Peevish Pen

Ruminations on reading, writing, rural living, retirement, aging—and sometimes cats. And maybe a border collie or other critters.

© 2006-2017 All rights reserved

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Location: Rural Virginia, United States

I'm an elderly retired teacher who writes. Among my books are Ferradiddledumday (Appalachian version of the Rumpelstiltskin story), Stuck (middle grade paranormal novel), Patches on the Same Quilt (novel set in Franklin County, VA), Them That Go (an Appalachian novel), and several Kindle ebooks.

Monday, May 29, 2006

Reflections of a Young Border Collie, Part I

Because I'm too busy to post today, this entry has been written by my border collie, Maggie.

This picture was taken when she was about three months old and was resting from playing in the snow.

(She's a lot bigger than this now. )





By Maggie Mae Mushko

I have lived with my human parents since December 14, 2005, when I was a six-week-old pup. They love me very much. I do, however, have to share them with some cats, and they have been a little slow to learn what I am trying to teach them, For example, they do not understand that whatever is on the floor is mine, and they shouldn’t take things away from me. They have given me a lot of toys (I especially like my Frisbee, several balls, the stuffed horsie, and the chewies), but they don’t understand that I also want paper bags and whatever I can get out of the trash. However, Mommy and Daddy have learned that if I whine in a certain way I have to go out NOW and it isn’t negotiable, so possibly they’ll learn my other rules in time.

The first of the other household dogs Mommy and Daddy introduced me to was my Uncle Jack, a very old and slow mixed retriever. He has very nice manners and was patient with me when I was very small. They said he would teach me what I need to know about being a trail dog. When I was eight weeks old, they put us in the truck (Uncle Jack got to ride in back, but Mommy made me sit on her lap like a sissy!) and took us down the road to the farm. You cannot imagine what a good time I had. I ran and ran. Jack likes to hunt for moles, which I think is boring, but I tried to show him that I was interested. Jack was a good friend of Abby, the other border collie my mommy and daddy used to have. In fact, Abby was the one who found Jack when he was young and raised him as her puppy and taught him to hunt moles, so I think Jack likes border collies. (Mommy has forgotten a couple of times and called me Abby, but she knows that I’m really Maggie. She says that my mother Daisy looks like Abby did.)

The only bad part of that first walk was that Mommy picked me up whenever we crossed a creek. I told her to put me down so I could splash through like Jack did, but she wouldn’t listen. Otherwise, I followed Jack the whole way and didn’t get tired. Mommy said we walked a mile. Well, she might have walked, but I ran for a lot of it. She said when I got bigger, they would take the other dogs to the farm with me, but right then she didn’t want me hunting with Hubert the beagle or running fast with Harley the deaf Catahoula. Also, she said that Emma, the free-spirited mixed sheltie who is the boss in the kennel, might teach me to misbehave because Emma doesn’t like to obey commands until she is good and ready. I think I have been adopted into an interesting family of dogs.

It took me a while to get used to the house cats. Camilla, the little brown cat, popped me hard on the nose the second day I was here and told me that dogs are never ever supposed to poke cats with their noses. Luckily her claws weren’t out when she popped me, but my feelings were hurt. My Daddy’s cat Dylan has been jealous of me since the day I moved in. Once he got into my crate and wouldn’t let me in. A couple of times he has even peed on my crate. Dylan is an evil cat. Sometimes I chase him, but then he jumps up on something and spoils my fun. Consequently I’m not having much luck herding the house cats. Mommy and Daddy did take me to see the neighbors’ goats, and I found them very interesting. Ditto for the cows across the road and the horses who live next to the kennel, although I have been told that I’m not allowed to herd them. I still like to watch them, though.

The first night I was here, I slept through the night without making a fuss. I am very good about sleeping. I have a large crate with a good view and plenty of toys, so I can amuse myself. When I was a little puppy I stayed in the crate all night, but now I either sleep on the bed at Mommy’s feet or in the bathroom where the tile is cool. Sometimes, I spend the night in the kennel with the other dogs.

When I stay in the house, Mommy takes me out whenever I ask. We play in the dark after the eleven o’clock news, and I go with her down the driveway to get the newspaper just before daylight. When she works on her computer, I sleep under the desk with my head on her foot. Sometimes she rests her feet on me. But when I say “Wuff!’ in a certain way, she knows she’d better take me out NOW.

In the kennel, Emma is the boss dog and the only other girl. She made me feel welcome, and she taught me a lot of dog rules. Some days the kennel is muddy. Emma taught me about how much fun mud is. Mud is fun to dig in. It is even more fun to roll in. I love mud!

The first time I got covered in mud, Mommy gave me a bath. I liked it so much that I got right back into the tub after she took me out. Now I get into the tub by myself even when I’m not dirty, and I have to fuss at Mommy until she turns the water on. I have watched how she does it, and I think I will soon figure out how to turn the water on by myself. Anyhow, when the water runs, I either drink out of the faucet or I try to keep the water from going down the drain. I could play in the tub for hours if she’d let me. It’s as much fun as playing in the creek, which is something else I like to do.

Daddy used to take me in the truck to the farm where I help him pick up sticks. I rode on the seat beside him with my head on his knee. Once, I pushed a little button by the window with my paw and locked him out of the truck. Luckily he’d left the vent window cracked and was finally able to get his keys. That was the last time I rode on the front seat.

Daddy is a ham radio operator, so every morning we broadcast to the Possum Trot network in North Carolina. The first trick I learned was how to bark on command, so Daddy decided I could “speak” on the radio. The Possum Trotters mailed me a certificate for all my radio contacts. Mommy framed it.

Mommy enrolled me in dog school in April. The first night I almost got expelled for making too much noise. I barked at everyone and wouldn’t let anyone come near my mommy. The instructor got in my face and told me that I’d better stop that. I hid behind Mommy and whimpered. But I stopped barking. Also, I’ve forgiven the instructor and finally allowed him to pet me. I’m best in the class at coming when I’m called and I’m very good at sitting on command, but I hate to heel and refuse to do something so stupid and useless. My job is to go out front and clear the trail. If I’m going to be behind something, it had better be sheep or cattle—or maybe cats. I don’t know why I need to go to dog school. I already know plenty of useful things—like how to open the storm door and let myself out and how to jump into the back of the truck.

