Grumpy

May contain Rants.

Damned if you do…

I really must stop reading “advice to writers” posts.

The mother of all writing rules is “Show, don’t tell.” Showing good. Telling bad. Oh, and while you’re at it, don’t use adverbs. You know, those nasty words that end in “-ly.”

The writer wants to convey to the reader that a character is experiencing an emotion. Anger, say, or fear, or joy. She can’t say “X was angry,” because “was” is one of those forbidden words. She can’t have X saying something “angrily.” So what to do?

Okay, the writer thinks, I’ll just show what the character does. X clenched his fists. Y rolled her eyes. Z sighed.

No, no, little writer. You can’t do that. Fist-clenching, eye-rolling, and sighing are overused. And please don’t have eyes wandering around the room or crawling over anyone’s body (I actually agree with that one).

You know what–I just realized something.

Many of these advice posts are written by trad pub gatekeepers and people providing services to writers–editors, book coaches, and similar. These folks read a million submissions or manuscripts in need of help. They are exquisitely attuned to words and phrases. If they are sifting through a deluge of submissions by hopeful writers, they are looking for reasons to reject. An offering has to be sharply different to perk these people’s jaded sensibilities (but not too different, of course). If they are working through a manuscript for a client, they are scrutinizing every word.

So–if you’re hoping to snag an agent, get traditionally published, or win a contest, by all means make sure your offering is free of these offending elements. Read the posts, absorb the advice, and edit accordingly.

But if you are publishing your own work, and your critique partners and beta readers say it’s good, it probably is good, even if your characters sigh or roll eyes more than once in your entire book. It doesn’t hurt to be aware of your go-to phrases and make sure you’re not actually overusing them, but most ordinary readers aren’t instantly annoyed by things that annoy people who read for a living.

Think about it–reading dozens of first chapters or short stories one after the other over several hours is a slog, I’m sure. In such a reading situation, the reader is almost certainly going to notice words and phrases that pop up in all or most of the pieces they read. They jump like fleas into the consciousness of that reader, and are about as welcome. They are the equivalent of the ticking clock or dripping tap to the insomniac. At the end of the session, the battle-weary reader is going to make sarcastic comments, like “Well, this batch had a dozen eye-rolls, fifteen sighs, nine shrugs, and a plethora of pounding hearts. Those writers! Can’t they come up with anything original?”

And what do you suppose that editor or book doctor is going to write about in their blog?

I’ll finish with something from one of the advice-givers in response to a cranky comment on one such post: “The only truly universal writing advice is ‘If it works, it works.’” Capitulation?

Well, maybe I won’t quit reading posts with advice to writers. I wouldn’t want my Audrey the Contrarian persona to run out of things to fulminate about.

gargoyle grumpy

Seeing Stars–and Red

I’ve written quite a few posts in my Audrey the Contrarian persona, questioning the validity of some writing rules advice. You know what I mean–don’t use certain words, including “was,” avoid dialogue tags other than “said,” don’t write prologues, etc. and etc. I admit it–as soon as I perceive a wagging finger, my defenses go up.

gargoyle grumpy
“Sez who?”

Well, I’ve had a bit of an epiphany about this recently, in the form of a multi-author, themed box set of more than a dozen novels in ebook form. I acquired it more than a year ago but didn’t start reading it until recently.

So far, I’ve read six of the novels. All were previously published and most are parts of series. Several of them were probably #1 Bestsellers at some point. All begin with pages of the usual gushy blurbs (which I always skip). At least two of them so far are really good reads, well-written and interesting, but it’s the others I’m concerned with here.

One of these books begins with a prologue. That’s okay with me; I’m not opposed to prologues on principle. This one must have been designed to give the reader a jolt right from the start, and it did its job. But neither the characters nor the situation ever appear in the story that follows, with the exception of a single fleeting reference in the first chapter. Otherwise the story was fairly good, until it was spoiled by plot chasms, unnecessary references to events in other books in the series, and twists that failed my credibility test.

