The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-time Indian

Sherman Alexie has long been a favorite of mine, largely because his are among the most engaging short stories widely anthologized in the college readers. My students react well to Alexie, Carver, Shirley Jackson and Twain. I love to teach Faulkner and Gilman, but the students find that stuff a slog.

Alexie, though? They love his voice, and I do too. The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-time Indian won a National Book Award, and deservedly so. Alexie excels with pacing and characterization. Arnold Spirit (Junior) is a self-deprecating, heroic narrator. He pushes the boundaries of life on the Spokane Indian Reservation and becomes a conduit between the Native American population and the white population in nearby Reardon. Despite straddling the line that exists between two very different worlds, Junior paradoxically is the one character that doesn't illustrate a dual nature. He knows exactly what he wants, and he has the courage to seek it out.
With a narrator as engaging and thoughtful as Junior (he actually says "I'm always saying dramatic stuff like that"), we take a tour through life on the reservation and in the city of Reardon. Junior's a great tour guide and lots of fun to spend time with.
The novel talks about loss in heart-breaking fashion (then blackly flips it on its head and pokes fun at it). In one scene, Junior's dad's best friend Eugene is shot in the face by another friend over the last sip of wine. It's a terribly sad chapter--one that's not that far off base when you consider news stories like the one below, which comes from the reservation outside of my hometown of Pendleton:

PORTLAND -- Sentencing is scheduled for Jan. 20 for a man from the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation who unintentionally killed a friend who had served him a beer can filled with urine as a joke. In a deal with prosecutors, David C. Shippentower, 46, pleaded guilty to involuntary manslaughter in November in federal court to punching Leonard Strong in the head on July 29, 2004, a blow that ultimately led to his death two days later.
According to the FBI, Strong and Shippentower were riding in a van on the reservation and drinking beer when Shippentower asked Strong to pass him a beer. Strong passed him a beer filled with urine, which upset Shippentower, who then punched Strong.
Court documents indicate Strong was left in a driveway in more than 100-degree heat and was later discovered by police officers and airlifted to Oregon Health and Science University in Portland. He died two days later of a subdural hematoma caused by the blow to his head.
Strong had a blood-alcohol level of .34. In Oregon, people with a blood-alcohol level of .08 are considered legally intoxicated.During court proceedings before U.S. District Judge Ancer Haggerty, Shippentower claimed he did not mean to kill Strong but admitted he was angered by the prank.
Shippentower will be sentenced in federal court on Thursday, Jan. 20. He could face up to six years in prison, the maximum for involuntary manslaughter.

Section: Local news
Copyright, 2005, East Oregonian (Pendleton, OR). All Rights Reserved.
Record Number: 34894
This book is billed as Alexie's first for young adults, but it's way beyond that. It speaks to anyone whose ever been an underdog--anyone whose ever wanted a life outside of the one prescribed for them. I highly recommend it.
I received a nice, hand-written rejection from the editors of Cemetery Dance yesterday inviting me to try again soon. Those are the simple gestures on the part of busy editors that validate the time spent at the word processor, and I hope to break into the flagship publication of horror fiction soon.


Back in the Saddle, The Mist and Beowulf

Good to be back on the web. I hope the festivities treated you and yours well. We had a very nice holiday with friends. Lots of pictures upcoming on the website.

Beowulf was pretty good. I think Zemeckis and his gang of engineers (how many could that have been? man...) did a nice job with the animations. The characters' eyes were expressive, their mannerisms believable enough not to become a distraction. And the third act was truly exciting--a solid climax for an interesting film. Strangely, I found myself sympathizing with Grendel and I would have enjoyed looking at it in 3-D. The fly-away shot of the Danish partying in the mead-house and agitating Grendel was a beauty that I think would have been nice with the 3-D. Solid story (though a thorough deviation from the epic verse), neat animations and a tortured protagonist with a classic character flaw warrant a B for this sucker. That said, I hope this remains a novelty and never the norm.

Stephen King's The Mist was pretty good. Critics have been utterly fractured in their view of the film, and I fall somewhere in between. Made for a song (Frank Darabont said he did it for "seventeen and change") and rushed to production, the film had only a few slow spots. "The Mist" is one of the finest novellas I've read. It stands as one of King's finest creep-out pieces, and the film version was a little more politicized (a flaw) than the story. It skewers the military-industrial complex, fanatical religion (the crowd clapped wildly at one very pivotal point in the film when the "prophet" gets her just deserts) and the racist machinery of small-town America (tired, tired topic).

