Monday, February 12, 2007

Everyone Has Something To Hide

This almost sounds like something from my previous career. For ten odd years—and dang, was they odd!—I worked as a private detective. But as true as the title of this Monday’s blog may be for those sleuthingly-inclined, I actually learned the phrase this past weekend at my local RWA chapter’s Author and Agent Day mini-conference.

We were blessed to have mystery author Hallie Ephron (she of the Dr. Peter Zak mystery series) as one of the guest speakers.

Hallie is an amazingly good speaker. In the two hours of her dang-near non-stop, fun, witty, fascinating instruction, she had so many gems for authors and authors-to-be that I don’t have space to list them all here (hint: she has a How-To: Writing and Selling Your Mystery Novel). But I’d like to touch on one of her points for those of you who are authors or authors-to-be. And I’d also like to expound on that point for those of you who haven’t the slightest interest in penning your own tome but want to know more about Linnea Sinclair’s upcoming books and characters. (It’s not always easy to address both parties that read this blog but I’m going to give it a go.)

Hallie said that one of the important thing to remember when your planning or writing your book is that Everyone Has Something To Hide. Granted, she writes mysteries. I write science fiction/romance. But the statement is applicable across the board and across genres.

Why? To paraphrase my Writing Heroes, Dwight Swain and Jack Bickham: a story is a recounting of how someone deals with change.

“A general rule, across the board, has been that you should start with trouble...Which immediately brings up another question: What do you need, to
start a story? You need change.” (Dwight Swain, Techniques of the Selling Writer)

Nothing creates more trouble—or change—than having to deal with something you do not want to deal with. And on the very lowest scale of motivation, that—itself—could be the character’s secret: I don’t want to have to do this today. And then everything in the story forces the character to do exactly what she doesn’t want to do (and therein lies even more change—the character must change her routine, change her motivations, change her priorities, change her thinking, change the excuses she had planned and make up new ones and so on and so on... )

Most (okay, all) of use procrastinate at some point in time. None of us likes to admit it. We weave all sorts of little white lies as to why [fill in the blank] hasn’t been done, why the front walk hasn’t been shoveled, why the taxes haven’t been filed, why the sales report hasn’t been finished. On the surface, all innocuous things.

But to a writer, a potential for trouble. A potential for plot.

Why hasn’t the front walk been shoveled? (Is there a dead body under the snow? )

Why haven’t the taxes been filed? (Can I spell e-m-b-e-z-z-l-e-m-e-n-t?)

Why hasn’t the sales report been finished? (Is there a drinking or drug abuse problem keeping someone from performing their duties?)

Force the character to confront the reason why something hasn’t been done, and you start upon the path of the revelation of a secret that he does not, under any circumstances, want revealed. Something he wants to stay hidden. Because everyone has something to hide.

And this doesn’t only work—as I said—in mysteries.

Let me jump into the BSP (Blatant Self Promotion) venue for a moment and talk about my upcoming (February 27, 2007!) release, Games of Command. Science Fiction Romance. Loaded, absolutely chock full with secrets and subsequent revelations that incite change. That spawn trouble.

And one of the biggest ones has little to do with space battles or the like. It has to do with the fact that Admiral Branden Kel-Paten—a bio-cybernetic construct—has bypassed his programming, re-accessed his human side and fallen in love.

That’s Kel-Paten’s secret and biggest fear: he loves Tasha Sebastian, his former nemesis and the current captain of his flagship.

What’s the change, the trouble he faces because of it?

1 – He could be reprogrammed or even terminated if his superiors find out
2 – This emotion creates a hole in his defenses that an enemy could use to control him
3 – His sense of self-worth would be devastated if Tasha finds out what he feels for her—and rejects him

Oddly—or perhaps not so, being this is sci fi romance—it’s the last item he fears the most.

Secrets = trouble = change. Change = conflict and as the esteemed Jacqueline here will tell you, conflict is the essence of story.

So when you’re crafting your story and your characters, think about their secrets, even what might be their seemingly innocuous ones. What fears do they hold in their hearts? What could they not face if those things were revealed? How far would they go to prevent revelation?

Keep in mind a secret doesn’t have to be a dead body under the snow. It can be something as simple as a lack of self-worth (which, I assure you, is far more common than a dead body under the snow but can be equally as motivating).

And when you’re choosing a book to read from the shelves (or your friend’s TBR pile), take a moment to read the back cover blurb and an inside snippet, if there is one (or go to the author’s site and seek it out). Are secrets hinted at? Will the revelation of same hold dire consequences? If so, buy/borrow the book. You’re in for a rollicking good read.

And in the spirit of continuing BSP, I will include Games of Command’s back cover blurb:

The universe isn’t what it used to be. With the new Alliance between the Triad and the United Coalition, Captain Tasha “Sass” Sebastian finds herself serving
under her former nemesis, biocybe Admiral Branden Kel-Paten—and doing her best to hide a deadly past. But when an injured mercenary winds up in their ship’s sickbay—and into the bands of her best friend, Dr. Eden Fynn—Sass’s efforts may be wasted …

Wanted rebel Jace Serafino has information that could expose all of Sass’s secrets, tear the fragile Alliance apart—and end Sass’s career if Kel-Paten discovers them. But the biocybe has something to hide as well, something once thought impossible for his kind to possess: feelings...for Sass. Soon it’s clear that their prisoner could bring down everything they once believed was worth dying for—and everything they now have to live for…

Happy reading and writing, ~Linnea


  1. I'm counting the days until 'Games of Command!'

    This is a timely column. I was trying to decide whether or not one of my heroines will keep the secret that she actually did love the boy she rejected. She rejects him in order to save her father's life to bring him home to her mother, and to stop a war. Everyone assumes she did it for her own reasons, except for her own parents who believe she only got close to the boy to get evidence to clear her father's name. Come to think of it, keeping it secret does twist the ending just a little better. Kind of like jabbing the reader with a needle on her way out the door.


  2. I've been thinking about this and it occurred to me that a character having a secret which only the reader knows induces empathy for that character which might not otherwise happen.

  3. kimber said: I've been thinking about this and it occurred to me that a character having a secret which only the reader knows induces empathy for that character which might not otherwise happen.

    Absolutely, Kimber. That's exactly what I do with Kel-Paten in GAMES. He's really annoying "in person" but I let the reader into his thoughts (and secret longings) which, I hope, makes his stiff necked PITA attitude more bearable. An unsympathetic character can be a death knell for most commercial genre fiction books (I'm excluding literary and experimental fiction because their characters are all over the lot).

    A character's "secret" falls under characterization but also under motivation. She does this BECAUSE (fill in the blank).

    In real life, people do stupid things for no reason. You don't have the luxury in fiction. If a character is going to be a real "Adam Henry" ;-) then you're going to have to 'splain it in some way to the reader. ~Linnea

  4. Anonymous2:08 PM EST

    Hmm. Back before I knew (at all) what I was doing, I gave my protag a promise to keep. Keeping that promise, however, eventually drives a wedge of distrust between him and his lady-love. Interesting thing, that. I think I did what I was supposed to do without even knowing I was supposed to do it. Lucky me!