Jessica Page Morrell is the author of The Writer’s I Ching: Wisdom for the Creative Life, Voices from the Street, Between the Lines: Master The Subtle Elements of Fiction Writing, and Writing Out the Storm. Additionally, in 2009 Dear Bad Writer: A Compassionate Guide for Avoiding the Rejection Pile will be published by Tarcher-Penguin.
Morrell works as a developmental editor and teaches writers through a series of workshops in the Northwest, at writing conferences throughout North America, and at Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington. She hosts a Web site at www.writing-life.com, and she’s written a monthly column about topics related to writing since 1998 that currently appears in The Willamette Writer. She also writes a monthly e-mail newsletter, The Writing Life, and a Web log, The Writing Life Too. She lives in Portland, where she is surrounded by writers.
What piece of advice have you received over the course of your career that has had the biggest impact on your success?
About 10 years ago when I was discouraged about working as a writer because I’d been dealt a harsh blow, an editor in a publishing house told me that she believed that we (writers) don’t choose writing, that it chooses us. Once I accepted that truth, and that this is the only thing I want to do with my life, it seemed easier to bear the various trials of getting published and writing every day.
What message do you find yourself repeating over and over to writers?
Read critically and widely. Last year I was teaching at a conference and was asked to critique manuscript segments written by conference participants. Three of the writers were writing for young adults and all three were retired and in their 60s. The first thing that I noticed was that their stories seemed dated and out of touch with contemporary lifestyles, language, issues, and sensibilities. When I asked each of them if they read young adult novels, they all said no or that they had read them when they were kids—about fifty years ago.
At the same conference I was teaching a workshop on memoir writing. There were about fifty writers in the class and when I asked how many were writing memoirs they all raised their hands. When I asked how many had read ten memoirs, about twenty people raised their hands. When I asked how many had read twenty memoirs, no one raised their hands.
Not only do you need to read the sort of book you’re writing, but also you need to sample all sorts of approaches, genres, voices. Keep asking yourself about the choices the author made in technique, style and voice. Notice the pacing techniques; when he or she moves in and out of time and why; how themes are expressed. Notice the intimacy with which the author reveals the characters and how inner conflict is expressed. Notice how quickly authors slip in and out of scenes and how scenes are based on conflict.
What’s the worst kind of mistake that new writers, freelancers, or book authors can make?
Two things stand out for me. First, beginners often don’t understand the underpinnings of narrative structure, especially the three-act structure and how plot points work, how the opening needs a powerful hook, and the mid-point needs a reversal. So read all you can on structure, including scene structure.
Second, too many writers don’t pay enough attention to language, voice and style. They use pallid or passive verbs, they don’t use figurative language or sprinkle their manuscripts with unexpected pleasures of language. Often there is a sort of flatness in their writing style, or the writing is littered with clichés or trite expressions, or is simply written with a limited vocabulary. I always urge writers not to pile on modifiers—it’s a big give away that you’re an amateur. Instead, choose only a few modifiers that hammer home meaning and prefer solid nouns and verbs in your sentences.
What’s the one thing you can’t live without in your writing life?
There is probably no one thing I cannot live without except for my computer. It feels like an extension of my brain, so I cannot imagine writing without it, although I admire people who write longhand and I also jot in notebooks all the time, especially when I traveling or at the Oregon coast. I also am surrounded by stacks of books, need Earl Grey tea and a radio tuned to NPR or Air America as I work.
What does a typical day look like for you?
I write every day—first thing in the morning. So I typically rise at six and walk into my office and switch on my computer then walk downstairs and start water boiling for tea. Listening to the morning news, I begin writing as the sun rises and keep at it until about 11 or so. I usually begin my writing day by lightly editing something I wrote the day before—this way my first draft is actually a second draft. This also means that instead of giving in to doubts or anxiety when I first sit down to write, that I focus on refinement. Thus, before I know it, I move beyond editing and I’m writing away, instead of worrying about what I should say and how I should say it.
Since I usually work in my pajamas or bathrobe (hoping the doorbell won’t ring) at midday I shower, exercise, eat lunch, run errands. I typically spend my afternoons working on an editing project or prepping for an upcoming workshop, or taking care of the business side of writing. Sometimes when I’m on a deadline I write all day.
When I don’t go out for the evening I try to take a long walk at dusk so I can watch the various colors of the sky. Pacific air is often moving into Portland around dusk and often the sky looks like a huge Matisse canvass. I also find that I get my best ideas while walking so I try to walk as often as possible.
If you could change one thing about publishing, what would it be?
Hmm … good question. I guess it would be nice if there would be more access. Sometimes it just seems that it’s extremely difficult to reach the people in publishing and that the whole process takes so much time and effort simply to slide a foot in the door.
In what way (if any) has your writing/publishing life changed in the past 5 years?
Now that I have books published I receive more emails from strangers—sometimes this is lovely, sometimes it’s quite odd since it seems as if people think I’m a sort of free advice columnist.
I have more confidence in myself as a writer than I did ten years ago—I know that I can handle a large project, that I can show up at for the page day after day, that I can handle problems in my life so that they don’t interfere with my writing. I also realize that I have good ideas and a solid knowledge with which to approach my subjects.
Since I teach at writing conferences I also meet many interesting writers of all sorts including fairly famous authors. It’s always helpful to learn how other writers solve problems and face the same issues that I do.
Also, the Internet is becoming a better and more accurate resource for research and general information. Blogs are becoming the new journalism of our day and feature so many fascinating voices—I read them fairly regularly to keep my finger on the pulse of our times.
Do you have any advice for new writers on fostering a strong author/editor relationship?
Deadlines are sacred. Act like a pro, be respectful of editors’ time and resources since they’re notoriously overworked, and pick your battles. You probably cannot win every skirmish during the copyediting and proofreading stage. Also realize that most manuscripts improve by tightening, so accept that reality.
What do you see as your biggest publishing accomplishment?
Well, I’m working on my sixth book now and I try to write about things that matter. I have a genuine compassion for and desire to help writers because I know how difficult writing is and how easy it is to go astray. In my book Between the Lines and my new book, Bullies, Bastards & Bitches: How to Write the Bad Guys in Fiction, I tried to write about topics that don’t receive a lot of coverage in other books about craft. For example, I wrote about prologues and epilogues in Between the Lines, because writers asked me about them all the time and it seemed that the subject need more elucidation, as did other topics in the book. In the Bullies book I wrote a lot about anti-heroes because they’re the changing face of fiction and I wanted writers to really think about their potential in stories.
I meet a lot of writers and often hear them parrot advice they’ve heard over the years like “you should never use flashbacks.” Much of this advice is nonsense or misunderstood so I’m trying to steer writers toward some sensible middle ground, trying to explain how to apply craft. At the same time I also urge writers to take risks—not every protagonist needs to be likeable or heroic. Not every ending needs to be sunshine and bliss.
Any final thoughts?
Write from your passions, whatever that means for you. If something fascinates you, enrages you, worries you, find a way to put it into words.
To learn more about Jessica’s book check out Bullies, Bastards & Bitches!
Read an Excerpt!
Examine the characteristics of an anti-hero and what sets them apart from heroes. Find the keys to successfully defining and developing your anti-hero!