Sunday, November 27, 2016

Apparently, Dogs Pass The Mirror Self-Recognition Test After All, As Long As It's A Smell-Based Mirror



The "Mirror Test" is a well-known way to show which animals have self-awareness and self-recognition. The basic idea is that you take an animal - say, an elephant - and, without them knowing, put a dab of red paint on their forehead. Then have the animal look at itself in a mirror. If they see the red paint and immediately focus on the red paint and maybe reach up with their trunk to touch it, then you know that they have an understanding of "self." i.e., "That guy in the mirror is me and why the heck is there red paint on my face?"

Elephants and dolphins and gorillas and chimps and bonobos and orangutans have this understanding of "self."

But dogs do not. At least, not in the conventional way. Put something outlandish on a dog's face and have him look in the mirror, he will be indifferent. A dog clearly does not realize that the image in a mirror is "him."

Except maybe we've got it all wrong.

A mirror is a visual device. Dogs are olfactory oriented. The major part of their world is perceived with their sense of smell.

So what if we could create a olfactory mirror?



I recently started reading "Being A Dog: Following the Dog into a World of Smell" by Alexandra Horowitz. (She also wrote "Inside of a Dog: What Dogs See, Smell, and Know." )

In this book, she quickly asks this obvious question, suggesting that we foolishly judge dogs in a visual way, when they are mostly focused on the sense of smell.

So she and her colleagues devised a "mirror" that was smell-based instead of vision-based.

The basic idea was to use dog urine as a way to judge how a dog perceived itself as opposed to other dogs. The reason is that urine is one of the richest sources of information available to a dog. (Yes, your urine, too!) A sniff of urine can tell a dog an astonishing amount of information about whoever left it. What kind of animal, the sex of the animal, how long ago the animal left the urine, whether the animal was stressed or fearful or happy, whether the animal was pregnant or sick or hungry or... The list is endless.

And one of the basic ways a dog interacts with its environment is to add a bit of its own urine to the environment. When urine is added to previous urine, that previous urine is considered "marked" by the new additional urine. The result is that there are, very broadly, three categories of urine out there when viewed from the point of view of a dog. Urine that belongs exclusively to a particular dog. Urine that has been "marked" (added to) by another dog. And, third, any combination of urine that contains urine from the dog who is investigating.

In other words, the researchers wanted to know if a dog can recognize its own urine. And if so, could it recognize and be aware of when its own urine is marked by another dog, i.e., a form of looking into a mirror and discovering red paint on its face?

So the researchers collected urine from a wide range of dogs. They also collected urine that had been added to ("marked") by other dogs. Then, with careful controls, they allowed the dogs to "discover" the different urine combinations.

What happened?

There were three main reactions.

1) When a dog sniffed its own urine, it was not interested at all.
2) When a dog sniffed another dog's urine, it was quite interested and spent a lot of time investigating.
(These first two concepts say a great deal about self-awareness. But read on...)
3) When a dog sniffed its own urine that had been "marked" (added to) by another dog's urine, the dog found it very interesting. (Red paint on your forehead.)

The scientists were, of course, quite careful in their controls. Scientists always take great pains to not jump to false conclusions.

Nevertheless, the experiment seems very much like it demonstrates self-awareness on the part of dogs.

No doubt, more research will be coming. But it looks like dogs do pass the mirror test as long as the test is based on smell instead of vision.


Sunday, November 20, 2016

The Must-Have Social Media For All Writers

Social media has taken over the lives of practically everyone. So if you are a writer, which social media is absolutely critical for your success?

None.

Yes, you read that correctly. Maybe social media helps your world. Maybe it helps your ego. Maybe it connects you to people who are very important to you. But when it comes to writing, you don't have to do it.

In fact, considering some of the statistics on how much of a time-suck social media is, maybe you shouldn't do it.

Case in point: I've never done Facebook. (Yes, someone put up a Facebook fan page under my name. But I don't think they're attending to it.) I don't do Twitter. Or Linked in. Or Pinterest or Instagram or You Tube or whatever are all the other platforms.

I think I have some kind of Google Plus identity because I use Blogger for this blog platform and Blogger is owned by Google and I've seen "plus" symbols appear here and there. But I don't know what to do with them.

So what do I do online? I have email, and I try to answer all non-spammy emails. I have a website, and I do my own updates. (Although I'm not very good at it, and my website isn't very sophisticated.) I put up a weekly blog post without much discipline about my subjects. If it connects to Tahoe or my writing, I'll ramble on a bit. My readers seem to like it.

The only other thing I do is periodically update my "Author's Page" on Amazon.

Call me a Luddite, but social media is for people who want to stay connected to people here, there, and everywhere, and do it all the time. Nothing wrong with that. But I'm not a fast writer, and I have lots of novels I want to write. Better I focus on that.