I don’t know how Mommy and Daddy managed before they got me. I have plenty of dog work to do here. Sometimes, when I get Daddy up in the morning, I have to jump up and down on him for quite a while before he wakes up. I’ve helped Mommy bring in the herd of cats a few times. The three tabbies work in the barn during the day, but they come in at night. They won’t walk to the house after dark unless Mommy walks with them. Those cats walk a lot faster when I’m behind them. I also try to protect Mommy from her broom. I don’t like the looks of it, so every time she starts to sweep, I grab it and hang on with my teeth and growl. I also saved her from a big plastic rake when she tried to do yard work once. When Mommy and Daddy refill the dog buckets in the kennel, I test the water quality by diving into a bucket and digging frantically. The water is always muddy when I came out. They gave me a tub of my own in the kennel, but I still love to dive into those buckets and dig.

A border collie’s work is never done.

Sunday, May 28, 2006

Making Hay, etc.

My husband has been working in the hayfield the past few days. Another guy cuts and bales, but my husband uses his elderly tractor to rake. Because of the dry winter and spring in our part of Virginia, everyone's hay crop is much less than usual. The grass is too short and too thin. Our small field on our Polecat Creek farm down down the road that usually makes a dozen round bales made only four. We still have several more fields on two other farms to cut.

A few days ago, I was cleaning the horses' watering tubs. When I turned one tub over to empty it, I saw a little blacksnake coiled up asleep. The way it was coiled, it looked like the eye on a stove. After we petted the snake, my husband carefully picked it up and placed it near a mousehole. The snake went down. A barn snake is a nice thing to have. Supposedly a black snake will keep copperheads away, but I don't know if that's true or not.

Yesterday, after our Polecat Creek side field was cut, we drove down the road to check the property. A dark shape was in the field not far from the woods. Was it a groundhog? A dog? A cat? My husband walked out in the field to check. The shape—a hen turkey—rose up and headed for the woods. A dozen or so very tiny babies followed her. At least they were safely in the woods before today's raking and baling.

This evening, as we drove down the road to check the fields, I saw a fuzzy white thing digging in the pasture on a neighbor's farm. We stopped to look. The critter looked up—a skunk with a black head and front legs and a white body. I was going to take a picture, but before I could get my camera out of the bag, the skunk took off. Best looking skunk I've seen in a long time!

I wonder what interesting critter I'll see tomorrow.

Speaking of interesting critters, Maggie the border collie is spending the night in the house after being in the kennel with the other dogs for three days and two nights. She knows that when she comes in, she has to have a bath to get the red clay dust off her. As soon as I brought her inside the house, she headed for the bathroom and was sitting in the tub when I got there. At least she knows the drill.

Thursday, May 25, 2006

My favorite writing site is down!

Arrgghhh! Absolute Write—one of the best writing resource pages on the web and one of the best forums to identify scams—is down, thanks to one Barbara Bauer, a scam agent who didn’t like her name in the Writer Beware’s list of the 20 worst literary agents (a list posted on Absolute Write). Apparently, from what I’ve read on other blogs, Ms. Scam Agent complained to the site’s host server and the plug was pulled.

Miss Snark, an agent herself, posts the news on her blog—and also posts the list. Writer Beware’s head honchos, Anne Crispin & Victoria Strauss, also maintain a blog. Other blogs that mention Absolute Write’s removal are Making Light (Barbara Bauer also went after Making Light's Teresa Nielsen Hayden a month ago) and Insert Witty Title Here. Plus, there a whole lot more.

Absolute Write will return. You can’t keep a good website down.

Never underestimate the power of literary bloggers!

Wednesday, May 24, 2006

Books That Every Writer Should Read


I’m always surprised when I hear a fellow writer (or writer-wannabee) say he or she doesn’t read any books about writing: “Why waste my time? I know what I want to say” or “I don’t want to mess up my style” or “If writers read books on how to write, they’d all write the same.” Arrggghhh!

I have a masters’ degree in English, and I taught college composition for seven years. I know I still have a lot to learn. Here are a few books that have helped me learn:

  • Strunk and White's Elements of Style is one of the classics that every writer should have. I reread it every year or so. Read William Strunk's 1918 edition at Bartleby.com.
  • William Zinsser’s On Writing Well is subtitled An Informal Guide to Writing Non-fiction. However, this very readable book, originally published by Harper & Row, is also helpful for writing fiction. Zinsser emphasizes style—especially getting rid of clutter. Every writer should own a copy.
  • Anne Lamott's Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life (originally published by Pantheon books, 1994) is one of my favorites—a combination of good advice, autobiography, and humor.
  • Noah Lukeman’s The First Five Pages: A Writer’s Guide to Staying out of the Rejection Pile helps the reader identify and avoid bad writing.
  • Rita Mae Brown's Starting From Scratch: A Different Kind of Writers’ Manual is now out of print, but used copies are available at Amazon.com. Brown addresses both the writing lifestyle and ways to improve writing.
  • Carolyn See's Making a Literary Life: Advice for Writers and Other Dreamers (Bantam, 1988) is now out of print, but used copies are available at Amazon.com. See also addresses both the writing lifestyle and ways to improve writing.

Is there any book that I don’t recommend? Yep. The writing book that's been the least helpful to me—although a lot of people swear by it—is Natalie Goldberg's Writing Down the Bones. This is a feel-good, warm-fuzzy book for people who don't have ideas to write about but feel a deep need to write—or at least go through the writing motions: the "Look! I'm writing! I'm writing!" crowd.

Writing Down the Bones gives no advice on how to write better—only on how to write more. Goldberg waxes a bit too poetic for my taste, and some of her advice is darn hard to figure out.

"Watch when you listen to a piece of writing," she admonishes in the first sentence of her "Don't Marry the Fly" chapter. Huh? What the heck does that mean?

For a giver of writing advice, Goldberg sets a bad example. She writes long, loopy sentences with misplaced participial phrases and lack of pronoun-antecedent agreement. If she read those sentences out loud—and listened to what she read—maybe she'd hear how bad they sound. I'd love to quote a bunch of those sentences here, but the flyleaf to the 1986 edition warns against copying her work. Suffice to say her writing is full of sentence errors. People who write books about writing ought to set a good example by writing well themselves.

While a lot of her advice is impractical, some is dangerous. For example, she advises writers to take risks: “If you're terrified of horses,” she says, “buy a horse and make friends with it.”

I hope she's speaking metaphorically. Otherwise, she is incredibly naive and has no idea what horses can be like. Surely she doesn't mean that a person who is scared of horses should spend over a thousand dollars to buy a thousand pound animal that he or she has no use for and must find a place to keep (more $$$) in order to “make friends” with the horse and thus overcome the fear. The frightened writer might have a very good reason for being frightened—perhaps a fall from a horse years ago, perhaps an allergy to horses.

If you're terrified of horses, you need to decide if this fear is something you really want to overcome. After all, do you have many opportunities to actually encounter horses up close and personal? If so, you should find a good riding instructor who has calm, steady, well-trained school horses for you to learn on. Invest in a good riding helmet and proper footwear. After you've learned to ride, then you can think about buying a well-trained horse whose personality meshes well with your own. But only if you can afford it and only if you really, really want a horse.

