Friday, October 11, 2019

JESSICA PAGE MORRELL



Interview with JESSICA PAGE MORRELL

Jessica Page Morrell understands both sides of the editorial desk--as an editor and an author. She has written several books on the craft of writing, and she works as a developmental editor where she has learned how to quickly size up a story’s merits. Jessica lives in Portland, where she is surrounded by writers.

What are you reading right now?

I usually have several books in progress, also read a fair number of short stories and am currently reading Dorothy Allison’s collection TRASH. I believe short stories can teach us so much about crafting fiction. I call it fiction on a budget—sort of like film shorts. We can note which details the author homed in on, especially to establish the main story problem or situation, the protagonist’s key traits, voice, setting, and atmosphere. I also listen to The New Yorker podcast where short stories are read from the magazine. Really relaxing way to end the day before I nod off to sleep.

I’m also reading RIVER OF DOUBT: THEODORE ROOSEVELT’S DARKEST JOURNEY by Candice Millard. It’s about Roosevelt’s exploratory trip on a tributary of the Amazon after he lost his bid for the presidency as a third-party candidate. It’s a great story to read while there’s an international conversation about what true leadership means. I’m also re-reading Daniel Woodrell’s TOMATO RED because it’s freaking brilliant and Woodrell creates indelible characters and story worlds.    

What first sparked your interest in writing and editing?

I’ve been interested in writing since I was a kid, was an avid reader, and wrote poems and stories. In fifth grade our oddball teacher, Mr. Becker, tuned in an old radio in the back of the classroom to a public radio show for young writers. The woman’s voice was as old and creaky as a haunted house, and she’d assign weekly stories. One assignment was to create a story about a monster with a far-out name; and once I read about my shambling creature in front of the class and was met with approval, I was truly hooked. I took journalism classes in high school and edited a column in two local newspapers and created a literary magazine.

 I moved to Portland, Oregon in 1991 and landed an editing job with a local publisher in about 1996. The publisher was a former magazine journalist for major magazines and while working for him I learned a lot about copyediting and how to rewrite inaccurate and unformed writing. Gradually I was assigned fiction titles and learned how to work closely with authors to create a better story. Somewhere along the way they laid me off because of a company downturn and I started my own editing gig.

Before I worked as editor, I wrote a suspense novel and submitted it to an editor at a publishing house. The editor sent me a rejection letter that began “this is the hardest letter I’ve ever written” and explained why he was rejecting it. It was a blow, but I made up my mind to learn everything there was to learn about writing fiction. By this time I was also in love with teaching writers and passing on what I learned to other writers.   

What do you love the most about writing? The least? What about editing?

I love so much about writing, but maybe these days it’s how writing makes me feel doubly alive and gives me a means to indulge and explore my love of language. It’s also a repository of my general wonder at this planet and fellow humans. The least favorite would be the physical toll. Sitting a lot and typing a lot just causes eye strain, neck and back pain, and such. I’m not able to settle in and write for long swaths because I need to get up and stretch and move.

Editing is simply a satisfying endeavor. I love helping writers become better writers and good writers get published. My least favorite part of it is writing memos to writers to explain why their stories or techniques just aren’t working and why they need to rethink their approach. I jokingly call myself the Angel of Death, but the truth is, every time I return a manuscript to a writer I’m a little sick. 

Tell us a little about your writing process as well as your editing process.

I’ve been writing so long that I don’t have a lot of problems with starting or jumping back into a project. I also have a backlog of ideas and projects. I carry notebooks with me at all times where I jot down ideas and I’ve trained myself to be able to write anytime, anywhere. I used to be an early morning writer and believed those were the only hours I could write at my best level. I struggle with being distractible so I give myself little rewards along the way. I also have a document open on my laptop or computer most of the time that I call my Commonplace Book and I start a new one every season. It’s another place I jot down language, ideas, inspirations—usually snippets I find online while I’m researching or reading. And all this capturing of ideas and snippets is simply fun and reminds me to be observant, listening in at all times.