But the tone of the cooped-up survivors is well established. It oscillates between misery and hope--bravado and cowardice. The effects are fine, including one stunning scene when the survivors are on the road and get passed by an eight-legged beast that makes a brontosaurus look like a pet dog.

And the conclusion? Hoo-wee! It's been a long time since I've seen such a bummer of a final act. I didn't believe it at first. I sort of still don't. I can't wait to hear from those of you that saw that sucker to hear what you thought. Frank Darabont made it on the cheap to gain creative control and man, he sure used it.

Tomorrow we'll discuss The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian. And lots has happened in the last week, so when we get back to chatting about the world of publishing and books we'll get caught up.


Happy Thanksgiving!

I love the holidays. I love spending time with family and friends, most of whom I haven't seen in a year or more. I love all of the good food and the afternoons devoted to watching movies. I love the football and the chance to fish for steelhead in Oregon and flounder in Florida.

The only thing I dislike is trying to slink away to pound away on the word processor. I find the best time to get a few words in is after everyone has hit the hay. The house is quiet and you can fortify yourself with a late-night sandwich (turkey and mayo on sourdough is pretty sweet). I plan on using Jeanne's lap-top when we fly out to Oregon--that's a solid block of time to get some work done. And there's always the journal in which to record your brain droppings.

But the work suffers during that time, make no mistake about it.

That said, I can't wait to catch up with friends and family. I'm very thankful for the hardy group of loyal readers that pop by these parts. I hope you all have success in the next year and that your creative passions lead to great art, whatever your mediums.


Necrotic Tissue

Evening. Looonnnngggg day at the college today.

Necrotic Tissue is another very promising start-up, and I think the upcoming themes are all pretty interesting. I look forward to reading this sucker in January.


Writing Process--Reasons for Rejection

We've touched on this topic in this space before here at The Byproduct, but I think this excellent post on the reasons Jessica Faust rejects work bears a little bit of a closer look. This post is about some of the general guidelines the publishing industry uses in establishing the marketability of a particular work. I think it makes sense that there is a baseline length that plays a (small) part in the discussion on where a book fits into the marketplace. I also think that it makes sense that a writer should ultimately fashion the story in the frame (whether that's 70,000 words or 150,000) that best suits it.

The think I'm most impressed with is Faust's final assertion that the story itself needs to be original. Not your platform (though that's very important for different reasons) or your games with language, but your story. She writes:

Essentially, though, your query has to have two things to make me ask to see more. It has to have an interesting and different concept and it has to be well written. It has to give me a sense that when I get the book I already know the writing is going to be solid.

So in this case, we see that the story needs to be unique and it needs to be well told. Duh, right? But I think putting the story first is sometimes lost in the discussion. We've discussed writing to trends and discussed the classic themes and types of conflict, but at the center of the issue is whether the story holds up. And for horror writers, that includes whether it blends the elements of fear, fright and anxiety with a unique plot or cast of characters.

I've talked a little about my drafting process, and I do feel comfortable that I'm taking this WIP in a direction that will set it apart from other works of supernatural suspense. My target for first draft is 80,000 words, and I expect it'll end up around that number when I'm through revising.

Where are you guys on your writing? Where will it go, and how are you getting there? Shoot me some insights on process, if you get a chance...

Also, a brief note on programming. I'll be out of the loop for holiday merry-making between November 22 and November 29. Oh, I might pop in on the weekend to chat Ducks and review a movie (The Mist) but that's about it.


The Dark Half

I finished The Dark Half this week. It's a good yarn about the duality that exists in all creative people (so everyone, I suppose). But in this case we have George Stark, a rotting zombie of a sociopath that kills everyone involved with shoveling dirt on his grave.

King does a good job with pacing on this one, but I've found the third act a bit tired. Sure, sparrows are psychopomps. They usher in the living dead. I get it. No need to continuously spout that information as we approach the climax.

Sherrif Alan Pangborn is well drawn, a character whose charm is outlined in multiple King pieces. And Thad is, well...he's Thad. Not the best authorial protagonist that King's ever had (that honor belongs to Mike Noonan, of Bag of Bones), but a guy that rises to the occasion when the situation dictates.

King penned this sucker in the late eighties (published in '89). It stands as a fair example of his style, but is far from the top of his creative output. I recommend it to King fans that haven't looked at it in years, but not to those just discovering the man's work.

By the way, I also finished Hearts in Atlantis this week. I've been listening to it on tape, and that is a far superior novel. What can I say? The man can really write kids and young adults.

