hang in thereper·se·ver·ance

noun \ˌpər-sə-ˈvir-ən(t)s\ First known use: 14th century

:The quality that allows someone to continue trying to do something even though it is difficult : Continued effort to do or achieve something despite opposition : Steady persistence in a course of action

“What is written without effort is in general read without pleasure.” Samuel Johnson, Johnsonian Miscellanies, Vol 2.

About a year and a half ago, a friend and successful mystery writer told me, “Writing a novel takes persistence. And when you think you’re done, you’re probably not.”

That wasn’t what I wanted to hear at the time. But she was right. And as I slog my way through the fourth major revision of my manuscript, I tell myself that I may not be at the end of the process yet, but I am drilling down toward the goal, and that’s what counts.

One source of encouragement is the experience of others. Most successful writers will admit to a flood of rejection letters. Some stories are legendary. Here’s a sampling:

  • Agatha Christie endured five years of rejection before publishing The Mysterious Affair at Styles, featuring the little Belgian detective, Hercule Poirot.
  • C. S. Lewis, author of The Narnia Chronicles, received over 800 rejections before he published a single piece of writing.
  • William Faulkner received this rejection letter: “If the book had a plot and structure, we might suggest shortening and revisions, but it is so diffuse that I don’t think this would be of any use.”
  • J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter & The Sorcerer’s Stone was rejected repeatedly until the eight-year-old daughter of an editor demanded to read the rest of the book.
  • Dr. Seuss was told about his first book, And To Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street, “too different from other juveniles on the market to warrant its selling.”
  • Louisa May Alcott was told to stick to teaching.
  • Madeleine L’Engel‘s classic A Wrinkle in Time was turned down 26 times before it was published.
  • George Orwell was told of Animal Farm, “It is impossible to sell animal stories in the USA.”
  • Louise Penny, author of the Gamache mystery series set in Canada (and one of my favorite mystery writers), says her first mystery Still Life was turned down more times than she was willing to admit, even to her agent.

Last year more than 400,000 people took part in National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWrMo). The annual event challenges participants to write 50,000 words of a new novel during the month of November. Every year hundreds of thousands of novels are begun. A much smaller number are completed. But are they finished? What does it mean to be finished? What does it take?

Taking a novel from the first word to publishable form takes many things: talent, time, effort, a little bit of luck, friends, the ability to receive and profit from criticism, endless revisions, more criticism, more revisions.

And perseverance.


The Last Man Who Knew Everything

Has anyone ever known everything there was to know? Who was the last person to have read every book in existence? Believe it or not, this is a hotly debated question in certain academic circles. Several names are commonly proposed.

AristotleGreek philosopher and scientist ARISTOTLE (384 – 322 B.C.) is said to have known everything there was to be known in his time. Tutor to the youthful Alexander the Great, Aristotle’s own writings cover a virtual encyclopedia of Greek knowledge. But could he read other languages? Was he familiar with the “Hundred Schools of Thought” from the Eastern Zhou Dynasty (770-256 B.C.) of China, for example? Did he know the ancient Hebrew Scriptures, not translated into Greek until fifty years after his death? Had he read the Epic of Gilgamesh (700 B.C.), fragments of which were discovered in the library ruins of Assyrian king Ashurbanipal? It seems unlikely. To read a book, one must not only know its language; one must know it exists.

If we limit our search to the Western world, then, we might consider Dutch theologian and humanist, DESIDERIUS ERASMUS (1466 – 1536). ErasmusOne of the last scholars prior to the impact of the printing press, Erasmus mastered all the European and Scandinavian languages of his day plus Latin, Greek, and Hebrew. Erasmus is reputed to have said, “When I get a little money I buy books; and if any is left I buy food and clothes.” But did he accumulate enough money in his lifetime to purchase every book he was capable of reading?

