Peevish Pen

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

© 2006-2019 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), Miracle of the Concrete Jesus & Other Stories, and several Kindle ebooks.

Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Bookfests & Authors, Oh My!

Two Bookfests loom on the horizon. Well, actually they don’t loom—they’re in Mechanicsville and Rocky Mount, which aren’t exactly on the horizon unless you’re standing in a particular place.

The Hanover Bookfest is this coming Saturday at the VFW Hall in Mechanicsville. I’m conducting a workshop on “publishing options.” Having self-published once (albeit with help from the Smith Mountain Arts Council) and vanity-published four times, I suppose I qualify to discuss the pros and cons of both methods, neither of which is the route to being a big-time author. I’ve had work rejected by some very well-known commercial publishers, so I can also talk about being rejected.

The 2006 Hanover Bookfest was great fun—especially the band. I hope 2007 can measure up. Last year’s was mainly a gathering of the great under-published (self, vanity, subsidy, and all the variants thereof)—although there were some small-press-pubbed authors in attendance, too; and it was fun to network with all the others who are trying to get work “out there.” Several of us wrote for local magazines; some had written for such small niches that the big publishers wouldn’t be interested. But it was inspiring to see so many of us who are actively trying to make our mark on the literary world. Attendance by the general public was good, too. Maybe they turned out to get books by the next big author.

On August 10-11, the third annual Franklin County Bookfest happens. I’ll be a part of the Friday evening (6:30 p.m.) Coffeehouse Reading at the Edible Vibe in exciting downtown Rocky Mount. The EV is just down the street from the library and sort of across the street from the hardware store. You can't miss it.

Most of us Friday night readers are self-pubbed. Linda Hamlett Childress will read from her memoir, Tobacco Farmer’s Daughter. Marion Higgins will read from When Men Move to the Basement. Fred First, who has one of the best regional blogs out there, will read from Slow Road Home, which actually began as blog postings and is now in its second printing. Dan Smith, editor of the Blue Ridge Business Journal, will read from his memoir, Burning the Furniture. Fellow Valley Writer (and author of Blue and Gray Ballads), Dick Raymond, will play his ukelele and recite some of his more risque poems. I’ll debut my essay (that’s actually commercially published!) in A Cup of Comfort for Writers, which officially comes out of August 14. (And it’s commercially published! Did I mention that?) The folks at F & W Publications assure me that I would have copies on hand to sign that night.

On Saturday, August 11, starting at 10 a.m. at the library, Bob Slaughter will read from his D-Day memoir, Omaha Beach and Beyond: The Long March of Sergeant Bob Slaughter. At 11, Franklin County native Alyson Hagy (Keeneland and Snow, Ashes) will read from her works. After the two authors speak (and read) they’ll sign copies of their books.

I’ll be there. Ask me about my latest book.

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Sunday, July 29, 2007

Signing at the General Store

Saturday, Marion Higgins and I did a book-signing at the General Store at Westlake. Our county no longer has a bookstore, so we depend upon Smith Mountain Lake gift shops to carry our books. The General Store is a fantastic gift shop!

That's me (left) with my buddy Marion Higgins at the General Store.

Marion signed When Men Move to the Basement; I signed More Peevish Advice. Our books are both humor, so they complement each other.

We were joined by our illustrator and fellow Lake Writer, Bruce Rae, who is best-known around Smith Mountain Lake for his fish carvings.

Marion Higgins and Bruce Rae look at her book.

Marion has already blogged about our signing, so I’ll refer you to her blog for all the details. We had a great time, signed a bunch of books, met a lot of neat people, and ate delicious snacks provided by Vickie and her co-workers at the General Store.

She and I—along with some other area writers and crafts people—will be back at the General Store on October 6, from 11 until 2. I’ll be signing A Cup of Comfort for Writers then.

Y'all come see us. And buy our books.

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Saturday, July 28, 2007

The Pin

My husband and I haven’t celebrated the gift-giving holidays for years. We already have plenty of stuff—enough stuff to last the rest of our lives and then some. We both hate shopping, unless it involves going to Kroger’s on Senior Citizen Day when they serve free coffee and offer a 5% discount to those of us over a certain age; we avoid malls whenever we can.

However, we occasionally—for no particular occasion—give each other stuff whenever the mood strikes us.

The other day, my husband came home from the Rocky Mount Goodwill—one of our favorite places to shop because we like the idea of recycling rather than discarding stuff—with this little pin. He said he thought I’d like it. He was right.

Some anonymous person—I’m guessing a woman—made it by hand. The base is a concho, no doubt recycled. There’s a watch face, also recycled, and a cancelled two-cent stamp. A few jewelry findings and a dangling chain complete the design.

I like the pin because someone took some discards, rearranged them, and recycled them into something entirely different from what the individual parts were originally. Kind of like what writers do with ideas and words.

Did the pin-maker have a design in mind before finding the parts? Or did she have the parts and then decide how to put them together? Was the design planned or accidental? I guess I’ll never know.

Every so often, someone asks me how I write. I don’t know. I just do. I get ideas from all over the place and recycle them.

For my column, I might read something in the paper, overhear something at Kroger's, get an email from a friend, pluck an idea out of the air, etc., but I recycle all these bits of ideas into my column twice a month. Just when I think I’m running out of ideas, more ideas appear—like a gift from the idea fairy. Sometimes I have a design in mind; other times I don’t.

Sometimes my ideas even surprise me. Just like my husband did when he handed me the pin for no particular reason.

Friday, July 27, 2007


When I taught freshman grammar & comp, I learned from my colleagues how to Google-sleuth to catch instances of plagiarism. It’s easy: go to and search for a suspicious line or phrase, one that a particular student normally wouldn’t use.

