Tuesday, September 4, 2018

What Ian Fleming Did to Make James Bond a Success (Besides Write Terrific Books)


It’s not just today’s authors who work hard to make their books a success. Consider Ian Fleming.
The Man With The Golden Typewriter: Ian Fleming’s James Bond Letters is a collection by Fleming’s nephew of the author’s letters to his publisher, editors, colleagues, other writers, fans, readers, and friends.
They were written in the 1950s when the British mail service operated at high efficiency. A letter mailed in the morning would be delivered the same day. The letters are organized chronologically and were written contemporaneous to the publication of the James Bond thrillers, beginning with Casino Royale.
Lively, witty, and extremely informative about the inner working of book publishing at the time, the letters reveal Fleming to be a man of charm, lively intellect and wide interests.
He was also a hard-working author concerned with the technical, editorial, and financial details of publishing.

Ian Fleming’s Publisher Wasn’t Impressed.

James Bond, as we think of the suave spy today, was hardly an instant, overnight success.
In fact, his publisher was—shall we say—barely lukewarm about Casino Royale. He had little interest in thrillers, “believing them to be short-run phenomena that rarely covered their costs. Nor did he think much of their authors, and suspected that Fleming was a dilettante. Remarkably, Casino Royale was the only Bond book Fleming’s publisher ever read.”

He Faced the “Dreadful Prospect” of Getting Married

Fleming’s hard work and interest in every aspect of publishing may well have saved James Bond from obscurity.
Fleming was a disciplined writer. Every morning, for three hours, he sat at his desk and typed 2,000 words of a new Bond adventure during January and February. Those were the months he spent in his house, Goldeneye, located on the Caribbean island of Jamaica.
He shored up his discipline by “obstinately closing my mind to self-mockery” and wondering “what will my friends say?” He joked that as “a confirmed bachelor on the eve of marriage, I decided to take my mind off the dreadful prospect by writing a thriller.”

A Steely Eye on the Finances.

Fleming’s nephew comments that “he liked to joke that he was Cape’s hardest working author, and to an extent this was true. He had made a career in journalism, ran a network of foreign correspondents and was, indeed, a publisher himself and a collector of first editions.
There was little Cape [his publisher] could tell him that he didn’t know already. ‘I enjoyed his enthusiastic interest in the technicalities of production,’ wrote Michael Howard with surprise. That soon turned to alarm when “it became clear that Fleming had more in mind than simply delivering a manuscript. He designed the covers, organised reviews, invented sales tactics and cast a steely eye over the finances.”

Blurbs, Covers, and Print Orders.

Fleming also wrote blurbs, concerned himself with the details of covers and size of print orders, and suggested ads and promotions, Also, he drummed up reviews, contacted magazine editors about feature stories, and concerned himself with the size of print orders, advertising budgets as well as the ads themselves.
Nor did he overlook the details of his contracts—royalties, foreign editions, option, serial, movies, and tv. He worked closely with cover designers, making suggestions about images, and commenting on title fonts.

Guns, Perfume, and Typos.

Determined to make his books as good as possible, Fleming was an avid reseacher intent on tracking down the “perfect” kind of gun or the exact perfume a heroine might wear. He explored Harlem’s nightlife on a trip to America in December 1952, tracked down information on gold doubloons and Spanish treasure by consulting Spink, London’s premier coin dealers. And scenes taking place in Florida were based on his visit to that state at the beginning of 1953.
He welcomed input from his editors, readers, and friends and was constantly working to make the books as good as possible. He even alerted his publisher to typos to correct in future editions.

Advice from Readers and Other Writers.

Fleming paid attention to advice from other writers like Raymond Chandler, Noel Coward and Somerset Maugham.
The novelist Michael Arlen advised him to “write your second book before you see the reviews of the first. Casino Royale is good but the reviewers may damn it and take the heart out of you.” Heeding Arlen’s words, Fleming completed Live and Let Die before its predecessor had even been published.
He also carried on a lively correspondence with readers. One reader who was an expert in guns (and holsters) made specific recommendations for Bond’s weaponry.
Another who worked in the Yale University library corrected what Fleming referred to as his “Americanese.”
In fact, it seemed that about the only thing he didn’t do was actually drive the trucks that delivered copies to bookstores.
Always polite and often witty—even when pushing back on the royalty rates offered by his publisher or when replying to a dissatisfied reader’s negative comments—he concluded his note to her “with many thanks for the kindly thought behind your letter.”

