Replacing a broken refrigerator kicked off a mini-makeover for my kitchen. What’s that got to do with writing? As it happens, quite a lot. (Feature image by 955169 from Pixabay.)
Although we felt like we mostly “solved” the refrigerator issue, some additional updates were necessary (primarily to the wiring[*] but we needed a plumbing line, too). Underneath the old fridge hid another mess: the old fridge leaked then cooked water onto our avocado linoleum, making it looked like fruit gone to rot.[†] Behind the fridge lurked yellowing plaster walls, gobbed with fossilized glue[‡] that abruptly gave way to the brick backsplash. There was some good news, though. With the warmer days and strict quarantine ending, we could throw open the windows and invite the contractors in to install the new floors, pipes, and wires.
Another Change in Plans, or, as My Spouse Calls It, Project Creep
Realizing we had a month before the refrigerator delivery, my spouse uncharacteristically suggested that we paint the walls—meaning we would be free of (most of) the clashing wall décor.[§] Before he could change his mind, I set to work peeling off the layers of old wallpaper. Matters took a turn for the worse, however, when he pulled down the paneling. In addition to even thicker layers of old wall glue, we discovered crumbling plaster surrounding an actual hole in the wall—remnants of a past flood—and another problem for us to solve.
When it comes to home construction in general and do-it-yourself (DIY) projects in particular, all budgets, plans and timelines are viable—that is, until you open a wall and make discoveries. Similar surprises abound during the writing process. Whether you have a detailed outline or a rough mental sketch about what you want to write, pre-writing planning represents a great beginning that’s likely to include some changes (possibly, many) during the drafting process.
Early drafts, particularly the first, exist to get the ideas on the page. For this reason, they are great places to experiment with a story, whether it’s adding or subtracting different elements. Drafting, too, is where writers find various problems in the narrative. In my latest story, I ultimately cut a driving scene when I realized the story really began when the main character arrived at their destination. Regardless of how long I spent writing it, the unnecessary exposition could lose my reader’s attention. And while no one is happy to find flaws in their home’s structure or their tales, the goal is improvement. As such, drafting is an important part of the writing process.
Filling in the Finish
In the end, we replaced the damaged drywall.[**] Between contractors, we painted the walls and cheered when the new refrigerator finally arrived.[††] My spouse also surprised me with a great solution for the empty space where a fridge no longer resided: using his pandemic-acquired carpentry skills, he and a friend would build a much-needed pantry cabinet. But, for now, we were done and could admire our handiwork.
What to Do with a Void
So, how does a story end? What gaps are left? For my kitchen, it was straightforward: what would we do with the area where the old fridge once lived? Another project is in the offing (yay, pantry), but we’re loving our better looking, more functional kitchen right now. For writing, drafting is usually followed by many readthroughs and edits before the work is ready to be shared with the world. My current projects aren’t quite there yet, but I’m looking forward to completing them. In the meantime, it’s back to drafting.
Happy writing, all!
TL;DR: Replacing my broken refrigerator led to changing the kitchen layout, the floors, and repainting. Parallels to writing exist. Have a read—you’ll see what I mean.
[*]Because celebrating Christmas needn’t involve half the house’s lights shutting off when we run the dishwasher while the oven and microwave are also in use. Since the circa 195o wiring tends to get overloaded by modern appliances, the electrician (per code) put each on their own circuit.
[†] Theoretically, that spot might’ve scrubbed off—but no one liked the floor enough to save it.
[‡] Our original walling was a laminate similar to the one seen here.
[§] My spouse likes projects to have specific, limited goals to avoid project creep, while I prefer to get everything done. But neither of us wanted to sort out the built-in cabinetry during a pandemic, so we skipped doing anything near them to avoid more unplanned projects. Looks likes we’ll be living with that faux brick backsplash a bit longer!
[**] My asthmatic lungs nixed the sanding/patching approach, which tends to be time consuming when you’ve loads of material to sand away.
[††] And we only had to rip off the door trim to get it into the room! Pro tip: never trust the manufacturer’s dimensions and measure the actual unit—unless there’s a pandemic preventing you from doing so!
This year’s review features books I didn’t choose but read anyway, procrastination, and, as always, the new year’s reading list.
At this time of year, I normally like to compile a list of notable books that I’ve read over the past year as well as create a reading list for the year ahead. However, there’s been a change in plans this year, because I have already shared my shortlist of notable books from 2018 elsewhere. As you may know, I belong to the Women Writers Network, which is a volunteer group running a Twitter account that focuses on supporting and promoting women writers. Helen Taylor (one of the founder members and author of The Backstreets of Purgatory) compiled our favorite reads of 2018. Since my top six books of 2018 appear on this list (you can find the list at Helen’s web site), I thought I’d focus on some very different reading highlights from the past year before presenting my to-be-read list, which I eternally hope to complete by the year’s end regardless of how faithless I was to the previous year’s list. But I digress. Let’s get back to last year’s reading adventures.
The Alternative Reading Highlights of 2018
Over the past few years, I’ve participated in both reading and book photo challenges (you can view my entries to the Reading Women Month book photo challenge and Bookriot’s #Riotgrams here). Although I’ve never per se “won” a challenge by completing all the categories, it’s fun to see what fellow book lovers share. Generally, the highlight of my reading challenges is that they inspire me to stretch outside my reading comfort zone or discover more diverse perspectives. However, this year’s Reading Women Challenge inspired me to stop procrastinating and finish the book that’s lingered the longest on my reading list. I’m pleased to announce I finally read Woman in the Nineteenth Century by Margaret Fuller. Despite it being a more challenging read, this fascinating early feminist tract makes a strong religious argument for woman’s self-sufficiency and expanded rights. Partly inspired by Mary Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Women, Fuller’s work in turn spurred suffragists in the United States to demand the vote.
Most Unlikely to Be Read
Book challenges influence my reading greatly, as do Twitter chat suggestions and personal recommendation. One of the more whimsical books I read this year is one I wouldn’t have chosen for myself, even had any of these sources suggested it. Though a difficult to categorize book, Hannah Hart’s My Drunk Kitchen: a Guide to Eating, Drinking and Going with Your Gut proved to an enjoyable read. Part sentimental, part hilarious, part memoir, and part cookbook, it left me bemused but feeling upbeat. While I’m not sure I’d attempt some of the recipes, I’d definitely read it again.