If you're terrified of writing, don't write. Do something you enjoy—tap dance, play the tuba, juggle sharp objects, knit tea cozies. However, if you want to write well, invest in a more helpful book than Goldberg's.

My list of more helpful books are at the top of this post.

Tuesday, May 23, 2006

How to Amuse a Border Collie Puppy

When my border collie Maggie was three months old (she’s seven months old now), she discovered that the bathtub was a wonderful place to play. Just in case any readers of this blog have border collies who need amusement, here are the directions for “How to Amuse a Border Collie Puppy”:

1. Turn bathtub faucet on.
2. Stand aside while border collie jumps into tub.
3. Watch border collie play with running water.
4. Watch border collie dig at the drain.
5. Keep watching border collie.
6. Wonder when border collie will ever get tired of this.
7. Turn off water.
8. Endure border collie's hurt and angry looks.
9. Order border collie out of tub.
10. Watch border collie jump out.
11. Start to leave bathroom
12. Watch border collie jump back into tub.
13. Turn water on before border collie figures out how to do it herself.
14. Repeat steps 3 through 13.

Saturday, May 20, 2006

Tangled Roots


The dogs and I like this tree on Polecat Creek. The dogs always check deep under the tangled roots to see what surprises lurk hidden.

The tree reminds me of writing fiction—a plot complication branches off, tangles with other complications, and eventually returns to its roots. Many of this tree’s roots are exposed; the creek carries away the soil that keeps the tree anchored. One of these days, the dogs and I will walk the creek and find our favorite tree has toppled.

A writer has to be careful with details and complications. Make the story too complicated—too bogged down in detail— and the plot topples over.

A good plot originates from one event that intertwines with other events but is always rooted in believability. The hidden surprises are a bonus.

Wednesday, May 17, 2006

My Muse (er, Mews)


Some think writing is a solitary occupation, but I’m never alone when I write. I always have at least one cat (the record is four) on my desk and often a border collie under the desk. Sometimes a cat sits on my lap.

In this picture, Buford is to the left—that’s his favorite spot. If that corner of the desk is too cluttered, one swipe of his paw clears it. Yelling at him does no good—he’s deaf. (Consequently, he’s the only one of my six cats who likes to be vacuumed, but that’s another story). Dylan is about to slide off my eMac. He still misses the old iMac with its handle that he could put his arm through.

Sometimes my critters actually do inspire me. The following essay took second place in the 2005 Wytheville Chatauqua Creative Writing Contest:

How Do I Write?

I like the sleek whiteness of my eMac, the white keys that require so little pressure, the delete key that removes evidence of my mistakes, the 17-inch screen that I can easily see through my bifocals. The eMac, solid and substantial, glows on my cluttered desk in my equally cluttered study.

Often several cats watch me. Dylan and Eddie-Puss lounge on the desktop; their shedding black hair litters my white keyboard. Camilla, perched on the printer beside the desk, waits to pounce. Foxy and Buford curl in their cat beds on the filing cabinet under the window. Some folks work best in an environment devoid of clutter and animals; I am not one of those folks.

“A cluttered desk is the sign of a cluttered mind,” these folks say.

I say, “One thing a writer needs is a cluttered mind—one so brimming over with ideas that she has plenty to pick and choose from.” I never ask, “What can I write about?” I ask, “What idea will I work on next?” Somehow an idea always claws its way to the top of the heap that is both my desktop and my imagination. If that idea doesn’t work, another lurks beneath it.

From my study window, I can see the Blue Ridge Mountains in the distance. They’re beyond the hill beyond the trees beyond the cornfield across the road. The view from my study window reflects what a writer ought to have: a series of beyonds. Just beyond one idea is another.

A writer should be able to see into the distance, or at least know what is out there. On a clear day, I can see the Peaks of Otter. On a foggy day, I still know they’re there. The same with ideas—somewhere in the fog and the clutter, ideas always wait to pounce into my imagination.

Usually I write the ending to a story first. I like to see where I’m going. Writer Lee Smith says that she writes her last line first and tapes it up where she can see it. I type mine so I can see it. Whenever I open a blank document, I stare at the shiny white page on the shiny white eMac’s screen: all that empty white space—like fog. Then I type my last line. My words shimmer on the screen. I can see where I’m going.

Some writers carefully plot their stories and structure every minute detail. They’re probably the ones who, before they take a trip, peruse the roadmap and carefully plot their route along the fastest and shortest route to their destination—usually the Interstate. I don’t do this. I like to explore the less-traveled roads and admire the scenery. I don’t mind an occasional wrong turn. I can always turn around.

Some writers might say, “Oh, but I want my story to reflect life! In life, we don’t know where we’re going to end!” My reply: “We know exactly where we’ll end. Everyone has the same ending. The only difference is how we get there.” I know my destination, and I want to get there in the most interesting way.

I don’t do all of my writing in my study. Most of my writing takes place in my head while I’m doing something else. I’ve heard a couple of speakers at writing conferences say that a writer should sit down at the computer everyday and wait for an idea to come. “Put your butt in the chair!” one spokeswoman indelicately declared.

I think the best ideas come while a writer does something else, so I haul my derriere out of the chair and do something else—laundry, vacuuming, playing with cats, or walking with my dogs—until I get an idea. Sometimes I take my iBook a couple of miles down the road to my farm. While my dogs run in the hay fields or through the woods, I perch on the tailgate of my old Dodge truck and write. A writer should be able to go where the action is. Sometimes the writer has to join the action— or at least bat ideas around like a playful cat or doggedly follow a thread of thought.

Once in a while, I use the old iMac in the den. While I work at the iMac, Buford the deaf cat sleeps on top of the computer amoire. He doesn’t like anything to creep up on him, so he sleeps high. Dylan, the smallest black cat, drapes himself over the iMac. Putting his foreleg through the handle so he doesn’t slide off, Dylan luxuriates in the iMac’s warmth. The other cats lounge on a nearby sofa. Cats are a great audience. They never find fault with anything I write.

At the iMac, I can look out sideways out the back door to the pasture and watch my horses graze. My view is limited—a line of trees, the edge of the barn, and two elderly mares. Sometimes a writer needs a limited view, a narrow focus. Sometimes a sidewise glance is what I need to get a fresh idea. Sometimes, like Dylan, I hang onto an idea so I don’t slip away from it; sometimes, like Buford, I don’t let outside ideas creep up on me. Sometimes, like my mares, I let my imagination graze.