Sunday, November 13, 2016

When Is Over-The-Top Just Right?

The Blue Angels over San Francisco Bay

My first novel, Tahoe Deathfall (2001), had Owen McKenna steal a Piper Tomahawk in order to make an escape and save a woman who'd been held against her will.

In the process, Owen - who has a private pilot's license and has a pretty good feel for how to handle a plane - does some tricky flying over mountains at night and through a snow storm in near-whiteout conditions.

Over the years, I've had several pilots tell me that those scenes are unrealistic and unbelievable. I've always smiled and said, "Yeah, that probably was too unrealistic." 

Never mind that with my own little bit of flying experience, I thought that, given the circumstances, I might have attempted the same thing that Owen succeeded at. Because, after all, the wild flying only happens after he's already in the air and the weather takes a dramatic turn for the worse. What else is he gonna do?

But I respect all those pilots who've said that a reasonable, cautious, and prudent individual wouldn't have gotten into such a situation in the first place, nor would he or she take such risks in a small plane.

Then again...

Not long ago, I was exhibiting books at a show and a distinguished-looking man came up to my tent. He picked up a copy of Tahoe Deathfall and waved it at me. His grin was wide and infectious. "The flying sequence in this book was great!" he said. "Really great. I loved it!"

"Really?" I said. "You didn't think it was over the top and unrealistic? Because that's what a lot have pilots have told me."

"Oh, no!" he said. "I'm a retired Navy pilot, and I used to fly with the Blue Angels. I would have done exactly the same as Owen McKenna! When you are up against the elements in a plane, you have to go for it! Sure, it took some real flying skills. But it was totally realistic, considering."

Okay, so this guy was a top-level pilot who can do tricks in an F/A-18 Hornet at several hundreds of miles an hour. But that makes him an expert who thought Owen's over-the-top sequence was just right.

Sunday, November 6, 2016

Writers, When Does Your Body Of Work Become More Important Than Your Next Book?

Maybe this is a no-brainer... But the obvious often eludes me.

I was thinking about the dichotomy between a writer's "next book" and a writer's slowly-growing "body of work."

As writers, we go through predictable stages. When our first book comes out, we think, Oh, my God, I have a book out! When each of our next few books comes out, we think, Oh, my God, I have another book out!

With each new novel, we are very aware of this sense that each additional book demonstrates that we're not a one-book-wonder, that we are a real writer. But we're also aware that we're only as good as our most recent book. If it is lousy and it tanks, maybe we're done for. Maybe the vast universe of readers will think we collapsed into a black hole without even going through a flame-out supernova.

A few books ago, I began to notice that readers sometimes spoke of my series, of my characters, of this whole world-building thing I've created as much as, or even more than, whatever book was my most recent. Each year, that sense has increased.

So I thought about other writers, which made me wonder about John D. MacDonald, one of the gods that all of us mystery and thriller writers worship.

Of course, I'm nowhere near John D's league. But when he wrote "The Lonely Silver Rain," the 21st in his Travis McGee series - the book that became the last of the series because of his sudden and untimely death - did he worry about whether it was sufficient in quality to maintain the rep of the series?

I'm pretty sure he realized that the series was more important than each addition to it. Even if he hadn't written about four dozen other novels, it would have been obvious that his body of work had taken on its own substance, and, that while each novel he wrote could benefit from his body of work, no single novel could measure up to it. John D's collected works had become far more important than his current or next writing project.

So here's my summation. Perhaps as writers, we should, very early on, start to think about our body of work. Maybe, while we're thrashing through the current and next writing project, we should back up - back waaaay up - and look at our total future bookshelf. When we see our work as a collected body with, hopefully, a cohesiveness that we've thought about and shaped and designed, maybe that will give us a grander vision. We can use that perspective to greenlight the good, useful stories and hit delete on the ideas that look good up close but from a larger distance - the distance of a long view - appear lame. By looking at our body of work, we can see that some of the stuff that seems so cool right now might be, in fact, a drag on the larger picture of what we're about.

Our body of work is more important than our next book.



Sunday, October 30, 2016

Our Primate Cousins Are Smarter Than We Thought

Here is some more cool information that shows just how smart non-human animals are.



In the October 7th issue of the journal Science, there is an amazing new study about the intelligence of chimpanzees, bonobos, and orangutans. But it's not amazing for the reason you might think... (see the last paragraph).

The study from Duke and Kyoto Universities and the Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology used some simple experiments (with a guy in a King Kong costume!) to show that apes can anticipate what someone is thinking.

This, of course, is just like us. But some people (including scientists) are slow to realize this because we think we're special.