Most Unexpected Source of Reading Recommendations
Speaking of books I wouldn’t have selected without an outside influence, I curiously have Netflix to thank for my discovering the Phryne Fisher mystery novels by Kerry Greenwood. Halfway through the first episode, I already suspected it was based on a book (Cocaine Blues), and the credits proved me right. My thoughtful spouse picked up the first three books for me, which I then read in short order. Reminiscent of Agatha Christie’s work (roughly the same period, different country, very different detective), these flapper detective novels were a great change from stuffy male detectives. Since the television series diverged a fair bit in places from their source material, I’m glad I saw it before I read it—I happen to be one of those people who usually takes a strong dislike to films/television shows when I read the book first. Either way, I intend to check out the credits in the future, in case they point me to a good book or two.
Hopefully, you’ve found some reading inspiration here, regardless of the source. Here’s to the new year and happy reading!
2019’s Reading List
That Summer in Puglia by Valeria Vescina Life of Pi by Yann Martel Black Faces, White Spaces by Carolyn Finney Barracoon: the Story of the Last “Black Cargo” by Zora Neale Hurston A Vindication of the Rights of Women by Mary Wollstonecroft Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata (Translated by Ginny Tapley Takemori) Claudine at School In: Colette: The Complete Claudine by Colette (Translated by Antonia White) Migratory Animals by Mary Helen Specht Dreams Before the Start of Time by Anne Charnock Do Not Say We Have Nothing by Madeleine Thien The Man Who Loved Books Too Much by Allison Hoover Bartlett Take Off Your Pants! Outline Your Books for Faster, Better Writing by Libbie Hawkes Pachinko by Min Jin Lee Norse Mythology by Neil Gaiman Confession of the Lioness by Mia Couto (Translated by David Brookshaw) Waymaking: an Anthology of Women’s Adventure Writing, Poetry and Art (Edited by Helen Mort, Claire Carter, Heather Dawe, and Camilla Barnard)
 My review of The Backstreets of Purgatory is here now available here! (Updated: 10 March 2019.)
 Remarkably, I only missed four, one of which was a planned re-read. For the curious, these books are Norse Mythology by Neil Gaiman, Confession of the Lioness by Mia Couto (Translated by David Brookshaw), Dreams Before the Start of Time by Anne Charnock, and Little Women by Louisa May Alcott. Little Women was my re-read, because I wanted to see if I still enjoyed it as an adult.
 In itself, a great way to get reading recommendations.
 These reading challenges include the Black History Month Reading Challenge (two books), Women in Translation Month (2 books during that month, 3 more later), and roughly half (around 13) of the Reading Women Challenge. I’m still working on making my reading more diverse.
 This book was a gift from my oldest brother who chose it because it reminded him of my food-based coffee table books (ie, The Amazing Mackerel Pudding Plan: Classic Diet Recipe Cards from the 1970s by Wendy McClure and The Gallery of Regrettable Food by James Lileks). Thanks, Jon!
Messy Middle? The Mid-Month Slump? The Ides of November? Whatever you called it, the halfway point for NaNoWriMo going into week 3 is where it gets challenging to stay the course.
When I last posted, I promised to dish on what it was like to encounter the midway point of NaNoWriMo. At the time of the post, I was nearly on target with the expected word quota, and I felt like all was going well despite the difficulties in carving out writing time every day. However, I’d been warned by my spouse about the “messy middle” or the mid-month slump, that, when it arrived, would mark the slowing of said progress—quite rightly, as it happens. Once we hit the Ides of November, the effort to stay on track or even get a bit ahead shifted into a race to catch up.
Between writing my last blog post and the onslaught of more activities, my daily word count dropped significantly, though I wrote each day. Perhaps I should have expected that several days would end up being rather unproductive when I had so little downtime. Even when the words seem to flow effortlessly, writing is mentally demanding. I felt exhausted when I contemplated what I would next write while my to-do list was competing for mental space. Since we also were traveling most weekends, I soon discovered that I’d much rather chat with my spouse than wrestle an unfriendly, new-to-me laptop. Particularly when it decided to have technical issues while said tech support was negotiating the NJ State Turnpike. Even on a train, the urge to nap instead of write was sorely tempting when I already was overtired.
There is a reason why some writers attempt to write as much as they can during their first several days of NaNoWriMo. In a sense, it acts as a form of insurance against losing their momentum at a later point, whether it’s fatigue or other unforeseen difficulties that interfere. For most people I met,1 participating in NaNoWriMo became increasingly difficult past the halfway point for various reasons that could be summarized as “life”. So, days with low word counts went from manageable to daunting for me, neatly accompanied with the worrying sensation that I was not writing my best. And the sure knowledge that 50,000 words was merely a good start for a novel.
Despite reminding myself regularly that the goal was to get a novel started at all, I knew my tendency towards completionism would rear its ugly head: I was going to make my life difficult to finish those 50,000 words by 30 November. And so I did. For the remainder of November, I wrote more than 1667 words on most days, often late at night. And, at the end of November, a full day behind my spouse, I finished.
Well, I finished 50,000 words in a month, the novel writer’s equivalent of a marathon. The draft itself still needs to be completed. And I’ll probably need to write several better drafts, for that matter. That aside, the idea that seemed like it would make a fun short story somehow stretched itself into a grander writing endeavor, and I’m looking forward to writing the rest of it (at a more reasonable pace). I don’t know if I’d attempt NaNoWriMo again or if it’s given me any great insights into writing more habitually,2 but I’m grateful that I undertook this challenge to transform this kernel of a story into an actual work in progress. It rather makes me wonder whether I should attempt a less rigorous challenge come the New Year in lieu of a resolution. Until then, I’m going to enjoy the break from my novel and the holidays!
I attended my local region’s after party, which proved to be quite enjoyable. And despite writing drastically different novels, we all seemed to have the same sort of repetitive stress injury from striking the space key. What a coincidence. ↩
Since I committed to participating in #NaNoWriMo 2018 (and potentially talked others into doing so as well), I’ve had no choice but to sit myself down and get writing.
