I have secrets. Deep dark… nah–just kidding. I can’t keep my own secrets–only other people’s. By now you have probably figured that out.
But here’s something you may not know that I can spill today: My book has a huge secret in it. It may seem like it’s about winning a dream home and the stuff inside it, or falling in love with Maine and the world outside, and it certainly has lots of cooking and eating and drinking and laughing in it, so one might think it’s about food or friendship. But while I think it’s about all those things, I somehow managed to squeeze in not just one but several secrets. I’m the sort of reader who likes big reveals when you least expect it, and the sort of writer who cannot resist them.
So I guess my secret is, I like secrets. The only thing I like more is sharing them.
Earlier today Jason Collins came out. He had a secret, and he told it, because as he said, no one else was telling theirs so… what’s a gay NBA player to do. I wept when I read his interview–it’s no secret that bravery makes me cry. Bravery, and commercials for Nicholas Sparks movies.
Collins said he was “baking in an oven” until he came out, and I have been thinking about that phrase all day. It’s so writerly and brilliant. That’s what secrets can do to you. And think of this: a secret keeper isn’t always in the oven alone. The people around them might be roasting, and not even know why. They might think that they’ve gone crazy, or they can’t trust themselves, or they can’t trust anyone. So Jason Collins got out of his oven and probably let out a few zillion other people by doing so.
You may think I bring this up just because I want to lend my voice to those congratulating Collins today. Sure, that’s why, but wait for it and I promise I’ll bring this around to our topic: As a publishing professional, I read some (a lot of) submissions where the whole of the book was based on a secret, the plot balanced delicately on the tippy-top of a secretive spire of lies and half-truths that could topple–and would–if one of the characters had had a moment of sense or integrity. Alas, a secret or a lie or a big misunderstanding, whatever you want to call it, is not enough to hold up an entire book/life. But you’ve got to hold something back for your characters to reveal over time too. And that’s a balance that can be tricky. Too many secrets and you’ve got an eye-roll. Too few and you’ve got a yawn.
As a writer, when you dream up your secrets, think about Jason Collins’ oven. Now that’s a secret. If you are going to give your characters a secret, make it a worthy one, and make it pervade every aspect of their lives. Put your characters in an oven and remember that they are hot to the touch. Remember that a secret does not make a character whole, but it can undo him. And see how, like in life, the revelation of a secret can be one’s ruin–or one’s making in the realm of greatness.