The Sheer, Ridiculous Delight!

And, about that golden typewriter: yes indeed, Ian Fleming did have a real—as well as a metaphorical—golden typewriter. According to his nephew, “Fleming had always longed for success, but failing that would settle for the trappings.
So, in anticipation, he ordered a gold-plated typewriter from New York to congratulate himself on finishing his first novel.
Ian Fleming had a golden typewriter like this
It was a Royal Quiet de Luxe, cost $ 174. It wasn’t a custom-made machine—Royal had produced several of them—and Fleming’s literary acquaintances considered it the height of vulgarity. Fleming did not care. “It was the sheer, ridiculous delight of the thing. He owned a Golden Typewriter!”

Beyond his Wildest Dreams.

Not just literal gold. But, as it would turn out, golden beyond Fleming’s wildest dreams.
Originally published at Anne R. Allen's blog.


Sunday, July 1, 2018

My Mom's quick, easy, utterly delicious recipe for old-fashioned blueberry cobbler.

Summer's here. So are blueberries—and Blueberry Cobbler!

Blueberry Cobbler

My Mom was a proud New Englander and an excellent cook. Her recipe for blueberry cobbler is quick, easy and delicious, perfect to share with friends, family or to eat standing up in the kitchen as it comes fresh from the oven!

1 quart blueberries
1/2 cup sugar
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon

Place in buttered oven-proof casserole.

1/2 cup sugar
1 cup sifted flour
1 1/2 teaspoon baking powder
3 tablespoons butter
1/2 cup milk

Combine dry ingredients. Cut in butter until crumbly. Moisten with 1/2 cup milk. Spread over berry mixture and bake in 400 oven for 25-30 minutes until bubbly and lightly browned.

Et voilà!

Enjoy with or without ice cream.
Alone or with someone you love.
Morning, noon or night. :-)

Monday, May 7, 2018

Looking For A New Book To Read? Great Books, Great First Sentences.


Stephen King has said that he spends “months and years” creating that first line. He goes on to say: “An opening line should invite the reader to begin the story. It should say: Listen. Come in here. You want to know about this.”
The question is, how does he accomplish all this in one sentence? From Moby Dick’s “Call me Ishmael” to Charles Dickens’ “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times,” some first sentences have become famous classics. So, too, Jane Austen’s “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.”
A deeper look into the breadth of masterful first sentences offers a wide array of the ways writers draw readers into their stories and inspiring examples of how much information can be conveyed in a single sentence.

The First Person Introduction.

In a memoir or a novel written in the first person, the author puts himself in the mind of the central character and, in one way or another, tells readers that we are about to get the real deal. No BS here, the sentence promises, just the honest, unvarnished truth about someone we want to know more about.
Sylvia Plath uses the first sentence of The Bell Jar, to establish the nervous, dark mood that hovers over the character and the story. Her story begins—
“It was a queer, sultry summer, the summer they electrocuted the Rosenbergs, and I didn’t know what I was doing in New York.”
Plath’s use of the word electrocuted provides an unexpected jolt and mention of the Rosenbergs sets a time (June 1953). Sultry summer sets an uncomfortable season, New York establishes a place, and the final phrase conveys the uncertainty of a young woman struggling to find an identity and a place in life.
Vladimir Nabokov uses the first nine words of Lolita to convey the note of obsessive erotic desire that pulses through the entire novel.
“Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins.”
Nabokov begins by naming the object of his passion, the word light expresses her transformative influence on the narrator, the word loins promises that we will be reading a story about sex, and the repetition of the letter l creates the feeling of an incantation.
In Ghostwriters In The Sky, Book 1 of The Camilla Randall Mysteries, Anne uses her first sentence to introduce the MC, locate the place (the subway can only mean NYC), and refer to the season (sweaty indicates hot, most likely summer). [Currently on sale for 99c]
“The subway car was so crowded I couldn’t tell which one of the sweaty men pressing against me was attached to the hand now creeping up my thigh.”
The phrase “creeping up my thigh” indicates a level of unwanted personal attention which places the character in an uncomfortable, if rather ludicrous situation—a theme that will be repeated in different variations throughout the novel.
In Catcher In the Rye, J.D. Salinger uses an effective but contradictory combination of bravado and vulnerability to establish a unique voice as he introduces us to preppy Holden Caulfield.
“If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don’t feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth. 
We read on because Salinger’s confessional tone makes us want to know more about his lousy childhood and find out why he doesn’t feel like going into it.