Since I committed to participating in #NaNoWriMo 2018 (and potentially talked others into doing so as well), I’ve had no choice but to sit myself down and get writing. Signing up on the NaNoWriMo web site, finding writing buddies, and announcing one’s intentions on social media near-legally obliges one to take part, regardless of how many demands already exist on one’s time. But when is there ever a good time to squeeze more of any activity into any schedule? If I want to prioritize my writing more—specifically, time spent writing fiction—I need to find opportunities to write more. What better way to do so than taking on such a demanding schedule for a month? I imagine finding writing time will seem much easier after NaNoWriMo. So, with some trepidation, I began to write this November. For your amusement, I kept a few notes on my first few days to let you know how it went.
Prologue: 31 October, Halloween
I’ve managed, overnight it seems, to irritate several muscle groups in my back, which does not bode well for spending long periods sitting in my office chair as I type what I hope will morph into a novel. I spend the day engaged in Halloween events (ie, the school parade and classroom party). Following an appointment after school and an early dinner, my son and spouse head off to trick-or-treat, while I vainly keep an eye on our door in the unlikely event the doorbell rings.1 After they return and my son heads to bed, I decline my spouse’s suggestion that we start writing at 12 AM, knowing that I’m already overtired from Halloween activities and sorting out the upcoming birthday details that were my responsibility. Tomorrow afternoon will have to be my starting point. My spouse, determined to write as much as possible during the first week to build up a surplus should he miss a day, decides to start at midnight anyway. Overachiever.
Highlights: We got one trick-or-treater this year!
Word count: No need to worry about that yet.
Day 1: NaNoWriMo Begins
Despite (or possibly because of) a successful Halloween haul, I now have an overexcited nearly 9-year-old child to ship off to school. Today, I join him there, since I volunteer at the school library on Thursday mornings. Which means I won’t be doing any writing until after 12 PM, when I’m done with my shift. On returning home, I field several phone calls related to said child’s upcoming birthday party that results in making post-party dinner plans on the fly. Once I’m finished, I wolf down my late lunch in time to fetch child from school. I attempt to combine writing with monitoring his homework session and end up failing at the former, once I manage to dump roughly 8 oz. (~237 mL) of water into an open desk drawer.2 After dinner and bedtime (9 PM), I race to my now drier desk and make my second start at writing. It’s probably the worst prose I’ve written in ages. And yes, my back ends up hurting more than it did before I started. After indulging in some speculation regarding how our household will manage with both adults participating in NaNoWriMo, I call it a night.
Highlights: horrific prose, dumping water in my desk drawer. Oh, and back pain.
Word count: 1730
Day 2: Finances and Broken (Insincere) Resolutions
It’s Friday morning, and I need to sort out the finances (it’s payday). I also get phone calls at odd intervals about various things I need to address, ranging from flight details for my brother to confirming various appointments. It ends up being one of those days where I spend time running errands and feeling as though I accomplished little. Unexpectedly, my parents decide to visit. They were in the area,3 so they dropped off their updated address book so that I can print out labels for their Christmas cards That wasn’t on my agenda but it is now. After the youngster’s bedtime, I power through roughly 1700 words as midnight approaches again. Being a night owl, I don’t mind the late-night writing jams. It’s the 7 AM wake-up call that I find difficult. Nonetheless, I feel better about what I’ve written today, particularly since I also fixed up a few areas of the previous day’s poor writing. So much for not editing until later, right?
Highlights: Surprise visits, lessening back pain, and somewhat better writing. Honestly, though, I was going to edit as I write.
Word count: 1771
Day 3: Birthday Party
Today, I anticipate writing nothing. Between my brother’s imminent arrival from Texas and readying ourselves for the party (we didn’t put together the treat bags until that morning), I assume correctly that I will have enough to keep me busy. The party proves to be quite successful. Afterwards, we eat dinner at a local restaurant—no cooking or dinner dishes for us! My expectations of writing nothing is met, as I start falling asleep by 10 pm. On the bright side, my back pain seems to be resolving and I fall asleep at a reasonable time. Although my spouse is an early bird, he chooses to stay up late once more so that he can meet his daily word count. Apparently, he’s worried about losing steam halfway through NaNoWriMo and suffering from the“Muddy Mid-Month”. It seems that the Ides of November (that’s a thing, right?) are known for slowing one’s writing. I rechristen it the Mid-Month Slump, but he’s not into it. Either way, I’m in bed before midnight.
Highlights: Party is successful, so now I only need to get through the child’s actual birthday in a few days. Writing does not happen.
Word count: 0
Day 4: Lazy Sunday
Daylight savings time means I slept (or at least was in bed) for roughly nine hours, which feels like a victory after a long day of socializing. We enjoy a lazy morning with my brother before taking him to the airport. During the morning, my spouse’s distressing plotter tendencies manifest further, as he’s created something like a personal Wikipedia for his story world that includes the maps he created for his world prior to November 1st. I spend the afternoon sorting out laundry and other household chores, while the spouse goes grocery shopping. We both settle down to more writing after the kid goes to bed.
Highlights: Family time and a clean(er) house.
Word count: 1671
Day 5: Birthdays Redux
After I fall asleep near midnight on the 4th, I awaken a few hours later. Not feeling sleepy, I decide to read a few chapters of The Backstreets of Purgatory. Perhaps this is not the best choice, as I’m approaching the ending and the novel is clearly ratcheting the tension up towards some big finish. Of course, I can’t put it down, and I end up staying up far later than I planned—and it’s completely worth the sleep deprivation combined with a rambunctious birthday boy. At breakfast, I insist that my spouse must read this book, too. Despite the rain and the ongoing birthday fun, I get my son to school on time and dry, with birthday treats for his class in tow.
Mondays, as a rule, tend to be the most difficult for writing. Among other things, there are after school activities and appointments. If I can snatch moment, I write little notes about my WIP or current blog. Today, I jot down some notes about what I think needs to be added to make my WIP more complete. At present, my scene lacks description that would be helpful for immersing the readers into the situations and visualizing the characters. With that completed, the youngster is retrieved from school. We get several calls from well-wishers, and he open his presents from us. In the evening, after sending the tired birthday tyke to bed, I do the bulk of my writing for the day.