For instance, let’s say that a student writes, “Twas brillig in the ghoul haunted woodland of Weir when my buddies and me got wasted last weekend.”

Put twas brillig in quotation marks and Google: you get 103,000 hits, most referring to the opening line in Lewis Carroll’s Jabberwocky, but some referring to blogs that have used the term. Do the same for “ghoul haunted woodland of Weir,” and you get Poe’s "Ulalume.” Only 1,390 hits.

During my college-teaching stint, my most spectacular Google-sleuthing turned up an essay that a student of mine had copied word for word from a professor's website, where he'd posted examples of good essays.

Google-sleuthing is not only helpful for academics; it's helpful for writers, too. On Allie’s Musings, blogger Allie Boniface gives some good tips on “How to Make the Most of A Writing Conference.” She writes, “Research the agents or editors who will be attending, if you're looking to pitch a story or learn more about a certain publishing house.” Good advice! Google can help your research.

Because I’m going to the James River Writers Conference in September, I’ve used Google to learn more about some of the big names there. One JRWC presenter is Michael Stearns, an editor currently with HarperCollins. I heard him speak at Hollins not long ago and know a few things about him. But what has he edited? I Googled “edited by Michael Stearns” and got 424 hits. He’s edited A Wizard’s Dozen, A Starfarer’s Dozen, A Nightmare’s Dozen, The Dark-Thirty: Southern Tales of the Supernatural, and more. Plus I learned what authors he’s edited. Googling “Michael Stearns, editor” yielded 53 hits.

One author at the JRWC is Sharyn McCrumb. I’m heard her speak several times (already twice this year—I’m becoming a McCrumb groupie) and am currently working on an article about her for a local magazine. From info on her website, I know she’s won some awards:

In addition to being honored for Outstanding Contribution to Appalachian Literature by the Appalachian Writer's Association in 1997, Sharyn McCrumb's many awards include these: the Sherwood Anderson Short Story Award; Appalachian Writer of the Year Award in 1999 from Shepherd College; the Flora McDonald Award; Morehead State University's Chaffin Award; and the Plattner Award from Berea College. Her work has twice received the AWA's Best Appalachian Novel Award.

But are there more? I can Google “Sharyn McCrumb” & “Award.” Yep, there’s the Edgar, the Chaffin, the Nero, the MacCavity (twice), etc. An impressive list!

One of the reasons I’m going to the JRWC is to network with agents. The JRWC site lists bios for the agents, but I want to know more. Who, for instance, do they represent?

Jenny Rappaport is the agent with whom I hope to have an interview because she represents middle grade and children’s markets. Googling "represented by Jenny Rappaport" yielded a few hits, and her clients seem happy that she represents them. “Jenny Rappaport, agent” yielded more hits, including a blog that mentioned her in a most positive way and her own blog, Lit Soup. She sounds like the kind of agent I’d love to have represent my work. And she has a black cat. (I have black cats!)

Besides providing info about people you want to know better, Googling can help you avoid people you don’t want to know—scammers. The literary world is infested with them, and many have left electronic trails on the Internet. If you’re not sure of an agent or publisher, Google the person’s name (in quotation marks, so the whole name is searched) and the word scam. Googling infamous scammer-agent “Martha Ivery” & “scam,” for instance, yields 362 hits. Googling "International Library of Poetry" & “scam” yields 1,010 hits. “PublishAmerica” & “scam” yields 29,400 hits.

Wonder why academics and others in the know don’t take Wikipedia as a credible source? Googling a particular Wikipedia editor’s name yields this info about the drop-out who pretended to have a PhD.

Google-sleuthing is a valuable tool for both academics and writers. If you’re not already doing so, periodically Google your own name. You’d be surprised what might turn up.


Thursday, July 26, 2007

Summertime Blues

My favorite color is blue, but blue flowers are hard to find.

This hydrangea (above) is on my Pole Cat Creek Farm, around the corner and down the road apiece from my house. Some years it's loaded with blooms, but this year blooms are sparse.

My favorite hue of blue is the color of chickory. Lots of chicory grows along the road in front of Pole Cat Creek Farm. You've got to admire such a tough little plant that flourishes in such inhospitable conditions.

This morning the chickory's blue was vibrant. By the time I got back with my camera, the color wasn't as good. The flowers had gotten droopy and wilty.

Heck, by mid-afternoon, I'm droopy and wilty myself.

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Writer Support

I rarely ever miss a Lake Writers meeting. Because of my appointment with a podiatrist, I missed the July 6 meeting of Lake Writers. I figured I’d just be a bit late. Instead, I was sent to X-Ray, step one in my adventure of the foot from hell.

Two weeks later, I limped into the next Lake Writers meeting. I knew they missed me because Jack, one of our senior members, had this cane ready and waiting. The lights don’t work, but the bell does. Lake Writers have supported my writing for 8 years; now they’re supporting my weight when I lean on the cane.

Lake Writers is one of the most supportive groups I’ve ever been a member of. We’re all, ahem, of a “certain age,” i.e., retirement. Most of us have had long and successful careers; some have advanced degrees. We’re a creative bunch; several are artists as well as writers. None of us aspires to literary greatness, but we work to perfect our craft. And we help each other do it. Most live at the lake; a few (Marion and I) don’t. Most have lived in the area less than two decades. I’m the only member whose family history runs 200 years deep into Franklin County.

Lake Writers is a loosely organized group (members come and go as needed; occasionally someone dies) with Jim as our fearless and exceedingly diplomatic leader who keeps us on track. I function as the official club nagger—I pester others into doing what they’ve been putting off doing or think they can’t do.

