It’s a narrow world

I was reading the Guardian bookclub article today and it was a short piece about coincidence. It is a matter of coincidence that I have been tinkering with in a touch-up of my oh-so-nearly finished novel recently. There is, in the fourth chapter, a coincidental moment that takes control of the story and gets my protagonist to where he needs to be standing. The question is does this particular coincidence clang like a poorly constructed device designed to do nothing more than grab him by the shoulders and turn to face him in the right direction?

I have been aware of the perils of coincidence in narrative for a long while. The rule that I read said that for beginners all coincidences should be avoided and for more advanced writers – lets call them brown belts – coincidence should be used to get your protagonist into trouble, but never for getting them out of trouble. It makes perfect sense not to use a coincidence as the pivotal point in resolving the narrative. Stories are about people and satisfying endings should evolve from deliberate choices and actions made by those characters.  It has always seemed like one of the oddest qualities of writing convincing fiction that coincidences should be so sparingly used. They are, after all, very common in everyday life. It’s a bit like the lottery. The odds of winning it are astronomically small, but the fact that someone, somewhere wins it is really no big surprise at all.

I watched an old favourite film this evening, It Could Happen To You – coincidentally about winning the lottery – and there is a scene in which the two central characters both turn up at the same hotel at the same time. Films are littered with this kind of small coincidence. There is a scene toward the beginning of The Shawshank Redemption in which one central character walks out a parole hearing at exactly the moment another central character is appearing for the first time. The two events have no real connection but are butted together to allow the narrative to unfold smoothly. These sorts of coincidences don’t cause the story a problem because they don’t really affect it. It’s a bit like bumping into a friend in the street, it’s not really all that amazing and doesn’t have much of an impact.

The coincidence that happens in chapter four of my novel involves the protagonist chasing someone until he becomes exhausted and can run no further and stops. Where he stops just happens to be immediately outside the one building in the entire town of any significance to him. This feels like too much of a coincidence. Bumping into a friend in the street isn’t so amazing because we tend to live near our friends, and streets are pretty obvious places for people to bump into each other. These sorts of small coincidence are fine in fiction as they don’t arrest the story. They are tolerable because of the commonality with which similar things happen. In fact more than tolerable, they are necessary. Necessary because without them the fictitious world would be slightly less realistic. Have you ever seen a film or read a book in which every last thing that happened turned out to be the evil machinations of the sinister villain; everything from the surprise allegiance of a previously sympathetic character to the bizarre connection that the hero has to the waitress in the opening scene? Stuff like that always felt equally unlikely to me and having my character stop outside the building I need him to stop outside is either some kind of incredible act of fate or a coincidence of significantly less likely odds than Red’s parole hearing ending at the same time as Andy Dufresne’s arrival at Shawshank.

So I am going to change it, ever so slightly, so that he stops running when he is too tired to carry on, and encounters the building as he walks back to where he was. Still a coincidence, yes, but the chances are a little more likely and so it seems to clang a little less loudly.

My recent adventures with short stories

I have been writing a lot of short stories lately. I hadn’t written one for ages, I think the last one I wrote was the first one I sold and that was in 2007. My novel took up all of my time since then but recently I decided to take a break from it (there is still a little more to do on it but I needed to get away from it for a little while) and write some shorts. A collection of short stories by Magnus Mills, a thoughtful birthday gift from my wife, inspired me to just get on with it and have fun writing something new.

I had a lot of ideas in a short space of time, all of which got scrawled in my notebook, and I have been slowly working my way through the ideas, writing them out and seeing what happens. There have been two things that have helped me to write these stories down relatively quickly. One is when I am not sure what to type I just skip ahead in the story until I am. I have, up to now, always been a strictly chronological writer. But Kerry caught me staring at the computer screen for longer than about five minutes and demanded I just jump ahead and write a bit I was more sure of. Brilliant advice as it turns out. With that story I ended up writing the beginning, then the end, and then filling it out afterwards, stitching it together as I went.

The other is nothing new, when I wasn’t sure how to say what I was trying to say I just said it any old way and then fixed it later. It is amazing how you can struggle to phrase something one day and then the next see the solution so clearly it was a wonder it ever seemed hard. When I first started writing I had this terrible habit of wanting every sentence to be finished as I was writing it. As a consequence I wrote very little, and drove myself mad re-writing the same thing over and over again. Now I think of first drafts the way painters approach a canvas. Those early splashes of colour only look vaguely like the thing they are supposed to be, but the picture reveals itself with refinement. And in fiction terms there is something refreshing about writing that feels like it has flowed rapidly. It feels more conversational, less laboured.

I have even been writing some of them long hand in my notebook. I’m not sure why it happens but my writing almost has a different flavour when it is written that way. Plus I have the added fun of, from time to time, listening to Kerry attempt to read it. My handwriting is so dreadful that when she reads it aloud she sounds like a five years old reading from a children’s book, stumbling over the words, and occasionally getting them wrong. Admittedly, my handwriting is so bad I find the exact same thing happens to me sometimes.

Writing the synopsis

As if finishing a novel wasn’t a taxing enough task there waits an even harder ordeal once it is done. Taking the ninety thousand words already written and then collapsing it into a couple of pages in a way that sums it up briefly, gives a sense of the style, themes, plot and character and doesn’t make it sound like a horrendous waste of time. Tough.

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How to finish a novel

My novel is nearly finished. But then again it has been nearly finished for about six months. The problem isn’t that I haven’t been working on it, it’s that my definition of ‘finished’ keeps changing. The euphoria that followed that completed first draft quickly subsided with the acknowledgment that everything I had read turned out to be true; writing is re-writing. Once the first draft is complete is when the real work begins. The trouble is how to know when to stop?

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That difficult second draft pt 2

A few months ago I was working in a job that afforded me a bit more down time than I was used to and so, knowing that the first draft of my book was almost complete, I spent a lot of that time reading as much advice as I could on how to take a rough first draft and turn it into a polished finished product. Some of that advice seemed obvious, some of it less so. Some parts contradicted others, a few common points emerged. Having just finished the second draft of my book here is what I found from going through the process.

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