The Third Person Introduction.

In Goldfinger, Ian Fleming introduces 007 in the first sentence.
“James Bond, with two double bourbons inside him, sat in the final departure lounge of Miami airport and thought about life and death.”
Fleming has told us in only a few words that his MC is a drinking man, one who travels, and one who contemplates the larger questions of existence. Where, we wonder, is Bond going, what is he going to do once he gets there, and why does he need to down two double bourbons before he boards his flight?
In The Hobbit, JRR Tolkien simply tells us where his MC lives, but in such a startling way that we feel compelled to read on.
“In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.”
A hobbit? A story about a creature who lives in a hole? Who or what is this hobbit and why does he live in a hole. Curious, we read on.
I introduce heiress, DeeDee Dahlen, the MC in Love And Money, Book 1 of the Park Avenue Series with a brief, declarative sentence.
“Her name was DeeDee Dahlen and she was famous from the day she was born.”
How can a newly-born infant be famous?, the reader wonders. What rewards—and penalties—does unasked-for celebrity impose? What secrets and scandal will shadow her future?—urgent questions that will reverberate throughout the entire novel. [Love And Money is now FREE at Amazon, Nook, iBooks, GooglePlay and Kobo.]
Graham Greene, in Brighton Rock, compels us to want to know more.
“Hale knew, before he had been in Brighton three hours, that they meant to murder him.”
Who are the ‘they?’ we wonder. And what has Hale done? Why do ‘they’ want to kill him?
Gabriel Garcia Marquez begins One Hundred Years of Solitude with this famous sentence—
“Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendia was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice.”
The author uses a shocking situation—a man facing a firing squad—plus a long-ago memory to pique our curiosity. Who is the Colonel and what had he done that he ends up facing a firing squad? What was there about the discovery of ice that it has lodged so forcefully in his memory? Compelling questions to which we must find the answer and, thus, we continue to read.

A Theme.

Whether classic literature, hard-boiled pulp fiction, or cyberpunk scifi, the first sentence establishes a theme that will continue throughout the story. If the book does not follow through on the promise of that first sentence, the disappointed reader will feel cheated.
In his first sentence, Leo Tolstoy in Anna Karenina tells us that we are about to read a story about an unhappy family.
“All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”
Why, we ask ourselves, are they unhappy? What has happened to them and what will they do? Powerful questions the reader wants answered.
James Matthew Barrie establishes the theme of Peter Pan with a brief, declarative statement.
“All children, except one, grow up.”
Which child, we wonder. Why not? And what will happen to a child who doesn’t grow up?
A far different theme is set by Franz Kafka in his posthumously published 1925 novel, The Trial.
Someone must have slandered Josef K., for one morning, without having done anything truly wrong, he was arrested.
Kafka’s first sentence thrusts us immediately into the MC’s waking nightmare of terror and paranoia that will be sustained throughout the story.
William Gibson’s Neuromancer was the first novel to win the Nebula Award, the Philip K. Dick Award, and the Hugo Award. The chilling first sentence, said to have been written at the last minute, sets the novel’s theme of a burnt-out computer hacker adrift in a dystopian near future governed by artificial intelligence.
“The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel.”
Hunter S Thompson, starts his novel, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, by establishing a place, a mood, and a theme (a disenchanted retrospective look at the 1960s) in the first sentence.
“We were somewhere around Barstow on the edge of the desert when the drugs began to take hold.”

A Tease, a Shock, a Jolt.