As for editing—with new clients I start the process by reading a sample and learning where the writer is at with his or her skill level and what his/her goals are. I work in Word’s Track Changes program and start with a read-through and quick edit. As I’m reading I open a document and start noting what’s working and the gaps and issues that are in the way. This will become a detailed memo—usually 10-25 single-spaced pages. After I’ve figured out the main problems, I delve back into the trouble spots—usually going through the entire manuscript twice and certain scenes three or four times, and really dig in with copyediting, revisions, and comments in the right-hand column of the document. It’s laborious and I like to mull over every story for about 3 weeks so that solutions can start taking shape as I work along. Some of these occur as I’m drifting off to sleep or going for a walk. This means I don’t take on a lot of full-length manuscripts in a year, but I also edit short stories and lately have been working on a kids’ book series. And I work on nonfiction from memoirs to business books. It’s a meaningful gig.

What are your passions?

Gardening, cooking, politics, hiking in the Pacific Northwest, taking in stories in all forms such as attending the theater, history, and art. And the Green Bay Packers—I grew up about 100 miles from Green Bay. Three years ago I bought a small fixer-upper with a long-neglected yard. I’m working at rehabilitating both. This year I grew more than a dozen tomato plants.  This means I’m busy harvesting tomatoes, giving some away, creating roasted sauces to freeze, and finding new ways to eat tomatoes at most meals. Last night it was roasted cherry tomatoes with scallops.  
About 15 years ago I started a picking garden because I need fresh flowers in my house and growing flowers, especially dahlias, brings me great joy. My secret wish is to be a flower farmer.  I began cooking when I was eight, was in the restaurant/food business, and became a food writer so I’m always inventing and trying new recipes. Currently I’m creating a cookbook for my oldest granddaughter of our favorite recipes. I spend too much time on Pinterest collecting recipes, rehabbing and garden ideas. HGTV and Brit gardening and cooking shows are my guilty pleasures.

I’d always planned on going back to college to study history and political science when I retired, but retirement might never happen. So I decided to start learning from home and have been taking Great Courses and listening to podcasts on topics that fascinate me. For the past year I’ve been studying the history of English and it’s been so enriching. I’m also studying how history, food, and culture intersect. A few years ago I was in Dublin and was blown away by the Viking display at the National Museum of History and have also been studying their fascinating history.
I’ve been interested in politics since I was a teenager, subscribe to a variety of newspapers and magazines, often have CSPAN and MSNBC on in the background when I’m puttering around, am part of the Resistance, and am volunteering to elect progressives in 2020.

What inspires you?

I find inspiration everywhere. Then there’s reading, of course. Poetry, especially reading poems first thing in the morning. Forests with old growth. Writers’ conferences.  Bookstores.  The endless Pacific. Perusing writer’s blogs and Twitter feeds. Farmer’s markets, gardens, film, hanging out with children, country drives and exploring Oregon, inventors, attending the theater and concerts, long deep conversations with old friends, wandering around new towns and cities, any activity that allows my mind to roam free. I’m also big on wandering around in neighborhoods and simply paying attention, wondering about the people who live there.   

Why write books about writing?

I started teaching writers in 1991 and over the next five years or so I’d run into students all over Portland. We’d meet in checkout lines or at music venues or farmer’s markets and we’d chat and these former students would enthuse about my classes and all he/she learned. Then I’d ask what seemed to me the obvious next question: So how’s your writing going? And most of them confessed that they weren’t writing. They’d stopped writing when the class ended.  It was borderline heartbreaking. It set me thinking and asking people about why they did not write even though they wanted to write. This led to my first book WRITING OUT THE STORM, which is one of those get-off-your-butt-and-freaking-just-write books. It addressed how most people who avoid writing are afraid to write and simple ways to sneak past those fears.

I wrote more books about writing because I saw gaps that needed filling. For example, I noticed that would-be fiction writers needed to focus more on the subtler aspects of the craft. I noticed the rise of the anti-hero across all storytelling platforms and it seemed few people were talking about it. And as much as I love teaching, I realized I could reach more writers by creating books instead of teaching live, even when I had the chance to address hundreds at a writing conference.
I also write about writing because I believe the world needs more stories. More shared realities. More truths from marginalized people and working-class people and people we’ll never get to meet except on a page. So that our shared humanity can make sense, can unite instead of divide us.  

Do you have genres that you prefer editing? Are they the same ones you prefer reading?

