Friday, November 29, 2013

Friday Night Videos

Okay, the annual Thanksgiving pilgrimages to visit the family, in-laws, relations and friends-of-relations, not to mention spending untold hours in the car with squabbling kids as we trek from one destination to another, battling crazy holiday traffic, has come to a close. I hope. I have to say, Lindsey Buckingham sums the experience up nicely.

Previously on Friday Night Videos... Pink Floyd.

Now Playing: Dire Straits On the Night
Chicken Ranch Central

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Hunger Games: Catching Fire

Count me among the many fans of Suzanne Collins' dystopian teenage arena combat novel The Hunger Games. It's a tight, lean piece of writing, with subtle and deft foreshadowing, sly detail and above all, an engaging sense of purpose. It's not hard to see how YA audiences far an wide fell in love with the reluctant, bow-slinging heroine, Katniss Everdeen. The follow-up, Catching Fire, suffers in comparison. Here, sequel-itis is in full bloom, with Collins trying to give the audience more of what made the first book so popular, but simultaneously adding new elements and raising the stakes so that the narrative isn't just a re-hash of the first book. The foreshadowing is not quite so deft, the plot not so tight. The story meanders a bit, particularly through the first half of the book, as Collins devotes a lot more of her writing efforts to back story and world building. She also does a good bit of set-up for the final book in the series, Mockingjay, and that undercuts some of the effectiveness of Catching Fire, which is very much a "middle book." As for Mockingjay, Collins didn't stick the landing. I see what Collins is trying to do with the book, a big meta statement on the consequences and inhumanity of using child soldiers in warfare, turning the revolution into one, big, kill-or-be-killed Hunger Game, and the Capital itself into a chaotic arena. The reality of war crimes and unintended consequences are a major driving force here. But it doesn't hold together. Mockingjay reads, to me, like a first draft that Collins rushed to get finished in order to make contractual deadlines. Foreshadowing here amounts to telegraphing what's going to happen at the end of the chapter. There's a lot of narrative flailing going on, political intrigue that isn't all that intriguing, clumsy infodumps and a general uncertainty about how all these loose ends are going to be tied up. The arena battles and traps, so crisply defined and clear in the first two books, are vague and baffling and--more often than not--nonsensical. But worst of all, Katniss is very, very passive in the final book, not driving the narrative, but instead watching from the sidelines as most of the action takes place without her until the final quarter of the book. Even then, her actions aren't really of her own accord, as she's essentially set up by The Powers That Be. Given another six months to do tightening and rewrites, I expect Collins would produce a book worthy of the first in the series. As it is, many readers are disappointed with Mockingjay, and with good reason, I say.

Which brings us to Catching Fire, the second installment of the Hunger Games movie franchise, which will be four films once all is said and done, as Mockingjay is being split into two films (I'll wager Peter Jackson is kicking himself for not doing this with Return of the King). I did not like the original Hunger Games movie. The acting was fine, and the film dutifully ticked off most of the high points of the novel, but it felt cold and distant to me. One feature of the novels is that everything is so intimate, so closely tied to Katniss' point of view. That was missing from the movie. There was no intimacy. Rue's death is pretty much the only part of the film I liked better than the book. For everything else, there seemed a distinct lack of gravity, of danger, of pain, of suffering. I understand director Gary Ross was trying to tone down a violent, R-rated book narrative to a family-friendly PG-13 rating, but I felt he neutered the entire theme. Without suffering, without consequences, the entire reason for the Hunger Games books is lost.

