Wednesday, February 7, 2018

9 Powerful Secrets Readers Crave—And Writers Must Know


Everyone has them.
Every book must have at least one because secrets are the jet-powered engine that propels fiction forward. Ever notice how many blurbs in the daily BookBub email include the word secret?
Secrets provide motivation, plot, character, even a setting (a haunted house, anyone?). From Madame Bovary to Carrie, from Rebecca to Big Little Lies, from thrillers to romance, from mystery to women’s fiction to sci-fi, every story revolves around a secret.
Secrets ripple outward and can produce unexpected consequences a writer can take advantage of. Because secrets need to be protected, denied, defended, excused, they will have predictable (and unforeseen) consequences on the people who guard them, excuse them, or wilfully blind themselves to their existence.
People with secrets are good at keeping them—until they’re not—or else until some external event spills the beans. For example: a nuclear leak from a secret underground testing site that becomes a global headline. The slip up—the “tell”—will then become a major turning point in a novel.
In fiction, secrets must be revealed, and the tension secrets create must be resolved. As you plot, plan or pants your book, you will find that a well-chosen secret will provide you with a focus that will energize your writing—and your book.

1. Secrets With A Silver Lining
Silver lining secrets can work well in romance or cozy mysteries.
What if someone finds out that the Famous TV Chef thinks the local greasy spoon makes better french fries than the ones FTC makes in her fancy, custom-designed, multimillion-dollar kitchen?
Might be embarrassing, but won’t kill anyone unless someone adds poison (which could work in a thriller or mystery). Might not even necessarily end the FTC’s career. With shrewd PR, the Greasy Spoon Affair could make that chef even more famous. As long as the FTC doesn’t serve Greasy Spoon fries for $35 a pop in her pricey restaurant and pass them off as his/her own—in which case fraud might be alleged and costly lawsuits might ensue.
When a cute, sexy lawyer might appear to make all the bad stuff disappear and provide a HEA for our beleaguered heroine. ;-)

2. State secrets
State Secrets are the meat and bones of thrillers from Eric Ambler and John Buchan to Charles McCarry, Ian Fleming and John Le CarrĂ©. The plots of spy novels revolve around characters adept at uncovering secrets, keeping secrets, stealing secrets and, in The Manchurian Candidate by Richard Condon, secretly transformed by brainwashing into a deadly weapon—a sleeper assassin, programmed to kill without question or mercy.
The cast of characters holding state secrets also include—
  • The spy who can’t be trusted: the treacherous double agent.
  • The scientist—mad or otherwise—who has created—by accident or on purpose—the formula for a new, population-decimating chemical weapon.
  • A powerful world leader—a paragon of enlightened leadership or a Stalin-esque dictator—suffering from a fatal disease or destructive neurological condition that must be concealed—or else!
  • An secret international conspiracy—ever hear of a well-publicized conspiracy?—whose goal is world domination.
  • A top-secret assassination plot that must be uncovered and then stopped.
  • A fatherly-looking but secretly demented, power-crazed lunatic who threatens the stability of international financial markets and, thus, world peace itself.

3. Secret baby
A classic trope, the secret baby often—but not always—occurs as a romance sub genre. To mention only a few, there are SEAL’s Secret Babies, Vampire Secret Babies, and Billionaire’s Secret Babies. You will find lists of secret baby romance novels at FictionDB, at GoodReads and at SmartBitchesTrashyBooks.
In Love And Money, mainstream women’s fiction published in hard cover by Random House, the mistress and the wife of a wealthy man deliver babies at almost the same time. The half-sisters, who do not know of each other’s existence, grow up in different worlds, one a beautiful, indulged heiress, the other a wrong-side-of-the-tracks neglected child, a dramatic disparity that allowed me to write about class, envy, privilege, resentment and ambition.

4. Family secrets
Family secrets take a starring role in sagas and women’s fiction—and in memoirs.
  • An upstanding citizen who is in reality a deadbeat dad who might—or might not—reconcile with his children.
  • A PTA shining star but secretly neglectful mom who might—or might not—see the error of her ways.
  • The sibling who stealthily cheats his brother/sister out of his/her inheritance
  • The rich/powerful/vindictive/creepy relative no one wants to cross.
  • A family fortune created through hard work and persistence—or was it?
  • The alcoholic/mentally ill relative whose erratic, unpredictable behavior affects several generations.
  • An accidental death that wasn’t so “accidental”
  • The BookBub blurb for Alan Cumming’s #1 New York Times bestselling memoir, Not My Father’s Son, refers to “the family secrets that shaped him.”

