Morrell - Jan• 16•22

Write against patterns. Or go against the devils. Write what your never write. Lie. Validate what you don’t validate. Indulge what you don’t like.  Wallow in it. Write the opposite of what you always write, think, speak. Do everything against the grain! ~Deena Metzger from Writing from Your Life

Hard times are coming…

Written By: Jessica Morrell - Jan• 12•22

Hard times are coming, when we’ll be wanting the voices of writers who can see alternatives to how we live now, can see through our fear-stricken society and its obsessive technologies to other ways of being, and even imagine real grounds for hope. We’ll need writers who can remember freedom–poets, visionaries–realists of larger reality. ” ~ Ursula LeGuin

Some Writing Days are Better than Others

Written By: Jessica Morrell - Jan• 10•22

Here we are slogging through another January amid challenging times. It’s Monday and the morning news is reporting a startling list of local schools that are closed or shifting to online learning because of Omicron. Pediatric hospital admissions are on the rise, and, besides teachers, there are not enough hospital staff, bus drivers, airline workers, and truck drivers among other professions. Worry, grief and trauma still pervade our national mood.

And although I’m a resilient type and feeling pretty optimistic about the coming year–once we trudge through another COVID surge–some days I’m just bone tired. Still.  Not from lack of sleep, but because my bounce back is low on bounce. You know that feeling, right? Last spring I sent this piece from The New York Times, “Feeling Blah During the Pandemic” to friends because we were feeling worn and not like ourselves. Worse, we couldn’t snap out of it.  And isn’t languishing the perfect word here for the ongoing worry and weariness of surviving through a pandemic and political turmoil?

I’m sure a vacation or European adventure would help, but right now travel isn’t a safe solution. At least not for me. I’m not feeling exactly invincible these days. Then there’s the little problem of flights being cancelled because there are not enough pilots and airline crews.

But…even when times are sucky or just this side of sucky, writers all over the world are nailing their writing goals. They’re racking up words of their latest opus, signing with agents, signing book deals, and hawking their newly published books as best they can.  Let’s plan to join this pantheon of achievers. You in?

First, let’s factor in what sounds like an obvious truth: When it comes to writing, some days are simply easier and more productive than others. Some mornings you’ll bounce out of bed clear-eyed and rested and the writing simply flows and your brain clicks along like an abacus. The words pour forth as if a delightful spell was cast over your flying fingers. For many of us, those bewitched days don’t happen nearly enough.

Because there are days when it feels like you’re threading your frayed thoughts into a needle too small to see under a magnifying glass. Factor in days when the stay-in-your-chair effort to churn out words seems like plodding uphill as in mountain climbing without equipment. Above the tree line.


You’re Not Alone

As I’m composing this a writing memory emerged. It was late in 2004. I was writing Between the Lines, Master the Subtle Elements of Writing and I had a tight, effective writing routine down. Get up early, walk across the hall and turn on my computer, go downstairs and make a cup of Earl Grey, return to my office and settle in as dawn broke out my window. But that overcast morning I stared blankly at the screen because I was feeling empty and overwhelmed. I want to write ‘completely overwhelmed’ here but that would be redundant. But in this case overwhelmed doesn’t convey my sense of doom. My whole body was acknowledging it, from churning stomach to tight shoulders to increased heartrate.

I wrote all my books while working three jobs so let’s mix tiredness into this picture. Again I want to append modifiers like dog before tiredness because I worked such  long hours in those years.

So there I was, my courage faltering and… I stayed. Even though they were sickly, I added a few sentences.  Still scared, I pecked out a few more. Then I reread pages I’d written the previous day and started fixing typos and grammar. By that time I was feeling calmer and ready for a second cup of tea so I trekked downstairs. As the teakettle boiled I gazed out at my patio, the table and chairs glittering with rain, grass startlingly green, flower beds stunted and browned. There was a patch of tall ferns that had withered, and were slimy, and sad-looking. When I take  writing breaks I change my view as often as possible.

photo by Avi Richards

When I returned to my office the neighborhood was coming to life as neighbors drove off to work. Still low on confidence, I plunked down and managed about four hours of work. It wasn’t my best effort because some writing days are so-so.  You pick apart a scene, but it just doesn’t come back together. You dabble, adding hues and shadings for depth and you’re still not satisfied with the results or nagged by the sense the language could be more refined.

Here’s another memory: I walked into this same office with my morning tea and sat down to begin my most ambitious bookBullies, Bitches, and Bastards, How to Write the Bad Guys of Fiction. In it I was explaining dozens of character types and tracking how anti-heroes had become the norm in storytelling and what this meant for writers. That particular morning I felt the most heart-rattling, haunted house terror I’ve ever experienced associated with writing. Shaken, I began. And I got off to a shaky start and my editor let me know it as I started turning in chapters.

Aim For Deep Work

It was my fourth book and I’d learned how to deeply focus even though I’m a jittery sort. Cal Newport wrote a book called Deep Work: Rules for Success in a Distracted World and postulates in this age of distractions we need to be able to dive into our tasks and remain there. Focused, allowing insights to emerge as we ignore distractions of our noisy age. I see deep work as child-like absorption and flow that happens when we’re solely engaged. Newport claims that the ability to concentrate  is our new IQ and that most of the time, most people are doing ‘shallow work.’ Which is more like dabbling or ‘busyness as a proxy for productivity.’ Here’s a good summary of his research and strategies for getting more quality writing done.

I haven’t read Newport’s book yet, though I’ve heard him interviewed. I’ve learned the more you give in to distractions, the more distractions will steal your writing time and your brain gets wired for impulsivity. Most people accomplish about three or four hours of concentrated work in a day. Our world has a lot of people who measure things–actuaries, statisticians, pollsters, researchers and scientists. So naturally someone has analyzed how productive workers are these days–pre-pandemic.