I don’t usually skim and skip when I read, but another of these books was so mushy-gushy, I ended up doing that. In the first chapter, the main character describes a person in minute detail, complete with a mini-backstory, fashion choices, and incredible devotion to said m.c. That person never appears again. The story is told in first person point of view, except for the occasional paragraph in third person. And no, those third person paragraphs are not deliberate stylistic devices, but errors. Finally, the m.c.’s personality and background are completely wrong for her profession, which severely strains the story’s credibility. Not only that, but the reader is treated to a detailed description of every emotional blip and bump the m.c. experiences.

A third example is a clunky sandwich of two different genres–the beginning and end are one genre, the filling in the middle the second. It doesn’t work well, but what really annoyed me was all the murmuring. Even the bad guy murmurs a typical bad guy command. “Drop the gun!” he murmured. Every time I pressed the next page button I made a bet with myself that someone would murmur on that page. And most of the time I was right. One more thing–the name of the m.c. changes between page 1 and page 2. I read those pages a couple of times, wondering what happened to X, before I realized he was actually Y.

Out of curiosity, I looked up these books on Goodreads to see what other readers might have said about them.

Guess what? All three had many 5-star ratings and rave reviews! A few reviews mentioned some of the problems I had noticed, but they were a tiny minority. It’s possible, of course, that some readers abandoned the books partway through and did not post reviews.

So now I wonder why, when we writers are told repeatedly that readers will not tolerate problems like the ones I’ve described, reviews and ratings don’t bear this out. Here are a few theories:

  1. The reviews are biased, either because the individuals who wrote them are doing the author a favour, or the reviews were paid for, or some other suspect reason.
  2. These particular readers/reviewers just happened to be exceedingly uncritical.
  3. Readers of genre fiction don’t care about many of the things writers are advised to care about.

Extrapolating from #3, I think there are two kinds of readers (well, there are probably more than two, but bear with me while I make my point). There are casual readers who just want to whiz through a story as light entertainment. As long as the plot holds together, they don’t notice details. Then there are critical readers who notice stuff like the above. In the latter group are writers, authors, and editors–in other words, the folks who write and read those blog posts telling you not to commit those sins.

So what is a writer to conclude from this?

Cynical me says don’t sweat the rewrites and proofreading. Forget the advice and bang out a plot-driven story every three months with the expected elements for your genre. Then put your real efforts into cultivating your readers and marketing. Writer me says striving to perfect my writing is a worthwhile end in itself even if no one reads it. Which makes sense, as I’m a dismal failure at marketing.

What say you, fellow writers and readers? Have you noticed this apparent disconnect between reviews and writing quality?

Weird light at sunset. Orange light due to wildfire smoke.

Hot and Hotter

The western part of North America is experiencing record-breaking temperatures, approaching 40C (100+F) on the south coast of Vancouver Island. This is an unprecedented weather situation caused by a blocked ridge of high pressure that is predicted to hang around until Tuesday.

We have become cellar-dwellers, including Nelly the dog. Newfoundlands don’t like it hot.

Nelly the Newfoundland dog

You can imagine what I’m doing when not lurking in the basement to cool off.

oscillating garden sprinkler fan shaped spray watering
Image from Pixabay
pink watering can

If I’m less visible on the usual blogs for a few days, it’s because I’ve wilted.

submission of manuscript

Feeling Submissive?

I’ve already written a post about my problems with the words “submit” and “submission” as used in the world of publishing. Even I think this is a bit of a bee in my bonnet, but there it is… Everyone has a bee or two. Before leaving this point, however, I’ll just note I had a really hard time finding an appropriate image for this post. Try a search on the word “submission” in Pixabay. Interesting, eh? No hopeful writers there, but quite a few handcuffs.

When I started writing seriously, I assumed I would offer my novel to agents or publishers, and do it well enough that a publisher would take it on and turn it into a real book. One day I would be on the bus and the person next to me would be reading my book. Or I would be invited to have a serious discussion with a literary journalist on national media about how I came to write it. Yes, that stuff.

Well, I bought one of those fat directories of agents and publishers printed on pulp paper in tiny print. (This was in the early 2000s.) I pored over it and selected targets. I beavered up query letters and synopses and put together packages of paper.

In 2010 I published my book myself.