Each computer gives me a different viewpoint, a different approach. A writer, I’ve decided, can’t have too many computers—or too many viewpoints. Years ago, I believed that ideas had to flow from my brain, down my arm, into my fingertips and out my pen onto a yellow legal pad. Then, after much crossing out and revising, I would bang away on my typewriter until the idea popped out onto paper. What a waste of time!

Now, ideas—like electric currents—flow from brain to fingertips to screen. I can move words, sentences, paragraphs; I can insert and delete. Quick as a cat, I can change the whole look of my manuscript in seconds. I can luxuriate in words that appear before my eyes almost as fast as they appear in my mind.

I can’t imagine writing without a computer—or without cats or dogs or horses.
***

Tuesday, May 16, 2006

Looking Deeper

I took this picture autumn before last at Polecat Creek which runs through my Penhook farm.

Do you see just leaves and water, or do you see the frog?


Good writing should have more than what appears at first glance—a motif, a metaphor, a theme —something that makes the reader look deeper.

Saturday, May 13, 2006

May Morning at Standiford Creek

This part of eastern Franklin County is beautiful in the spring. Even though our rainfall has been low this year and our hayfields are short, the ferns along the Standiford Creek in Union Hall look green and lush.

Because of Smith Mountain Lake, Franklin County is one of Virginia’s fastest growing counties. It’s hard to believe that within a few years a shopping center will be a mile away from this creek and a power line with 90 foot tall towers will pass within a fifth of a mile.

Meanwhile, on a warm day in May, my elderly mixed retriever can show my border collie pup the joys of wading in the creek on a 72-acre farm that’s been in my family for 90-some years.

Thursday, May 11, 2006

Ask Ms. Writer Lady

A few years ago, to address grammatical issues that baffled my freshman English 101 students, I invented Ms. Writer Lady, and posted her advice on my faculty website. Since I'm leaving Ferrum College, my faculty site will soon be dismantled. I hated to lose Ms. Writer Lady, so I moved her here. After all, this blog is about writing (among other things).

The cat picture?—that's Dylan, one of my six cats. I originally used his picture with one of the letters below.



Ask Ms. Writer Lady
Advice for the Grammatically & Syntactically Challenged

Installment I


Because of a plethora of misinformation regarding the writing process, Ms. Writer Lady has graciously agreed to answer questions from those who suffer writing impairments of various sorts. Should one wish to pose a question to Ms. Writer Lady, one is instructed to pen one’s question in black ink on crisp off-white parchment and slip it under Ms. Writer Lady’s office door in Britt Hall. Should one lack either the proper shade of ink or a properly sharpened quill, one may resort to a computer-generated missive. Be warned that Ms. Writer Lady expects her questioners to have mastered the basics of spell-check. Questioners should not expect a prompt answer. Owing to various social and professional obligations, Ms. Writer Lady will post answers only on Tuesday afternoons, and then only if she is in the mood. A lady of somewhat advanced years, Ms. Writer Lady reserves the right to be frivolous or whimsical—and quite possibly both.

Ms. Writer Lady now turns her attention to questions from the misinformed:

hey, yo, miz wrt. lady--izzit true when you write a descriptive essay that you gotta use a lot of adjectives and appeal to all the senses—stu dent

Dear Writing-impaired Individual who has not mastered spell-check as per Ms. Writer Lady’s explicit instructions, who hasn’t a clue about the inappropriateness of using the second person point of view when one clearly needs the first person, and who has even less of a clue regarding the conventions of capitalization and punctuation:

Ms. Writer Lady avoids writing descriptive essays whenever possible. However, should you write such an essay, please note that an abundance of adjectives, however tantalizing they may be, will not insure success. Indeed, adjectival overkill will result in verbal flatulence of such proportions that your essay’s grade will fall as low as—No! Ms. Writer Lady will not stoop to using an inappropriate analogy! Do the words “academic probation” have meaning for you? Perhaps you should scrutinize the following examples. Which choice do you think is more effective?
1. the really clear and awesome bright blue sky that was so close to the really neat color of the University of North Carolina
2. the azure sky
If you picked #1, slap yourself hard with The Little, Brown Handbook (ninth edition). If you picked #2, you might pass freshman English.

Try again:
1. He hit me because I took his rectangular piece of delicious-looking, yummy-smelling milk chocolate candy with crisp almonds and ate it.
2. He slapped me with The Little, Brown Handbook (ninth edition) because I ate his Hershey Bar.
Again, if you picked #2, there is hope for you. Note that #2 uses a more specific verb, adds a necessary detail, and replaces all the burdensome adjectives with a specific noun.

Keep in mind this rule of writing (and, often, of life—with the exception of finances, fine art, and/or real estate in desirable locations ): “More is not better.” Indeed, the more words one uses, the sooner one’s reader will drop off to sleep. Keep in mind the words of Henry David Thoreau: “Simplify, simplify.” Although Mr. Thoreau could have made his point in 50% fewer words, his message is clear (though repetitive).

Dear Ms. Writer Lady: Should you always hand in a rough draft with your essay so your professor won’t think you’ve been visiting one of the free essay sites and maybe like getting some ideas there?—Trying for a good grade

Dear One tempted by the evils that lurk on the Internet and who—like the previous questioner—hasn’t a clue about the inappropriateness of using the second person point of view when one clearly should use the first person:

Thanks to the invention of computers, rough drafts have ceased to exist (though Ms. Writer Lady quite often peruses some essays that, while her students claim they are final drafts, have certain characteristics one might find in first drafts). Ms. Writer Lady also finds the term “rough draft” a bit coarse for her refined taste. Nonetheless, in the interests of academic enlightenment, she will force herself to use the distasteful expression.

Rough drafts became extinct about the time typewriters went out of general use. (Note: If one is unfamiliar with the term “typewriter,” one might ask one’s grandparents about it. However, if one’s grandparents came of age in the 1960s, they probably remember nothing about the entire decade and, thus, have no recollection of typewriters.) Suffice to say that entire forests were depleted and the hole in the ozone layer increased substantially because students wasted vast quantities of paper as they wrote rough drafts. Thanks to the invention of the delete key—as well as the ease of cutting and pasting as one electronically composes, one need never leave evidence of a rough draft.