Jack, the bearer of the cane, was—is—one my successful naggees. For years Jack wrote wonderful personal history, mainly about his adventures in WWII, his beginnings as a photographer, his childhood during the 1930s, and his adventures as a retiree at Smith Mountain Lake. He’d read one of his essays at almost every meeting. But he never took them farther. Some of us encouraged him to “do something” with them, but for a long time, he didn’t. After all, memoirs by other than celebrities, aren’t attractive to publishers.

Then I learned about blogging. A blog, I decided, would be perfect for Jack. His kids and grandkids are scattered about the country. A blog would let them know more about their immediate ancestor. I nagged; he resisted. I nagged more; he asked fellow members to help him brainstorm a name for his blog. Several of us nagged; his blog, Jack the SMLaker, finally debuted on May 26, 2006. He now has many devoted readers, some of whom aren’t even kin to him.

He still reads his essays to the group before he posts them. Before he reads, he automatically hands me a copy, and I whip out my official English teacher red grading pen. I used to do a lot of correcting; lately I haven’t found much to change—the paper doesn’t “bleed” nearly as much as it used to.

Looks like my nagging paid off. And I get to use this really cool cane to help me limp around.


Monday, July 23, 2007

Rejection of the Week

Another week, another rejection. The last one, for my essay “Dreaming of Horses” that I’d submitted to an anthology, arrived via email the other day. I was told it was in the top 100 out of 1,000 submissions. However, only 46 were selected. A friend of mine received the same rejection; her essay also made the top 100.

The essay, which had gotten a second place in a Valley Writers contest two years ago, wasn’t that good. Maudlin and mediocre, it was about how I achieved my dream of owning a horse. Because I used several references to the movie Dreamer, I realize the essay is now out-dated. Maybe I’ll rewrite part of it for another market; maybe I’ll just let it die.

Oddly, this rejection didn’t bother me. I've learned that being a writer means developing a thick skin. Rejections by publishers—and even by readers—are the norm. But you can’t sell work that you don’t submit. If you submit, you risk rejection.

When I was a kid, I dreamed of having a horse. Thoughts of horses galloped through my mind and even down the margins of my schoolwork. I watched every Western on TV. I idolized Gene Autry and Roy Rogers. I thought if I had a horse, all I had to do was hop on and ride off happily ever after. I didn’t know about hay, grain, vet bills, farrier bills, or riding lessons. I didn’t know that to achieve my dream I’d have to learn a lot. All I saw was myself in the saddle. Now, after three decades of horse ownership, I can look back and laugh at my childhood naiveté.

When I was in college, my friends and I would sometimes go to Up and Away Dude Ranch near Richmond. We’d rent horses and take off on the trails. I don’t think any of us really knew how to ride. Luckily the horses didn’t want to exert much effort, so we could fool ourselves into thinking we were really riding. Then, one afternoon on the trail, we came upon two impeccably attired riders on well-turned out hunters. I got my first glimpse of what real riding was.

I didn’t get an opportunity to ride for over a decade. At 32, settled into my teaching career and having some extra money available, I took riding lessons at Hunting Hills Stables. By then I knew that riding required certain skills. Unfortunately, when a lesson horse I was riding was kicked by another horse, I realized how much I didn’t know.

Wow! I thought as I looked down at how close my left leg was to the point of impact. I could have really gotten hurt!

Then I really got hurt. The gelding must have thought the kick meant for him to take off at a gallop. I’d never galloped before; my class had only just started learning how to sit the canter. We’d trotted over a few cross rails sat a foot above the ground. That was the extent of my riding knowledge. I stayed on once around the ring before I hit the ground hard. Seconds later, the gelding jumped the ring’s four-foot high fence.

There is a genuinely stupid saying about how you’re supposed to get right back on the horse when you fall off. Luckily, I didn’t heed that saying. Stupidly, I drove myself home. Even more stupidly, I thought I’d be OK by the next morning. The next day, my husband drove me to the emergency room.

I’ve still got the lump in my back where I fractured the third and fourth lumbar vertebrae. I missed a couple of months of work and wore a back brace from March until July of 1977. Two weeks out of the brace, I bought my first horse. I figured since I already owned the back brace, I was prepared.

Only I wasn’t prepared. I was still ignorant–and I was scared of what must have been world’s sweetest, kindest little black quarter horse. Private lessons from an experienced rider (I was her only adult pupil) helped. But I was still too insecure to ride outside of the ring. I had my horse, but I was too scared to do much with him.

One day, a friend of my husband came for a visit with his wife. She was a horsewoman, so she hopped on my gelding. I couldn’t believe how good she made him look. He did things I never knew he could do. Why couldn’t I ride like that? Turns out, she was a fourth level dressage rider who’d even studied in England. She had the skills I wanted; she also taught riding. I signed up.

The smartest thing I ever did was take dressage lessons. Ginny was a merciless taskmaster who cut me no slack. I’d get it right—or else. So, I learned to ride. I developed a good seat, I learned what to do with my hands to achieve communication with the horse, I learned how to use my legs effectively. And I learned to fall off without getting hurt (“Go limp and land rolling” became my mantra).

My dream would never have become a reality if I hadn’t first learned some skills. I wouldn’t have known what good riding was if I hadn’t seen those two riders on the trail, if I hadn’t seen what a skilled dressage rider could do with my little $350 gelding.

Writing is a lot like riding. To succeed, you need to acquire certain skills. For years, I fumbled around and wrote some really bad stuff. Every so often, I find one of the college lit mags that published my poetry back in the ’60s. How could I have written such crap?! I was young and naivé.

Luckily, I stopped writing until the ’90s. When I started again, I still wrote stuff that, while grammatical, was heavy on clichés and showed a definite lack of style. My poems were even published—I’m ashamed to admit—by the National Library of Poetry, one of the early scammers where every submission is a semi-finalist. Though I’d taught English for years, had read and taught the really good stuff and knew what good writing was, I couldn’t write worth a hoot. (See! There’s a cliché.)

