Sunday, January 13, 2019

1 Karen M. McManus, author of TWO CAN KEEP A SECRET, on boiling your book down to its briefest essence

We're delighted to have Karen M. McManus with us to chat about her latest novel, TWO CAN KEEP A SECRET.

Karen, what was your inspiration for writing TWO CAN KEEP A SECRET?

The original kernel of an idea was to take a small town with a tragic past, and have characters whose families were affected become part of a new mystery.

I’ve always been interested in the power of secrets. That was one of the things I explored in One of Us Is Lying: what people will do to protect hidden parts of themselves, and what happens when those parts are exposed. There’s a similar theme in Two Can Keep a Secret, but here it’s even broader, because generations of secrets have piled up in this one small town. The two main characters both have ties to Echo Ridge’s infamous unsolved mysteries: Ellery’s aunt disappeared there years ago, and Malcolm’s brother is suspected of having killed his homecoming queen girlfriend. Then a third girl disappears, and they want answers.

What scene was really hard for you to write and why, and is that the one of which you are most proud? Or is there another scene you particularly love?

There’s a scene in the middle of the book where the two main characters, Ellery and Malcolm, are being separately interrogated by the police about someone who’s gone missing, and they both realize at almost the exact same moment (but in separate houses) who the primary suspect in this new investigation is going to turn out to be. I won’t spoil it, other than to say that this realization is going to cause problems for both of them. That was fun to write.

What book or books would most resonate with readers who love your book--or visa versa?

Authors who I regularly recommend include Kara Thomas (Little Monsters, The Cheerleaders), E. Lockhart (We Were Liars, Genuine Fraud), Caleb Roehrig (Last Seen Leaving, White Rabbit), Mindy McGinness (The Female of the Species), and Tiffany D. Jackson (Allegedly and Monday’s Not Coming).

How long did you work on TWO CAN KEEP A SECRET?

I’m usually a fast drafter, but Two Can Keep a Secret took longer than usual. I had a lot of challenges with that one, starting with the fact that I hadn’t finished it when One of Us Is Lying launched. I was still working full-time then, and my precious writing hours of 9-12 at night were suddenly consumed with marketing and promotion. Plus I had that common Second Book Syndrome issue of feeling somewhat frozen by all the new voices in my head (agent, editor, reviewer, reader), even when they were positive. Ultimately, I wrote Two Can Keep a Secret three times before I was happy with it, so it took me nearly a year to finish.

What did this book teach you about writing or about yourself?

That I need to trust my instincts! About a quarter of the way through both my discarded drafts I knew the book wasn’t working, but I kept thinking “just get the first draft out and you can fix it later.” That’s conventional wisdom that works for a lot of authors, but not for me. As it turns out, I am fully capable of writing 70,000 words of unusable garbage. What I should have done is taken a step back and returned to the fundamentals of character and plot. I did that with my third book, and it was a night and day experience. I wrote that book much faster because A) I created a detailed outline beforehand and B) any time the book started feeling off course, I’d stop and bring in CPs or my agent to help me identify what wasn’t working. Now, I typically write in 4-5 chapter bursts, and don’t move on until I’m happy both with that section, and the book as a whole.

What do you hope readers will take away from TWO CAN KEEP A SECRET?

To take care of their connections with people who are important to them, and to be their full, true selves. A lot of the problems in the book arise when characters hold information back from people they should have trusted. Of course, the flip side of that is, you have to be able to know who you can trust!

How long or hard was your road to publication? How many books did you write before this one, and how many never got published?

I was one of those kids who started writing early (age 8) and told everyone I was going to be an author when I grew up. But when I got to high school I had a hard time finishing anything, and gave up trying to write for a long time. I didn’t start up again until a few years ago, when I read the Hunger Games and was very inspired by the world and the voice. I decided to give writing another shot, and finally finished a book. That book didn’t get me an agent or publisher, but I loved writing it and learned a lot, so kept going. I wrote a second (shelved) book, then got the idea for One of Us Is Lying in fall 2015. Things happened quickly once I started querying that book, but it took me three books to get there.

Was there an AHA! moment along your road to publication where something suddenly sank in and you felt you had the key to writing a novel? What was it?

I don’t know if this is a key, exactly, but I often tell people that one of the best things I ever (inadvertently) did was write a book that could be summed up in a single sentence. Whenever I told people that I was writing “The Breakfast Club, but with murder,” they instantly understood what the book was about. That simple summation helped when I was pitching the book to my agent, when my agent pitched it to editors, and along down the line as the book was introduced to new audiences. Not every book easily lends itself to a single-sentence pitch, but I think boiling your book down to its briefest essence is an incredibly useful exercise. We have to answer the “what’s your book about?” question so many times, and a quick, compelling response is gold.

What's your writing ritual like? Do you listen to music? Work at home or at a coffee shop or the library, etc?

When I had a day job I’d always write at night, and anytime I could snatch on the weekends. I wrote big chunks of One of Us Is Lying at my son’s baseball games. Now that I’m a full-time writer I have more flexibility, but I still tend to write in my home office with my earbuds in, listening the playlist I created for that book on repeat.

What advice would you most like to pass along to other writers?

I think you have to be yourself on the page. I don’t mean be autobiographical, because that would be limiting, obviously. But be fearless about who you are as a writer, for the way your mind works, and the stories you choose to tell. You’re the only person on earth who can write like yourself, so don’t be afraid to do it.

What are you working on now?

I have four books in play: I’m still promoting One of Us Is Lying and working on a few related projects for that book. I’m launching Two Can Keep a Secret on January 8, and will be traveling in the U.S. and abroad to support that. I’m editing my third book, which will be a companion book to One of Us Is Lying featuring new main characters (Bronwyn’s sister Maeve is now a POV character), with the Bayview Four in the background as a new mystery unfolds. And I’m drafting my fourth book, which is another standalone YA mystery.


Two Can Keep a Secret
by Karen M. McManus
Delacorte Press
Released 1/8/2019

Echo Ridge is small-town America. Ellery's never been there, but she's heard all about it. Her aunt went missing there at age seventeen. And only five years ago, a homecoming queen put the town on the map when she was killed. Now Ellery has to move there to live with a grandmother she barely knows.

The town is picture-perfect, but it's hiding secrets. And before school even begins for Ellery, someone has declared open season on homecoming, promising to make it as dangerous as it was five years ago. Then, almost as if to prove it, another girl goes missing.

Ellery knows all about secrets. Her mother has them; her grandmother does too. And the longer she's in Echo Ridge, the clearer it becomes that everyone there is hiding something. The thing is, secrets are dangerous--and most people aren't good at keeping them. Which is why in Echo Ridge, it's safest to keep your secrets to yourself.

Purchase Two Can Keep a Secret at Amazon
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Karen M. McManus is the author of the young adult thriller One of Us Is Lying, which spent more than a year on the New York Times bestseller list and has been translated into 38 languages worldwide. Her second book, Two Can Keep a Secret, will be released in January 2019.

Karen lives in Massachusetts with her son. She holds a master's degree in Journalism from Northeastern University, which she uses to draft fake news stories for her novels.


Have you had a chance to read TWO CAN KEEP A SECRET yet? Are you able to trust your instincts while writing? When did you know you wanted to be an author? Share your thoughts about the interview in the comments!

Happy Reading,

Jocelyn, Halli, Martina, Erin, Susan, Shelly, and Kelly

1 comment:

  1. This sounds like my kind of read. I enjoyed the interview, too, and Karen's advice to boil your book down to one sentence. I'm getting a book ready to submit, and when I thought about that, I realized, "Eureka! I have my one-sentence pitch!") Good advice all the way through.


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