5. Dark secrets
These are the secrets that form the spine of mysteries.
How’d they do it?
How can the MC track down the bad guy or gal?
When someone shoots aging bad-girl rocker Morgan Le Fay and threatens to finish the job in Anne’s The Lady of the Lakewood Diner, people assume the perp’s a fan of Morgan’s legendary dead rock-god husband. However, the real reason for the attack may be a secret buried in Morgan's hometown where her childhood best friend may be the only person who knows the dark secret that can save Morgan's life. Anne uses that one secret to propel the plot forward throughout the book.

6. Open Secrets
Open secrets are the emperor-has-no-clothes, Harvey Weinstein, Jerry Sandusky, women’s gymnastics’ category of secrets. These are the secrets that can be used to ensnare numerous connected characters who might or might not be related.
Open secrets create a Potemkin Village faux reality in which characters who need to protect themselves from exposure—and consequences—pretend not to know what they actually do know. Lost in a web of confusion, deceit, evasion and denial, these characters are forced by circumstances over which they have no control to become liars, hypocrites, and classic unreliable narrators.
“Everyone knows” but no one says anything—until someone does—at which point your plot attains jet speed velocity.
Open secrets can be played for drama—or even for humor.
  • The Big Boss is a predatory sexual abuser so people who must work with or for him keep their distance, whisper warnings to others, know better than to share an elevator or after-work drink with him, go to great lengths to make sure they are never trapped alone in his office/hotel room with him.
  • No one admits that Uncle Jim is an incompetent screw-up who can’t keep a job. However, when he wears a suit and tie, he looks like he belongs in a boardroom—until he insults a powerful CEO. At which point, the company’s stock takes off and everyone gets rich by mistake and Uncle Jim is forced to straighten up and fly right.
  • Aunt Susie has a shoplifting problem but the family pays off stores to keep her out of jail and her “problem” is never mentioned—until she lifts a hundred-thousand dollar diamond ring and, this time, the family can’t afford to pay and all hell breaks loose.
  • Cousin Bill, captain of the football team, has tried suicide several times, but the family refuses to admit/confront his mental health issues—until he is photographed pointing a gun to his head on the sidelines at the Big Game.
  • Niece Eileen is about to marry her long-time girl friend but none of the family will help her pick out her dress or plan her wedding because “everyone” knows no one in our family is gay. Drama, tears, laughter, and hugs ensue.

7. Secrets we keep from ourselves
These are the character-driven secrets. In We Need To Talk About Kevin, Lionel Shriver unveils a bleak reality as the MC reveals feelings about motherhood, marriage, and family kept secret until her young son murders classmates and she is forced to confront her own possible responsibility.
Other examples:
Your MC is an addiction expert who doesn’t realize his/her own kid is an addict. S/he misses the signs: the switch to long sleeve shirts or blouses, the constant need for money, the requests for “loans” that don’t get repaid, the frequent questions about “when will you be home?” so your MC never sees his/her kid high.
The wife who doesn’t see tip offs to her husband’s affair although the clues are in plain sight. In my NYT bestseller, Decades, Evelyn Bain sees signs of her husband’s affair all around her—the unexplained late nights at the office, the way he disappears for weekends for “business,” his provocative banter with his friends about their extra-marital sexual exploits—but denies their meaning to herself. Until the secret is dramatically revealed and Evelyn’s life is turned upside down.

8. Secret dreams
Secret dreams provide the skeleton of Cinderella stories and often lie at the heart of romance in which the couple need to unlock each others’ secrets in order to achieve their HEA.
  • The girl (or guy) who was jilted/left at the altar and has vowed never to fall in love again—until s/he meets Ms or Mr Right and must resolve the injury of the past.
  • The couple who break up but meet again and must work through the secret anger/misunderstanding that has kept them apart.
  • The gorgeous guy who has women falling all over him, but who secretly yearns to find The One.
  • The beautiful, successful entrepreneur who doesn’t have time for romance—but secretly longs to be swept off her feet.

9. Secret super power
Fabulous, fantastic, incredible, killer first drafts.
Not happening, not to me, anyway, but thanks for the question. ;-)

Enough about me. Now about you!
Readers: What kinds of secrets keep you reading?
Writers:  Will you share your (writing) secrets?

Tuesday, December 5, 2017

8 thoughtful, useful gifts. All under $25. No cutesie anything.

