They mean well, those published writers who perpetuate the mythology. After all, the great unpublished are hounding them for scraps of encouraging advice. Looking back on their own rocky road to publication, all they see is hard graft and talent. If that got them through, why wouldn’t others achieve the same result? But history is a story told from the point of view of the victors. The voices of those who worked equally hard without the golden ticket go unheard, save a few brave exceptions. Although his emphasis is marketing, Dan Blank proves himself an ally of the disaffected, picturing success as a function of writing talent, author platform and luck.
We’re a meaning-making species, finding patterns where they don’t exist. Randomness unsettles us. This suspiciousness intensifies when it comes to reading fiction. B follows A does not make for a satisfying plot; we demand that A should be the cause of B, which then creates C, and so forth. We feel cheated by coincidence, partly because it conflicts with our (perhaps mistaken) assumptions about a predictable world and partly because it seems like laziness on the part of the author. So all those problems we’ve been worrying about for the past 300 pages wiped out in a legacy from an unknown relative (although Charlotte Brontë gets away with this in Jane Eyre)? So the protagonist forgot to charge her phone again? Even Mr A, perhaps the only man in Britain not to possess a mobile, won’t stand for that.
But, of course, chance can be an element of successful fiction. Under what circumstances is coincidence permissible?
I think it’s fine at the beginning of the novel when the fictional world is being created. Nevertheless, one agent at a writers’ conference took exception to the setup of my debut novel, Sugar and Snails, in which the narrator “just happens” to meet a man who is going to the very place where her life changed thirty years before. (But it would make for a very boring novel if I listed the many men she might have encountered over the years who weren’t interested in going to Cairo.) Perhaps it’s this experience that’s made me nervous about the opening of what will probably be my second novel, Underneath, where the protagonist announces he’s won the lottery and is about to buy a house. (But people do win the lottery and, relative to many, Steve’s is a modest amount.)
Some fiction makes a feature of Lady Luck, exploring the randomness of life through different versions of the same story, as in Laura Barnett’s debut novel (and a few others to which I’ve linked in that post).
Perhaps I’ll have more to say about this topic when I’ve explored the range of stories posted in response to Charli Mills’s latest challenge to write a 99-word story about serendipity. I haven’t found this easy, flipping between sentimentality and spoof, satisfied with neither. It looks as if I chickened out last time we had this prompt, so can I find inspiration in the stories there? In those I admire, a bad situation turns good in an unexpected but highly credible way. I’m not sure this qualifies, but I’ve spent way too much time on it already:
Ned hadn’t told his mother he called into Kathie’s Kitchen every afternoon. She’d say he’d get better coffee, and cheaper, at home. But Ned lived for Kathie’s smile when she set down his mug. Today, on his three hundredth visit, he resolved to ask her out.
Red-faced, he mumbled his invitation to the countertop. Her response stunned him. How could she be married? Hadn’t he checked her fingers for a ring?
“But my sister might be interested.”
Another woman emerged from the back of the shop. Identical twins, but only Kathie had that smile. “I thought you’d never ask.”
And the significance of three hundred? Yup, this is my 300th post.
Any feedback welcome, but especially your thoughts on when serendipity works in fiction.