The lies we’re told – Cate Holahan

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By Cate Holahan

Fiction writers are professional liars. We spend our days debating the details needed to make our falsehoods feel real, and the precise words capable of convincing readers to jettison disbelief. We invent. We plot. We misdirect attention to hide our true intentions. Yet, with ourselves, we must be unflinchingly honest. Otherwise, our descriptions of the world around us and our characters’ thoughts won’t ring true.♥

I play with this paradox in my third book, Lies She Told, which tells the story of a fiction writer whose work-in-progress novel hints at clues to a disappearance in her real life. To unravel the mystery, my protagonist, Liza Cole, is forced to confront how honest she is with herself about the people she loves most.

In the spirit of the theme, I wanted to discuss three lies that I’ve told myself as a writer and the uncomfortable truths I had to face.

Lie #1: My protagonist doesn’t have to be likable.

The truth is that most readers don’t want to spend hours with a character devoid of redeeming, relatable qualities. Analyzing some of the most famous examples of “unlikable” protagonists, I’ve realized that they all possessed admirable qualities which made me cheer for them — at least through the first two acts.

Take the main character in a certain blockbuster suspense novel with an alliterative title, for example. Amy’s subtle snark and wit, combined with the sweet stories of how she fell in love, made her immensely likeable in the first act. Later, she had me rooting for her due to — spoiler alert —the insane cleverness of her revenge. I, along with many readers, was relieved to learn that she wasn’t a woman who could be continually stretched without snapping. Her anger was understandable and, dare I say, relatable. Were her actions those of a good person? Heck, no. But by the time she went really dark, I was too invested in her character and entertained to stop reading.

The same argument could be made for the protagonists in Herman Koch’s best-selling books, The Dinner and Summer House With Swimming Pool. Neither main character is a nice guy. But their witty observations and unflinching honesty — at least with the reader — make them sufficiently endearing to invest time in.

Lie #2: Reading great literature will improve my writing

Personally, I’ve found that reading any of the masters while working on a new novel turns me into a poor imitation of that writer. Authors like Toni Morrison, Virginia Woolf, Dostoyevsky, and Hemingway have such distinctive styles and lenses through which they view the world that it’s difficult not to become immersed in their voices and lose my own. When writing, I’ve found it best to mine my own brain and put the books down.

That said, I’m a big believer in reading when not writing. I read the best books in my genre each year and, also, the masters. Great fiction has been extremely valuable in helping to make me a more empathetic, evaluative person. I just don’t recommend consuming it when actively creating.

Lie #3. All I have to do is write a good book

My agent once told me that the difference between a writer who pens one or two books and an author who makes writing a real career is a willingness to promote. Yes, writing a great story is a necessary step. But there are too many wonderful writers out there with compelling characters and plots to think that it’s the only step needed to get noticed. Pounding the pavement is a requirement for most writers. And we do that by sharing about our craft, our love of it, and the truths that we’ve learned.

Catherine “Cate” Holahan is the acclaimed author of Lies She Told, The Widower’s Wife and Dark Turns, all published by Crooked Lane Books. An award-winning journalist and former television producer, her articles have appeared in BusinessWeek, The Boston Globe, The Record and on websites for CBS, MSN Money,,, and CNBC. She lives in New Jersey with her husband, two daughters and dog Westley.

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