Pick Your Prince


Elizabeth I when a Princess


    Harsh, yes… but the question is, have you picked your prince? Because that is what you do, you choose him, and you know what he is. And then, when you have chosen, you say to him—yes, that is possible, yes that can be done. Wolf Hall, Hilary Mantel


The summer’s heat mounts its final offensive gestures in August. A hard blond light follows my bare steps room to room, tailing me from the directness of dawn to the anonymity of night, encroaching upon one thought to the next like a natural hunter. And each day in this weather spools outward, increasingly overexposed, a little thin in texture and experience, as if to say, Didn’t we do this yesterday? And the day before?

Repetition makes August more palatable, and that is why this last month of summer, the whole of it, is reserved in my mind for the rereading of books. Eleven months out of the year I devote myself to working the inventiveness of my own character as a writer. I push hard at the limits of language; I taste words, savory and sweet, try them in combination, mutter over the results. I practice new devices, intricate passes— the hidden gestures of writing. For those eleven months, I read the way most writers read— a woman starved at the table, sawing through books with lean utensils, quickly and completely.

One month a year, though, is devoted to the inward study of the writers and the books I love. I may read a single book four or five times, in order to understand, truly, how a particular book was made. I am not unique in this habit; most of the writers and readers of the northern hemisphere slip into the interiors of language for the last month of summer.

What book am I holding now? I am reading and re-reading Wolf Hall; and Bring Up the Bodies, two books built from strong literary scaffolding by Hilary Mantel. These novels concern the rise of Thomas Cromwell, advisor to King Henry VIII. (The last book will follow the fall of Cromwell, but we’re not there yet— that will be Mantel’s third book, which she is writing now.)

I picked my prince. I chose the most beautiful writing available for me to read, and I do, in fact, read it. This work, this close reading, will keep me humble, nearer to bone, up against the place where the words are writ fine, thin as spun gold, glittering in the dark places, and as far away from the bold heat of August as one can get. The light really is too bright today for looking outward into the world. This is the time for writers like us to sip at shadows, to consume fresh ideas with both hands, hands that are lean, and browned by months of heat.

*QUICK UPDATE: My friend and cohort Metan closed our first Show Us Your Weather! Blog Carnival today with this beautiful post: Paul Kelly. Midnight Rain.

Wherever you are, I hope you’re under a lucky star….

The Book Will Not Bite You: Dune in June Read-Along Week 1

Venus globe

SCENE: A set for a cooking show. COURTENAY BLUEBIRD and JOE THE CAMERAMAN. Courtenay Bluebird is wearing a black jumpsuit. Joe the Cameraman is dressed as a space nun. He is so angry he can’t see straight.

COURTENAY BLUEBIRD: Hello! (Clears throat.) How are you today? Are you well rested? I was up all night putting the finishing touches on these costumes! (She leans on the counter of the cooking set.) Confidentially, I could use some coffee before we talk about Dune. How about you?

(Joe the Cameraman tugs on his starched wimple. He is chewing a toothpick furiously.)

COURTENAY BLUEBIRD: (Reaches to the counter behind her for her coffee cup. Takes a sip of coffee. Her eyes widen.) Joe? Why does my coffee taste like vinegar?

(Joe the Cameraman shrugs. Keeps chewing his toothpick.)

COURTENAY BLUEBIRD: Oh, Joe! Ha-ha You kidder! I’ll make us a fresh pot of coffee okay? (Turns sideways and keeps talking.) As you know, today we’re going to talk about Frank Herbert’s Nebula and inaugural Hugo award-winning novel, Dune. Since this is the first time we’ve done this sort of thing, I thought I might start out talking a little bit about the idea of the novel, and a little bit about Dune, and then we could talk our way through some questions. Does that sound okay? (She steps back with the coffee pot, turns on the faucet over the sink, and adds water.)

COURTENAY BLUEBIRD: Before we do any of that, I want you to take a look at what I’ve got here. (Holds coffee pot in front of her.) You see that? Fresh water. Many of the wealthiest countries in the world are wealthy, in part, due to access to water. See it glisten in the light? Have you ever been so thirsty you thought you were going to be sick? Have you ever craved water? Dune is about a planet on which water is the most desirable commodity, yet the commodity it creates—spice, or melange— is the most powerful object in the universe.

(She places the pot in the coffeemaker, turns it on. Joe the Cameraman yanks on his wimple. Something rips. He quickly tries to tuck the torn part of the wimple so Courtenay Bluebird won’t see it.)

COURTENAY BLUEBIRD: (Dumps vinegar coffee in the sink. Grabs copy of Dune.) Why do we call a novel, a novel? Once upon a time in the seventeenth century, the Western world became enamored by stories told in a single unbroken arc. We had been doing it for a long time in the Eastern world, but the Western world was more into epics about monsters and mythical men. The Western world also liked morality plays where Good and Evil were well defined.

(Joe the Cameraman stops chewing his toothpick long enough to listen.)

COURTENAY BLUEBIRD: Well, writers have always been able to tell long stories, so that wasn’t the issue. What really limited the rise of longer stories… was technology and readership. Books were the commodity of the merchant class and the well-to-do. Even then, if you wanted to buy a book, you wanted something you could show around— philosophy, history, a religious text.

COURTENAY BLUEBIRD: The novel came and it was new. The word novel means “new.” If ever I become tired of reading the novel as a construct, I stop and remember this one thing— a novel once meant “new” and it still means “new.” Then, I go look for a new novel!

(Joe the Cameraman’s torn wimple starts to slide off of his head. Courtenay Bluebird notices and keeps talking.)

COURTENAY BLUEBIRD: That brings us to Frank Herbert. Herbert was not the first writer of science fiction. That pleasure goes to 18th century writers like Mary Shelley, the writer of Frankenstein, which draws on older stories from Jewish folklore about the Golem, a being created of inanimate matter. The first science fiction novel is more hotly contested than the birth of the novel. Let’s revisit this another time, okay?