Catching Fire is very, very different. I went in skeptical. If the strongest book in the series resulted in such an underwhelming film, then what hope was there for a lesser book? Quite a bit, actually. Director Francis Lawrence is a tremendous upgrade over Ross, and I'm as shocked to write that as anybody. This is the guy who gave us Constantine and I Am Legend, two movies guaranteed not to instill the viewer with confidence. Yet he does excellent work with Catching Fire, keeping the narrative moving without feeling infodump-y, conveying the bleak turmoil of the districts, and crucially, Katniss' emotional suffering and slow, psychological unraveling. The violence is more real here than in the previous film, despite most of the deaths and fighting taking place off-camera. There's fear, concern, pain, pathos here the other film lacked. And that doesn't mean there's simply more gore. There's not much actual blood shown at all, come to think of it. Instead, most is implied (except for Gale's whipping--hoo boy, is that painfully graphic!) and that shows a remarkable confidence and subtlety from director Lawrence. Look, we all know Jennifer Lawrence is one of her generation's great actresses, so I won't waste time praising her performance (although I will question the necessity of having her go the whole movie wearing that weird spray tan. Seriously, that was distracting). Josh Hutcherson as Peta doesn't have very much to do other than look earnest, although his "if it wasn't for the baby" moment brings down the house. Liam Helmsworth as Gale gets a bit more character development this time around, but it's Willow Shields' Prim that comes off as the most changed since the first film, a more confident and assertive character, inspired by her sister's sacrifice. Woody Harrelson's Haymitch was far and away the single worst element of the first film, and director Lawrence must agree with me, because Harrelson's mugging for the camera is scaled way back. If they can find some way of writing him out of the Mockingjay films all together, I'll be one happy camper.

Catching Fire does everything the first film attempted to do, but does it all much, much better. On top of that it raises the stakes, introduces more characters and makes them distinct and memorable. It is a more emotional and intimate film, and at the same time the spectacle surpasses what has gone before. This film has backbone and bite. Some have compared this to The Empire Strikes Back, but that's a superficial comparison because 1) they're both "bridge" films and 2) both end in cliffhangers with a beloved character in the hands of the enemy. These are two very different films, with very different goals and intentions. Such comparisons do a disservice to both. Catching Fire isn't a truly great film, at least by my standards. It shouldn't earn Best Picture nominations from the Academy Awards, although there may be some individual awards in store for the cast and crew. But that's not damning with faint praise. Catching Fire is a very good movie, and I recommend it for anyone who wants a little substance to go along with their popcorn entertainment this holiday season.

Now Playing: Ali Farka Touré & Ry Cooder Talking Timbuktu
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Monday, November 25, 2013

Chicken Ranch report no. 46: Encouragement/Discouragement

La Grange Chicken Ranch brass token (fake)I am rapidly closing in on a full year in my agent hunting quest. Today, I mailed off 10 proposal packages, some of which included sample chapters, some not, in accordance with the various target agents' submission guidelines. I started out with a carefully considered list of 80 potential agents when I began this thing. These 10 are the final names on my list. Amongst the previous 70 agents I have submitted to are some of the giants in the field. Agents who pretty much deal exclusively in New York Times bestsellers and nominees for various literary awards. Newer agents, start-up and every type in between were in the mix as well. Essentially, if the agent/agency had a legitimate track record and represented non-fiction, specifically history (but women's issues were a plus) then they made my list.

A small percentage of the agents never responded to my queries and/or proposal, which is poor form, but not terribly uncommon. Another subset quickly but professionally informed me that my Chicken Ranch book is not the type of work they're comfortable repping. Fair enough. I get that. The remainder... sigh. The remainder have responded positively. They like my query, and request my formal proposal. They like my proposal, and request sample chapters. They think the sample chapters are good, and request the entire manuscript. A week or three later, they respond with some variation of, "I think this is a very good book with commercial potential, but..." That single "but" is soul-crushing, folks.

A top agent recently said good things about the manuscript, but... he thought it'd be more interesting as a first-person Hunter S. Thompson gonzo journalistic piece. If I rewrote it into a completely different book, he'd take another look at it and might consider repping me. Another agent thought my book was perfect as-is, but... had to pass because my "platform" wasn't high-profile enough. Their editorial contacts wouldn't consider work from authors with fewer than 100,000 Twitter followers, see. Still another saw potential in the topic, but... thought my writing style too fluid, not treating the history with enough deference for potential academic audiences. Another thought the prostitution angle great, but... wanted me to take out all the endnotes and citations, add graphic sex and turn it into a salacious tell-all. But... there's been so much published about the Chicken Ranch the market is saturated. But... there's very little published about the Chicken Ranch, that means there is no market. But... nobody has ever heard of the Chicken Ranch, so there is no audience for this book. But... everyone already knows the story from "The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas," so there is no audience for this book.

