My Writing Library: Nancy Peacock’s A Broom of One’s Own

Advice to writers?

There’s a lot out there, some good, some bad.

Back up your computer. Back up all your files. All the time. That’s good advice. It comes from every writer friend I have. Recently I learned what truly excellent advice that is.

A Broom of One's Own - Nancy Peacock - Harper Perennial, 2008 - PB & Kindle

A Broom of One’s Own – Nancy Peacock – Harper Perennial, 2008 – PB & Kindle

Someday I’ll regain enough emotional stability to talk about it without twitching like a frantic Deputy Barney Fife.

Friends sometimes give bad advice, however. The one who told me I had to outline every scene before I began my manuscript had me stalled for months. The method worked for her but tied me up in knots. Don’t worry–he won’t recognize himself.

If you’re interested in writing. you’ve no doubt browsed the section of the bookstore or library for books about how to write. Shelves are packed with them. I’ve bought them for years, compulsively. Some have helped me, but some–not so much.

The least helpful preach rules that must be closely adhered to:

>You must outline before writing.

>You must get up an hour early to write before you go to work.

>You must write for a set time every single day. Even days when you sleep through the alarm, and the boss makes you stay late, and you get home and have to cook dinner, and then your five children tell you they promised you would make homemade brownies for their class Halloween parties, and the sixth says she’s given away her mermaid costume because now she wants to be a duck, and the stores don’t have any duck costumes, and you couldn’t make that child look like a duck if your life depended on it. And your husband is working in the Azores and won’t be home till Thanksgiving.

>And my #1 favorite: You must describe each scene of your projected novel on a 3″ x  5″ note card, and stack the cards in sequence, before you begin the manuscript. At any point, you may stack them in a different order, but you must never jump ahead and write a scene out of sequence, before you’ve written the scenes before it.

That Very Specific Commandment appeared in a book by a prominent author and teacher, so I thought I had to obey. For months I kept the paper companies in business by buying note cards, describing scenes, becoming seasick every time I tried to write, throwing the cards away–and buying new cards. I recently read the author now uses popular software when he composes. He didn’t mention note cards.


As I said before, some advice is good, and some isn’t. Each writer gets to decide for himself which is which, to find his own process and establish his own rules. We’re all different.

For that reason, the books I like are primarily descriptive rather than prescriptive, not How to but How I… Books in which authors tell stories about their own experiences, success and failures, methods, and beliefs about the writing life. If they slip in some How to…, it’s usually worth considering.

Perhaps the best-known and -loved of his genre is Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird, a humorous and heartfelt memoir of her development as a writer and as a human being. Stephen King’s On Writing is another, a story of persistence crowned by his wife’s pulling the manuscript of Carrie out of the wastebasket and insisting he continue trying to get it published.

But there are other fine books that, though not so well known, are worth anyone’s time and attention.

The first came to my notice for a Story Circle challenge: Write and post a four-sentence book review. I chose a review copy of Nancy Peacock’s A Broom of One’s Own: Words on Writing, Housecleaning, & Life. From cleaning the houses of a variety of clients, Peacock extracts truths about about writing. Below is my original review.

English: Broom Suomi: Luuta

English: Broom Suomi: Luuta (Photo credit: Wikipedia). By Pearson Scott Foresman [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

“I like Nancy Peacock’s A Broom of One’s Own: Words About Writing, Housecleaning & Life so much that it’s taken me over two months and two missed deadlines to untangle my thoughts and write this four-sentence review, an irony Peacock, author of two critically acclaimed novels, would no doubt address were I in one of her writing classes.

“She would probably tell me there is no perfect writing life; that her job as a part-time house cleaner, begun when full-time writing wouldn’t pay the bills, afforded time, solitude, and the “foundation of regular work” she needed;  that engaging in physical labor allowed her unconscious mind to “kick into gear,” so she became not the writer but the “receiver” of her stories.

“She’d probably say that writing is hard; that sitting at a desk doesn’t automatically bring brilliance; that writers have to work with what they have; that “if I don’t have the pages I hate I will never have the pages I love”; that there are a million “saner” things to do and a “million good reasons to quit” and that the only good reason to continue is, “This is what I want.”

“So, having composed at least two dozen subordinated, coordinated, appositived, participial-phrase-stuffed first sentences and discarded them before completion; having practically memorized the book searching for the perfect quotation to end with; and having once again stayed awake into the night, racing another deadline well past the due date, I am completing this review—because I value Nancy Peacock’s advice; and because I love A Broom of One’s Own; and because I consider it the equal of Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird; and because I want other readers to know about it; and because this is what I want.”

Since I’m not limited to four sentences, I’ll add that I appreciate Peacock’s integrity. In an afterword, “Writing Advice from the Author,” she rebuts ten pieces of “free advice she’s received about being an author.”

About #10, “You have to network, network, network, and never forget that everyone you meet is a potential source for something besides friendship,” she counters, “People are not commodities. Enough said.”

And under “bonus advice on developing your own writing life,” she says,

“Be kind. Do not write for revenge. Do not vilify. If you are writing a memoir understand that you will have to write about your own role in whatever event you are exploring. Nothing is ever everyone else’s fault. A part of being kind is seeing the complexities of life and people, finding what is human in your story. This does not mean being dishonest.”

