Peevish Pen

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

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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.

Friday, August 29, 2008

Roof & Hoof

After a few days of rain (four inches!), the grass was greener and sun shone through this morning's fog.

Consequently, the roofers returned to finish the job, and my cousin Mary came to ride Melody. It was a good day for the roof and the hoof.

The roofers were here early. Look how blue the sky was!

Mary came a bit later, saddled Melody and took off "around the block"—a three-and-a-half mile circle (well, triangle) from my house. I caught up with them as they came down Blacksmith Road.

Melody looked surprised to see me. (She also looked like an Arabian in this picture, but she's a Tennessee Walker):

They passed me and went down the hill.

Later they came through the Hainted Holler curve:

With one mile to go, they rode up the driveway to visit Mary's sister, Dixie, for a few minutes.

After they left Dixie's house, Mary thought she might catch a glimpse of her QH gelding, Doc. She didn't see him, but Doc watched her from his pasture:

When they passed Clearview Dairy Farm, Melody knew she was homeward bound. Only half a mile to go!

Melody's pasture is in sight (it's to the left behind the shop).

When she gets close to the "flower bed" (at the left), she knows she's only a few feet from home:

Meanwhile, the roof is almost done:

Before long, Melody was back in the pasture and the roof was finished. And the sky became cloudy again.

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Wednesday, August 27, 2008


Finally we're getting some much-needed rain. It started yesterday and continued on and off all night. For a while this morning a hard rain fell. As I write this post, the rain is falling steady. Flood watches are posted for the county and flood warnings for counties farther south. Here's the view from my front porch this morning:

And my sidewalk is wet!

I'm sure the farmers around here are happy to see this rain. It's probably come to late for us to get a second cutting of hay, but it will at least help the pasture.

Not everyone is happy to see the rain, though. I know a couple of cats who really wanted to go out today but decided it wasn't a good idea. Dylan has boxed himself up until the rain stops:

This is a good day to stay in and write. I've already worked on a couple of writing projects this morning. To my writer buddies, if y'all need some inspiration (or entertainment), here are a few sites I recommend:

This entry on the Coffee-Stained Writer blog lists 104 of the worst writing cliches. It's a hoot!

Chuck Sambuchino's Writer's Digest article about agents' pet peeves is worth a look. (One agent says, "Avoid any description of the weather." Good thing I'm not submitting today's blog post to an agent.) The other part of Chuck's article is here.

From Writer's Digest, here's a good article about eliminating adjectives and adverbs.

Since I shouldn't describe the weather or use excess adjectives, I guess I won't say that the rain is wet, wonderful, and welcome—even though it really is.

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Monday, August 25, 2008

Radio, Rejection, & Roof

Today, I learned my WVTF radio interview about my winning "Vile Pun" will air this Thursday at 7:30 p.m. on Studio Virginia. Around here, it's 89.1 FM, but other areas have a different frequency. Looks like I'll be in good company. Here's the announcement from the website:

8.28.08 - A retired Roanoke City teacher wins an award for her bad pun; plus essayist Dan Smith on scooter safety and makeup application; street musicians in Charlottesville; and the musical play "Children of Eden" returns.

Today, I received a very nice rejection from an editor at Candlewick for my Appalachian version of Rumpelstiltskin. She gave me some encouraging advice, so I'll send it to another place tomorrow.

Today, the roofing company started on our new roof.

Melody and Cupcake didn't like the noise and, after much galloping around, retreated to a far corner of the pasture—the corner near the kennel:

They kept staring toward the house, where the action—as well as the noise—was.

After a while, they resumed grazing—but they still stuck together and kept an eye on things. These mares aren't bother by tractors and hay-balers, low-flying jets, fireworks, or barking dogs. But the roofing experience was something new.

Meanwhile, this was my view from my study window:

The roof should be finished tomorrow—if it doesn't rain.


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Sunday, August 24, 2008

4-Wheeling (and 4-Legging)

Yesterday, I joined my writer-buddy and fellow farm-gal Claudia (who lives about a mile over yonder from me) on a four-wheeling jaunt through her woods.

