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.