I try to read widely and keep up on publishing trends. I regularly read first chapters online because I don’t have as much time to read as I’d like. In the past 10 years or so I’ve become particularly interested in dystopian fiction because it’s so easy to envision as this country and the planet are teetering towards disaster with icebergs melting and oceans warming.

I’ve probably worked the most with suspense and thriller manuscripts and they’re a lot of fun because I like helping assemble and arrange the puzzle pieces and make sure that tension shivers and whispers beneath everything. I love the challenge of editing historical fiction because I have an ear for period dialogue and a nose for using accurate period details. Well, maybe not nose. But I’m a curious person and have always paid attention to the smallest details. I want the stories to transport readers into another time and place, a place that’s pulsating with authenticity and redolent with smells of the era, lit by candlelight or lamplight so that readers can sense the shadows and hush and backbreaking toil before household gadgets and technology, all without it becoming a dissertation. Same goes for world building in fantasy and science fiction. Horror is fun to edit, also a cool challenge, but man, it’s hard to get right.

Do you have advice for aspiring authors?

First, harden up. Writing is a meaningful but tough life.  Start out humble and stay humble. Learn structure. While not glamorous, the more you understand the underpinnings of storytelling, the easier it will be to write.

Keep it simple. Most beginning writers overwrite and add dollops and modifiers and digressions. Every word in every sentence needs a job to do. If not, fire it.  

If you hate marketing, don’t want to maintain a website, and somehow promote yourself on social media, then it might be best to back out now. These days writing requires reaching out.  I’ve met countless authors who complain about how they hate marketing—they’re usually the same ones who also complain about poor book sales. There are way too many people willing to Instagram and tweet and post on Facebook to take your place. There are way too many people with high social media profiles. Publishers want to publish them, because their followers are likely to buy their books. Sad as it might sound, you’re creating a product. As the creator of a product, you need to find people who want your product. This doesn’t diminish what you do; separate you from your passions and artist’s sensibility. Storytelling in all forms is an important contribution to the world. Having a social media presence doesn’t negate that.   

Listen. Stop defending your work, your plot, and your pantsing approach. Instead listen to writers and editors who are more experienced than you. Along that line, search out mentors. If you live in small town or remote place, find these writers online. Pay attention to how writers build their careers. If possible, hang out with other writers. No one else will understand you the way writers do. If possible, take part in a critique group or find a way to receive intelligent, unbiased feedback.

Expand your vocabulary. Word gathering and collecting adds up and pays off.  Create word lists. Fill notebooks. Keep a running list of potent verbs on your phone. Snatch up metaphors. Start now if you already haven’t made this a lifelong habit.

Go through your days looking for deeper meaning and truths.

Stay true to yourself.

The more you write the more you write. It’s a muscle thing—keep at it. If your writing practice is scant or shaky, make writing a priority. Be ruthless, laser-focused, and smart with your time.

And speaking of time—it’s the main commodity you’ll never have enough of. Or at least it will feel that way. Protect your writing time or schedule, like you’re protecting a babe from slavering wolves.

Is there anything else you’d like to tell us about yourself?

If I can write books, so can you. I’ve written books while recovering from a head injury, while juggling three jobs, while my back ached, and my heart was breaking. Life can go to hell or become seriously complicated in an instant—illness, accident, death in the family, colicky babies who won’t sleep. In the midst of chaos, try to keep notes about how you’re coping, feeling, grieving. Some of these potent, raw emotions can become your richest treasures. But capture them. And sometimes you’ll find that writing, despite or through hard circumstances, just might save you, hold you up.       


Friday, October 4, 2019

The Artist’s Way Program: Week 6


The Artist’s Way Program: Week 6, Recovering a Sense of Abundance

This is a series of blog posts following my experiences doing Julia Cameron’s 12-week Artist’s Way program. If this series is new to you, feel free to read the original book review first.

This week’s theme of “recovering a sense of abundance” really means “let’s talk money.” Most importantly, Cameron is not pushing some spend-everything-in-the-name-of-art-and-go-bust agenda, so those of you whose hackles lifted at “money” (mine did) can relax now. Instead she discusses how money can be one of the bigger practical concerns blocking creative impulses. Along the lines of avoiding an all-or-nothing mindset, Cameron pushes her readers to find that balance between exploring their creativity without being financially irresponsible to themselves or their loved ones. She understands that we all have different financial means, but she does ask you to consider whether there’s any reasonable wiggle room in your budget for even a small creative indulgence now and again.