Now I sometimes read advice to writers about submitting, and realize I would have a really hard time getting back into submission mode. The process of scrutinizing agent and publisher websites, making lists of likely ones, following each one’s requirements precisely, putting together the query letter, synopsis, and first few pages or chapters–that takes a lot of time and mental energy. And that’s before the rejections come rolling in.

Then there’s the skewed mentality of the submitter. You have to be confident but humble, hopeful but pragmatic. You have to believe in the piece of writing you have created, while at the same time realizing it’s nothing special (except to you). And you have to think of the fellow human beings to whom you’re appealing as powerful divinities, eternally busy, always overworked, too preoccupied with important matters to give your flawed offering more than a few minutes seconds of attention.

(Uh-oh, this is turning into yet another foot-stomping, pouty, watch-me-hold-my-breath-until-I-turn-blue rant. ‘Nuff said.)

What I meant to say before that happened is the writer has to psych themselves into the correct state of mind before undertaking a round of submissions. Some say it gets easier the more one does it. That wasn’t my experience in the ten years I spent querying and waiting, processing rejections, querying and waiting, processing more rejections. When I decided I would probably be dead before I got published, I was delighted to discover that self-publishing was a viable option.

At least now that most queries can be emailed, one is spared the tedious and expensive business of preparing SASEs (self-addressed stamped envelopes).

For those intending to submit, here are some (slightly jaundiced) tips:

  1. Prepare by cultivating the correct attitude. Instead of posts like this one, read some of the many with serious and helpful advice for hopeful writers on how to submit
  2. Ponder the fact that publishing is a business. Big business, in the case of the Big Four (formerly the Big Five, and before that, the Big Six). Starry-eyed romanticism won’t help you at all
  3. Don’t think of your novel as an extension of yourself, but as a potential product for a competitive market
  4. Try to convince yourself that the busy businesspeople who will look at your submission are evaluating your writing, not your worth as a human being. (Yeah, I know…)
  5. If you don’t already know your novel’s genre, figure it out and bone up on the salient points of that genre, such as reader demographic and key words, to give your submission the correct tone
  6. Study agent/publisher listings assiduously so you don’t waste your time directing your efforts to the wrong ones
  7. Once you have compiled your list of likely prospects, follow each one’s submission guidelines precisely. Don’t assume they’re all the same
  8. Consider dividing your list into two or three groups. After sending your first lot of submissions, distract yourself from fretting about them by preparing another batch
  9. If an agent or publisher requests a “full,” i.e., your full manuscript, rejoice. But don’t assume imminent success
  10. You will notice that most agents/publishers do not tell you exactly why they “pass” on your submission (i.e., reject it). Assume it’s because whoever read it thought it would not sell enough copies to make it worth their while
  11. But do not try to guess the reasons for rejection and fiddle with your manuscript before sending further submissions. The next person will evaluate it by their own criteria, which are likely different from the previous ones’
  12. Remember that once an agent or publisher has rejected your submission, you cannot re-submit it to that person unless they ask you to (which in my experience rarely happens)
  13. Prepare for rejections by invoking whatever activities, thoughts, or people make you feel good about yourself and your writing
  14. Persevere. If you have the energy and desire, write short stories, submit them to journals, enter them in contests. Building a track record of such publications may be helpful in finding an agent or publisher for that novel.

“Good luck with your writing journey.” Indeed.

And remember also that publishing your own novel is no longer a mark of failure, but a viable option.

So fellow writers, which of you have followed the submissions route? Have any of you succeeded? What are your thoughts about the process?

Featured image designed by Audrey Driscoll using Canva, incorporating an image by Peggy_Marco from Pixabay

Updating an Ebook is Harder than I Thought

One of the good things about self-publishing in ebook form with Amazon KDP is you can correct typos and other errors easily. Make the changes in your base document, upload it to KDP, press Publish and you’re done, right?

Yes and no.

Readers who buy your book after you publish the corrected version will get that version. But what about everyone who pre-ordered it or bought it before you discovered those pesky typos? You’ve assumed the corrected version will be automatically delivered to their reading devices, right?

Probably not.

One of the authors whose blog I follow recently published an updated and corrected version of an ebook. Being aware of this, I was eager to reread the book in its new form. When I checked my Kindle library (note: I don’t own a Kindle reader; I read Kindle books on a tablet using the Kindle app), I found only the original version of the book.

