Friday, February 3, 2017

Larry Speaks

Book Reviewers Can be Jerks

By Larry Kahaner
My pal Larry blogs at The Non-Fiction Novelist. This is one of his blogs about book reviews. As a professional reviewer I'm passing it along to those of you who have been reviewed in publications or are reviewed on your Amazon book pages. I review for a living (such as it is) and I put up reviews for books I like on Amazon. I also have been reviewed for my fiction and my non-fiction many times. The great majority of my reviews have been positive -- a reviewer at a small newspaper in the mid-west once declared my first time travel novel as "the best book that had ever been written," hah! and I have been denounced as a writer of "pathetic rubbish," so I've seen it from both sides.
Larry has an excellent new novel out, USA, Inc. Buy it and submit a review.

OK, back to Larry.
Whether you are a seasoned author or just published your first book, reviews play tricks on your self-confidence as a writer. Like everything else in life, some people like your stuff and some people hate it (thanks, Captain Obvious) and there’s nothing you can do about it.
Every book has its supporters and detractors, and if your head isn’t screwed on, it can be a career killer.
Let me stipulate up front that most reviewers, indeed, the vast majority of reviewers are writing honest, objective reviews. This blog is about the other ones.
I offer some points to remember if you decide to read your reviews. I say ‘if’ because many successful authors never read reviews. I used to think this was BS, but it’s true. These folks understand the reality of reviews.
And here they are:
  • Reviews are supposed to be objective, but they’re not. Readers bring themselves into the review based on their own beliefs. Here’s a personal example. I published a book titled AK-47: the Weapon that Changed the Face of War. Pro-gun people said I blamed all the world ills on this ubiquitous weapon. Anti-gun people said that I glorified the weapon. Both can’t be true. Right? I even read one review that chided me for not including more pictures of guns. Hello… it was not a gun-porn book, but a political view of the world’s most-used weapon.

  • Some reviewers and readers are pissed off about a specific subject matter so they give a low rating hoping that potential readers will ignore a book. Think books about climate change. Others love the topic so they give a high rating hoping that others of their ilk will buy it and somehow bolster the cause. Neither reviews have anything to do with a book’s merit. Case in point: I once wrote a book about a company called MCI (not the MCI WorldCom that was later involved in a scandal). The title was On The Line. The company beat AT&T in court and this opened the way for competitive long distance phone service. I got hate reviews from those who were angry that AT&T was no longer the country’s de facto monopoly phone company and venerable Ma Bell (youngsters, stay with me on this) was being broken up. Others were glad to see the old monopoly split into regional companies which eventually ushered in the telecommunications system we have today. I even received a letter from David Packard, head of Hewlett-Packard, chiding me for writing about this start-up company which he believed would lead to the downfall of Western civilization. What about the book’s merits? Didn’t really matter. And no sour grapes here by the way. The book did really well.

  • Last one: Reviewers are swayed by what the reviewer thinks the author stands for. The classic case is Salman Rushdie who penned a novel in 1988 titled Satanic Verses, which caused a stir among many in the Muslim community. They accused Rushdie of blasphemy, and in 1989 the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini of Iran issued a fatwa ordering Muslims to kill Rushdie. Many death threats followed and Rushdie went into hiding with armed guards. To show their support for Rushdie and their dislike of the Ayatollah many people bought the book – it became a best seller – and critics offered rave reviews because they supported free speech and wanted to strike a blow against radical Islam. It had been reported at the time that many Western consumers bought the book but never read it. They just wanted to make a point. Rushdie says he is not anti-Muslim. He was born into a Muslim family and now considers himself an atheist. By the way, many reviewers wrote about the controversy itself and not the book. That’s not their job.
My final point is this. You can’t please everyone. Mind you, I’m not talking about warranted, even constructive criticism, but make sure a review is about your book and not about you or anything else before you react. Write your book the best way you know how and work on having a thick skin or don’t read reviews at all. Your choice.
Coda: I have a good writing buddy who also is a reviewer for a respected trade publication.  I often send him my blogs to gut-check them before posting. He had this remark: “Perfectly reasonable blog, though it will never make anyone feel better about a bad review. They always hurt, even if you know you were treated unfairly.”