I had fun with a lot of the assignments this week. “Money madness” is another fill-in-the-blank exercise, this one specifically exploring your own attitudes towards money. I also liked disposing of five ratty pieces of clothing. I strongly agree that clutter can be its own kind of creative block, and it’s another good mindfulness practice: periodically assessing what you actually need and want among your possessions and discarding everything else. I loved baking something, although in confession I do that most every week, anyway, since I’m teaching myself gluten-free baking. But this week is was an official assignment! And my morning pages have become a natural habit by now. They’re easy and even quite relaxing at times, though I do still struggle filling a whole three pages.

I didn’t much like the task of finding five pretty rocks and five pretty flowers. I did the assignment, but—um—just didn’t much see the point. There’s also a subtle philosophy difference here. I’m not wild about removing something from its place. Noticing pretty rocks and flowers is one thing, but I would rather observe them and then leave them where they belong than take them for myself. This week also had us rereading the Basic Principles every day again. I obliged Cameron, but I still find them sweet gibberish. Same with synchronicity. I haven’t written about it again, although Cameron brings up the concept every week, because my attitude hasn’t changed at all. Suffice it to say I never gained much from the whole synchronicity concept throughout the entire 12-week program.

Money is one of life’s biggest issues, from lots of angles. Biggest general stress. Biggest source of relationship tension. Biggest decisions. So it’s no surprise that it’s one of the biggest factors in blocking creativity. But the fact is that you don’t need to be rich to be creative. Money (and time) are major limiting factors and it’s disappointing to settle for a lesser version of what you “dream-want,” but there are ways to explore your interests that are reasonably within your means.
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Friday, September 27, 2019

POISON

Review of POISON by SARAH PINBOROUGH
(first in the TALES FROM THE KINGDOMS series)

POISON markets itself as a dark (“wicked”) fairytale retelling, and that it is. Despite the elegant hardcover packaging, this is no sweet story twist for younger readers. Though twisted motivations are hardly new in fairy tales, even the kiddy versions, you’ll find a bit more gore and lust in this one.

POISON retells “Snow White.” The bones of the story feel very familiar: a cruel stepmother queen, a beautiful young princess, seven dwarf friends. However, Snow White has a wild streak and her stepmother’s hatred has an unexpected root cause. There’s a dark happily-ever-after of sorts, but really only for one person and likely not the one you expect.

Despite being such a short book, Pinborough brings a familiar story to life in a new twist with vivid, sensual writing and intriguing, imperfect characters.

Friday, September 20, 2019

DAILY LIFE IN VICTORIAN ENGLAND


Review of DAILY LIFE IN VICTORIAN ENGLAND by SALLY MITCHELL

I’ve been reading dozens of books about and written during the Victorian era as research for a series of short stories that I’m writing. A lot of what I’m reading would only appeal to the researcher or hardcore Victorian era aficionado. However, with some of them, such as DAILY LIFE IN VICTORIAN ENGLAND, I see a mass appeal for anyone interested in learning a little more about this era.

The other Victorian era books that I’ve reviewed so far organized their content by either room or time of day. This one is a bit more classically organized, with chapters such as “A Brief History,” “House, Food, and Clothes,” “Education,” and “Victorian Morality.” The logic is natural and easy to follow with strong, accessible writing as well as interesting excerpts from era material. I especially liked the entry from Queen Victoria’s diary the day her uncle died. She was young, but, of course, groomed for this role all her life, and she sounds admirably mature for any age but especially her mere eighteen years.

This is the third book about the Victorian era that I’ve reviewed. Unless you have a particular interest in the subject matter, I think you’ll be content reading any one of them. This one I found more traditionally organized, but most distinctive for the excerpts the author chose to include as well as a few less common topics, tangents, and unexpected facts.
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Friday, September 13, 2019

The Artist’s Way Program: Week 5


The Artist’s Way Program: Week 5, Recovering a Sense of Possibility

This is a series of blog posts following my experiences doing Julia Cameron’s 12-week Artist’s Way program. If this series is new to you, feel free to read the original book review first.