However, if one’s professor requires roughness in composition from his or her students, one might be tempted to reconstruct a “rough draft” from one’s otherwise acceptable final draft. Does one require an example? No? Ms. Writer Lady will provide a hypothetical example anyway. Please indulge her:
Suppose that little Billy Shakespeare is quite satisfied with his passage: “To be or not to be, that is the question.” His schoolmaster, however, demands a rough draft. Knowing that he will not be able to improve upon his work, little Billy hastily roughens up his work so it reads, “Being here or not being here in today’s society, that is the problem I’m currently having trouble with, in my opinion, not that there’s anything wrong with that.” The school master awards little Billy a D for his “rough draft,” but is so impressed with the “corrected” version that he awards little Billy an A for his final draft. Quite possibly the schoolmaster, after affixing a smiley face sticker and writing “Greatly improved!” on little Billy’s paper, posts it in a public place for all to admire.
As for the free essay sites (known among some professors as “the fast track to suspension”), most of the work posted thereon is below even “rough draft” quality. Indeed, Ms. Writer Lady sometimes plucks an essay or two from those sites to show her own students what bad writing really is. If one should be tempted to appropriate a “free essay” and turn it in as one’s own work, one deserves the suspension (and subsequent forfeiture of tuition) that one receives.

Ms. Writer Lady is still cringing at your expression, “maybe like.”

Dear Ms. Writer Lady: What do you think of free writing? My high school English teacher used to have us do this all the time. She said it would help us get ideas.—Trying hard

Dear Hardly Trying: What does Ms. Writer Lady think of free writing? Ms. Writer Lady always expects to get paid for anything she writes.

Oh, you meant the process of writing frantically for a predetermined period of time when one has no ideas in one’s head but tries to form this lack of ideas into some sort of coherent thesis while distracting oneself by pushing one’s pen across one’s paper at top speed while one’s teacher sits back and silently snickers at how hard her students seem to be working, did you not?

Your teacher had you free write all the time? Pray tell, what was that teacher doing while her students were frantically writing—and thus depleting forests and increasing the hole in the ozone layer? Ms. Writer Lady thinks that your use of the word “all” implies that you are perhaps indulging in over-exaggeration. However, on the off chance that you are not, Ms. Writer Lady wishes you to know that she thinks very little of the practice.

If one has no idea of what to write, how does one’s writing profusely about nothing give one an idea, pray tell? The rule for writing (and, often, for life in general) is “Doing more of what doesn’t work, won’t make it work any better.” One generates ideas by thinking before one writes. Ms. Writer Lady will phrase that idea more succinctly: “Think before you write.”

Hi, Ms. W. L. Due to the fact that I wrote my essay in pencil, my prof won’t accept it. I worked all night on that paper. I ask you, is this fair!—In Dig Nant

Dear Digging In: No, it is not fair that you attempted to hand in a messy graphite-smeared excuse for an essay when computers are so readily available! Ms. Writer Lady suspects you also probably dog-eared the page and failed to properly head your paper which you no doubt wrote at 3:00 a.m. (when it was due at 8:00 a.m.). Ms. Writer Lady was not born yesterday (or even the day before) and thus knows that you probably did not work “all night.” She suspects that you spent a goodly portion of the night in less than scholarly pursuits.

Your professor should have ripped the paper from your hand and stomped it (the paper, not your hand. Ms. Writer Lady regrets the ambiguous antecedent of “it,” but she is in a hurry.), snatched your pencil from your hand, and snapped it (the pencil, not your hand. Again, Ms. Writer Lady regrets the ambiguous antecedent of “it,” but she has now worked herself into quit a snit.)

Unless one is a confirmed Luddite, one ought never to touch a pencil, with the exception of possibly using it as a surgical implement to dig out the portion of one’s brain that would cause one to use the expression “due to the fact that.” Merciful heavens! When did the word “because” drop from general usage?

Dear Ms. Writer Lady: If someone forgot to turn in their essay on time, could they do extra credit———.

Acckkk! Gasp! Note that Ms. Writer Lady did not allow the questioner to finish his or her sentence. Ms. Writer Lady is so appalled by the use of the plural pronouns “their” and “they” to refer to a singular antecedent that she is likely to succumb to the vapors. Let her catch her breath and explain:

“Someone” means one. “Someone” does not mean two, four dozen or six thousand. “Their” and “they,” on the other hand, could indeed refer to two, four dozen or even six thousand people. “They” and “their” are plural; “they” and “their” do not equal “one,” unless perhaps the one in question suffers from multiple personality disorder. Other singular indefinite pronouns are some, one, everyone, everybody, no one, and nobody.

Granted, in speaking one does occasionally use “they” or “their” to refer to a singular indefinite pronoun, but spoken English is several notches below written English on the formality scale.

What the grammatically-impaired writer of the above question probably meant to write was, “If some people forgot to turn in their essays on time, could they do extra credit work to salvage their poor grades?” Ms. Writer Lady’s succinct answer: No.

Dear Ms. Writer Lady: My essay had been written by me and handed in on time by me, too, but when the paper was returned to me by my instructor, “Avoid passive verbs!” was written beside every paragraph. Have any thoughts been had by you as to whether this remark should have been written so much on my paper?—Diligent student

Dear Dilly-dallier: Ms. Writer Lady has trouble imagining the depths of your passiveness. She suggests you seek some action before you drown in the pools of passivity that surround you. (or, as you might passively phrase it, “The pool of passivity is being drowned in by me.”) Ms. Writer Lady would like to comment more about how active verbs are preferable to passive verbs, but she must run out and purchase a suitable sympathy card for your instructor.

Dear Ms. Writer Lady: I’ve been reading all these questions and I think your answers show that you’ve got bats in your belfry.—Anonymous

Dear Anon: Ms. Writer Lady might have cats on her computer, but she does not have bats in her belfry. She does not own a belfry. Furthermore, she has no immediate plans to acquire one. Unlike you, however, she does know that one puts a comma after the first main clause (and before the conjunction) in a compound sentence.

Ms. Writer Lady, her patience having been exhausted by the above questions, finds that she must leave her computer to brew herself a strong cup of chamomile tea in order to brace her nerves and gather her wits.

Installment II

Ms. Writer Lady, her nerves braced and her wits gathered, is ready to answer more questions.

Dear Ms. Writer Lady: After writing my paper working all night, my prof says that it is full of dangling modifiers receiving a D hurting my feelings. Written in the margin in red ink, he says I need to correct this problem. Having no idea what a dangling modifier is, my paper is pretty good in my opinion without any other errors. So—do you think this grade is fair knowing how hard I worked? How can I stop dangling?—Confused

Dear Dangling One: Miss Writer Lady thinks your grade is rather generous. Ms. Writer Lady was educated before students were encouraged to “let it all hang out” (i.e. dangle), so she is reluctant to even give an example. However, in the interests of better writing, she will try. Note the following example:
Dangling from the highest limb on the tree, Granny spotted my kite.
Now, unless Granny is unusually agile for her age, she is unlikely to be out on a limb, much less dangling from one. The kite is dangling. Put the participial phrase near the word it modifies:
Granny spotted my kite dangling from the highest tree.
See how much better sense that makes? As for how you can stop dangling, restrain yourself, my dear. Restrain yourself.