Friday, December 23, 2016

Pie!



This entry should be on my memoir blog, but that’s on hiatus at the moment, so I’ll put it here for now…

When I was probably around ten-years-old, right around Christmas, I was walking by the Bonnet’s house up the street from us. They lived on the corner of Maxwell Avenue and 19th street. They were a numerous clan, I can’t remember how many kids there were, and they were a lot of fun, parents and children. Mr. Bonnet was in the back yard digging in a snow bank. As I watched, he dug up a large cooking pot, brushed the snow off and went up on the porch. I asked him what he was doing. He told me he had made a pork pie last night and had buried it in the snow overnight to solidify. Did I want a piece?

Pork pie! I had never heard of such a thing and couldn’t even conceive of it. Pies were sweet and they certainly didn’t contain meat. No thanks.

Several years later I took him up on his offer of the Christmas Pork Pie. Of course it was fabulous. I recently found Mrs. Bonnet’s recipe in an old cookbook she wrote for her family. Here it is, in her words, a Christmas gift from Thriller Guy, Allen Appel, and all the other Appels. It is not necessary to bury the pie in a snow bank and let it sit overnight, but it’s a nice touch.

Dick Bonnet’s Pork Pie

“This recipe should be in a book by itself. It’s not a meat recipe, or a pie recipe; at least not the usual meat or pie recipes. But it definitely belongs in this book. It’s not something you can “whip up” in a hurry, and certainly no way to impress guests, unless they are British.

It has always been dad’s late evening winter snack. Also, Grandma has made it for all your Uncles and Aunts and has actually mailed it on occasion. Absolutely indestructible!

The first time I ever went to visit Grandma and Grandpa Bonnet, way back in 1947, we arrived in the late evening in a snow storm and Grandma had made a pork pie for Dad. Maybe she wanted to discourage me! Anyway, I ate it “to be polite” and have eaten it “to be polite” ever since. One suggestion, don’t try to make it yourself until you have watched the master (Dad) make at least one.

This is not an ordinary recipe – This is ANOTHER BONNET CHALLENGE.

6 cups flour
1 ¼ cup lard
1 ½ tsp. salt
¾ c water

Boil lard and water until lard is melted. Add flour and salt. Knead until smooth and elastic – about 10 – 15 minutes or when it no longer falls apart and has the consistency of putty. Shape dough on a cookie sheet, building sides about ¼” thick and about 3” high. So it will hold meat. Save ¼ of dough for cover.

Get a very lean piece of pork, about three pounds. I usually get a fresh ham and use what is left for a small roast. A “picnic” shoulder is cheaper, but has a lot more fat to cut off. Cut meat in ¼” cubes, cutting off all fat. Meat cuts easier if it has been left in the freezer about an hour. Put in a bowl and salt and pepper generously. Put pork in molded, unbaked crust. Roll out top crust with rolling pin. Cover pie, pinching edges together so it is tight. Cut an X in the center of top so steam can escape. Bake in oven for 2 hours. The last 20 minutes of baking brush top and sides with egg white or milk to make it shiny. Raise temp to 400 degrees for last 20 minutes.

While pie is cooling, boil 1 cup water with 2 bouillon cubes, one pk. Gelatin and an onion. Boil about 15 minutes. When pie is completely cool, add this mixture to X in top of pie, a little bit at a time. Refrigerate several hours before serving.”

Or, as noted above, bury in snow overnight.

Merry Christmas everyone. Don’t forget to go to audible.com and order your audio copy of the Christmas classic, The Christmas Chicken. You can listen to it while you cook up your Pork Pie. 


Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Sorry.




Yes, I know, it’s been awhile. I apologize to those anxiously waiting me to tell them the secret of how to work a decent writing schedule into their day without upsetting regular life. Here’s the awful truth: it’s not going to happen.

Back in my youth, what the kid’s call my hippie days, the late fifties and early sixties, women were throwing off conservative conventions and trying on lifestyles that allowed them to work full time, raise children, have partners who were equal helpers and lovers, lead healthy lifestyles, look good and be cool. In other words, women were determined to Have It All. There were scores of self-help books advising women how to accomplish this goal. A quick look at Amazon shows me that there are still scores of books claiming the same thing: Yes, Women, You CAN have it all. There are no books telling writers that they can have it all as well.