Week 5 focuses on “recovering a sense of possibility.” Cameron discusses this concept of “being blocked” repeatedly, which I interpret as holding yourself back from what you really want out of some type of fear. This week has us examining those fears. For the first four weeks, we spent a lot of time exploring our interests: activities we miss, activities we would like to try. Week 5 starts asking hard questions about why we aren’t doing those things then. From there, Cameron pushes you to assess whether or not yours reasons are valid. Tying into mindfulness again, she also urges against all-or-nothing thinking. So you won’t be an Olympic gymnast. Doesn’t mean you can’t take a few beginner gymnastics classes (or yoga or Pilates if you need something gentler). Find small ways you can introduce ambitious activities or interests. For that matter, think of it as exploration, not mastery.

Cameron also introduces what she calls the “virtue trap,” to which I could relate. To paraphrase her description, the virtue trap is the sense that we become noble martyrs by sacrificing our creative yearnings for the more practical responsibilities in life. We feel virtuous for this sacrifice, but Cameron argues it is entirely unnecessary. By allowing ourselves to pursue our creative yearnings, especially in small, manageable increments, we will likely become happier and more relaxed, which makes practical responsibilities easier to handle, anyway. There can be an up-front cost: telling your partner/children/friends you need some time for yourself. However, I subscribe to the old adage that you can’t take care of others until you take care of yourself.

I also resonated with Cameron’s discussion of belief. She claims most of us are suspicious of belief, more specifically hope. It’s too out of our control. Hope feels scary and dangerous. What if we let ourselves hope and dream and believe, only to be massively disappointed? Cameron argues that hope can be empowering. That it’s a strength, rather than the naïve weakness it’s sometimes labelled.

This week had more fill-in-the-blank exercises and I always enjoy those. I find surprises sometimes pop up in my answers. I liked the virtue trap quiz that encourages analysis of how you might fall into this trap’s fallacy as well as the “I wish” list that simply has you finish that sentence about twenty times.  

I'm starting to like the morning pages a little. I’m not a total convert, but I don’t dislike them anymore. On the other hand, I love my artist date every week and have no doubt that will be a continuing tradition for me. This week I organized my recipes. That may not sound like creative fun to most, but I’m one of those oddballs who loves organizing, listing, tidying, planning. Since discovering I’m Celiac, I’ve been exploring gluten-free cooking and baking and I wanted to consolidate my recipes in one place, especially because I often make my own adjustments to the original. So now, after trying a new recipe and deciding I like it, I type it up using the same format for all, make my own adjustments and list where the original is from, note any variations I want to try, add a photo from when I made it if I took one, and add approximate nutrition facts from a helpful calculation tool I found online. All the information I want how I want it and consolidated in one place!

As I mentioned in my original review, one of my biggest doubts about trying this program is that it’s pitched as a program to help “unblock blocked creatives” and I never considered myself blocked in the first place. This week has you ask yourself what the “payoff” is in staying blocked. That felt less relevant to me, but I do think I’ve been “blocked” in other non-writing areas, convinced I only had enough time in the day to pursue that one creative thing. The payoff for me has mostly been staying in my comfort zone. I’m very much a creature of habit and will often opt for same over new even if new is clearly better. Trying anything new involves taking a risk and possibly failing at something. Since the program is very much about mindful self-reflection, I’ve been working on internalizing the mantra that failure is merely an integral part of success. Sometimes failure is proof of trying.
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Friday, September 6, 2019

THE FIRST YEAR: CELIAC DISEASE


Review of THE FIRST YEAR: CELIAC DISEASE AND LIVING GLUTEN-FREE: AN ESSENTIAL GUIDE FOR THE NEWLY DIAGNOSED by JULES E. DOWLER SHEPARD

Back in May 2018, I discovered I have Celiac disease. This was huge. I could do posts and posts about my experience; I could fill another entire blog about it. I may at some point start blogging about that experience, but for now I want to stick to book reviews and author interviews. However, don’t be surprised when some reviews of gluten-free cookbooks and the odd Celiac experience memoir start popping in among my already eclectic book reviews.

