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Monday Musings: Happy Accidents

April 18, 2011

The term “happy accidents” was something I first heard when watching the Bob Ross instructional painting show on PBS.  Ross was a really soft-voiced dude with a white guy Afro who would make a painting–usually a landscape or still life–over the 20-some minutes or so of the show.  If he screwed something up he’d call it a “happy accident” because most of the time it didn’t really ruin the picture.  Sometimes it made it better.

I have happy accidents in writing all the time.  The best ones are those moments of accidental genius that you didn’t plan for but make the story much better.  When that happens, you think, “Holy crap, this is great!  Why didn’t I think of it sooner?”

With this story, I described how the first draft had lost my interest, but then through a happy accident I decided to do a second draft set in the ’30s with Nazis as bad guys and that got the juices flowing again.

It was in Chapter 4 that I had a major happy accident that took the story in new directions.  My witch character Sylvia goes to a local college where her sister felt a disturbance in the Force, er magic.  She’s never been there–or to any school because she’s 400 years old and back in her day they didn’t have public schools in France–so she asks someone for directions to the admin building so she can find some information.

Here’s the happy accident:  on a whim I decided that person should be Cecelia, who’s an undercover agent working for the Nazis but also [SPOILER!] Sylvia’s long-lost, thought-to-be-dead daughter.  In my original vague outline I called for them to be kind of adversarial, but then as the second part of the happy accident I thought, “What if they were friends?”

So that’s how I wrote it and I think it works much, much better.  Because now we’ve set up a relationship for later when they have to be enemies.  Plus it establishes a bond between them when it becomes clear how they’re related.

It adds a whole new dimension to their relationship and to the story.  That was something I hadn’t planned on, but once I recognized it, I thought, “Why didn’t I think of this sooner?”  Those are the kind of things you have to listen for when you’re writing.  Follow those voices and maybe the story will be better off for it.

Wednesday I have a riddle for you…bwahahahahahahaha!


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  1. That’s a good conflict. I like how you establish your character being friends and then planning them to grow apart and be enemies later. It worked really well for Smallville establishing Clark and Lex as buddies in the first season and then spreading them apart by introducing jealousy, distrust, and finally Lex boning Lana. The thing is, I think that this kind of conflict is powerful but takes a while to develop which is to the disadvantage of a debut novelist.

    I was speaking about this precisely to my friend James by phone last night. I was telling him how good Game of Thrones was and how “unpublishable” I thought it was if it were handed to an editor from someone with no track record, i.e., a debut novelist. There’s no way a wet-behind-the-ears novelist could pour this kind of work into a novel, building up all the intrigue and the different nations and expect an agent or an editor to look at it. Given also that the first book, “Game of Thrones” tips the scale at 240,000 words. That in itself would be impossible without having a name behind it in my opinion.

    • I watched the first couple seasons of “Smallville” but stopped before they really got around to making Clark and Lex into enemies. I can’t believe it’s last 10 seasons, though now I guess they’re finally ending it.

      Anyway, I think I’ll have to do an express version of that. In the first draft it’s really too express because I thought of it on the fly. In a second draft I’d like to let it grow a bit more before dropping the hammer.

      I had a similar lament as you did about “Game of Thrones” with “That Old Cape Magic” by Richard Russo. I was saying that there’s no way a nobody like me could get a book about a boring middle-aged guy with parental issues having a low-key midlife crisis published. There wouldn’t be any way to make that “hookable” to an agent. The same way I doubt Steven King could have pitched a 1000-page book like “The Stand” first. You kind of have to pay your dues with something less ambitious and then if you have good sales or win the Pulitzer you have carte blanche to do what you want.

  2. I like hearing how real writers develop real stories. All of my writing is a “happy accident” by your standards.

    As for “The Stand,” I also heard that King had to really rip that book down to get it published the first time, and that a later edition came out with what he wanted in it. I think I read the later edition; it remains one of the best books I’ve ever read.

    • Yeah I read your review you reTweeted a couple weeks ago. I should probably read that at some point, but I haven’t gotten around to it yet.

      And who are you calling a “real” writer?

      • BTW, “briane pagel” is a search term someone used to get here today!

  3. I do so enjoy that. Once I wrote a whole love story into a book without really realizing it. One of my friends read the book and asked me, “WHEN are they going to kiss already?” So I had to tell him that the girl died. And then I had to re-write the story so she didn’t die. But that didn’t work. Really, it was a “tragic accident”, because her death was even worse now that she had found true love. But it worked, you know? Your story sounds very interesting!

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