Sunday, January 15, 2017

What Does Ten Feet Of Snow Look Like?

Last week we got ten feet of snow. As you can imagine, this was a classic good news/bad news situation.

The good news is that Northern California is no longer in a drought. The lake is back above the rim and filling nicely. The ski resorts have more white stuff than they dreamed of just a few weeks ago.

The bad news is some places on the West Shore and the North Shore still don't have power as I write this on Saturday, the 14th. Some people are still trapped in cabins and houses with unplowed roads full of snow and draped with downed power lines from fallen trees. The West Shore Post Offices are still closed. 

At our house, we were only snowed in for three days and without power for 36 hours. At first, living by candle light and cooking on the wood stove was fun. (Thankfully, we have a wood stove!) But after enough time, we began to tire of it. Snow removal became a full time job. The return of electricity and the rotary plow was much welcomed!

Now, the sun is poking through. Ah, sweet, warm, sunshine. Until the next storm...

After spending hours clearing snow, you give up for a bit.
I know one of our vehicles is under there someplace!

Sunday, January 8, 2017

Atmospheric Rivers Can Dump 10 Feet Of Snow During One Storm

As I write this, the National Weather Service has issued stern warnings for Tahoe and the surrounding area. They say an atmospheric river is going to take aim directly at Tahoe beginning early Sunday morning. If the weather people are correct, come Sunday we will be struggling with massive rainfall, 6 - 12 inches over the next 24 hours.

The snow levels are expected to be high, 8000 - 9000 feet, which, considering the amount of moisture involved, is good for those of us who live here. Why? Because if an inch of rain falls instead as snow, you can get up to a foot of snow. If all this moisture fell as snow, we'd get 6 - 12 FEET. Ask a Tahoe local, and you'll hear that we can handle 4 feet of snow at once. However, 12 feet would be a bit much.

But imagine all that snow up at 8000 or 9000 feet. Those higher elevations could be hit with a major dump of fresh pow. So, skiers and boarders, consider what it will be like at the top of Heavenly, Tahoe's highest area (Remember that both Kirkwood and Mt. Rose are almost as high). On both the California and Nevada sides of Heavenly, the highest chairlift bases are around 8500 feet. The Sky Chair on the California chair goes up to 10,000 feet. The Dipper and Comet chairs on the Nevada side go up almost as high. Mt. Rose rises to 9700 feet and Kirkwood tops out at 9800 feet.

While Tahoe's lower elevations are flooding with rain, our upper elevations will likely have epic snow.

P.S. Over the last week, most of the ski areas got 6 feet or more of snow. They're about to get a substantial addition in a short period of time. Stay tuned...

Sunday, January 1, 2017

A Thanks That's Almost 30 Years Overdue

I often get asked who my influences are...

The answer includes many important mystery and thriller writers such as Raymond Chandler, Robert Parker, and, of course, John D. MacDonald. Other important influences are writing teachers, and one stands out for me.

Back in 1986, a debut novel titled Red Earth, White Earth was published to critical and commercial acclaim. Written by a creative writing professor in Minnesota named Will Weaver, Red Earth, White Earth was about two young friends, one white and one Chippewa, and the way they coped with the struggles of Native Americans in a largely white society.

The novel, which was made into a movie, was an impressive story. It has stayed with me to this day, thirty years later. At the time it came out, I'd written a couple of novels, both of which are still in a drawer. When I learned that Will would be teaching a week-long workshop on novel writing at the Duluth campus of the University of Minnesota, I was probably the first to sign up.

The workshop was great, and Will's insight was so helpful that I remember many of his comments to this day. He was also kind enough to give me post-workshop input on one of my manuscripts.

Not long after that workshop, Will published a short story called A Gravestone Made Of Wheat. It was the story of a young woman who emigrates from Norway to Minnesota to marry a Norwegian American farmer. I've revisited this story many times and I still think it is the single most powerful short story I've ever read. A Gravestone Made Of Wheat was also made into a movie called Sweet Land, which was also good.

Will's other novels are great, too, and one of them, Memory Boy, has even been turned into an opera! (Just try to imagine Owen McKenna and Spot-meets-Verdi - Oooh, I'm envious.)

