I’ve recently realised that, as a writer, I’m probably the Best Secret Keeper in the World. Not to brag or anything, but I manage to keep the secrets of entire worlds to myself for years on end. I never name names, gossip graphic details, or tease twists. My lips remain sealed despite all the relationship developments, rash decisions, fateful consequences, danger, drama and ‘what the heck just happened here?’ moments. And it’s tough. It’s really, really hard not to tell just one little detail to an eager listener (Ha-Ha. Okay. Captive relative.).
Of course, the secrets I’m referring to are ones about purely fictional worlds that I’ve made up. Hardly on the scale of telling everyone you’re an accountant when really your boss is Judi Dench, everyone at work calls you Double-O-Spy and you have a Licence to Kill. By the way – complete side-track here – but does anyone else think that James Bond is pretty terrible at keeping the fact he works for MI6 a secret? I don’t recall a film where anyone is ever like ‘Oh my word! All this time I thought you were a financial analyst, but you’re actually a spy??’
Anyway – it wouldn’t be end-of-the-world devastating if I gave away a character motive or key event to a trusted friend (Ha-ha. Again, I mean dutiful relative). I know some writers like to share and discuss their Works In Progress as they go – sharing drafts of each chapter, taking feedback, and using this process to improve their manuscript.
This is partly because I’m a control freak – phew! there we go, the first step is admitting it…
Mostly though, it’s for another, quite practical and utterly writerly, reason. I don’t like to talk to anyone about a story I’m writing because I want the story to speak for itself. When I hand over the final book for its first test flight, I want it to flap wildly, launch itself out of the nest, and then fly or get eaten by an awaiting sparrow-hawk – completely on its own. I want there to be no preconceived ideas or expectations in my readers before they read the first page. Only that way will I know if any of it has worked as I anticipated. Only that way will I know if my writing has worked as I hoped.
You see, it’s not just about the plot, and the characters, and the ‘what the heck just happened here?’ moments – it’s actually, mostly, about the words and how well they’ve been crafted to evoke the intended response in the reader.
Here’s an example of what I mean:
My mum loves telling me about the Channel 5, straight-to-television films she’s watched. We have a conversation that goes something like this:
Mum: I watched this lovely film the other day – you’d really love it – it made me cry.
Me: Oh, really? What was it about?
Mum: Well, it was about…
*half an hour later*
Mum: … and in the end, instead of taking the flight to Paris, she returns home with her new fiancée and they spend Christmas together, and kiss under the mistletoe. You should try to watch it at some point… you’d really love it.
Me: *adds film to list of ‘things I can watch whilst doing the ironing because I already know the entire plot’*
It’s got to the point now that whenever my mum starts to say ‘Did you see Blue Planet II…?’ I shout ‘Don’t tell me! I’m going to catch it on iPlayer…’ and then jump straight in the car and drive home to watch it right away.
Anyway. My point is that when my mum tells me the minute detail of a film, I either think ‘Yeah, sounds cheesy and kinda predictable’ or ‘Ugh – stupid, irrational characters and they only put that bit in for the shock factor.’ But, when I sit down and watch the spoilered film, I find myself laughing, crying, rooting for the protagonist, hating the bad guy and hoping for a happy ending – even though I already know what it’s going to be. That’s because, beyond the basics of the plot, what really makes an audience engage with a film is the acting, script, pacing, score, visual effects etc. I’m pretty sure that diehard Lord of the Rings fans went to see the films to experience their favourite world through a new medium – and not to find out whether Frodo would make it to Mount Doom or not.
Yes, a film is probably more engaging if you don’t know the entire plot already – especially if you’re watching something like Fight Club, The Sixth Sense, Momento, Inception – or any Christopher Nolan movie really – it’s best not to have had the twist ruined for you beforehand. These are films that you experience once and then the second time round you only watch them for Cillian Murphy… err… or the other many, excellent actors… ahem.
It’s the same with a book. When my book is read by the first readerly guinea-pigs, I’m hoping that:
‘I have no idea what’s going to happen’ + ‘mind-blowingly good writing’ = unadulterated, genuine, mind-blown response.
Basically – if you’ve already told someone that Character A is going to betray Character B, then how will you know if you’ve built up to that scene successfully enough to make it a ‘No! They didn’t! How could they!’ moment? How will you know if the scene itself is written with sufficient ‘I’m going to cry for ten years’ emotional impact, if the reader already knew it was coming?
Anyway – this isn’t Rocket Science, so what’s my point?
Well, honestly, my point is that writers have to be really, really good at keeping secrets.
And it’s hard.
And I think we should get some sort of recognition for the fact that it’s not easy to sit on an explosive plot detail for an extended period of time without creating some cracks in your sanity.
Personally, I deal with the pressure and excitement of keeping my writerly secrets by sharing them – with imaginary people. I could tell the cat, but he wanders off halfway through and I don’t trust him anyway. Cats can’t keep secrets – just look at all the bags they manage to get out of.
I could talk to myself, but I’m trying to maintain the illusion that I’m not ‘one of those people’… yet. And there are some things I even keep from my own conciousness: in one of my WIP plans I have written ‘part where I cry for a month’ under one chapter heading. I guess I’ll just have to see what happens when I get to writing that part of the novel…
So, I talk to fictional people – or real people who I have never met and am 99% sure I never will (you should always leave a 1% chance – because, you know, life loves to smack you in the face with irony every now and then). When I was younger, I would hold imaginary interviews with Richard and Judy – if you’re not British and never watched daytime British television, about a hundred years ago, you won’t know who I’m talking about – so here’s a link: http://www.richardandjudy.co.uk/home
That was my ultimate dream – never mind winning the Nobel Prize for Literature – I just wanted to sit on a comfy sofa and chat to Richard and Judy about my books. Considering R&J have interviewed the likes of Madonna it wasn’t that unambitious of me.
Nowadays, my fictional interviews are conducted with an anonymous, faceless journalist from a literary publication, local newspaper, school newspaper or a complete stranger who foolishly asks ‘So, what do you do…?’ This interview technique is also my way of examining my own writing for flaws, character stereotypes, improbable details or massive plot holes. It can result in a fairly heated debate, followed by sulky re-writes, and not talking to myself for days on end – which is a good thing? Right?
As dumb and sad as it sounds (and is), at least this way I can share my secrets without actually spoiling my book for anyone who exists and might want/be forced to read it.
It’s what makes me probably the Best Secret Keeper in the World.
I’m pretty sure 007 could learn a thing or two from me…