Friday, February 23, 2018


One of the pleasures in life is going into a quiet cafe and relaxing with a book. Perhaps I have lunch, or just sip my coffee. My small city offers lots of choices, with and without students from the local arts college, which means with and without a racket of noise. My favorite place for a quiet moment is a small French bakery where few people go. The storefront is really meant to draw customers in for special orders for weddings and other events.

The glass-enclosed case of baked goods is limited to croissants, breakfast pastries, and cookies. No bread, no sandwiches, no dinner rolls. This is really a sweets bakery, with a case of specialty desserts and another of cakes. I rarely pay attention to the sweets, heading instead for the croissants. But the last time I was there the baker had put on display some of his handiwork to promote his wares. And they were stunning. Yes, those are real cakes decorated with real sugar, including the two vases with flowers.

There’s no chance I’m going to take up baking any time soon (or ever), but I was drawn to the detail and perfection of craftsmanship in these sample cakes. Everything is real except for the cake inside, which has been replaced with a clay that won’t deteriorate. I studied the flowers and decorative flourishes with amazement, thinking about the sheer physical discipline required to get each little piece made and then in place.

Craftsmanship is something I admire, and wherever I come across a demonstration of skill and quality, I stop to look and learn. I notice the color choices, the design overall, the delicacy of the sugar pieces. It’s easy to admire a painting hanging in a museum or art gallery. We’ve been taught to accept as great art certain works, and to admire them when we encounter them in the appropriate spaces. But there is art everywhere, and most of it isn’t admired or even recognized as such.

I pass a number of nineteenth-century cast-iron mailboxes every few days, delight in their sinuous vines, and then I walk on. We’ve replaced things like this with a single steel box hanging on the house, or, at most, a painted steel box set on a post. We buy new clothes every season, and think nothing about it. But I found an old dress my mother had remade from an older one, and the nap on the fabric meant that the wool would last for eighty years or more.

Craftsmanship is taking the time to care about our work, and to understand what makes something better. I recently read a novel that was written by a woman who normally wrote poetry. I could see the attention she lavished on each word choice and each sentence. The writing wasn’t fancy, full of figures of speech and platitudes that sounded wiser than they were. She didn’t try to impress with vocabulary or literary allusions. It was a simple story made rich by the care of the author in building clarity and depth into the characters.

We can’t all write great books, make sumptuous jewelry, or craft a stair railing that will win an award. But I still look for examples of work made by those who cared to take time, to get it right, to want to add beauty to the world.

The cake in the bakery was gorgeous, and if the baker’s cakes are anything like his pastries, the eating of it would be just as wonderful.

Thursday, February 8, 2018

Writers and Their Superstitions

Today I'm posting a short article that first appeared in How I Got Published: Famous Authors Tell You in Their Own Words, edited by Ray White and Duane Lindsay (Writers Digest Books, 2007).

