16 May 2017

Until a Split Infinitive Do Us Part

  Family Fortnight +   Leading up to the International Day of Families on the 15th of May, we bring you the eighteenth in a series about mystery writers’ take on families. Settle back and enjoy!

by Amy Marks
As we close in on the end of family fortnight at SleuthSayers, I’d like to introduce my wife Amy. Some of you may know her already. But whether you do or not, hopefully you’ll get to know her a little better here. Over the years she’s become my editor, my “Max Perkins”. I think every writer needs a Max Perkins and I’m very lucky to have her. And lucky, too, that she likes editing. We’ve had some “discussions” about some of her suggestions, but she’s a great and intuitive editor, and I go with about 75-80% of what she suggests. Our 30th wedding anniversary is coming up in June, so something must be working. And they said it wouldn’t last. —Take it away, Amy:
— Paul

I’m not a writer, but I’m married to one. Which is kind of like that old commercial, “I’m not a doctor, but I play one on TV.” In fact, I’m not really much of a reader either—or wasn’t when I was a kid. Don’t get me wrong, I love books and I love reading. But when I was a kid I stubbornly refused to wear the glasses that had been prescribed to me from the age of six. I hated them, but without them, reading was a chore. The only time I would wear my glasses is when the lights went out in the movie theater and I would sneak them out of my purse and put them on, hoping no one would notice. It wasn’t until my junior year in high school when I got contact lenses that I began to enjoy being able to see clearly…and read.

So how did I end up married to a writer? Well, it wasn’t because I was hanging out at literary events. It was because both of us had friends who roped us into “volunteering” to make phone calls to raise money for Unicef. They were doing an old-time, live-audience radio show on Halloween and needed volunteers to call people up and ask for donations. Phone calls, and particularly phone calls asking for money, is not something I enjoy doing… But my one good deed led to meeting Paul, so I guess it was good karma.

When I met Paul he was a screenwriter/script doctor, I’d never read a screenplay before and was curious, so I asked if I could read some stuff. Paul said I could only if I agreed to give him honest feedback and criticism. He didn’t need someone just to tell him how wonderful it was (he had his mom for that). I said, “Sure! No problem.” So I read a couple of screenplays and Paul asked me what I thought of them. And I said, “They were great. I enjoyed them!” And then he asked me why. And I said, “I don’t know, I just liked them.”

Paul "cracking the whip" in the early days.
Well, that didn’t really help and I knew I wasn’t doing him any favors if I just blindly liked everything he wrote.

It took me a while, but I started to learn how to read critically. In fact, one story Paul wrote I didn’t like at all and I told him so. He asked me why I didn’t like it. And again I said, “I don’t know.” I realized it was just as hard to define why I didn’t like something as it was to define why I did. I had to learn how to think critically and how to articulate those thoughts.

At some point I started not only reading and providing feedback, but doing actual editing on Paul’s work. While my day job is as a trust administrator for a bank, I like having this sort of alter-ego, creative side that I can change into when I get home. I love my day job, but I also like being able to stretch out and be an editor. Sometimes it’s a challenge and Paul and I don’t always agree on things. I’ve learned to speak my mind and stand up for my point of view. Sometimes I win and sometimes I don’t.

Paul and I arguing about edits.
I guess I could have not gotten involved in Paul’s writing at all. I could have said, “I’m not a writer. That’s your thing, not mine. I’ll just sit here and do my own thing while you write.” But I wanted to be involved in his work. I loved his writing. I loved his ability to create stories and characters. To turn words into experiences and feelings. I wanted to share in that experience. So we became a partnership, a team, a rock band (without all the break-ups or the replaceable drummers).