In its own way, A Broom of One’s Own is as amusing as Bird by Bird. Much humor comes from Peacock’s description of her relationship with clients and of their idiosyncrasies.

Asked whether she has any housecleaning tips, she says, “My most valuable advice is to never hire a writer to clean your house.”

I planned to review three books readers might like as much as I do, but I’ve run on long enough.

So I’ll wrap this up with a paragraph about the author herself, taken from her website:

“Nancy Peacock does not have enough fingers and toes (it’s the standard issue of ten of each) to count the number of times she’s quit this confounded writing business. Yet somehow she always comes back to it, and has finally come to accept it is not only her lot in life, but a damn good place to be too.”

The authors whose advice I respect most are ones like Peacock: kind, thoughtful, understanding, honest, and generous, willing to share what they know and to admit they don’t know it all.

They also believe the writing life is “…a damn good place to be too.”




Kathy Waller blogs at Kathy Waller–Telling the Truth, Mainly,
and at Writing Wranglers & Warriors.
Years ago she gave several stacks of her books about writing
to the library she directed.
She wishes she had them back.



Live Without Water - Nancy Peacock - Longstreet, 1996 - HB & PB

Life Without Water
Nancy Peacock
Longstreet, 1996
Hardback & Paperback


The Gardiner Chronicles

SINC August Meg Gardiner 002By Gale Albright

portraits 004 (5)Part One of the Gardiner Chronicles, wherein we learn about Big Dogs and Big Ideas. Meg Gardiner presented the August 10 program for Sisters in Crime: Heart of Texas chapter in Austin at Recycled Reads.

In order to complete a 95,000-word novel, Meg Gardiner needed a compelling main character and a big idea to hang her story on. “It only took me decades to learn that,” laughs Gardiner, the Edgar-winning, best-selling thriller author of Phantom Instinct.

Gardiner’s parents were teachers who encouraged her writing in a pragmatic way. “My dad’s car was full of books, the trunk and back seat. I thought everyone lived like this. Dad said go to law school so you can pay bills while you are writing. Pay the rent. So I went to law school.”

Years after law school, when she came up with her first series character, Evan Delaney, Gardiner was married with three children. She could relate to Evan Delaney, a “girl lawyer,” although Evan was “more athletic than the author. My first attempt was horrible, deadly, nothing happened in it.” The book was shelved.

Her next novel got up to “thirty good pages” with a hit and run scene. The scene was long and slow. It turned out there was no reason for the hit and run driver to hit and run over anybody. In short, there was no plot. Project shelved.

Gardiner finally finished a novel with a cast of thousands. Although she called it a murder mystery, a friend pointed out that no one had been murdered. You guessed it—shelved.

When her children were out of diapers, Gardiner was living in London and trying to get an agent with only three chapters written for a new book. She found Giles Gordon, an agent in London.

“With thirty years in the business and lots of professional experience, I learned when he gives advice, it’s wise to listen.” Gordon said her first chapter was not working. She protested that it was funny, shiny, and clever. He said it was a cliché. It took her a long time to start listening, but she finally saw the light. “He didn’t have to come to my house and hit me with a two by four.”

She redid chapters but still got rejections. “I hope you’re feeling tough,” said Gordon on one memorable occasion, when he showed her a publisher’s reply to her submission. The two-page, single-spaced letter said the manuscript was horrible.

Giles said, “Read it, burn it, drink a glass of whiskey, then get back to work.”

Finally, China Lake, the first Evan Delaney novel, was ready for prime time. A British publisher made an offer and China Lake was published in London, translated into other languages, and sold in Europe.

But United States publishers did not want it.

When she wrote Mission Canyon, the sequel to China Lake, the land of her birth didn’t want that one either. It was snapped up by European publishers. This happened five times in a row with the Evan Delaney series. She could find a copy of her books in Singapore, but not in California when she went home for a family visit. She joked that her relatives probably thought she was fibbing about being published.

Then along came good ole Serendipity, AKA Stephen King.

“King’s got a closet full of books people have sent him. In preparation for a long airplane trip, he saw China Lake in his closet and took it with him. Why? It had nice big print, so he figured it was good for an overnight flight.”

And he liked it. He said, “This was good. Do you have any more?”

Gardiner’s British publisher gave copies of all her books to Stephen King, who mentioned her in a column he wrote for Entertainment Weekly and encouraged people to read her thrillers. Almost immediately, she got offers from about fourteen different U.S. publishers.

“Sometimes you need a very big dog with a very big bark to be in your corner.”

Had Gardiner been languishing with a hanky, worrying about not getting U.S. publishers all this time? She had not. Like any serious writer, she was working on new material, a series featuring Jo Beckett, a forensic psychiatrist. She took an offer from Penguin to have the first Jo Beckett novel published, The Dirty Secrets Club. “You must be ready when opportunity knocks.” You never know when Stephen King is going to turn your world upside down.

Gardiner thinks her very early writing attempts were “crap.” But, “If you believe in a book, keep trying to jump over the bar.”

Stay tuned for Part Two of the Gardiner Chronicles, wherein we learn about Writer Work Ethics and Plotting 101. Coming to a blog near you in a few weeks.

SINC August Meg Gardiner 004SINC August Meg Gardiner 010