Friday, March 24, 2017

Sailing Venus: Of writer groups and turning points

I've joined a writing group. The members invited me, out of the blue, a while back and I took them up on it, despite the fact (and this cuts both ways) none of them are of the SF tribe. No matter. I've been wrestling with Sailing Venus and the group offered me two things I desperately needed: 1) feedback on the prose itself, particularly whether the science-heavy world-building is integrated subtly an engagingly in the narrative, and 2) a regular deadline that forces me to regularly write. The feedback thus far has been interesting. Some of what I attempted in the story worked far better than I'd expected. Some trouble spots I'd not recognized were exposed. And some trouble spots I recognized early on have potential solutions. Already the feedback I've received has impacted the current pages, with new conversations and more fully-developed subplots than existed before. If I have one regret, it's my characterizing Sailing Venus as a YA book. None of the other writing group members have much familiarity with YA, but they do have pre-conceived notions that creep into the critique occasionally. As I've mentioned here before, my goal is to straddle that same line Steven Gould did so well with Jumper, namely, a story and characters equally accessible and appealing to adult as well as young adult readers. Don't worry about the intended audience, folks, just focus on the story and your reactions to it. Aside from that quibble, it's been a positive experience.

And the internal resistance I've fought on this one has started easing up. My word count is inching upwards, and those words (at the moment) are flowing more freely. I suspect this is because up until now, the story's been ill-defined in my mind. Oh, I knew what had to happen, but I didn't know how. Nor were the scenes clearly defined in my mind. That resulted in lots of restructuring and jettisoning some ideas whilst combining others. In essence, life is happening to the characters, but these seemingly mundane interactions are coming together in a way that will catalyze the harrowing adventure. I'm writing scenes now that I first visualized years ago, and while the details have changed, the core essence remains. Last night I wrote the third of three successive confrontations, each one quieter than the one before, but packing exponentially more emotional punch. After I wrote this passage, I had a throbbing stress headache. Talk about identifying with one's characters:

Erica recoiled, stumbling back. She had to get away. She couldn't let them find her here, watching this. Watching whatever came next. She fled.

What came next? She shoved it from her mind. She didn't want to know. She already knew. She should turn around. Confront them. Stop this... betrayal? Was this what betrayal felt like? Then why did she feel so guilty?

Erica stopped, blinking in confusion. Where was she? The hangar. How had she gotten here? She couldn't remember. Why couldn't she remember? The airlock leading to Wind Sprite lay open before her. Beckoning her. Only Wind Sprite guaranteed solitude. She was safe aboard Wind Sprite. Nobody could hurt her there.
Honestly, I feel sorry for Erica. She's about to make some very bad decisions, and suffer the consequences. Hopefully, once I'm finished, readers will feel that same empathy. After all, isn't that what writers strive for?

Now Playing: Dr. Jeffrey Thompson Voyager Space Sounds
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Friday Night Videos

Friday Night Videos

Genesis' hit single, "Follow You, Follow Me," is a song that's grown on me over the years. I believe the first time I realized I really liked it was during the "We Can't Dance Tour" in Houston, when they didn't play it. Or rather, they played a small snippet of it during a medley of other truncated songs I'd looked forward to hearing. The video's not much, but what's odd is that Mike Rutherford gets the majority of the camera time, Tony Banks is mostly ignored and there's some unnamed guy playing drums who looks vaguely Phil Collins-like in profile, but isn't Phil Collins. Despite the video's shortcomings, the song more than makes up for it.

Previously on Friday Night Videos... Postmodern Jukebox.

Now Playing: Genesis Duke
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Friday, March 17, 2017

Friday Night Videos

Friday Night Videos

Postmodern Jukebox is kinda great. The Wife turned me on to them, and I've seen then live twice with her in the past year. Not all of their covers click with me, but when they do, it's magic. This last tour, we were treated to PMJ newcomer Sara Niemietz. I've grown increasingly impressed with not only her vocal prowess but her well-developed song selection--she picks material that really suits her skill set. Her latest effort is a bluesy, torchy cover of the Cheap Trick hit "I Want You to Want Me". Mission accomplished, Sara. Mission accomplished.

Previously on Friday Night Videos... Miles Davis.

Now Playing: Pink Martini Get Happy
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Wednesday, March 15, 2017

The Chicken Ranch does San Antonio!

Hey, San Antonio! I haven't had a public signing in the Alamo City since August, and I know some folks have asked when I'm heading back down that way. Well, tomorrow's your lucky day! I'll be signing copies of Inside the Texas Chicken Ranch at Barnes & Noble La Cantera 2-4 p.m. Thursday, March 16. This is the swanky Barnes & Noble in the La Cantera shopping center off Loop 1604, just west of Six Flags Fiesta Texas.