DaVinciLEONARDO DA VINCI (1452 – 1519) is perhaps history’s most recognizable polymath (Latin for “having learned much”). Painter, sculptor, architect, musician, mathematician, engineer, inventor, anatomist, geologist, cartographer, botanist, and writer, DaVinci’s genius epitomized the Renaissance humanist ideal. His interests were certainly wide-ranging, but did they extend to the intricacies of lace making? Had he studied the history of board games? In a pinch, could he have acted as midwife?

The English poet JOHN MILTON (1608 – 1674),Milton some claim, read virtually every book ever written and knew enough about most things to discuss them with authority. My son has a friend who can do the same.

Goethe JOHANN WOLFGANG von GOETHE (1749 – 1832), author of the epic play Faust, is often called “the last universal genius.” Genius he may have been, but one questions his wisdom. At the age of seventy four, Goethe fell hopelessly in love with beautiful nineteen-year-old Ulrike von Levetzow, who—not surprisingly—rejected him. “Old enough to know better” springs to mind.

Surprisingly, the name most often cited as the last person to have read every book existing in his day is the English poet SAMUEL TAYLOR COLERIDGE (1772 – 1834). ColeridgeA little logic proves this impossible. The first pages flew off the Gutenberg press around 1470. By 1700 there were already millions of books in print. To read a million books in a lifetime, you would have to read forty books a day for seventy years. Leaving no time for other things, like writing poetry. And sleeping.

Sometime after 1700 people began to admit that the body of “known knowledge” [is there such a thing, one wonders, as “unknown knowledge”?] had become so large that it was no longer possible for one person to know everything. In his Collective Intelligence (1994), French philosopher Pierre Levy argues that the publication of Denis Diderot and Jean d’Almbert’s Encyclopedie (1751 – 1772) marks “the end of an area in which a single human being was able to comprehend the totality of knowledge.” The totality of knowledge? Really?

Deranged Victorian bibliomane Sir Thomas Phillipps stated that his life goal was to own a copy of every book ever printed. If simply owning books were enough, my mother would have been in the running. No question.






Something Strange is Going On in Ohio

Snow Rollers 2In a winter of snow, ice, below-zero temperatures, fender-benders, and school closings, Nature sometimes creates its own form of entertainment.

Lake Superior has its giant ice balls. Canada has its frost quakes. In parts of the Midwest this year, we’ve experienced a phenomenon so rare that most people have never heard of it: SNOW ROLLERS, sometimes called Mother Nature’s snowballs. So rare are they that we haven’t seen them in these parts in forty-five years. In fact when people began to call the weather experts for more information, they were asked “What are they used for?”

Snow rollers are rare because they are created only under very specific weather conditions. First, the surface of the ground must be covered with an icy crust of snow on which new snow can’t stick. Then an inch or so of new, “packable” snow must fall over that crust. Finally there must be rather strong winds. The wind picks up a small chunk of loose snow (called a “seed”) and begins to push it along, picking up more snow as itSnow Rollers 6 rolls and leaving trails behind, as if an army of small children was building  snowmen—but without footprints. As long as the wind can push the weight, the roller keeps getting bigger.

Snow rollers vary in size (from golf balls to thirty-gallon drums) and in shape (some are spherical and others log-like). Often they are hollow and look like giant Lifesavers. The special ones look like ice roses, perfectly formed. Snow Rollers 5They have been known in regions as far away as central Europe, but they seem to like the Midwest a lot. They began in central and northern Ohio in late January and lasted for a couple of weeks.

This year, 2014, will go down in history as “The Winter of the Snow Rollers.” It’s been fun. I hope they don’t make us wait another forty-five years.

The Joys of Winter

As I write, I look out on a thick blanket of snow rolling down to a frozen white lake. Ice fog blurs the landscape. The temperature outside is 7° F. The snow lies at a depth of 12 inches, and more is on the way. Our cottage in northern Wisconsin is in the path of another storm. I say, bring it on.

Come mid-December, when many Ohioans dream of white sand beaches or the warm hues of the desert, my husband and I head north. Far north. Give me a white Christmas, please. Up here in ski- and snow-mobile territory, “Let it Snow” is the winter motto. I wouldn’t mind going farther north. Near the top of my travel “bucket list” is a stay at one of the IceHotel06-640x426fabulous ice hotels in Scandinavia, although I’d settle for the one in Quebec. 

