Peevish Pen

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

© 2006-2018 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.

Saturday, July 31, 2010

Spreading My Word

This summer, I've been out and about telling kids about Ferradiddledumday, my Appalachian version of the Rumpelstiltskin tale. In late June, I visited the first session of the Smith Mountain Lake Good Neighbors Summer Camp, where I told my story and answered questions about being an author and how I wrote the book. I took a few of my props with me.

The little stuffed horse who snores was a big hit. On the way out, a bunch of kids just had to touch his hoof and make him snore.

Two weeks ago,  I spent two days at West End Center in Roanoke with the inner city kids from kindergarten through sixth grade. I took my laptop so I could show them the illustrations for the book.

I read from my work and answered questions. And, boy, did they have questions. They'd thought of questions the day before and their teacher Ms. Rayburn had compiled them and printed them out. The kids had some tough questions. Here are a few:

I tried to answer as many questions as I could in the time alloted, but it was a challenge.

Last Tuesday, I did another presentation for another group of Smith Mountain Lake Good Neighbors Summer Campers. This time my illustrator, Bruce Rae, helped me act out the story. Again, the kids were enthusiastic, and they loved their books and bookmarks. The snoring horse was again a hit.

My hints for authors who are speaking to kids: Be prepared for all manner of questions.

And never underestimate the power of a snoring horse.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Herding Cats

My barn cats are collectively known as the Twiglets—mama Twiggy, her son Sherman, and her daughters, Spookie and Spotz. Not only do they catch rats and mice while they patrol the shop, equipment shed, tack room, and the mares' run-in shed, but they also perform another barn-related chore: herding. Take a look:

Sherman: C'mon, Spook. Time to move the mares to the front pasture.

Spookie: OK, I see them. Let's see if I can get them moving.

Spookie: HYAW, Melody! Quit eating and git moving!

Sherman: I'll lead and maybe the mares will follow us.
Twiggy: Good idea, son. I see Melody heading our way.

Spotz: Looks like we got 'em in. Better close the gate.

Sherman: Spotz, you stand guard and I'll get the gate.

Spookie: Spotz, I'll sit here and you patrol back and forth.
Spotz: Works for me, Spook! Nothing like team herding.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Thickening Plot

On Tuesday evening, I received an email from someone whose name I didn't recognize. The main part of the email said this (I left out the identifying details and bolded some things that aroused my suspicion):

Please allow me to introduce you to [NAME OF PUBLISHER (NOP)].  [NOP] is one of the fastest growing small press/independent publishers in America, based in [a city in a state, known for its dry climate and not known as a publishing hub]. Our approach is unique and very effective. We not only design your cover, edit your manuscript, design your interior, and print your book; but we also stay with you to market it successfully. What you have to say is important, so let us help you be read. We make your book available on 16,000 online stores, available to all major retailers, wholesalers, and distributors. We market your book to our proprietary database of 35 million email accounts. We also make your book available in the top 5 e-book formats and available to all e-retailers. You can also choose to attend and sell your book at our 200 company sponsored events across the country. Our company will also market and distribute one of your existing books. We, of course, guide you in this process for the best results.

I'm pretty sure this isn't an advance-paying, royalty-paying publisher. Nowhere on the website, for instance, did it mention an advance or royalties. I was getting a bit suspicious. So—I figured I'd just reply to the guy's e-mail. Here's part of what I replied:
I gave your website a quick look (reading light blue print on a medium blue background is very hard on my eyes), but I didn't see the info I was looking for. Perhaps you can answer these questions:
  • What is your average advance paid to authors? 
  • What percent royalty do you pay? Is that on cover price or net?
  • What about e-book royalties?
  • Where do you submit books for professional reviews?
  • Do you nominate books for awards? If so, which ones?
  • How many advance reader copies do you print and where do you send them? 
  • How many author copies do you provide?
  • Do you send your catalogue to bookstores?
  • Do you arrange for your authors to speak at book festivals and writers conferences? 
  • Where do I find links to your authors' websites or blogs?
  • Do you have author pages for your authors?
I figured he'd get back to me first thing the next morning. Nope, nothing in the inbox. Well, maybe later in the day. Nope. Thursday? We'll see.

