Monday, December 13, 2010

A graceful bow to the muse Calliope

I'll start by saying that the title comes from an episode of the sitcom Frasier, and I'm not sure if Calliope is the official muse of writers. But if she isn't, then I hope someone else is because there are days when I'm half-convinced there is someone out there who smiles on writers and their efforts.

All writers have bad days and good days. There are those days where you get a bad review, you get rejected, your plot holes get deeper, blank sheets refuse to have words appear on them. And then there are the days when words come, plot holes get filled, stories get published, and people write to tell you kindly things such as your latest story wasn't entirely awful. But of all the good writing days, the ones that give me the most pleasure are the days when I get a chance to use the word serendipity. That's a lovely word and I wish I could use it more often, but I reckon I've done so only a couple of times.

The first time came about ten years ago when I was writing what turned out to be my first Avalon novel The Legend of Shamus McGinty's Gold. The story concerned a snake-oil seller whose remedy failed to live up to its billing and instead gave his customers bellyache, but who one day suddenly started curing people of their illnesses. When I started writing I had no idea why that had happened, but I wrote on hoping that I'd find out the answer. And yet I reached the final chapter with still no idea why. But then without me even realizing it the answer appeared on the page. I sat back and wondered if that really was the solution. It felt acceptable and so I returned to the beginning so that I could start redrafting the story and make it work towards that ending only to find I didn’t need to redraft because all the clues were already there. I just hadn't noticed that I'd written them, but presumably Calliope had and she stepped in at the end and saved me.

I enjoyed that serenely serene serendipitous moment and I longed for it to happen again when I wrote my next novel, except it didn't happen, and nor has it happened on anything else I've written in the last ten years. Plot holes and solutions to mysteries have all tended to get resolved the hard way with panicking, redrafting, screaming, re-redrafting, tearing up the manuscript for the fire, re-re-redrafting, throttling my computer screen... until this week when it happened again. Like the previous occasion I can’t talk about it in detail as that would give away too much of the plot, but I'd been writing a western. As always I'd used plenty of dramatic licence, but the whole plot hinged on an historical fact. Unfortunately, when I'd got the story into a reasonable state, I checked up on the details of the historical fact only to find to my horror that I hadn't remembered things the way they had actually happened. The vital historical incident took place five years after the time my story was set, and I figured that even dramatic licence couldn't stretch that far.

I was gutted. After months of labouring to get a story to work, the whole basis for it was wrong. So after I'd picked the splinters out of my forehead from banging it on my desk I started looking for similar historical incidents to pin the story on. It took me two seconds. Another incident I'd never heard of before was mentioned in the very next sentence of the offending and historically accurate article. Bizarrely this incident fitted my story even better than the one I knew about. It also filled several large plot holes, suggested a better ending, and provided a more valid motivation for the bad guy's actions. So, I'd like to bow gracefully to Calliope for bestowing that welcome gift upon me and, if she's listening, please, I'd prefer not to wait for another ten years before you visit me again.

PS. Today I received the first sighting of the cover for my forthcoming Avalon novel and as I'm so pleased with it I had to add it to this item.


Elisabeth Rose said...

What an interesting post, Ian. I amaze myself sometimes, not often, by putting in something quite by chance (or is it?) that ties in very neatly later on. Because I write with no idea where the story is going those little happenings make me wonder. Maybe the subconscious brain does have these connections all worked out but the conscious one gets in the way with fussing and doubts. Is Calliope the subconscious lurking in us all?

I.J. Parnham said...

I agree. I believe there is a left brain / right brain thing at work when we write in that we all get hung up on rules and generally too much thinking. Everyone on this planet has an innate story telling talent, even if they've never realized it, and learning how to tap into it before the rules get in the way is vital.

Beate Boeker said...

I learned the word serendipity only two years ago at a RWA conference. My room mate used it, and whenever she did, she had a dreamy smile on her face. I looked it up the first day I got home - it is a wonderful thing, and yes, when it happens, it makes the whole world glow. But I agree with you. Calliope is not a visitor who comes often enough!

Elisabeth Rose said...

I wonder if that sort of thing happens to plotters as much as the pantsers. Perhaps we surprise ourselves as we write and they surprise themselves as they plot.

Sandy Cody said...

Great post, Ian.

And Lis - plotters are surprised all the time. I've discovered that I need a general direction when I sit down to write, but my characters constantly take me on detours. That's part of the fun of writing.

Sandy Cody said...

Forgot to say: "Great cover".

Tessa McDermid said...

I just had a great example of serendipity the other day. I was finishing a synopsis for a book that I hadn't titled yet. I had lots of notes I'd been making and after typing about half them into the synopses, I took a break to play with possible titles. Then I went back to writing the synopsis.

Imagine my joy and surprise when I find the exact words of the title in the next to the last sentence of my notes! I'd come up with the idea days earlier and didn't realize it would fit. And I'm a plotter : ). (My plotting is the bare bones - the serendipity comes in as I flesh out the details.)

Loretta said...

Wow, Ian, the cover is really great. I hope I get an equally great cover for my 2011 Western.

Jane Myers Perrine said...

Great cover!

Serendipity was my father's favorite word, too.