Dr. Ms. W. L.: My friends are confused as to when to use who and when to use whom I tell them that they should use who for everyday usage and whom when they want to sound classy. Is this too cool or what? —Miss Classy Lassie

Dear Sadly Misinformed: What? Ms. Writer Lady is not sure what you mean by “classy.” However, she does need to point out that one uses the subjective case who for a subject or subject complement and the objective case whom for an object. For example:
Who are you to give grammar advice?
To whom did you give such misinformation?
However, when one uses a noun clause as an object—and a form of who (in this case whoever) is the subject of the clause, one would correctly use the subjective case. Confused? Good! Let Ms. Writer Lady give another example:
Write the thank-you note to whoever gave you the diamond earrings.
In the above sentence, the subject is you (understood), the verb is write, the direct object is note, and the object of the preposition to is the entire subordinate clause. Whoever is the subject of the clause, the verb is gave, and the direct object is earrings. Now consider this sentence:
You may write notes to whomever you choose.
Again one has a noun clause that is the object of the preposition to. This time, however, the subject of the clause is you and the verb is choose. Whomever is indeed a direct object.

Confused? Ms. Writer Lady sincerely hopes you are! Your attempts at “class” have so flustered Ms. Writer Lady that she must cease giving advice for the day. She needs to calm her nerves and soothe her mind with a glass of imported sherry.

Installment III

The sherry having done an admirable job in calming her nerves, Ms. Writer Lady is ready to answer more questions:

Dear Ms. Writer Lady: It all started when my Brit lit professor assigned the class to read Romeo and Juliet and write about it. I think he wanted it to be a critical analysis. Anyway, I wrote it and handed it in, and he handed it back and said it wasn’t a critical analysis, and I said it was because I said I didn’t like it because I felt it ended badly and that certainly sounds like criticism to me. He said that it wasn’t enough, and I said OK, I feel it’s a shame how badly Juliet’s father treated her and he should have cut her some slack, which it seems to me is critical. I still got an F on it. What is it you professors want?—Don’t Get It.

Quite the contrary, my dear. You have gotten more than your share of its. What you lack is a clue. Ms. Writer Lady, who is feeling more than usually generous, will give you two clues:
Clue #1: You are overusing the third person singular personal pronoun for a genderless object. Unless you have an actual antecedent in mind (and Ms. Writer Lady suspects you haven’t a clue about antecedents), avoid using it. True, an expletive it does exist, but the best writers try to avoid using it. (Astute readers will note Ms. Writer Lady‘s double meaning of the third person singular genderless personal pronoun at the end of the previous sentence. Ms. Writer Lady is unusually clever today.)

Clue #2: You have mistaken “sharing your feelings” for genuine (or even fake) literary criticism. No one above the high school level wants to know your feelings, though Ms. Writer Lady suspects your high school English teacher pretended she did. (Note to astute readers: Ms. Writer Lady did not use the politically correct “pretended he or she did” because males would be so uninterested in how another person feels that they would not even pretend. In fact, Ms. Writer Lady remembers one of her former suitors who—Oh, dear! Ms. Writer Lady is getting quite far off the subject, isn’t she?)
Critical analysis requires actual thought based upon—Oh, why does Ms. Writer Lady bother? She knows that if you haven’t had an original thought by now, you are unlikely to suddenly have one.

What do we professors want? Perfection, my dear, perfection. Please do not assume that we will “cut you some slack,” whatever that expression means, for surely none of us are slack-cutters.

Hey Miz Writer Lady! In Installment II of your advice, you mentioned a participial phrase. How is that like a participle? And what the heck is a participle?—Not that I care

Dear Uncaring Person: Ms. Writer Lady will attempt to enlighten you, though she certainly has her work cut out for her. You do know what a verb is, do you not? Verbs, being the most active of the eight parts of speech, sometimes transform themselves into one of those other parts of speech. For example, if the verb “to sing” wanted to become a noun, it would become the gerund “singing.”
Verb: He is singing badly.
Gerund: His singing was abysmal.
Now, a participle is a verb which decides to become an adjective:
The singing boy annoyed all of us.
If a participle joins a group of other parts of speech, the result is a participial phrase:
The boy, singing loudly and off-key, so annoyed us that we thrashed him soundly.
Ms. Writer Lady, normally a gentle sort, apologizes for the violence in the above example, but she did want you to get the idea. Now, Ms. Writer Lady, having been unnerved by the effort required to answer this installment’s questions, finds that she must mix herself a martini to regain a semblance of composure. Perhaps Ms. Writer Lady will add extra gin. . . .

Installment IV

Her jangled nerves quieted and her composure restored, Ms. Writer Lady finds herself ready to tackle (in the metaphorical sense—Ms. Writer Lady does not play football) yet more problems that baffle undergraduates. Most of this installment’s questions involve punctuation.

Dear Ms. Writer Lady, I always thought that brackets were interchangeable with parentheses since both enclose added info. My prof says it ain’t so. Is he being hard to get along with, or what?—Curious

Dear Curio: What? Ms. Writer Lady wasn’t paying attention. If “[I]t ain’t so” are his exact words, he is certainly being ungrammatical. Were this the case, Ms. Writer Lady would certainly find him difficult (though if he is unusually tall, sports a well-trimmed moustache, and can quote Shakespeare extensively, Ms. Writer Lady might find him somewhat attractive). Nonetheless, he is right. While both marks of punctuation (which always come in pairs) do indeed enclose extra information, brackets enclose that which one has added to otherwise quoted material. Parentheses enclose extra information. If one will but look at the opening sentence of this installment and the fourth sentence of this answer, one will note that Ms. Writer Lady used parentheses correctly. If one will look at the professor’s alleged quote, one will note that Ms. Writer Lady also used brackets correctly to enclose her added capital letter

Dear Ms. Writer Lady; If one exclamation point shows surprise, can I show more surprise by adding several? I feel a need to express really strong feelings!!—Often Excited!!!!

Dear Over-Excitable: Of course you can, but you may not! Please note that one exclamation point is sufficient for whatever strong feeling one may have. Ms. Writer Lady, for example, currently needs to express a strong feeling of revulsion that one confuses can and may, but she exhibits admirable restraint. Indeed, she does! (Can, for those abysmally ignorant in the meanings of verbs, implies ability. May, on the other hand, implies permission. Again, Ms. Writer Lady demonstrates she can use parentheses correctly!)

Hey Miz Writer Lady, I got a paper back with “Misuse of apostrophe!” marked all over it! What’s so important about apostrophes’s, huh? Are little squiggly thing’s that important? It’s not like those mark’s mean thing’s. I just stick one in every time a noun end’s in s. That work’s doesn’t it?— Know’s It

Dear Knows Very Little: One does not just “stick in” (or type in) an apostrophe before an s in nouns (or, as you have done in your letter, before an s in verbs ).