For stocking stuffers. For anyone you want to remember. For yourself. A little off the beaten track. Most available from Amazon.

Jao hand sanitizer is a favorite of makeup artists. Your hands will be clean and they will smell wonderfully of Lavender, Tea Tree, Eucalyptus, Geranium, and Sage. About $25

I have used this Bennington tankard mug for decades. Comes in 12 glazes. Looks great, well designed, keeps your tea or coffee hotter longer. Hasn’t chipped, either. $18

Uni Jetstream pens from Japan write the first time every time. No blobs of ink, no skipping. Just perfect.  I use either the .7 or .5. Get 6 pens for $10

A vintage French notebook goes well with the Uni pens. $10

Maruman Japanese notebooks are elegant and the paper is a dream to write on. Here’s one for $7

Rhodia notebooks are great and classic.  Here’s one for $10.

I found this at the Apple Store when I saw a "genius" cleaning an iPad with Whoosh. Gets rid of the grunge and makes your electronic gizmos look brand new. $10

Vignalta sea salt imported from Italy combined with garlic, rosemary and sage. Will make you think you’re dining on a terrace in, oh well, think Positano. :-) You’ll have to watch for it, because when it’s available, it sells out immediately. About $15 the last time I bought it. PS: The reviews on the Amazon page are for another product. I’ve alerted Amazon. Let's see how much clout I have. ;-)

Do you have any suggestions? Any modest, easy-to-get favorites that would make thoughtful gifts?

Monday, November 20, 2017

My Mom's Cranberry Sauce. Quick, Easy, Delicious. A Little Boozey.

My Mom was an RN, a proud New Englander, and an excellent cook. Her cranberry sauce is the best I have ever tasted. It's fast, easy, and delicious! Here's the recipe—

My Mom's Cranberry Sauce

1 package fresh cranberries.
1 small naval orange, rinsed, cut in eighths. (Leave peel on.)
1/2 to 3/4 cups sugar.
3 tablespoons Grand Marnier or bourbon.

Add half the cranberries and half the orange pieces to a food processor. Turn on and off until mixture is roughly chopped. Transfer to bowl. Repeat with remaining cranberries and orange pieces.

Add first batch of cranberry-orange mixture back to the food processor. Add sugar plus bourbon or Grand Marnier. Process briefly to mix.

Taste and add more sugar if you wish. Store in fridge.

Disappears at Thanksgiving. Makes great gifts. I also use it as a topping for yogurt and on toast in place of marmalade.

Wednesday, October 25, 2017

Love And Money: The Women of Park Avenue, fabled but not flawless.

Kindle  |  iBooks  |  Kobo  |  GooglePlay  |  Nook


Heiress Deedee Dahlen was beautiful, privileged, an adored wife, a loving mother, but…

Her best friend said—
“When I looked at her I saw money. She looked rich, she sounded rich, she smelled rich. Her money was such an integral part of her that I sometimes thought that without it she might cease to exist. The sad thing is that she thought so, too.”

Her rival said—
“From the day she was born, secrets and scandal surrounded her. She attracted attention like a magnet and, although she said she wanted privacy and always refused requests for interviews, she always smiled for the photographers. Haven’t you noticed that you’ve never seen a bad picture of her?”

Her publicist said—
“People said she was dumb. I think they were dead wrong. After all, she ended up with a husband who worshiped her and more money than even she knew how to spend. That’s not my definition of dumb, but when it all came crashing down, the dream came to an end. She was alone and there was no one to help. ”

Lana Bantry grew up on the wrong side of the tracks and made it to the right of town, but…

Her boss said—
“She wasn’t the smartest person I ever knew, and, although she was extremely glamorous, she certainly wasn’t beautiful. What made her special was her determination. She was the most determined person I ever met—determined to be successful, determined to be treated fairly, determined to be noticed. I always thought there was something sad about her.”

Her ex-husband said—
“She was a money-hungry bitch and she deserved everything that happened to her.”

Her lover said—
“She thought like a man and fucked like an angel. She was the ideal woman. I loved her but I double-crossed her. Don’t ask me why because I don’t really know. Maybe she was just too much for me.”

DeeDee Dahlen and Lana Bantry—
They shared a father—but not an inheritance.
They were sisters—and strangers.
Two women in love with the same man.

Originally published in hard cover by Random House.

Monday, October 16, 2017

Process Goals: 6 Ways Slowing Down and Thinking Small Will Help You Write Your Book

Climbers ascending Mount Everest.