The thing is, you can’t actually have it all. Or at least you can’t have it all and do everything effectively. Yeah, I know, I’m going to get pushback on this, so go ahead, send me your comments, take me to task.

If you’re going to write, especially if you’re going to write novels and live a reasonably sane life at the same time, some elements are going to be short-changed. Either Life or The Novel. The question now is: Can I Live a Life Where One or Some of the Things I’m Doing Are Not Going to be Done All That Well Some of the Time, or Even All of the Time While Devoting Time and Effort to My Writing? It makes for a very unwieldy, not very hopeful book title, one that’s not going to sell many copies.

The first thing that my friends and those I talk to about this problem say is they will put their novel off until they retire. This is a sound solution, particularly if you are old like Thriller Guy, but what if you die first? Or what if you keep putting off retirement because you want or need to earn more money. And worst of all, what if you wait, sometimes for many years, and when you finally do have the time to write you find that you just can’t do it, for any number of reasons: you no longer have the stamina, (trust me, it’s hard physical work and you’re not as young as you used to be,) you don’t have the ability to force yourself into the chair in front of the keyboard, you find it too painful, or it’s just too much damn work. And not fun at all. (Trust me again, if you are approaching it in a workmanlike manner, it’s not going to be much fun. See the archives; Thriller Guy has written on this aspect of The Writing Life many times.) So I don’t recommend putting it off.

For one thing, you’re wasting valuable time. It is said that scientists do all of their useful work when they’re young, and I could make an argument for novel writers as well. Yes, I can think of many exceptions, but common sense and simple numbers bear this out. If you decide to keep a notebook of good novel ideas over the course of a year you’re going to have a hell of a lot more good ideas if you actually think about them and write them down than if you put it off until you retire. Duh.

If you try to write every day, or once a week, or on vacation, or on the way to work on the train, or while on airplanes, you may not be able to scrape together enough time to write a novel in a year, but you’re sure as hell going to get more done stealing time than if you didn’t try at all.

And if you don’t want to steal the time, ask those who are involved with you in life to let you borrow some, or to even give you some, even though it might make things harder on them. You will be surprised how many partners and spouses are willing to give those they love a chance to do something they feel so strongly about.

So ask for help. Negotiate. Try to manage at least a partial plan.  Stay up later. Get out of bed earlier. Do less around the house. Do less with your family (as long as everyone understands.) Just don’t be a pig. Don’t be an asshole. And you don’t need to feel guilty. Or go ahead and feel guilty, it will make you work harder.

You can’t have it all, but you may be able to have enough of it to make your life feel all right. Not great, maybe, but good. It might take you longer, you will have to make sacrifices, but you can add pages to the pile, ideas to the notebook. At the very least, you’ll have more than if you did nothing. More than if you wait. Is that enough?

Probably not. But it’s better than quitting, giving up, or never starting.

Ask nicely.

Get to work.



Friday, October 14, 2016

All You Have to Do Is Write Two Pages a Day...


But it sounded so good. I believe it was Stephan King who first offered this cruel advice, but I passed it along just like a lot of other writing coaches. Write two pages a day, we said, confidently, smugly, and in one year you will have a book. Yes, it’s true, if you write two pages a day every day for a year you’ll have 700 pages of written material.

But you’re not going to have a book. Even if you could actually do this, I contend you wouldn’t even have a workable draft to rewrite.

Of all the problems I see my writer friends facing, finding the time to work is the most intractable, heartbreaking, guilt-inducing difficulty they face. My first advice (actually, my first advice is to not start in the first place, so this is my second advice) is to find a girlfriend, boyfriend, partner who has a good job or is wealthy and who is ok with you taking time to simply write. Unfortunately, finding this person is not easy. Neither is hacking out time to write from a regular life – having a job or a family. So then along comes King who says it’s not that difficult to find enough time to write two pages a day, and he’s right. That’s about 500 words if you double space it, and you should double space it, not all that much when you sit down and do it. But…

Far more goes into writing a novel than just putting words on paper. Putting words on paper is typing. It’s finding the right words that is the difficult part. So much goes into constructing a novel beyond the writing: voice, structure, POV, plot, characterization to name just some of the more important aspects. All of these variables have to be thought through; connections have to be made. So when are you supposed to figure all of this out? When you’re writing your two pages a day? Yes, it’s possible, but then your two pages a day will be taking four or more hours a day, which blows apart the notion that an extra half an hour or even an hour stolen from some part of your normal life is going to put you on the path of a completed novel.

