Word by Word

Practical insights for writers from Jessica P Morrell

January 2022

Written By: Jessica Morrell - Jan• 01•22

Your Word of the Year

Written By: Jessica Morrell - Dec• 31•21

It’s that time. To bid 2021 adieu.

Kick it down the road.

And look ahead.

As I’ve written here before, in late December I choose a word to focus on during the upcoming year. I focus on the word because it signifies my mindset and intentions. It serves as a touchstone, mantra, and theme to help me succeed. Let me add lazar to that list. Typically my words are a combo of hope and traits, characteristics I’m turning up the volume on such as breakthrough, steadfast, grit, and published.   My word conveys what I need more of.

Some years this technique was smashing, The past few years events and circumstances pulled me into a fast-moving river when I wasn’t even in the mood for getting wet. Then, at times there were also slow rivers needed for respite. Or recovery.

With pandemic restrictions and curtailed travel I’ve had plenty of time to take stock. I’m guessing you’ve had much to reflect on too. Had time to gaze back, dust off old memories, review lessons learned, and reminisce over sweet times. I’ve also been reading my older writing and unfinished projects. Have you? Happy to report I’ve reviewed a lot of great material I’ll be bringing into the world along with new thoughts about the writing life.

I’ve also been assessing parts of my life and career that need bolstering.

A few times in the past, January 1 would approach and I was still vacillating between words. For 2022 I’m switching things up because I have more than one in mind and that’s just fine with me. {Rips away curtain}: Rebuild, Manifest, Sure-footed*,Focused, Optimistic.

I assumed I wasn’t the only one who was forced to expand their theme word family. Turns out I was right. I found this terrific piece on Medium by Shaunta Grimes. She’s got a slew of ideas, including choosing a Word of the Month.

*Incapacitating  sprained ankle a few months back reminds me to always pay attention to my feet and where they’re landing and a reminder that I can be surefooted in all its implications.


CONTENDERS: Thrive, Magic, Simplify, Forward, Balance, Prosperous, Diligent, Ease, Grace, Fearless, Capable, Audacious, Unstoppable, Warrior, Bad ass.

Wait just a minute: Might need to add unstoppable badass warrior.

I’m on it.

Wishing you the best year possible.

See you in 2022

Keep dreaming, stay focused, and write like your life depends on it.

Happy Yule

Written By: Jessica Morrell - Dec• 21•21

Wishing all a lovely Solstice as the light returns.

Use Brain Science for Better Writing Results

Written By: Jessica Morrell - Dec• 07•21

Foggy, drizzly weather here in the Pacific Northwest. Last night I stepped out onto my porch to see if the moon was visible. The current moon phase is a waxing crescent. Low clouds had moved in obscuring the moon and stars, the air was cold enough to be bracing, and snow was falling in the higher evaluations.  Walking into a coldish reality is such an easy jolt to the senses.

I came back indoors and sat for a minute replaying the night scene I’d just witnessed.  Deliberately storing it away. Do you do this too? Small habits and tweaks can be so useful to writers. If you stop to focus on things that are important to you, it sharpens your perceptions and teaches your brain what you value.

I’m always  gleaning information and trying to understand how the brain and nervous system work. I’m learning that it’s easy to use the latest neuroscience research and you can too.

The brain works hard to protect humans from risk. Risk assessment happens via the reticular activating system, a gatekeeper between your conscious and unconscious mind. It filters through all the information coming in from your sensory organs including possible dangers, then reacts.  But the RAS has many tasks. It  manages what information {stimulus} you receive, arousal, and motivation. Which as you can imagine, is a huge job, but the brain has so many responsibilities such as regulating the body and creating memories. The RAS is located in the brain stem, the most primitive part of our brain. It is responsible for fight-or-flight responses, our wakefulness, and ability to focus.  It shapes how we perceive our world, dangers and all.

Our brain is inundated with millions of messages whenever we’re awake. Without the RAS we’d be overloaded with stimulus, our heads noisy and cluttered, always on the alert, never able to focus. When messages slip past the reticular activating system, they become conscious thoughts, emotions, or both. So again, the RAS works to keep us safe and sane in a sometimes dangerous world.