I thought, Okay, I’ll just buy a copy of the improved edition. No luck–Amazon told me I already own the book. So I went to “Manage Your Content and Devices,” where I found all the Kindle books I’ve ever bought. One of them–just one!–had “Update Available” below the title. The others did not, including the title I wanted to update. Yes, I have Automatic Book Update turned On in my Amazon account. And yes, I tried clicking Select next to the title and then clicking on Deliver at the top of the page, then designating the device I wanted the book delivered to. No soap; I’m guessing that because the ASIN is the same, I’m stuck with the original version.

This was confirmed by further digging in KDP’s Help pages, where I found one called Send Updated eBook Content to Customers. This page specifies exactly what an author has to do to enable an automatic update to be sent to people who have purchased the book.

You have to contact Amazon. The errors have to be “serious.” “You need to provide us detailed examples of your improvements regarding the quality errors.” And “You need to send us the ASIN, detailed examples of the corrections you made, and the Kindle location number. Location numbers are the digital equivalent of physical page numbers and provide a way to easily reference a place in your reading material regardless of font size.” I’m quoting from the page I linked to in the preceding paragraph.

There is also a list of changes Amazon will NOT accept. One of them is “significant changes that warrant a new edition.” I’m guessing a new edition would be an entirely new book, with a new ASIN. That’s where I gave up.

My takeaway from these investigations is: Make sure your Kindle ebook is perfect before you publish it for the first time. Or be prepared to make a case to Amazon for pushing out your changes to customers. Almost like in the bad old days of offset printing, where making a correction was difficult and expensive.

I would be delighted if anyone can tell me (on good authority) that the above is all wrong. Has anyone been able to download a corrected copy of a Kindle ebook you’ve purchased? And finally, has anyone gone through the steps described above to correct a book you’ve published?

open book against blue sky with white clouds

Who Are Your Readers?

Warning: this is a mild rant. A rantlet, if you prefer.

I’m speaking as a fiction writer here. I know the situation is different for nonfiction. And yes, I have opined on this topic before. I just checked.

But I’m going to revisit it anyway. Here goes–

Writers are constantly advised to identify their reader demographic so they can direct their promotional efforts accurately.

What is a demographic, anyway? It’s a group defined by factors such as age, sex, ethnicity, education, geographic location, and interests.

For a writer, it’s the people who have bought your books and enjoyed them, with the assumption that they have other characteristics (age, sex, etc.) in common. But can you find out enough about the individuals who have ordered your book online or bought it in a bookstore to discern a demographic? Some (but not all) readers may leave a positive review at a site where you can track them down and find those details. Stalking, anyone?

Even an author who sells books in person at an event (not likely now!) can form only a limited idea of their “market.” Age and sex, that’s about all you can discern visually. And what if your buyers are both old and young, men and women? Is an author supposed to interview them as part of the sales transaction, to winkle out their occupations and interests? Salespeople in bookstores certainly never do that.

Or maybe you write books specifically intended to be bought, read, and enjoyed by a defined group — men aged between 30 and 59 who like golf, for example. How do you know if you succeed? What if people outside that group like your books more than the ones inside it? That golf-loving dude may be the ideal reader you imagined while writing, but what if young women who hate golf like your book? Is that failure on your part? Should you tailor your next book for the golf-hating young woman market?

Even if you manage to collect demographic information about some of your readers, I’m certain you won’t have complete details about every one of them. How does incomplete or inaccurate information help your marketing efforts?

I have to admit, this piece of advice, which I see often, mystifies and annoys me. The only way I know a specific person has bought, read, and liked one of my books is if they tell me, either in person, in a comment on my blog, or in a review. Even then, it’s not always possible to discern an individual behind an avatar or internet persona. Rightly or wrongly, I have only the vaguest idea of my reader demographic. (Hey — some of you folks reading this post are part of it!)

Yes, I know social media is somehow supposed to be the answer. But I just read a piece of advice saying authors should direct their social media efforts to their target market, which assumes we already know what it is.

At that point, I sat down and wrote this rant.

Maybe I’m missing something obvious. Has anyone identified their reader demographic in a useful way? Does anyone have a target market, apart from “children,” “teens,” or “adults?” How do you obtain the necessary data about your readers?