Highlights: Birthday presents and books, plus casual plotting on the fly.
Word count: 1673
Day 6: Election Day
Tuesday is the mid-term elections. Since school is closed, we’re planning to visit a museum or two in Philadelphia in the afternoon. For the morning, though, we’re meeting up my parents at a book store, where they’ll be sending the kiddo off on a birthday book buying spree. Despite the torrential downpours, we return home with a stack of books and I vote before we get to Philly. After a few hours marveling at dinosaurs and brains, we return home, and I start writing earlier this evening. Even better? I hit a good stop pointing well before midnight!
Highlights: Dinosaurs, the human brain, and more books. Steady writing progress.
Word count: 1813
Day 7: Wednesday Walks
After dropping the kiddo off at school, I manage to take a walk around my neighborhood, which is glorious in its fall colors. Feeling refreshed, I spend some time thinking about where my book is headed as I tidy up the dishes. So far, there’s a lot of conversations and a few arguments; I suspect that most of it will end up cut when I add more action. For now, it’s helping me establish the voices of some of the characters, their relationships, and background. I also come up with surnames and, in a few cases, first names for parents/grandparents. I’m committing to setting the timeline to Philadelphia and its suburbs in the early 2000s, which means I’m going to need to do some research at a later point to make sure my writing matches the reality for that times (namely, salaries and rent from that era). I even manage to do some writing before school pick up.
After an afternoon appointment, it’s a long slog through homework time as there is a time-consuming assignment that requires more than the usual parental oversight and support. Exhausted, I send my child to bed (late) and take a half-hour nap before writing. Here’s to exceeding that word count before midnight!
Highlights: Enjoying a sunny afternoon and meeting writing goals!
Word count: 1846
And there you have it. Word counts were (mostly) met! Now, all I have to do is catch up a bit on both sleep and the word quota for that one day. And do it every day until November ends. No problem, right? In my text post, I’ll pop in to discuss making it to the midway point and beyond.
Over the years, we’ve realized that trick-or-treaters skip our street for a reason. Where our street joins the main road, there is a poorly lit stand of mature trees on one side that extends to a curve in the road where you can just see the first house but none of the others. On the opposite side of the street, there is a large property on the corner with a deep backyard lined with more tall, mature trees. From the street, it once again looks like there’s only the corner house followed by a dark stand of trees. Can’t imagine why the kids don’t want to go past, dark spooky trees to see if we’ve got candy! ↩
I have a history of watering my office. Having once dumped a water bottle on my laptop whilst completing a freelance gig, I subsequently moved all beverages in my drawer. Since then, I’ve had no problems—until I bought a personal humidifier. It, regrettably, is not clumsy proof. Despite my best efforts to secure it, it’s tipped over in my drawer twice now. I’m beginning to think the universe wants me to dehydrate. ↩
Since my parents live an hour’s drive away, I never expect them to drop by house without warning. Luckily for them, I was home. ↩
My spouse has long thought I should give this writing event a whirl. I, on the other hand, am less enthused. And not just in the usual introvert-not-interested-in-joining-groups way.
As you may know already, NaNoWriMo challenges it participants to start writing a novel over the course of a month. The goal, of course, isn’t to produce a polished novel, but a first draft—or at least 50,000 words into that draft. Therefore, writers should aim to write at least 1667 words every day of November. While approximately 2000 words seems a reasonable amount to write in a day, I worry about whether I can do so every day.2 Like most writers I know, I squeeze my writing in whenever I can. Committing to a daily word count in practice sounds fine but sustaining that effort for weeks despite other obligations seems intimidating. As far as months to devote oneself to writing go, November is hardly ideal for me.3 But my ability to maintain this writing pace aside, I’m more concerned about, well, writing a novel. Until now, I’ve only written short stories and poetry. While I think my current story is a much longer one, I’m worried that I might not have enough material for a novel.
Despite my concerns, however, I am taking the NaNoWriMo plunge this year. Nothing, I find, motivates writing more than a deadline. As a potential side benefit, I’m hoping that the pressure to meet this goal will inspire me to discover opportunities for writing alongside other commitments. I wouldn’t mind walking away from NaNoWriMo with a better writing schedule. With my writing buddies to cheer me along this month (thereby keeping me accountable), I think I’ll be more likely to keep at the keyboard. But the final push for committing to NaNoWriMo, however, stemmed from my decision to prioritize my writing more and worry less about whether it fit a certain category. Regardless of my story’s final word count, I’m just going to write it. If it proves to be much shorter than I hoped, I’ll start another one. And, as I’ve been delighted to learn, many others look at NaNoWriMo as an opportunity to work on writing short fiction or poetry, while others use this time to edit their work. Although it may not be the official way to participate in this event, it achieves a larger objective: to get out there and get writing. And that is certainly a goal worth accomplishing.
Good luck, fellow Wrimos!
National Novel Writing Month, for anyone who doesn’t know. ↩
My favorite advice for keeping pace with the NaNoWriMo writing goals involves the JUST WRITE mantra, meaning that one should skip both revising and editing, with it being suggested that one should ignore both spelling and grammar errors as well as typos. Ignoring the latter alone would make my draft illegible. (Never mind what the professional editor in me thinks about leaving even glaring errors unchallenged.) ↩
Every Saturday (and one Sunday) is already booked. In addition to two family birthdays (one of which is mine) and American Thanksgiving, I also will be attending a few family events that involve travel. ↩
“But Macabéa in general didn’t worry about her own future: having a future was a luxury.”
Although Clarice Lispector’s final novel, The Hour of the Star (translated by Benjamin Moser), is a slim volume, no less than the creation of the cosmos serves as its opening. Author Rodrigo S. M. (the book’s narrator), unable to decide where he should begin recounting the tragic tale of his young character, Macabéa, chooses prehistory. It’s all the more a remarkable place to start, given that the narrator emphasizes how insignifcant Macabéa is: she could be readily replaced by any other girl like her. But in Lispector’s contemplative work, this signals the novel’s philosophical concerns with poverty, identity, and existence itself. Because if Macabéa is practically interchangeable with countless other poor, northeastern girls of Brazil, she also symbolizes them and becomes something akin to an archetype whose ancient roots are difficult to pinpoint. Rodrigo seems to ask: Have girls like her existed since life has?