Over the years of our marriage, and as Paul transitioned from screenwriting to short stories and novels, I’ve had to learn a lot of things that I never would have had to learn or experience if I hadn’t met him. I’ve had to learn why I like something and why I don’t. Why one book is memorable and another is a bore. I had to understand my own tastes and preferences and learn how to be objective (if one can be objective). I’ve also had to learn a whole bunch of things that might not mean a lot to most people, but that to a writer are important: the difference between an en dash and an em dash. When to use a comma (well, sometimes, I still struggle with when a comma is really necessary). The three act structure. The difference between a shot and a slug line. The difference between it’s and its. What’s a character arc? What’s purple prose? What’s a plot twist? A reversal? And even the difference between a revolver and a semi-automatic. And I love being able to keep learning new things.
Paul and Amy in the early years

Some people have asked me if I’ve ever wanted to write my own stuff. No way. I get my fun out of reading and editing, contributing ideas and thoughts. My creative juices flow more towards visual arts, I like to paint and draw, and problem solving and brain storming, just as I like solving real puzzles. In fact, when we were in New York just a few weeks ago when Paul won the Ellery Queen Readers Poll award, I met Peter Kanter the president of Dell Magazines/Penny Publications and told him how much I like their logic puzzles. When we got home, there was a package waiting at our P.O. Box full of Dell puzzle books and logic puzzle books in particular. How cool is that? Thank you! Yes, I’m a puzzle geek and in another life I probably would have been a mathematician or a detective.

And there are a lot of other perks. Meeting cool and interesting people, other writers and people in the publishing industry, traveling. And tons of free books all over the place. So many that we’re being “booked” out of house and home…

If I hadn't met Paul I wouldn't have met that other Paul
and had backstage passes for Paul McCartney.
And that was really cool!
I’ve read some of the other blogs from family members over the past few weeks and it’s struck me how everyone has the same challenges. I just read Art Taylor’s interview with his wife Tara Laskowski and realized we’re not alone in how time-crunched we are. And we don’t even have a five year old, but we do have two big dogs and until recently two cats! That’s like having a five year old or two… And I related to Robyn Thornton’s story about being frustrated when her husband Brian was too busy to help her put together a stool. It can be hard to put up with the demanding writing “mistress” taking up all their time.

But I also love coming home at night where Paul and I will plunk ourselves down in front of our side by side computers and dig into the writing work. We usually don’t break for dinner until around 8 or 8:30 pm. Dinner is often microwave frozen stuff—nothing that takes more than 10 minutes, maybe catch the end of a murder show on TV and try to get to bed by 10 pm. And, I have a confession to make: our house doesn’t get cleaned very often… If you meet a writer with a clean house, I would suspect writer’s block has something to do with it.

Paul and I at a Sisters in Crime Holiday Party
- photo by Andrew Pierce.
Have there been times when I’ve wondered what it would be like to not be married to a writer? What it would be like to come home and sit in front of the TV, veg out for a couple of hours, take a leisurely bath and sleep eight maybe nine hours? Yes, and to be honest, I think I could do that for a few days (it’s called vacation). Then I’d probably be bored out of my skull.

We work hard, but we have fun doing it. We get to work on stuff together, learn stuff together and sometimes (or often) make mistakes together. And we are never, never bored.

Oh, yeah, we have fun!
And then there’s that other thing that many of the other family members who’ve blogged this past few weeks have mentioned: understanding that writing is not a job, it’s not a nine-to-five vocation. You don’t turn off the lights and lock the office door at 5 o’clock. You don’t put it away for the weekend. You live and breathe it every day.

So, it’s crazy and fun and I wouldn’t trade it for anything. I love that we can work together and that we understand each other. I understand his need to write. And he understands my need to not be a writer, but to be the one figuring out where to put the commas and how to keep the machinery running smoothly.

And now for the usual BSP:

My story Twelve Angry Days is in the new Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magaine that just went on sale at newsstands on April 25th. Or you can click here to buy online.


  1. Many compliments, Amy. Few authors are able to deliver on fun, fame and fortune. The happiness really comes through.

    You describe your work and relationship beautifully. I'm disappointed to learn you don't have any link-minded sisters.

  2. I wonder if the original Max Perkins wrote as well as Amy Marks?
    Nice job.

  3. Love your point about writers not having clean houses! My husband bought me a cleaning service for my birthday (every two weeks, for a year.)
    Nice to meet you, Amy :)

  4. Loved this post, Amy (and Paul). Your relationship and teamwork shine through every paragraph, and you make the great point that writing isn't like other "jobs." The meter is almost always running.

    Like Melodie, I loved your line about clean houses and writer's block. You might add laundry to that, too.