The basics involved the King Kong look alike (presumably just to get the apes' attention) hiding a stone in a box. However, the apes can see that there is a person watching where the stone is hidden. So of course, the apes know that the person knows where the stone is. But to add a worthy plot twist, when the watching person goes away for a bit, King Kong switches the stone to a different box. The apes also witness this.

So the question is whether the apes are tracking all this tricky business. We expect them to keep track of where the stone really is. But will they also keep track of where the person thinks the stone is?

The researchers used cameras and software to watch and record where the apes' eyes focus. And they can use these cameras to easily demonstrate that the apes always know where the stone is. They also used the cameras to track what happens as the person comes back into the room to look for the stone. What happened was that the apes always look toward the box where the person will go to find the stone, even though the apes know that the stone isn't really there. In other words, the apes can anticipate what the person is thinking even when the person is wrong. The apes totally get when the person is operating on incorrect information.

So what is amazing about all of this? Any animal lover will know that it isn't that apes are really smart. That's very much in the "duh" category. What is amazing is that it has taken so long for people to realize that we're just not that special. Sure, we're clever, and we can count the ways. But apes are probably talking about us behind our backs.

Sunday, October 23, 2016

Best Hikes - South Shore - Van Sickle Park


Category - Easy
View Rating - 3 out of 10
Distance - Any distance you want, as this is an out-and-back round trip. Turn around when you desire. One of the easiest vista points is one half mile from the main parking area. If you're walking from a Stateline hotel, add another half mile each way. If you go to the Tahoe Rim Trail, it is about 5 miles round trip from the main parking lot.
Elevation gain - 200 - 1500 feet for the basic trail.


Let's say you're staying on Tahoe's South Shore near the state line, which features the city of Stateline, NV to the northeast of the line and Heavenly Village to the southeast of the line. This is where Tahoe's greatest concentration of hotels and motels are.

Now let's say you'd like to go on a nice hike but don't want to have to figure out transportation to a trailhead. No problem. There's a great hike within easy walking distance from your hotel. In less than 1 mile from your hotel, you can walk through the nearby forest to wonderful views. In less than 2 miles, the views are more expansive.

Years ago, the Van Sickle family donated their 542 ranch to provide for a park. The result is a very nice facility within walking distance from the busy hotel corridor near the state line.

The forest trails are relatively easy, the views are nice if not spectacular, and best of all, you can skip the car and walk from any of the area hotels.

To get to Van Sickle park, look for where Park Avenue crosses Hwy 50 (Lake Tahoe Blvd.) On the east side, what used to be Park Avenue is now called Heavenly Village Way. Walk east on Heavenly Village Way a long block to a four-way stop sign. The entrance to Van Sickle Park is straight ahead. (It is not well marked!)

Follow the red car straight into Van Sickle Park
When you get to this old barn, take the turn to the left.

This is the road that leads to the main parking area.
There are restrooms and information signs near the parking.
Look for this single trailhead sign. The main trail heads up behind the sign.
The sign has a map of the trails, of which there are several.
The trail is a single-track, but it is easy to navigate.

Watch for this sign and a trail that leads to a great overlook up on the rocks.
(Be careful at the top and use your hands for support. If you are unsure, don't climb up on them.)

This is the view to the left. The mountain on the left is Mt. Tallac. Maggie's Peaks are in the center.
Jakes Peak is to the right. Emerald Bay is tucked in below Maggies and Jakes.

View to the center
View to the right, with the casino hotels visible


As you continue up the trail, you come to the burn path from the Gondola Fire from several years ago. Someone tossed a cigarette butt out of the gondola, which started a huge forest fire that threatened all of the homes on Kingsbury Grade.
Van Sickle Park has multiple trails worth exploring. You can walk all the way up to the Tahoe Rim Trail, which you will intersect near the ski lifts on Heavenly's Nevada side. From there, if you like, you can continue to Tahoe's grandest hikes and mountains. For example, it is possible to hike all the way to Freel Peak, a 30-mile round trip, which, at 10,880 feet, is Tahoe's highest mountain and would require a 4,500-foot elevation gain from Van Sickle Park. This is, of course, only for EXPERT hikers. But I point it out just to show that there is a vast territory available to anyone with a good pair of hiking boots and a pack full of clothes, food, and water. No car necessary.

Enjoy!



As you leave the parking area and head back to your hotel, you get a nice view of Mt. Tallac!


Sunday, October 16, 2016

WordWave Festival of Story

Next weekend, October 21 - 23, 2016, the WordWave Festival of Story will be held at Valhalla out by Camp Richardson on Tahoe's South Shore.

If you love books and stories, and if you want to meet agents and writers, this is the place to be. There are multiple presentations and panels and fun events.