A skillfully written first sentence containing a tease, a shock or a jolt can introduce a character, establish a tone or a setting, and dare the reader not to continue.
The first sentence of Nineteen Eighty-FourGeorge Orwell’s dystopian novel, often considered one of the best one hundred books of the 20th Century, tells us immediately that something—time itself—is awry in a future world of Big Brother, doublethink and government surveillance.
“It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.”
Joe Konrath pulls us right into the action in the first sentence of his mystery thriller, Dirty Martini, Book 4 of the Jacqueline “Jack” Daniels Mystery series.
“No security cameras this time, but he still has to be careful.”
What is he doing, we wonder? In his first sentence, Konrath lets us know that whatever it is, it’s something he’s done before. Something risky, perhaps dangerous, and, even though experienced, he still has to be careful. Of what? Of whom?
In his legal thriller, The Firm, John Grisham uses his first sentence to tell us that this unnamed and mysterious senior partner will indeed find something to dislike about Mitchell Y. McDeere who, the word résumé indicates, is being considered for a job.
“The senior partner studied the résumé for the hundredth time and again found nothing he disliked about Mitchell Y. McDeere, at least not on paper.”
What kind of job, we wonder, and what will the senior partner find to dislike? Grisham’s tease promises evil doings and the reader is lured on.
In L.A. ConfidentialJames Ellroy’s first sentence introduces a main character, sets a theme, and tells us exactly what we are about to read. Ellroy uses a knowledgable tone and vernacular language to let us know that he knows what he’s talking about.
“An abandoned auto court in the San Berdoo foothills; Buzz Meeks checked in with ninety-four thousand dollars, eighteen pounds of high-grade heroin, a 10-gauge pump, a .38 special, a .45 automatic, and a switchblade he’d bought off a pachuco at the border—right before he spotted the car parked across the line: Mickey Cohen goons in an LAPD unmarked, Tijuana cops standing by to bootsack his goodies, dump his body in the San Ysidro River.”
Dennis Lehane, in his short story, Until Gwen pulls us in with the use of the second person combined with the promise of drugs and sex.
“Your father picks you up from prison in a stolen Dodge Neon, with an 8-ball of coke in the glove compartment and a hooker named Mandy in the back seat.”

The Rule Breakers.

Although writers are often cautioned about starting a book with a character’s dream, that rule was effectively broken in the classic first sentence of Daphne DuMaurier’s famous gothic mystery, Rebecca.
“Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again.”
Marie Force begins her Gansett Island romance, Meant For Love, with a reference to a dream.
“The dream was always the same, the last perfect moment before life as Jenny Wilks knew it changed forever.”
Both dreams refer to emotionally significant aspects of the characters’ pasts. The reader wonders why the unidentified first-person narrator of Rebecca dreams of a place and Jenny Wilks of a “perfect” life now gone forever. The authors use dreams to provoke interest in their characters and in the events of the story to come.
The passive tense is usually considered to be another no-no. Charles McCarry, in The Tears Of Autumnconsidered to be one of the best espionage thrillers of the 20th Century, uses the passive tense to introduce American intelligence officer, Paul Christopher, who is investigating the assassination of John F. Kennedy.
“Paul Christopher had been loved by two women who could not understand why he had stopped writing poetry.”
McCarry’s elegant use of the passive tense to introduce his MC sets the theme of the book: an exploration of glittering promise that results in the wreckage of unintended consequences—the end of poetry and the end of Camelot.
Whether you're looking for a thriller or a romance, whether you want to revisit a classic you read years ago or one you've never quite caught up with, I hope this buffet of great first lines will help you find your next great read. :-)

Thursday, April 5, 2018

Writing and The Secret Power Of The Subconscious: Summoning Your Muse

Thursday, March 8, 2018

Plot Holes And Pot Holes: 8 Common Mistakes Readers Hate—And How To Fix Them



Beware plot and pot holes in your fiction! 
We all come face to face with them, those pesky glitches, oopsies, OMGs and WTFs that ruin a story, turn a reader off, guarantee a slew of one-star reviews—and kill sales.
Beta readers will often point them out. Editors are professional fixers, always on the lookout for booboos. You will realize them yourself when you wake up at 3AM sudden realizing that the MC’s beloved pet who started out as a friendly, tail-wagging Golden Retriever, has somehow become a snarling, saber-toothed attack dog.
These unforced errors range from plot holes, small and economy-size, to lapses in logic. They also include poorly conceived characters, blah settings, pointless dialogue, and momentum-killing info dumps. Even a few will make your book—and you—look like a loser on amateur night.
You need to find them—and fix them—before readers do.