We all need to keep writing when we’re scared and  strategies for faltering, angsty times. My tricks might not work for you and yours might not work for me. But here’s the point: You need a plan in case inertia or brain fog creeps up on you; when the story stalls and you don’t have a way forward. Yet.  Because a day can turn into more days and before you know it,  you’re not producing much.

Plan for the Dog Days of Writing

It’s likely you know this, but I’m going to mention it anyway: Start by identifying and taking advantage of your peak hours. This article has good advice on the subject. But don’t overlook your days’ nooks and crannies–for writing of course. Twenty minutes while dinner simmers or bakes. The hour you can fit in after putting the kids to bed or instead of watching TV.

A simple trick is to set a timer and then allow it to dictate your writing sprints. The brain works better with periodic focus and deep work, followed by a short break. Research varies on the optimal time to focus, but 30 to 45 minutes works for many people. Now, some of us need to settle in and not move for a at least a few hours. I subscribe to 30 or 40 minutes of writing, breaking for 5 or 10 minutes, then back at it. Five or six, 30 to 40-minute sessions work best for me, though sometimes they run longer.

Another doable habit is to overwrite and slap down every snippet, thread, or brainstorm. This gives you room to mess around as in moving sentences and paragraphs, refining scenes or ideas, bolstering characters who are kind of limping along, not fully formed. Often these bits end up in a document I label ‘extras’ or something similar–I’ve created one for every long work I’ve written. By the way, I’ve harvested these tidbits and such many times.

I’ve long been interested in neuroscience and I’ll share some of what I’ve learned here. There are so many resources for helping your brain and mood.  I’m sure you’re well aware of the top hits: Sleep is key. Omega threes. Healthy proteins. Easy on sugar and junk food. Hydrate because our brains are 75% water. Drinking water as soon as you get up in the morning is an easy habit to adopt. Keep a glass next to your computer. Always.

Deal with Stress and Other Maladies

Monitor your stress levels and do something about them. Easier said than done, right? Here’s motivation for you:  Stress shrinks our brains. Feeling anxious or wired diminishes our ability to focus. I’ve been exploring how to better calm my vagus nerve and it’s been eye-opening. The vagus nerve is actually a pair of cranial nerves, the longest in the body and run from the head to the abdomen and are involved with brain and emotional health. That ‘brain-gut axis’ you’ve been hearing about is the vagus nerve because it connects the brain to the body.

Specifically it connects the neck, heart, lungs, and abdomen to the brain. It has a bunch of functions, too many to enumerate here. I’m paying attention to my vagus nerve to lower my blood pressure–and it’s working by the way. Those rocky, scared, I-want-to-flee moments can be tamed by simple techniques like deep breathing. Luckily, stimulating and calming the vagus nerve is relatively easy. Check out this and this for more information and inspiration.

Can we talk? About negative self talk that is. Notice and question your negative thoughts, because thoughts are not always reality. Especially when your writing isn’t going well because you’ll be doubting yourself and forgetting all your successes.  Our minds can be tricksters, but these days we don’t have the band width for extra pressure.

Learn to navigate your moods, because navigate them we must. Which brings us around to living with awareness.

Brains need oxygen and blood flow to create new neural pathways. Move often. Get outdoors for a walk or yard work whenever possible. Meditate or at least just hang out and slow your breathing every day. If like me,  you’re not great at quieting your mind find a podcast  or YouTube video to help.  I tune into guided sleep meditations via Tracks to Relax at night. I’ve been resisting meditating for most of my life, but now that I’m delving into it, I’m surprised at how much better my brain works. Emily Fletcher has created Viva Meditation and her methods are user friendly even for beginners.

Feed your imagination. Naturally, reading and storytelling of all kinds are important, but also nourish it with new experiences. Creative brains need sensible habits and novelty. If like me, you’re not ready to get on a plane, find ways for mini adventures and small joys. I’m going to order flower seeds today as my small delight.

The solutions for achieving deep work aren’t onerous, but change can be hard if you’re battling a slew of longtime bad habits. Nevertheless, habits are formed via neural pathways and you can hardwire your brain for resiliency and  creativity by forging new neural pathways. Our beautiful, miraculous, malleable, brains, WANT to operate optimally. Try googling “hardwire your brain for happiness” for workable ideas.

How do you pivot when hours seem to be slipping through your clumsy fingers? I switch to researching, editing, and reading my own writing. I peruse my writer’s notebooks and word lists. {Sozzle, burble, peacocking, fuddle, moonglade, lorn} When my brain feels fried,  I take naps, read, check in with writer friends, and stalk (online) writers with habits and outlooks worth emulating. What works for you?

Always Looking Ahead

It’s January. Not all of us plunge back into writing immediately after the holidays. I like to imagine how people lived in ancient times or before electricity was invented.  In winter there would be something cooking all day. After the evening meal family members would read, sew, knit, repair tools, tell stories by firelight or candlelight. They’d go to bed early likely huddled together against the cold.

That means February 1, halfway between the winter solstice and spring equinox, is  in a few weeks.  It’s St. Brigid’s day, and  Imbolc a time of new beginnings and the natural world awakening. And National Dark Chocolate Day. Who knew?  So if in January you feel more like hibernating them than full speed ahead, you’ve got a do-over coming up. And you know dark chocolate is good for your brain, right?

Meanwhile, keep scavenging and eavesdropping,, focus when you need to focus, and be prepared for possible slumpy conditions ahead.


With apologies for earlier wonky drafts that appeared here when they were supposed to remain behind the curtain.


Written By: Jessica Morrell - Jan• 05•22