Writing a book can feel like climbing Mount Everest. Process goals will cut that mountain down to size.

Psychologists differentiate between outcome goals (write a book) and process goals (the steps it will take to write a book). The outcome goal focuses on the big picture and the end result—a diamond-studded World Series ring, an Emmy, the winner’s circle at the Kentucky Derby.

An outcome goal (Bestseller! Glowing five-star reviews!) is one over which you have no control. No wonder you feel overwhelmed and intimidated before you even begin.

The big picture is, well, big. You can’t control it and it’s hard to define. Do you want a bestseller? NY Times or USA Today or both? A nomination for a literary prize? Pulitzer? National Book Award? A book your Mom/third grade teacher/college professor will be proud of? A book that will get revenge on the guy/gal who dumped you and prove to the world that they were wrong and you were right?

Even if you can pin down what you want from the book, you still have to write it.

OMG, a book? 60,000-100,000 brilliant, well-chosen words that actually make sense?

Where do I begin? Even if you’re an ace outliner and have nailed the plot, where do you begin? For a clue, see Anne’s post on first chapters and mine on first chapter blues.
Who are the characters? Good guys and bad gals. Or vice versa? And don’t forget about character arcs. Decisions, decisions.
What about the voice? You mean writers need to have a voice? What’s that and how do you get one?
What’s the time frame? The Middle Ages? Today? Tomorrow? The day after?
What’s the setting? A secret galaxy? Paris in the 1920s? Wall Street in the 1990’s? A rice paddy in Indonesia? A high rise in San Francisco? A favela in Rio?

The possibilities are limitless.

The choices almost infinite.

No wonder we feel paralyzed.

We can’t decide. Don’t know where to begin. In fact, just contemplating the whole idea of writing-a-book gives me a headache and I’ve written lots of them.

Like Scarlett, I’ll think about writing-a-book tomorrow.

Meanwhile, excuse me while I lie down and take a nap.

Think Big–and Fail.

Remember “Too Big To Fail?” They were talking about banks back then but, when it comes to writing-a-book, “too big” is almost a guarantee of failure.

Remember our big picture: bestseller, literary prize, a smile from Mom, a moment of delicious revenge? Problem is, you can’t control readers, buyers, literary critics, Mom (no kidding!), or the ex who done you wrong. No one can.

Bestseller, literary prize, a smile from Mom, a moment of delicious revenge are outcome goals and for someone thinking about writing-a-book they’re Bad News.

Did Mark Zukerberg create the early, collegiate version of FaceBook in his dorm room and think he would one day be one of the richest men in the world? I doubt it. I suspect he was eating chips and thinking about the next line of code.

Ditto Henry Ford. Did he imagine he was going to revolutionize transportation, set the foundation for highway systems around the world, create the assembly line and the global demand for fossil fuels when he put the first Model A on the road? Nope. Don’t think so.

And what about Warren Buffett? What did he have in mind? Become the investment guru whose every pronouncement was taken as gospel? Doubt it. He was most likely thinking about how to make a few bucks in the stock market.

And Steve Jobs? What did he have in mind? Changing the world? Well, come to think of it, knowing what we know about Steve, he probably did think he was going to change the world. 

Why Books Don’t Get Finished.

Writing-a-book is probably one of the main culprits that results in books that get started but never finished. They’re the unfinished books languishing on dusty hard drives, the books that get talked about in bars and writers’ groups but never written must less finished, the big dreams that fizzle into disappointment and dashed dreams.

Still, books do get written and they do get published. What’s the secret? What divides writers from wannabes?

The key is thinking small or, as psychologists would say, setting process goals.

Process Goals are the Steps you Take to Get Where you Want to Go.

Whether you’re a tennis player trying to win Wimbledon, an architect designing a house, or a writer aiming to write (or finish) a book, the concept of process goals will cut what seems an overwhelming task down to size.

The tennis player will focus on the cross court volley at hand, not the trophy at the end. The architect will focus on the living room window, not the house. The writer will concentrate on the chapter not the book, the paragraph not the chapter, the sentence not the paragraph.

1. Process goals are bite-sized and achievable.

A well-chosen process goal will keep you from feeling frustrated and falling into a self-sabotaging downward spiral of self-criticism. For example, your process goal might be to write 500 words a day every day.
Not so few words you feel you’re investing time and energy to accomplish nothing. Not so many that you flirt with failure from the beginning, feel discouraged and frustrated and give up almost before you start.