I'm also involved, and I'll be conducting the "Mysterious Morning" conversation on Sunday, Oct 23rd at 11 a.m. in the Valhalla Grand Hall. I'll be interviewing James Rollins and Galadrielle Allman about their writing. It should be a fun time, so come on down and join us!

Here's the main link:
WordWave Festival of Story

And here's  the complete WordWave schedule

Sunday, October 9, 2016

Best Kayaking In Tahoe - Fannette Island

Look carefully, there's an island hiding in front of that wall of rock! And if you look very close at the top of the island, you can see the square tea house that was built in 1929.

Fannette Island, the only island in Tahoe, is in Emerald Bay. It is where Captain Dick Barter, Tahoe's first year-round resident, spent time back in the 1860s. It is also where the heiress Lora Knight - after she built the Vikingsholm Castle on the shore of Emerald Bay - built a stone tea house back in 1929. She lived in the castle during the summers. During the day, she had her butler row her and her house guests out to the island to take tea. When you see the pictures below, you'll see why.

In the middle of September, while the weather was still glorious but the tourist rush was over, we kayaked out to Emerald Bay and visited Fannette Island. (See my previous blog post.)

While you can get to Fannette Island on most any boat, a kayak or canoe allows you to paddle right up to the rocky shore and step out onto dry land.

Here are the pics:

Like us, the paddlers in the red kayak are looking for a place on the island to make landfall.

There are lots of perfect coves in which to find shelter.

We found a perfect little Kayak Garage/Boathouse.

Once on the island, you can look out toward the mainland shore. Vikingsholm Castle is hidden in the trees.

A view of the mainland, framed by an ancient tree.

Zoom your camera in on the M.S. Dixie sternwheeler as it arrives at the Vikingsholm Castle. If you look close, you can see the castle in the trees just off the bow of the boat.

Fannette Island is about 150 feet tall. If you turn around to the east, you'll see the tea house at the top of the island.

Lora Knight's workers carved steps into the natural rock, making them look timeless and like something out of an epic ancient fantasy.

As you get close, the tea house dominates the island. Although it no longer has a roof, the stone walls are just as they were 90 years ago.

This view is looking down from just outside the tea house. The rock on the north side of the island is near-vertical, and you can see far down into the water.

Step inside the tea house and look out the picture windows. Have you ever seen a more perfect view with which to enjoy your tea?!

As we leave the island on our kayak, the Dixie cruises on past us.

Visiting Fannette Island by kayak or canoe is a singular experience you will never forget. I think it belongs near the top of the list of things to do in Tahoe.

Sunday, October 2, 2016

Want Your Novel To Be A Bestseller?

Most writers would love to have a bestseller. And the few who aren't interested in selling big-time still would like to sell a decent number of books simply because that means that a lot of readers would connect to their work.

As I write this, I just finished exhibiting my books at the Candy Dance Festival in Genoa, Nevada. The crowd was, as always, huge. Among them were many authors - some I know and some I had never met - who came by to chat and trade war stories about the world of writing. A few writers alluded to their struggles to find an audience. Several of those writers asked questions, looking for input from a fellow writer. Some writers just wanted to say hi.

One writer who stopped by was James Rollins, the mega-selling writer of adventure thrillers. He and I are doing an event together at the upcoming WordWave Festival in South Lake Tahoe, the weekend of October 21st - 23rd. James and Galadrielle Allman and I will be having a "Mysterious Conversation" at the Valhalla Grand Hall on Sunday morning Oct 23rd at 11 a.m. I will be conducting a "Writer's Studio" - type interview with Rollins and Allman.

Anyway, back to the subject of this post. James Rollins is a classic example of a writer who has put together his career with great skill, writing a bunch of hugely entertaining novels that have spent a lot of time at the #1 position on the biggest bestseller lists.

As I thought about James' career and considered what other writers could learn from him, many things become clear, some obvious, some not so obvious. James Rollins is a perfect role model of how to create a successful writing career.

From my observations, I've put together a simple guideline to follow to give your books the best chance of finding an audience.

First, pick a half dozen bestselling novels in your genre and spread them out on your desk. Paper books are much better for this experience than ebooks. (And if you are writing a thriller or adventure thriller, make sure one of your examples is a book by James, because he is a master.) Your goal as you study these books is to make certain that your books could fit right in with them.

(If you are self-publishing, this is relatively easy because you have complete control. If you are published by another publishing company, you will have to work with them to make some of these things happen. But it can still be done. Be the polite-but-squeaky wheel with your editor and publicist and graphic designer, and they will see that you are simply focused and dedicated and - most important of all - determined to make your books a success.)