It takes me a year to write a novel. I work on it every day, all day. I do the physical, writing part for around four hours; rewriting may take up another couple of hours. The business part – dealing with publishing aspects, the Internet, goofing around when you should be working, etc. – takes another couple of hours. Now if you’re regular civilian -- meaning you have a normal job -- you put in your eight hours and then you’re done. (Yes, yes, I know, many people have far more demanding jobs that they work on for long hours.) But if you’re a writer working on a project as large as a novel, you’re still not finished when you get your eight hours in because the damn thing gets lodged in your head and your brain works on it while you’re doing everything else – living your life. When you’re eating, sleeping, driving, putting gas in your car, shopping, watching television, working out. When you’re conscious or unconscious.

Lawrence Kasden, the screenwriter, once said, “Writing is like having homework for the rest of your life.” He was correct. But it’s much worse than that. Writing is having an obsession for the rest of your life. How you deal with that obsession is the writer’s constant dilemma.

Oh look, I’ve finished my two pages. 550+ words. I guess I’m finished for the day.

Actually, I haven’t even started on my own work. Blogging is extra, something I have to fit in around and into my normal writing time.

So what’s the answer?

To be continued.

Saturday, October 8, 2016

Moving Is Like Writing a Novel, Sort Of

They say moving is one of the most stressful events in a person’s life, second only to the death of a loved one. I believe it. But it occurred to me recently as I was driving down I-95 for the fifth time, shuttling between suburban Maryland and my new hometown in North Carolina, trying to keep straight in my mind a list of things I had to remember to do while concentrating on not crashing my loaded car, that the mental contortions that I was going through were, or at least they felt so to me, just like those my brain undergoes when I am in the throes of writing a novel. In both instances there are just too many things one needs to remember, and not only remember but constantly keep in mind because one event almost always influences another.

Did I remember to have the utilities turned off? On? Has the realtor put in the closing extension paper? Did the termite guy turn in his report? Did the movers deliver the boxes? Did I remember to put in a scene in Chapter One about the restraining order, or did I just think that I should do it? Is there enough backstory about Maria? Does Trevor need a Dark Secret in his past? What the hell is going to happen in the end?

Look out! Jesus, where did that truck come from? Where am I? Richmond! I can’t be in Richmond already. Where the hell did the last 45 miles go?

I’m sure you’ve had the same experience: you’re alone in the car on a trip, you’re driving along and suddenly you notice you’ve been on autopilot for X number of dangerous miles. This lost time might have been spent in simple reverie, but in the two experiences I’m discussing here, Moving and Novel Writing, you can blame the intense mental work involved with each.

And that’s just the technical details, the lists of Things To Do. That’s to say nothing of the extreme pain that involves both. Most people have the experience of at least one big-time move in their lives. Say from a house of many years where you’ve raised a family and piled up all the crap that one collects and suddenly you have to figure out what to throw away and what to take with you. Same thing with a book. You’ve piled up many pages over the years it’s taken to produce a draft and suddenly you realize the damn thing needs to be drastically cut (every novel needs to be cut) so you agonize over what’s important – to you and to the book – and throw out what isn’t. So that’s what you’re doing hurtling south on I-95 at 75 miles an hour. Throwing things out, making lists, rearranging furniture and material.

Look out, world. There’s a guy on the highway with 14 boxes of books and other assorted crap in the back of his vehicle and he’s got a lot on his mind. Or maybe he’s a novelist and he’s blocking out a scene where the sailing ship has an encounter with a white whale. In either case, he’s dangerous. Trust me, I know. That guy is me.



Friday, August 26, 2016

Coincidence, or Not?