Not a single agent rejected the book because the writing sucked. They found other reasons for rejecting the book, sometimes describing to me in excruciating detail how they talked themselves out of it. If they just said, "This is terrible. I couldn't get beyond the third page," I could understand that. I could accept that. I wouldn't like it, but it would make sense. This brave new publishing world in which a book's worthiness is evaluated by everything but the quality of the work in question is confounding.

So, where do we go from here? If this final round of agent queries falls into the quagmire of buts..., then I will move on to querying regional and specialty publishers that do not require an agent for submissions. These have less leverage in the marketplace, yes, and pay much smaller advances (if at all) but they do know their target markets and have well-established distribution networks, which is no small consideration. I am hesitant to approach university/academic publishers, because frankly, they've got some very strange phobias about primary sources, ie interviews, used in books. Being the cynical journalist that I am, I'd rather not go down that route.

So what happens, god forbid, if the regional presses turn me down? Since I started this project however many years ago, certain parties have been lobbying me hard to self-publish. I am reluctant to do so for a wide array of reasons, chief among them the near-impossibility of getting any sort of distribution for a self-published book. Yes, I believe this book could be successful as a self-published work, but I don't want to spend the rest of my life selling it out of the trunk of my car and begging bookstores to place a few copies on their consignment shelves. Having my byline in print is no big motivator for me--I've had my name in print around the world, and more clippings and credits on top of that. I don't just want to have this book published, I want it in front of people. I want it noticed. I want it read far and wide. I don't want 3,000 copies sitting in boxes in my garage. Some have suggested I could circumvent all of these hurdles by going the Kickstarter route to fund a print run. Which sounds good on the face of it, but I've looked into a little, and books just don't do well on Kickstarter. Printed matter just isn't terribly sexy for the online set. Yes, I could possibly make it work with careful planning and laying a lot of groundwork, but once you get down to it, publishing, book design, sourcing press run bids and the accounting needed to make it all work lies way outside my skill set. And I've seen plenty of gosh-wow worthy Kickstarters wither on the vine simply because they failed to capture the imagination of the interwebz. Not everyone can be John Picacio.

That's where we stand today. I share this not to wallow in self-pity or invite sympathy, but to educate and inform. This is the cruel reality of publishing, even for someone who plays (mostly) by the rules while keeping an eye on the alternatives. Lest you think I'm only about doom and gloom, I do have two pieces of moderately good news to share: I've received my first two cover blurbs for the book!

"Jayme Blaschke has done a superb job in telling the story of the famous (or infamous, if you prefer) Chicken Ranch of La Grange, Texas. He delves into the perhaps mythical history of its ancestor, Mrs. Swine's establishment. He deals affectionately with civic benefactor Miss Edna and her boarders, as well as their protector and civic leader, Fayette County Sheriff Jim Flournoy.

This is the best account of the Best Little Whorehouse In Texas ever written."

                 – Former five-term Texas Lt. Governor William P. "Bill" Hobby, Jr.
Not a bad endorsement for a book that doesn't even have an agent, much less a publisher, eh? I'm just as proud of this next one:

"Broadway and motion pictures popularized--and trivialized--the story of the famed Chicken Ranch brothel in La Grange, Texas. The real story is far more interesting, presenting a mirror to mores and conventions not just in that one locale, but for much of America. From its heyday to its ignominious demise, the Chicken Ranch was the story of enterprise, politics, power, and even patriotism, writ in the garish hues of cheap makeup. Jayme Blaschke's [book] is a compelling and brilliantly researched exploration of a unique icon of Texas history and society, and what its rise and fall says about America. One comes away with the feeling that when outside pressure finally closed down the Chicken House, it was an act of cultural vandalism."

