Word by Word

Practical insights for writers from Jessica P Morrell

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

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

November

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.