I’ve always been a winter lover. A November baby. Born in the Danish settlement of Racine, Wisconsin. Every day, so I’m told, my mother bundled me in my pram and rolled me outside on the porch for an hour or so. Winter PramIt was supposed to keep me strong and healthy. In Scandinavia women still put their babies outside in sub zero weather. That’s where they get those pink cheeks.

I love mystery novels set in cold climates, too. One of my favorites, Charles Todd’s A Cold Treachery, is set in December of 1919. Scotland Yard Inspector Ian Rutledge is sent out in a violent blizzard to investigate the murder of a sheep-farming family in a remote village England’s Lake District. So effectively did the authors [Charles Todd is a mother-son writing team] use sensoryFireplace details to create the bitterly cold world of the novel that all I have to do now is think about the story and I want to curl up in front of a fire with a mug of hot tea. After all, the joys of winter include such things as a blazing fire, warm sweaters, flickering candles, and  steaming hot drinks. Merry Christmas!

Check out my Pinterest board, The Joys of Winter.


What I Wish I Had Known, Part V: Lucy Burdette

Roberta IsleibThis week I am pleased to introduce you to Lucy Burdette, author of twelve mysteries, eight written as Roberta Isleib. Lucy Burdette is the penname for New Jersey born clinical psychologist Roberta Isleib, an Agatha-, Anthony-, and Macavity-award nominee. She is past-president of Sisters in Crime, International, as well as her local New England chapter.  

topped-chef-309x500Lucy’s most recent mystery series stars Key West food critic Hayley Snow. Topped Chef, the third book in the series, came out in May. The fourth, Murder with Ganache,Roberta Isleib Murder with Ganache hits bookshelves in early February, but can be pre-ordered now [click on link].  

I had the privilege of meeting Lucy Burdette this past September at Seascape Writers’ Retreat—an annual writing workshop in Chester, Connecticut, sponsored by Lucy and pals Hallie Ephron and Hank Phillippi Ryan. The week-end was practical, eye-opening, encouraging–and loads of fun.

Recently I asked Lucy to share the most important advice she would give to aspiring writers, like me. This is what she said: 

When Connie first invited me to share the best advice I had on writing, I thought it would be easy. I imagined a million ways to start—with fifteen years writing fiction and almost twelve books published, shouldn’t I be a font of information?  

How about this: Read a lot, but make sure you include books in the genre in which you’re writing? For each genre, the readers have expectations. For amateur sleuth mysteries like the ones I write, some of the necessary conventions include playing fair with clues, avoiding the trap of the female in jeopardy, not withholding necessary information from the reader, not allowing a gimmick to take the place of a good story… 

But then I thought my words would be better focused on making sure you take time away from writing to live life. Because life feeds fiction, especially after a writer has mined her personal business for the first novel. Travel, exercise, cook, eat, spend time with friends and family…and listen to the people around you, thinking all the while: what if? 

But wait, maybe it’s most important to warn new writers about the importance of friends. Writing and publishing are both difficult, not for the faint-hearted. You’ll need friends who don’t roll their eyes when you talk about your characters as if they were your kids. And friends who can buck you up when you get a rough critique or bad news. And friends who might cook for you or lend you a quiet room when you’re on a crushing deadline. And friends to be happy for your success and come to your booksigning… 

But in the end I decided the best advice is this: Never rush to send your work out. With agents and editors and contests only a mouse click away, it’s easy to hit send before the work is the best it can be. Rewriting is a writer’s best friend—whether a newbie or an old hand. Put the precious words in a drawer, cyber or real, and let them simmer. Get feedback from trusted sources, rewrite again.

Lucy can be found online in “way too many places” (her words): Facebook, Pinterest, Twitter, Mystery Lovers Kitchen, and Jungle Red Writers. Plus her own websites, as Lucy Burdette and Roberta Isleib.  