I remember the first time I ever visited this location was for a Rick Riordan signing for one of the Percy Jackson books. Talk about a madhouse! There must've been a thousand kids (and their parents) wrapped around the building for the autographing. It was really an impressive circus the staff handled quite well. Now, in all humility, I don't expect that large of a turnout for my little book, but if you're in the neighborhood please stop in and chat for a while. I always love to share Chicken Ranch stories!

Inside the Texas Chicken Ranch: The Definitive Account of the Best Little Whorehouse is now available from both and It's also available as an ebook in the following formats: Kindle, Nook, Google Play, iBooks and Kobo.

Now Playing: Attila Attila
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Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Tiki build-along

Anyone who's been following here in recent months will notice I've been trending tiki for a while now. I'm a little late to the tiki revival, but I come by it honestly. We moved into the new house a little more than two years ago, and we really lucked out to get a place with 1) a swimming pool, 2) a covered patio built for entertaining, and 3) tropical landscaping around the pool. I spent the first year here building The Wife a photography studio. That took some serious effort, since the majority was DIY. Last year was consumed to great extent by my book's publication, plus my office-build-along. Early in the summer, though, The Wife came home with some silly light-up tiki statues, and on our vacation we picked up some additional tiki masks in Key West. At that point I said to her, "I'm going to build a tiki bar."

Mind you, at that point I was unaware of the larger tiki revival going on. As far as I knew, tiki culture was something from the 50s and 60s that had long since vanished. So I set about building my own tiki bar armed only with my own undaunted ignorance. I didn't know what I wanted, but I knew what I didn't want. Eventually, I settled on these plans for a 6-foot bar as my template. Note that these plans are for a more upscale bar than a tiki bar would normally qualify for. So I made some adjustments of my own. I extended the right side to make it a wrap-around. The drawers were radically simplified, and the wine racks do not pull out. For lumber, I used pine plywood rather than oak or similarly expensive hardwood. I coated all the wood with UV/water resistant stain (cedar color) before applying several coats of polyurethane, which I then topped with several coats of spar urethane. From the beginning, I knew I wanted to have palm thatch wrapping around the bar. We have a dozen or so palm trees around the house, so there will never be a shortage of palm fronds if any need replacing. The bar top is laminate flooring pulled up from my office, as are the drawer fronts. When I get some more long pieces, I'll probably use more of the laminate for the backing on the inside of bar. The moso bamboo culms edging the bar top came from Bamboo Branch in Austin. I also built it on casters, so it can be easily moved. It made its debut at my book release party and attendees seemed to get a kick out of it. Overall, I'm pretty happy with the way it turned out.

In hindsight, there are some things I'd do differently. The bottom shelf initially didn't extend the entire way across the bottom, because I had some notion the bar refrigerator would go there. Well, that proved completely unworkable, so I retrofitted an extended shelf there. Not terribly pretty, but it works. It's also not a full wet bar--no running water--so there are limits on its functionality. Looking at all the incredibly inventive home tiki bars out there (now that I know what to look for) I'm struck with all kinds of ways I could improve it.

And so begins the grand tiki adventure. I have a tiki bar. I now need a full-blown tiki lounge space. Our covered patio area is 64' long by 10' wide. That's a lot of room to spread out. And we have plans, oh yes. Below is the view from the bar, looking out to the pool.

This view is from the waterfall, looking back to the corner of the patio. The cabana umbrella is synthetic for now, and not terribly convincing, but a real thatch one lies in our future.

From the waterfall, looking back at the bar. I initially placed the bar here, because the outdoor stereo/CD player is behind those cabinet doors. It seemed a natural spot, but the more I think about it, I'm becoming convinced the bar should switch places with the dark wicker furniture to the right. There are electric plugs there, so I wouldn't have to run long extension cords for the fridge, plus there's a sink in the garage, right behind the wall next to that solid door. It would be relatively straightforward to build a back bar in that area with a sink, making it a full wet bar.

Because I'm a completist, here's the view from the house looking back the opposite way. I'm in the process of constructing a garden shed off in the yard, so the lawn mower and wood chipper currently parked on the far end will have a different home in another week or so. All in all, quite a bit of potential. The only thing holding me back now, apart from hours in the day, is money in the bank account. I could easily blow a lot of cash on this, but as with everything we undertake, it will be on a budget.

Case in point, the sconce lights on the wall. It's a western star motif. Pretty much every light fixture in the house is along this design aesthetic, which is all fine and dandy, but it's just not us. And the house isn't really rustic enough to carry it, you know? Since we moved in we've talked about changing them out, and on the back patio they really clashed with the tiki vibe. Looking online, however, I quickly learned there was not much commercially available that could pass as tikiesque, and what little there was cost way beyond what my budget could shoulder.