The Rule of Twelve: Writers and Their Superstitions

I am not a superstitious person. I don’t keep a rotten apple in my desk drawer like the poet Schiller, to inspire me to put words to paper, nor do I sharpen a certain number of pencils each morning like Ernest Hemingway, lining them up like a stockade fence falling to the earth before the perfectly crafted sentence. If I need to have my desk tidy and clear of clutter before I turn on my iBook and face the blinking cursor, that is simply a normal tic in the life of a writer. The tic for Don DeLillo is a manual typewriter, and for May Sarton it’s eighteenth-century music. Malcolm Gladwell needs a busy, noisy place, reminiscent of his newspaper days, to create the right kind of environment for his work. Gladwell’s setting is positively serene compared to Hart Crane’s need for raucous parties and loud Latin music.
But the Rule of Twelve is not a superstition; it is based on empirical evidence. 
            I learned about the Rule of Twelve in the second writing group I attended, in the 1980s, while I was struggling to publish my first stories since college. A fellow writer, more published than I (her experience supplied the first piece of evidence), explained the rule: a story sent out to twelve journals, or sent out twelve times sequentially, will be published by one of them. Was I skeptical? Yes, but testing this was hardly as threatening as getting a new desk, which I did recently. Deciding that the Holy Grail for me was a desk with drawers rather than the six-foot long trestle dining table I’d been using for years almost sent me into therapy. But, as I said, I’m not superstitious. Unlike George Sand, Charles Dickens, Vladimir Nabokov, and Winston Churchill, I don’t believe the only way to write is standing up. Robert Louis Stevenson and Mark Twain lay down to write. I use a chair.
            There are those who believe that before you can be published you have to write out the first million words at the end of your pen (or your fingers) before you get to the really good stuff, the stuff that will make your agent swoon and editors call you on Sunday evening begging for your manuscript.  I considered my options: a million words versus twelve submissions.  As a rational person, I chose to test the Rule of Twelve. I polished one particular story and sent it out to twelve journals. And then I waited.
            The notion that writers are superstitious gains credibility at every author signing and talk. The first question is often, How do you write? People ask this question as though the answer held the key to a finished novel, a prize-winning story. The answer in fact might, but not for the person asking it.  Bruce Chatwin buys a box of Moleskine notebooks at a certain stationery shop in Paris, numbers the pages, and writes his name and address on the inside. This is a superstition—they can be used just as well for a travel journal, without numbered pages, which is how I choose to use them.
            After what seemed an unreasonable length of time, in the twelfth month of the year, the story was accepted. I don’t know what happened to the other submissions—they seem to have disappeared into the mail. Unlike Jack London, I did not obsess about the mail—stamps, letters, modes of delivery, postal system workers. I accepted the editor’s reply as empirical evidence. The Rule of Twelve works.
            I think it is important to keep in mind that writers live in fantasy worlds and therefore it is all the more important to keep superstitions at bay. Umberto Eco explains this nicely when he points out that certain projects call for a pen, others call for a felt-tipped pen, and still others call for a computer. Alexandre Dumas pere used different colored paper for different genres, an orderly rational approach to his work. Sensible and practical, I cleared a shelf in my bookcase for all my future publications.
            The next time I noticed the effect of the Rule of Twelve was in 1992. By now I had an agent and a mystery novel, which she sent out to more editors than I can remember. She sent the manuscript to Scribner’s, where it sank into oblivion. Despite calls to the editor, repeated letters demanding the return of the manuscript if it wasn’t going to be accepted, we heard nothing. But I am a rational person. Unlike Gail Goodwin, who keeps talismans from the graves of writers she admires—a beechnut from Isak Dinesen’s grave in Denmark and a piece of rock from D. H. Lawrence’s in New Mexico—I cleared my desk and went to work on another novel. I don’t need a window overlooking the water in Venice, like Henry James, waiting for a ship to bring into view a needed detail for the story. The sidewalk outside my window works just fine.
            On a cold Sunday evening in February, the telephone rang. It was Susanne Kirk. She wanted my mystery novel. It was a full twelve months since my agent had sent it to her. My bookshelf was filling up with more empirical evidence.
            By now you should be convinced that superstitions have no place in the writing life. Empirical evidence is the only way to go. The Rule of Twelve works. Use it.


Wednesday, January 17, 2018

What We Give Up to Be Writers

Every now and then it occurs to me how much of my upbringing I've had to abandon in order to be a writer. This may sound like the beginning of a long tale about walking away from a cushy life to live in a crummy studio apartment paid for by a soul-killing job behind a store counter in order to have time to write. I have no such story.

When I say I had to give up parts of my "upbringing" I'm thinking about all the good manners my mother struggled to instill in me. I made it through childhood and adolescence by giving lip service to the basic rules--don't stare, don't eavesdrop, don't ask impertinent questions, don't give your unvarnished opinion even if asked. But as soon as the parent's back was turned, I followed my own rules.

The subway is a great place to pick up ideas for characters. Of course, this means sometimes getting a good look at strangers, even staring and following them out of the subway car. If I hear an unusual voice, I might try to engage the person in conversation, just to hear more of it.