1. Lapses in logic.

Your MC is stranded on a dry planet in a far galaxy but when the villain suddenly appears bent on revenge and brandishing a nuclear ray gun, said villain falls into a deep puddle and drowns.
Your cute, adorable if somewhat ditzy heroine is a lousy, horrible, terrible cook. The reader falls in love with her—until she cooks a four course gourmet dinner for her hunky new boyfriend.
Your MC has just broken her leg and is lying helpless in the middle of the road waiting for an ambulance but suddenly gets up and kicks the you-know-what out of her antoganist. Uh. Really?
“&$#%!!?” thinks your reader as s/he throws your book across the room.

The fix.

In cases like this, the lapse is the result of inadvertantly omitting the necessary set up. Go back several scenes and let your reader know that—
The dry planet in a far galaxy experienced a once-in-a-century-torrential rainstorm. Residual puddles, deep and dangerous, lurk and your villain, who we now know is color blind, thanks to your new, artful set up, does not see the beautiful, shimmering but deep and dangerous turquoise blue water.
Oh, and did Ms. Ditzy, win a course with Monsieur Master Chef in a cute and adorable contest? If you go back and insert such a scene, why, yes, of course she did. Got at A+, too!
Your MC thinks quickly and, despite being in excruciating pain, fashions a splint out of a nearby fallen branch, thus allowing him or her to get up and kick the bleep out of the antagonist. That is one MC not to be messed with!

2. Mean girls (and boys).

Your heroine, Sally, is madly in love but falls even mad-lier in love when a handsomer, richer, sexier, guy comes along and catches her eye (plus other parts of her anatomy).
Could be the basis of a suspenseful/comic/sad situation, but if bf #1 is never mentioned again, if Sally never gives him another thought, or never has even a transient moment of regret or what-if, you’ve got a heroine so self-centered and maybe even narcissistic that no reader can relate.
Not just girls, either. Just read the headlines to find plenty of examples of guys who are far less than stellar. You really expect a reader to stay with this kind of guy for very long? Their wives divorce them, their girl friends dump them and so should you.

The fix.

Check your characters for basic decency or, in extreme cases, mental health, but don’t forget that even villains must have a redeeming quality.

3. Info dumps.

Blah,blah, blah. And then this happened and after a while that happened. Blah,blah, blah. Then they went from here to there and that’s why blah blah blah.
Info dumps stop the plot in its tracks. They are boring to read and, in fact, boring to write. Readers hate them and writers should, too.
You should be on info dump alert whenever you review your manuscript and see long, dense grey blocks of text or lengthy paragraphs of narrative.  You should also pay attention whenever you bore yourself writing. Trust me, it happens. 😉

The fix.

Serve in bite-size pieces. Instead of one long, boring info dump, create several interesting scenes sprinkled throughout the book that convey the needed information in an interesting, provocative, dramatic, suspenseful way.
Speaking of boring—

4. Do nothing, go nowhere dialogue.

“Hi, George.”
“Hi, Bill.”
“Nice day.”
“Yeah.”
“What’s up?”
“Not much. Bought new windshield wipers for the car. You?”
“Just got back from the dentist.”
Bored, aren’t you? Just imagine your poor, defenseless reader.

The fix.

Ye olde trusty delete button. (This is a great place to use the kind of indirect dialogue I talked about earlier this month…Anne.  🙂 )
Or, if you absolutely positively need to have Bill and George meet, you need to give us a reason and make the encounter riveting. Bill is dating George’s ex and wants to warn him that she is Very Bad News? They’re competing for the same job and are secretly sticking the shiv in each other? They’re on the same Seal Team and are joining up to assassinate the world’s worst Bad Guy?

5. Where are we?

Your MC goes on a Caribbean vacation but, after enjoying a rum punch on a terrace overlooking a crescent of white beach, opens a suitcase containing a wardrobe better suited for the slopes of Vermont. Because you began with the idea of a sexy ski holiday, but changed your mind in mid-manuscript when a YouTube video of white sands and turquoise water beckoned?