                                   – William C.Davis, author of Three Roads to the Alamo
                                                                                               and Lone Star Rising
Davis' stamp of approval means a great deal to me. I'm not a historian. I'm a journalist by background, and I approached the whole Chicken Ranch project as and investigative journalism piece. It was no small fear of mine that professional historians would turn up their noses at it, pointing out everything I did wrong. The fact that Mr. Davis not only liked it, but was enthusiastic in his approval, is extremely gratifying (and a tremendous relief). If you get a chance, check out his publication history. He's one of the heavy-hitters when it comes to Southern U.S. history.

So, that is where things currently stand. I know people are impatient and have waited a long time to read this book. I just ask for a little more patience. I'm working hard to get it into print, but in the right way that ensures this story is seen by the maximum number of people. We're getting closer, even it doesn't seem like it.

Now Playing: The Pretenders The Singles
Chicken Ranch Central

Friday, November 22, 2013

Friday Night Videos

In honor of the 50th anniversary of Doctor Who and all the mayhem that goes along with it, this week's video is Pink Floyd's classic "One of These Days." Why Pink Floyd? Listen carefully around the 2:20 mark.

Previously on Friday Night Videos... Sting.

Now Playing: Electric Light Orchestra Afterglow
Chicken Ranch Central

Monday, November 18, 2013

Chicken Ranch report no. 45: Vive La Grange!

Fayette Public Library, Fayette Heritage Museum and Archives, La Grange Texas
La Grange, I love you! And I will fight anyone who says a bad thing about your town!

Folks, if you missed my Sunday presentation at the Fayette Public Library in La Grange, you missed one humdinger of a show. I am not one normally given over to hyperbole, but we had ourselves one heck of a shindig there. I stopped counting at 50 people crowding into the conference room at the library. Every single chair was taken and plenty of people took to standing in the back and sitting on side tables, with more slipping in even after I'd begun talking. I'm telling you, the people just kept coming. We taxed that poor old air conditioning system to its limits, I'm afraid. It got a wee bit warm in there with so many folks packed close together, but we made it work!

I will admit to a certain degree of uncertainty on my part going into the event. As I told the audience, it seems that 40 percent of the local populace are enthused and excited about my Chicken Ranch research, another 50 percent--those too young to remember, or newcomers to the community--are somewhat indifferent and the remaining 10 percent believe I'm an agent of Satan for daring to look into the history of the brothel. If that latter 10 percent showed up, I could've been in deep trouble. Fortunately for me, the crowed consisted exclusively of 40 percenters, and the enthusiasm and support they showed me is profoundly gratifying. One lady had severely injured herself in a fall, yet despite her obvious discomfort, she was determined to meet me and get a copy of Ghosts of the Chicken Ranch. That means a lot to me. It makes me feel that all this work I've invested into this crazy research actually matters. And you know what? A lot of other folks there must've felt the same way, because I sold out of every copy I had with me. To be honest, I'd have given the presentation even without selling a single book, but that kind of positive affirmation sure does make the sky a little bluer and the sun shine a little brighter!

I had some great conversations with more than a few people who knew Miss Edna personally, and lived through those insane days back in 1973. Nobody booed me and said I got my facts wrong. Nobody threw rotten vegetables. I explained the history of the failed Chicken Ranch restaurant in Dallas (which a number of folks were curious about), the origins of the "Chicken Ranch burned down rumors" and the connections between the Chicken Ranch brothel in Nevada and the one in La Grange (there aren't any). It was a whole heck of a lot of fun, and my one regret is that it ended too quickly. Like General Douglas MacArthur, I will return some day--if not for my exhaustive history book on the Chicken Ranch, then for another go-round or two for Ghosts of the Chicken Ranch. You see, after my presentation I was approached an asked if I might come back to give an encore performance for some local church groups...

Now Playing: Emerson, Lake and Palmer The Return of the Manticore
Chicken Ranch Central

Saturday, November 16, 2013

Friday, November 15, 2013

Friday Night Videos

It's been a rough week here. A stupid, juvenile back-and-forth in a classroom at my daughter's high school Tuesday escalated between periods with one boy punching 15-year-old Logan Davidson several times in the face. It ended with Davidson dying from subarachnoid hemorrhaging in a San Antonio hospital, and the other boy in juvenile detention facing potential homicide charges. There are all manner of baseless rumors swirling around right now, and even some "blame the victim" arguments being made. That's all bullshit. Every year I have to cope with student deaths at the university, and the most tragic of these stem from stupid, wrong-headed decision making. This high school death, even though I'm further removed from it, is infinitely worse. So much potential is lost, so many opportunities to turn from this disastrous path were ignored. There are many consequences. There are many victims. There are no winners. There is no way to put a happy face on this horrible, senseless and pointless death.