My interest in riding is what improved my writing. By then I was on my second horse, Cupcake (aka G's Liberated Lady), who was the opposite of what my first horse had been. When I stabled her at Hunting Hills (See how things come full circle?), some of my fellow boarders were literary folk. Joan Vannorsdall Schroeder, for instance, was working on her first novel, Solitary Places. Another guy wrote book reviews. Several others were avid readers. While we groomed our horses, we discussed literature.

While boarding at Hunting Hills Stable, I entered writing contests and won a little money. I entered Cupcake in horse shows and sometimes won a little money there. Not much, though. Even though I knew I’d never make it as a pro in either discipline, I nonetheless got serious about riding and writing. I knew that certain learnable skills were essential to both.

Having seen what lessons could do to improve my riding, I decided to learn what I needed to know to write well. Over a decade ago, at the luncheon for those who’d won the Lonesome Pine Short Story Contest, I sat next to the keynote speaker, Sharyn McCrumb.* She advised me to go to writing conferences. I took her advice and started attending writing conferences. I joined a writers group and read numerous books on the craft of writing. I learned a lot.

Not all the writing books I’ve read have been helpful. In one book that’s supposed to inspire aspiring authors, a creative writing teacher advises writers to take risks by using an equine analogy: “If you’re terrified of horses,” she writes, “buy a horse and make friends with it.”

I hope she's speaking metaphorically. Otherwise, she is incredibly naivé and has no idea what horses can be like. Surely she doesn’t mean that a person who is scared of horses should spend thousands of 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 person 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—if you dream of riding, 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.

If you dream of being a writer, learn the craft. Go to conferences. Attend readings by best-selling authors. Talk to those who have already achieved what you want to achieve and ask how they did it. Take courses and workshops. Read. Educate yourself.

If you're terrified of writing, don’t write. We already have more writers churning out books and articles that we'll ever have time to read. Do something you enjoy!

But if you want to write, learn the skills and submit your work to publishers—don’t fear rejection. Getting over rejection is as easy as, well, falling off a horse.

*The last two times I've heard Sharyn speak, she's mentioned that only 200 novelists make a living at it.

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Sunday, July 22, 2007

Award-Winning Retiree

The other day I received an impressive looking envelope. When I opened it, the first thing I noticed was the proclamation, "Notice of Award."

Wow! I'm a winner.

Except I'm not. The "award," from the Social Security Administration, informed me how much I'd get each month in my retirement check.

For over three decades, I've been paying into Social Security. I'm getting my own investment back. If I'm the one responsible for earning it, it's not exactly "an award," is it?

I guess this means when the first check arrives in November, there won't be balloons, flowers, and press coverage.

I probably won't even get a chintzy certificate to hang on the wall next to the rather impressive certificate I got for passing my concealed handgun class.


Saturday, July 21, 2007

Colon Abuse & Misuse

Warning: Educational content follows.

This morning, as I sipped coffee, read the morning paper, and watched TV (I multi-task), I heard an important news item: President Bush was having a colonoscopy today. Wanting to stay on top of current events (or the bottom, as the case may be), I stopped sipping and reading long enough to learn that Cheney would be filling in for Dubya while he’s anesthetized.

Then my mind wandered. It does that a lot these days. I immediately thought about the punctuation mark called a colon. I hate how it’s often misused.

Colons are used in the salutation of a business letter (Dear Sir:), in time—to separate the hour and minutes (12:01 a.m.), in biblical references (Rev. 19:11), and after a complete statement to introduce additional ideas or information. More information about colons can be found at Purdue’s Online Writing Lab and Literacy Education Online.

For some reason, folks like to stick colons where they don’t belong. Some folks put a colon between a linking verb and the subject complement:
Wrong: Maggie’s favorite game is: catch.
See how wrong that looks?
Correct: Maggie’s favorite game is catch.
Catch is the complement for game.

Wrong: My favorite definition of fiction is: “Fiction is the truth inside the lie.”
The colon isn’t needed after the linking verb is.
Correct: My favorite definition of fiction is “Fiction is the truth inside the lie.”

Some folks like to stick a colon between a proposition and its object. Colons don’t go there.
Wrong: My favorite definition of fiction is by: Stephen King.
Correct: My favorite definition of fiction is by Stephen King.

I’ve noticed that many of those who abuse the colon by inserting it between a preposition and its object are kids who are so proud of their stories that they want to showcase their names. (A Tale of Two Cities, by: Little Chuckie Dickens. Arrrggghhh!) Why don’t their teachers correct them?

Enough of my ranting. Are you ready for a quiz? Test yourself on your colon knowledge at Daily Grammar.

Eliminate those colon errors. The end result is better writing.

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

A Tale of Toe Sissy

Warning: not for the squeamish. Blow-by-blow medical procedure to follow:

This morning I had part of my big toenail removed. The main thing I have to say about the experience is this:


and maybe *#%!*!!

What I learned today: having an ingrown toenail fixed isn’t fun.

The shot that was supposed to numb my toe didn’t. I’ve always had problems with Novocain working in reverse—that’s why I hated going to the dentist when I was a kid. Consequently, the doctor used something else. Whatever it was didn’t work well either and left me with an incredibly itchy foot for the rest of the day.

But back to the action. To give me moral support, my husband stayed with me during the procedure. While I kept my eyes averted during the actual hacking off of a part of my toenail, my husband kept his arm around me and provided play-by-play commentary, interrupted by my occasional scream. My toe WASN’T very numb.

I should have been issued a bullet to bite. Or maybe a stick. Lacking either, I bit my husband’s shoulder. Well, only once. Mostly I dug my fingers into his back.