COURTENAY BLUEBIRD: What makes Herbert’s Dune such a singular achievement is the way it is written. The literary beauty of Dune is not a standard feature of science fiction. Literary beauty is rare in all forms of writing. Science fiction novels are the theater of the possible world. Herbert makes his theater of the possible the size of a universe.

COURTENAY BLUEBIRD: You’ll notice that Joe—(Points to Joe.)—is dressed as the Reverend Mother Gaius Helen Mohiam.

(Joe the Cameraman is frantically trying to hold the torn wimple together.)

COURTENAY BLUEBIRD: Joe? What happened to your wimple, Joe?

(He shrugs and looks up at the ceiling. Points to his head.)

COURTENAY BLUEBIRD: I know it’s itchy. Have you seen this jumpsuit I’m wearing? It’s as hot as Jupiter in this thing! Oh, right. What I’m wearing is supposed to look like a stillsuit, which collects and holds the water of the body. Because water is precious where we are going. It is more precious than singular human life in this novel. Joe? Just take the wimple off. Can you hold up the cards with the questions on them?

(Joe rips off the wimple, tosses it down, and grabs the cue cards.)

COURTENAY BLUEBIRD: The best way to take apart a story as complex as Dune, is to look at it bit-by-bit. We’re going to examine Book 1 all the way up to the moment in Paul’s new room on Arrakis today. (Smiles at Joe the Cameraman.) Okay. Show them the questions.

(Joe steps in front of the cameraman still wearing his habit. Since he ripped his wimple off, Joe’s hair stands on end. He shifts his toothpick to the other side of his mouth and holds up the cue cards with a grin.)


Dune begins with a fake quotation from an unknown princess. This style of using fake quotations from unrepresented sources is a structural detail used throughout the book. What other purpose do you think it serves? What details are foreshadowed in that first quote?


The story opens on Caladan, but the book is called Dune. Why do we start on Caladan? Why did Herbert open the story with the Reverend Mother Gaius Helen Mohiam? What do you think of the character of the Reverend Mother?


In the scene with the gom jabbar, what does the Reverend Mother imply when she says, “We Bene Gesserit sift people to find the humans.”

And why, do you think, Paul Atredies feels “infected with a terrible purpose” after the Reverend Mother tests him? What is a “terrible purpose”?


The universe of Herbert’s story is divided up into strict categories that mirror the structure of the Middle Ages, a time where religion, royalty, and an established merchant class ruled the world. How does this vision of the future differ from other stories about the future? Why reach back for a model from the past?


In a matter of a few short chapters we meet the House of Atredies and all of their attendants, then the House of Harkonnen. How are the Atredies different from the Harkonnen? How are they similar? What does royalty imply in this world? What does it mean to serve royalty in this world?


Our first introduction to Fremen culture is through the housekeeper Mapes. What is she looking for on the day she meets the Lady Jessica? What spoken or unspoken codes pass between the two women?

How are the conversations between women in this novel different than the conversations between men? What role does gender play in this society?


Predestination is one of the themes of this novel, as well as the entire cycle of Herbert’s epic. Herbert wanted to explore the way the idea of predestination can set up actual incidences of predestination. Do you see any moments of predestination in the early structure, story, or characters of Dune?

COURTENAY BLUEBIRD: Thanks, Joe! (Joe gives a salute to the camera. His hair is wilting in the hot lights.) These are merely suggested questions to get us going! Feel free to add your own questions in the comments! So, are you ready to talk Dune today? Let’s do it!

Riley crater PIA00266


Next week we’ll start with the moment in Paul’s new room on Arrakis in Book 1 and go up to the betrayal of Duke Leto. (That section starts with Do you wrestle with dreams? Do you contend with shadows?)

Should you find yourself confused, read the DUNE IN JUNE story I wrote on June 1st! I read Dune every June… because I do not like hot South Texas summers! Nosiree, I do not! But, I do love great literature. Yes, I do! I like mine with a little lemon slice of humility on the side! It does help!

Or, if you enjoyed meeting Joe the Cameraman, write a sonnet the ol’ fashioned way with Joe and Courtenay in this series here— The Poem Will Not Bite You!



* The original Dune in June story!

* Dune in June Read-Along, Week 1

* Dune in June Read-Along, Week 2

* Dune in June Read-Along, Week 3, Part 1

* Dune in June Read-Along Week 3, Part 2

* The Book Will Not Bite You: Dune in June Read-Along Week 4

*The Book Will Not Bite You: Dune in June Read-Along, Week 5

*The Wind-Up Dune Chronicles. Until Next Year.


A Book Dreams Itself: Discovering Ray Bradbury at the Small Town Library


Ray Bradbury publicity photo.  Copyright 1959.  "The Twilight Zone."


I don’t tell anyone how to write and no one tells me.

—Ray Bradbury, The Paris Review,
The Art of Fiction No. 2031


I was ten years old when I first read Ray Bradbury.

My mother was in the UK, visiting friends, and it was decided well in advance that it would be best for me to stay with my grandparents, for a month, in the small South Texas town where they had lived since shortly after they married.

My grandmother managed to get me a temporary library card and a secondhand bike.

The bike I could ride up and down the street, but never around the block. My grandmother was strict. She had her reasons.

She drove me to and from the old brick library in her Buick twice a week, and I was not allowed to roam unguided through the strange experience of a small town library.

The town library was strict too, as it turned out.

This library still had a “restricted” section. I found that puzzling. The metropolitan library my mother and I used had no such thing. What was in a restricted section?

I asked my grandmother what books the library restricted and she didn’t give me a straight answer.

The answer I did get from my grandmother and the librarian was that children weren’t allowed around any of the adult books, not just the mysteriously restricted ones.

My grandmother had to give permission for me to use the regular adult section. It was a slow morning in the library, so the librarian followed me into the adult books and proceeded to offer suggestions.