Life is full of unintended consequences. We, as a society have to recognize that, accept it and live with it instead of always trying to justify and explain away responsibility. It may be trite, but I'm not in a terribly creative mood today. Sting sums up my overwhelming sense of dismay--at least to an extent--with "I Hung My Head." I would say enjoy, but I don't think that's possible.

Previously on Friday Night Videos... Sheila E..

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Chicken Ranch Central

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

What's Jayme Drinking?

Samuel Smith's Organic Chocolate Stout
I've never been much into chocolate stouts. Granted, the only one I regularly see on the shelves is Young's Double Chocolate Stout. It sounds good in theory, but in practice it's pretty much just a bitter, dark stout with little in the way of chocolate--at least not any more than any other stout. That's why comparing Young's to Samuel Smith's Organic Chocolate Stout is so damn unfair. Smith's is a ringer if ever there was one. It's good. Hoo boy, is it good.

This beer pours almost black, opaque and impenetrable. A nice, dense, toffee-colored head forms and lingers. There's a good bit of lacing here as well. One sniff and you know Smith's isn't playing around with the chocolate aspect--the chocolate aroma overpowers pretty much everything else. I've seen comments online that liken the scent to milk chocolate, but who are they kidding? There's a rough edge to this that suggests dark chocolate all the way. So you go in to the first sip, expecting maybe a nice chocolaty aftertaste following the malt or maybe hops, but no, it's BAM! Dark chocolate in your face! I'm serious, this thing is like drinking liquid dark chocolate. There is a nice, bitter undertone that balances the overall sweetness--this is a sweet beer indeed. Now, when I say it tastes like dark chocolate, I don't mean the hard core, 80-90 percent stuff. This is a sweet stout, after all. It's more along the order of 60-70 percent. But still, that's a far cry from the sugary, blandness of milk chocolate. The mouthfeel is very good for this type, medium-bodied, not too thin and not syrupy as you might expect from my description. Carbonation is deeply held and not released easily, so this beer, while not even remotely fizzy, stays active a long time. Served cold, it tastes overwhelmingly of chocolate. As it warms, notes of oak, vanilla and leather kinda sorta make an appearance, but really, the dark chocolate just muscles up even more like the Incredible Hulk and beats them into submission. I keep half-expecting to crunch on a gritty chocolate nib any moment now. This is a dark beer that professed haters of dark beer fall in love with. I know, I've done the field work.

Unlike some other dark, sweet, strong-flavored beers, Samuel Smith's Organic Chocolate Stout boasts an alcohol content of only 5 percent, so there's not much of a danger of it sneaking up on you like some Belgian ales I favor. But it is a bold, powerful beer. This isn't something to sit around drinking during the big game. This is a showcase beer, reserved for dessert or an evening nightcap or to impress your friends. It's not an every day beverage, but when the mood hits, you'll know exactly what hits the spot.

Now Playing: Dire Straits On the Night
Chicken Ranch Central

Monday, November 11, 2013

Sailing Venus: The creative process

I believe it is safe to say, by any objective measure, that I stink at this whole NaNoWriMo concept. According to the online word cruncher, I've written just a shade over 2,600 words. By my standard manuscript page counting method, I've topped out at almost 3,200 words. By any metric, that's anemic production for a write-a-thon challenge where the goal is 50,000 words in a single month.

Still, I have reached a few milestones. That 2,600 words represents a completed first chapter. And I've already introduced revisions to my story outline as well as made a handful of interesting discovers--things that just popped up in the course of writing--that should serve me well farther down the line.