I was sorry that he’d shaved his beard for the summer. I’d have gotten some satisfaction from pulling it during the worst moments.

Fortunately for both of us, the procedure didn’t take long. Afterwards, I couldn’t get my orthotically-enhanced shoe on and had to limp down a long hallway, my foot clad in a sock and a thin blue bootie. Now the heel spur hurts again. When I go to physical therapy tomorrow for the heel, I have a feeling the toe-bending-back part is going to hurt more than usual. A vicious cycle.

I spent most of today in bed. From experience I’ve learned that pain is easier to bear if you can sleep through it.

Something I’ve learned today: If you’re going to bite the shoulder of someone whose laundry you do, don’t wear lipstick.

I realize this post doesn't deal with my usual themes of "writing, rural living and sometimes a border collie," but I needed to vent.

Ahhhhhh, that feels better.

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Away at the AWA

I spent last weekend at the Appalachian Writers Conference at King College in Bristol, Tennessee. King is a picture-postcard-pretty private college. The campus is lovely, the dorm accomodations were very nice, the food was wonderful. The campus and buildings aren't, however, handicap-accessible. When you have a heel spur and an ingrown toenail (on the same foot), walking is difficult—especially on hills, stairs, brick sidewalks, etc.

Somehow, thanks to some physical therapy sessions before I left, some really good orthotic inserts, and a temporary handicapped parking tag, I managed.

I had a good time and increased my knowledge. The best session I attended was the one by Dot Jackson, former reporter for the Charlotte Observer and winner of the Appalachian Book of the Year award for Refuge. She told about how long it took her to get the book published. She'd almost had it sold to Scribners many years ago, but the editor who liked it died. Nobody was publishing Appalachian fiction back then. For years the manuscript sat under her bed; then a friend kept it in his refrigerator (a safe place for manuscripts) for a few more years. Finally someone who lived in her house many years ago remembered it. Finally, Novello Press published it.

While I was at the conference, I managed to get a rejection letter from Keene Publishing—the second this manuscript has gotten this year. The genre isn't a popular one.

Maybe I should put it in the refrigerator for a while.


Friday, July 13, 2007

Color of summer

I'm at the Appalachian Writers Conference now. Some buildings have wi-fi, so I can post to the blog.

I took these pictures of lillies in my yard the day before I left. We're in mid-summer, but the colors say autumn.

The lillies pictured above are from some seeds my friend Sally gave me. I don't know the name. Sally just called them "multi-colored lillies." The lillies pictured below came from my mother's yard in Roanoke when I moved to Franklin County in 1999.

Many of my flowers started elsewhere before they became mine.

I guess my ideas start elsewhere, too. They take root in my mind and bloom in my writing.

In the middle of summer, I imagine autumn.

Thursday, July 12, 2007

On the Road Again

Tomorrow morning, I'm off to the Appalachian Writers Association Conference while my husband stays home to feed the critters. Consequently, I probably won't be posting to the blog for a couple of days. (So, Gentle Blog Readers—yes, both of you—don't worry about my whereabouts.)

In a couple of weeks, I'll be on the road again to the Hanover Book Festival at the VFW hall in Mechanicsville.

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Tea with Ida B.

On July 11, from 2 p.m. until 4 p.m., I will become my alter-ego, Ida B. Peevish of Ida's Salon of Beauty & Live Bait Shop, and hold court at The Daily Grind, a really good coffeehouse right next to the courthouse. Because the proprietors are of the British persuasion, you can get a good cup of tea, too.

I'll be signing copies of my latest vanity-pubbed tome, More Peevish Advice. I really want to say it's "fresh off the press," but—as a print-on-demand book—it's digitally printed, so no press was involved. It's my new book, though—a thematically arranged collection of "Peevish Advice" columns from 2001 to mid-2006.

Fellow Lake Writer Marion Higgins (When Men Move to the Basement) will join me.

Hope to see y'all there! (I really hope to see y'all there buying books. But if you just want to stop in and say "hi" or complain about something I've written, that'll be OK, too.)

This has been a blatant promotional advertisement. We will return to our regular blog subjects tomorrow.

(If you can't make it to The Daily Grind, More Peevish Advice is now available on Amazon.)


Monday, July 09, 2007

Odd Bird

The other evening I saw something I’d never seen before—a little secret that nature keeps.

As dusk was turning to night, I was driving down the gravel road to the Pole Cat Creek farm when I saw a reflection at the side of the road—the eye of some critter.

I wondered what critter was so small that its eye was only inches above the road, so I slowed Ol’ Blue to a crawl. In the headlights I saw a brown bird, so rough-looking that it could have been made of dry leaves. When it flew across my headlights’ beam. I knew exactly what it was.

I’ve often heard whippoorwills call at dusk at Pole Cat Creek. Their call is elusive, lonely, plaintive—the sound of country living. No other sound is quite like it. I’ve heard whippoorwills for years. I knew they were around, but I’d never seen a live one until the other night.

I suppose lots of things exist that we know are there, but we never see them unless we’re lucky.

Or we’re in the right place at the right time.

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Sunday, July 08, 2007

Juggling Books

No, not books about juggling. I often read several books at the same time. I juggle the time I spend with each one. I usually have at least one fiction and one-non-fiction going at once; sometimes more. Sometimes a lot more.

Here’s what I’m currently reading and why:

Book I recently finished: Sharyn McCrumb’s Once Around the Track (Kensington, 2007)

That three-foot stack of books I hadn’t read last summer has now grown to over eight feet of shelf space.

And the pile of magazines I keep meaning to read? I won't even go there.

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Saturday, July 07, 2007

An editor speaks

One of the things I do in my quest to be a writer is to heed the advice of those who have been there-done that. Finding these professionals in my part of rural America is difficult. (Not impossible, though—a few do live in these parts.)