As you look at the six best-selling novels on your desk, imagine that your book is also in the group. Now imagine that a group of readers who didn't know the famous authors' names looked over the books, (the six famous ones and yours). Would those readers be able to pick yours out of the stack as the oddball? Would your book be the only one out of the seven with a photograph for your cover? Plain type fonts? Would yours be the only one with a cover designed by an amateur designer? Would it be the only one missing front pages with some quotes or blurbs, a title page, standard copyright page with standard copyright verbiage, a book title and author name at the top of every pair of pages? Would your book be half as long or twice as long as the others? Would it be the only one in the group with unusual length chapters, long passages of exposition, typos or, even worse, have more serious editing mistakes? In short, would your book look amateurish among the professional offerings?

Note, that some people think that it is good to be different in order to stand out. This is true in some fields and in some ways. But nearly always, if you are different in these things I'm mentioning, you will find it very difficult to find acceptance.

It's good to be different and surprising with the story you tell. But for most of us, most of the time, and in most markets, it's good to present your story package in a way that fits right in with the bestselling packages. Let your story stand out because of the story, not the other stuff.

Yet I keep seeing some writers who put out books that look like awkward, ungainly, unprofessional products. This is so avoidable. Yes, it takes planning and some money to get your book done professionally. But it isn't difficult. You put thousands and thousands of hours into writing your book. Why wouldn't you put at least a few dozen into making it look professional?

In short, when comparing any of your books to the six best-selling novels you've picked out, ask yourself these questions:

*Does your opening paragraph grab in a similar fashion?  Your first sentence?

*Does your novel use standard story-telling structure? (Standard POVs, linear or mostly-linear narrative, 1st person or 3rd person telling, and, usually, past tense narrative?)

*Is your novel so compelling that people (like the writers in your writer's critique group) tell you they had to stay up all night to finish it? If not, go back to the writer's group and get more input and rewrite appropriately until your book is that good. Does this seem like a tall order? Sure. But your competition is doing it. Why is anyone who reads James Rollins going to try your book unless the story is spectacular?

*Is your book printed in a similar trim size?

*Is your book formatted in a similar way, with similar page layout, front pages, title page, chapter headings, back pages?

*Please tell me that your novel doesn't have a Table Of Contents! (Some Kindle books, under misguided pressure from non-fiction editors at Amazon do - yikes!) Look at the six printed bestselling novels on your desk. I'll wager that none of them have a Table Of Contents.

*Is it printed in a similar font and in a similar size?

*Are your page gutters similarly generous?

*Is your back copy a similar length, and is it as "grabby?"

*Is your cover just as dramatic and compelling and professional?

*Do you avoid gimmicks such as front or back pages with contest entry forms and silly sales tricks?

*Is your book part of a series? Will that series be a trilogy at the minimum or open-ended? (While an ongoing series has always been valuable - just look at the number of authors who wrote dozens and dozens of novels featuring the same characters! - this is becoming more important. Readers are learning - being trained! - to look for series, and they judge books in a series as being likely to be better than standalone books, especially by authors who are new to them.)

*And do the books in your series, current books and future books, all have the same format? Same look? Same size? Same main characters?

These are some of the basic ways that authors can hugely increase their chances of discovery and acceptance in the market.

Study the most successful authors, writers like James Rollins. Learn from his example.

In sum, if you want your books to be accepted as professional, they must have the professional qualities of bestsellers in your genre. Only then will you sell enough books that anyone will notice that you have written a stellar story. And only after readers have been swayed by your professional presentation will your story take root in the marketplace and your career will begin to take off.


Sunday, September 25, 2016

Best Kayaking In Tahoe - Emerald Bay

Emerald Bay is probably the single most important "Must See" place in Tahoe. Surrounded by 3000-foot walls of mountains, with the Vikingshom Castle at its tip, populated by Bald Eagles and Ospreys, and filled with deep water as clear as a swimming pool, Emerald Bay is at the top of your list of things to see.


This is Emerald Bay from above on the Bayview Hike. The island in the middle is Fannette Island, Tahoe's only island. I'll discuss it in my next blog post.

Most people see Emerald Bay by car. While that is good, and you'll love the experience, why not experience it from down on the water!

This is the view looking into Emerald Bay from the main body of Lake Tahoe.

Nearly any boat can get you to Emerald Bay, but I recommend human-powered craft, a kayak or canoe. Paddle craft are the best way to appreciate the sounds of the wilderness and smell the fresh air scents of wildflowers and pine trees. If you don't have a kayak, there are many places you can rent them, including, during tourist season, Baldwin Beach where we recently launched our kayak. 

The beauty of kayaks and canoes is that they require no license,and can be put in at any public beach on the lake. (But like all boats, they do require a boat inspection for invasive species. Here's the link for boat inspection information.)

