Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Chicken Ranch anniversary (plus news): Miss Edna (1928-2012)

It is officially official: the publisher accepted my withdrawal of my manuscript this morning, so my book is officially back on the market. That's not exactly good news, but it is better than signing a bad contract that would essentially tie up all rights and interest in the book with that publisher forever. If they were offering an outrageous advance, that'd be one thing, but they weren't. Life goes on.

And speaking of going on, and on, and on, I have accepted an invitation to be a guest speaker at the Noon Lions Club in La Grange on March 19. Time is limited, so I won't be giving my full-blown dog-and-pony show, but I'll bring along some rare photographs and copies of Ghosts of the Chicken Ranch for anyone so interested. It should be a lively Q&A session--this is the first time men from La Grange have invited me to speak, as my previous three appearances were for women of the town. And if anyone knows of organizations or libraries in need of speakers, I am available.

As for the anniversary, on this date in 2012, Edna Milton Chadwell, better known as Miss Edna, passed away at the age of 84 in Phoenix, Arizona, where she'd lived a life of quiet anonymity since the early 1980s. She would've been 87 this year.

Her final days were tragic. The previous October (or September--my memory is imprecise) she was involved in a car wreck that left her hospitalized with an array of injuries. From what I understand, her memory was affected, and her brain stopped converting short-term memory into long. In practical terms, it meant somebody could introduce themselves and begin a conversation with her, but five minutes later she'd have no recollection. Over the previous three years I feel I've gotten to know her as much as any person alive today who wasn't related to her. She enthusiastically supported my book project and graciously invited my wife and myself into her home for hours of interviews. It is my everlasting regret that I did not complete the book in time for her to have her own copy.

She never lived the kind of life she'd wanted, but she still carved out a place in Texas history for herself. For that, her memory will endure.

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Monday, February 23, 2015

Chicken Ranch report no. 51: Woe, despair and agony on me

As a writer, particularly a writer who has worked to place his manuscript on the history of the Chicken Ranch with a publisher for the last few years to varying degrees of frustration, sending the following email is not the way one wants to start off Monday morning:

It is with deep regret that I must withdraw my manuscript from XXXXXXXXX's consideration.
There's a lesson here, boys and girls. That lesson is "Academic publishers are not the same as commercial publishers." I knew this, of course. When I published Voices of Vision with the University of Nebraska Press back in 2005, I learned this first hand. Their contracts are total rights grabs. This didn't bother me so much, as I knew Voices of Vision had a limited audience and had zero value for movie/dramatic and other such subsidiary rights. Even so, I was able to negotiate a couple of clauses into the contract in my favor. With my Chicken Ranch book? Not so much.

The current publisher I had been in negotiations with simply wouldn't negotiate anything in their contract. After much back-and-forth they relented and allowed me to keep dramatic rights to myself, but that was it. They would not budge on anything else, including the ultimate deal-breaker, out-of-print reversion. They refused to define out-of-print in the contract, and refused to define when/if the rights to my book reverted to me. Since they would be publishing an ebook version, for all practical purposes they would own my book forever. Once an ebook file is created, it takes no additional investment to keep it "in print" as it were. If another publisher came up to me in the future and said, "We see there have been no hard copy editions of your book available for more than five years. We'd like to come out with a special 50th anniversary edition in 2023, and pay you X amount to do so," I would have to tell them no, because publisher X held those rights. I could ask publisher X to print a 50th anniversary edition, and they could say "No." I would have no recourse. The same thing could happen with my heirs in 2073 for the 100th anniversary. They would own it forever, as long as that ebook format was available.

Now, don't get me wrong. They were professional in their interactions with me, even if they were taken aback by my attempts to negotiate. This is their business model, and it works because the majority of their authors are tenure-track university faculty who do not care about subsidiary rights, rights reversions or even income. They need the publication credit, period. Once that book is in print, they've moved on to their next project. Publish or perish. Heck, most scholarly journals charge to run a research article, and claim all copyright in the work on top of that. Which is why you've never seen a piece by yours truly in any academic journal--I started several, then realized I'd be giving away the farm once I read their submission guidelines. In the immortal words of James D. Macdonald, "Money flows to the writer."

So, once again I pick myself up, dust myself off, and get back up on that horse. There's a publisher out there for this book, but finding said publisher is getting old.

Still, better no contract than a bad contract. And you can take that to the bank.

Now Playing: Stan Getz Quartets
Chicken Ranch Central

Monday, February 16, 2015

My weekend

I keep telling myself I'm making progress on my list of things to do, but it keeps growing so that I feel I'm constantly falling behind.

