What's your secret?

In his book On Writing, Sol Stein urges authors to dig deep into characters’ lives. He suggests that we imagine a photograph our character may have hidden in his or her wallet, a photograph that person doesn’t want to share with the world. An Achilles heel, it reveals a vulnerability that may be masked with denial and lies.

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He says the secret doesn’t even have to make it onto the page; it only has to be woven into the character’s identity and motivations. To Stephen Sondheim this unsaid quality must be both clear and mysterious which is a harder balance to strike: Narrative art must be clear, but it must also be mysterious. Something should remain unsaid, something just beyond our understanding, a secret. If it’s only clear, it’s kitsch; if it’s only mysterious (a much easier path), it’s condescending and pretentious and soon monotonous.

Sondheim describes the feeling I have when I close a good book and wish there was someone I could discuss it with. That’s the driving force behind book clubs and sites like goodreads. These groups exist for readers who have sucked through the hard candy coating and sunk their teeth into the soft chewy centre of the Tootsie Roll. The best is yet to come. With unanswered questions and varying perspectives they share and clarify their interpretations of stories. Writers who want to attract strong readers must offer complex characters and plots that will stand up to this scrutiny.

Can’t think of any good clues to your character’s behaviour? Visit Post Secret, a community mail art project where you can read what people willingly offer for public contemplation. It features handmade postcards that express people’s hidden longings, fears, and confessions in eloquent language and images.

Recent examples:

  • I’m thankful for the difficult people in my life. They have showed me exactly who I don’t want to be
  • I speak English….bitch (written over images of cleaning tools: mop, bucket, scrub brush)
  • some of my best traits have terrifying origins
  • come home (around the picture of a pretty young woman)
  • my family would be shocked to know I am a grandma with a secret life. I’m having a long time lesbian affair with my best friend

You don’t have to copy what you find on Post Secret but these bared souls may stir the creative juices. Perhaps an element of your character’s hidden life is waiting to be discovered there.

What secrets do you know about your current characters? What are they hiding from the world? How does it manifest itself in their behaviour?


Photo from: Wikimedia Commons

Do you conform?

In this week’s stack of junk mail, a window-and-door company’s brochure offered ‘an amazing deal, especially prepared for Current Homeowner.’ Was that supposed to make a customer feel particularly honoured? I felt more like I'd been caught in the splatter field of a marketing shotgun. That technique may be fine for selling doors and windows but I doubt it would work in trying to flog a book.

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Diluting your product to make it more ‘commercial’ will just make people like it less according to Hugh MacLeod. Worse than that, it may make you like it less. What is the point of undertaking any artistic venture if there is no pride in how it evolves?

Not persuaded? Still want to know how to please everyone so you can churn out the next must-read book? Then surf over to this Huffington Post article by John Blumenthal. He offers invaluable tips on how to write a bestselling novel. Follow his formula and, please, let me know how it turns out.

If you’re still with me then I’m guessing that you’re a serious writer, working on producing the very best story you can. It has a good plot. Your writing skills are honed. The work has been edited, edited, and edited again. Beta readers have given their feedback and you’ve rewritten it once more. Through all its shaping and changing, the story has remained true to your original inspiration. It hasn’t been bent to please one person or another. You haven’t diluted it hoping to reach the lowest common denominator of reader to assure its success. You’re secure with what it is and who you are as a writer. Now you can hope for remarkable sales but there are no guarantees.

Are you tempted to load your writing shotgun and to try to hit a greater audience? If so what changes are you prepared to make? Conversely if you’re standing your ground, telling your story your way, what editorial arguments have you had to win?


Picture from WikiMedia Commons: Men Marching by thegoldguys