Here's a closer view of one dismounted from the wall. Not terribly tiki, is it?

To make matters worse, the previous owners had an unhealthy obsession with Tanglefoot. If you're unfamiliar with it, this is a very, very sticky substance used to ring the trunks of trees to keep leafcutter ants from climbing the trunk, things like that. For some reason, they seemed to think the stickiness acted as a repellent, that if they slathered the stuff on things they didn't want insects, reptiles, spiders, etc. on, it would keep them away. They slathered that stuff on all the outdoor speakers, the patio columns and worst of all, the tops of the wall sconces. Until I took a closer look, I'd assumed the tops were opaque. Not even close. So many dead bugs, spiders, geckos, dust, dirt, twigs and unidentifiable gunk had built up over the past decade that it completely blocked out the light from the bulb below. I can assure you, it's nasty. And every light had this mess slathered over the top of it. You should see the outside speakers.

Fortunately, Tanglefoot cleans up with mineral spirits. That's not to say it cleans up easily. It doesn't. But after far too much time and effort, this is the result. Quite dramatic, no?

Now the sconces are clean, but not any more tiki than before. What to do? For that, I turn to the tikiphile's answer to duct tape--reed fencing, commonly available in garden centers and home improvement stores nationwide. The sconces are roughly 10" high, so I cut sections of the reed fencing 12" wide and long enough to wrap around three sides of the sconce, twice. Turns out the fencing isn't terribly tight, so the western star is painfully obvious with a single layer. Two layers, though, that works nicely. The wire ties are loose, though, so the reeds slip out easily. Too keep it held together, I applied a flexible glue to the wire ties. Also, I slathered the reeds in spar urethane to protect them from UV and moisture. They'll be protected from the elements under the patio overhang, but reed's not the most durable substance on Earth, you know? I figure a little insurance wouldn't hurt.

Next, I took thin, black craft wire and looped it around the reeds.

The sconce had a perforated hole pattern above and below the star. This turned out to be perfectly situated to thread the wire through to anchor the reed.

Once I got both ends of the wire through the holes (which sounds simple enough, but in practice was maddening) I simply tied them off.

Voila! Instant tiki wall sconce. Most of these are on a dimmer switch, which makes it all the better--I can turn them down when necessary to get that coveted, dimly-lit tiki atmosphere.

Updates on this project will be few and far between, but I've got some grand plans and hopefully I'll be able to pull off a few as we get deeper into spring.

Now Playing: Billy Joel 52nd Street
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Monday, March 13, 2017

Office build-along, pt. 11

In my last update, I showed how I'd finally gotten the far corner upright into position, along with the end cabinet and laid down some pretty heavy-duty vapor barrier. I finished up by showing the big stack of shelving I'd cut. If you keep in mind the fact that these reports aren't going up real time, it will be easier to take in the fact that staining and varnishing all those shelves took a very, very long time to complete. We're talking a month to six weeks. The problem comes back to weather--often it was too humid or too cold to apply the various stains and polyurethanes, particularly at night, when I was most likely to have time to work on them. On the staining, I didn't cut corners and go with only one coat of Minwax's "Special Walnut," although I was sorely tempted to on occasion. No, I stained everything, let dry for a day then flipped the shelves over and stained the underside. Once that was dry, I broke out the "Dark Walnut" and repeated the process. In case you're wondering, "Dark Walnut" still is akin to painting with molasses. It's just so thick and gummy in comparison to other stains. Ugh. It slowed the process down a lot.

Once the staining was done, then came the polyurethane. Here's I cheated. The cheap radiata pine plywood I'm using is only sanded smooth on one side, with the other being fairly rough. The smooth side will be the top of the shelf, and the rough side the bottom. For the bottom, I'm only applying one coat of polyurethane, and not sanding. I feel a little guilty about this, because it's not completely professional, but I don't know of anyone who is going to feel the undersides of my shelves and criticize me for it. It may be more prone to dust collecting, but that's something I'll have to live with. As for the top sides, I applied two coats of polyurethane, sanding in between. In an ideal world, I'd have applied a third coat, since polyurethane doesn't build up as thickly or smoothly as sanding sealer, but I'd like to finish this before I retire, so two coats it is.

One final note--because the plywood was inexpensive, it did not come without blemishes. The thin surface veneer on the smooth side was cracked and warping in a handful of places. This resulted in 4-5 shelves (including one of the diamond-shaped corner pieces) with notable surface defects. They're not smooth. Flipping the board upside down was out of the question unless I wanted to spend hours sanding down that rough surface and re-varnishing (which I didn't), so I made an executive decision to use the ugly boards for the top shelves, which are about 8 feet up and unlikely to suffer close examination. So, yeah, I'm hiding my mistakes.

