Sunday, July 26, 2009

Serendipity

by James Scott Bell

Today is July 26, a day of celebration for me. For one thing, it marks my debut on The Kill Zone, and I couldn't be more pleased to be included with six writers I admire. I've learned a lot from this august company, and am proud to be added to the mix.

This date also happens to be one that changed my life forever—for it was on July 26, 1980, that I met my wife.

I was at a birthday party for a friend. It had spilled out into the courtyard of his apartment building, where I sat at a table with a couple guys, yakking. I happened to look up and saw a blond vision of loveliness heading up the stairs to the apartment. I turned to my comrades and said, "I'll see you later."

I got to the apartment just as she was hugging my friend. Her back was to me. I silently motioned for my friend to introduce me. And that, as they say, was that. I fell like five tons of brick and mortar. It took me all of two-and-a-half weeks to ask her to marry me. (Perhaps this explains why I favor first page action in my books). Eight months later we were wed and my life has been richly blessed ever since (in no small part due to Cindy's sharp editorial eye; she's always my first reader).

When I think of these events, the word serendipity comes to mind. It's a word derived from a Persian fairy tale, The Three Princes of Serendip (an ancient name for Sri Lanka). The story tells of an eminent trio making happy discoveries in their travels, through accident and observation. The English writer Horace Walpole coined the term serendipity to describe this combination of chance and mental discernment.

Which is a long way of saying that some of the best things that happen to us in life are "happy accidents" because we've shown up, and are aware.

Much of the best writing we do is serendipitous, too. As Lawrence Block, the dean of American crime fiction, put it, "You look for something, find something else, and realize that what you've found is more suited to your needs than what you thought you were looking for."

Doesn't that describe some of the best moments in your writing? I once had a wife character who was supposed to move away for a time, to get out of danger. That's what I'd outlined. But in the heat of a dialogue scene with her husband, she flat out refused to go. Turns out she was right and I was wrong, and the story was better for it.

Can we ramp up serendipity as we write? I think so. Here are a few suggestions.

Don't just be about imposing your plans on the story to the detriment of happy surprises. Be ready to shift and move.

Write what you fear. Go where the risks are in the story. Challenge yourself.

Research. When you delve deeply into the areas you're writing about – by reading, talking to experts, or doing something in the field – you inevitably come up with gems that will enliven your story or even change it into something other than what you had planned. And that's not a bad thing.

Finally, write first, analyze later. It is in the heat of production that diamonds are formed – a striking image, a line of dialogue, a new character. But you have to be prepared to go with the flow, to play it out and see where things lead.

The way of serendipity is open to every writer, be you an outliner or a seat-of-the-pants type, or anything in between. It's just a matter of showing up and being aware. And the more you write, the more you'll recognize serendipitous moments when they arise.

Has serendipity played a role in your own writing? Tell us about it.

And thanks again to The Kill Zone for the invitation. A happy surprise indeed.

18 comments:

  1. Yes, and I have found it to be the best! It's happened to me many times in writing my first manuscript. I think it gives my story a better flow.

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  2. Welcome to TKZ, Jim. Your presence here and your contributions to come are valued by all.

    I can’t begin to tell you how often serendipity comes into play in my novels (co-written with Lynn Sholes), especially when an element written earlier in the novel suddenly reveals its true use or meaning. We just finished our fifth thriller together last Tuesday after a little over a year of writing. We are now in the rewriting process, and I find that’s where serendipity becomes most obvious. Many items writing months ago as minor or passing issues become problem solvers or story enhancers as we go through the manuscript and tie up the loose ends. They were not written as such, but they seem to lay in the weeds as the story builds so that when the need arises, they come forth and declare their true function. As much fun as it is for a reader to discover clues and secrets, it’s even more so for the writer when those secrets rise up out of the ether by way of serendipity.

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  3. Hi, Jim. Great to have you aboard. Welcome.

    Joe actually stole my thunder. In every novel I've written, there comes a moment where I'm searching for a way to untie a knot that I formed, only to realize that I'd already sown the seeds. Most recently, in NO MERCY, the final sequence in the early drafts felt flat to me. Pacing and worrying was giving me nothing, so I started down the dangerous road of contemplating a whole new ending. Then, one morning in the shower (what is it about showers that spawns creativity?), it hit me: I'd already inadvertently given the characters all the tools he needed for exactly what I was looking for. I fixed it in a day.

    I'm learning to relax more and to rely on the Serendips to save the day when I need them.

    John
    http://www.johngilstrap.com

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  4. Jim,
    More evidence that Stephen King's "boys in the basement" will do their work if we turn them loose. And, yes, I've been pleasantly surprised at what my characters do when I let them, including a couple who've volunteered to die in accidents and one who was murdered. Actually, I guess it was manslaughter because I didn't plan it.