In the meantime, here's why my suspicions were aroused:

  • How would he know that his company was "the fastest growing small press/independent publisher"? He didn't cite any statistics comparing it to similar companies. How fast, exactly, has it grown?
  • Any time a company describes itself as "unique," I'm suspicious. Unique is one of those meaningless words that's meant to sound impressive. 
  • How effective is "very effective"?
  • "Available" does not mean "actually for sale there" or "actually on the shelf."
  • Marketing to a database of "35 million e-mail accounts" means big-time spam. I wouldn't want 35 million account holders to hate me for having spam.
  • "200 company sponsored (sic) events"? None of those company-sponsored events (and what, exactly, are they?) are likely to be near me. 
I also did a bit of Googling. This "small press/independent publisher" appears to be a "self-publishing" company. Thus, it is a vanity press dependent of its authors for money.

Time for some definitions here:
  • Real "self-publishing" means the author becomes the publisher, gets the ISBN & EAN numbers and hires the printer (and designer, editor, etc.). I've self-published one book. It sold 1,700 copies, so I made back my investment. This book is available from some boxes of books in my garage and under my bed. Bookstores are reluctant to stock self-pubbed books.
  • "Vanity publishing" means the author pays a chunk of money to a company to take care of  everything. Books are generally printed on demand—as copies are ordered. Bookstores are reluctant to stock vanity-published books. I've vanity-published two collections of my former column and two collections of short stories—all four books fit a tiny niche market (think locally), so I made back my investment. I have some of these books available in the trunk of my car. However, you can get them from or from the publisher
  • A "small press" is a commercial publisher that doesn't charge the author to get published. Some small presses pay advances (though not big ones the way bigger publishers do) but they do pay royalties. If the small press has a distributor, bookstores will stock the book. 

When I returned home Thursday evening, following a stimulating session with my SCBWI crit group, there was a message on my answering machine from the guy who'd originally e-mailed me. He asked me to call him back to "talk about your book." But I didn't want to "talk about" my book. I just wanted the answers to those questions.

On Friday, I shared the e-mail with Lake Writers. One other member remembered getting the e-mail I did. No one thought this company sounded legit.

Mid-day Friday, he sent another e-mail:
Thanks for your questions. I would welcome the opportunity to talk with you. If you would send me your phone number and a convenient time for you to talk, I will call you.
I can't figure why he just didn't answer my questions in the e-mail. Why did he ask for my phone number when he already had it!? How did he get my contact info in the first place.

The plot thickens. . . .

Edited to add this: . . . and here's the last installment. I replied to his last e-mail to ask for answers to the above questions and to ask how he'd gotten my contact info and received this answer:

Thanks for your response. Let me answer your last two questions first. I found your email address and phone number in the Virginia Writers Guild Directory. I contacted you to see if you had any interest in our services. We do not discuss our fee structure online for two reasons. The first reason is every author is different. The second reason is it is impossible to evaluate our service and fees without fully understanding what we do and what you need. That is best accomplished by having a phone conversation at your convenience. I leave that decision to you. I can assure you that we are only interested in having a relationship that is mutually beneficial and long lasting. Thanks again for your interest.

Fee structure?! That tells me all I need to know. This company isn't a commercial publisher; it's a vanity publisher. If they can't be upfront with their fees, you know that "publishing" with them costs $$$$.

I'm closing the book—er, blog post—on this vanity outfit.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Headline Today

(or, Why don't I think I'm getting my money's worth out of the paper?)

This headline, which indicates a continuation of a page 1 story, appeared on page 16 in this morning's Roanoke Times:

The front page story's title is "Summer school is worth the expense." The reporter notes that there are "about 1,275 city students in summer school this month." It's actually a pretty good article. Except, well, for the headline pictured above.

The article isn't about one particular student.

Why did the headline writer not use the correct plural possessive form, students' skills?

Perhaps some summer school remediation is needed. . . .

Friday, July 16, 2010

Afternoon Storm

This morning was hot and sultry and cloudy and still. I figured something was coming when I saw how high the ant hills had been built up.

Sure enough, this afternoon we got a storm. Before the rain came, we heard thunder all around us—low at first and progressively louder. Here's the storm's progression as it moved in from the west and headed toward Smith Mountain:
At first the thunder hemmed and hawed,

Then huffed and puffed.

More clouds blew in,

The wind was rough.

The thunder grumbled,

The thunder growled.

The rain fell hard

While heavens scowled.

We were lucky that we didn't get damaging winds or hail like some area of the county did. We lost power momentarily; that was all.

Thursday, July 15, 2010


If you're not kin to me, you can probably skip this post. 

My roots run deep into Franklin County, so I'm interested in county history. And I'm interested in family history, too—who my ancestors were and where they came from.

I'm the third generation owner of Smith Farm in Union Hall. My grandparents, Joe and Sallie Smith, lived there for almost a half century. Here's a picture of them celebrating their 50th wedding anniversary on their farm. I was a little kid then—over a half century ago—but I remember being there that day.