An apostrophe is used before the s to show possession by a singular noun:
I heard a sound not unlike a cat’s meow.
An apostrophe goes after the s to show possession by a plural noun:
I distinctly heard several cats’ meows and occasional hisses beneath my open window during the last full moon.
If a plural noun does not end in s, then add an apostrophe and an s to show possession:
The children’s attempts to capture the cats resulted in many scratches.
One only uses an apostrophe in verbs to show where the omitted letters were in a contraction:
Children shouldn’t hold cats which don’t want to be held.
There now, that wasn’t difficult was it? Another use of the apostrophe is to show plurals of numerals, letters, and words used as words, but those who are truly up-to-date (as Ms. Writer Lady always is) use italics instead.
Old way: Mind your p’s and q’s.
New way: Mind your ps and qs.


Old way: No if’s, and’s or but’s about it, you are a dolt.
New way: No ifs, ands or buts about it, you are a dolt.
If you still don’t get it, Ms. Writer Lady suggests you study the cartoon on http://http://angryflower.com/bobsqu.gif.

Ms. Writer Lady, having become too exhausted by this installment’s questions and having been inspired by the examples she used in the previous answer, has decided to curl up for a cat-nap.

First, however, she will quaff a rather large glass of blended bourbon over ice to soothe herself. Perhaps she will have more than one glass. Perhaps she will dispense with the ice in the second glass. Perhaps she will dispense with the glass….
****

Installment V

Ms. Writer Lady, having awakened from a rather long nap induced by two or three the sips of bourbon, finds that her exasperation has been replaced by a throbbing headache. However, fully aware of how her advice is sorely needed, she is once again ready to enlighten those dim in the ways of writing. If only she didn’t have such a dreadful headache…. Ah, well! Duty beckons.

Dear Ms. Writer Lady: My favorite punctuation mark is: the colon. I think that using colons really jazz up what I’m writing: they make my stuff look more business-like. Plus: they really emphasize stuff. However, my profs don’t see it that way: because they think I over-use the colon. How can I convince them: I’m right? —Colon Power

Dear Misguided One: One can’t convince others that one is right when one is wrong. Ms. Writer Lady cannot condone your blatant punctuation misuse. The colon, not unlike an antimacassar, has limited but definite conventional uses. The colon, which never comes between a linking verb and a subject complement, is used to introduce a list, a formal quotation, or sometimes an appositive. One may also use a colon between two main clauses if the second clause explains the first. A colon does not come between a preposition and its object.

Lest you fail to understand the rules, Ms. Writer Lady will provide examples:
Wrong: An educated person is well-versed in the works of: Shakespeare, Poe, and Frost.
Correct: An educated person is well-versed in the works of the following authors: Shakespeare, Poe, and Frost.


Wrong: Ms. Writer Lady assumed: you are a dolt.
Correct: Ms. Writer Lady’s assumption is correct: you are a dolt.

Dear Miz W. L. My prof said I’m not using the subjunctive mood correctly. I know good moods and bad moods, but what the heck is the subjunctive? If I was a teacher, I’d let my students use any mood they wanted.—Moody

Dear Moody: One suits one's mood to the occasion. For instance, the indicative mood is used when one wishes to state one’s opinion, to relate facts, and to ask questions.
Ms. Writer Lady knows that some people haven’t a clue, doesn’t she?
One uses the imperative mood to give advice or issue orders.
Get a clue!
The subjunctive mood is used when one wishes that something were true or when one expresses a condition contrary to fact. (Hint: Look for the word if.) When one uses the subjunctive, one uses the plural verb were instead of was, even for singular subjects.

Ms. Writer Lady wishes that everyone were more literate.
If Ms. Writer Lady were in charge of the world, students would not say, “If I was. . . ."

There, now. That wasn’t difficult, was it?

Dear Ms. Writer Lady,
What if one desires to consult another online grammar reference besides this one? Do you have any recommendations?—Wants to look elsewhere

Dear Wanting: Ms. Writer Lady cannot understand why anyone would want to look elsewhere. However, should one be so inclined as to stray from Ms. Writer Lady's advice, one might look at Grammar Grabbers . Ms. Writer Lady finds Mr. Cutler's web site to be what one might call "a hoot" if one is being less than formal in one's terminology.

Dear Ms. Writer Lady,
My high school typing teacher told me to always put two spaces after a period. However, my English instructor says this is wrong. Who is right? I favor two spaces since putting in one space is so hard to learn. Also it makes for a longer pause. —Space Conscious

Dear Spaced Out and Semi-Conscious: Forget what your typing teacher told you. If you will consult your Little, Brown Handbook (9th edition), you will clearly see on the top of page 206: "Leave one space after all punctuation with these exceptions. . . ." The exceptions, you will note, all have no spaces at all after them. Many of the principles of typing have become as extinct as the dodo, which is what you are if you continue to use two spaces. A longer pause indeed! Two spaces puts holes in your document which, Ms. Writer Lady is quite sure, probably reflect the holes in your thinking.

Ms. Writer Lady, having worked herself into an agitated state, finds that she is too befuddled to continue dispensing advice. Having recently received from a rural admirer a Mason jar filled with a clear liquid, Ms. Writer Lady thinks that perhaps a sip from this jar—which no doubt contains the purest of spring water—will soothe her agitation and clear her befuddled mind.

***

Tuesday, May 09, 2006

Confessions of a Vanity-Pubbed Author

I should be ashamed, but I’m not. Some say that what I do is not legitimate—that nobody who is anybody in the publishing world will respect me. Do they want me to wear a scarlet letter—V for “vanity published”?

I confess my sin: I self-published my first book. Even worse, I used print-on-demand (POD) for the next three. Consequently, in the eyes of the some commercially published authors, I’m not a real author. I (ack! gasp!) paid to publish!

One woman, a book reviewer for the Charlottesville Daily Progress, wrote in the Virginia Writers Club newsletter, The Writer (October–December 2005) about self-published books:

. . . [S]everal self-published books come my way, and I have learned that they are not really books at all. Sheets of paper they are, sandwiched between covers, containing enough misguided, self-infatuated, ego-driven drivel to sink the heart of anyone who values language and plot.
Ouch! She continues:
Self-publishing is, if not for the birds, for the bird-brained. If one has talent, it will be recognized by those who pay coins of the realm for them to see the light of print. To believe otherwise is to be complicit with the fantasies of the self-published.
Reading between the clichés, I can tell she really doesn't like self-pubbed books.