For an easy trip, choose a boat launch site that is close to Emerald Bay such as D.L. Bliss State Park or Baldwin Beach. From Baldwin Beach, the distance to the end of Emerald Bay is about 4 - 5 miles. If you paddle at a leisurely rate and take time out to observe the birds, you can make the 8 - 10-mile round trip in 2 or 3 hours. Add in a picnic break, and you have a great way to spend a morning or afternoon. If you want to explore Fannette Island or the Vikingsholm Castle or Eagle Falls just behind the castle, plan more time.

Watch for this sign near the road that leads to easy parking just steps from the sand beach.

The entrance to Baldwin Beach is about 4 miles west-northwest of the "Y" intersection in South Lake Tahoe. Head out Emerald Bay Road (89). When you get to Camp Richardson, you are about half way to Baldwin. The parking cost is less than $10, well worth it for the convenience of a great beach, decent restrooms, and a perfect place to launch your boat.

Paddle northwest along the shore. You'll come to the entrance to Emerald Bay in about 2.5 miles. Eagle Point is the southern point, Emerald Point is the northern point. The bay's entrance varies in width depending on the water level of Lake Tahoe, commonly ranging from 800 feet wide at high water to 300 feet wide at low water.

Once you enter the bay, the western tip of the bay is another 2 miles or so. Here are a few photos to whet your appetite...

The water of Lake Tahoe is as clear as that in a good swimming pool.

This is the view as you approach Eagle Point from the south.

At the entrance to the bay, the green and red buoys mark the deepest water. Kayaks and canoes can stay outside of the buoys to give deep-draft boats more room. But keep your eye open for rocks that are near the surface. As with all boating, your safety is not guaranteed. Wear flotation vests and don't paddle fast in shallow waters. Even small boats like kayaks and canoes can get a hole punched through the hull if you hit a rock hard.

Looking west down the bay shows Maggie's Peaks with the giant rock slide from where a chunk of the mountain slid into the bay back in 1955.

On the south shore of the bay is a campground with a nice beach. Expect large crowds during tourist season. But in the off season, you may have the place to yourself.

Pull up on the sand for a good picnic spot.

The M.S. Dixie paddlewheeler is just pulling up at the Vikingsholm Castle.

An osprey is studying the water for fish. Woe to any underwater creatures that venture too close to the surface!

To the southwest, we could see two snowfields left on Mt. Tallac. This was in early September after a below-normal winter. Both snowfields are below 9000 feet. (You won't see snow that low in the Colorado Rockies in September because they have warmer summers than we do at the same elevation.)

Next week, I'll detail Fannette Island, which can be visited by boat. (Swimming from the mainland is not allowed, as the boat traffic and cold water temperatures make it too dangerous.) 

Sunday, September 18, 2016

5 Simple (But Hard-Work) Steps That Allow You To Quit Your Day Job And Be A Full-time Writer

This blog post is inspired by a recent Kindle Publishing newsletter about Scott Nicholson, a writer who, like many of us in the brave new world of ebooks, was able to quit his day job and earn his living as a full-time novelist. At the end of the newsletter article, several writers posted complaint comments saying, in so many words, that the article's author had neglected to say HOW Nicholson achieved this success. The tone of the commentators made me think that they thought there was some marketing trick that Nicholson used to find writing success and, if only they knew that trick, they would also be able to find success.

Okay, Todd, write a thoughtful response, earnest and sincere.

So here goes, earnestly and sincerely.

There is no single (or even six or eight) marketing technique(s) that will help you find success as a novelist. There are only these basics:

1) Write a bunch of really good novels.
2) Write your books in a series.
3) Produce books that are professionally edited.
4) Produce books that have professional covers that all go together.
5) Get those really good, professionally-packaged books in front of thousands of people every year, year after year.

Is this complicated? No.

Is this hard work that takes years and years and years of effort? Yes.

Is the relevant information, about both writing and marketing, hard to find? No.

Does it take a lot of time to find it, read it, digest it, put it into action? Yes.

Let's go into more detail on these points.

Regarding point #1: Write a bunch of really good novels.

What makes a "really good" book? It is a book that your reading group, writer's critique group, and numerous beta readers say made them laugh and/or cry and/or lose sleep over, and they've already told their friends about you, and maybe even one of those beta-reader's friends contacted you and said she heard you wrote a really good book. A really good book is one that - when you send out ARCs (Advance Review Copies) - book review trade journals agree to review it and then give it a good review, and book bloggers give you good reviews, and bookstores (which are not the best places to sell books, but they know what readers want) ask if they can sell it as soon as it is published.