If you want to join my reader demographic, you may be interested in my latest book. It’s available at the pre-order price for only a few more days. And it’s now also available as a paperback.

Cover image for Tales from the Annexe

Available at a special pre-order price of $0.99 USD (or equivalent) from these Amazon outlets
US UK CA AU DE

Featured image by Kranich17 from Pixabay

primula white with yellow centres

Spring, the Frantic Season

Never mind that March 20th is the official first day of spring, here it’s been under way for weeks. The grass has been mowed twice. Crocuses have gone through two sets of flowers (the first of which were nibbled by deer). And the gardener is racing around with clippers in pocket, clutching a digging knife in one hand and a bucket (for the stuff to be clipped or dug) in the other, muttering incoherently.

I should know by now that going out and having a look around the garden at this time of year always ends in a frantic session of dealing with several small crises at once. Spray deer repellent or fetch netting for the plant that always gets eaten. Dig up those wild garlic sprouts and those snowberry suckers.

Where did all these weeds come from? Especially hairy bittercress (Cardamine hirsuta). I pulled up zillions of them last spring, but I must have missed a few. This plant is also called “shotweed,” and no doubt it lived up to its name and shot seeds all over the place. The little plants are kind of pretty, with their rosettes of lacy leaves and their tiny wild flowers. Maybe I should just leave them? I understand this plant is edible, reputed to add a peppery zing to salads. Maybe I should treat it as a salad herb.

Cardamine hirsuta, a.k.a. hairy bittercress or shotweed

Hold it right there! This sort of thinking is why I have so many quasi-weeds and out-and-out weedy weeds here. Many are self-inflicted.

As a reminder, here is a list entitled Plants I Would Never Have Planted if I Knew Better: Italian arum, Snowberry, Oregon grape (Mahonia aquifolium), Periwinkle, Peruvian lily (Alstroemeria aurea). And another list called Plants of Which I Have Way Too Many. I’m talking about you, Purple Toadflax and Rose Campion, champion self-seeders both.

Of course, it doesn’t help that I find it nearly impossible to remove (i.e., kill) any plant that’s growing vigorously and looking great. Even if it’s a weed. In fact, it’s quite possible all those hairy bittercress plants are descended from a pretty little specimen I failed to pull up years ago, thus ensuring its abundant presence here for all time.

On the plus side, in an east-facing window of the garden shed, there is a small pan containing a nice little crop of blue poppy seedlings. They are still too small to handle, but they’re alive and therefore full of potential.

Clematis armandii

The evergreen clematis (C. armandii) looks wonderful this year, weaving garlands of white flowers through a big old holly. Last year it failed to bloom at all, after brutally cold winds in early February. The pink hellebore “Pirouette” is blooming abundantly, and dark red “Ruby Wine” is living up to its name. “Black Diamond,” on the other hand, is not blooming. “Not blooming yet,” I say hopefully.

Hellebore "Pirouette"
Hellebore “Pirouette”

Sometimes I think nine-tenths of gardening is a matter of balancing the plants that grow way too vigorously with those that don’t. Maybe instead of striving for the ideal of each plant neatly surrounded by an area of bare dirt, I should consider how plants behave in natural environments, where tangled messes are the norm and bare dirt is an aberration. Let them fight it out among themselves and appreciate the survivors.

Years ago, I wrote a post about why I hate pruning. I still hate it. “Strength follows the knife” and “Prune vigorous plants lightly and weak ones hard,” are two pieces of advice I wonder about as I wield the clippers and pruning saw. Maybe they’re true for plants in optimal situations. What really happens is gardeners underestimate the ultimate size of shrubs. A day comes when hard pruning of the vigorous is necessary to make it possible to get into the house without having to turn sideways. It’s not a pruning issue so much as a planting one.

This Photinia was drastically reduced in size and needs an annual trim to keep it a reasonable size

Uh-oh, I hear the garden issuing further orders. Gotta run. Not wanting to end on a complaining note, I’ll just insert another picture…

Dark pink tulips, formerly almost white
Coming soon!
Eating Earth blog header

Misanthropic Musings

In my recent post about some small irritants of life, I stayed away from human behaviour, because that’s more than a small irritant. It warrants a post of its own, which has been brewing for some time. Here it is. Rant warning issued!