Sure, I’d like to be legitimately published so my books would be in the big bookstores. I even tried—twice. The editors of these respectable publishing houses were nice enough. They liked my work, but they’d never heard of me. Why take a chance on an unknown who writes to a limited audience?

If I had an agent to pimp my work, maybe I could get the attention of commercial presses. Maybe if I were mainstream. Or Appalachian—that’s still hot now. Alas, my novel is set two counties too far east to be Appalachian. So what if my novel won a prize and a third of my first press run expense was covered by a grant? So what if it got great local reviews—and one national review? So what if at least four book clubs studied it and a local public radio station recorded it for the sight-impaired? It’s still self-published, and—like comedian Rodney Dangerfield—“I don’t get no respect.” At least his book, It’s Not Easy Being Me: A Lifetime of No Respect but Plenty of Sex and Drugs, was published by HarperCollins, one of the biggies. His publisher is respectable.

Why did I go the self-publishing route? At the 2001 Mid-Atlantic Writers Conference, Writers Digest editor Melanie Rigney told me, “Self-publish. You’ll make more money.” I figured if the editor of a popular writing magazine didn’t think badly of self-publishing, it must be OK.

After I’d sold 500 copies and hit break-even, I made more than the average author at a small press earns in an advance. I bought a really nice computer, paid for another press run of thousand copies, and put a couple thousand into my bank account. My second press run has already paid for itself.

Despite the self-pub stigma, I’m doing OK—probably better than some authors who publish with small presses do. The late Janet Schaeffer, for instance, searched two years for a publisher for her From Shadwell to Poplar Forest before a small press in North Carolina paid her a hundred dollar advance for her well-written manuscript about Jefferson’s home. They printed her book so the type wasn’t straight on the page and her illustrations were dark and muddy. Then they slapped on a poorly designed cover that curls up at the edges. They must have spared every expense. At bookfests, she sold her own copies just like I sold mine. At least she was legitimately published, albeit badly.

My novel is printed on quality paper—I picked it myself when I visited the printer. I also picked both font type and size, so my words look good on the page. My cover is a bit bland because I saved money by not doing full color, but the cover doesn’t curl. On the back, a quote from the contest judge, Brad Burkholder, praises my work:
The writing is all but flawless. The story becomes painfully touching in places, and when all the threads are tied together at the end, the result is spell-binding, beautiful and emotionally moving. Through the course of time, the horse has been man’s greatest companion on earth, a point that those of our time do not fully understand. The novel’s use of the horse as a metaphor for human longing, human self-preservation—indeed, all of those traits within us that we are apt to call human—comes into clear focus only at the end, and when it does, the effect is breathtaking.
But my novel is self-published, so the quality of both content and paper don’t matter to some—in their eyes, my book is crap. How dare I call myself an author! Thus, I endure the shame of self-publishing.

When you’re disgraced, might as well go all the way. Thus, my second book is (Ack! Gasp!) Print-On-Demand. POD is an even easier way than self-publishing to get into print, though critics consider it even sleazier than self-publishing. Anyone with minimal computer skills and a few hundred dollars can do POD. Peevish Advice, a collection of my first two years worth of columns, is rural humor—such a tiny niche that legitimate publishers won’t take a chance on it—unless maybe Jeff Foxworthy wrote it. And even he isn’t selling so well anymore.

“Short stories are a hard sell,” Little, Brown editor, Geoff Shandler said at the 2004 James River Writers Conference. Hearing that, I didn’t feel bad that I’d POD’ed book #3—my collection of award-winning short stories, most of which had earned money from contest prizes or from the sale of first rights. Ditto for book #4, a collection of stories for young people.

As both a self-pubber and a PODer, I am my own pimp. I approach gift shops and bookstores and ask them to carry my books. However, because the POD I use has a buy-back option, several stores now order directly from my publisher; I rarely place books on consignment anymore.

Real publishers, I’m told, don’t allow authors to sell their own books. Real authors don’t go to book stores and plead with the owner to order books—or worse, sell books directly to the owner. Someone at the publisher’s takes care of all that. The only thing a real author published by a real publisher does is show up and sign books.

Small presses, I’d heard from several sources, are a step upward for the author wanna-be. They get books into bookstores! At the 2005 AWA conference, I met the editor-publisher of a small press that publishes Appalachian fiction. I looked at the books she had on display. They looked well-done.

“How much royalty do you pay?” I asked.

“Thirty per cent,” she said.

“Is that on cover price or net?” I asked. “And what is the average advance you pay authors?”

She looked a bit puzzled. “Cover price,” she finally said. And she admitted that being such a small press, they didn’t pay advances.

Thirty percent is doggone good, though, even without an advance. Then I asked the big question: “Do you have any problems getting your books distributed to bookstores.”

“We do have problems with that,” she admitted. “What we recommend is that the author buy his books at a thirty percent discount and sell them himself.”

Thirty percent! I can buy my POD books at a forty percent discount! Fifty percent on the first order. “Thank you,” I said. I didn’t tell her that my POD was a better deal.

At the same conference, I also talked to a marketing rep from a university press. I learned that they do very small runs and hope they will break even. They do some promoting—but not much—and they expect the manuscripts to already be edited before submission. I concluded that I’m better off with a POD than with a university press.

At the 2005 James River Writers Conference, I learned that not all publishing professionals look down on POD books. When audience member asked about POD publishing for poetry, Morgan Entreken, head honcho of Grove-Atlantic, admitted that commercial publishers were unlikely to buy poetry because of its limited audience and that POD could be way to go. “Two thousand dollars and iUniverse,” he said,” and you have the equivalent of a small press run.”

However, an elderly writer I know often makes disparaging remarks about POD books. When I checked the web site of his publisher, Greenwood/Praeger—whose high priced books are marketed primarily to libraries and academic institutions (a limited audience?)—I found that this press didn’t send its books to bookstores either. Their author’s FAQ makes it clear that authors will have to approach bookstores themselves. Regarding bookstore placement, the FAQ says this:

Most of the books on their shelves are from large trade publishers, who are able to provide the deep discounts (up to 55%) that they require. However, any bookstore—even the major chains—should be able to order your book directly from us. We recommend that you contact your local booksellers directly to encourage them to stock your book. Most are proud to support local authors, and are more responsive when they know you'll be checking up on them from time to time. They can contact our Director of Sales for discount and ordering information at any time.
Thus, even some legitimately published authors have to pimp their books. Maybe being a self-published/POD author isn’t so bad after all. I think I can live with the stigma.

But I don’t know about that scarlet letter. Red isn’t my best color.

Monday, May 08, 2006

Satirizing Romance Covers

Here's a fun site if you enjoy seeing what a guy can do with Photoshop, stereotypical romance covers, and a wicked sense of humor.