Claudia, Belle, and Penny

At first, we were accompanied by a couple of four-leggers—her Australian shepherds, Belle and Penny, who went for a swim in their small pond that a neighbor dug.

Then we brought Penny back home and went for a longer ride with just Belle, who—unlike puppy Penny— knows both the trails and trail etiquette (like, don’t get in front and go slow and don’t cut in front of the 4-wheeler.)

Claudia has a beautiful farm, and the woods were a welcome relief from the heat.

You never know what you'll find in the woods. This tree truck looks like a piece of sculpture.

We followed Jack’s Creek for a while. The drought has had its effect on Jack’s Creek—the water was very low in places.

We went through a place called Ice Bottom, where—many decades ago—men used to cut chunks of ice in winter. On such a hot day, it was hard to imagine the water freezing.

Back at home, a few more of Claudia's four-leggers waited:

A fun afternoon—and a way to keep cool!


Saturday, August 23, 2008

Query Novice

Today I took the next step in getting my novel, Stuck, published: I mailed out my first agent query letter. I'd met this agent at the James River Writers Conference a few years ago and really liked her. She handles the genre I write.

I realize that without an agent, it will be nearly impossible to interest a commercial publishing house in a work of fiction. I don't want to vanity publish this novel. Vanity publishing has worked fine for my small projects (collections of my previously published columns and stories), but this book isn't a small project. I think will appeal to a wide readership.

Even though I've attended several workshops about query letters—and I read Query Shark and Evil Editor, I'm a novice at querying. I'm glad I took good notes when Chuck Sambuchino spoke to Lake Writers last month—I used his notes for the basis of my query. I now read his blog, too.

I've spent the last few days refining my query letter and workshoping it through the two writers groups I belong to—Lake Writers and Valley Writers. Both groups provided good feedback, as did the members of my crit group last week.

The problem I have with a query is getting all the info to fit on one page. This is the info I wanted to convey about my 40,000-word middle-grade paranormal novel, Stuck:

Jacie, still stuck in grief over her mother’s death, returns from horse camp where she was stuck for weeks with her nemesis Nicole. On her eleventh birthday, her father gives her a locket and introduces her to Liz, his former high school sweetheart and now fiancée. Jacie, stuck in anger about her father’s decision to remarry, is soon stuck with Liz in a five-hour drive to Smith Mountain Lake, Virginia, and then in Liz’s old farmhouse. When she is stuck with Liz’s pesky seven-year-old twin nephews, Jacie retreats into the woods where she meets Callie, a ghost stuck in 1910. Callie asks Jacie to help find her young daughter, Mariah. When Jacie solves the mystery of what happened to Mariah, Callie promises to send a sign if she meets Jacie’s mother on the other side. Jacie finally becomes unstuck in a way she never expected. STUCK is a story of grief, love, triumph—and getting unstuck.

STUCK will appeal to girls who have lost a parent or gained a step-parent, who have moved away from home and friends, who love horses, or who are fascinated with ghosts and mysteries.

I have rearranged the above info several times. It's still a work-in-progress. I'm open to suggestions on how to make my query better.

Based on this description, would you read this book?


Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Porch & Roof & Door, Oh My!

Camilla inspects the cactus.

The cats and I usually sit on the front porch in the mornings. I read the newspaper and sip coffee. The cats usually lounge or prowl nearby.

A couple of weeks ago, I bought this wicker settee and two chairs ($100) at the Discovery Shop. Now I sit more elegantly than I used to. The cushions—still in good shape—came with the set.

The rocker to the left wasn't part of the purchase. A neighbor gave that to me.

The cushions—still in good shape—came with the set. Next week, I won't sit on the porch and read the paper. There'll be too much noise because we're getting a new roof installed. The shingles and other material arrived this morning.

The roof we currently have is the house's original 1978 roof. It has some unsightly places, like this mold over the garage:

Soon the old roof will be gone and a new roof will take its place. Speaking of old, I bought an old door yesterday. I'm not sure what I'll do with it.

Maybe I'll put a mirror where the window glass once was. I love the look of the door, though. It's already stripped and ready for staining, but I kind of like it like it is. Isn't the plate neat where the doorbell once was?