Pre-order Murder With Ganache: 

Find Lucy at: [killer recipes!]

Truth and Consequences

SherlockHolmes“Everybody, sooner or later,” said Robert Louis Stevenson, “sits down to a banquet of consequences.” Wonderful quote. I’ve used it as one the chapter headings in my mystery novel. For those of us who view the universe as having moral underpinnings, it is quite true. There is, or there will be, an accounting.

On earth, however, the guilty escape judgment on a fairly regular basis. We’ve had recent evidence of this in several highly publicized trials where, in spite of seemingly overwhelming evidence, the defendant has gone free—judged, if not exactly innocent, at least not guilty in terms of the criminal justice system. Many serious crimes are never solved. This is reality. 

But in the traditional mystery novel, the guilty must be punished—or at least led away to be punished somewhere beyond the scope of the story. Evil upsets the moral equilibrium of the fictional universe, and if that equilibrium is to be restored, the truth must come out, the victims vindicated, and the evildoers punished. What drives the classic mystery story, in addition to the solving of a puzzle, is the resolution of chaos and the reestablishment of justice and order. The world is not the same as it was before—lessons are learned, consequences are felt, characters grow in some way—but harmony reigns once again. 

Until recently, that is. Today’s mystery novel reflects the culture in which we live. Who is to say, the modernist asks, what is “right” and what is “wrong”? What if everyone in the story is seriously flawed? What if there are no consequences? 

Like so many others, I was captured in the web of Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl. She had me from the first sentence: “When I think of my wife, I always think of her head.” But the ending of the novel (spoiler alert!) was disturbing. Indeed there was no ending but merely a reshuffling of the characters on the stage—no one held accountable, no one having learned a thing. 

As I turned the final page of the book, the sensation I felt was exactly like turning off a radio just before the final note of a song. I felt the need to sound that final note myself, if only in my imagination. So in my head I’ve written a short addendum to Gone Girl, a final chapter in which the characters sit down to a banquet of consequences.

Call me old-fashioned.


What I Wish I Had Known, Part IV: G. M. Malliet


G. M. Malliett

G. M. Malliet 


This week I have the privilege of introducing you to award-winning mystery writer G. M. MALLIET, whose books, written in the tradition of Agatha Christie, are set in the U.K. 

Malliet’s first mystery, Death of a Cozy Writer, was awarded the prestigious Malice Domestic Grant, followed by the Agatha Award for Best First Novel.  

Her current series, set in the fictional English village of Nether Monkslip (don’t you love that name?), features Max Tudor–Anglican priest,  former MI5-agent, and village heartthrob. The third book in the series, Pagan Spring, hit the bookstores just this month. Life is good for Vicar Max Tudor.PaganSpring Reveling in his new-found personal happiness with Awena Owen, his life holds no greater challenge than writing his Easter sermon. But when murder invades his idyllic village of Nether Monkslip, Tudor’s MI5 training kicks in. But can he restore peace to the village and still manage to finish his sermon? 

When I asked her what she wishes she had known starting out as a writer, Ms. Malliet said: “I don’t feel I made any huge mistakes along the way to publication, other than occasionally losing faith and belief in myself that I would get published one day. I knew I had a story I liked (Death of a Cozy Writer) and I hoped that one day someone besides me would see some benefit to themselves in representing or publishing my work. There were days when the sight of yet another rejection letter in the mail when I came home exhausted from work pretty much broke my heart. It’s funny but now that I write full time, I have days when I am tired, but I never experience the soul-destroying drain I felt working a “money job” (writing advertising copy). So my advice to new writers has to be the old adage about never quitting. I wanted to quit a hundred times. I would swear I was going to pack it in. But I didn’t want to reach the end of a long life knowing I’d never done what I most wanted to do. That was the only prospect I could not face–somehow I felt I’d sacrificed too much already to just give up trying.”

Malliet’s many fans (myself included) are so glad she persevered! If you love maps as I do, check out the wonderful interactive map of Nether Monkslip at And look for Pagan Spring at your favorite bookstore or on Amazon.