“Make no mistake, I only achieve simplicity with enormous effort.”
From this perspective, it’s little wonder that Rodrigo suffers as he writes about Macabéa’s humble life. Lispector’s dichotomous characters illustrate both the difficulty in truly understanding another’s existence and with communication.1 In many ways her opposite (well-educated, clearly older, and affluent), the narrator anxiously strives to pare down his linguistic excesses, because they don’t suit Macabéa’s circumstances. Yet, Rodrigo often fails to retain this simplicity as he expounds on his writing process or as he struggles to explain Macabéa’s “delicate and vague existence”. His attempt to bring himself closer to the virginal Macabéa’s level—by swearing off sex and sports—is undermined as he dines on fruit and sips on chilled wine, luxuries unavailable to her. Here, Lispector entertains the possibilities of empathy while delineating its boundaries. Though pained by his efforts to relate Macabéa’s tale, Rodrigo acknowledges that he writes because he “has questions and no answers”. Macabéa, in contrast, questions nothing and is happy simply because she believes, though not in any specific deity, person, or thing. Rodgrigo’s attempts to define this young woman and her elusive grace seems only to cause him to question himself instead (“Am I a monster?”).2
“But Macabéa in general didn’t worry about her own future: having a future was a luxury.”
As the unlovely Macabéa’s tale finally takes shape, her existence proves to be as undernourished as her body is: orphaned as a child and suffering from rickets, raised by an indifferent aunt, and transplanted from her rural town to Rio de Janeiro, where her life (once her aunt dies) is a lonely one. This young lady’s life is also circumscribed by its material lack. Possessing only three years of education, listening to the radio is a source of unexpected beauty (when she first hears opera) and confusion (when radio hosts discuss unfamilar words/concepts such as “culture”). Lispector’s point that she resembles thousands of girls like her, underscored by Rodrigo’s ineffective guilt that he should do something for this fictional girl, makes a grim point about the haves and have nots.3 Unfortunately for Macabéa, no forthcoming rescue or deeper connection forged with another occurs. Although she briefly attracts the attentions of Olímpico (another northeasterner), he leaves her for her more attractive coworker, Glória. Glória’s guilt prompts her to help Macabéa in some way, but this assistance unintentionally imperils Macabéa. Without revealing too many details, Macabea’s life explodes into that of a “thousand-pointed star” as she departs it, leaving behind Rodrigo—an author powerless to save her—attempting to divert himself from thinking about his own eventual demise.
The Hour of the Star recalls a certain adage about judging books by their appearance. As someone new to Lispector’s work,4 I wasn’t sure what to expect from such a slim book (under 80 pages), but I was pleasantly surprised to discover this serious meditation on life, death, poverty, writing, etc., complicating a seemingly simple story. The Hour of the Star is a must for a thinking readers, as it gives its audience much to mull over long after its cover is closed.
In Macabéa’s case, she often is misunderstood or unheard even when speaking quite clearly (eg, “As for the future.”). Also of interest, Rodrigo reveals here that he lived in the northeast as a boy. ↩
Lispector can be somewhat playful in considering identity. Rodrigo, in observing that no one would miss a poor girl like Macabéa, realizes he, too, could be replaced—but only by a man, since a woman “would make it all weepy and maudlin”. Certainly, it’s an amusing idea in an unsentimental novel written by a woman, one that also permits Lispector to draw a line between herself and Rodrigo and subtly indicate that, though they’re both from the northeast, they are not one and the same. ↩
In keeping with Lispector’s desire for empathy (whatever its limits may be), Rodrigo encourages wealthy and middle readers to step outside themselves and attempt to experience her life. He assumes poor readers will need not do so. ↩
Only an inciting incident can and should transform the protagonist’s life.
For me, storytelling fundamentally begins with an interruption. At one point in a story, something occurs to interrupt the flow of the main character’s everyday life. This moment is often described as the inciting incident or inciting event of the story. The inciting incident represents a decision, action, or event that introduces the story’s main problem/conflict, thus triggering the rising action of the story. When it comes to writing a story’s inciting event, however, the process isn’t always as straightforward as its definition suggests. Whether a writer diligently plots their story before writing or discovers it as they write,1 creating an interesting inciting incident and inserting it at the right moment can be difficult. Since stories hinge upon their conflict, it’s critical that writers understand how the inciting incident operates in stories (for my purposes, fiction). To this end, I’m going to review some of the general guidelines for writing an inciting incident (with examples of what they look like in practice) as well point out a few tips to identifying whether a story’s inciting incident works well.
Placement: In the Beginning…Somewhere
When formulating a short story or novel’s inciting incident, there are two guiding principles that should be kept in mind. The first is that the inciting incident must occur somewhere in the story’s opening. This point is nonnegotiable. If the inciting incident doesn’t occur in the early portion of the story, there isn’t a conflict to generate the rest of the story. The actual placement, however, is debatable. Some advice places the inciting event roughly halfway between the narrative hook and its first plot point (around the 12% mark of the story). While the placement proffered here seems about right (particularly for writers using a three-act structure to plot their tale), there are stories where the inciting event occurs close to the story’s first plot point (the end of the story’s open) or even much earlier. An excellent example of the latter case is the first lines from Days of Abandonment by Elena Ferrante (trans. Ann Goldstein):
“One April afternoon, right after lunch, my husband announced he wanted to leave me….Then he assumed the blame for everything that was happening and closed the front door carefully behind him, leaving me turned to stone beside the sink.”