Some of my best stories come from eavesdropping on other people's conversations. I used to work at a social service agency where I spent hours chatting with people who had lived through all sorts of extremes that had never come near to what I had experienced. I once listened to a man and a woman, seated outside my office door, talk about how differently discharges were handled at a man's prison and a woman's prison. (The men got a bus ride back into town, to the spot where they'd been first picked up; the women were given a bus or train ticket back to the city nearest to where they lived, and after that had to make their own way home.)

On another occasion I got to listen to a man explain to his caseworker why he couldn't avoid getting arrested repeatedly because the best corner for selling drugs was only one block from the elementary school. What was he supposed to do? Where else was he to go to conduct his business?

I once shared a table with a teenage girl and her mother, who was explaining precisely how she should behave in certain circumstances, advice certain to erase any sense of her daughter's individual identity. Restaurants are among the best places to pick up accents, fragments of conversation, and distinctive voices.

These moments, which violate good manners and proper behavior, bring us (or me at least) the first pulse of a story. I hear the voices and the attitudes, imagine the years of life not moving in the hoped-for direction, and the character I've been looking for steps onto the page, and I'm off and typing.

I do make one concession to my upbringing. I try not to be obvious about eavesdropping. I do try to let people have their privacy, even though I'm hanging on every word. After all, I wouldn't want to make them so uncomfortable that they'd stop talking. The loss, for me, would be incalculable.

To find the results of this improper behavior, go here:

Friday, December 29, 2017

Another year, another resolution?

The end of the year is a time of rituals—holidays to be celebrated, the turning of one year to another, reviewing last year’s resolutions and compiling a new list for the coming year. I began this post thinking that I too would have a list of resolutions for 2018, but then I paused. Why?

The list of resolutions for 2018 could write itself because I’m essentially the same person I was around this time last year and the year before and the many years before that. For me it’s all about writing. We grow and learn and change, but the core of who we are remains the same. I like to think I learn to be kinder in certain challenging situations, or that I have learned new diplomatic skills. Perhaps I have, perhaps not. But in a list of resolutions, which will revolve around writing, no one will glean all that happened in the previous year, and when I look back, what I feel is gratitude.

My husband faced a life-changing health scare three years ago, and he faced it as he faces everything—quietly, and with determination. Today he’s out walking the dog in zero degree weather (not in his usual shorts, though) and chatting with the neighbors. He used the snow blower on the driveway and I shoveled the walk and cleaned off the car.

I had what turned out to be a startling but not life-threatening health issue, and I’ve turned to doctors who listen to me, explain things carefully while looking at me (and not at their computer), answer questions, and let me make my own choices. I’m grateful for all of this, including my underlying good health.

In the last year I finished the first in a new series, my agent (yay, Paula!) found a publisher (Midnight Ink), and I’m working on the second in the series. When I think of this three-book contract, I hear F. Scott Fitzgerald’s famous remark, “There are no second acts in American lives.” And I know he’s wrong. Almost every mystery writer I know has emerged from one or more rejections to write a new series, a second act as it were. Along with the new series I’m working on a series of short stories set in rural America based on ideas that have been rattling around in my head for some time.

There is much about this year that leaves me sad and frustrated and sometimes enraged, not the least of which is our government and its leader. But I’m grateful for my copy of the US Constitution and the Bill of Rights, and for the many good citizens who work to uphold the rule of law.

This is what I’ll carry with me into the New Year—gratitude for all that I have, good work to look forward to, family and friends doing well, and a hope for a better future for our democracy. I'll skip the resolutions for this year.

Thursday, October 19, 2017

Editing; or, Stages in Book Preparation

On October 14, 2017, libraries around the country celebrated Indie Author Day by sponsoring programs for independent authors. Libraries held panels, readings, workshops, and group signings. During an Indie Author Day at a community library, the librarian handed out a guide to different kinds of editing.

As a former freelance editor and ghostwriter I was interested in the way the guide described the levels of editing. Things have changed a great deal since I was freelancing, but I question the divisions and descriptions, largely because they don’t match up with what freelancers were expected to do prior to POD and self-publishing. For my own peace of mind, I want to describe the breakdown for the stages of book preparation.