Whenever I learn that a major professional is going to speak in the area, I make a pilgrimage to hear what he or she has to say. I’ve learned a lot about how real publishing works from doing this. Last night, I made a pilgrimage. Fellow SCWBI member Amy Tate joined me.

We went to Hollins University to hear Michael Stearns, the foreign acquisitions editor for HarperCollins, speak. The Hollins University Children’s Literature Institute sponsored the presentation.

Stearns' advice to writers for the children’s book market was exceedingly helpful. He advised writers to pursue agents rather than pursuing separate editors. Get an agent—they help immeasurably. Writers should concentrate on writing rather than submitting the book to publishing houses. Let the agent do that. The agent should know where the book fits best. Since reputable agents are hard to find, go for the younger agents at established reputable agencies; they’re still trying to build their lists. The older agents already have a full client list. Other hints for writers:

  • Go to websites of reputable agents and query.
  • Go to SCWBI workshops.
  • Go to conferences where agents are: Whidbey Island, Sewannee, etc.
  • Thank people for feedback they give you.
  • If an editor rejects your work, it’s never personal; the editor just doesn’t “love it” enough.

One of the most helpful things Stearns did was sketch a chart so we could see where particular kinds of books belong. (This is hard to describe, but I’ll give it a shot.) At the top, he wrote literary; at the bottom, he wrote competent. To the right, he wrote commercial; to the left, institutional. Then he drew circles to show what publishers were associated with what types. This was helpful for authors to target potential publishers for their genres. (For example, Ferradiddledumday, my Blue Ridge Rumpelstiltskin, which is used in classrooms across the country but doesn’t yet exist in book form, would go in the literary/institutional sector, where publishers such as Tricycle, Walker, and Marshall Cavendish are found.)

He handed out a list of Children’s Best Sellers from the New York Times Book Review and classified them by type. He mentioned genres that children’s publishers are looking for: fantasy (though the market is glutted with it), dark fantasy (a glut of vampire books), Chick Lit, Teen Novels with an edge, serious fiction, plus “package books” (work for hire books under a pseudonym). However, he cautioned that you can’t write to trends; write about what you love–hopefully someone will like it..

He also gave advice on how to become an editor:

  • Be a reader. You have to “read everything.” Read a wide variety of authors and genres.
  • Take writing workshops. They teach you how to read as an editor
  • Read books on the craft of writing. (One book he recommended was Narrative Design, by Madison Smartt Bell; I couldn’t write fast enough to get the others.)
  • Love Language.
  • Take a publishing course. He mentioned the 8-week session at Columbia (geared toward magazine editors), the Denver Publishing Institute, and the NYU Summer Institute.
  • Read publishing websites (Media Bistro, Publisher’s Lunch).
  • Do informational interviews with editors. But do research before you go in; read the books they’ve edited before you go for the interview.
  • Work in a bookstore.

The above is only a part of what he talked about. I couldn’t write fast enough to get everything. One thing I liked about his presentation is that he didn’t speak in generalities—he gave many specific examples.

Amy and I learned a lot. We left pumped up and ready to write.

Friday, July 06, 2007

Heel & Toe

My foot hurts. It's been hurting for a while. Walking down the hill to the barn and kennel has been a real pain for a few months. I can't not do that—I have too many critters to feed and water.

I've wanted to walk the trails on the farms for over a month. Finally, John mowed enough of the head-high weeds down (but neglected to kill the copperhead that darted under the tractor) so I could see the trails.

Maggie and I walked the trail to the creek the other day. OK, we didn't actually walk. She ran; I limped. I was pretty sure I had plantar fasciitis. I've had it twice before (one of the prices I pay for being old and fat). Plus I have a sore toe.

The good thing: both ailments involve the same foot. The bad thing: it's the right foot—the foot I drive with.

I've learned the odds of getting a doctor when you need one—even in a semi-rural county—are not good. A couple of weeks ago, I tried to get an appointment with my family practice physician. Couldn't get anything until the end of the month.

I tried a podiatrist. Luckily there was one appointment open for the first thing this morning. "OK," I said. "I'll take it." I figured I could go to the appointment in Rocky Mount and still make it to Lake Writers by late morning. I'd only be fashionably late.

Hah! When time for the writers club rolled around, I was in X-Ray. No way could I get to Moneta before the meeting was over.

The good news: it's not plantar fasciitis. The bad news: I have a heel spur. A big one. It's very impressive and quite attractive—looks like a big curl on the bottom of my heel. (Too bad I didn't request eight-by-ten glossies of the X-rays!)

The good news: Eighty percent of heel spurs don't require surgery. They respond well to physical therapy and orthotics. The bad news: I'll have do therapy three times a week for a while and the insurance didn't cover the cost of the orthotics (which, I have to admit, are pretty comfortable

The worse news: the toe has an ingrown toenail that will require surgery. Because of the infection, we have to put surgery off for a while until the antibiotics do their job.

The good news: I won't have to miss the Appalachian Writers Conference next weekend. And I'll have a handicapped tag so I can drive up to buildings instead of having to negotiate hills.

The bad news: I still have to have toenail surgery. And by the time I can walk any distance without limping, the trails will be overgrown again.

(Note: When I said that in the doctor's office, he threatened to wash my mouth out with soap.)

Thursday, July 05, 2007


(English 101 flashbacks)
Warning: Educational content follows.

I start my mornings (after Dylan the alarm cat has jumped on me) by skimming the Roanoke Times while sipping my first cup of coffee. (Yes, I am lucky enough to have a husband who gets the paper and makes the coffee!)

After I feed and water the horses and dogs (and play ball with an insistent border collie), I return for another cup of coffee and another look at the paper.