That librarian helped me select Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 and Hemingway’s Old Man and The Sea —which seems pretty strange to me now, I guess.

I was ten, after all.

But, I read night and day, everywhere, and I could be a royal pain in the neck when I was bored. It was best for all concerned that I have a stack of books and my dance shoes for practicing and a bike to ride up and down the block under the canopy of the early summer pecan trees.

We got home and ate lunch. Tuna fish salad on toast, I suppose. My grandmother cooked well, but hated to cook, so she made simple, meticulous meals. There would be fine diced apple in the salad, and celery for crunch, a little fresh pecan, maybe a little yellow curry powder.

I started reading Fahrenheit 451 that afternoon in my grandparent’s formal living room, perched on the brocade cream-colored couch.

Bradbury shocked me. I had no idea you could tell a story in a way that sounded like music in your head. I didn’t know that prose could be as lyrical and as measured as poetry.

When my grandparents turned on the evening news, I hightailed it for the fold-out couch in the guest bedroom.

I kept reading.

I sprawled sideways on the sagging cushions of the couch in my grandparents’ guest bedroom and the house and the town and the evening news fell away.

Bradbury’s story of the Fireman and the dilemma of his ethics and his newfound love of art, played out in the prettiest, crispest language I had ever heard.

It was a song, my friends. Bradbury had written a piece of music that was also a book.

I had no idea this could be done.

Yet, Bradbury had done it.

I went back to the library with my grandmother three days later with my little stack of books. “I liked this one,” I said, pointing to the hardback of Fahrenheit 451 on the counter. “Are there more? Please?”

Once again, I was escorted to the non-restricted adult section of the library, and this short woman in sturdy shoes and an iron-pressed skirt reached up and pulled down The Martian Chronicles. My mouth opened in a little “o” as I examined the cover. She saw this expression, I guess, because she pulled down The Illustrated Man, too.

That night I read The Martian Chronicles until midnight, with the bedside light on and the blinds tipped shut. In those days, I slept in a long flannelette nightgown, one of the old fashioned kind with the flounce at the bottom and the twee floral print that faded in the wash 20 years before I was born. My hair was tied back with a ribbon that once tied back my grandmother’s hair as a child.

Curled up in the dark of night in my flannelette nightgown, I learned another new idea about writing from Bradbury.

In addition to the musicality of his language, Bradbury was not afraid, at all, to interweave stories and ideas that did not bear a direct relationship to one another.

The Martian Chronicles is often called a novel, but it’s not a novel, really. And it’s otherwise called an interlinked set of short stories, or a “fix-up,” which is a word I learned today that basically means that stories published elsewhere are rewritten in a way to tie them together as a whole.

I don’t think The Martian Chronicles is a novel, or a collection of short stories, or a “fix-up”.

None of those things sounds right.

And with Bradbury, the sound of an idea is the sense of the idea.

For instance, The Martian Chronicles is poetic and full of dream logic.

If The Martian Chronicles is a novel, it is what a novel dreams when it is asleep.

If it is a collection of interlinked stories, they are the stories that belong to night and bonfires and a drape of bright stars.

I finished Bradbury’s beautiful book, then fell asleep as the central air conditioner droned on and on. I dreamed of fire-phials and Mars and dead seas and books that sang as you read them.

The next morning, I got up late. My grandfather was reading in his recliner. My grandmother was out at one of her volunteer jobs. I had The Martian Chronicles in my hand. He closed his paper.

“We-eell, look who’s up!”

I was still in my old long flannelette nightgown. My feet were bare on the carpet. In the night, my hair ribbon twisted sideways around my head.

“Grandpa, you need to read this,” I said.

I held the book out. His scarred, callused fingers looked just right against the cover of the book. I stood in front of his chair and waited for his reaction.

He opened the first pages using his index finger and his thumb.

He looked up at me through his thick glasses. He nodded.

“Rocket summer,” he said. “I’ll take a look at this.”

He began to read. I went into the kitchen and found my breakfast covered in tin foil. I pulled off the foil to cold eggs and toast.

I looked at my grandfather reading The Martian Chronicles through the window cut-out of the banquette.

Rocket summer.

A book that sings.

A book that dreams itself.

Rest In Peace, Ray Bradbury.


Top photo: Publicity image of Ray Bradbury when he wrote for The Twilight Zone.
Bottom photo: I couldn’t find a legit copy of “The Martian Chronicles.” That’s me, last night, holding one of my copies of my favorite Ray Bradbury book.


Our Sunday Best: Who Is Driving This Story, Anyway? POV in Writing

C.W.A.Scott Binoculars

I crave books I love the way I crave certain foods.   I will stop cold in the middle of a task during the day with a single line from a novel or poem written in fire over my head, and the craving is so strong that I know, before the day is out, I will have that book tucked open in my right hand as neatly, and as tightly as a well-made bed.

The moment that drives my ordinary reader’s desire into the swerve of a bibliophilic craving is the artistry of the writing itself. (There are stories, and there are stories, after all.) What keeps me turning pages is my fascination with the person (or persons) whose story is being told.

But who is telling the story?

I’m not talking about the writer/author, per se.

(We know s/he is telling the story— sometimes s/he tells us right in the middle of the story— disruptively— but we’ll get into the fiddly bits of postmodern literature in just a bit.)

What I’m trying to ask you here is who is the actual voice telling you the story?

POV, or point-of-view, is one of the most necessary structural details you need to consider as you prepare to write your own stories.

Because, for every story, there are a thousand, thousand ways to use POV as one of the pistons pulling the action and motivation and meaning along.

There are no shortcuts to figuring out the POV question to help you sort out the structural details of your story.   

What should be helpful is to know what your options are in the POV world.   (Some structural details of a novel are setting, plot, tense, time frame and so on. There are many architectural elements necessary to provide your novel with a solid structure, but POV is where we will start.)

