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1. Vendela Vida: The Powells.com Interview

Vendela Vida is a force to be reckoned with. She's written four novels and one book of nonfiction; she's a founding editor of the Believer and a cofounder of 826 Valencia, plus she's done some screenwriting. Her newest novel, The Diver's Clothes Lie Empty, is her strongest work yet. In this moving, darkly funny, beautifully [...]

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2. SIX BY SONDHEIM for writers


The other day I watched the terrific documentary SIX BY SONDHEIM. (available streaming on HBO-Go, or on Amazon or iTunes.) It's part biography, part show-biz history, following Sondheim's career guided by six important songs in his life. It's excellent, and I was particularly struck by how many nuggets of wisdom I found, profound insights into not just Sondheim's creative process, but a creative life in general. Though he is writing musicals, obviously, I think that much of this is applicable to novelists as well. Just replace "put on a show" with "publish." You should watch the doccy yourself because I can't do it justice... but I can provide six things that I found worth remembering:


1) On "writing what you know":  "Part of the author is always in what he writes, and partly [it's] a work of imagination. It's like what Faulkner said about Observation, Imagination and Experience - you can do without one of them, but you can't do without two."

Sondheim was paraphrasing Faulkner, but yeah. This is good advice. You may not have lived something yourself, but if you have good observation and imagination skills, you can still bring it alive on the page.

2) On harsh reality: At 15, he showed Oscar Hammerstein something he'd written.... Oscar was nice about it, but Stephen said he wanted to get REAL feedback, just like he would rate it against something professional. (Young Stephen thought his own work was terrific, and was pretty sure he was about to be the first 15 year old with a Broadway show.)

Oscar said,"Oh well in that case, this is the worst thing I've ever read." Sounds pretty harsh, but Oscar then went on to show young Stephen point-by-point how his work was failing, and Stephen had to agree. Awkward! But a learning moment. You may not want to hear that your work isn't good enough - but if you are submitting to agents and editors for publication, they will expect your work to be on par with that of a professional.

And even excellent professionals get a LOT of stinging rejections!

3) On imitation: "One of the things he [Oscar] told me to do was not to imitate him. 'If you write what you feel it will come out true. If you write what I feel, it will come out false. Write for yourself and you'll be 90% ahead of everyone else.'"

4) On learning to write: "You can't learn in a classroom and you can't learn on paper. You can only learn by writing and doing. Writing and doing. A friend says 'write something, put it on. Write something, put it on.' -- well, you can't always put it on, but that's the only way to do it. That's how everyone who's ever been good got good.

5) On failure: "I experienced real failure when I did I Hear a Waltz... we thought, well, this'll be an easy job and we'll make a quick buck. Those are reasons never to write a musical.

It was a respectable show. It was not lambasted by the critics. It was politely received by critics, and politely received by audiences, and had no passion, and no blood, and no reason to be. And I learned from that, the only reason to write is from love. You must not write because you think it's going to be a hit or because it's expedient, or anything like that. It's so difficult to write, it's so difficult to put on a show, that if you have the privilege of being able to write it, write it out of passion

That's what failure taught me." 

6) PROTIP: "I work entirely with Blackwing pencils for a number of reasons. One is, it's very soft lead, and therefore wears down very quickly, so you can spend lots of time resharpening. Which is a lot easier and more fun than writing." ;-)




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3. The Game of Love and Death by Martha Brockenbrough

In the first chapter of The Game of Love and Death by Martha Brockenbrough, a baby boy is visited by the manifestation of Love. Appearing as a man in a fine gray suit, Love gives the boy a steady heart and these words: "Have courage." The next night, the manifestation of Death visits a baby girl across town and marks the child with a tear and whispered warnings. The first chapter is set in 1920; the next chapter skips forward to 1937, when the players are seventeen years old and the Game officially begins.

Told in third person, the book shuttles between the perspectives of the players - Flora, an African-American aviatrix who tends to planes during the day and sings jazz music at her uncle's club at night, and Henry, a scholarship student who lives with his best friend's well-to-do family - and the game runners - Death, a cynical feminine presence who would give Once Upon a Time's Queen Regina a run for her money, and Love, a masculine presence who believes in the transformative power of love. Other characters who come into play include Henry's best friend Ethan, Ethan's little sister Annabel, Ethan's cousin Helen, Flora's grandmother, Flora's uncle, and others at the jazz club. The third-person narrative permits the readers to know more about the characters, the events, and the overall big picture than the main players, who are unaware of their part in the Game. Revelations and connections lead to some tense page turns, especially as the story ramps up to the climax.

Death is a master manipulator, cunning and some would say cruel as she finds a way to get close to Henry and use him as a pawn. Meanwhile, Love is determined and hopeful, and his side story is something that made me want to give Brockenbrough a very strong high-five. The world would be a better place if all people were open-minded and optimistic and true to themselves.

