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April 26, 2011

Do Writers Have to Be Able to Lie?

Book of secrets under chains and lock

Most of you have never met me in person, so I need to start off by explaining that I’m a very expressive person.  All those smiley faces in my tweets and blog comments?  Completely true-to-life.

You’ll never see me take a bet to try to keep a straight face for more than five seconds.  I would lose—big time.

All of that means I can’t lie to someone’s face to save my life.  My expression would give me away, if only for my facial muscles twitching as I tried to control them.

Usually, my inability to lie during an in-person situation isn’t a issue.  Most would consider that a positive personality trait.

But if we write fiction, we lie all the time, at least in written form.  Red herrings are all about lying to the reader, leading them to believe “A” is important when they should have been focusing on “B.”   We manipulate readers’ expectations with clever lines to foreshadow and yet conceal the truth.

Readers like that we lie to them.  Stories that don’t mislead are called boring or predictable.  Readers are disappointed when someone spoils the ending for them.

What happens when fiction meets the real world with book signings or interviews?  We don’t want to give away plot twists, and we don’t want to reveal how a series will end.

So if a reader (or potential reader) asks about things we want to keep secret, how should we deal with it?  If we get asked about our personal life and we don’t want to answer because of privacy or branding concerns, how can we respond without coming across as rude?

Do we have to lie?  Just answer, “No comment”?  Or what?

I fear I’ll be lucky if I can clamp my hands over my mouth fast enough to keep the secret.  It’s a good thing I’m okay with “being a dork” as part of my author brand.

Yes, I know this shouldn’t be taking up some of my “worry” neurons in my brain, as I’m not published yet, but writers are known for their irrational fears.  Besides, I’ve already run into this issue, as family members who have read my stories ask me questions about the sequels.

A part of me is thrilled that someone else is interested enough in my story and characters to want to know more.  People I love and respect are excited about the world I created.  That’s insanely cool.

But another part of me wants to have these conversations in the dark so I can hide my facial expression.  Anytime they guess at some future story event, I’m sure I get the goofiest look on my face if they’re close to the truth.

How can we share and encourage readers’ excitement for our stories without spoiling the ending for them them?  Am I the only one who worries about this?

If you worry about it too, great—we can all worry together.  If you don’t, even better—anyone that level-headed might be able to give me some advice.

Have you shared your stories with others?  Are you able to keep secrets about plots and characters?  What do you do if someone asks questions you don’t want to answer?

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Paul Anthony Shortt

I struggle with this. With most people, I find I can get away with “you’ll have to wait and see” but there are some, like my wife and some of my older writing friends, who I’m desperate to share the good stuff with, if only to find out if they think it’ll work or not.

Peter Saint-Clair
Peter Saint-Clair

While I don’t have that problem yet, with a book that I’ve written anyways, I do rewatch a lot of TV series with my friends if they’ve never seen it before and they always like to ask me questions about what they think is going to happen next and it literally takes everything I have not to tell them they are right. I usually end up just saying “I don’t know”, but I’m sure by my facial expressions, that they can easily tell if they are right or not…hopefully this does’t come through when someone asks me about one of my future books.

Laura Diamond

I consider it artistic license. 😉

Nice post!

Carradee

I have several betas. Each project has a few people who get “spoilers” (to see if they’ll work out), and others who don’t.

When someone asks a question, I consider if it’ll make things more or less mysterious before I answer. If the answer will only pique the inquirer’s curiosity further, I’m likely to be forthright. Otherwise, I give a vague answer or a “You’ll just have to find out.”

But then, I also have a fantastic poker face, when I choose to use it.

J.A. Paul

I’m writing the second book in my Gladius series and my sons (and sometimes their friends) ask me “What happened today, Dad?” Or they want to know what adventures I’m planning for the characters.

I want to tell them but I also want it to be a surprise. Besides, the story changes and evolves. I’ve already had to go back and erase one character (poor guy) because he bored me. If I would have said something about him to my boys they will be sure to call me out on it when I finally do let them read the first draft and he’s missing.

I tell them they will have to wait and see.

Shay Fabbro

Maybe it’s my twisted nature coming out, but I LOVE giving the readers “You’ll just have to wait and see!” all while rubbing my hands and giggling maniacally.

And as an avid reader, I don’t want to have things ruined. The mystery and the gleam in the author’s eye tells me all I need to know. And then I sit and wait for the sequel 😀

http://www.thechosenbook.com

michael
michael

The word fiction is a synonym for lie, so, in a technical sense, all fiction writers lie. As to red herrings, I don’t consider them lies if they are simply suggestive. If we change facts during a story, that’s bad plotting.

Our characters work with limited knowledge, just as we do in real life. Limited knowledge often leads to wrong conclusions. Doling information out in bits and pieces mirrors how we actually tease apart mysteries. Not having our characters discover the truth in that way would be a bigger lie than offering red herrings. It’s a whole lot less fun, too.