An earlier picture of Joe and Sallie Smith —and a later one.

According to the old marriage record books in the Franklin County Courthouse (Book 2, #28) Joseph Robert Smith and Sallie Lee Brown were married on March 18, 1903, by Silas O. Plybon. She was the daughter of Will D. Brown and his second wife, Julia Forbes Brown. He was the son of Henry Silas Smith and his second wife, Mariah Louisa Martin Smith.

Henry Silas and Mariah are buried on the old Smith place, about a mile or so from my Smith Farm. The old Smith house, originally built in the late 1700s by a Mr. Street and which has been added to, still stands. The original part is between the two wings.
The gravestones near the house mark where Mr. and Mrs, Street are buried. The old Smith cemetery is in the woods on another part of the property.

Mariah's stone has been broken. Here's a closer look:

And a closer look at Henry Silas's stone:

Henry Silas Smith's first wife was Nannie J. Powell, who died in 1872; she was born 1855 in Pittsylvania County. Henry Silas's parents were Samuel Wood Smith (5 Aug. 1813 to Dec. 1877) and Letitia Holland (Malinda Letitia Holland, 1818? to 14 Feb 1886). Samuel's parents were John W. Smith and Lucy English (daughter of George Lewis English and Ann Smith). Ann (Nancy) Smith was the daughter of  John Smith, the son of Samuel Smith and Griselle (Grissel) Locker. They were married in Prince George County, MD  26 Sept. 1732. Griselle was daughter of Thomas Locker and Eleanor (Ellinor) Evans. [Update: Apparently in the vicinity, there were two Samuel Smiths, each married to a Grissele/Grissell/Grissel. It's possible that my line is the Samuel Smith/Grizzel Coleman line.]

 So, I descend from two Smith lines—the Samuel W. Smith/John W. Smith line and the John Smith/Samuel Smith line. Confused yet? At the annual Holland reunion, I saw a notebook listing the descendants of Samuel Smith and his wife Grisley (Griselle) (Grissel) Locker so I took a picture of it.

 I also photographed some pages about the Smith/Holland connection. This page (below) shows the Malinda Letitia Holland/Samuel Wood Smith connection :

Their son, Henry Silas Smith, shows up in the 1860 and 1870 census on this page:

I noticed what I was pretty sure was an error on this page in the Holland notebook:

 See? It says that Maria (Mariah) Louisa Martin married Henry Silas Smith in 1878. I was pretty sure they were married in 1876, and my grandfather was born the following year. So, I did some checking.  Marriage Book 1, page 132, at the courthouse gave me the correct answer. Their names are on the top row; they got the marriage bond on August 10, 1876

The parents of both husband and wife are listed—Samuel W and "Latitia" Smith, and John R and Elizabeth Martin:

. . . and their marriage was performed by Joseph Parker on August 17, 1876.

Today, the shed that was behind Joe and Sallie in their 50th anniversary picture still stands.

Their cabin, built in 1852 and clapboarded later, still stands, too, but it's showing its age.



Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Writing like—Huh?

There's a website that tells you which famous writer you write like. I decided to give it a try with my current work-in-progress, a middle grade novel. So, I pasted in a few paragraphs of the first chapter of Jacie's Challenge, thus:

I cantered Blaze through the woods, zigging and zagging to avoid the trees and rocks along the trail. When we jumped the creek and headed for the field, I hollered, “YEE-HAW!” My border collie Locket answered, “Wuff-wuff!” from somewhere in the woods.
When Blaze started up the hill, I dug my fingers into his mane and leaned forward. I clucked to him and loosened my grip on the reins to give him his head. Blaze broke into a gallop, and I felt like we were flying.
It was a perfect late March afternoon—sunny and only a little chilly, not cold like it had been last week.  And I’d gotten out of school a half day early because of a teachers’ meeting or something. My stepmother Liz had even picked me up so I didn’t have to ride the bus home.
At the top of the hill, beside the old graveyard, I reined Blaze in and let him nibble some grass while we waited for Liz and Thunder and Locket.
In about two minutes, I saw them come out of the woods. Liz slowed Thunder at the creek and made him walk through it instead of jumping. When Thunder saw Blaze, he nickered and broke into a canter. Locket ran back and forth behind Thunder, like she was herding him toward me. 

According to, I write like James Joyce. See:

I write like
James Joyce
I Write Like by Mémoires, Mac journal software. Analyze your writing!