The contrast between Death and Love is stark, but what's even more interesting is what they have in common. Consider, if you will, what they want; what they seek; what they are willing to sacrifice; and what they refuse to give up. It's eye-opening and tear-jerking and thought-provoking and other hyphenated things. If you are an emotional reader, you should probably have a box of Kleenex nearby. Also, perhaps you should sit in a comfy chair so you can grip the arm of it and/or curl up in a ball when necessary.

The writing throughout the novel is thoughtful. Every scene offers a complete picture of the setting and the people present. For example:

"Do you ever wonder," Helen said, walking down the stairs towards him, "if flowers feel pain when someone cuts them?" She lifted one from the basket. "Does it look like it suffered?"

"Oh, Helen," Mrs. Thorne said, "what a curious thing to say. I'm sure Henry has thought no such thing."

It was true. But, he realized, he would not be able to look at a flower again without wondering whether it had suffered, or whether anyone had cared.
- Page 94

The word "someday" is introduced early in the book as something important to the characters, and it leads to an impactful song that I wish we could hear.

If you liked The Game of Love and Death, you should check out The Ghost and Mrs. Muir. Read the original book, then see the classic film. The book was written by Josephine Leslie, but she used a pseudonym: R.A. Dick. The book also inspired a TV series, a sitcom. You should also read The Book Thief by Markus Zusak, which is directly narrated by Death, who is omniscient and genderless and more of an observer than a manipulator. Set on the European homefront during World War II, you'll need Kleenex to handle the tears you'll shed while reading that book, too.

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4. Unusual Chickens for the Exceptional Poultry Farmer by Kelly Jones, illustrated by Katie Kath, 216 pp. RL 4

I absolutely LOVE, LOVE, LOVE Unusual Chickens for the Exceptional Poultry Farmer by Kelly Jones with perfect illustrations by Katie Kath! First, it is an epistolary novel, one of my favorite kinds of books. Next, in Sophie Brown, Jones has created an ethnic character who speaks matter-of-factly about being discriminated against because of the color of her skin. I am always thrilled to find

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5. The Sunlit Night

Delightfully quirky and charming, the tale of how Frances and Yasha come to meet on a tiny Norwegian island is both winsome and slightly melancholic. From the reaches of the far north to a Russian bakery in Brighton Beach, Dinerstein transports us to her slightly wacky world. Books mentioned in this post The Sunlit Night [...]

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6. The Water Knife

In this near-future thriller portraying a severely drought-ridden Southwest, the fate of the region depends on three people — Angel, a Las Vegas water knife whose job it is to ensure his city stays flush; Lucy, a journalist; and Maria, a young refugee. Frighteningly bleak but a pleasure to read, The Water Knife is a [...]

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7. Our Souls at Night

What a blessing it is for Kent Haruf fans to have one last story to savor. In his resonantly lean style, he sheds light on a relationship between two elderly people living alone yet seeking the warmth of companionship in conversation during nights spent in bed together. Here is the essence: lives enhanced by the [...]

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8. Make Something Up

Reading the new Chuck Palahniuk collection is like popping that giant zit on your forehead: it's completely gross and full of bodily fluids, but you just can't leave it alone. After finishing, you step back from the mirror — exhausted, ashamed, and totally satisfied. Books mentioned in this post Make Something Up: Stories You Can't... [...]

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9. Ice Cream Summer

Peter Sis's new picture book, Ice Cream Summer, is all about fun (and ice cream!) and family (and ice cream!) and learning (about ice cream!). It's the ice-creamiest ice cream in the whole-wide ice cream world! Books mentioned in this post Ice Cream Summer Peter Sis New Hardcover $17.99

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10. New Cookbooks: Better on Toast, Food52 Genius Recipes, The Picnic

Spring is a heady time for cookbook releases. There are so many new cookbooks that it feels like Christmas; we even had an early spring mini potluck lunch for a taste testing. We have so much love for many of these new cookbooks. Missing from these reviews are a number of dessert cookbooks; there were [...]

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11. Poetry Friday: Someday from The Game of Love and Death by Martha Brockenbrough

You are the moon
And I am the sea
Wherever you are
You've got pull over me

The whole of the sky
Wants to keep us apart
The distance is wearing
A hole in my heart

Someday your moonlight
Will blanket my skin
Someday my waves
Will pull all of you in

Someday I promise
The moon and the sea
Will be together
Forever you and me.

- from The Game of Love and Death by Martha Brockenbrough

This song is written by one of the main characters in the novel, and performed as a duet by the two protagonists.

View all posts tagged as Poetry Friday at Bildungsroman.
View the roundup schedule at A Year of Reading.
Learn more about Poetry Friday.