The fix.

What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas and, in fiction, a scene that starts in the Caribbean ends in the Caribbean. Your MC can go to Vermont next week.
And don’t forget—

Your MC is swanning around in a Chicago penthouse in Chapter 1. In Chapter 4 s/he is homeless and living in a dumpster. In January. And not in Australia, either, where January is summer. Let’s keep it in the Northern Hemisphere and explain what happened.
Besides—
A scene that starts in the kitchen ends in the kitchen. Unless you tell the reader why the characters are suddenly in the basement of a haunted house. Here’s where a transition sentence or, even better, a scene break is essential.
A scene that begins on the phone ends on the phone and, by the way, unless they’re on Skype, characters on the phone cannot see each other. They can hear each other shout, whisper, or coo sweet nothings, but they cannot see raised eyebrows, reddened faces or piercing green eyes.
PS: How do I know? Been there, done that, and not so long ago, either. 😉

6. Huh? (It’s called continuity in the movies.)

Movie fans love to point out bloopers like this. Book readers will notice,too.
  • A blue eyed demon when introduced. Brown eyed devil half a dozen chapters later.
  • MC works in Starbucks. She’s there every day. We never see her anywhere else. She’s a World Class barista. Then why is she suddenly a new hire in the electronics section at Best Buy where her boss is chasing her around the displays of headphones, routers, and TVs?
  • Chase scene starts with the guy in a Ferrari and the gal in a junker. Ends with her in the Ferrari and him in the junker. Huh? How come? Wha happened?

The fix.

Your style sheet to the rescue.
What’s a style sheet?
Funny you should ask. Here’s where Ruth tells All.

7. Dropped subplots.

Self explanatory: A character or situation is abandoned or left dangling in space.
Jane and Jake, your MC’s sister and best friend, hate each other but, against all odds, on one dark night, they share a sizzling hot kiss. Then what happens?
They fall in love and live happily ever after? They join opposing intelligence services and swear eternal vengeance? The next morning, they shrug, say meh and mark it down to too much craft beer? Or do they make plans for a second date?
We last saw Jim when his car was skidding out of control on an icy mountain road in Alaska as he is escaping the evil clutches of Mr. Nasty. The car lurches wildly, careens over a cliff. Then what happens?
Jim’s amazing driving ability allows him to right the car before it crashes? Or it doesn’t and the car is totaled but Jim is rescued by friendly locals? Or are they maybe not so friendly? And, by the way, it’s not a dream. It’s a real situation and Jim absolutely has to get out of it.
Do NOT leave your reader in the lurch, wondering what happens next.

The fix.

Complete the arc and let the reader know!
However, if we’re talking about minor characters like Jane and Jake, go to the nuclear option and delete. (Keep the kiss in a Future File. Might make a good short story or even morph into another scene in another book.)

8. TDTL: Too Dumb To Live

The detective who sees Mary Z. with a bloody axe leave a murder scene but never suspects Mary Z is the killer.
The wife who finds lipstick on her husband’s tighty whiteys but believes his obviously ridiculous story about working late reprogramming a malfunctioning robot.
The superhero who can fly over the tallest buildings but is such a klutz s/he can’t get up the stairs to save The Love Of His/Her Life from the dastardly villain.
How do characters like this remember to breathe?
Readers will not care.

The fix:

Please, do yourself (and your character) a favor, and give him or her an IQ over room temp.

Reposted from Anne R. Allen. :-)

Wednesday, February 7, 2018

9 Powerful Secrets Readers Crave—And Writers Must Know


SECRETS!