2. Process goals protect you from perfectionism.

Your goal is to write 500 words, not 500 “perfect” words. It doesn’t matter if those 500 daily words are “good” or “bad” because—
The writer is the last to know (ask me how I know!)
Editing will be your next step (or process goal.)

3. Process goals keep your motivation in high gear.

You know from experience that you can write 500 words before you leave for work or when you get home or after the kids are in bed. Hitting that target every day will ensure that you don’t get frustrated and paralyzed. Instead, slow but sure, you will feel an on-going sense of accomplishment which fuels your motivation.

4. Process goals will force you to focus on today’s 500 words.

Not the 60,000-100,000 words that seem Everest sized and impossible. Because they are. Impossible. Can’t climb a mountain in a day. Even billionaires (male or female) put on their pants one leg at a time. A writer can write only one word at a time. Including Tolstoy or J.D. Salinger or any other famous writer you can think of.

5. Process goals force you to concentrate on performing the task at hand.

As you write your daily 500 words, you are concentrating on a sentence or a paragraph or a scene. Or even le mot juste. You are not spinning your wheels thinking about writing-a-book and all the uncontrollable glories (or setbacks) that will follow.

6. Process goals will slow you down and calm you.

The undefined, outcome goal of writing-a-book can and will cause intense anxiety. Focusing on a scene, a paragraph, a sentence will quell stress. The consequence is that you will avoid the nasty wingmen of stress: writer’s block and the blank mind face to face with a blank screen.

Get from here to there, from a nifty idea to a book, with the help of process goals!

Originally published at Anne R. Allen's excellent blog. 

Wednesday, October 11, 2017


iBooks  |  Kindle  |   Nook  |  GooglePlay  |  Kobo

 The idea for A Kiss At Kihali came from reading articles about the fact that poaching was and is threatening to make rhinos and elephants extinct.

Innocent animals are slaughtered with poison and machine guns. Not only are the adult animals killed, but their babies are left orphaned and defenseless, prey for predators. A Kiss At Kihali, set in an African animal orphanage, is about how a dedicated expert in animal communication and a devoted vet save one baby orphan from sure death—and, in the process, heal their own wounds and find a second chance at love.

They rescue endangered animals, but can they rescue each other?

Renny Kudrow, Director of the Kihali animal orphanage in Kenya, is a brilliant scientist who can interpret animal communication. But human communication?

Not so much, thinks Starlite Higgins, the orphanage's wildlife vet he has hired over the objection of others who think a woman is not up to the job. Renny is prickly, remote, critical, and Starlite, anxious to please and accustomed to success, is unable to win his approval.

When Renny and Starlite must work together to rescue a badly injured baby rhino from poachers, they must face the secrets they both hide--and the attraction they can no longer deny.

Meet the brave and lovable baby rhino, Zuri (the word means “beautiful” in Swahili), the wise elephants, Doris and Maisie, and Boozie, a sprightly and mischievous young goat. Get to know string bean-skinny Jomo and strong, athletic Muthengi, the Kenyan wildlife experts, Ian Stewart-Montgomery, the witty, handsome half-Kenyan, half-English photo safari guide, and all the other human and animal friends who find a home at Kihali.

A KISS AT KIHALI will appeal to readers who love animals, adventure and stories about second chances.

A KISS AT KIHALI, written to bring attention to the poaching crisis that is endangering the future existence of African wildlife, is suitable for a wide range of readers and contains no sex or cursing.

Ruth invites you to join her newsletter.


Friday, June 30, 2017

My Mom's quick, easy, utterly delicious recipe for old-fashioned blueberry cobbler

Summer is still here. So are blueberries—and Blueberry Cobbler!

My Mom was a proud New Englander and an excellent cook. Her recipe for blueberry cobbler is quick, easy and delicious, perfect to share with friends, family or to eat standing up in the kitchen as it comes fresh from the oven!

1 quart blueberries
1/2 cup sugar
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon

Place in buttered oven-proof casserole.

1/2 cup sugar
1 cup sifted flour
1 1/2 teaspoon baking powder
3 tablespoons butter

Combine dry ingredients. Cut in butter until crumbly. Moisten with 1/2 cup milk. Spread over berry mixture and bake in 400 oven for 25-30 minutes until bubbly and lightly browned.

Et voilĂ !

Enjoy with or without ice cream.
Alone or with someone you love.
Morning, noon or night. :-)