Thriller Guy is in the process of moving. His home, not this site. Do not fret, he will reappear with some regularity once the pain of ripping up roots and relocating is finally finished. In the meantime, TG will steal various interesting posts and thoughts from other sites and put them up here. This will be somewhat random, but what is Thriller Guy himself but Somewhat Random?

The following is from LiteraryHub and is brilliant writing advice. TG comes across Coincidence, usually forehead-slappingly obvious and laughable, in many of the thrillers he reads and reviews. This sort of crude writing is part of the reason that thriller writers don’t get no respect in the general literary community. So read this, no matter what genre you’re working in. TG is going to buy this lady’s book, because if the rest of it is as smart as this piece is, it’s going to be invaluable. Yeah, it;s long and requires some thought, but let's show those snooty Literary Writers that we genre folk can learn and apply just as well as they can.

HOW TO WRITE COINCIDENCE THE
RIGHT WAY
FROM E.M. FORSTER TO FLANNERY O'CONNOR, HOW WRITERS MANIPULATE ALL OF US

   
One way to use coincidence and make it work is to have nothing turn on it. Coincidences
feel illegitimate when they solve problems. If the story doesn’t benefit from the coincidence, it’s simply pretty and suggestive. Another way to make a coincidence work is to begin a story with it. Make it the reason there’s a story to tell in the first place. A third is to establish that the community in which your story takes place is one in which coincidence is part of the landscape. People in my town, New Haven, Connecticut, revel in coincidence, and we claim it happens here all the time: you know everyone in more than one way. Maybe this is true in all cities of a certain size—small enough that the barista will turn out to be your office mate’s daughter; large enough that you’ll be surprised.

It also helps to make coincidence unobtrusive. There’s a wild coincidence in E. M. Forster’s 1910 novel Howards End that doesn’t seem to bother most readers. Helen Schlegel, one of the two sisters who are the book’s main characters, for complicated reasons brings a working-class couple she has befriended to a wedding reception—and it turns out that the woman she brings was once the mistress of the bride’s father, Henry Wilcox, whom Helen’s sister, Margaret, is engaged to marry.

Margaret is the character through whom we experience all this. The former mistress, Jacky, is drunk, Henry comes forward to try to get rid of her, and Jacky greets him, “If it isn’t Hen!” Margaret, who has no idea what Jacky means, apologizes for the awkward interruption. Henry, recognizing Jacky, imagines that Margaret and Helen have devised a plot to expose him. He says, “Are you now satisfied?”— which baffles Margaret even more. Finally, after a painful page, Henry says, “I have the honor to release you from your engagement,” and Forster says of Margaret, “Still she could not understand. She knew of life’s seamy side as a theory; she could not grasp it as a fact. More words from Jacky were necessary—words unequivocal, undenied.” At that point Margaret begins to speak, stops herself, and then finally says to Henry, “So that woman has been your mistress?”

None of the characters know what’s going on, and in the confusion, it’s unlikely that anybody notices that the author is manipulating all of us, characters and readers. He’s distracted us by concentrating on Margaret’s psychology. She can’t grasp what has happened, not because it’s unlikely that the single lower-class person her sister has befriended should be her fiancĂ©’s former mistress, but because she doesn’t understand life and sex. The coincidence isn’t important to Margaret.

Another way to make coincidence work is to put the story into a slightly unfamiliar universe, as in farce—a universe where coincidence is part of the joke. Flannery O’Connor’s story “A Good Man Is Hard to Find” is not farce, but the blatant (though useful to the story) coincidence in it doesn’t bother readers; I’ve never heard anyone mention it.

A grandmother scares her family with tales of an escaped convict, The Misfit. She, her son, and his wife and children set out on a trip through Georgia, where The Misfit is thought to be hiding. The family has a car accident, and the person who comes along is The Misfit, who kills them all. The grandmother is whiny, sneaky, and selfish, and every bad thing that happens to the family until The Misfit arrives is her fault. When she breaks out with her son’s name, “Bailey Boy, Bailey Boy,” at the end, we feel love in the story for the first time.