Shhh!
Secrets.
Everyone has them.
Every book must have at least one because secrets are the jet-powered engine that propels fiction forward. Ever notice how many blurbs in the daily BookBub email include the word secret?
Secrets provide motivation, plot, character, even a setting (a haunted house, anyone?). From Madame Bovary to Carrie, from Rebecca to Big Little Lies, from thrillers to romance, from mystery to women’s fiction to sci-fi, every story revolves around a secret.
Secrets ripple outward and can produce unexpected consequences a writer can take advantage of. Because secrets need to be protected, denied, defended, excused, they will have predictable (and unforeseen) consequences on the people who guard them, excuse them, or wilfully blind themselves to their existence.
People with secrets are good at keeping them—until they’re not—or else until some external event spills the beans. For example: a nuclear leak from a secret underground testing site that becomes a global headline. The slip up—the “tell”—will then become a major turning point in a novel.
In fiction, secrets must be revealed, and the tension secrets create must be resolved. As you plot, plan or pants your book, you will find that a well-chosen secret will provide you with a focus that will energize your writing—and your book.

1. Secrets With A Silver Lining
Silver lining secrets can work well in romance or cozy mysteries.
What if someone finds out that the Famous TV Chef thinks the local greasy spoon makes better french fries than the ones FTC makes in her fancy, custom-designed, multimillion-dollar kitchen?
Might be embarrassing, but won’t kill anyone unless someone adds poison (which could work in a thriller or mystery). Might not even necessarily end the FTC’s career. With shrewd PR, the Greasy Spoon Affair could make that chef even more famous. As long as the FTC doesn’t serve Greasy Spoon fries for $35 a pop in her pricey restaurant and pass them off as his/her own—in which case fraud might be alleged and costly lawsuits might ensue.
When a cute, sexy lawyer might appear to make all the bad stuff disappear and provide a HEA for our beleaguered heroine. ;-)

2. State secrets
State Secrets are the meat and bones of thrillers from Eric Ambler and John Buchan to Charles McCarry, Ian Fleming and John Le Carré. The plots of spy novels revolve around characters adept at uncovering secrets, keeping secrets, stealing secrets and, in The Manchurian Candidate by Richard Condon, secretly transformed by brainwashing into a deadly weapon—a sleeper assassin, programmed to kill without question or mercy.
The cast of characters holding state secrets also include—
  • The spy who can’t be trusted: the treacherous double agent.
  • The scientist—mad or otherwise—who has created—by accident or on purpose—the formula for a new, population-decimating chemical weapon.
  • A powerful world leader—a paragon of enlightened leadership or a Stalin-esque dictator—suffering from a fatal disease or destructive neurological condition that must be concealed—or else!
  • An secret international conspiracy—ever hear of a well-publicized conspiracy?—whose goal is world domination.
  • A top-secret assassination plot that must be uncovered and then stopped.
  • A fatherly-looking but secretly demented, power-crazed lunatic who threatens the stability of international financial markets and, thus, world peace itself.

3. Secret baby
A classic trope, the secret baby often—but not always—occurs as a romance sub genre. To mention only a few, there are SEAL’s Secret Babies, Vampire Secret Babies, and Billionaire’s Secret Babies. You will find lists of secret baby romance novels at FictionDB, at GoodReads and at SmartBitchesTrashyBooks.
In Love And Money, mainstream women’s fiction published in hard cover by Random House, the mistress and the wife of a wealthy man deliver babies at almost the same time. The half-sisters, who do not know of each other’s existence, grow up in different worlds, one a beautiful, indulged heiress, the other a wrong-side-of-the-tracks neglected child, a dramatic disparity that allowed me to write about class, envy, privilege, resentment and ambition.

4. Family secrets
Family secrets take a starring role in sagas and women’s fiction—and in memoirs.
  • An upstanding citizen who is in reality a deadbeat dad who might—or might not—reconcile with his children.
  • A PTA shining star but secretly neglectful mom who might—or might not—see the error of her ways.
  • The sibling who stealthily cheats his brother/sister out of his/her inheritance
  • The rich/powerful/vindictive/creepy relative no one wants to cross.
  • A family fortune created through hard work and persistence—or was it?
  • The alcoholic/mentally ill relative whose erratic, unpredictable behavior affects several generations.
  • An accidental death that wasn’t so “accidental”
  • The BookBub blurb for Alan Cumming’s #1 New York Times bestselling memoir, Not My Father’s Son, refers to “the family secrets that shaped him.”