Here, Ferrante uses Mario’s desertion as both her novel’s inciting event and narrative hook.2 While this instance demonstrates how writers can be flexible about where they place the inciting incident in the novel’s opening act, most stories will require some exposition to explain why this inciting incident creates conflict for the main character. For example, the narrative hook in Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier (“Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again.”) appears as the first line of the novel, whereas the inciting event (Maxim de Winter’s rather rushed and unromantic marriage proposal) occurs in chapter 6. This pacing makes sense, partly because the narrator needs to shift from present to past (most of the novel is a flashback) and partly because the characters need to meet and become acquainted before an engagement can occur.
Impact: Reacting to Life-Altering Change
The second general principle of the inciting incident involves its impact on the main character/protagonist. As I noted above, stories begin with interruption but not just any interruption will do. The inciting incident must have a significant impact on the protagonist’s life, one that forces them to react (in some cases, eventually react when the stakes are raised) to their new circumstances.3 In Days of Abandonment, Mario’s decision to end his marriage with Olga has obvious, life-altering consequences for her. In addition to dealing with this unexpected and unexplained dissolution of her relationship, Olga is also left to care for the couple’s children and home on her own. She essentially transforms from stay-at-home parent and wife of 15 years to single mother. Regardless of how she chooses to react to this situation (in the novel, initially with disbelief), her life is now headed in a new, uncertain direction.
Tips for Assessing Inciting Incidents
Identifying an inciting incident in a published work is one thing. Creating an effective one in our own work, however, is a different matter. Although I can’t claim to have an exhaustive list of strategies that provides specific suggestions for creating the perfect inciting incident (placement of this moment, for example, depends on the story), asking these questions while plotting/writing a tale can help determine whether its inciting incident hits the mark.4
Is my inciting incident in the story’s opening?
Does the inciting incident divide the story into before (backstory) and after?
How does the inciting incident transform the protagonist’s life?
While the first of these questions is more of a checklist item, the others give some guidance on how to interrogate a work-in-progress’s inciting incident. Since one of the hallmarks of the inciting incident is that it cleaves the story into before (backstory) and after (events that occur in response to the inciting incident), we should be able to distinguish them. And the story should be divisible, as the last question indicates, because the inciting incident upsets the protagonist’s status quo.
Backstory events are, of course, necessary for developing the story (the narrator and Maxim de Winter from Rebecca clearly wouldn’t have wed without having first met in Monte Carlo), but they materially change little for the protagonist (following this first encounter, the pair part and go about their usual business). Similarly, the inciting event causes the remaining events in the story (the narrator and Maxim wed but only because he first proposes). Only an inciting incident can and should transform the protagonist’s life.5 If it’s unclear where the division between before and after occurs in a story, the inciting incident is likely weak or absent. When a work-in-progress’s inciting incident fails to alter the main character’s life in some meaningful way (sadly, a problem I discovered in a short story I’m revising), then that incident needs revision. Alternatively, if there are two or more events that could alter the status quo for the protagonist, then the writer needs to choose which option best suits the story and revise accordingly.
When working with fictional stories, there are numerous moving parts to get in order to before a story is sound. Getting a story underway is challenging though necessary, as the opening gets the readers invested in the tale. And the inciting incident is critical for kicking off conflict in a story. With a firm grasp on how the inciting incident works and a few tactics for detecting whether these story elements work or become wayward, writers should find it easier to get their stories on course.
On occasion, online writing advice conflates the narrative hook with the inciting incident, which is perhaps understandable since both occur early in the story and need to be compelling. And, as the Ferrante’s novel shows, they can be one and the same. As I’ve noted elsewhere, the narrative hook presents an intriguing scenario that baits the reader into reading further by making them wonder what occurs next; inclusion of the story’s inciting incident is optional but not required. ↩
Reaction seems to be the main character/protagonist’s fate when it comes to the inciting incident, a point discussed well here. ↩
This method works also well for identifying an inciting incident in other writers’ works, too. ↩
Maxim’s hasty proposal changes the narrator from a lady’s companion to the fiancée of a wealthy man (placing her on the same level as Rebecca, his deceased first wife). Given that Maxim neglects to declare his love for the narrator when he proposes, her envy of Rebecca (she wishes she could have the intimacies she assumes Maxim’s first wife share with him but believes a relationship with him is impossible) to jealousy, since she fears that he only wishes to wed her so that he’s not alone with the grief for his first wife. ↩
And the reason I purchased this book had less to with it being a well-regarded translated novel and more to do with it being a book everyone seemed to love…that just happened to be translated from another language.
I think the first translated book I consciously chose to buy, a book I knew beforehand was translated, was Laura Esquivel’s Like Water for Chocolate (translated by Thomas Christensen and Carol Christensen). It was by no means the first text (either prose or poetry) I’d read in translation, of course. As a young child, I read Pippi Longstocking, likely unaware that Astrid Lindgren wrote it in Swedish.1 As a tween (or thereabouts), I understood the classic tales I read in Edith Hamilton’s Mythology were written in Greek or Latin originally, though I didn’t appreciate what translation entailed. Through my studies, my awareness of translated works grew and I gained insight into how translation might affect a text’s meaning and the reliability of interpreting it.2 And of course, that also meant I bought many translated works as a student. What differentiated Esquivel’s novel from these other works, however, was that it was (then) a contemporary novel I selected for leisure reading. It had not been assigned reading, as both Wislawa Symborzka’s poems and a heavily abridged version of Les Misérables initially had been. It was not yet a “classic” work that significantly influenced/shaped literature or even a book that a sibling discarded.3 And the reason I purchased this book had less to with it being a well-regarded translated novel and more to do with it being a book everyone seemed to love…that just happened to be translated from another language. It’s this latter distinction that strikes me as important.
I’ve made a point to include translated novels in my reading recently, because (as I observed last year) I realized that I typically overlooked such books in the past. Expanding my reading horizons remains important to me, but I’d be mistaken in not acknowledging that most translated novels generally tend to be well written. For publishers to undertake the risk associated with printing a translated novel, that novel must achieve a certain level of acclaim or popularity for people to champion its translation. My experience of attending a twitter chat focused on reading women in translation was enlightening: so many people passionately recommended novels they’d read, attesting to how great, insightful, or thought provoking these books were.4 And I think it’s this promise of remarkable writing that compelled me to read more women’s writing in translation. Two (very different) favorites emerged from those recommendations: The Vegetarian by Han Kang (translated by Deborah Smith) and Kitchen by Banana Yoshimoto (translated by Megan Backus). While I can’t claim to deeply love every translated work I’ve read since (personal tastes vary, after all), I generally found reading them all rewarding.