Why does the coincidence work? You might think its success had to do with Flannery O’Connor’s religious universe. Just before The Misfit shoots the grandmother, she looks at him closely and says, “Why you’re one of my babies.” The grandmother has led this family into evil, evil that is her opportunity. In a universe with God in charge of it, even the difficult, opaque God of Flannery O’Connor, a family can be led, for a reason, down the only dirt road in Georgia where an escaped convict lurks. But nothing in the story suggests that the coincidence is connected to its religious message.

One way to make a coincidence feel less clumsy is to have the author acknowledge that what she is describing is improbable. But O’Connor doesn’t. There’s no disclaimer, no apology, no paragraph saying that sometimes the strangest things happen.
Not only does the coincidence work, but it gives me the same sort of pleasure as coincidences in my life. It delights me. I think the coincidence is O’Connor’s way of letting us know we’re in a slightly skewed place in which what happens does not exactly follow the rules we’re used to.

But the main reason the coincidence works may be that the characters are so stupid that they don’t know coincidence is surprising. The grandmother predicts that they will meet The Misfit, and they do, like people hearing a weather forecast and encountering rain. The narrative voice is almost always as stupid as they are. Here is the grandmother in the car.

She said she thought it was going to be a good day for driving, neither too hot nor too cold, and she cautioned Bailey that the speed limit was fifty-five miles an hour and that the patrolmen hid themselves behind billboards and small clumps of trees and sped out after you before you had a chance to slow down. She pointed out interesting details of the scenery.

Only later comes a different kind of sentence:
There was a pistol shot from the woods, followed closely by another. Then silence. The old lady’s head jerked around. She could hear the wind move through the tree tops like a long satisfied insuck of breath. “Bailey Boy!” she called.

This narrator would be more than smart enough to point out that running into The Misfit was highly unlikely, but this narrator isn’t in evidence at that point in the story. So O’Connor’s coincidence is something like Forster’s. The characters aren’t aware of it, or wouldn’t call it a coincidence. There’s so much that the characters don’t get, in this story, that the unlikeliness of the coincidence is just something else that’s beyond them. Like Aunt Sarah, who didn’t know that finding a five-dollar bill was remarkable, they don’t know enough about art to notice the coincidence; they think they’re just in life. Coincidences happen in life; they are suspect only in art.

I’ve been arguing for giving your characters actions to perform, insisting that if fiction only explains how people feel—what is going on for them inwardly—it doesn’t fully use its capacity to keep a reader engaged. Making interior experience clear, on the other hand, by finding equivalents for it in external events, or finding external events that resonate with feeling, is endlessly interesting, because we can think up endless numbers of situations that embody the struggles of the inner life, and many events feel like embodiments of inner dramas. Even in ordinary life, you know that the day you receive an impossible assignment at work will be the day you come home to discover that the dishwasher has flooded the kitchen floor. Isn’t resonance what makes one event worthy of going into a story and another not worthy? Stories that don’t work sometimes include long, boring scenes in which people do something like clean a car window. The trouble is not that nothing is happening but that what happens has no connection to strong feeling, to the inner life. Unless, of course, it’s a story like Andre Dubus’s “The Winter Father,” in which a man who doesn’t live with his children takes them to dinner, then has a conversation with them in his car, outside his ex‑wife’s house.

Next morning when he got into his car, the inside of the windshield was iced. He used the small plastic scraper from his glove compartment. As he scraped the middle and right side, he realized the grey ice curling and falling from the glass was the frozen breath of his children.

Consider the morality play, in which abstract qualities like good and evil take form as characters. In the fifteenth-century English play Everyman, a man is told by a character named Death that he must undertake a journey from which he won’t return. All his ordinary friends (Fellowship, Kindred, and so on) refuse to go with him, but he is finally accompanied by Knowledge and Good Dedes. We still write books about journeys because we are interested in inner journeys; we still write books about conflict because we have taken notice of some inner conflict. Once we consider action not as the sign of cheap fiction, but as the way any fiction embodies the life within us, then it’s clear that no single kind of action is superior to any other kind. Anger and conflict can be expressed by means of a novel about a war, but also by a novel about a conflict in the workplace or in a family. There is such a thing as the story or novel in which nothing happens, but that’s not the same as the story or novel that makes us care intently whether or not a flower will be picked and then shows us a character surreptitiously picking the flower.