Learning about the RAS means writers can tap into its powers. It can helps us focus, remember, and achieve  goals. One simple trick is to focus on what you want to achieve, not on what you cannot do. Or what is clouding your attention. Stop worrying about the extra five pounds you’ve gained, or gray hairs and wrinkles, and how your neighbor doesn’t mow his lawn. Stop telling yourself your latest chapter or draft sucks.  The RAS listens to our signals and prioritizes the ones that are most important. If you focus on negative thoughts, the RAS will deliver more reasons to worry and fret.  So, feed your RAS signals that are most helpful to your writing goals. Spend time mulling over your stories instead of fretting about them,  imagining that your characters are hanging out with you. Search for the good in your work and life and the RAS will notice. And you’ll be creating new neural pathways.

What I love about studying the brain is how possible it is to change our thoughts,  the way we see the world, and ultimately our brains. Because we can train and reset our brains. Another reason to learn about the reticular activating system is that it can help us focus when we most need to focus. The RAS can filter out the white noise of your life while you write away.

So, let me repeat  this easy hack if you don’t already employ it: Take mental snapshots throughout your days. But don’t focus on sights only–weave in all your senses. Last night I could hear the wind in the trees and smell wood smoke which has natural cozy associations which further imprinted the moment in my memory. As a developmental editor, I help writers in many ways, including layering in sensory data to make their stories more immersive.

Let me give you a quick example. Charles Frazier’s Cold Mountain–one of the most immersive novels I’ve ever read–has two main characters separated by war. New to the Cold Mountain region, Ada, a minister’s daughter and genteel lady,  is struggling to survive the Civil War after her father dies. Trouble is, she has no practical survival skills and is slowly starving, but too proud to ask for help. Which is when another young woman, Ruby, comes into her life and teaches her the exhausting array of skills and tasks needed to keep them fed and warm. After Ruby’s arrival, gone are Ada’s mornings of sleeping in. Here’s a small segment of Ada adjusting to Ruby’s new regime:

So Ada would walk down to the kitchen in her robe and sit in the chair in the warm stove corner and wrap her hands around a cup of coffee. Through the window the day would be starting to take shape, grey and loose in its features. Even on days that would eventually proved to be clear, Ada could seldom make out even the palings of the fence around the kitchen garden through the fog. At some point Ruby would blow out the yellow light of the lamp and the kitchen would go dim and then the light from outside would rise and fill the room. It seemed a thing of such wonder to Ada, who had not witnessed many dawns.  Cold Mountain, Charles Frazier

There are only a few simple details here, yet the sense of dawn arriving is powerful, isn’t it? And it’s Frazier demonstrating the beginning of her character arc.

Think in pictures, vignettes, and scenes so you can re-create them on the page.  Strive to always capture meaningful moments.  This is why it helps to stop time whenever possible by focusing your attention, deliberately storing images. Train yourself to become a visual thinker. If you’re ‘not a visual type’, then study how other people do it from advertisers to public speakers. Pay attention to your dreams and write them down if possible. Take notes on books you read, films you watch, hikes  you take.

And work at giving your RAS a jolt from time to time like stepping out into a cold night. Play music to either soothe or energize while you write. Recently I suggested here that like me, you visit a library or bookstore, go to the shelf where your future books will be housed, and imagine your titles there. It’s a simple trick to cue your reticular activating system. Vivid, clear intentions communicate to your conscious mind which in turn communicates to your RAS and subconscious. In turn, they help you achieve goals because they expect the goals to happen.

Keep writing, keep dreaming, have heart



Written By: Jessica Morrell - Dec• 01•21

Written By: Jessica Morrell - Nov• 29•21

Think of everything that happens at the very beginning of a story: The reader makes decisions about the story. They haven’t yet committed to completing it and they are feeling their way around how much they want to commit. Your reader is not a penniless and weary traveler who will be happy to take any bed you can offer. They are discerning, with plenty of money for a night’s sleep and if you show them something uninspired, they’re off to the next inn. You have to work to get them to stay with you.” – Brandi Reissenweber

We live by stories

Written By: Jessica Morrell - Nov• 28•21

We tell stories. We tell stories to pass the time, to leave the world for awhile, or go more deeply into it. We tell stories to heal the pain of living. ~Niall Williams

Wishing you a lovely day of gratitude

Written By: Jessica Morrell - Nov• 25•21

I hope kindness, laughter, and comfort is found at your table today.

And I hope the many words you’ve harvested find a home in your readers’ hearts.

Written By: Jessica Morrell - Nov• 24•21

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