Irene Vernardis
Irene Vernardis

It took me a while on thinking how to reply to your post 😀 Quote: “But if we write fiction, we lie all the time, at least in written form.” – I disagree with you here. That is not lying. That is manipulation, word and story manipulation (I read a very interesting post earlier, which I retweeted, here: http://whatnottodoasawriter.com/2011/04/25/mistake-77-real-writers/ – great notion) Quote: “leading them to believe “A” is important when they should have been focusing on “B.” ” Yes, but A is still a part of the story, and consequently a truth of the story, not a lie. By doing that, you lead the readers to draw a conclusion which might not be the correct one, but it is based on truths of the story. However, it’s the readers who draw the conclusions, even the false ones, you don’t draw the conclusions for them. If you provide them with an explicit conclusion different from the ending one, then it could be a lie. But leading them on different paths to reach the same result, it’s not lying. It’s like trying to solve a physics problem or a murder case. There are many paths to the result (that is, many solutions), all true, but the result will be the same. Many people will try to solve it in many different ways, but the result of the problem is one and only. (I hope I’m making sense, I’m a little tired :D) As for keeping the secrets, well you have to…  — Read More »

PW Creighton

As writers of fiction we are the most gifted liars on the planet~ with the written word. In person it’s hard not to be excited when someone realizes that hidden subtext you alluded to in chapter 2. I prefer to focus on the critical analysis or psycho~analysis of a character to keep them off the trail of future events. Incredibly hard though.

Keyboardhussy

I always try to make a teasing/joking response so they don’t think I’m offended or annoyed that they asked, but they also understand that I’m not giving up the goods. Hope that helps!

Gene Lempp

Fortunately, maybe, life has taught me to have a poker face when needed. The key is to not get personally excited about the topic that the other person is bringing up, which, of course, can be hard to do when it is a subject that you are personally passionate about, such as your writing.

I think “no comment” or “buy the book” followed by a knowing and mysterious grin, twinkle in the eye for effect is a valid response. There is nothing wrong with using a little creative twist facially to do the same type of clever manipulation that we do in our writing. It is for their pleasure after all, no malice, but the creation of a void in knowledge that will drive the other person to want to know more.

So when you hit the live interview stage of your career Jami, think radio 🙂

Haley Whitehall

For those people who I am are not using as as a sounding board instead of the “wait and see” technique I usually get by with an evasive answer. I’ve had people ask me if my story will have a happy ending. I replied, “Well, some will like it and some probably won’t.”

I can’t give away the story. Even for those people who use me as a sounding board for their ideas I feel disappointed because they spoiled the whole reading to find out what happens next spell.

Julie Musil

Jami, I like your word in the comment above. “Evasive” is more like it. I can’t lie in real life, but when I’ve spilled too much about my story in the past, I’ve regretted it. From now on I’ll spill just the logline. Great topic!

Mary Kate
Mary Kate

Great post! I hadn’t thought about this as an issue before, but now that that I have thought about it when someone asks you “Is this what happens…?” I would say the following: “Oh that would be good!”
That way if that is actually what you did it isn’t a lie, because it will be good when they read it. You’ll be able to keep a straight face (hopefully) 🙂 And the answer doesn’t expressly say that is or isn’t how it works out. And if that isn’t how it works out maybe that is a good way it could have, and you’ll probably make your fan/friend/whatever feel good that they suggested something you like.

When someone asks me about a book/story I give them the caveat I will tell you everything and if they say yeah I still want to know then I go ahead and tell them everything. Because I get too excited and I can’t contain myself. But that is with my friends and family, not in a formal(ish) book-signing setting. If I ever do a book-signing/get a fan question I hope I can contain my not-so-inner nerd and give them a sly answer.

Tamara LeBlanc
Tamara LeBlanc

Hmmm, very interesting post.
Someone asked me if I was going to write a sequal to my book, Blessing in Disguise, just the other day. I said, “I’d love to give my hero’s brother a love story, but right now I’m working on a paranormal that I just can’t tear myself away from.” That kinda got us talking about the paranormal, so I never had to give away any secrets about my BID sequal.
But, I will tell you this, I have 3 critique partners and 2 of them write romantic suspense. I bug the crap out of them when we’re going over pages becaause I never want them to give away the ending, the bad guy, or the red herring. I hate knowing ahead of time, even though one of my jobs as critique partner is to read synopsis. Grrr, I like being surprised! Especially with their stories, they’re so good:)
But alas, I’m privy to story secrets with those ladies all the time:(
Wonderful post Jami!!!
I’ve missed some of your wisdom over the last few weeks…I’ll scroll through to see what I missed.
Have a brilliant afternoon!!
Tamara

murphy

Great post!
I love keeping secrets – but sometimes it is hard when I need someone I trust to brainstorm with – they need to know as much as I do. AND, it goes without saying that our stories may be improved by an early ‘sharing of the details’.

Murphy

David

Another great post, Jami. I’ve decided I need to just read through your entire history of posts. Perhaps. Anyway – your fears are rational. Someone who has a hard time not giving something away: “What’d you get me for Christmas?” “Noooothing…” “Is it a bike?!” “Nooooooooo… *obvious face is obvious*” — that’s something you’ll have to struggle with when it comes to fan questions. The best answer to that kind of thing is “You’ll see,” I think. That way you’re allowed to mischievously smile while you dodge the question.

I am lucky enough to be able to walk this incredibly thin line right in between being able to keep the secret and wanting to BURST with all the answers, if just to share how COOL it all is once it’s all revealed! There are certain stories for which – and certain people with whom – I divulge more of the details. There are others where I’m like a vault and just won’t spill my deepest secrets. But it burns in me like a furnace! I MUST SAY IT! BUT NO! *dramatic look away*

I’m glad that your personality is so vibrant and outgoing that you’re super excited about discussing your stories to the point where you’re afraid you’ll say too much! That’s a great quality. It’s infectious (yes, that’s right…you’re infectious). And it’ll be easy to get other people, strangers right off the street even, really excited about your work. That will really play well for you during pitching, I think.

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