Keeping Secrets

secretsKeeping Secrets

I’m not talking about your personal secrets, the ones you agonize whether or not to reveal by being naked on the page. I’m talking about the more technical issue of how/when you disclose secrets as part of your plot.

Secrets are a lovely playground for writers—so many ways to misinterpret, add mystery, and/or keep the story moving forward. But not without its pitfalls for the writer.

Too many secrets

You’ve come up with a great mystery novel idea. The FBI, CIA, NSA and Department of Justice are all trying to kill a woman with an earth-shattering secret. Throw in a rogue NSA agent and your detective and you have a dog’s breakfast of underground motives and activities. It’ll be great fun throwing in red herrings and false trails. You barrel towards your surprise ending.

Okay, so this is where you want to give a thought to your reader. You know where you’re taking this. But the reader doesn’t. All he experiences is five or six shadowy characters doing enigmatic things, all of which seem unrelated. If you’re lucky, he’ll stick with you. But more likely, he’ll be confused, can’t keep the story lines straight, and will give up on the novel as a boring tangle.

Some fixes

  • Cut down the number of suspects. I know—strikes a blow to your heart. But think about it. Why are many villains better than one really well-written one whom the detective doesn’t recognize until almost too late?
  • Make each suspect/secret really intriguing. The previous suggestion may be a bridge too far. An alternative is to spend more time with each suspect so the reader has an interest in finding out what happens to the particular characters.

Too obvious

The opposite end of the spectrum is making the villain too obvious. The character that always seems to be on the scene. The nosy parker. The excessively helpful bystander. Since your reader is often smarter than you, revealing any one of them as the murderer/villain will seem flat and been-there-done-that. And your novel will end deflated rather than with a big pop.

Some fixes

  • Give credible reasons for being there. Presumably, your bad guy has to be present or at least connected to the events experienced by your detective. Spend some energy coming up with a credible backstory for your villain. The attending doctor, the protagonist’s kid’s teacher, the physio working out the detective’s muscle cramps.
  • Let the reveal be satisfying. Okay, this isn’t really a fix. It’s more how the end product will feel to your reader. You want a I-didn’t-see-that-coming-but-it-makes-sense, rather than an Oh-okay-that’s-what-happened. If you get the first reaction, you’re likely to have built a story which kept your reader involved while planting clues he won’t recognize until after he knows the solution.

A Goldilocks moment

Yes, it is a matter of the porridge being neither too hot nor cold. Give a thought to how the story will strike the reader. Keep giving the reader a reason to turn the page. The promise of a great ending doesn’t cut it. Instead, litter the path with crumbs which allow the reader the pleasure of trying to figure things out as the novel progresses.

He’ll love you for it.

Every Hero needs a Dr. Watson

WatsonEvery Hero needs a Dr. Watson

I had the revelation that I needed a Dr. Watson when I was writing my first novel. Which will never see the light of day but from which I nevertheless learned a lot. I realized that my heroine/detective was puzzling out the mystery almost entirely in her head. Lots of thinking, not so much action.  I suppose I could have had her discuss her conundrums with her cat, but as you know, cats don’t do supportive or empathetic. And certainly not second fiddle.

Then the revelation. That’s why Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, author of the Sherlock Holmes novels, wrote in the character of Dr. Watson, faithfully following Holmes everywhere. Yes, the conceit is that Watson is recording the stories for posterity, but in fact, it is a way to allow the protagonist to work through the issues of the novel in a more dynamic way.

Not to say that talking to someone is an adequate substitute for action which moves the plot forward, but it does have the advantage of being slightly more active than inner dialogue. It also introduces the possibility of conflict or debate if/when Watson disagrees with Holmes’ analysis. Which rarely happens with the omniscient Holmes, but you get what I mean.

 (Almost) every novel needs a Dr. Watson

I think most novels need a Dr. Watson. Can be a best friend, a colleague at work, even a stranger on the subway.

Look at your draft to see if you have a Watson-like character that not only can get the protagonist’s thoughts out of his head and into speech but also potentially challenge the logic, wisdom or even morality of the hero’s intentions. Or elaborate and refine his plans.