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  5. It's a wonderful thing, this serendipity. It does seem to have a wry sense of humor, too. The whole thing about the shower John mentioned, where you don't have access to pad, pen or keyboard. Very funny.

    Lily, flow is indeed the right word, the organic nature of the story taking over.

    The sort of "pre-serendipity" writing Joe mentions is really amazing--the planting of something that comes to fruition only way down the line. Those magical moments are one of the reasons we write at all.

    And Dr. Mabry, thanks for my favorite metaphor from Mr. King. Oh, and I'll try and find you a good criminal lawyer.

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  6. Welcome, Jim! To entice serendipity, I always take a pen and index card when I go on my morning walk by the ocean. I inevitably come back with some scribbled idea--some are gems, some not! If I don't follow up on them immediately, later on I can't remember what some of them meant. For example, I found one of my old post-walk notes in my Ideas file. It said, "Your bra is very deceiving."
    What the heck did that mean, and what inspired it? I think it had something to do with my upcoming book, "Makeovers Can be Murder," but I'll be darned if I can remember it!

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  7. "Write what you fear..." -- well said, James. I'm working on this one myself. To write is, ideally, to write bravely and with grace.
    Best, Donna http://blogdc.donnacarrick.com/

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  8. Welcome Jim! We're so pleased that you've joined us here at TKZ and what a great topic. I think my best writing comes from sheer serendipity - from the scene that comes to me when I'm walking to the gym, to the research that I stumble upon that brings my plot and real history together in ways I could never have planned and to the ideas that just pop out of nowhere that make me write something I would never have dared imagine I'd write (YA anyone?!). I think even my path to publication had the air of serendipity about it - I met my agent over lunch at the first writers conference I'd ever attended in my life and then I found out I was pregnant with twins - then wound up with a two book deal...serendipity indeed.

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  9. The Serendips pulled a fast one on me. I actually started liking my antagonist. He's such a nice guy at heart.

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  10. Donna, write on.

    Kathryn, I would buy that novel, Your Bra is Very Deceiving. Sounds in the same hardboiled tradition as My Gun is Quick by Mickey Spillane.

    Clare, there is something so serendipitously poetic about having twins and a two book deal.

    And Teri, I think liking an antagonist is one of the keys to making them memorable and menacing, e.g., Hannibal Lecter. Go for it.

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  11. Welcome, Jim, we're lucky to have you!

    I'm a big believer in serendipity. For one thing, I randomly met my husband in a similar manner. I was at a friend's party, where I ran into a college acquaintance who I hadn't seen since graduation (and who, by the way, I haven't run into since- talk about serendipity). She was discussing her attempt to conquer her fear of sharks by taking up surfing, my future husband (a shark expert) overheard, and the rest, as you say, is history.

    I'm a "pantser," when I write, and one of the reasons is precisely because I love being surprised in the course of the narrative. There's a scene in Boneyard where I had someone running out the back door of a building. I was planning on having them escape, but lo and behold a completely different character showed up at the door, and it took the story in a wholly unexpected direction. And for me, that's the most thrilling part of writing.

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  12. Like Michelle, I met my husband in a serendipitous moment. It's such an unbelievable coincidence that I plan to someday use it in a book.

    That "pre-serendipity" thing? It's part of the "zone", when you almost write automatically, without a true intention, and find that you've done the best writing of your life. It only happens when you can tune out everything else, but when it does it's a golden moment.

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  13. Jim, I've been waiting for your debut post for a few weeks, and this was worth it.

    I experienced serendipity recently, toward the end of my manuscript. I envisioned a scene with a family of minor characters as resolution for them and most of their issues while simultaneously showing the villain's next move from a different perspective.

    While I anticipated the emotional response of the husband and wife, I did not expect the conflict that arose between them--and actually drove them apart again. However, it ended up pushing toward what I think was a more satisfying resolution for the character arcs.

    So the intended wrap-up scene ended up being the final disaster scene before they figured things out.

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  14. JSB. Zippity doo dah, buddy. Good to have you aboard.

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  15. Great to see you blogging regularly, Jim. I look forward to hearing your unique view. And I'm a HUGE believer in serendipity. It's what makes the world go round, in my humble opinion. : )

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  16. Jim, your addition here makes my favorite blog even better!

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  17. Say, thanks again everyone for the nice welcome. It's great to be here.

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  18. Not sure I can call her Serendipity till she finds me a publisher, but the muse does wander through taking things in directions I never imagined, and her imagination's way better than mine.

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