Monday, September 25, 2017

Revealing secrets

My main character has a "secret" that is slowly revealed to her love interest throughout the first half of the book. I would never reveal this secret on the back of the book cover, but I have reveled the secret in the query. The discovery of the secret is a pivotal plot point and my understanding is that agents prefer that you tell them what the book is about without a lot of innuendo or mystery (but obviously with a good hook and great writing!).

Revealing the secret has caused a problem for a number of my critique partners, who then spend the first half of the book commenting, "I know XYZ. Why do you only allude to it?"

I have been assuming that agents will separate what they know based on the query from how the book will read to someone who picks it up in a bookstore.

So this is my long winded way of asking: Should I reveal the secret in the query?


If you won't put it on the back of the book jacket, don't put it in the query.

I like to read queries and pages as though I am a reader in a bookstore. Surprise me!

Of course, you have to entice me to read the entire novel in the query so you need the good hook and great writing, but you don't need to reveal the secret in the query.

Also secret should not be in quotes. Putting quotes around something means it's not what you're calling it.

Example: writing  Janet is "nice" means you know Janet isn't.

Misuse of quotes is often pretty funny as in chalkboards outside grocery stores advertising "fresh" veg, or "tasty" cookies.

It's not funny in queries.

If you're not sure about proper use of quotes, don't kick yourself. We all learn by doing. Get a copy of Eats, Shoots, and Leaves by Lynne Truss and learn through laughter.


CynthiaMc said...

Eats, Shoots, and Leaves is one of the books I wish I had written.

Happy Monday, Everyone!

french sojourn said...

As usual, great question and great answer. Regardless if you already knew the "answer", it was nice to be reassured.

"nice" shark yuk-yuk!

cheers Hank.

Unknown said...

Oof! Query revision number four million, three-hundred-ninety-seven thousand, eight-hundred-fifty-two. I'm so "happy"!

Kitty said...

"Eats, Shoots, and Leaves" ... Sounds like the story of when Michael Corleone shot Sollozzo and McClusky in the restaurant.

Carolynnwith2Ns said...

Yup, I'm learning every single day to: not watch the news, nothing is free, duck and cover don't work, diet soda makes you fat and gives you Alzheimer's, and rejection still hurts.

Ha, have "rotten" day. ":("

InkStainedWench said...

I sympathize with the OP. My mystery has a bombshell that I can't reveal in the book jacket copy, but it kills me because it raises more questions than it answers and it seems to me it would draw readers in.

But I will "behave."

Theresa said...

I adore Eats, Shoots, and Leaves. What a great recommendation to start the week.

OT: My book proposal is out on submission, and even as I'm being optimistic and cheering it on, I'm pulling together a few more ideas for future projects.

Sharyn Ekbergh said...

I'm reading The Woman in White and it takes many pages before the Secret is revealed.

Carolynnwith2Ns said...

My second shelf novel has a blockbuster secret/surprise that shakes readers to the core. (At least that what a college teacher of creative writing said). No she is not my mom.
Now if I could only write it well enough to get readers to the brink and over. Oh well.

Lisa Bodenheim said...

Wow. We are well-trained in the Oxford Comma. Everybody is using the proper comma for Eats, Shoots and Leaves!

It's Monday so I may be a bit off here.

It sounds like your secret is completely uncovered at the half way point, which is, in James Scott Bell's language, the mirror moment. I thought the query to entice agents would contain the story's hook and inciting incident (the one quarter point of the story) and nothing beyond.

Steve Stubbs said...

OP reminds me of Grisham's third book, THE PELICAN BRIEF. The author has readers wondering for 3/4 of the book what The Pelican Brief is. Whem you finally find out, you know you've been had, and the last part of the book is not much worth reading. The author just kept slogging to get the word count. But the first 3/4 is a helluva ride, and disclosing the great secret would have ruined it.

It was more than a helluva ride. It was a runaway bestseller.

You also remind me of the movie MONTY PYTHON'S THE MEANING OF LIFE. I saw a trailer in which some weird character is dancing and saying, "Wouldn't you like to know?" The log line is good, too: "It took God seven days to create te world. But it only took Monty Python ninety minutes to screw it up."

The movie is lousy but the hook is primo.

Takeaway: keep your secret close to your chest. If readers disagree with you and think it more bomb than bombshell, you still have them until you disclose it.

Good luck.

E.M. Goldsmith said...

Queries hard! Blah!

AJ Blythe said...

I got Eats, Shoots and Leaves for Christmas about 7 years ago. A fave pressie! My 13 year old Barbarian just read it and he really enjoyed it.

Colin Smith said...

I've been thinking about this, and it seems to me the secret is usually a game-changer to the plot, not the plot itself. So in the query, you sell the plot, and dangle this secret to draw the reader in. For example:

Recent market turns have left Billionaire philanthropist Bruce Wayne's fortune in jeopardy. But when his name is linked to a series of murders in uptown Gotham, it's more than just his mansion that's at stake.

As Gotham's caped crusader, Batman, investigates these gruesome killings, he finds a powerful cartel at the center, headed by one of his most formidable foes.