Those options may spur you to think of a new, or relatively unused form of POV that will send me, your reader, skidding to the bookshelf to devour the story you tell to sate a mad craving.

The big four points-of-view (POV) in brief — First person  (“I” or “We”); Second person (“You”); Close Third Person (“S/he “or “It” or “They”); and Omniscient Third Person (Reader sees everything narrator, AKA storyteller, reveals.). 

The hot POV right now is Close Third Person because— honestly?  That’s the POV everyone sees on TV.  Some folks argue that Close Third Person encourages strong verbs, but if you are revising your work— which you do, I am sure, because you are trying to create something beautiful and readable— you will tighten and strengthen your verbs when you revise.

Bundesarchiv Bild 183-31476-0007, Prerow, Urlauber mit Ferngläsern am Strand

POV is reallyreallyreallyreally important.  Think about it this way:  When your cousin tells the story of the time she got you to eat cat food, that’s one version of the story.  It isn’t the story.   I’m sure that version of the cat food eating story is a BIG HIT on holidays with your cousins.

When your mom tells that story, it becomes a completely different tale about the time when your badly-raised cousin talked you into eating cat food and your pediatrician had to take x-rays to make sure that you hadn’t also eaten the batch of free coupons in the cat food bag.  That’s your mother’s version.

What’s your mother’s sister’s version?  Is it the story of her free-spirited child and her uncontrollable younger cousin who didn’t know how to take a joke?

Ah.  Now you see what I’m seeing!  You are seeing the world as a writer views the world— the ways to tell the story fall out in endless combinations of POV! 

Each person is telling a completely different story using their own viewpoint, remembrance of the facts (dates, times, places), ability to observe, and on and on!
Here are a few imaginative uses of POV to think about today:
First Person POV/Alternating:   Each first person character tells their version of the story.  Jonathan Safran Foer wrote  Everything Is Illuminated with a double-first person POV.  The first part of the book is one part of the story by one person (Jonathan Safran Foer himself) and the second half of the book is the rest of the story told by his guide, Alexander Perchov. 

Popular in the 18th Century was the epistolary novel in which First Person POV/ Alternating narrator is played out in alternating letters between two or more parties.  Les Liasons Dangereuses, (Chonderlos de Laclos) is my favorite example.  It’s a more masterful novel than Safran Foer’s early but ambitious effort.
First Person POV/Gender Unspecified:  In Jeanette Winterson’s Written On The Body, you never know whether the person telling the story is a woman or a man.  The additional twist— Written On The Body is a compelling love story about the (gender non-specified) main character’s illicit attraction for a married woman.
First person POV/chorus:  The Virgin Suicides (Jeffrey Eugenides) is written from the perspective of a group of neighborhood boys— now grown men— who are fascinated by the Lisbon sisters, even after each girl commits an untimely act that ends in her death. You wouldn’t think this would work well, but the speaking as a Greek chorus of “we” makes the story more heartbreaking and intimate.
Second Person POV:  Although a second person narrator (“you”) is rarely used as a device in an entire novel, it’s often used in pop songs.   Because the directness of “you” can be difficult to maintain, only the most practiced and inventive writers use it with confidence in a longer form like a novel or novella— try  The Things They Carried  (Tim O’Brian) or Bright Lights, Big City (Jay McInterney).   

It’s such a rare POV that Wikipedia has a fairly definitive list of instances in novels and short stories where Second Person POV is used as the main POV.
Third Person POV/Close:  Almost every novel you read is in Third Person Close POV, but did you know there are two distinct subsets?

    The first is Subjective Third Person Close POV— that’s the one you know, where you see inside a singular character’s actions and the story is based on what s/he discerns from her/his sensory information.
    The second, Objective Third Person Close POV, is used more in feature stories for newspapers and academic writing— third person is used, but only observable phenomena are described.  (You, the reader, will get no internal psychological discussion in Objective Third Person Close POV.)

Third Person POV/True Omniscient:  You see everything under the sun, but do not know advance information about what will happen to the characters.  Dune  (Frank Herbert), which we will be discussing in about two weeks, is a textbook-perfect example of this POV.  Third person POV/True Omniscient is another common POV for the contemporary novel. Third Person POV/True Omniscient takes a lot of muscle control because the writer has almost infinite resources at her/his disposal with which to tell the story.
Third Person POV/Universal Omniscient:  This POV allows readers to have advance information the characters don’t know yet— of the “Little did Janie Sue know that she would soon fall off of a cliff.  But, you dear reader, know this” school of thought.   Victorian novels used this POV trick beautifully— it invites closeness between the reader and the unnamed (or named) narrator who is not inside the story being told and can jump around as s/he it sees fit.


Let’s talk about the narrator of the story— that’s the person or persons whose voice is heard throughout the novel, short story, et. al.

When I say “narrator,” I’m not talking about the writer. The narrator is the person created by the writer to tell the story. Sometimes the narrator is well defined character, and sometimes you never really get to know who they are. Sometimes they are trustworthy, sometimes they are unreliable. 

Sometimes the “universal” narrator is the author— that’s another trope that postmodern writers liked to employ, and it is similar to “breaking the fourth wall” in theater, where the storyteller is revealed to be a storyteller and you, the readers/audience has “contact” with him/her.  (Officially, these breaks where the writer/author “speaks” to the reader are called “disruptions/intrusions into the narrative.”)

The bigger point here is that when you are reading and when you are writing— someone is being created or utilized to tell the story on the page.

The better control you have over point-of-view and its tricks and tropes, the stronger and more compelling the story becomes.
What people love about narrative and stories has little to do with the events or the action per se— we care about the people in the midst of the action, and one of the ways we learn to care about them is by tuning into the point-of-view that frames the way their story gets told.

For instance, when Andy Griffith retells the story of Romeo and Juliet, we care deeply about what happens to the two younguns’ because Griffith (who used this story in his comedy act first) makes the star-crossed lovers’ tale seem fresh for his audience. It’s a clear use of good POV— the Andy Griffith persona tells us a gripping tale of love and youth straight out of the hills that surround Mayberry.