I'm heart-sick over what happened last night to the Ducks' football team. I'm hoping Dennis can make a full recovery and we win out and get to the Rose Bowl...


Aw, no! Ahhhwwww, no!

Dennis is hurt and I can't communicate how sad I feel right now. He's a great young man and a stellar athlete, and a lot of our future rests on him. His dad is coming down to the field to sit with him, and I think it's a terrible sign.

Dennis has persevered through huge adversity in his time at the U of O. He's done an amazing job of keeping his head in the proper place to ensure a long and productive career with Oregon. I think he's been one of the best we've had (Maas, Musgrave, Fife, Clemens, Harrington, Smith) and that is saying an awful lot, since we've had so many great quarterbacks in our system.

Dan Fouts, by the way, is maybe the most underrated QB of all time, and at all levels of football. For Fouts not to be up there with the best is a travesty.

So now what? Our defense is stout. Our back-up is accomplished. Brady Leaf, you need to seize this opportunity, young man. We can do our thing, and we can move forward.


It's Here! Beowulf!

I asked friend and fellow film instructor Michael Haddock if he wanted to go see Beowulf with me when it's released this weekend. His response?

I’m really not too interested in the Beowulf movie. I hate Angelina Jolie, regardless of what country she adopts; and I’m annoyed that Zemeckis didn’t just make a real movie with real people instead of a video game movie with dead-eyed, plastic skin dolls. I wish he could forgo a little control for a little more verisimilitude.

Dead-eyed, plastic skin dolls you say? I'm in.

I'll try to see it Saturday afternoon, likely by myself. Jeanne has already said she's not on board. But I'm interested, if for no other reason than that the scream on the trailer is pretty haunting (definitely not the Wilhelm scream). The film features Ray Winstone (spectacular as the voice of Mr. Beaver in The Chronicles of Narnia), Anthony Hopkins, Haddock's favorite actress and John Malkovich. Part of me wants to see this in live action, but another part is wholly interested in what could either be great, or an utter train wreck.

300 and Sin City were unique and beautiful films. I enjoyed the narrative on both, and this tale pulls from one of the hallmark stories in the world of literature. Despite how it looks in the previews, I'm actually thinking it has a lot of promise. I'll report back after I see it.

I saw Spiderman 3 this week. Bleh! C-. The character development was scant (the real strength of the first in the series) and the special effects were nothing to write home about (the real strength of the second in the series). Right now I could take or leave this Peter Parker/Mary Jane Watson romance, and that's not a comfortable place to be in for such a great story. If you make another, Raimi (and the threat looms on the horizon, as I understand it), then get back to developing the narrative and imbuing the characters with life.

The Ducks get Arizona tonight on ESPN. Worried? Yeah, actually, I'm really worried. Too many teams have fallen from that #2 spot to give me any sense of comfort as we head down to Arizona...


The Health of the Short Story

It seems chic these days to take the temperature of the short story as a viable fiction medium. Stephen King expresses his dubious outlook in the Sunday Book Review of The New York Times. The thrust of King's commentary is that the health of the medium is "apt to deteriorate in the years ahead." This view is based on, as always, the profitability of the magazines that publish short stories and the mainstreaming of content by magazines such as The Atlantic Monthly, which marginalizes emerging voices.

My take remains relatively sunny. I think about the stuff I read, chronicled in this space last week, and it seems that emerging voices are penetrating the marketplace fairly regularly. Although I mainly read novels, I am apt to purchase a collection of short stories or three in a calendar year. And I think the expansion of quality, paying zines has streamlined (positively, I might add) the process of getting fresh work in front of discerning eyes.

I have to add that I feel fortunate to write in the age of such inclusive technology. I think that, while there will always be a select minority that avoid digital publishing like MRSA, the platform will continue to evolve, allowing for both profitability and exposure in time. Will there be growing pains? Of course! Maybe a lot of what's out there right now in the world of E-books has been grossly undervalued and is waiting for the market to catch up and correct itself. And who is to say when that will be?

But as I've said here previously, I support the magazines that I support, but I read most of my short fiction online. That's a new paradigm for me in comparison to three years ago.

And Galleycat today linked to Fictionwise, a web-source offering a couple of free short stories while offering others for sale at $1.49 a pop. Score one for the health of the short story, in my opinion.


Tower of Light Magazine

Ok, ok--I know I'm woefully short on fantasy markets when you crunch the numbers. And I know I don't read enough in this fine genre (recommendations, please!). But Tower of Light is a pretty interesting market. The second edition is online and features stories and book reviews. It seems to be a treasure trove of esoteric fantasy discussion, and some of the artwork is sharp.