We are literally eating the Earth, even though we understand only a fraction of how it works and see its mysteries only as challenges to our cleverness. If you don’t believe that, read this: https://www.cbc.ca/radio/quirks/understanding-extinction-humanity-has-destroyed-half-the-life-on-earth-1.5324721

I have come to think our species should be called Homo destructor rather than Homo sapiens. Wisdom takes a long, wide view. Wisdom values thought before action. That does not describe us.

We destroy wilderness to satisfy our endless needs. We glorify explorers, adventurers, disrupters, and exploiters. We’ve left footprints and junk on the Moon, and are keen to set foot on Mars, having already sent machines there. We’re looking feverishly for Earth-like planets — more worlds to conquer mess up. We tell ourselves this is as it should be, because we are by nature clever, curious, and inventive. Why shouldn’t we strive to know and control?

But why can’t we learn to value observing and contemplating more than utilizing and exploiting?

We pride ourselves on our inventiveness, always finding a way to adapt our environments to ourselves rather than accepting that evolution adapts us. Because the pace of evolution is too slow for us. We spent too many millennia in the stone age, and aren’t planning to go back there.

We want everything to be bigger, faster, cheaper. Short-sighted, greedy, and destructive — that’s us, as a species. We congratulate ourselves on our achievements in discovery, invention, and artistic creation. But consider this: almost none of that benefits any other life form. The Earth doesn’t care about books, the stock market, religions, or even the music of Beethoven.

And yet, we see ourselves as the pinnacle species. After 4.6 billion years, a life form on Earth turned and saw itself in the mirror of its intelligence and imagination. It split the atom and decoded life and gave itself license to manage the planet.

We pride ourselves on Knowing, on our self awareness, our god-like capability to stand outside ourselves and observe. If we used that capability with a broader purpose, it might benefit both the Earth and ourselves.

I’ve tried to convince myself that we are just another force of nature, like the asteroid that created the Chicxulub Crater, ending the age of the dinosaurs. We should be what we are, with no more regret for our effect on the Earth than that giant chunk of rock.

Science tells us the only life forms on Earth for its first couple of billion years were microbes. Compared to that, the present human-caused extinctions seem trivial. The planet will survive our depredations (even if we don’t) and life in some form will return. What’s wrong with that?

I’ve tried to convince myself of that, but I can’t. We are living creatures, made of the stuff of Earth and utterly dependent upon its life-supporting qualities. So why do we continue to do things that threaten those supports?

We humans need to develop and express a reverence for the Earth.

OK, enough ranting. I could go on, but I think I’ve made a few points, or at least fired off some wildly random shots. For a more positive and hopeful view, read this post from Anima Monday: https://animamonday.wordpress.com/2019/10/21/you-are-not-powerless/ (BTW, I heartily recommend the Anima Monday blog for its unique perspectives on humanity’s relations with the natural world.)

So, fellow Pressers of the Word — are you hopeful or despairing about the immediate prospects of life on Planet Earth?

Mouth image by Clker-Free-Vector-Images from Pixabay. “Eating Earth” image created by Audrey Driscoll with Canva.

gargoyle grumpy

Ten Little Things That Bug Me

A while ago, I wrote a post complaining about parking lot design. It was going to be the first of a series of grumbles. Since then I’ve realized that writing a string of posts whining about “first world problems” isn’t the best use of my blogging time. So I’ve bundled all the small things that bug me into one post.

This one.

These are low-level annoyances that regularly make me say “Why…?” They’re things — poorly-designed physical objects, not human behaviour. Many aspects of human behaviour (individual and collective) bug me, and many more sadden and enrage. Maybe I’ll get into some of them in future posts. For now, I’m sweating the small stuff.