    Paul, congrats on the new story, too.

  5. Great essay, Amy! Love this glimpse into your lives together--and thanks for mentioning my post with Tara from before too. It's been interesting to compare the essays over this series, see how much we have in common in so many ways!

  6. And you also double as photographer, Amy. I've seen you at events with that camera. I have a few of those pictures. But that makes for a successful team and it sure shows in Paul's work. And the part about a clean house... What's a clean house? A terrific read.

  7. Great post, Amy! Love the photos too.

    Paul, glad to hear there's another story of yours out and ready to be read. Best to you both!

  8. Amy, "a clean house is the sign of a misspent life." Or as Annie Dillard put it, "Let the grass die. I let almost all of my indoor plants die from neglect while I was writing the book. There are all kinds of ways to live. You can take your choice. You can keep a tidy house, and when St. Peter asks you what you did with your life, you can say, 'I kept a tidy house, I made my own cheese balls.”

    Sounds like you two are having a great life!

  9. Congratulations on finding out what works for you and then being able to live it. I hope you both have many more years together, writing and editing.

  10. Thanks Leigh! We work hard but also try to have fun doing it.
    Thank you Janice! Maybe I do have a hidden writer in there. It was strange being on the other side and having Paul read my blog and correct my grammar.
    Nice to meet you Melodie. Thank you. What a great gift for a writer! Your husband understands!
    Thank you Steve. Yes, laundry too! We can never find clean socks but we know exactly which paragraph needs to be moved and which line is not working, right?

  11. Wow! Overwhelmed by all the great comments.
    Thank you Art. Your interview with Tara inspired me. You start to wonder are we the only crazy people who spend all our time doing this? So it's good to know we aren't alone.
    Thanks Gayle. Yes I forgot to mention my photo taking. But my skill at that is questionable...but I try.
    Thank you John! And another perk was getting to meet you in person at the EQ party.
    Great quote Eve! I just need to keep the house clean enough so there's a path from the office to the kitchen so I can make those cheese balls. Thank you!
    Thanks Barb! We are lucky to be able to do what we want (most of the time).

  12. As an author, I really appreciate this post. It's really important for our significant others to support our work, goals, and dreams. Writing is really hard work and often thankless. It helps a lot when we have someone who's understanding and helpful. The experience can be a lot of fun for both parties if they maintain positivity and creativity.

    1. Thanks Stephanie. Yes absolutely. It helps when both sides understand.

  13. Amy, nice blog article, and Paul congrats on your story ("Twelve Angry Day") in AHMM. Just now getting around to reading that issue.

  14. Wonderful post, Amy. It makes a huge difference to me that my husband understands my obsession with writing and is always eager to get involved and help. You're obviously making a huge difference for Paul, too.

    1. Thanks B.K.! Glad your husband is supportive. It does make a huge difference.

  15. It was a pleasure to meet you and Paul, Amy, in NYC. This was a wonderful piece, full of insight, and joy. So refreshing. Best to you both!

    1. Thank you David! It was great meeting you.

  16. Thank you Sleuth sayers for inviting me to blog. It was fun being a "blogger" for a day!

  17. What a great story! I loved the art where the house doesn't get cleaned often. My office is a disaster--but I hire one of my adult daughters to clean the rest. Though I've never met you or Paul, I feel like I know you thanks to Facebook and he SoCal listserve. I belong, but live too far away to attend meetings.

  18. Thank you Meredith. You're lucky to have a daughter like that! And Facebook is a great way to get to know people we might never have met.

  19. Great post, Amy! How great that you and Paul can work together so well, hand in glove. Karma indeed. Early in your relationship, I can imagine Paul putting his arm around you and saying, "I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship" as you both walk into the mist. (Cue the music)

    1. Thank you Dianne. That's the perfect quote for us!

  20. Don't sell yourself short in the writing department Amy. This was a wonderful first-time story and I'm quite certain all those hours of proofing had a lot to with it. Thank you for taking the time from your busy day to let so many of us out here know how one chance meeting, in an uncomfortable situation, turned into a lifetime of proofreading and correcting a writer! I look forward to reading your first short story one day soon.
    Now, where do I put that comma...


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