In those moments when you are reading a story, you can easily get caught up in the moment and forget that a great deal of thought and structure when into the shaping of this tale that you love. The goal of every writer, and storyteller, of note— is to make it all seem effortless— as though the story is floating on a breeze and you managed to catch ahold of it.

And when a story is particularly well-crafted and effortless and created from an intoxicating POV, you’ll find me running towards it in the middle of the day, full-tilt, on fire with the words, enthralled with what happens next— even if I know the story word for word. Good POV unleashes the heart of my cravings, and that, alone, brings me back to the page again and again.

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Dmor_dOtw_E


5-Minute Dance Party [Sonnet 116— Chicken Shop Shakespeare]

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZADPHWdIaP4

(Let Me Not to the Marriage of True Minds) Sonnet 116
Let me not to the marriage of true minds

Admit impediments. Love is not love

Which alters when it alteration finds,

Or bends with the remover to remove:

O no! it is an ever-fixed mark

That looks on tempests and is never shaken;

It is the star to every wandering bark,

Whose worth’s unknown, although his height be taken.

Love’s not Time’s fool, though rosy lips and cheeks

Within his bending sickle’s compass come:

Love alters not with his brief hours and weeks,

But bears it out even to the edge of doom.

If this be error and upon me proved,

I never writ, nor no man ever loved.

Remember I said I would have a few surprises for you this week?

My friend K— introduced me to Chicken Shop Shakespeare, a collection of short selections of Shakespeare’s works set in ordinary locations.

I think it’s brilliant.

I realize the sound quality may be a little earthy, which is why I have provided a copy of the famed “Sonnet 116” as a read-a-long guide. (I use closed captioning a lot, personally, anyway, for everything, as I have a mild hearing loss.)

I would argue in this one case, though, that the sound editing adds a sense of immediacy and reality that you don’t often get with Shakespeare. (It’s nice to have the text in front of you though, isn’t it?)

Chicken Shop Shakespeare takes requests. REQUESTS!

I think we should make a Shakespeare sonnet or soliloquy request! The question is— which one?

Essentially, all of Shakespeare’s sonnets are about some facet of love.

This sonnet is complex in its allusions and metaphors, but it’s fairly direct in its meaning.

Want to discuss the meaning of “Sonnet 116” with me in the comments? Come on down!


Sparring the Lightweight

African American Boxing Champions at Great Lakes, IL

Last summer the heat in South Texas reached such heights that whole cities for miles and miles grew completely quiet and entirely still.

If you could bear to stand outside at all, you could hear the sound of nothing, which is a strange sound to hear in the middle of the day of a major metropolis.  No barking dogs singing gate to gate; no tidal white noise of cars going hither and thither; no children arguing and laughing and turning figure eights on the asphalt.

It was quiet inside people’s houses too.  Ours dropped to the single whisper of the air conditioner talking to himself as he turned off and on, off and on.

The dogs sprawled and refused to go outside except for necessity’s purpose.  And The Husband and I said, and did, the bare minimum required to keep us in clothes and food and conversation.

I discovered something unpleasant about myself last June, July and August.  It was a long-overdue epiphany, and usually I have those things just about every darn day.  (For instance, today’s epiphany:  When your lips are chapped, drink a little flax seed oil.  Lip balm is mainly decorative.)

The day that I had my terrible epiphany is both hazy and sharp.  It’s hazy because I cannot remember if it occurred in June, July or August.  (I know it was one of the three because I was wearing shorts.  You know the heat is hateful if I’m walking around the house in shorts.  Personally, I think shorts are trousers that never matured properly.)
Rose Pitonof (LOC)
That epiphany I had while wearing (ugh!) shorts was this:

I am a huge, huge snob where book are concerned.  And my snobbery has cost me some juicy reading.

How I discovered my own baroque snobbery is an interesting moment.  I was watching True Blood, which had just come out on Netflix.

As I don’t have cable because I don’t like cable, I have to wait sometimes a year between watching seasons of things.

And because I’m a squeamish weirdo, I prefer to watch shows like True Blood on DVD as that format allows me sit there with my index finger poised like a pointer dog right over the fast forward button.

So, there I was, sweating in the heat, wearing the hated shorts, and watching True Blood.  I was coming to the end of the season, and I knew that it might take me a year to see the next season.  (I haven’t seen Season 4 at the time of this writing. Pleasepleaseplease— no spoilers.)  A slow, dry thought percolated through my head.

Maybe, said the nice part of my brain.  Maybe you should read one of the books that HBO used to create this show?

Then the snobby part of my brain stuck its nose in to this conversation:  You don’t want to read that.  You know it’s not going to be very well written.

Nice brain said, You know what, darlin’?  Just for that I’m going to order a secondhand copy of the first book on Amazon.  So, nyaaaaaah.
Walter Miller (LOC)

Seven to ten days later my nice brain’s purchase arrived in the mail.

I tore open the package.  I looked at the cover.  Slowly, sweatily, I peeked inside.

I read page one.  That’s the last coherent summer thought I remember.  Within the next eight weeks, I read all The Sookie Stackhouse Novels/Southern Vampire Mysteries by Charlaine Harris and was scrambling for something else.

The truth is that the writing, at first, wasn’t so hot.  Harris had a long history as a mystery writer (and a journalist at some point, but I never did figure out the details on that story).

Often, she was slapping out two books a year.  If you’re an aspiring fiction writer, please promise me that you’ll slow down and do real revisions.  Don’t fling out two books a year.  They won’t be great books.

Further into the series, Harris slowed down her productivity enough to pen one book annually.  The quality of the fiction improved to the point where I stopped cringing (remember my snobbery was still quite the thing during this period), and at the same time, Harris stopped flopping clunky adverbs into her dialogue.  Her segues became smooth byways, and her descriptions snapped like fresh beans.
Henri Siret (LOC)

Then I ran out of Sookie Stackhouse.  