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12. Why the Story of Jackson and the Cherokees Is More Relevant Than Ever

People have been asking why I wanted to write about Andrew Jackson and the Cherokees. To be more precise, they ask: Why did you want to write about that? My day job is to write not history but "the first draft of history," which is what people sometimes call the news. I work for NPR, [...]

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13. Powell’s Q&A: Michael Perry

Describe your latest book. On Christmas Eve itself, the bachelor Harley Jackson stepped into his barn and beheld there illuminated in the straw a smallish newborn bull calf upon whose flank was borne the very image of Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. "Well," said Harley, "that's trouble." Turns out he was right. What's the [...]

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14. Seveneves

Cancel all your plans: once you start Stephenson's widely anticipated, deliciously meaty new novel, you won't be able to put it down. An exploding moon sets the stage for an epic tale spanning 5,000 years as humanity must find a way to survive the devastating aftereffects: earth's gradual but imminent demise. Books mentioned in this [...]

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15. The Orphan Army

Earth is in a desperate state after an invasion of gigantic bug-like aliens. Will 11-year-old Milo become the hero his prophetic dreams keep telling him he'll be? This exhilarating series opener, an action-packed blend of sci-fi and fantasy, will have you hooked. Books mentioned in this post The Orphan Army (Nightsiders #1) Jonathan Maberry Sale [...]

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16. Nimona

Archvillain Lord Ballister Blackheart and spunky sidekick Nimona battle the Institution of Law Enforcement and Heroics, but who are the real heroes and who are the real evildoers? This brilliantly complex graphic novel is filled with science, dragons, warmth, and humor. Books mentioned in this post Nimona Noelle Stevenson Sale Trade Paper $9.09

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17. Carsick

When cult film icon John Waters decides to hitchhike across the country, expect the unexpected to happen. This blend of fiction and travel memoir features all the wit and dark humor Waters is known for, with a dose of filth thrown in for good measure. Books mentioned in this post Carsick: John Waters Hitchhikes... John [...]

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18. The Upright Thinkers

In Leonard Mlodinow's The Upright Thinkers, human history can be charted by the pursuit of knowledge — it is what defines and separates us from our fellow animals. Mlodinow creates a compelling and readable narrative about that history that all thinkers (read: humans) will enjoy. Books mentioned in this post The Upright Thinkers: The Human... [...]

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19. Nine Funny Animal Videos That Will Help You Write Your Novel!

If you thought watching funny animal videos was a bad habit, a time-sink, a distraction from writing your novel, well, you're probably right. But if you feel like indulging a little self-delusion, here are nine animal videos that EVERY WRITER must study carefully. They were absolutely instrumental for us in writing War of the Encyclopaedists! [...]

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20. Grandma in Blue with Red Hat, written by Scott Menchin and illustrated by Harry Bliss

Building a picture book around actual works of art can be a tricky task. With Grandma in Blue with Red Hat,  Scott Menchin, illustrator of several picture books and author of more than a few, creates a masterpiece. In addition to his work in picture books, Menchin is an award winning illustrator and teacher at the Pratt Institute Graduate School. This makes him very well poised to write a

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21. This Is Sadie

Sadie's imagination is so huge she can go anywhere, be anything, without leaving her room. With soft, whimsical illustrations and spare, lyrical text, This Is Sadie takes us on a sweet adventure and reminds us of how far and wide our own imaginations can go. Books mentioned in this post This Is Sadie (Sadie Mac) [...]

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22. Proof

In Proof, Rogers distills the science and history of booze into a fascinating, thoroughly enjoyable book exploring alcohol's most basic elements (yeast, sugar, smell and taste) along with its neurological effects and even the dreaded hangover. You'll gain a new appreciation for one of humankind's most alluring creations. Books mentioned in this post Proof: The [...]

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23. Hold Still

This breathtaking memoir, marrying Sally Mann's powerful photography with a personal story so captivating that it rivals great works of fiction, reveals how one's art can become thoroughly intertwined with one's life. Read this book: it's a truly powerful work of art in its own right. Books mentioned in this post Hold Still: A Memoir [...]

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24. The Book of Aron

Ten-year-old Aron runs with a children's smuggling gang in a WWII Warsaw Jewish ghetto. Child rights activist Janusz Korczak strives to protect his orphanage from the impending Nazi devastation. Their powerful tale, haunting and yet blisteringly real, will linger long in your memory. Books mentioned in this post The Book of Aron Jim Shepard Sale [...]

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25. The Wright Brothers

In The Wright Brothers, David McCullough spins a history both exhaustive and personal, sharing original correspondence and examining secondary characters like the Wright sister, Katharine. With McCullough's signature depth and thoroughness, The Wright Brothers pays captivating homage to the two men who so exemplified the American spirit. Books mentioned in this post Portland Noir (Akashic [...]

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