The hopes and fears of a frightened city rest on the Dark Knight's shoulders. But his foe is on the verge of finding out a secret that could destroy even a super hero...

Of course, we all know what that secret is, but that's because we know Batman. But imagine we didn't; the discovery of his secret identity would be a huge game changer to the story. I don't have to reveal the secret to entice, simply tell you that there's a secret that could turn the whole story.

That's my take. :)

Kitty said...

hilariously bad punctuation

furrykef said...

Lisa Bodenheim hinted at this already, but I'm not sure the point came across: the title of the book is Eats, Shoots & Leaves. There is no comma after "Shoots", because it's the punch line of a joke that hinges upon its omission.

I don't have a copy of the book, but I have read it, and I found its use of semicolons rather bizarre. I suppose it's a British thing. Still, I have trouble recommending it to Americans on those grounds, even though it's an otherwise enjoyable (and sometimes informative) read.

Colin Smith said...

furrykef is correct about Truss's book (Hey, furrykef!). It's a wonderfully fun approach to learning the correct use of punctuation, but the author is a Brit, and it was originally written for a UK market. So enjoy the book, but double-check other sources for regional variation.

My oldest, Sarah (the baker who's studying drama at UNC-Greensboro), tells me she was recently dinged by an English prof for putting punctuation outside quotation marks, which is the UK standard practice. Before y'all jump down my throat, on my back, or generally get all over me for being a terrible homeschooler, let me note a couple of things: 1) My wife does the majority of the schooling, and she's a born-and-bred American using American textbooks, so she would have taught Sarah US standard punctuation; 2) Within a few years of coming to the US, I started adopting US spelling and punctuation conventions, simply because it wasn't worth sacrificing smooth communication with my new neighbors for the sake of being stubborn. So where Sarah picked this up from, I don't know. I like to think she's paying homage to her father. :D

Anyway... sorry... OT...

Karen McCoy said...

This reminded me of a recent movie trailer for Murder on the Orient Express, which I've been told has a very significant plot twist. As a curiosity, I searched up the back cover copy:

"Just after midnight, the famous Orient Express is stopped in its tracks by a snowdrift. By morning, the millionaire Samual Edward Ratchett lies dead in his compartment, stabbed a dozen times, his door locked from the inside. One of his fellow passengers must be the murderer..."

Intrigue yes, but the plot twist is not fully revealed, neither in the back cover nor the trailer...

Amy Johnson said...

Uh-oh, looks like I've been using quotation marks incorrectly. I knew about the thing where putting a word in quotes can mean the opposite, but I would have put quotes around secret here

Also secret should not be in quotes

because the word secret is what is being discussed, not an actual secret. And because the word secret was being quoted from OP's message.

But if Janet says it is so, then it is so. And I don't mean "it is so." :D Wondering what else I think I "know" about grammar. Yikes!

Adele said...

I am slowly realizing that some extra grammar rules have been introduced into the English language, and I didn't get the memo. The BBC website is swamped with what seem to be random quotation marks: This morning, when you click on "Russia 'violates human rights in Crimea'" there is an article that starts with "Russia is committing "grave human rights violations" in Crimea, ...". I mean, are they are aren't they? Whether single quotes in the click line or double quotes in the article, the usage mystifies me.

Oh, and they've also renounced the use of adjectives. A Canadian hockey team is now a Canada hockey team.

I suppose the takeaway here is that anybody over 40 should get hold of a recently-published style book and read it cover to cover.

Colin Smith said...

Adele: If it's a quote from a source, fair enough (though a reference to the source should be given, e.g., "According to Professor F. Buttonweazer of the Carkoon Institute for Hire Lerning, Russia 'violates human rights in Crimea.'").

Aside from attention to grammar, I've noticed an uptick in the number of typos on news sites. I attribute this to both the quantity of information coming in to news sources these days, as well as the speed with which that news is being communicated. For the various news agencies to compete and stay current, it seems like they have to post stories with hardly any proofing. Indeed, I daresay the only editorial comments have to do with whether the story is factual enough, and whether they will get sued if they run it. :)

Unknown said...

I understand that many media outlets have laid off copy editors, to save money. Actions have consequences. Also, now I'm all self-conscious about my grammar and punctuation.

literary_lottie said...

I love it when Janet answers a question I didn't even know I had.

My current WIP has a similar scenario to the one OP describes. While I wouldn't describe it as a "secret"* exactly, my MC did experience a trauma prior to the beginning of the story that colors how he perceives himself and other characters, as well as how he remembers certain events. He's meant to be an unreliable narrator, and I want readers to immediately recognize him as such while still needing to piece together clues about what exactly he's been through that would make him think and behave so erratically. He does eventually come out and explicitly name the trauma, but I want readers to figure it out beforehand and have that "ah-ha!"* moment.

I'd been debating about whether to give the game away in my query/pitch, because it's something topical and I know agents/editors are looking for good books that deal with this issue. On the other hand, it does take a lot mystery out of the first half of the novel, and ruins the experience I want the reader to have. So I'll leave it out and just write the best book I can - hopefully that will be enough to entice an agent without needing to spoil the big reveal.

