Word by Word

Practical insights for writers from Jessica P Morrell

The always-wise Richard Bausch

Written By: Jessica Morrell - Jan• 06•24

If you’re read my post from January of 2013 you might have rightly concluded that when January rolls around I’m usually simply tired while longing for snow and quiet. And what lies ahead in the new year–taking down my magical Christmas tree and decorations is one of my least-favorite tasks. So many delicate trinkets to pack away tucked into tissue paper. So many needles to vacuum.

It’s difficult to convey how much simple joy these seasonal enchantments bring me year after year. How small things like serving a meal on a Christmas plate is so satisfying. How gazing around at the little forest diaramas I’ve created fills me with pleasure. {I’ve been collecting  minaturee trees since the ’80s, think replicas of the Scandinavian variety.} How much I miss my sweet tree decorated with strands of gold stars and cranberry and gold  orangments once it’s lugged outdoors to be chopped into bits for the recycling container. I’m light candles as dusk falls to compensate for the missing spangles and soft tree lights.Try to appreciate how clean my house can be–it does afford a sense of a fresh start.

And don’t even get me started about sending and receiving Christmas cards. The past few years I haven’t sent them to everyone I intended and in early January I’m still trying to make amends as more cards arrive in the mail. Few things are lovelier than cards in the mail, right?  And since it’s the one time of year I allow myself to eat cookies I’ve baked like a greedy child {without going too crazy} I’m also bloated and thick-feeling. So the month is about setting things right, moving my body in new ways, and reaching out to old friends and family.

Might I add, typically as I start digging into my writing projects with anticipation. Which leads us to finding our mentors wherever we may.

Because what always sustains me year round is the wisdom and common sense of  novelist Richard Bausch. His missives on the writing life, on what it takes to create luminous prose, and how to sink into and trust the process always enlighten.  He’s written eleven novels and eight short-story collections. The Los Angeles Times has this marvelous article/interview with Bausch, “How Richard Bausch was able to stop worrying and trust his instincts.” The novel is based around a Memphis production of King Lear, one of Bausch’s obsessions it seems. Isn’t the cover marvelous?

I’m pointing out Bausch today because he’s a writer who has been transforming anxiety, loss, and pain into stories for decades. And teaching and reassuring writers for decades. He’s learned from the greats which is something we can all do even if we cannot hang with them at literary cocktail parties. {I’ll post more of his learned tidbits here this year.}

Let me add more gladdening news about Bausch–he’s writing a Substack column.

Oh, and a bit more good news here from the rainy Pacific Northwest–snow is in the forecast. Color me delighted and hopeful because our forecasts can shift faster than a pickpocket.

Keep writing, keep dreaming, have heart

From ten years ago…

Written By: Jessica Morrell - Jan• 05•24

Ten years ago seems worlds and lifetimes away. That said I published this column January 4th, 2013 and agree with my own points here–that’s supposed to be funny.

What’s Next is about January, slow beginnings, and  a proposal to ease into the year. And why not? Surely we’ll need to reserve stamina for the final months of this  year.

Keep writing, keep dreaming, go deep

Writers’ Resolutions

Written By: Jessica Morrell - Jan• 03•24

Like many people I’ve been thinking about resolutions and goal setting for this new year. I’ve got two: move more and write more.

And I’ve been thinking about my niece Naomi who died almost three years ago at 42 from cancer. It was a brutal, horrible death, in the midst of the  Covid pandemic so she was going to endless appointments alone as the cancer spread to her liver and bones. Her mother, fiance’, closest friend, and dogs were with her when she died smiling. A fashionista, she was cremated with her favorite heels and her never-worn wedding dress hanging in her closet.

Typing this I’m shedding fresh tears at the memories of how ravaged she was in the end, how few people were able to be with her since her immune system was so compromised, how she wanted us to remember her as she was–young, beautiful, funny, kind, talented. Alive.

When she was dying–it was about 15 months between her initial diagnosis and death–I couldn’t read anything that required focus because I’d open a book and words just sort of swam around. It wasn’t until the summer of 2021 that I began devouring books and welcoming that solace.

And I couldn’t write much because it was as if there was no more  sky.

And discovered the tenacity of grief.

I still cannot believe she is gone.

So my resolution to write more is intensely meaningful.

I’m hoping that your resolutions around writing don’t stem from loss, but that they are still deeply meaningful.

Keep writing, keep dreaming, have heart.