I'm nowhere near the 1K daily average I'd hoped for, but progress is progress. Not awful, considering I'm still in the worldbuilding/setup phase without strong plot forces kicking in yet to drive the narrative.

I'm writing Sailing Venus differently than I've written any other fiction. Because I had such an overwhelming amount of information, the Chicken Ranch book forced me to outline it out of necessity. I don't enjoy outlining, but found it useful for that non-fiction project, even though I found myself revising the outline repeatedly. So, I committed to outlining. In fact, I went a step further--I sketched out the narrative structure of Sailing Venus using Blake Snyder's beat sheet (adapted for novel-length work as opposed to screenplays), with additional influences from Dan Decker's Anatomy of a Screenplay. Apart from the "what happens when" framework the basic outline gives, these other approaches help clarify specific character arcs and thematic elements. Using their nomenclature, I've wrapped up the "opening image" with Chapter 1 and am moving into the "theme stated" phase with Chapter 2. There's overlap, of course--these ideas have fuzzy edges rather than sharp boundaries--but my story concept is hewing pretty closely to the model, much to my surprise and delight.

"Opening image," equates to a lot of worldbuilding in a very short amount of time, conveying the idea of a dangerous, expansive world and a complex method of transport in this environment (Spoiler alert! The events in Sailing Venus do, in fact, take place on Venus). I feel I have to establish how technically challenging it is to successfully pilot the futuristic sailplane Windsprint immediately, so that later on, when the story intensifies, readers already have this understanding hardwired into their perceptions. I won't need to waste time or momentum re-hashing these details. This is a deliberate worldbuilding and narrative structure choice decided upon by your humble author. Granted, that's a relatively straightforward application of strategy, but I hope to impart some behind-the-scenes appreciation of the writing process with these mini-essays. My writing process, at least.

"Theme stated," for me, is entirely about character development. Anatomy of a Screenplay defines this section as establishing character structure, drive structure and the objective opponent. In this, Erica's immediate objective opponent is her father, as they have a contentious relationship and can't quite seem to find any common ground despite good faith effort on both their parts. This is the core of the character arc as well as a recurrent theme throughout the book. It provides subtext to every scene--he father is a looming presence even when he's not around. So, classic YA territory here.

But this is a science fiction adventure, inspired by the great Winston juveniles. The real antagonist is Venus itself. This breaks hard from the directives found in Anatomy of a Screenplay, which insists on a character antagonist. I found myself acutely conscious of this conflict as I read taht book, but that work is very clear that its focus is wholly on the Hollywood story model, so it isn't 100 percent applicable to my story needs. But I did find elements I could readily apply to my novel, despite not fitting the norm. If Man vs. Nature was good enough for Jack London, then it (in this case, Girl vs. Planet) is good enough for me. Venus is quite sincerely out to kill every human who approaches it, and is relentless in its determination. In this way, Venus wholly fills the role of antagonist, even though the planet lacks any motivation or intent. Venus simply is, and literally has the resources of an entire world to throw at our protagonist. The fact that it is utterly indifferent to the Erica's fate, I believe, makes the scenario all the more chilling.

Now Playing: Johann Sebastian Bach Harpsichord Concertos 1
Chicken Ranch Central

Friday, November 08, 2013

Friday Night Videos

Sheila E. burst upon the music scene in the mid-80s with the rollicking, intense single "The Glamorous Life." I liked it so much that I immediately ordered the album (cassette tape) from the CBS Music Club. Remember that? Anyway, I got it. And it sucked, big time. As energetic and infectious as "Glamorous Life" was, the rest was turgid filler. I still don't list Sheila E. among the endless number of talentless Prince proteges--if nothing else, she remains one hell of a drummer--but his influence clearly shows. I wonder if somehow The Purple One is a talent vampire, sucking it out of those closest to him in order to fuel his insane creativity? Anyway, here's Sheila E. at her prime:

Previously on Friday Night Videos... Ray Parker Jr..

Now Playing: Various Artists Asian Groove
Chicken Ranch Central

Thursday, November 07, 2013

The genius that is Picacio

The great John Picacio has one of those Kickstarter campaigns under way. If you haven't jumped on board with your support yet, do so now. You've got six days to go. The project's already funded, and stretch goals are adding up, so that's considered a "win-win" situation in common parlance.