*I think I'm using quotation marks correctly here, but now I'm paranoid!

Joseph S. said...

Well, looks like I screwed up all my queries.

Colin Smith said...

Hey, literary_lottie (my first cat's name was Lottie--a beautiful cat she was... I digress...) I'll stick my neck on the chopping board (careful with the veggie knife) and say you are using quotation marks correctly since you are calling it a secret when, in fact, you're not sure if that is the correct way to identify this piece of information.

There. Now y'all can throw your tomatoes at me. And that's tomahhtoes. None of your American tomaytoes. ;)

Adele said...

I'm sure the Beeb has some reason for these quotes and they only seem random to me because I don't understand the application. I thought at first that it was something to do with search engines, but none of the other news websites seem to need them. It would be hilarious if it turned out that some software writer stuck in a random quote generator just to see how long it took anybody to notice.

Amy Johnson said...

I just looked up the book Janet recommended at the end of today's post, and found a description mentioning the author's very English way. (Before today, I would have put those last three words in quotation marks.) This has me wondering if the grammar taught in the book is British English grammar. Anyone know? (I'm in the U.S.A, and I'm interested in improving my American English.) Thanks!

Ooohhhh. Now I'm wondering if some of the quotation marks rules differ between British English and American English, as other grammar rules sometimes do.

Colin Smith said...

Amy: See above discussion. :)

Amy Johnson said...

Colin: Thanks! I did read the entire discussion before writing my last comment. :) I had read your comment about Truss's book this morning, before looking up the description of the book this afternoon. I must have forgotten what you had said. But I did remember the part of that comment that mentioned your wonderful daughter. And I remember thinking, Nah, that doesn't make you sound like a terrible homeschooler. I'm sure you're a good one.

Colin Smith said...

Amy: OK. It has been a while since I read Truss's book, but I do recall it is definitely geared toward UK usage. Most of the time this isn't a problem, though, as has been said, it pays to double-check.

And thanks. I think my wife's doing a fine job. :)

John Davis Frain said...

So the place I just passed on the way home that had a sign about so-called sports massages advertised:


Probably shouldn't be surprised when they get a late-night "visit" from the authorities.

Michael Seese said...

As an aside, I'm always amused when someone is speaking and says something like, "They're just quote-unquote friends."

I think, "Do you realize you quoted nothing?" I guess they really are air quotes.

AJ Blythe said...

So you guys have managed to freak me out... Colin, what do you mean British English puts the punctuation outside quotation marks? furrykef, is there something different about British English semi-colon use to US?

I've switched to double quotation marks " (as opposed to the British English use of single ') to submit to the US market and thought that was all I had to do!

Furrykef, taking into account Eats, Shoots and Leaves is a British English book, the lack of the Oxford comma doesn't play a part in the humour because British English doesn't use Oxford commas (Colin correct me here if I'm wrong).

This coming from an Aussie who writes British English which, if done correctly, never includes a comma before an "and" unless it is for long coordinate clauses when each has its own subject. At least, that's what I was taught in grade 6 (but it is in accordance with the Aussie Govt style guide).

Colin Smith said...

Ya know, having put my head on the chopping board, I'm going to go out on a limb--maybe a leg--and Janet can chomp the feet out from under me if I'm wrong, but I think if you are from a country that uses British spellings and punctuation standards, and you write your query and your novel according to those conventions, you'll be okay. Especially if you mention in your bio you're from England, Australia, or wherever. In other words, if an agent is going to reject your novel because you don't use the Oxford comma, or you put your punctuation outside your quotation marks, or you use single quotes for speech, that agent was probably going to reject anyway. If she loves your work, non-US spelling and punctuation is not going to be an issue. Publishers have people who handle those kinds of "translations."

Please poke my eye with a moldy asparagus if I'm wrong, Janet... :)

Gingermollymarilyn said...

I'm almost howling with laughter, so much confusion. I'm not going to check any of my material and just fly by the seat of my pants. Being a transplanted Aussie, now living in Canada, grammar and spelling and punctuation confusion is nothing new. We get a lot of American content so sometimes I go the U.S. route, sometimes it's British/Canadian. Probably best to stick to one rule, but I've always said, "Variety is the spice of life!"

Colin Smith said...

Ginger: Does that make you a Canaussie? Can we come up with hybrid US/English punctuation and spelling standards and call it The Canaussie Convention? :D

Gingermollymarilyn said...

A Canaussie? Sure, why not? I've been called much worse! (Oh no, worst vs. worse, and should this statement be before the exclamation? No worries, The Canaussie Convention will take care of it all :)) Sort of like the manana attitude of Mexico. Although, sad to say, I have not heard that in a long time. Too much stress in the world these days. Me thinks it needs to be reintroduced, with a long strawberry margarita!

Panda in Chief said...

I always think of Lynda Barry as the master of the deliberately misused quotation mark. Especially in her early work.

Colin Smith said...


Remember yesterday's discussion about the Writer's CV? Well, Allison Williams has kindly provided us an example of a Writer's CV and a Writer's Publication List. You can find them both in the Treasure Chest. Thanks, Allison! :)