How many is "a bunch of books?" At least five in a series, but I'd plan on ten. Do they have to be full-on novels? Yes. Shoot for 300 pages minimum each. 350 pages is better. Some readers will buy books that are novella length, but they often don't like it. And when they discover that the book they just ordered is only 200 pages or less, they sometimes feel cheated. If so, they'll flame you in reviews. They believe, perhaps correctly, that you are trying to write two 200-page books instead of one 400-page book just so you can boast more titles, and they think less of you and your books as a result.

Regarding point #2: Write your books in a series.

What qualifies as a "series?" A series means the same main characters grappling with similar kinds of trouble in each story. In other words, characters that readers get to know and care about and come to think of as friends, friends that they want to revisit again and again. (But of course, despite similarities among books in series, each book still needs to surprise the readers.)

Regarding point #3: Produce books that are professionally edited.

Professional editing means using an editor who earns his or her living editing. Can anyone find mistakes in your books? Typos? Misspellings? Misuse of the subjunctive case? Mistakes of fact? Head-hopping POVs (Point Of Views) within one scene? If so, then you need better editing. Does it cost money? Yeah. Sometimes a lot. But this is a business you're trying to launch. If you opened a restaurant, would you ask a friend to volunteer to play chef by roasting hotdogs over a campfire? No, you would get a professional chef and have a professional kitchen.

Regarding point #4: Produce books that have professional covers that all go together.

Professional covers means using a professional graphic designer. Browse through Amazon and notice how many books have covers that do nothing except to hasten how fast you click away. Covers that are photographs that only the author likes, or solid blocks of colors on the top and bottom, unattractive, plain type fonts, a lack of design theme that screams "I used DIY online cover-creater software."

Packaging is enormously important. People only buy books that look professional, sound professional, radiate professional. Would you buy a new car that was built by your neighbor in his garage? No, you want a car that looks like it was professionally built. What if your neighbor was a clever mechanic and even knew how to work with fiberglass? No, you want a car made by professionals in the car-making business. What if your neighbor had a clever new idea for an innovative transmission? What if he discounted his new car to only $18,000? No, you would still want a professionally-built car.

Same for books. If your book series looks like your neighbor produced it in his garage, you won't sell books, and you'll never be able to quit your day job.

Now to the last thing.
Regarding Point #5: Get those really good, professionally-packaged books in front of thousands of people every year, year after year.

Your book series might be the best thing ever written, but it still won't find a big enough audience to allow you to quit your day job unless you get it in front of many thousands of people. Why thousands and thousands?

Because it takes a core audience of approximately 20,000 readers to give you enough income to live off writing books alone. If you are published by a publisher that takes 90% of the sales - common in the publishing world - then your core audience needs to be five or ten times greater. (This core audience can be smaller and still support you if you write two or more titles a year.) Another reason you need to get your books in front of many people is that only a small percentage of people actually read much. (Pew Research recently reported that about one third of people had read NO books in the previous year.)

Of active readers, many read only non-fiction. Some read only romances. Some read only comic books. Some read only medieval fantasy or erotica or mysteries with gay protagonists who are really into crossword puzzles. You get the idea. To find someone who likes the kind of books you write, you will have to get an enormous number of people to try your books, and from that, a small percentage may love what you write and become your devoted fans.

How do you find those readers? Partly, by getting in any and all media so that people get exposed to what you are writing. If you are good at social media, go for it. Although be aware that many authors have quit Facebook because it is such a time vacuum, and it is very hard to turn your social media postings into book sales. (For awhile, there was even a formal support group for authors quitting Facebook.) Writing a frequent blog is a good way to find people who might try your books. In the beginning, a blog will do nothing. But if you post interesting content every week for several years, you will build up a surprisingly large audience. If readers like your blog, they will likely like your books.

Another really effective way to build an audience is to physically get in front of readers. The reason is that readers remember authors they've met much, much better than authors they've merely heard about or read about. So you learn to do talks, at libraries and schools, book clubs and service clubs (Rotary, Lions, Kiwanis etc, all of whom are looking for monthly or weekly speakers). You go to book festivals and book conventions. You exhibit your books anywhere and everywhere. Remember that as an author, you have an enormous number of fellow authors crowding you out. And their books may even be as good as yours. (I know, it's shocking but possibly true!) So how to you stand above the crowd? Do what they don't. Actually go to where the crowds are and introduce yourself and your books!

When I started out and began exhibiting at book festivals (like the Tucson Festival of Books, and the L.A. Times Book Festival), I realized that there were hundreds of other authors all competing for the attention of the readers strolling the grounds at the UA Mall, and UCLA, and, later, when the L.A. Times festival moved, USC. But when I exhibited at non-book festivals (like Harvest Festivals and art & wine street festivals), I was often the only author. It was much easier to get readers to notice me.