I didn’t know what to read next.

The nice part of my brain said, Have you considered reading The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency?  I bet that might be tasty too.

Snobby brain replied, Really?  That’s our thing now?  Mysteries?

Nice brain sashayed past snobby brain and ordered another secondhand book from Amazon.  She wasn’t about to dignify Snobby brain with an answer.  Her Amazon order was an effective reply.

Seven to ten days later, the nice part of my brain was doing somersaults on the wide green lawn inside my head because McCall Smith’s No. 1 Ladies’ Detective series was just as juicy and yummy as Harris’ Southern Vampire Mysteries.  I gulped down the entire series in eight weeks or fewer, and started looking around again.  I’m still looking around, poking in nooks and crannies, and am open to suggestions.
Bennett sisters [boxing] (LOC)

I am Courtenay Bluebird.

And I love cozy mysteries set in really cool locales with strong female characters.

Does this admission shock you?  It should.  It shocked me. 

Except for the occasional Ya-Ya appetizer and Sweet Potato Queen snack, most of my reading has been the kind that is quaintly marketed as “Contemporary Literature.”

Oh, now you understand.  I was that reader.  The one with the heavy book and the weird nonsensical title with the photograph on the back of the pauciloquent writer who is wearing something with suede elbow upholstery while staring off at the sea/a brick wall/a stack of soda cans.

For most of you, and I’m assuming there is a most because many, many people buy books like the ones I just described and turn these series into long-running best sellers, you readers of mysteries and fantasies and science fiction and horror remembered something I had forgotten long ago—

Trainer Hayes; Warnes; Allen; Sec'y Calver; Spenceley; Parks; Erskine; Murray Trainer (LOC)


(Here comes the epiphany!)

Pleasure reading is supposed to be a PLEASURE.

When did I forget this important point?  Was it when I finally cracked Hamlet at fourteen with the help of my English teacher and started cramming Shakespeare into my pretentious teenage brain?

Was it in college when I waved around copies of Jeannette Winterson and Elizabeth Smart (the poet) and the lesser works of Michael Ondaatje?

Was it graduate school, which is essentially designed to cultivate the exclusivity of fiction as a medium for breaking and remaking narrative in the model of post-post-modernist writers with self-reflexive pens and twitchy conspiracy theories?

What turned me into such a sourpuss about fiction’s biggest purpose— the figurative opening of a window to a room you would never be able to access otherwise?  The joy of meeting someone new in print?

Oh… oh.  This was quite the terrible epiphany.  I realized that I had read Martin Amis for no other reason except to have read Martin Amis.  And he doesn’t like anyone.  Guess what a pleasure it is to read a writer who hates people?

I’ve been reading read every single day of my life from the age of three.  I read things I love twelve, twenty-teen times because I can.  I’m a fast and furious reader. I can cram an entire novel or two in my head per week, sometimes more.  And that’s on top of the re-reading of this and that, and my adult love of history and whichever thing takes my fancy… non-fiction-wise.  On an ordinary week, I might read four books, front to back.  (I’m not bragging.  This is a compulsionCompulsions are not brag-worthy.)

Yet, I would not and could not bring myself to read genre fiction, except for— and you are going to want to pinch me for what I’m about to admit— the winners of the Hugo and the Nebula.

Essentially, it’s like I got mugged and some jerk took the pleasure reading from my back pocket.  Except that jerk was me.

Elias Elin (LOC)

As this terrible epiphany unfolded in that orange heat of late August and early September, I realized yet another, equally unpleasant idea.

Contemporary Literature was just as susceptible to wooden characters and creaky old plots as genre fiction.

What made it worse is that Contemporary Literature likes to pretend it’s the great innovator that will save us all from books you can buy at the airport.

Now Contemporary Literature is what you find at the airport.

The basic matrices of a Contemporary Literature plot are:

  • Smart person from East coast has weird unexpected thing happen and then thinks himself/herself to death.
  • Quirky person from small town stumbles over an unusual, but somehow normal situation, and makes solipsistic self-discovery based on someone else’s awful tragedy.  (Bonus points if the small town is especially blue collar or retro.)
  • Tense family of people with weird names has a big ol’ secret that slowly emerges over the next 700 pages.  At the end, something symbolic and incomprehensible happens.  The last line will be either dialogue or a something found in nature blooming or flying away or dying.
  • Oh, and one more thing?  There’s always a dead person in the first act and a solipsistic self-realization by page 500.


Emil Klank - Pete Rooney (arm scissors & half nelson) (LOC)


And why do I know so much about these mangy, rotten plots?

Because I wrote two novels.  Real novels.  Four-draft novels.

One in undergraduate school over a two-year period.  (A roman à clef, of course.)  And one in graduate school (another two years).  (A tongue-in-cheek detective story). (Of course.)

They were aaaawwwwwwwfuuuuuuuuullllllllll.

Now I’m working on another novel.  I’ve learned a valuable lesson.  I don’t rob myself, or anyone else, of pleasure. 

I have learned and re-learned the oldest rules that apply to writing:

    Fall in love with your characters and let them speak.
    Structure your plot tighter than four hospital corners on a bed, and—
    Then, revise like hell.  (See?  I told you I’d eventually break out that word!)


K.O. Sweeney (LOC)


I still read Contemporary Literature, but I’ve learned how to be particular about those books in the same way that I’m particular about everything else.

I examine.  I listen.  I trust.  And if a book isn’t working for me, I will walk away and won’t look back… unless of course it’s gorgeous and I’m just not getting it.  All beauty, especially the inner kind, deserves a second and third pass, don’t you think?

Being particular means I’m paying attention.  My years of snobbery were about excluding an idea without thoroughly examining it first.  I was only one that got hurt by these choices.  I missed out on some great, fully developed characters and sharp-as-knives plots because I couldn’t get past the surfaces of things.