And speaking of mistakes, the one thing that bothered me the most about my old office bookshelves, and still nags me to this day, is the fact that I didn't build a "top" into it. That is, the white ceiling could be seen when looking up at the top of the shelves. It's a little thing, maybe, but jarring to me. In the photo above, you can see what I'm talking about. That little white sliver between the books and crown molding might as well be a flashing beacon as far as I'm concerned. With this new bookcase, I would not make the same mistake twice.

So this is what I did. I went back to the area lumber yards and found the thinnest, cheapest plywood sheet I could find. What I came up with was something called "Utility Panel" that cost me $9. Keep in mind that hardwoods--oak, etc.--are considered the beauty woods, while softwoods--evergreens like pine, etc.--are not pretty and considered suitable for structure use. Probably 95 percent of my bookcase is pine or other softwood (which doesn't necessarily mean it's soft, that's just a broad classification), so I'm spending significant effort to make it look nice. This utility panel stuff isn't something you'd want front and center, but for my use it is going to go mostly unnoticed, and that's just fine.

First off, imagine I walked you through the whole staining process on one side of this utility panel. Just one coat, "Special Walnut," like I applied to the lauan paneling for the back of the case. Fortunately, the stain comes out pretty dark on this wood, which is what I want. Next, imagine I documented using my circle saw to cut an 11" wide strip down the length of the panel. Got it? Great, you're caught up then. I measured the distance between the shelving uprights where they meet the ceiling, and that comes out to roughly 29.5". So I mark 29.5" on the 11" wide strip, above, then cut with the circle saw, below.

Now, remember that 2x4 I sliced up into triangular sections a while back? Imagine I stained them and varnished the widest face on each. Now, since they're all clean and pretty, I cut a couple of 29.5" pieces from them.

Now, I pair those triangles up with the stained utility panel section. See what I'm doing with them?

Before I install the pieces, I need to mark where the wall studs are. Remember, I've been using wall and ceiling marks, but these are about to be covered up. I use blue painter's tape for this purpose, mainly because that's the first thing I found.

Next, whilst holding the ceiling panel and triangle brace in place, I drill two pilot holes through the brace into the wall stud. Then I used a larger bit to give the screws a shallow depression to countersink into. Then I screw in the screws. That sounds pretty straightforward, but it a bit more challenging when you have to change the drill bits one-handed, since the other hand is holding the wood in place. I'm sure there's a simpler way to do this, but I've never claimed to be the sharpest nail in the box when it comes to carpentry. I also drilled a pilot hole through the upright to the right, and ran a long, 3" screw through it into the triangular brace. Repeat as necessary.

Once the back brace is in place, I attach the front brace to the uprights. Same drill applies, first the pilot holes, then a countersink hole, then I put the screw in. Despite my efforts, I split the wood on three of my first four efforts. It's not pretty, but this will be covered by crown molding eventually. Holding the ceiling piece up is its primary job--structural bracing is minimal, mostly just to ensure the uprights are parallel until I can get the shelves in.

Those screw holes are pretty unsightly, so I fill them with wood putty. Once they're dry, I hit 'em with a splash of "Dark Walnut" and they're not nearly as noticeable. Yes, I've learned my lesson with "Dark Walnut." It's good for these little details but you have to wipe up the excess immediately.

So, with the uprights in place, the time came to install the shelves. The 9" wide end shelves were a little tight in some cases, but a few whacks with the rubber mallet got them in place nicely. The next column of 30" wide shelves slid into the routered dados just as pretty as you please. The next column? No so much. Back when I routered the base of the uprights to make everything fit, well, this middle column of shelves gave up more space than the rest, and came out almost exactly half an inch narrower than any of the other columns. So after testing the proper length to fit on a piece of scrap lumber, I ran five shelves across my table saw to trim off that extra half inch. The result was a perfect fit, and a few whacks with the rubber mallet got the top shelf in, correcting a slight bit of warp in the right upright. The final column of shelves went in nicely, the result being one wall that is finally starting to look like bookshelves.

Now Playing: Billy Joel An Innocent Man
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Friday, March 10, 2017

Friday Night Videos

Friday Night Videos

Kind of Blue is pretty much the perfect jazz album, often cited as the jazz album even people who don't like jazz can't help but enjoy. Count Basie is still my favorite jazz musician, but there's no denying that Miles David had an unparalleled daring and creativity in his work, even though I find some of his output borderline unlistenable. That's definitely not the case with "So What" which I can never get enough of. Enjoy.

Previously on Friday Night Videos... John Mellencamp.

Now Playing: Billy Joel My Lives
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