 

January

Written By: Jessica Morrell - Jan• 01•24

DECEMBER

Written By: Jessica Morrell - Dec• 06•23

40 Below 0, Joni Mitchell

Books We Love

Written By: Jessica Morrell - Nov• 24•23

Don’t know about you, but I’ve long ago stopped shopping on Black Friday except for online. When my granddaughters were young it was an up-at-dawn adventure and endurance test searching out bargains with my daughter. As they grew older I started hosting a sleepover and we spent the day making Christmas ornaments, drinking tea and just-baked banana bread, with turkey soup for dinner. It was especially sweet when Georgia the youngest, joined us when she was about one.  Freeing their parents for the day-after hunt.

I’ve been stockpiling books for the winter–mostly fiction I’ll confess. My bedside table is an ever-evolving jumble and some are there simply to dip into from time to time and savor.  But there are piles all over this place, including those with beloved characters I need to revisit. And did I mention I’m having some new shelves built?

And then there are the books I’m tucking away to give at Christmas.

And in case you’re book shopping, here is a link to NPR’s Books We Love. And it’s SO easy to use.  Talk about a cornucopia.

The Washington Post Book Club published their list of 10 Best Books of 2023. Here’s the link.

The Post also released their 50 Notable Works of Fiction. Some of my current favorites are included here.

Happy book gathering and reading to all.

 

Giving Thanks

Written By: Jessica Morrell - Nov• 23•23

Linda Christiansen

It’s still dark outside my windows, but we’re expecting a fine day in the Pacific Northwest. My family is celebrating Thanksgiving on Saturday so I’m relaxed–and I’ve already cooked a turkey dinner and gave most of it away. In fact, I’m a bit turkeyed out and might eat salmon for dinner.

I woke up recalling all the writers I’m grateful for–the ones who shone a light during my growing-up years like Louise Alcott who gave me the March sisters and the thousands of authors I’ve encountered through their stories. Like many of you, mine has been a lifetime deeply enriched by stories and explorations and shared learning. Almost daily I’m entranced by encountering new writers  who inspire and delight.

Humankind needs stories, the heart-to-heart meetings that happen over a shared meal, or during a walk or gathering. Those that happen on a page endure, and  in our sometimes-dark times,  the written word is only becoming more vital and life giving.

Yet another reason it’s never been a better time to be a writer.

But mostly I want to give thanks for all the writers I’ve met in real life since I joined the writing community. The hobbyists and professionals, the ones I broke bread with, the ones who attended my classes, workshops, and conferences.  The many writers I met teaching and mentoring at conferences sponsored by organizations. Thanks for the question-and-answer sessions, the feedback,  the hallway meetings, and shared laughter.

I’m especially grateful for working relationships with authors I’ve collaborated with for years–the careers that were launched, the stories I helped them improve and polish and were then read by hundreds of thousands.  It’s always a thrill when their books appear in print.

Sincere thanks to the dear hearts who supported my sometimes-ailing spirit, and the ones who forced me to learn.

Thanks too for the writers who have contacted me  to tell me what my books have meant to them and helped them become better writers. And thanks to the ones who struggled and who inspired my books.

Stories connect us. Stories hold us up. Stories help us see the real world and the world that ought to be.

I’m deeply grateful that I’m still learning at a great pace through reading and working with writers.

Don’t know about you, but I’ve been stockpiling of books for the winter–one stack is growing on my bedside table. But there are piles all over this place, with some including beloved characters I need to revisit. And then there are the books I’m tucking away to give at Christmas. Because I always give books as holiday and birthday gifts, as well as jut-because gifts,  don’t you?

Wishing you many, many reasons to be grateful.

Thanks for stopping by. Keep writing, keep dreaming, have heart.

 

Drama has weight

Written By: Jessica Morrell - Nov• 06•23

“Fall back” finds me awake in the middle of the night with rain deluging down as if the clouds are seriously pissed off.

I’ve been thinking about the ingredients in writing thrillers and what can be left out of stories. Stories that clip along at a brisk pace, and are based heavily on action scenes and thrills won’t feature a lot of inner dialogue. Your proganist’s thoughts might be wonderment, inappropriate name calling,  or cussing up a storm as she bails out the sinking boat. With a soda can.

There will be little ‘toing and froing’ such as walking across rooms, turning on faucets, choosing an outfit to wear, getting into cars and such. Now naturally there are exceptions, such as the undercover agent slipping into all black for a night stakeout or checking under his car for explosive devices. But featuring your protagonist waking up to an alarm and stretching and thinking about coffee–not so much. Waking covered in blood with amenesia?  One of these things is not like the other.