I've attended multiple workshops and writing conferences over the years. The week I spent at Will's workshop is still the high point of those experiences.

Will continues to teach outside of the classroom with his blog In The Write. In it you will find helpful tips on writing, an insider's look at the business, and trenchant observations about changes in the publishing industry.

Will Weaver is a serious writer of literary fiction. As a writer of entertainment fiction, my work is substantially different. Yet, I've always considered Will one of my major influences. I still hear his sage advice, I still remember his helpful critique, and I still value his early support of my writing.

My hat's off to Will, a great novelist as well as a great writing teacher.

Sunday, December 25, 2016

Tahoe Dark Is Free Today

Today's the day. Tahoe Dark is Free on Kindle. Tell your friends. Here's the link to the book on Amazon:

ENJOY! and Happy Holidays!

Sunday, December 18, 2016

Tahoe Dark - Free On Kindle On Christmas

In celebration of the Christmas holiday, Tahoe Dark will be free on Kindle beginning on Christmas and running until December 29th.

Those of you reading this blog might already have a copy in your Kindle or a print book on your shelf. However, you probably know other readers who might like to try my latest at no cost. If so, consider passing on this information to them.

In either event, thank you all so much for your continued interest and support!

Happy Holidays!

Sunday, December 11, 2016

He Said, She Said... Really? Do I Have To?

In the novel I was recently reading, one of the dialogues went something like this:

"Don't put lighter fluid in the wood stove," she said.
"You think it will explode?" he asked.
"Maybe. It's definitely dangerous."
"I suppose I'm playing with fire, ha, ha."
"It probably depends on how hot the stove is."
"And how volatile lighter fluid is."
"Are there different kinds of lighter fluid?"
"Good question. Either way, there must be safer fire starters for stoves."
"What about those wax logs?"
"I've never tried that. Do you have to start with kindling? Or can you just light them with a match?"
"I don't know, but I've heard that if you break them up when they're burning, they become an inferno."

At about this point, I'd gone back two different times to try to figure out who was speaking. There are few things more frustrating.

Yes, the dialogue could have been constructed to make the identity of the speaker more obvious. But this confusion happens to all of us readers. So why do writers do this? If you asked the writer, he would probably say it is obvious who the speaker is, and that those pesky 'he said, she said' dialogue tags are obnoxious. Sure, it's obvious to writer. But the rest of us are in the dark.

In an ideal world, the different speakers would have speaking styles so distinct that the reader could tell who is speaking just by the words. The problem is that the author knows who's speaking, so the author can't adequately judge how clear it will be to the reader. In addition, maybe the reader is fatigued, reading in bed, not paying careful attention to what they're reading. (I know, shocking to consider that, huh?!)

The bottom line is that when in doubt, writers should insert a 'he said' or 'she said' every now and then to help make it clear. (Or 'Joe said' or 'Susan said')

There are variations on the theme using action.

Susan was drinking a beer when she saw Joe open the door of the wood stove. "Don't put lighter fluid in the stove."
"You think it will explode?" Joe looked at the charcoal lighter bottle.

The writer can often utilize this, but it can become tedious.

He said or she said is largely invisible. And no matter how much you don't like it, it is better than making your reader get out a pencil and making her own dialogue tags in the margins.

P.S. Whatever you do, don't put in dramatic dialogue tags like he retorted, she barked angrily, he yelled at the top of his lungs. Those are over-the-top cliches and call unnecessary attention to themselves, distracting readers away from the very dialogue you are trying to perfect.

Sunday, December 4, 2016

Writer's Dilemma: Making Sales Or Finding Readers?

I had an interesting conversation with another writer at the San Mateo Harvest Festival, where I was exhibiting books in November. (Note that I've been singing the praises of such festivals for years. In the beginning, I was the only writer. This time, there were 4 writers. All sold books! Did they pay their expenses or even make money? I don't know. But they made a lasting impression on readers! And that is what this blog post is about.)

Anyway, our question was whether a writer should focus on selling books or finding readers. The two concepts are different in important ways, and the other writer agreed that focusing on finding readers is more important than focusing on making sales.