This morning’s Jumpstart, a comic strip by Robb Armstrong, caught my attention and dragged me back to my days of teaching freshman grammar and comp.

“This one is my personal favorite,” a character says as he looks at some pictures.
“Is there another kind of favorite?” his mother asks.
“Huh?” he says.
“I can’t stand it when you say it’s your ‘personal favorite,’” his mother says. “Why can’t you just say it’s your favorite?”
“I don’t even like it anymore,” he says, flinging the pictures away.

"My personal." One of the most frequent errors I used to see on English 101 papers was “In my personal opinion . . .” and worse, “In my own personal opinion. . . .” Then the student would go on to explain whatever his/her idea was.

“If you write a paper, you’re giving your opinion,” I must have said a thousand times during my seven years as adjunct instructor of English. “If it’s your opinion, it’s personal. It’s your own.”

Still, I had to deal with students unhappy about my red lines through their “personal opinion” references. Prior to college, no one ever told them such usage was poor style. Apparently, some high school teachers let them get away with such redundancy. (Note: Perhaps the teachers did mention it, but the students didn’t listen. I’m open to discussion on this.)

Of course, “my own personal opinion” isn’t the only redundancy I used to find on student papers. “Proven fact” was another popular one. A list of common redundant expressions is on this academic site.

There’s a even term for redundancy. Commnet offers the term “pleonasm” for phrases that repeat themselves. See the extensive list at “Writing Concise Sentences.”

I’m not the only academic type who rants online about student redundancy. The “Grumpy Grammarian” rants even more than I do:

~in my own personal opinion. Good grief! Obviously, your opinion is your own, and it's unlikely that you have an impersonal opinion. Some writers even add "I think" to be certain that the (stupid) reader understands that what is about to be said is their "own personal opinion."

I’m not the only blogger ranting about the problem. Grammar Gulch’s “Superfluous, Unnecessary Redundancy” is one. Jalli’s House is another.

I’m a disciple of William Zinsser and consider his On Writing Well essential reading for those who want to write concisely. Using pleonasms, such as “my own personal opinion,” isn’t concise writing.

That’s my personal opinion. And it’s my own.


Wednesday, July 04, 2007

A Day of Losses and Gains

This morning I attended my cousin Myra’s funeral. The youngest of my aunt’s three children, she was only two years older than I am. She’s the first in the circle of cousins to die. She’d been sick for a couple of years.

She lived over an hour’s drive away, so I didn’t see her very often—maybe every couple of years our paths crossed at family gatherings.

Her funeral oration was a celebration of her life, given by a minister who’d been her neighbor for decades. His text was “Love thy neighbor,” and he showed all the ways Myra had done that as he told us of the memories he had of her. At several points, he had to stop to cry.

She is out of pain now, and she left her mark on her small part of the world. That’s all any of us can hope to do.

This afternoon, I heard a knock on the back door. When I answered, two guys—about my age—were there. One flashed a U.S. Marshal’s badge to prove his identity and asked if we owned the Brown Farm in Union Hall.

Uh, oh, I thought. Has somebody been moonshining there? Dealing drugs? Running a house of ill-repute? My mind ran wild for about 10 seconds.

Then he explained that he was retired and his grandparents used to live there. He and the other guy were in the area for a family reunion, and they’d really like to see the place.

Hmmm. Turns out these guys—Larry and Keith—were kin to me on the Brown side. Two distant cousins I never knew I had!

And then it gets weird. Larry (the retired marshal) had grown up in Roanoke two streets over from me; we’d gone to the same elementary school and high school, albeit four years apart. We knew some of the same people. Keith had moved east (so had I) and now lived south (so did I for a couple years). For years our paths paralleled but never crossed.

They had fond childhood memories of Shady Rest, the name of the Tom & Cora Brown Farm. They heard we owned it. Could they see it? Sure!

I warned them that the house had fallen into disrepair but the barn was still in good shape.

John went off with them to show them the farm; I followed later in my truck. Maggie, of course, went along with me. Larry recounted some of his childhood memories—getting stung by wasps in the barn, the window of the room he slept in when he visited, etc.

Now, I’ll see the farm in a slightly different way. I can see enthusiastic boys of fifty years ago who loved visiting the place.

I lost one cousin but gained two others.

And another weird thing about today: I received an email chastising me for the “negative energy” my opinions caused in a group. Later today, I received another email (from a different person in a different group) thanking me for giving him my opinion.

And, you know what? Both opinions I gave had pretty much the same tone, purpose, and viewpoint.

Lose some, gain some.


Tuesday, July 03, 2007

Grammar Gripe: Lie or Lay?

Warning: Educational content follows. If you were expecting a post about Japanese beetles gone wild, a border collie demonstrating she's smarter than your honor student, or how I finally got my husband to start bush-hogging my trails so the weeds are no longer chest high, you might want to skip this post.

At least five times in the last week, I’ve seen errors involving forms of the verbs lie/lay. The English teacher* in me has had enough. I'm sure most of the readers of this blog never make such heinous grammatical mistakes, but I can't be too careful. Pay attention; there's a quiz half-way down this blog post.

WRONG: As I was laying on the beach, I saw a whale.
Laying what? Laying is a transitive verb. It needs an object.
CORRECT: As I was laying my beach towel on the sand, I saw a whale.

USUALLY WRONG: I’ve been laying around all day.
This sentence is correct if said by a hen. Humans, however, need to lay something:
I’ve been laying cable all day.
I’ve been laying plans to overthrow a third world country.
I’ve been laying something!

The verb lay means put or place. It’s a transitive verb. (In case you forgot what you learned in junior high, that means it requires an object.)