This Watson character can, in and of himself, add a dimension to the story by having a definite view which conflicts, or at least must be reconciled, with the hero’s. Action-oriented versus cautious; retiring or larger than life; pragmatic/principled; empathetic/hard-nosed. You get the picture.

You don’t need to go crazy either in the number of contrasts or extent of the difference. Otherwise, you risk falling into caricature or stereotype. But a strong secondary character can not only enhance the story but your reader’s interest in it.

When you don’t need one

Naturally, if your hero is primarily caught up in personal angst, a secondary character providing a listening ear and even objections, might not be appropriate. When the protagonist’s raison d’être is introspection and tangling himself in the weeds of his thoughts, then allowing the story to flow as intended may be the right answer.

But if you have a worry in the back of your mind that your hero is doing too much thinking and not enough action, Dr. Watson may be your ticket. The discussions don’t in and of themselves constitute action but they seem to promote it. Give it a try.

Ideas Turn to Dross

drossIdeas Turn to Dross

Dross. At one point, I read Les Belles Images by Simone de Beauvoir, writer, philosopher, seeker of truth. I wrote:

I want to be Simone de Beauvoir—well except the dead part and Jean-Paul Satre didn’t sound like a picnic. But a de Beauvoir in training. An apprentice de Beauvoir. A de Beauvoir groupie even although this last seems difficult to pull off when the subject isn’t expelling her fair share of carbon dioxide. Although think Marilyn Monroe. Or Elvis.  Thirties, no? Cigarette holder, art deco revival, possibly turban. Need to grow about six inches, lose fifty pounds and have that laser eye surgery.

It wasn’t that I admired her lifestyle, but her ability to think great thoughts and more importantly, to get them on paper. 

Turning to Dross

Instead, I often feel like what I have in my head goes through a funnel of the sharpest angle and narrowest spout so that what eventually gets down on paper was only the suggestion of photocopy of a mimeograph. I struggle with what I had in mind and the shadow that actually appears on the page. In fact, the recording of the thoughts seems to be the mechanism by which they turn to dross. Maybe they weren’t gold to begin with but they seemed more valuable before being written down.

I wish I could be like Simone who seemed to have been able to hold onto more of what she wanted to say than I can.

I think (I hope) I’m not alone is this—that things are always better, brighter, more exciting, more lyrical in my head.

Is there an answer?

Of course not. Or at least not an easy one. I think it is a struggle we all are engaged it.

So I have thought about it and these are the tentative conclusions I have come to:

 I realize, for me, that I tend to try to make things simple and clear—a hangover, I am sure from the business writing. Taking complex concepts and explaining them concisely and clearly.

Exactly the wrong approach, I think, for fiction. Linear is bad, clarity is suspect, brevity is overrated. Instead, perhaps the opposite. Capturing the world in a phrase, life in a gesture, philosophy in a sigh—this is the nirvana of fiction writing. For all the complexities to be as one, without the need to tease out the threads and lay them out so they don’t tangle. That part of the joy is the tangled. The accidental touching, the knots that make themselves. Because I think we understand at some deep level this complexity and rejoice in it even if we cannot trace all the threads or see all the connections.

Which still doesn’t help me think bigger thoughts on paper.

Ah well, I’m like Dorothy Parker, the 1930s member of the Algonquin Round Table and cutting humorist, who said: I hate writing, I love having written.

Writing Close to the Bone

Writing Close to the Bone

I know, I know. I’ve already lectured you about emotional truth, being naked on the page, and going for broke. You might understandably be saying, “Yeah, yeah. Got it.”

But like all hard and important things, ‘getting it’ is an iterative process. You read about it once and think, “Yes, I must keep that in mind.” You read it a second time: “Right, I meant to do that.” And a third: “How come I can’t remember?”

It’s hard to recall it because it’s hard to do and outside almost everyone’ comfort zone. It takes a concerted effort. Which sometimes works and the result is a joy. And sometimes doesn’t.