Let's break it down. Selling books is obviously important, for it can help pay for everything, including the books the writer is hauling around in the trunk of their car. Selling books provides money for marketing and gives an author an important sense that they are doing something valuable. It also moves one toward quitting the day job, which, when it happens, opens up a whole world of possibilities, not the least of which is the time to write more books!

The ring of the cash register is a powerful reinforcement that one's writing is valuable.

By contrast, focusing on finding readers gives a writer a new way to look at their career. A focus on finding readers draws an author to libraries and book clubs and encourages one to send out review copies. None of those pursuits will generate much, if any, in direct sales. But they are powerful ways of building a career.

Finding readers is the critical part of building a writing career. The sales will follow.
Unfortunately, some writers try these things and then decide it wasn't worth it because they didn't make many sales.

Let me elaborate. Let's say you send out a bunch of review copies of your books. It will cost you the price of the books, plus the postage, plus packing, plus a lot of time in finding addresses of potential reviewers. And some of the people you send review copies to will not review them. Some will even turn around and sell them on eBay or on Amazon Marketplace. You will be tempted to feel outraged. You sent off a free book, and someone else turns it into money! Not fair!

But stop for a moment and think about it. Some of the reviewers or maybe even most of them will review your book and post the review on Goodreads or Amazon or in their local newspaper. There is nothing better for a writing career than reviews. And the ones who are trying to sell your book for a quick few dollars? They are giving you free advertising! Every person who sees those listings gets a small, subliminal impression of your book! Imagine a reader looking up your book on Amazon and seeing that 25 copies are for sale from Marketplace sellers. Without articulating it to themselves, they think that this is a popular book. How else did all these people end up with copies?!

Let's think about book clubs and library appearances. When I started out, I took every opportunity to participate in those whenever I could. Sometimes I would sell a few books. But usually it wasn't enough to do more than pay for gas. But here's a secret... While readers will forget the author of that bestseller they read 18 months ago, they'll never forget the author who came to their book club and talked books while he or she sipped some wine with them. Meeting people and spending a little time with them is the most powerful thing an author can do. It's even more important than the quality of your book! And when those book club members are trying to think of a book to give people on their gift list, they will often think of yours, simply because you charmed them in person. And when they order your book on Amazon, they'll tell the recipient that they met the author. Your book becomes special as a result.

Lets do some numbers. Imagine that you put the word out that you are available and eager to visit book clubs and libraries. (You do this on your social media and you send out an email to your list and you make it prominent on your website, and you put on nice clothes and take your book postcard into libraries and introduce yourself and tell them you love to visit book clubs and libraries.) After you have a few books out, you'll start getting requests. (The reason is that an author with a bunch of books seems like a "real" writer compared to the person with 1 book.)

Give yourself a goal of visiting 12 book clubs or library groups a year. The average group might be only 10 people. That's 120 people who will always remember you and your books. Now do that for 10 years. That's 1200 people. You might say, "Are you telling me this is going to take ten years?!" No. But what else are you going to do for your writing career over the next 10 years? This is a "why not" scenario.

When 1200 people potentially think of you every time they want a new book, that adds up to measurable sales. And many of those people will tell other readers about you. In fact, after a time, you'll discover that many people who were at those book clubs have become your cheer leading squad, telling everybody about this author they know.

What about all the other authors out there? As an author, you have almost uncountable colleagues who have published books and are hoping to sell them. But most of those authors won't take the simple steps of visiting reading groups and libraries, i.e., reaching out to readers. Most won't send out review copies. Most will just sit back with an attitude of, 'I built it, but no one is coming. What's wrong that I don't have readers?'

If, unlike those writers, you focus on finding readers, if you persist in this process, you will build an audience. And that audience will buy each new book you write. (Visit my other blog posts on writing to see the importance of writing multiple books and keeping a regular production schedule.)

Remember what Einstein said. Persistence trumps genius. Keep at it, and never give up.

Oh, and get to work writing on that next book!

We build a writing career one reader at a time. Get your books into the hands of readers, and they will spread the word...

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?


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.