Also, for those in the Jacksonville area looking for further discussion of Duval County's growing green movement, please try to stop by the Deerwood Center tomorrow night at 7:00 p.m. Dave McLintock, a representative of the Al Gore Foundation, will provide an enlightening presentation called An Inconvenient Truth. Maybe you've heard of it?

It should make for an interesting discussion.


Against All Odds

Full reviews tomorrow. In the meantime, please load this video and enlarge it and dance with the person next to you (regardless of the relationship--I don't care if it's your boss).


Bug and Lions for Lambs

William Friedkin, while one of my favorite directors, is definitely a hit and miss prospect. His projects always pique my interest--he's one of a few directors that make me stand up and take notice (Spielberg, Boyle, DePalma, Fincher, Brad Anderson, Coppola). The director of the excellent The French Connection, The Exorcist and To Live and Die in L.A. also made such stinkers as The Hunted, Jade and Rules of Engagement.

But Bug is something else. Something in between.

I didn't like it much on first glance. Nor did I dislike it. I was a bit...well, perplexed by it.

On the surface it's an atmospheric thriller about paranoia and government surveillance. But beneath it's the story of a sad pair of damaged drifters that find themselves drawn to each other to experience human contact and interaction. You might not recognize Ashley Judd (playing Agnes White) in this one. She's a chain smoking, coke snorting bi-sexual serving wench that allows the creepy Peter Evans (played capably by Michael Shannon) to shack up with her. We haven't seen such a used-up character since Charlize Theron played Aileen Wornos in Monster. We also get a great performance by Harry Connick Jr. (underrated actor) who plays a menacing scumbag of an ex-husband that drops by White's apartment to snarl at her and smack her around. He's not a very nice guy, but in the end, you find yourself rooting for him to put two and two together and save Agnes from herself.

It's about co-dependency and isolation and while it's not a perfect film, or even a very good one, it's an interesting and memorable descent into madness. The final scene is heart-breaking, and on second thought, I don't think it could have ended any other way.

Lions for Lambs is out this weekend, but it's been getting hammered by the critics. I'm intrigued by the story, but I'll wait to look at it on DVD. The Horrorfest '07 phenomenon has reached Jacksonville, and I'm gearing up to see Borderland, Tooth and Nail and Mulberry Street this week.

My apologies for the delayed writing this week. I graded better than 100 papers and piled up a couple of thousand words on my WIP. There's a lot to discuss in the world of publishing next week, starting with the purported death knell of the short story...

The Ducks start the hoop season tonight against Pepperdine. With all of the upsets this week (Gardner-Webb over Kentucky? Are you kidding me?), I'm going to watch this one with a lot of interest...

Stop by www.danielwpowell.com tomorrow afternoon for updated photographs, markets and writing links (waiting on the batteries to charge for the camera)...


Short Story Composition

Ray Carver, my favorite writer of short fiction, once remarked that he wrote short stories because he could turn them around quickly for sale. Stephen King, the master of the uber-novel (The Stand checks in at over 1,000 pages) echoed that sentiment in On Writing, offering an excellent anecdote on once receiving payment for a short story just in time to buy penicillin for his sick children.

There's a lot to recommend this literary form (Poe was the first champion of the serious study of short fiction, and to my thinking, this qualifies it as a uniquely American art form)--not the least of which is practicality. You can sit at the computer and have a finished narrative (rough form) in a matter of hours. Even shorter if you write flash fiction.

And there are lots of markets out there, making it perhaps the most democratic (term used loosely) literary form in which to work.

So which collections are the best?

Writer of the Purple Rage, by Joe Lansdale
The October Country, by Ray Bradbury
Dark Carnival, Bradbury
Best Sellers Guaranteed, by Lansdale
The Stories of John Cheever, by John Cheever
Stories, by Richard Bausch
Where I'm Calling From, by Ray Carver
What We Talk About When We Talk About Love, Carver
Skeleton Crew and Night Shift, by Stephen King

And the gold standard:

Nightmares and Dreamscapes, by Stephen King

I read N&D once or twice a year. I love the tone of the stories. I love the diversity in content. I love the study in size and complexity.

I write about a half-dozen short stories a year, and my output usually corresponds with picking up this collection. I tend to write in the short form in cycles, and despite the fact that I'm cooking along on my work in progress, I'm feeling the need to write another short before Christmas. I've got a dilly of an idea percolating. I'll probably bring my copy of N&D home tonight and read "Rainy Season" and "You Know They Got a Hell of a Band." Those two usually get me in the mood. Maybe I'll save some space for "Crouch End."