The forms of lay are lay (present), laid (past), laying (present participle), and laid (past participle).
Now I lay me down to sleep.
Yesterday I laid my pen on the desk.
I’m laying the bricks for the new patio.
I have laid my pen on the desk every day this week.

The verb lie means rest or recline. It’s intransive (no object).
I lie on the sofa.
Yesterday I lay in the tall grass.
Now I’m lying here scratching my tick and chigger bites.
I’ve lain here for hours.

Think you understand? OK, take this quiz:

If you didn’t do well, read the info on the following sites:

This one is succinct:

But “You’ll lay an egg if you don’t lie down” is more fun:

Lay or Lie? gives easy-to-understand explanations and good examples:

Here’s another that makes the difference perfectly clear (Gotta love that graphic at the bottom!):

If you’re not confused enough, let me throw in another verb: Lie (to tell a falsehood) has as its forms lie, lied, lying, and lied. You probably don’t have trouble with this one, though.

*I taught English at high school, junior high, and middle school levels for twenty-eight years. I taught college grammar and comp for seven years. I’m a trained professional.


Monday, July 02, 2007

The Book Tour Begins

This morning I rose early (before Dylan the alarm cat jumped on me, which he does every day at 5:45 a.m.) to appear on Rise and Shine, the local channel 12 cable show, broadcast live from exciting downtown Redwood, Virginia. My purpose: to blatantly plug More Peevish Advice. Naturally, I wore my Ida B. Peevish get-up.

Yep, the More Peevish Advice book tour has officially commenced. So far, I have three stops on the tour, but I'm open to others.

On Wednesday, July 11, I'll be at the Daily Grind coffeeshop from 2 p.m. until 4 p.m. to meet and greet customers, do a bit of reading, offer advice, sign books, etc. (If you're from out-of-town, the Daily Grind is beside the courthouse, near where the statue of the Confederate soldier used to be before a drunk driver ran into it last month and demolished it—the statue, not the courthouse.) My fellow Lake Writer, Marion Higgins will join me. She wrote When Men Move to the Basement, a collection of humorous essays. We both used the same illustrator, Bruce Rae, another Lake Writer.

On Saturday, July 21, I'll be in Salem at Cottage Curio, owned by fellow Valley Writer and retired sociology professor, Peggy Shifflett, who wrote two of the best self-pubbed books I've read in a long time: The Red Flannel Rag and Mom's Family Pie. Peggy's sister-in-law Hilda will be making blackberry dumplings that day.

On Saturday, July 28, Marion and I will be at the General Store in Westlake. Possibly Sally Roseveare (Secrets at Spawning Run) will join us.

Y'all come see us. And buy a book. Or two. Or more.


Sunday, July 01, 2007

Childhood Addiction

An article in last week’s paper spotlighted a new addiction among kids: video games. Kids want play video games all day long, won’t go outside and do stuff, suffer withdrawal symptoms when they can’t play, etc. Apparently video game addiction is now a bona fide disorder.

That article got me thinking. I had an addiction when I was a kid. Heck, it’s a habit I still haven’t kicked.

This addiction consumed most of my waking moments. I’d even indulge at night by flashlight.

I couldn’t really help myself. There wasn’t much else to do in the 1950s. No computers or cell-phones or iPods or even CD players. Only two TV channels came in clear, and—except for Saturday mornings and maybe an hour in the late afternoons— the programs were mainly geared to grown-ups. Plus all the shows were black and white.

Nobody’s mama drove. The mamas were always busy doing housework or cooking or canning or sewing to pay any attention to kids old enough to entertain themselves. They were just relieved the kids weren’t underfoot.

So, with nothing to do and not much parental attention, many of us became addicted. I was one of the hard-core addicts. It was pretty easy to get my fix when school was in session, but summers were a problem.

Every week in summer, when I was eleven, I’d get on a city bus all by myself, ride downtown, and walk several blocks to the place I could get my fix: the Roanoke Public Library.

Yep, I was addicted to reading. Every week, I’d bring home a stack of books. I think I read all the biographies in the low shelf against the back wall. Most of them had orange covers. Remember them? I read about Bedford Forrest, John James Audubon, Clara Barton, Molly Pitcher, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Ulysses S. Grant—if it had an orange cover, I read it.

And the Black Stallion series, too. I was a sucker for a horse book—still am. (Sara Gruen’s Riding Lessons is the best I’ve read in the last couple of years.)

I read mysteries, too. I don’t think they were Nancy Drew, though, but most of them had titles that began, “The Mystery of the—.” Those were he ones I just had to keep reading until I found out who solved the mystery and how.

Besides library books, I read comic books about Roy Rogers, Gene Autry, Hopalong Cassidy, Little Lulu, Looney Toons—whatever Evans Drug Store on Williamson Road had on the rack whenever I got my allowance.

And I read magazines: mostly McCalls and Ladies Home Journal, but sometimes Family Circle and Woman’s Day. I read parts of the Roanoke World-News—mostly the funnies, but sometimes a few news stories. When I was twelve, I started reading movie magazines—Modern Screen and Photoplay.

We didn’t have air conditioning in the 1950s, so in summer I’d lie on the front porch glider in the shade and read for most of the day. I’d have read all night, too, but that would have been “wasting electricity” and the 40-watt overhead bulb wasn’t easy to read by. A flashlight under the covers got me through the rough spots when I just had to know what happened next.

I never got over my addiction, and I’m not sure I want to. I usually read a couple of books at a time, though in different genres. Every room in my house has books and magazines. (I’m always amazed when I visit someone who doesn’t have a magazine rack in every bathroom. What do they do in there?)

Now, besides reading books, three newspapers, and several magazines, I spend an hour or more everyday just reading blogs on the computer. Whenever I can, I go to readings by authors whose works I admire. I’ll never kick my addiction.

You wanna help? Send books. . . .

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