But there is one remaining thought that haunts me when I consider reading women in translation, works that one day may be hailed as classics. As I’ve selected books to read or discuss during Women in Translation Month, I found myself thinking about what my intellectual life would be without the many translated works I’ve read. Losing The Odyssey alone would leave a huge literary crater: Neither The Aeneid nor The Penelopiad would exist without it. Translated works shape how we think and how we in turn write just as much as works written in our native language(s) do. I cannot help but wonder what deeper insights we might be missing when we bypass these works. And given how infrequently women’s writing is translated, I suspect that difference here could be significant. It’s among the reasons I intend to continue reading women in translation year-round as well as rate, recommend, and (when I can) review translated works written by women so that I can help publishers and fellow readers see what they’re missing. And the more often we all do so, the more available these excellent works will become to everyone.
At that rather young age, I treated title pages, the locations where both authors and translators get mentioned, as filler to be skipped past quickly. ↩
One of the advantages of older siblings is that their discarded books become your books years before anyone would think to hand you a copy. Mythology was over my head in some places, but I love and appreciate it more and more every time I read it. ↩
In this case, the 2016 Women Writers Network twitter chat for #witmonth. ↩
The Chicken Soup Murder, Maria Donovan’s debut novel, is a moving story about loss and justice. It focuses on a close-knit band of neighbors whose lives are upended by the young deaths of two of their own: first, Janey’s father to cancer and then Irma to “natural causes”. But was Irma’s unexpected death a murder? Michael, her 11-year-old neighbor and the story’s narrator, is stubbornly convinced that Irma’s boyfriend—a police constable, no less—murdered her. No one else, even his Nan, Zene—who worried about Irma after previous electrical mishap occurred following her boyfriend’s DIY project—shares Michael’s suspicions. Although Michael argues she “can’t just have died”, it can happen as his Nan and others point out. Donovan neatly balances Michael’s certainty with adult doubts about his reliability in a manner that leaves readers nonetheless sympathetic to Michael.1
But the heart of Donovan’s novel isn’t its mysteries, but in how it truly inhabits the world of the grieving and how it traces the aftermath of these deaths. Irma and Zene’s decision to live life more fully2 following the loss of Janey’s dad leads Irma to Shawn Bull and his son, George. The perhaps too-aptly-named Bulls become entrenched in Irma’s life, damaging her friendships with her neighbors as she adopts Shawn’s rather less empathetic views. Michael and Janey are instantly recognizable as youths on the cusp of maturity, a triumph on Donovan’s part (her careful characterization even shows how Janey’s year ahead in school makes her less naïve than Michael). Both are caught in this tide of grief even as their lives go ever onward, the seasons marked by sports and school. Michael is perhaps literally haunted by Irma’s loss and is pained that his grief is unacknowledged by the greater community that doesn’t understand he had a closer relationship with Irma than George did. Janey struggles to cope with her dad’s loss and her mother’s resulting deep depression, alternates between parenting her mother and being infuriated with her—and occasionally, Michael as she worries that he’s forgotten her father (he hasn’t). Among the more poignant moments stem from Zene’s counsel to Janey “The league tables of grief. But it’s not a competition, Janey. Nobody wins.”3 Indeed.
Michael is a remarkable character, a generally sensitive boy whose love for Irma propels him into the awkward role of avenger. But it’s his determination to do right by Irma that raises questions about the lengths to which it’s appropriate to pursue truth or protect loved ones. The degrees in which the novel explores right and wrong here, range from childhood misdemeanors to adults behaving badly, with shades of grey in between. Michael, once bullied by George, in turns is accused of (and occasionally does) torment George. Shawn isn’t above threatening Michael or Zene to protect his son, even after Michael rescues George from certain death. Zene’s decision to keep mum about Michael’s parents and their incarceration (“Best left alone”4) proves to be problematic in several ways. Without giving too much away, her decision to do what she “thought was best” leaves her in a vulnerable position because she has kept secrets from her grandson.
The Chicken Soup Murder lets us coexist in the sometimes messy lives of the bereaved and wronged. Satisfyingly, it doesn’t have easy resolutions or simple fixes for strained relations. Nonetheless, the novel ends on a hopeful note that things will at least be addressed and may change for the better.
Summary:The Chicken Soup Murder is an engrossing, well-paced novel. An unconventional mystery, it features believable characters whose heartbreak is palpable and who occasionally infuriate us with their choices. Narrator Michael is an engaging and often funny, particularly when he doesn’t get adult references. Much like life, there are no easy fixes but hope persists.
The adults in the novel lean towards dismissing Michael’s views—partly because he’s made up stories in the past and partly because he doesn’t get disclose all he observed immediately after Irma died. Since the readers know more, it would be difficult for them to so casually dismiss Michael’s concerns. ↩
Ironically, this seems to have indirectly led to Irma’s death. ↩
For the non-sporty/confused fellow Americans, league tables refers to football (soccer) stats. Football is very much present in this chapter, so it’s an apt metaphor. ↩
This point is particularly infuriating when Zene points out Michael never asked about his parents, as though her earlier discouragement might not have played a role! ↩
Travel acts as an agent of change, relocating characters and propelling them into new situations.
If reading is akin to journeying into the perspectives of others, then it’s little wonder that some of those vantages will include actual voyages. Travel1 in writing fascinates, because of its seemingly endless vistas, encounters with fascinating folk, and potential for adventure, adversity, and the unexpected. For fiction writing (our focus here), only the writer’s imagination serves as the limit: travel can acquire fantastic elements (ie, time travel, interstellar exploration) or mirror the more mundane to remarkable expeditions currently within the realm of possibility. However, travel’s role in fiction isn’t limited to bringing characters in contact with new places, people, and experiences. Travel also quietly influences some of the less overt areas of storytelling. Here’s three ways in which travel more subtly shapes a story.