I think I loved this door because it might be on the old house that's in the novel I'm working on. But I love old things, anyhow. I wish it fit one of my doorways, but at 33 inches wide, it's not a standard size.

Who can say what this door has witnessed during its lifetime? And what happened to the house it was attached to? And the people who once lived in that house?

Everything has a story.

Monday, August 18, 2008

Busy Day

What I did today:
  1. Spread some mulch in front of the house. I bought the mulch back in March. I still have some in the back of my old truck. I really need to get it all spread.
  2. Gave Cupcake a “home haircut.” She’s an old horse (27!) and her hair grows long. If I don’t cut it, she sweats badly. So I cut some of it. Unfortunately I don’t have professional clippers—just Wahl “Iron Horse.” Cupcake looks ratty, but she’s much more comfortable.
  3. Groomed Melody, who was jealous that Cupcake got so much attention.
  4. Revised/proofed a couple more chapters of Stuck, my work-in-progress. (I’m almost halfway through this revision. I think this is revision number 4. I’m losing track.)
  5. Edited/critiqued “Duke’s” Chapter 33.
  6. Googled agents that I’m interested in submitting work to.
  7. Took Maggie and Hubert for a run down at Polecat Creek. I only meant to take Maggie, but Hubert escaped from the kennel (he runs underneath Maggie while I’m bringing her through the gate) and loaded himself in the back of the truck before Maggie and I got there. The creek is very low—maybe a third what it usually is. Maggie couldn’t submerge herself as much as she likes.
  8. Combed the snits out of Maggie’s hair while she watched a rat-hole.
  9. Hauled manure to my flower bed and spread it around.
  10. Rode Cupcake.
  11. Did absolutely nothing in the way of housework.


Saturday, August 16, 2008

Leftover Bad Writing

Now that my 2008 Bulwer-Lytton Vile Pun winner has popped up on numerous websites, a few folks have been curious about my other submissions that didn't make the cut.

Were these too good to be bad? Too bad to be bad? What? Anyhow, here they are:

“I’ve been dying to kiss you, Griselda,” Herman said as his heart went thumpity-thump, and—while locked in a passionate embrace with his beloved—he suddenly realized that getting his pacemaker from eBay (“one owner, only slightly used”) maybe wasn’t such a good deal after all, but at least his last words were appropriate.

Dumping her comatose husband’s soiled Depends into the trash and wishing that the staff at Happy Manor Nursing Home would take a more active role in the personal hygiene of stroke victims, Martha was interrupted by yet another phone call from her mother-in-law inquiring about her son’s progress, to which Martha replied, “Well, he’s a changed man.”

Double, double, toilet trouble,” muttered Anne, as she tried to keep the twins, Hamnet and Judith, on their respective potties until they’d produced something, while casting an eye at her husband Will, whose poised quill and inscrutable look told her that he was once again stuck on a line for his new play, though she’d nagged him to give up writing, get off his can, and get a job that produced a regular income, not that he ever listened to her.

“We’ll have more fun than a barrel of monkeys,” Milton’s blind date said when she called to confirm the time and place they’d meet, but Milton, a zoology buff, knew that monkeys are cantankerous little buggers with sharp teeth and a habit of flinging feces when they were angry, so he tucked a couple of emergency bananas and some moist towelettes into his pocket just in case.

Whenever I pass my childhood home, a mid-Victorian (or maybe it’s late Gothic) mansion still perched on the corner like an over-dressed but out-of-style hooker, I still hear the tinkle-tinkle of the doorbell (or perhaps it’s the leaky plumbing), see the ornate chandeliers (and remember what a bitch all those crystal prisms were to clean), recall secrets shared in the cellar (and the two or three servants still buried in the conservatory), marvel that the place is now assessed at over two million, and thus will never forgive my siblings for selling it for a mere hundred thousand, which meant I only got $14,285 before taxes, even though that seemed like a good deal at the time and the place was quite the fixer-upper.