But what makes us care whether the flower is picked or not? A beautiful description of the flower won’t do it, and a pathetic description of the person who doesn’t want it picked won’t do it. What will make us care is some other action or conflict that is going on at the same time and coincides with the picking of the flower: that is, some action that belongs by coincidence. Coincidence, Webster’s Third New International Dictionary says, means “the concurrence of events or circumstances appropriate to one another or having significance in relation to one another but between which there is no apparent causal connection.” That could mean my roommate meeting the man from the gas company under the crepe paper streamers, but it could also mean Stephen Dedalus, in James Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, breaking his glasses when he is small and defenseless in a harsh place. Appropriateness, that is, can be the damnedest thing ever, or it can simply be suggestive and interesting. Coincidence could mean the concurrence of somebody’s inner sorrow with the privations of the Great Depression or with the anxiety and frustration of the war in Vietnam, Iraq, or Afghanistan. It could mean The Misfit in Flannery O’Connor’s story meeting the grandmother, a different kind of misfit. Essentially, coincidence is the coming together of two events. Of course, these coincidences can be clumsy and manipulative as well: you’ll need to figure out a way to make your ordinary eighteenth-century Bostonian part of history without having Paul Revere’s horse step on his foot.

If, as we make up any story, we start with one event and ask ourselves what else might be happening, we risk obvious coincidences and correspondences, but we give ourselves an exciting opportunity: the chance to bring into our stories events that will make them not merely plausible but arresting. “What else might be going on in the life of this character?” is a question that is not hard to answer, and if we are open, as we write, to the strong feeling in our work, the possibilities that come to mind will often turn out to enliven our stories and tell us more than we knew about what’s going on in them.

Coincidence is often what gives fiction its chance to mean something. When two things come together, improbably or not, a spark is struck. Making those things happen simultaneously suggests that meaning is just beyond the surface. Many of us are in rebellion against meaningfulness. Randomness is cool and anything else is slightly nauseating, the sort of profound philosophy that can be inscribed on mugs printed with little rainbows, or posted on Facebook. The risk is that the author is seen scrambling around making it happen, caring too much about meaning. Coincidence is risky.

Coincidence is risky, but risk is good, we all know that. When one of my sons was in a writing program in high school, he was graded on risk-taking. “Jacob got an A-minus in risk,” I told anyone who’d listen. Aren’t we looking for guidance in writing that, unlike the directions provided by rules and formulas, will be unsafe? Of course, it’s risky—and often admirable—to write openly about true personal hardship and pain. It’s also risky to make up story. If the dictates of craft are safe and limiting, the suggestion that we make an event happen, and try to sense what other event might be going on at the same time, is not just risky; it’s stimulating. The kite soars; ideas come.

Using coincidence is part of our opportunity to focus on story, on the way story offers meaning and solace and delight. There is loveliness in things happening and then happening some more—and happening simultaneously—whether on a small or a grand scale. Anything we describe—art or music or sex or a heavy rainstorm—is in the story by report, but the story, its coinciding strands, is there itself, something beautiful no matter what’s in it. Writing must always be linear, since we read one word at a time, but nothing in life happens all by itself. Coincidence brings simultaneity into your story. Used thoughtfully, it makes the narrative richer and deeper. Look to the right and left of your characters; see what more they can do, what they must do, to articulate in action that inner life we love so much. Like dreams, stories make feeling tangible.


Alice Mattison is a widely acclaimed author and longtime writing teacher. She has published six novels—including The Book Borrower, Nothing Is Quite Forgotten in Brooklyn, and When We Argued All Night—as well as four collections of short stories and a collection of poems. Twelve of her stories have appeared in The New Yorker, and other work has been published in The New York Times, Ploughshares, and Ecotone and anthologized in The Pushcart Prize, PEN/O. Henry Prize Stories, and Best American Short Stories. A frequent panelist at AWP and other writing conferences, she has held residencies at Yaddo and the MacDowell Colony. She has taught at Brooklyn College, Yale University, and, for the last twenty-one years, in the Bennington Writing Seminars, the MFA program at Bennington College. Her book The Kite and the String, is out now.