Now I know how to be particular without being a snob.

My life is more muscular for putting in my mouth guard, lacing up and sparring those lightweights of literature, the ones that dance off the ropes, the ones that knock me out with a one-two punch.

Reddy (LOC)


Our Sunday Best | Lit From Within


Dear Diary... Today I wrote the longest Our Sunday Best ever. I am going to be revising and editing this thing for the next ten years.


When writers explain the writing process, they categorize writing as both art and craft. The words themselves are the art medium used to create worlds. The shape and structure of those words on a page are the result of craft.

All professional writers learn the same process of putting words to paper, then learning that there are better ways to put words to paper, and finally, realizing that words to paper are the beginning of a long road of crafting and refining draft after draft into a final result.

Whether that result is a poem, a story, an essay, or a novel depends on the temperament of the writer and her/his chosen mode of communication. These disciplines have one thing in common— they seek to communicate the mysteries of experience.
Here are a grouping of glorious websites to help you consider both the art and the craft of the writing process (Plus one extra for fun!) :
Harvey Fergusson 1921

I know six words and a joke about a kangaroo. Wanna hear 'em?


Wordnik is a new website on the scene that approaches words, and language, in a revolutionary way. Unlike a dictionary, Wordnik does not merely define a word, it gives you a full experience of the word. The search engine button, to give you an example, says “I always feel lucky.”

I looked up “book” and was given every definition that could be culled from five different dictionaries.

On the right-hand side were examples of “book” used in context grabbed fresh from the internet.

Below that, Wordnik listed a basic etymology (history) of “book” in a single sentence with a pronunciation key.

Beneath all of these pleasures, the page explodes with lists of synonyms, hypernyms, hyponyms, and more. At the bottom of the page there are pictures and sounds and comments and lists, all somehow related to the idea “book.”

Even though it is a primarily English-focused site, Wordnik treats all languages as a potential buffet. I tested out my terrible Spanish and my horrid French, which produced some interesting results. The Husband threw out a Russian noun, and this also provided a listing.

Oh, you are going to have so much fun with Wordnik!
Fotothek df roe-neg 0006581 028 Bild Portrait eines jungen Mannes beim Schreiben

Ohhh, no. Plot's gonna run you extra. That don't come with the standard package, Lady.

Basically, all stories come down to one sentence:

Somebody or Somebodies

do something/have something done to them/want to do something

… and stuff happens that complicates

what s/he/they do/

how s/he/they react(s) to what is done to them/

or impede(s) s/he/them from doing something.

Okay, so that’s an oversimplification of a more complicated subject.

Sort of.

It’s really easy to get tangled up in knots over plot and character. Plot and character are craft-driven devices.

So, TV Tropes devised a list of character and plot issues called Books on Trope to help your sort out the major ideas about what, and how, those devices work.

TV Tropes is one of my favorite websites because it takes all the tropes (common themes, clichés, and character archetypes) you find in all forms of narrative, and plays with them.

That’s right! On this same website, you can look up any TV show, comic strip, musical style, and so on, and examine it.

And, if you have something to add, you can join their group, which is similar to a Wiki, and have tons of smart and silly narrative fun!
For a visual examination of how a standard plot arc works, you may want to check out this gem from Derek Silvers (whom I just discovered— he’s an interesting fella!). The link is called “Kurt Vonnegut explains drama.”

Vonnegut is one of the most interesting writers of the 20th century, and no one played more freely and beautifully with the conventions of plot and character, while still remaining thoughtful and entertaining. (Vonnegut was an expert at slipping in big ideas in sweet packages.)

I think, in fact I’m pretty sure, that I heard the exact same Vonnegut lecture. I did not take notes. I sat there with my mouth open the entire time the great man was speaking.

Thank goodness Derek Silvers managed to take fantastic notes, which he decided to share with us.
Fotothek df roe-neg 0006727 039 Weltausstellung für Buchgewerbe und Graphik 1954

For my sixth revision, I'm only going to work on rhythm. You tell that guy I'm gonna be here for a month, maybe two.

Are you still with me? Our Sunday Best is turning into Our Sunday Longest today.

If allowed, I will hammer on and on about revision. I can’t say enough on this subject. The rule is: All writing is rewriting. Rewriting means “to see again.”

When you rewrite anything, you first go through in large swoops looking at the pattern of your piece of writing. (This is after you’ve set it aside for a few days to a month.)

Then you hone in to examine the plot and character development to see that those things are working (They usually aren’t doing exactly what you want them to do.) You basically throw the first draft aside, pick out the chunks that are functional, and go at it again.

After you rewrite everything (twice or forty-six times), you move on to line editing, when you pick apart your writing word-by-word. (Hemingway was a master artist at line edits.)

Finally, you copy-edit (check for basic mistakes) and copy-edit again (you’ll find more mistakes), and you do a page edit (check your page numbers, margins, et. al.). (You are gonna keep finding mistakes and then someone else will check it over, hopefully a friend or editor or both, and they’re gonna find some weird ones.)

I’m skipping a few steps if you’re writing non-fiction. Between rewriting and copy-editing, you will fact check any item that can be verified. Always cross-reference your sources.

A bad source is a rookie mistake, and everybody makes them early on, but if you keep making them, you’ve tinted yourself as an untrustworthy narrator.

Still, it can happen. Easily.

Once, early in my writing career, I accidentally changed a man’s first name in a feature piece. He called me. He was locally famous. And he wasn’t happy that I had renamed him. I apologized and went to my editor nearly in tears.

I was 22! It was my third story. I thought, okay, that’s it! They’re gonna take me right out of the building.

To her credit, this editor laughed.
While features writing and all non-fiction require muscular fact checking, with poetry you are going to be doing additional rewrites that look at the shape of the thing. If you’re doing it right, it make take you a year to finish one poem.