“Lassie, help! I’ve fallen down the well!” yelled Timmy, but the brave dog, having already rescued the klutzy tyke from the well three times this week and concluding that Timmy’s removal from the gene pool was a good thing, didn’t heed the boy’s cries but instead speed-dialed his agent and begged for a new assignment, preferably one where a male collie didn’t have to pretend to be female, an act which had subjected him to ridicule from that scruffy Rin-Tin-Tin who considered himself the top dog because he saved the fort from Indians, no matter how politically incorrect that was nowadays.
OK, I can see where a few of these were a bit wordy. In the Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest, you venture past 60 words at your peril.

Some of the above losers were composed about the time I was writing the chapter in my middle-grade novel Stuck where two obnoxious twins fall through the floor in an old outhouse, so that no doubt accounts for three entries with poop references and one with a falling into something reference.

Note to my crit group: Yeah, I'm still revising Stuck.


Wishful Thinking?

Lately, I’ve been wishing that my work would attract the attention of a major New York literary agent.

Less than two weeks ago, it did. Just not in the way I imagined.

Perhaps I should have been more specific when I wished. I should have wished that Stuck, my middle-grade paranormal novel (that I’m revising again) would attract an agent’s attention. Or, I could have wished that Ferradiddledumday—my Appalachian version of Rumpelstiltskin, which is referenced by the SurLaLune Fairy Tales website and which will be mentioned in an Appalachian tales book that Dr. Tina Hanlon is writing for a university press—would attract an agent and finally make it into print. But I didn’t.

Neither of those works has yet been submitted to an agent, although a recent revision of Ferradiddledumday (an early version is on the AppLit website) has been sent to a publisher for consideration. So, what work of mine was noticed—and by whom?

Alas, it was my “Vile Pun” winner in the 2008 Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest. And the New York agent who liked it enough to mention on her blog that it’s her favorite is none other than Janet Reid, who also writes Query Shark, one of my favorite writing blogs.

Ironically, Jacie—my 11-year-old protagonist in Stuck—wishes for things and doesn’t get her wishes in quite the way she expects either.

Be careful what you wish for. And probably how you wish.


Friday, August 15, 2008

Media Blitzed II

When Scott Rice, head honcho of the Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest, emailed me from contest headquarters at San Jose State University to tell me I’d won the “Vile Pun” division of the annual B-L contest, he noted that I could expect “a media storm. Or not.”

For the most part, it’s been “or not.” Aside from mention on various blogs (including, but not limited to, this one) and the B-L site, my modest contribution to lousy literature has mostly gone unnoticed. True, I did debut my vileness to a crowd of at least 25 or 30 at the Franklin County Bookfest last week, but that wasn’t really a media event.

This morning, however, I experienced some blitz. Gene Marrano, of the public radio station WVTF in Roanoke, interviewed me for his Studio Virginia show, which airs on Thursday nights at 7:30. He really made me feel welcome. When I walked in the studio lobby, I saw this:

We chatted for about 15 minutes, but he’ll edit his interview down a bit to fit his time slot. He’ll also use the material for a print story—he writes for a couple of neighborhood papers, and surely one of them will be interested in a bad-writing story.

I read my three bad-writing winners: this year’s vile pun, the 1996 worst Western, and the 2000 miscellaneous dishonorable mention. The latter two were in the Bulwer-Lytton anthology, It Was a Dark and Stormy Night (Friday Project, UK, 2007).

He also asked me about involvement with the Franklin County Library (I’m on the book festival committee and I was recently appointed to the library’s board of trustees) and about my work-in-progress—my middle-grade paranormal novel. (Note to the members of my crit group: yes, I mentioned how much help I’d gotten from y’all!)

So far, it’s been a productive morning. At 7:30, I dropped Emma off at the Pet Clinic of Rocky Mount for her semi-annual makeover, then drove to Roanoke (where I tanked up the PT with $3.40 gas at Kroger’s), checked some property we own in Roanoke, and made it to WVTF by 8:50. I was home in time to see Geoff the farrier trim Cupcake’s hooves. Melody (who turned 19 today) had already had her nails—er, hooves—done.

Emma—before she went for her makeover.

It’s been a morning of makeovers and media.