5. Dark secrets
These are the secrets that form the spine of mysteries.
Who-dun-it?
Why’d-they-do-it?
How’d they do it?
How can the MC track down the bad guy or gal?
When someone shoots aging bad-girl rocker Morgan Le Fay and threatens to finish the job in Anne’s The Lady of the Lakewood Diner, people assume the perp’s a fan of Morgan’s legendary dead rock-god husband. However, the real reason for the attack may be a secret buried in Morgan's hometown where her childhood best friend may be the only person who knows the dark secret that can save Morgan's life. Anne uses that one secret to propel the plot forward throughout the book.

6. Open Secrets
Open secrets are the emperor-has-no-clothes, Harvey Weinstein, Jerry Sandusky, women’s gymnastics’ category of secrets. These are the secrets that can be used to ensnare numerous connected characters who might or might not be related.
Open secrets create a Potemkin Village faux reality in which characters who need to protect themselves from exposure—and consequences—pretend not to know what they actually do know. Lost in a web of confusion, deceit, evasion and denial, these characters are forced by circumstances over which they have no control to become liars, hypocrites, and classic unreliable narrators.
“Everyone knows” but no one says anything—until someone does—at which point your plot attains jet speed velocity.
Open secrets can be played for drama—or even for humor.
  • The Big Boss is a predatory sexual abuser so people who must work with or for him keep their distance, whisper warnings to others, know better than to share an elevator or after-work drink with him, go to great lengths to make sure they are never trapped alone in his office/hotel room with him.
  • No one admits that Uncle Jim is an incompetent screw-up who can’t keep a job. However, when he wears a suit and tie, he looks like he belongs in a boardroom—until he insults a powerful CEO. At which point, the company’s stock takes off and everyone gets rich by mistake and Uncle Jim is forced to straighten up and fly right.
  • Aunt Susie has a shoplifting problem but the family pays off stores to keep her out of jail and her “problem” is never mentioned—until she lifts a hundred-thousand dollar diamond ring and, this time, the family can’t afford to pay and all hell breaks loose.
  • Cousin Bill, captain of the football team, has tried suicide several times, but the family refuses to admit/confront his mental health issues—until he is photographed pointing a gun to his head on the sidelines at the Big Game.
  • Niece Eileen is about to marry her long-time girl friend but none of the family will help her pick out her dress or plan her wedding because “everyone” knows no one in our family is gay. Drama, tears, laughter, and hugs ensue.

7. Secrets we keep from ourselves
These are the character-driven secrets. In We Need To Talk About Kevin, Lionel Shriver unveils a bleak reality as the MC reveals feelings about motherhood, marriage, and family kept secret until her young son murders classmates and she is forced to confront her own possible responsibility.
Other examples:
Your MC is an addiction expert who doesn’t realize his/her own kid is an addict. S/he misses the signs: the switch to long sleeve shirts or blouses, the constant need for money, the requests for “loans” that don’t get repaid, the frequent questions about “when will you be home?” so your MC never sees his/her kid high.
The wife who doesn’t see tip offs to her husband’s affair although the clues are in plain sight. In my NYT bestseller, Decades, Evelyn Bain sees signs of her husband’s affair all around her—the unexplained late nights at the office, the way he disappears for weekends for “business,” his provocative banter with his friends about their extra-marital sexual exploits—but denies their meaning to herself. Until the secret is dramatically revealed and Evelyn’s life is turned upside down.

8. Secret dreams
Secret dreams provide the skeleton of Cinderella stories and often lie at the heart of romance in which the couple need to unlock each others’ secrets in order to achieve their HEA.
  • The girl (or guy) who was jilted/left at the altar and has vowed never to fall in love again—until s/he meets Ms or Mr Right and must resolve the injury of the past.
  • The couple who break up but meet again and must work through the secret anger/misunderstanding that has kept them apart.
  • The gorgeous guy who has women falling all over him, but who secretly yearns to find The One.
  • The beautiful, successful entrepreneur who doesn’t have time for romance—but secretly longs to be swept off her feet.

9. Secret super power
Fabulous, fantastic, incredible, killer first drafts.
Ha!
Not happening, not to me, anyway, but thanks for the question. ;-)


Enough about me. Now about you!
Readers: What kinds of secrets keep you reading?
Writers:  Will you share your (writing) secrets?