Have you gotten that taken care of? Good. Now listen up, because I'm not likely to repeat this outside the friendly confines of a SF convention: John Picacio is pure, unadulterated genius. I don't say that lightly. It wasn't enough that the Hand of God reached down and blessed him with a singular artistic vision and talent to match (not taking away from the years of study and effort John put into developing that talent, by the way). It wasn't enough that John is one of the nicest people you'll ever meet--and by that, I don't mean he's "passive nice" in a quietly inoffensive way. No, he's pro-actively nice, in that he uses his success as a platform to try and improve the lot of his peers, his non-peers and strangers who don't know him from Adam alike. He's humble without false modesty. On top of that, he goes out of his way to simply make people feel good.

But above and beyond, the man is smart. I don't have access to his inner circle, or have been graced with a peek behind the curtains, but from my vantage point, he is developing his Lone Boy company shrewdly, with a laser-like strategic focus. That is reflected in his Kickstarter campaigns. Now, John has a massive following in the speculative fiction community. He needs a U-Haul truck to cart around all his Hugo, World Fantasy and Chesley Awards. So last year, when he produced an art calendar of his "greatest hits," he had a ready audience. Many artists would be content with this, but not John. He's expanded his playing field a thousand-fold by producing original calendar art based on images from the Loteria card game:

This. Is. Genius. Have I used this word too much? Impossible. Look, I've lived my entire life in Texas and grown up as exposed to Tejano culture as a fat white kid from the country can be, but I'd never heard of La Loteria. Now, imagine tens of thousands of other genre fans across the country who don't know tomatillos from vaqueros. They don't know La Loteria either, but they do know gorgeous, fantastical artwork on oversized tarot-style cards. They're all in for a calendar featuring this work. Now pause a moment and consider the tens of millions of Tejanos, Mexican-Americans and Mexican nationals who grew up playing this game and have a deep-seated affection for it? And how would they respond to something many consider kitschy folk art being elevated, if not venerated, as high art? Now it starts to become clear. John is tapping into cultural cross-currents leavened with a generous amount of magical realism that has the potential to turn him into an artistic brand (if I may use so crude and crass a term for something so elegant) with far and enduring reach. And genre fans will buy whatever collectible editions of the game John produces as well, because, damn, have you seen how stunning the art is? A Picacio-designed tarot deck seems the obvious next step, but truth to tell, John's not built himself a successful career by being obvious. At conventions, I'll catch him alone for a moment and ask about an obscure, unexpected or off-the-wall idea that's struck me about his flourishing career, and invariably he'll respond with a sly, "What have you heard?" followed by a quick, "We'll talk later." John literally has more irons in the fire at one time than the average person has in a lifetime, but he keeps them all quiet until he wants to unveil them.

There are times I wonder what would've happened had John pursued his initial career as an architect instead of taking that leap of faith into the uncertain world of genre art. Sure, an architectural career seems staid and dull from the outside, consisting of drafting the next CVS Pharmacy or strip mall to go up in the suburbs, but really, is it possible to believe John Picacio being staid and dull in any career he pursues? He may well have become the next Frank Lloyd Wright, albeit with a distinct and original vision that's compared to Wright simply because no other architect has attained such stature in the U.S. even though their styles couldn't be more dissimilar. Part of me the wonders Picacio-the-architect would've given us, but is usually shouted down by the part of me that revels in Picacio-the-artist. But judging from his past track record and sly, unpredictable strategic thinking, who am I to say that John's inevitable world domination doesn't also include breathtaking architectural marvels as well?

That's the beauty of genius. It knows no bounds.