Such as…

  • Noisy yard machines. Sometimes my corner of suburbia sounds like a war zone with competing roars from lawn mowers, string trimmers, and leaf blowers.
  • Scented dryer sheets and laundry soaps. Nose-twisting synthetic “perfumes” with names like “April Fresh” and “Mountain Breeze” wafting from dryer vents in the neighbourhood. And I’m not even allergic!
  • Pants (trousers) without pockets. Women’s pants, specifically. Oh, right — women don’t need pockets because they always carry purses for their keys and kleenex. Even while vacuuming, gardening, and cooking.
  • Containers sealed for my protection that need a knife to remove the seal.
  • Fitted sheets that don’t quite fit and need brute force to muscle them onto a mattress.
  • Right turns on red. Whether I’m driving or walking, they make me nervous.
  • Glue that fails even when instructions for use are adhered to.
  • Lack of hand grips on big furniture and appliances. Just try moving a washing machine or sofa. Weight isn’t the real issue, but nowhere to get an effective grip. Surely designers could build in something graspable by the human paw.
  • Overly bright LED street lights. I look out the window to see the full moon and get blinded by the light on the pole.
  • Gifs and other online visuals (often in ads) that jump, flash, wiggle, and jiggle. Again. And again, and again, and again… Screeeeeeee… (That’s me running away.)

That’s it! I’m done griping. What about you, WP bloggers? What irks you? Here’s your chance to complain. Or not. (And I still have no idea why parking lots are designed to annoy. If anyone knows, please add a comment!)

Image from Pixabay

House with foundation planting of shrubs

Foundation Plantings: Big Mistake?

Foundation plantings are groups of shrubs, small trees, and herbaceous plants intended to hide a house’s concrete foundation, which is thought to be an eyesore, or somehow indecent, like a foundation garment. I remember reading instructions for these plantings in “how to garden” books from the 1950s and ’60s. Somehow, I thought both foundation plantings and foundation garments* had become passé, but no. The internet is full of advice on design and plant selection for foundation plantings.

My advice? Don’t do it. You know why? Because those shrubs and perennials will be forever in the way of anyone doing any kind of maintenance to the house. Moreover, they will likely sustain damage in the process. One article I read actually recommended a variety of holly for a foundation planting. Can you imagine squeezing between house and holly bush with paintbrush in hand?

On three sides of our house (whose foundation isn’t visible because the stucco ends a couple of inches above ground level), there’s pavement close to the walls, except for 18 inch wide beds between the concrete walks at the back and one side. There are a few plants in those narrow spaces, but they’re short and manageable. These areas present few access problems.

Not so at the front. Soon after we moved in, I planted an artistically curved mixed bed there, 8 feet wide at each end and 4 feet in the middle. It’s occupied at one end by a couple of shrub roses and a large cotoneaster with a clematis growing through it. At the other end are a spirea and a flowering currant. Between and in front of these shrubs are perennials, mostly asters and irises, along with an acanthus, several peonies, and some self-seeded fillers.

In 2017, we had the roof reshingled. This summer, we had the house painted, including the wooden window frames and ornamental strips. Some stucco repair was also needed.

I suppose it’s not realistic to expect roofers, stucco dudes, painters and other tradespeople (tradesmen, in my experience) to be careful around plants. They’re being paid to apply shingles, stucco, or paint, and that’s what they do. Despite my efforts to tie plants back and indicate paths to the spots needing to be worked on, plants sustained some degree of damage.

The irises below two of the windows whose trim was painted bore the brunt — stomped on, broken, mashed and trampled. Okay, they were in late summer decline and didn’t look great, but still… Luckily, this is the right time of year to divide irises and move peonies, so I’m telling myself this disaster is an opportunity in disguise. When I replant, I’ll build in a buffer zone.

Pale yellow irises with dark red purple bearded irises
What’s left of these irises are now refugees awaiting repatriation.

My advice for anyone designing new plantings would be to leave a generous buffer zone between the house and any substantial plantings. It should be at least 3 feet/1 metre wide and either paved or planted with lawn, tough groundcover, or expendable annuals. Keep larger shrubs (anything taller than 3 feet/1 metre) even farther away from the house, at least 8 feet. (And that means the farthest outward growth of the shrub or tree, not the main stem or trunk.) Whoever has to wash, repair, patch, or paint will be grateful. So will the plants.


*It seems foundation garments are now called “shapewear.” That’s quite a different thing from the power girdles and conical bras of past decades. (I’ll bet they’re still uncomfortable.)

Featured image from Pixabay