Writing In Secret? Who does it? And why?

written in secret? star crossed at twilight by Joanna Maitland

I think probably every novelist has found themselves writing in secret at some time or other.
I certainly have.

In my case I’d announced that I Was Never Going To Write Another Word after my debut masterpiece — quite rightly — failed to find a publisher. My resolve lasted about 6 months. Just long enough to get a job in a Very Serious Institution and perceive the benefits of a monthly salary. So when I took up my pen again, it was very, very privately.

Yet I was startled to discover Libertà Hive member Joanna Maitland has just published a book I didn’t even know she was working on. (More info here.)

Joanna and I are not alone. Why?

Writing in Secret: Reason 1 — Fanny Burney

portrait_francesFanny Burney was a victim of family disapproval. She had written since she was small. But at 15 she burned everything she’d ever written — plays, poems, songs, stories. Her stepmother apparently thought it was inappropriate for women to write.

And it doesn’t sound as if her father, Charles Burney, was much better. Sheridan (of The Way of the World and The Rivals) was all set to produce her comedy The Witlings on the London stage. But Dr Burney and a so-called family friend, Samuel Crisp, managed to suppress it.

Small wonder, then, that she wrote Evelina in secret. She even disguised her handwriting, because she acted as copyist for her father and the publisher might have recognised it — and then, presumably, thought it incumbent upon him to tell her father.

220px-charles_burneyFortunately Evelina was a success, so Dr Burney moderated his disapproval. George III had great fun teasing Fanny about it, saying to Mrs Delany, “She never does tell, you know. Her father told me that, himself. He told me. And I shall never forget his face when he spoke of his feelings on first taking up the book.”

Poor Fanny was a bit overwhelmed by the regal teasing. On being challenged — “Your printing! Your publishing! How came it? How happened it? Vot? Vot?” — she cried in desperation, “I thought, Sir, it would look very well in print.” She adds in her diary, “I do really flatter myself that this is the silliest speech that ever I made.”

I feel for her.

Writing in Secret: Reason 2 — John Le Carré

images-7Your employer might sack you if he finds you moonlighting as a writer, especially if you might be giving away his secrets; and most particularly of all, if your employer is the British Secret Services.

John le Carré, so the story goes, was the archetypal “insider” who wrote a story based on his experience at work, The Spy who Came in From the Cold, and was therefore dismissed.


By his own account, he was an intelligence officer, not a spy, and anyway, the bosses knew, and approved it before publication.  In an article he wrote for The Guardian in April 2013, he sets it out. He was, he agrees, writing in “extreme privacy”, but it was under “intense, unshared personal stress”, not in fear of the sack.

 Writing in Secret: Reason 3 — Losing Face

So le Carré’s account brings me neatly to my penultimate point: writers write in secret for personal as much as practical reasons. In le Carré’s case the reasons sound pretty bleak.

telescope third extension section rim. Shallow depth of field. Intentionally

In mine, yes, it was partly that I didn’t want my employers to think I was less than serious about my job.

But there was also a sense of not being sure where my writing was going. So no way was I going to admit to anyone that I’d started off on that uncharted journey again, until and unless I got somewhere.

Writing in Secret: Reason 4 — Fuel

And writing in secret is really, really creative. It’s like the early stages of a love affair: intense, exciting; fraught with anxiety and infinite possibilities. You hug the secret to you and go back to it in the long cold watches of the night, uncaring of all discomforts or common sense. Hooked, in other words. And, by golly, the words flow.

Great feeling. Nothing beats it.Female writer resting at her workplace with hands behind her head

9 thoughts on “Writing In Secret? Who does it? And why?

  1. Elizabeth Bailey

    Quite right too. I’ve learned its absolutely fatal to talk about a plot in writing unless you go to your support group for help on a plot point. The minute I start telling someone the plot, it feels as if the story is no longer mine and the excitement dissipates. So, yes. Am writing. It’s this genre. But that’s it. And I’ve just grabbed Joanna’s new book!

    1. Sophie Weston

      How very interesting. There’s a story by Oscar Wilde about the man with the knowledge of God, who feels as if whenever he tells people about God, he loses a little more of his knowledge. Is it like that for you, Liz?

  2. Elizabeth Bailey

    Kind of. The story somehow feels less important, less vital when shared. Perhaps because it’s in embryo and incomplete? By the time it’s shared, it ought to be all there. And then comments are helpful because a finished story is a done deal in terms of driving it through. Editing doesn’t wreck the flow.

      1. Sophie Post author

        So hope you enjoy Red Hot Lover, Liz. Glad it hooked you. Joe’s always been special to me!

    1. Sophie Post author

      I won’t tell people the story because I need to stay in discovery mode until I’ve finished the first draft. Once I know the end, the flame goes out, I find.

  3. Joanna

    When I first started writing historical romance, around 1990, no one knew except my immediate family. It was like that for 7 or 8 YEARS while I submitted and got rejected, over and over again. I used to write on the train, commuting to London. By hand, back then, of course. And people sitting next to me would crane their necks to see what I was doing, especially when I was playing piquet with a tiny pack of playing cards and writing it all down. (Games of piquet were crucial in the MS that was eventually published as A Poor Relation.)

    I think I was applying Sophie’s Reason 3, with possibly a bit of two. But oh, reason 4 was driving me — some days, I couldn’t wait to leave the office, get back on the train, and start writing again. Magic, isn’t it?

    1. Elizabeth Bailey

      So magical! I’m currently back on Lady Fan mysteries and although it’s difficult getting into it again after so long, it feels like meeting an old friend and the magic feeling has already begun. I think I’m usually driven by 4. Never really suffered from 1, 2 or 3 as my family and friends were always supportive.

      1. Joanna

        Ah well, while I spent 20 years or so in my “responsible business woman” persona, I could see a definite potential downside if I was discovered to be writing fiction, especially romantic fiction. Then add that I was trying to write for Mills & Boon — which tends to provoke very sweeping criticisms from people who have never read any — and it may become clearer why reasons 2 and 3 carried weight 😉

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