Gotta have dessert.

So let me ask you. Which literary works fuel your fire to get to the keyboard?


Heliotrope E-Zine

Sheesh-o-man...I look up and the day has passed me by and the work is piling up. In a few weeks the cold hands of responsibility will slide away from my neck...

Heliotrope is one of the purveyors of quality online fiction that I referenced in yesterday's post. Give the magazine a look and drop them a submission for the Winter 2008 edition...


Online vs. Print Magazines...

I read about a dozen or so short stories each month. In terms of stories in traditional print markets, I usually read the current fiction in the New Yorker. We subscribe to Cemetery Dance in the library, and when they release a new edition of that sucker I read it cover to back. I try to pick up Asimov's Science Fiction over at Books-A-Million, and I'm prone to lingering over Ellery Queen while browsing.

But I've found that I'm reading more and more works of short fiction online. I think the quality of the content found on the net has only improved over the years, and with all of the solid paying markets out there (I've been linking to them on Tuesdays, and will continue to do so) now, well...there's less reason to get out there to the bookstores.

Don't get me wrong, I love to hold the hard copy in my hand. I received my copy of Samsara in the mail over the weekend and it was a thrill to see my work in there. But I think at one time there was a stigma attached to the zines. I think authors avoided them because they often didn't pay well and the design was less than professional.

No longer, though. There are some beautiful sites out there.

So I'm curious. Do you have a set of zines you read regularly? Are you willing to purchase a subscription for online content? Do you print the PDF versions and read them in hard copy?

Fire away, if you have an opinion, and let me know about your favorite markets so we can link to them on speculative Tuesdays...


Blonde Faith and How Bizarre...

I actually kind of like this song. But I don't get how this guy got his job. He's not singing. He's not rapping. He's not really doing anything. It's a mystery. How bizarre.

I finished Walter Mosley's tenth Ezekiel "Easy" Rawlins mystery this week. Blonde Faith is another fine literary thriller. I love Mosley's ability to convey emotion. Rawlins is truly a round character, a complex individual working through the deep wound of losing the love of his life to another man (Where I came from — Fifth Ward, Houston, Texas — another man sleeping with your woman was more than reason enough for justifiable double homicide. Every time I thought of her in his arms my vision sputtered and I had to close my eyes...) and trying to find his place in a racist, early '60s Los Angeles. Mosley is a wordsmith--one of this country's finest. His ability to pace the chapters (short--five to ten pages max) and touch on characterization and setting in spare, succinct declarative sentences is admirable. The only qualm I have with the writing is a very small one, and likely a bit misplaced.

Mosley's characters all have crazy names. Easter Dawn. Christmas Black. Chevette. Tourmaline. Pericles. I understand that these characters populate a colorful L.A. in a time when nicknames are prevalent. But it gets a bit tiresome as the novel unfolds.

That said, it's a fast, interesting read and if it is the end of Easy, well...I think the final page was beautifully, tragically written. I can live with it if it's the end.

I hope it's not, though.

I've been hanging with Easy for all of the second half of my life, and I can't imagine a literary world where I can't depend on an honest man like him to try to set things square.

Go Ducks.


Snakes on a Trail and American Gangster

I like to jog in the afternoons over at the Theodore Roosevelt Historic Area. Today I got about 100 yards into my run and had to hurdle a four-foot yellow rat snake smack dab in the center of the trail. It had just gorged on, presumably, a big 'ol rat. It took its time meandering into the brush, as curious about me as I was about him. It was really something to see--it had about an eight-inch long critter in its gut...
We have some interesting offerings in the theaters this weekend. Don Cheadle and George Clooney place their cinematic heft behind the documentary Darfur Now. The film features six stories of lives affected by violence in the war-torn nation.
American Gangster also hits the silver screen, and man does it have promise. Denzel? Russell? Shoot, homie, that's all you had to say! I'm really looking forward to watching their performances, and Ridley Scott (Gladiator, Alien, Blade Runner, Black Hawk Down) has the reins on what looks to be a sprawling, big-budget epic. Can't wait.
It also brings up the question: What is the best gangster movie ever made? The Godfather? The Untouchables? Goodfellas? Scarface?
Young Guns?
Let it rip in the comment sections if you have an opinion on this one...

You Know When It's Good

If you spend any real time at the word processor, you understand that sometimes the writing flows and you just know in your heart and in you...