Before self-publishing, writers who wanted to write and publish went through traditional channels to reach an acquisitions editor. If the manuscript was written but not finished, which was often the case with nonfiction and less so with fiction, the editor might accept the ms provisionally while the writer worked on substantive issues, or the ms was handed off to an editor for developmental editing. The latter was often the case with textbooks and with ms by people who were not writers but professionals in their field.

Developmental editing for nonfiction involves fleshing out ideas, working through and rounding out discussions, reorganizing and sometimes adding material that is logically necessary to the text, and making sure the arguments presented make sense for the whole. This is where ghostwriters come in, and some earn a very good living finishing books for other people. In fiction, the developmental editor might suggest adding a scene, combining characters, increasing tension in certain scenes, or clarifying a subplot.

When the ms was completed, it might be passed along to a fact checker. These are often librarians who can take the time to do the work of checking facts in addition to their own duties. At a private library where I often did research, some of the assistant librarians were regularly engaged in a fact-checking job, and had to track down unusual or interesting details. The publisher pays for this in important nonfiction work such as a biography by an important historical figure by a well-known author.

After developmental editing, which the author must approve, the editor managing the progress of the ms sends it along for copyediting. This is where a lot of confusion comes in. What exactly is copyediting? When I began freelancing for university presses as well as trade houses, copyediting was everything covered in the Chicago Manual of Style. If you have seen the reference book, you know exactly what that means. Copyediting covers a lot. Yes, it covers spelling, punctuation, and grammar, as well as the specific style chosen for the book (AP, MLA, a specific university press style, or any other style).

In the simplest nonfiction ms, this means editing the bibliography, the notes, and the text, in that order, and making sure all relate appropriately. (Footnotes have a tendency to drift away from their anchor, landing in the middle of a paragraph where they are confusing rather than elucidating.)

Because of the technical aspects of university press publications, editors must rely on experts in various fields, such as mathematics or chemistry, to edit technical work. A good copyeditor in her chosen field learns to recognize something that sounds off and will either check it herself or call attention to it. If the author remarks that the eruption of Mount Saint Helens in Washington State occurred almost exactly 100 years to the day after the explosion in Krakatoa, the copyeditor can easily check that. (No, they are not so related. Krakatoa erupted in 1883, and the other one in 1980.) But if she is unsure, she can tag it for the author. But she cannot miss the correct styling of the names. Mount Saint Helens? No. The correct form is Mount St. Helens. The editor must know how to style signs, lakes, artwork, plays and poems, and anything else that appears in letters.

Proofreading is sometimes mixed in with copyediting, but this is a different function tied to print, the version that is going to be checked and then bound and sold to bookstores. The purpose of the proofreader is to make certain that everything that was approved in the final copyedited ms appears in that form in the proof copy. If it is not there, the proofreader marks it to be inserted. If the author discovers an error that can be corrected without undue changes, she notifies the editor. Writers are warned not to start rewriting the book at this point. It’s done. Leave it alone.

Proofreaders are not perfect, as editors are not. The easiest way to discover if errors have crept in and not been corrected is to read the index (if there is one—a disappearing feature of books). Sometimes a reader will find two versions of a proper name listed in the index because the copyeditor failed to notice one of them was different, failed to query the author, or the author failed to answer the query. By the time the index is done, it’s too late. Some things you just have to live with.

These divisions are straightforward and logical. A writer who wants more help with developing the story or theme remains in developmental or substantive editing until she has a version she is happy with. Copyediting is a final polish, a way to catch minor errors (and, one hopes, not big glaring ones). The proofreader makes sure the entire ms is correctly transferred into the form available to buyers.

Self-publishing and POD services have changed publishing dramatically, but the process from first draft to final form should still follow a logical path to ensure the final result is as near perfect as possible. Yes, I’m a bit fussy about this. But the reader will appreciate the writer’s and editor’s careful work.

To find more of my work, go to