So, because I think this issue is so critical to truly bringing yourself to the page, I’m going to give it another kick at the cat. But this time from when I have yearned to be able to do it.

Yearning to be close to the bone

In my journal or other times when I ‘should’ be writing, I have often whined about how hard it is to reach that spot all writers covet.

I keep watching Inside The Actors’ Studio to get another jolt like Meryl Streep’s one true thing. That she can play any character if she can find in her the one thing that is true for her and true for the character. That I can create any character if I can find that one thing that is true for her and true for me.

But it’s been dry pickings lately.

Although Dustin Hoffman. He cried. He cried almost as soon as he sat down. About his father, I think. But no matter. How close to the surface the passion. How easily it slipped out. How much I envy that—the pick ax and drill nature of my passion. So carefully concealed, so appropriately expressed. White gloves for shopping still on.  


I let myself wander away from that which would be fearless. Like the nakedness would be as unattractive as my body without clothes. Like it would confirm what we all suspected—she has an overweight soul. That passion is a garment held together by safety pins of technique. That the clever turn of phrase can be the sleight of hand, to dazzle, to distract, to confuse and ultimately, to change the subject.

Writing as a chronic condition

I know that every writer despairs sometimes of sinking deep down into who they are. I guess there might be some who don’t but I’m not sure that I’d want to hang out with them. It is unfortunately, the natural state of writers.  To doubt, to fail in courage, to have moments when they know that the world would continue to spin happily on its axis if they never wrote again.

But writing is a chronic condition. It will not be denied. You write because you must.

And it will work

As my final word on this from my journal.

Not quite drivel, not quite story. But from that place that has been absent for a while, missed and yet proceeding forward, like the impolite guest for whom you no longer hold dinner. Even though he provides the light and the laughter and the meaning.

Finales that Aren’t


Finales that Aren’t

Recently, I did a post on knowing when you’re finished your novel and I know that this post sounds like it might be a repeat but it isn’t. There is a difference between finished and finales.

There seems to be a fashion now for trilogies and other multi-book sagas. Whether this urge is driven by readers who want more or authors who have more to say, I don’t know. Personally, I shudder at the idea. If I go for broke in writing a novel, it doesn’t feel as if there is much left for a sequel. Much as I am sorry to say good-bye to my characters when I finish, I don’t usually have any urge to delve back into their lives.

But for those who feel that generational sagas are for them, one word (or more) of advice.

Finales have to be satisfying

You are nearing the end of the first volume of your trilogy and have a good idea of where the next one is going. And you want the end of the first novel on a real cliff-hanger to encourage readers to rush to read the next.

All well and good. However, it’s important to remember that the ending of the novel has to be more than an advert for the next. It needs to be a satisfying ending in and of itself.

What does satisfying mean? Relax, doesn’t have to be a happy ending, nor do all the strands need to be tied up neatly. Your main character may not even triumph. His failure might be a very satisfying ending. The right one, not the happy one.

But it does need to at least provide a resolution—perhaps not the final—but an answer to the goal your protagonist set out to achieve and has motivated him to action.

If you don’t, the end of the novel will feel as if you’ve kind of stopped in mid-sentence. It will annoy the reader who will feel, perhaps rightly, that she’s been vaguely cheated. And will not encourage the purchase of the next book of the trilogy.

The Hunger Games

The Hunger Games trilogy by Suzanne Collins is a good example of getting this right. The first volume, The Hunger Games, ends (spoiler alert) with the two main characters Katniss and Peeta, deciding to die together rather than give the authoritarian regime what it wants—a clear victor to the Games. The two are both declared victors and so the novel reaches a satisfying conclusion.

However, the kernels of the next novel are sewn in that Katniss is seen as a dangerous enemy because she engineered this perceived defeat of the government. How she becomes a symbol of the resistance is depicted in the second book of the series, Catching Fire.

Here is an example of planting the seeds of the next book while effectively providing a fulfilling finish to this story.

So, make sure that the reader is happy because there is plot closure even if with a continuing story. It’s one way to up the chances that your next novel will be eagerly anticipated.