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Thursday, August 14, 2008

Two Days of Library Stuff

Yesterday was my first meeting as a member of the Franklin County Library board of Trustees, and it was fun. Of course, that it was held as part of the annual library picnic at the lovely and picturesque Garst Pond in Boones Mill and the rain stopped just before the picnic didn’t hurt either. I forgot my camera, so you’ll just have to take my word that it was picturesque. The barbeque provided by Marilyn (the Westlake librarian) and her husband was scrumptious, as was all the food.

However, I was issued three books of library policy that I need to familiarize myself with before the September meeting. And we’ll be having a retreat in October. So, this new responsibility will take a bit of time.

Today, The four members of my kid lit crit group met at the Franklin County Library. We critiqued three projects, including mine. Amy H is working on other writing projects, but she gave some good suggestions.

Amy T read the revised first chapter of her historical fiction (middle-grade novel based on the Battle of Brandy Station) that we critiqued last month and now it’s really something! Plus—another reason for our group to celebrate: Amy workshopped her short story, “Wild Magnolias, with us the first time our crit group met. We encouraged her to send it to the Sherwood Anderson Short Story Contest, and she did. She learned yesterday that it won the contest’s College Division. (Amy T is an adult student at Hollins University.)

Claudia read a couple of her poems, including one about her grandson. We decided that these poems would make great gift books. Now we need to research some publishers.

I asked the group for input regarding agent submissions for my middle-grade paranormal novel, Stuck. I’d already looked up four agents that seem promising, but which one to query first? And when? The others gave me some helpful advice. I also workshopped the last three chapters of Stuck with the group. I’d been rewriting and tweaking these chapters for a while, and I received some wonderful nit-picky suggestions to make my tweaks even better. Now I need to go back over the whole novel (again!) and get it perfect. I want to send out a query by October.

I’m so glad we started this crit group. We’re a good blend, and creative juices flow freely when we’re together.

Tomorrow, I pop into Roanoke for a public radio interview about my recent Bulwer-Lytton win. Even though I’m getting help to be a good writer, I still celebrate my bad writing, too.


Tuesday, August 12, 2008

What Melody Saw

. . . in the field next door.

This morning, when Melody looked through the fence to see if the grass was greener on the other side of the fence, she saw something there that she'd never seen before.

Geese! A whole flock of them!

Sure is a lot of them!

Melody has to take a look from the lower pasture. They're still there.

Yep, they're odd birds, all right. Meanwhile Cupcake couldn't care less. All Cupcake wants to do is suck every morsel from the too-dry pasture.

If Cupcake isn't interested in the geese, why should Melody pay them any attention? Might as well go back to grazing.

Yes—the grass really is greener on the other side of the fence.
This coming Friday is Melody's 19th birthday.


Monday, August 11, 2008

FC Bookfest 2008

The Franklin County Bookfest has come and gone. It was fun while it lasted.

Friday night’s coffeehouse reading at Edible Vibe in exciting downtown Rocky Mount was—uh—interesting. Claudia—my neighbor from about a mile “over yonder”—and I went early for supper (The quiche is great!) as did several other folks.

No, that isn't a chicken on Dick Raymond's head. It's art on the wall.

Dick Raymond and I opened the show with our assorted Bulwer-Lytton entries. Starting with bad writing only meant things had to get better. My 2008 “Vile Pun” winner made its oral debut. Fortunately, the crowd had a lot of English majors, so just about everybody got it.

Mike Allen, editor of critically acclaimed Clockwork Phoenix) recited his weird and wonderful poetry rather than merely reading it (Anita joined him for one presentation from his new book of poetry, The Journey to Kailash). Then he read his story that’s in the latest Weird Tales magazine—definitely weird (and those of us who’ve taught college will never look at faculty e-mail in quite the same way again).

Mike Allen and his wife Anita display Mike's latest books.

Dan Smith, who last year read from his gritty memoir, Burning the Furniture, charmed us with his children’s story of Homer the Bassett Hound. He even brought his illustrator who showed us some illustrations in progress.

Following intermission, Pete Crow—my former Ferrum colleague and now retired—told us about the writing and research for Do, Die, or Get Along and read us a couple of first person accounts.