So I did a little math. At a good festival, 20,000 people might walk by and notice your table. Exhibit at 10 of those a year and keep it up for 10 years, you'd make two million impressions. Of those, a very small percentage will buy one of your books. Let's say just a quarter of 1% buy one of your books. A quarter of 1% of two million people is 5,000. Which means 5,000 books sold. If just half of those people like your book enough to recommend your books to their friends, that begins to add up. Let's imagine that half of the people who tried one of your books like it enough to buy the rest of your titles. By the time you have ten titles, that's 2,500 people buying 10 books each, which means 25,000 books. You now have well over 30,000 books sitting on the bookshelves and in the Kindles of dedicated readers. Each year, you come out with another book or two. The entire process expands. Eventually, you may sell ten or twenty thousand of each new title you write. That's bestseller territory. And with your backlist expanding and still selling each year, you can kiss that day job goodbye. After a few years, you may well have an audience that is only exceeded by the best selling authors in the country. Is it a lot of work? Of course. But nearly everything valuable in life comes only with great effort.

In sum: Like success in most endeavors, with writing, it often gets down to, "How bad do you want it?"

Remember what Einstein said. Perseverance trumps genius.

Good luck!

P.S. For a look at my books, check out my website.

For a look at some of the events I've done over the years, check out the Events page of my website.
How many are there? I'm pretty sure there are over 300 events listed. And those are just the ones I remembered to put on the website. And those only go back to 2008 or so. I did events for many years before I even listed them.

For more related information, click the "On Writing" label to the right side of my blog: As of this writing, there are 83 articles that discuss all of these subjects in much depth.








Sunday, September 11, 2016

How Realistic Does Entertainment Fiction Need To Be?

It's a common question in the world of writing. Just how believable/realistic should this entertainment stuff be?

If a writer's story is to be completely believable, then he or she should make certain that the characters are ordinary people with ordinary struggles. They should spend most of their time concerned with the minutia of life, coping with everyday frustrations. And if their trouble is of a life-or-death nature, we might find that they would die. Such is realism.

The characters in a totally realistic novel will have to confront a real world where life isn't fair and there's little or no justice and endings are messy and often bleak. Those same characters should have dreams, but rarely would they act on those dreams. They should want to be courageous, but they won't usually take the risks associated with courage. Only the rarest individual would ever do anything truly heroic. And almost never would a character undergo a complete character transformation, i.e., as when the Cowardly Lion finds he has courage or the Tin Man discovers he really does have a heart. A worthy dream, but not realistic.

Oh, wait. That's not entertainment fiction. There's a name for stories like that. It's called Literary Fiction.

Literary fiction has great value for what it can teach us about life, and we worship great literary writers.

But the whole point of entertainment fiction is, well, entertainment. We read it to experience characters facing larger-than-life trouble and who respond to that with heroic behavior. Entertainment fiction sweeps us away into a world that we can only imagine because we've never actually had those experiences in real life. Or, if we've had a personal taste of such grand stories, they rarely turned out so well that telling them would make readers come back for more again and again.

In entertainment fiction, readers demand that the stories turn out well, that the hero wins and the bad guy gets his punishment. In a detective murder mystery, the detective must catch the killer. In a romance, the right boy has to end up with the right girl. In a thriller, the special ops team must save the world from apocalypse.

For suspension of disbelief, readers require only that they "buy into the story." The mechanism for that is determined by the story itself. Once we get to know James Bond, we would be appalled if he could suddenly fly like Superman, but we certainly expect that Bond can take on a dozen bad guys in succession. Similarly, we would be taken aback if Superman could suddenly tell the vintage of a glass of wine or know the inner workings of a secret Russian terrorist group. But we aren't at all surprised when Superman can lift a train off the tracks.

Readers' demands for larger-than-life stories require that even if the protagonist in a mystery is a meek, little old antiquarian bookseller, she nevertheless takes risks more appropriate to Jason Bourne than a real-life book shop owner. The requirements of entertainment fiction mean that the little boy who regularly gets picked on eventually finds the strength and courage to teach the bullies a lesson. The underdog basketball team with second-hand sneakers simply must overcome all the odds and take the national championship. The family that is tormented by spirits in a haunted house horror story must, in the end, finally vanquish the ghosts. Realistic like real life? No. But satisfying? Yes, oh so satisfying.

In a completely realistic novel, if a lone teen-aged girl is lost on the ocean in a leaky rowboat, she will drift for a few days and eventually die. But in entertainment fiction, that same girl will learn to catch fish with her shoelaces and navigate by starlight and dismantle one of the wooden seats to use as a paddle in order to find her way back home.

Entertainment stories take us out of our ordinary lives by giving us thrills and chills and a view into a world where dreams come true and there's always justice at the end.

Are they completely realistic? No. That's why we read them.