Well, I decided to try again, this time with a sample from Peevish Advice. That couldn't be like James Joyce.

And it wasn't.  The site said this:

I write like
Mark Twain
I Write Like by Mémoires, Mac journal software. Analyze your writing!

OK, one more try. I pasted in a couple of paragraphs of the story that won first place in the CNU contest last March, and this was my result:

I write like
Dan Brown
I Write Like by Mémoires, Mac journal software. Analyze your writing!

That can't be right. It. Just. Can't.

On the other hand, Joyce Twain Brown would make a great pen name.

Monday, July 12, 2010

Lightning Thief

I finally read The Lightning Thief, which is Book 1 in the Percy Jackson and the Olympians series by Rick Riordan. I really liked the book,

Since this book's publication five years ago, it's won many awards and Riordan has written several more in the series, and The Lightning Thief movie has come out, too. For those not familiar with this book, it's about a 12-year-boy who's dyslexic and has ADHD—and who always seems to get into trouble at school. Plus he just happens to be the son of Poseidon, but he doesn't know that until he goes to a special summer camp. A summary of the complicated and action-packed book is here.

How could I have missed this book? I wish it had been around when I taught a Greek mythology unit in junior high and later middle school. I loved teaching that unit—the closest junior high came to classical literature. Since much of literature—classical and otherwise—has so many mythological allusions, a working knowledge of Greek and Roman mythology is essential to anyone's education. In fact, it would be difficult to "get" Percy Jackson without knowing a little something about mythology, although readers will learn plenty as they go along with Percy and his two pals (a satyr and a daughter of Athena) on their quest to find and return Zeus's lightning bolt.

Of course—and this is hard to believe—not all parents want their kids exposed to mythology. I remember years ago colleague telling me that a parent objected to it on religious grounds, so several weeks of alternate lessons had to be provided for the child, lest she be corrupted. Consequently, on his website, Riordan (who was a teacher for fifteen years) posts a rationale for teaching his book:

The novel offers an excellent chance for students to explore the Classical heritage of Greece as it applies to modern civilization; to analyze the elements of the hero’s quest rendered in a modern-day story with a first-person narrator to whom students can easily relate; and to discuss such relevant issues as learning disabilities, the nature of family, and themes of loyalty, friendship and faith.

The Lightning Thief  is a book that most kids would read for fun. That they'd learn something is a real plus. I hope a lot of teachers incorporate this book in their lesson plans. If I were still teaching, I surely would.

(Any teachers reading this, check out the Percy Jackson web site as well as Riordan's downloadable "Teacher's Guide to Percy Jackson.")


Wednesday, July 07, 2010

Drought 2010

Cut weeds in June, they'll be back soon.
Cut weeds in July, and soon they'll die

It's July and everything is dying: weeds, lawn, crops, garden—you name it. We haven't had substantial rain for weeks; the last little shower was June 28. Combine the drought with temperatures in the 90s—it hit 99 today here—and you have this:

This is my front lawn. The prickly pear cactus looks fine, but the lawn is brown and crispy. It crunches under my feet. I've never seen it this bad. 

Here's a closer look at the lawn:

My flower beds, that were so lush in April's rains, are now a lost cause.

Even my shade garden, which is close enough for me to water every other day, looks bad. The petunias died a couple of weeks ago. The impatiens look bad.  The hostas might not make it.

The flowers around the gazebo are still hanging on, but barely.

My Natchez white crape myrtles, which actually bloomed this spring, look as if they might not make it.

The Rose of Sharon bushes, which are so prolific in the yard and which the hummingbirds love so much, are withered. I've never seen them look so bad. The white one by the road looks especially bad.

Even the lavender one near the house is wilting.

The trees still look green, but they're feeling the stress.

My garden, which last year produced more squash than I could use, is a goner. Squash vines are dying. Any tomatoes that have ripened have blossom end rot. Last year, the garden stayed damp because it's planted in a low spot. This year, it dried out, and it's too far to easily carry water.

Pastures are equally bad, if not worse than my lawn. Many farmers are already feeding hay from their first cutting. Likely there won't be much—if any—second cutting.

Across the road—actually, all over the area—the corn crop has shriveled. If it doesn't grow, it'll be useless to cut for silage. The nitrogen content is too high and will poison the cows. What will the dairy farmers do?

Meanwhile, the cats seek shelter in the shade, where the white phlox I transplanted from Mama's yard over a decade ago still blooms.

Despite the drought, this rose that came from Mama's still blooms, too. 

Maybe there's still hope. . . . If only we'd get some rain.