To share a brief summary of my experience, I have had health issues my entire life: inexplicable unresolvable health issues, the two biggest being a mysteriously ineffective immune system and a lifetime of nutrition deficiencies regardless of how well I ate or what supplements I took. Not counting a few outliers, most of my 30+ Celiac symptoms are really secondary symptoms of these two things: poor nutrient absorption and a terrible immune system. As for the “outliers,” from the moment I could talk I complained about stomach pain. My mother took me to every specialist she could find, they tested me for every food allergy they could (gluten wasn’t on people’s radar back then), and ultimately doctors started telling me the pain was in my head: the stomach aches are stress, I get sick all the time because of stress, just calm down. To make a long story short, in May 2018 I discovered that gluten is the source of all my issues. I went gluten-free—and while it has been intensely difficult and emotional in some ways—I feel better than I have my entire life, better than I knew human beings could feel.

That all said, I’m way late to reading this book! As the title implies, this book is designed for newly diagnosed Celiacs to help guide them through their first tough year and the often painful learning curve. The book breaks down topics by time frame—one month in, two months in, etc, —but I didn’t start this book until nine months after my diagnosis. I would love to say it’s because I didn’t know this book existed, but in truth it was some combination of lazy, busy, and underestimating how helpful the book would be for me. Once I started reading it, I definitely wanted to kick myself for not purchasing it the moment I came home from the doctor in May 2018.  

This book could have saved me a lot of trouble from learning things the hard way. Some of the issues Celiacs encounter include: concisely explaining the disease and your complicated individual-specific symptoms, eating out at restaurants or in other social settings, battling standard food allergy misconceptions and prejudice (and Celiac disease is technically an autoimmune disorder rather than a food allergy, but I and others are often taught to just say “food allergy” to help clarify that we cannot eat gluten), reading and researching labels, reacting to processed food labelled “gluten-free” either because of cross contamination or because some Celiacs can react to levels of gluten lower than what the US requires for products to be labelled “gluten-free,” learning to shop and cook and eat and entirely think about food differently, cross contamination in shared kitchens, secondary health issues, and then, of course, handling symptoms when you do “get glutened.”

Aside from specific advice or tips, the book is immensely valuable as emotional support for those newly diagnosed. Your struggle can feel very lonely and like those around you don’t understand. Reading about other people battling the same difficult-to-explain issues is extremely validating. Take the following quote: “The first few times I went grocery shopping were devasting. I remember standing in the aisles, crying.” It’s a quote from the book, but I could have written it myself. I didn’t actually cry, but I do recall halting my cart, welling up, and taking a moment to collect myself. It’s overwhelming going overnight from toss-anything-you-want-into-the-cart to read-every-single-label, research-products-on-phone, and can’t-eat-old-favorites. For the first few visits, grocery shopping took me 1-2 hours spent in the store, figuring out what I can and can’t eat now and growingly increasingly discouraged by the long list of “no.”  

If you’re a self-reliant person, it can be all too easy to think you don’t “need” a book like this, but I would highly recommend it to every newly diagnosed Celiac. In addition to the insight and advice about managing your condition, the emotional support is invaluable.  


Friday, August 30, 2019

ANIMAL EARTH


Review of ANIMAL EARTH: THE AMAZING DIVERSITY OF LIVING CREATURES by ROSS PIPER

I borrowed this book from the library to do some wide-net research into animals my own writing. I found some material relevant for my novel, but mostly I encountered a wealth of information that’s simply fascinating.

This book covers all animals, not merely what we tend to mean when we say “animal.” ANIMAL EARTH gives equal attention to every branch of known animal lineages, summarizing our current understanding of each. Especially when you get into all the microscopic beings hiding within our world, the mind marvels at the sheer number of complex and underappreciated creatures. 

Each section starts with a brief summary of that class, including diversity (approximate number of species) and size range. These statistical breakdowns are a very helpful and interesting snapshot. Then the section goes on to discuss each creature’s form, lifestyle (which focuses primarily on feeding and mating), and origin. The discussions of digestion and reproduction particularly intrigued me…and made me grateful I’m human.

Though learning towards text heavy, this book features some incredible photos. (The book tends to have photo pages and text pages. While there are plenty of photos, they don't really break up the large blocks of text that much.) That said, the full page close up of a jumping spider on page 8 will haunt me.