Then Peggy Shifflett, also a retired professor and now Cottage Curio proprietress, read from some of the funnier parts of her memoir, The Red Flannel Rag. I don’t think anyone present will think of front porch railings in quite the same way again (and I’m sure everyone added the term “pecker notch” to his or her vocabulary).

Peggy’s reading warmed up the crowd for a couple of risqué poems by Dick Raymond as well as for his ukelele finale, a song about "Charlotte the Harlot."

We didn’t have quite the packed house we had in 2007, but only a few tables were empty. (Why would folks stay home to watch the opening ceremony of the Olympics when they could have a literary evening in Rocky Mount?)

Saturday morning’s session turned to the Civil War. Robert Johnson (father of Westlake children’s librarian Pam Palmer) read from his novel, This Violent Land, based on the diary of his wife’s ancestor, Major William Stone. Johnson also gave us much insight into his research about this young Union soldier who headed the South Carolina Freedmen’s Bureau, and he fielded several questions. Marc Leepson discussed Desperate Engagement, his book about a little-known battle fought by Franklin County’s own, General Jubal Early, on June 13, 1864.

At the beginning of his presentation, Robert Johnson asked the audience if anyone had heard the expression, “one fell swoop.” Almost everyone’s hand went up. Most knew it meant “in a single action.”The he asked where the expression came from. No hands.

That piqued my curiosity. I knew I’d heard the expression and I knew it was an oldie. At home, I did a bit of Googling. The first recorded instance was in Shakespeare’s MacBeth, when MacDuff, upon learning that his family had been wiped out by MacBeth’s orders, laments:

All my pretty ones?
Did you say all? O hell-kite! All?
What, all my pretty chickens and their dam
At one fell swoop?

“Swoop” refers to the action of a bird of prey (a kite was such a bird) that swooped down for the kill. “Fell” means “fierce, savage; cruel, ruthless; dreadful, terrible.”

Source: The Phrase Finder.

The neat thing about a bookfest is you get entertained—and sometimes you learn something.


Wednesday, August 06, 2008

I'm Bad—Again

Last night, I received this message from Scott Rice, the head honcho of the Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest:

Well, you've done it again. You are the winner of the Vile Puns Category of this year's Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest. Be prepared for a media storm (or not).

This is my entry (which you probably won't get unless you're an English major, an English teacher, or a fan of a particular old movie starring Warren Beatty and Natalie Wood):

Vowing revenge on his English teacher for making him memorize Wordsworth's "Intimations of Immortality," Warren decided to pour sugar in her gas tank, but he inadvertently grabbed a sugar substitute so it was actually Splenda in the gas.

Anyhow, this win cements my reputation as an internationally ranked bad writer. I've mentioned before my 1996 "Worst Western" win. Meanwhile, if you want to read all the 2008 winners in various categories, here they are. (You have to scroll way down to find mine.)

So far, there hasn't been a media storm. Not even a media drizzle.


Monday, August 04, 2008

Unidentified Critters

Mr. Tree, the pin oak in our side yard nearly died during last year's drought. The leaves on the ends of his branches fell early last year and the branch ends remained bare this year.

However, he's bounced back a bit this year. A lot of new limbs have sprouted all over him, so there's hope.

Now, however, a bunch of caterpillars have taken up residence on him, and they can't be up to any good. We're not sure what they are, so if any readers could provide insight as to what these critters are, we'd be grateful.

Here's a closer look:

Am I the only one who thinks this critter's face looks like Little Lulu?

The caterpillars aren't the only strange critters hanging around. We've also acquired a fuzzy bird who sleeps on the porch—well, close to the porch ceiling. I noticed him (her?) last night:

Here's a closer look (the bird didn't mind the porch light or the flash):

And here's what's even weirder—not long ago on another blogger's blog, I saw a picture of a bird just like this. But I can't remember which blog! And that blogger didn't know what it was either. (Edited to add: The bird is on RnR's blog. It looks like the same bird!)

Must be a lot of strange critters out there in the blogosphere. If you can identify them, let me know.