Now Playing: Gustav Holst The Planets
Chicken Ranch Central

Tuesday, November 05, 2013

Sailing Venus: And we're off

Here we are, five days into this NaNoWriMo thing, and one thing is becoming very, very clear: This novel writing stuff is hard! Now I remember why I used to just write short stories--they're not any easier, mind you, but you get to the end of an 8,000-word novelette a heck of a lot quicker than a 90,000-word novel (even tho NaNoWriMo only requires 50,000 words, we all know better). Despite having outlined approximately half of Sailing Venus, this first chapter has progressed slowly. Very slowly. Pulling teeth slowly. After four days--only two of which I've managed any actual writing--I've put a grand total of 1,000 words on paper. That's four page. In two days. Ugh.

A big part of the problem is that I'm still getting to know my characters. I have a vague notion of their personalities in broad strokes, but other than certain specific topics, I don't really know how they'd respond to general situations, how they'd talk about various things. Their speech patterns and phrasings are still a mystery in a broad sense. Add on top of that a profoundly hostile environment and my own vague notions of how the physics would work in these situations, and I've got a situation where I spend most of my time pondering plausible dialogue when I'm not flipping through my notes and reference books for clarifications.

"Now hold on," you might be saying about now. "NaNoWriMo isn't about checking notes or getting dialogue right--it's about vomiting copious volumes of words onto the page at a breakneck pace!" Well, that may be true for most folk, but nobody's ever going to mistake me for Robert Silverberg in terms of output. A certain degree of self-editing and pre-editing is inherent in my writing process. Leaving something obviously wrong in my manuscript uncorrected is a burr under my saddle, a distraction, an irritant that undermines subsequent writings. So, I write as I do, hoping the cumulative total at some point equals a book worth reading. Here's a small sample of what I've produced thus far, just so you can appreciate the depths of my struggle:

A shrill bleating interrupted her.

"That was a short 20 kilometers," Sigfried said, checking his harness.

"Nanny keeps me on a short leash." Erica sat up, tightening her harness. She gripped the yoke, thumbing the control surface of the central column. The bleating intensified. "Not today, autopilot. Altitude, 56,280 meters. Wind speed, 71 meters per second. You ready, Sigfried?"

"I hate this part."

Erica grinned. "I love it."

Windsprint pivoted under Erica’s control. The long wings flattened, contracted, compressing the hydrogen gas to negative buoyancy. The keel telescoped in, narrowing to a sliver. The sail plane dove into the teeth of the gale.

No, it doesn't exactly sparkle beautifully in the sunlight, but then again, what does? Hopefully, once I get through Chapter 1 and into the meat of the set-up, the words will flow a little easier than they do in these introductory scenes. At least, that's what I'm telling myself.

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Monday, November 04, 2013

Chicken Ranch report no. 44: La Grange date!

For all you folks who missed out on my presentation last month at the library in Columbus, I've got some good news for you: On Sunday, November 17, I'll be giving a presentation at the Fayette Public Library/Heritage Museum and Archives! The show starts at 2 p.m. and should wrap up around 3:30.

Ghosts of the Chicken Ranch

I will be giving a reading and book signing for Ghosts of the Chicken Ranch. The event is free and open to the public. Copies of the book will be available to purchase for anyone who is interested in getting a head start on their Christmas shopping this year!

I'm super-jazzed about this event. Sheri, and Kathy before here, have been tremendous resources and very supportive of my research efforts into the Chicken Ranch. For anyone who hasn't been paying attention, I spent most of 2009-2012 researching and writing the definitive history of the Chicken Ranch brothel in La Grange. This history goes way beyond the trite song and dance most people know from the motion picture version of "The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas." It's far more complex and fascinating a history than most people--even those who lived through it--realize. 2013 marked the 40th anniversary of the closure of the brothel, and my wife, professional photographer Lisa Elliott Blaschke, along with myself, edited and published a fine art book titled Ghosts of the Chicken Ranch in recognition of the anniversary. I will present a slideshow of images of the modern ruins from Ghosts of the Chicken Ranch as well as other, previously unpublished photos which will be included in the more exhaustive (and as-yet unpublished) history book. I'll read, "The Last Madam: The Unexpected Life of Edna Milton (1928-2012)" which I originally presented at the East Texas Historical Association fall conference in 2012. I'll also read some selected excerpts from the unpublished book, present a short but illuminating 11-minute video and engage in as much discussion as I'm able.

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