In fiction there are two kinds of events or actions—the natural and the dramatic. Natural actions are the common ones that happen during an ordinary day—eating breakfast, weeding the garden, shopping for groceries, give the kids a bath. Mostly they don’t belong in fiction, especially fast-paced genres. There’s little at stake—burning the bacon or forgetting your shopping list at home happen. And while you might get irate because you really love bacon, or you arrive home from shopping without milk or eggplants, readers aren’t going to care.

Dramatic events are the ones that propel the story forward, reveal character, and deepen conflict. Dramatic events must carry more weight in the story and take up substantially more space because they deliver—thrills, chills, and twists. Which means emotional involvement in the reader.  Now if a murderer is on the loose and you spot him lurking in your back yard and burn breakfast because you dashed around the house to lock the doors and dial 911, then you’ve got drama. Same as being followed home from the grocery store by a creepy stranger or answering the phone and your toddler slips in the tub…

Keep writing, keep dreaming, choose wisely

the power of story lies in its ability to evoke emotions

Written By: Jessica Morrell - Nov• 04•23

Robust rain coming down in Oregon today.  As in noisy. I’m going to take a break from my editing project and concoct a hearty  batch of vegetable soup and create a handout for the Chicagoland Sisters in Crime. Tomorrow I’m going to be on a craft panel with thriller author Layne Fargo. And now that I’ve visited her website, I’m so intrigued by her stories and badass female characters I need to check them out.

I want to apologize for not being around here lately. I’ve edited so many manuscripts in the past  six months things are kind of a blur–except in my dreams. Fictional characters are showing up in them. To the best of my recollection, that’s never happened before–I’m more of a “I see dead people’ dreamer so this has been a fun change of pace. {To be clear, I’m quite happy when my dead family members and friends who inhabit my night visions appear–they’ve been stopping by regularly this past week. I’m thinking a combination of the full moon and Day of the Dead. But then do full moon ethers carry to the beyond?}

When working on my clients’ stories, I pepper their manuscripts with all sorts of notes, but also corral suggestions and observations about their stories into a long, detailed memo. And I pepper them with advice like this:

The power of story largely resides in its power to evoke emotions. Our favorite works all tend to follow create that affect.  As much as we want readers to intellectually appreciate the intelligence of our writing, we need them, even more, to react to the underlying pull of the story and its characters with utter, unthinking emotion. When you can connect with the mysterious, often unpredictable realm of a reader’s emotions, you’re likely to hook  him or her not only into reading your story, but also into carrying it with them for the rest of their lives. A story that connects emotionally will win over readers, even if the plot falters and the structure is wobbly. Because plot and structure can be remedied, as can the inner rationale, dialogue, and most anything.

And NaNoWriMo writers, I realize you’re zipping through a draft, but you can still try to feel what your characters feel while you’re writing.

I cannot say it enough: your readers need to feel what your characters feel. So write intimately and write from the body.

keep writing, keep dreaming, have heart

And if you’d like a copy of the Thriller Writers’ handout, please contact me. My full name including Page at gmail.com.

 

NaNoWriMo

Written By: Jessica Morrell - Nov• 02•23

I was cobbling together dinner earlier as rain fell against my porch’s tin roof and the news jabbed at me from the living room. And I looked out my window at the Douglas firs which seemed to have grown taller this past year, and wondered how it can possbily be November. And how the gloom and mist and hard rain were the new normal. And that stabbed at me a bit. I had to shake myself, kind of like a wet dog, because the clocks are going back an hour and the gloom will become more pervasive. At least I don’t live in Alaska, I told myself because months of darkness sound hellish.

And then: it’s a good time to get some writing doneAnd make soup. 

But before I fixate on soup–I made an extraordinary batch of turkey vegetable a few days ago– let’s get down to business.

Congratulations  to the hardy souls who are heading into the bucolic and exhausting stint known as NaNoWriMo.

BECAUSE:

  • Companionship, check.
  • Accountability, check.
  • Excitement, check, check.
  • Fun, triple check.

And yes, I know multi-pubished and best-selling authors who started out on November 1 with a mission and a passion and a need to write.

You might ask yourself:

  • What does my protagonist want desperately?
  • Why does he or she have this desperate need?
  • What hideous doom might befall him or her if he or she fails?
  • What will break your main character?
  • Who or what will stand in the way?
  • Is this the most interesting and exciting segment of your character’s life?

When you’re not writing be thinking about your characters and the dilemmas and traps you’re setting. You might also write wee missives before sleep asking these questions. Imagining the face, the way your character faces the world.

See? Not so bad. And you’re off!

Best of luck. And thanks for stopping by.