That’s why you work on about 50 of those things at the same time. All will be in different stages of revision. Mark each one and staple it to the last one. That’s the best advice I can give you about poetry.

Oh! And never force a rhyme unless you’re going for a cheap laugh.
Okay. I’ve driven you crazy. I get that. Or you already know all of this stuff. I respect that too. You’re gonna love me for these three links, though.

For listening to me ramble on about revision, I give you the gift of Chuck Wendig: He’s a self-proclaimed freelance penmonkey. (I want to steal that, by the way.)

Wending wrote a piece called “25 Things Writers Should Stop Doing Right F***ing Now” and a follow-up piece entitled “25 Things Writers Should Start Doing.”

My friend K—— introduced me to the pleasures of El Wendig in December.

For four weeks now, I have not been able to stop shouting, “To the Resentmentmobie!” (You’ll see….)

He knows of which he speaks when it comes to writing. I really think you’ll love him, as long as you’re not allergic to profanity. Lots of profanity. Gorgeously written profanity. (He even joked on his twitter feed that he’s “starting to think my trademark should be ‘Beware the profanity.”)

I love his writing about writing. I’m looking forward to reading one of his novels in the next few months. And I adore the way he uses profanity. It’s funny and lyrical and intelligent.
If that’s really, really not your style, or you’re already reading Wendig, I give you this equally mouth-watering link to the fabulous site This Recording. Among other subjects, This Recording does killer, beautiful-to-look-at, lovely-to-read pieces on writers, both famous and specialized.

(And special props to This Recording for their feature story “100 Greatest Writers.” Yumtastic!)

Amelita galli-curci


Dear Ms. Bluebird: Please go suck an egg for your crummy advice. Yours sincerely, Ida Lemon.

Here we are.

You read this week’s Our Sunday Best and did not skip out on me. Thank you for that.

Everything I gave you today, my friend, I use. Everything I said today, I believe. And if you’re reading this, know that writers are made, not born.

The more you write, the more you develop both the muscle and the flexibility to write anything. The more you revise, the more you become a consistent artist and craftsperson. And the more you learn, the freer you are.

When you finish writing for the day, please, just once, play this game?

It’s called either Yeti Sports or Pingu Throw. The Husband found it back in 2004, and we’ve been competing at this thing ever since. (You may know it, and may have forgotten about it.)

It’s not bloody.

It’s very silly.

It’s free. (Though the creator, Yeti Sports, has gone on to make some cool looking games that cost a little bit!)

And I found the one site that doesn’t seem to be full of (too many) junky ads where you can play it after spending a day monkeying with words.

I love monkeying with words.

I spent all day today monkeying with words. So….

Let’s play Pingu Throw!

Cecil? Basil? Roberto? Put on your helmets. We're gonna win this, uh, us toss, this time. Weeeee!


Mash Note Dept. | Sei Shōnagon


I am a keeper of lists. I’m not alone in this practice, but it seems to me the making of lists is one of those habits you either do with glee or do out of necessity.

Writers tend to crave the intimacy of lists. Gretchen Rubin is a fan of them, as is novelist and essayist Joan Didion. Writer Shirley Jackson had a theory that women tend to converse in lists to other women, embroidering the mundane details of domestic life with lovely borders.

Though I’ve always kept lists, lists of books I wanted to read, lists of words I loved, lists of strange things I saw in even stranger locales, lists of overheard conversations and imagined ones, lists of things I wanted to make— I was in my twenties before discovering lists could be an art form.

I’m not talking about a beautiful visual list. For an example of a gorgeous looking list, I only have to look at my friend M——, who keeps notebooks as illuminated as the Book of Kells, and just as full of imagined light. What I’m talking about is a list made of unadorned words so exquisite they crash against you like a hard wave.

What I’m really talking about is The Pillow Book of Sei Shōnagon, a stellar collection of writings by a 10th/11th century Japanese court gentlewoman of note. A pillow book was a popular literary form of the Edo period, and it refers to a collection of notes, thoughts, lists, and miniature essays about one person’s life. Shōnagon’s pillow book, like others of her time, was created under the premise of privacy.

Historians think now that Shōnagon’s book was openly shared with the Empress and other ladies of the court— an Empress who wished to rival the Emperor in literary accomplishment. Still, the language is intimate. Still, the lists and records insinuate privacy. It’s a careful artifice.

Just listen in for a second to Shōnagon herself:

    [232] Things that fall. — Snow. Sleet. Hail. Sleet is unpleasant, but it’s lovely when it falls mingled with white snowflakes.

    Snow is splendid on a cypress bark roof, particularly when it’s just on the point of melting. It’s also delightful when a little has fallen, and it lies nestled in all the joints between the roof tiles, emphasizing their lovely black curves.

    For autumn showers and hail, a shingle roof is best. Frost is also good on shingles, and in gardens.

This list is one of her sweet ones. Others aren’t nearly so kind. She made catalogs of unpleasant habits of people she did not like. She kept records of gossip overheard at court. One telling inventory is entitled “Worthless Things.” Even in her unkindness— and Shōnagon could be cutting— her way of winding words is so skilled, it’s both timeless and modern.

I have to tell you, honestly, as a trained writer and as a goof whose mind repeatedly mixes up my husband’s shaving cream with the toothpaste — The Pillow Book intimidated the stuffing out of me when I first read it, and it still does now.

But Shōnagon gave me, and you, a gift with this book of hers. I never looked at a list the same way again. I doubt you will either after reading it.

I dare you to go and grab a copy of The Pillow Book from the library or a bookstore and not be warmed by the fire of Shōnagon’s prose.

And I dare you again, as I dare myself, to try to keep a pillow book of your own. I’ll post mine here. And if you’re feeling especially brave, I invite you to share your lovely lists in the comments section below.

If you’d like to buy a copy of this book, Meredith McKinney’s Penguin Books translation is the most celebrated version: The Pillow Book of Sei Shōnagon . It’s also the one I own myself.