I worked in the yard this weekend. A lot. The unseasonably warm weather we've been having has tricked a lot of plants into thinking it is spring, and some of the trees I have are showing the first swell of budding out. Which isn't great with a big cold front coming in this week. It also isn't great if I want to trad bud wood for grafting. So, I got to work. I received a shipment of persimmon trees from Stark Brothers and planted them Saturday--a Prok American persimmon, plus Asian varieties Ichi-Ki-Kei-Jiro and Saijo. I also planted a Perdue pear and two Blanco crabapples. I painted the trunks of all my young trees with a water-diluted white latex paint to protect them from potential sun scald, pruned branches from those that needed it and did some grafting amongst the pear trees to hopefully ensure a diverse array of high quality fruit production. Once all the pruned wood was collected and trimmed for size, I ended up with the following for next month's scion exchange:

  • Warren pear
  • Ayers pear
  • Moonglow pear
  • Orient pear
  • Fan-Stil pear (expired patent)
  • Blanco crabapple
  • Santa Rosa plum
  • Elephant Heart plum
  • Le Feliciana peach
I also went to Famick's in San Antonio hoping to find a pomegranate or fig to plant, but I wasn't blown away by their selection or prices this time. Instead, I picked up two low-chill peach trees--a Galaxy and Red Baron--I plan to put in the ground once this sloppy, wet cold snap passes. They came pre-pruned from the nursery with a handful of neatly trimmed side branches, so I took the opportunity to graft on a few La Feliciana scions I'd collected from the old house last week (I have to say, it is nice to have the people who bought your old house allow you to come back by and get cuttings!).

So, at this point I still have to get in the ground one Pindo palm tree, two pineapple guavas (Feijoa), two mandarins (satsumas), two peach trees, one Texas persimmon and a fig that's outgrown the large pot I've kept it in the past two years. And I still haven't gotten the avocados, paw paws, loquat and jujube trees I've planned for.

Oh, and when I wasn't in the yard, I was in the studio taping drywall. Last night I was in there until 11 p.m. because all the tape I put down started showing air bubbles, forcing me to peel it off and start again. Plus, there was one corner of a drywall panel that kept pushing out and would not go smooth. Arrgh. And I still have the ceiling to go. Joy.

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Tuesday, February 10, 2015

My genius time travel movie

So there's a new time travel movie out, Project Almanac, that The Wife and kids want to see. From what I understand, it's about a group of people who travel back in a time machine, change something in the past, and all hell breaks loose. Which is pretty much the plot of every time travel movie from Back to the Future to Hot Tub Time Machine. Yeah, there are some others that don't fit the mold, like Primer and 12 Monkeys and such, but when you want a go-to Hollywood time travel plot, changing up the past to screw up the present is a cinematic workhorse.

Naturally, my brain started turning this idea over, as my brain is wont to do. My first published short fiction was "Project Timespan," which showed why time travel could be discovered once and only once. I have an unpublished comic script titled "A Sound of Blunder" which is a shameless riff on the Bradbury story, in which hunters from the future travel back in time to hunt dinosaurs only to encounter a dragon instead. Hilarity ensues (not to mention massive destruction to the time line). So I can play around with time travel when the mood strikes me. And thinking of Project Almanac, the mood struck me.

What is the one constant in time-alteration plot movies? That the characters responsible for the changes to the timeline are aware of said changes when they happen. Think of Marty McFly with his fading photo, or his confusion when he returns to the future that is unfamiliar to him. Bill Murray in Groundhog Day. This is usually explained in a hand-waving way, that since he arrived from the unaltered future, his memories from that time are preserved. Or that reality has been split into an alternative timeline. Whatever. All of this is a conceit to keep a consistent viewpoint character to anchor the audience.

But what if one was to discard these shackles of convention? What if one was to write a movie where cause and effect were fully unleashed, that any changes to a single timeline reverberated through said timeline to impact the characters who traveled back in the first place? Any change they affected would not appear to them as a change at all, since it would be instantly incorporated into their remembered history. This has been done some in literature, but it's not terribly easy to pull off since the baseline is erased--none of the characters in the story remember what's happened if the author is playing by the rules.

My idea--which will never be made, mind you, because that's the way these things go--involves a group of time travelers whose every action impacts the time stream and is instantly incorporated into their history. From the instant they arrive in the past, things begin to change, starting with subtle alterations to their uniforms. And the characters are completely unaware, because for them, there are no changes being made. This is their established history. For the audience, however, the changes come faster and more furious as the story progresses. In essence, there are dozens of simultaneous divergent narratives of which only a few scenes of each appear on screen before being supplanted by another. Characters change gender, disappear entirely, relationships twist and flip, the mission goals change, the history of the world morphs over the progression of the film to something very, very different from where it started. No single actor would appear for more than half the total running time (let's peg it at 90 minutes for argument's sake) and probably less. A couple dozen actors and actresses would play the evolving lead roles. It would be a strange, frenetic film, essentially the antithesis of Richard Linklater's Boyhood.

The nice thing is that it could be made for a modest budget. It's not an effects-driven film, but rather a character piece, albeit with characters changing out with regularity (The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus comes to mind as an example of multiple actors portraying the evolution of a single character). I do not see how I could convey this vision in prose--it is a visual conceit, and needs a visual medium. I'll not likely write it any time soon, but I'll file my notes away for safe keeping. Any ambitious indy filmmakers with access to a large cast and interested in the time travel genre should feel free to give me a shout.

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