Hooked on Travel
Virginia Woolf’s novel To the Lighthouse opens with the Ramsay family discussing a possible expedition to said lighthouse, the train in “The Story-Teller” by Saki (more formally, H. H. Munro) is already en route to its next destination as the story of a bachelor and three bored children starts, and Yosiko Uchida’s “Tears of Autumn” introduces us to Hana Omiya as her long trip across the sea concludes. Countless stories ranging from the classics (The Canterbury Tales by Chaucer) to children’s literature (The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett) mention travel in their story hooks for a good reason: travel intrigues readers, because it evokes notions of discovery, exploration, and escape. When people travel, they alter their routine, and readers become curious as to why. Consider Uchida’s character, Hana, who watches the American coastline approach in the beginning of “Tears of Autumn”. Whether readers accurately assume that she’s an immigrant or guess that she’s a visitor, they likely will ask why she chose to venture so far from home, where she is headed, and what she expects to do when she arrives. And that’s what hooks are meant to do: present scenarios that intrigue readers and leave them with questions that will motivate them to read more.
In the Mood to Meander
Travel’s most discernible effect on storytelling occurs in the setting. Setting, of course, depicts where the story occurs, and travel obviously allows writers to use multiple settings.2 As Courtney’s Carpenter’s article reminds us, setting also conveys critical background information about (to name a few) a story’s timeline, its climate, and, importantly, its mood. Mood is the oddball of setting. While most other features of setting provide concrete details that establish an impression of a specific place and time, the mood instead evokes feelings about that place within the reader. Fortunately, travel creates natural opportunities3 for writers to describe their setting and its associated mood as characters survey their surroundings. In “Tears of Autumn”, Uchida describes Hana arriving on a “small ship that shuddered toward America in a turbulent November sea. She shivered as she pulled the folds of her silk kimono close to her throat and tightened the wool shawl about her shoulders….” In addition to leaving clues that suggest Hana’s homeland (Japan), her approximate location (ship approaching west coast of North America), the weather, and an idea of when she sailed (probably before the 1940s4), this excerpt gives readers a feel for this place. Uchida’s wording here—“turbulent…sea” and the small boat’s shudder echoed by Hana’s shivers—suggests a cold, unsettled environment. The combination hints at apprehension, thus neatly prefiguring Hana’s worries about her new homeland and husband. Whether the mood concurs with the viewpoint character’s feelings (as occurs here) or counters it, travel lets writers move their characters while setting up the story’s emotional undertones, thus giving readers a sense of the story’s upcoming conflicts.
Motivation: The Why Behind the Wander
Travel acts as an agent of change, relocating characters and propelling them into new situations. Behind these journeys, however, exists some goal or desire. Falling under the umbrella of character motivation, such goals provide rationale that explains why characters exit their familiar environs. Within this context, the underlying motives for travel can profoundly affect the story regardless of whether (a) travel is central to the narrative and (b) is the character’s primary motivation/goal in the story. And fictional characters, much like real people, roam for myriad reasons. While such motivations can be straightforward, some tales obscure character’s true motives. In Rebecca, author Daphne du Maurier introduces Max de Winter and the narrator, the future Mrs. de Winter, while they’re traveling. The narrator’s reason for being in Monte Carlo is transparent: she works as a paid companion. However, most people assume that Max travels to distance himself from his grief, an assumption that appears to be confirmed when states he want to forget his past. Although it’s true he wants to escape his memories, it has nothing to do with sorrow.5 Lacking this insight, the narrator misconstrues Max’s behavior throughout the novel and becomes convinced he wed her solely to avoid being alone.
Neither misdirection nor complication, however, are uncommon when dealing with characters’ motivation. Writers frequently compel their characters to undertake journeys for several, nuanced, or even complex reasons. Hana Omika’s ostensible reason for sailing to the United States is to get married. Of course, one needn’t cross an ocean to wed. Clearly, this independent-minded young woman seeks more than matrimony, namely greater freedom than her family and village would otherwise allow had she remained in Japan. Finally, it’s important to remember that, since travel can be transformative, character motivation may alter in response to events occurring on a trip. This effect is most clearly observed when adventures take disastrous turns. In such tales, characters’ former reasons for travel are swept away as their goal becomes survival (eg, the shipwreck in Jamrach’s Menagerie by Carol Birch). Even in less dramatic instances (eg, when Macon Leary’s bad back inadvertently leads to him confronting his lifelong inaction in Anne Tyler’s The Accidental Tourist), the results are the same: the character’s desires change. No matter where the will to wander leads characters or how circumstances change its direction, characters reasons for setting forth helps shape how the story’s conflicts and plot unfold.
Travel allows writers a broader landscape in which they set their characters afield. But in the subtler aspects of storytelling, they also can incorporate details that captures readers’ interest, direct their feelings, or show them the desires that launches these journeys. As these example show, stories gain depth and direction when writers focus their efforts on both evident and understated features of their travel stories.
While we tend to think of travel in terms of vacations, travel technically encompasses many types of journeys of varying lengths and import. Travelers can be sailors, refugees, holiday makers, pilgrims, explorers, commuters, soldiers, pilots/air stewards, business people, etc. ↩
In fairness, these locations may only be mentioned in passing or implied (in the sense that a traveler had to come from somewhere). ↩
Traveling excels at making people observe the surrounding when they are on the move or when they arrive somewhere. In fiction, therefore, nothing seems more natural than when a narrator or a viewpoint character takes a moment to comment on the scenery as they pass by. ↩
Since Hana arrives by boat, there’s a strong likelihood her flight occurred before the 1960s when flying started to become more accessible. Her travel, however, likely occurred before the attack on Pearl Harbor in World War II (1941). As it happens, the United States and Canada both severely limited Japanese immigrants in 1907/8 under the so-called “Gentleman’s Agreement” with Japan. In the United States, “picture brides” such as Hana were permitted to immigrate up to 1924, after which all Japanese immigration was banned until 1965. ↩
Max likely wants to escape a bit more than his bad memories. Since most believe he and Rebecca were happily wed, he has no reason to dispel the notion that he mourns her. He’s the sort who would choose to keep his marital distress private in any case, but he certainly has additional cause to maintain appearances. ↩