Sunday, June 28, 2015

The Downside Of Being A Writer - Outer Space Eggs

I spend a lot of time on the road. Festivals, talks, book signings. I always bring a cooler with my meals. I also bring a microwave. Yes, you read that correctly. I travel with a small microwave and bring it into my motel/hotel rooms to cook my dinner that I've brought from home. 

Sometimes in the morning, I venture to the "House Breakfast" room to consider an alternative to my mostly-coffee, in-room meal. Hotel breakfast meals are usually sugary muffins or sugary cereals with a choice of banana or orange. There is also what I call the "Outer Space Eggs" box. This is a plexi-glass cabinet. Inside are usually three trays. One has piles of sausage patties, and one has piles of bacon. The third has yellow, folded, half circles of spongy rubber material. Think yellow Frisbee heated up until it can be folded in half. And squirted into the folded Frisbee is a kind of milky, orange, polyurethane material that is a fourth cousin to imitation cheese sauce and served at four degrees above room temperature.

Please know that I appreciate that hotels provide food-like items. And I especially appreciate the efforts of the people who do the work of preparing and displaying the food. They do what they're told and work with what they're given. And after the groggy-eyed customers have attempted eating, the workers clean up the mess.

But Outer Space Eggs are to real eggs like colored water is to Scotch - a prop for a stage play that even a desperate actor wouldn't actually consume, a prop that the audience knows is a folded, yellow Frisbee.

Writing is the best job in the world. But even the best jobs have a downside.

Outer Space Eggs.

Sunday, June 21, 2015

Sneak Preview - Tahoe Blue Fire!

The new Owen McKenna mystery is in the pipeline, and I'm excited about it! It's called TAHOE BLUE FIRE. This is the 13th book in the Tahoe mystery series.

TAHOE BLUE FIRE is about a series of murders that appear to be motivated by an amazing artifact from the Italian Renaissance 500 years ago, an artifact that may have appeared in modern-day Tahoe. The number one suspect in the case is a former pro football player named Adam Simms who is suffering traumatic brain injury from his days on the gridiron. Detective Owen McKenna wonders if Simms is being framed. But he may also be a diabolical killer who is faking brain injury...

TAHOE BLUE FIRE will be out at the end of July. I hope you enjoy it!

Here's a link to more info:

Sunday, June 14, 2015

Being An Author: The Hardest Part vs. The Most Important Part

One of the most common questions I get is, “What is the most important part of being an author?” Another is, “What is the hardest part of being an author?”

Good questions. The answers are totally different.

Back in the early 1990s, Michael Pietsch gave a talk at the Squaw Valley Community of Writers, a major writers’ conference. For those of you who are interested, I recommend it. I went and learned a lot. At the time, Pietsch was Editor-in-Chief at Little Brown (think James Patterson, Michael Connelly). Now, he is Publisher at Hachette, Little Brown’s parent company. Talking about the consolidation in the publishing business, which was getting to full steam right about then, Pietsch said that while a good book was important to publishers, an author’s platform was much more important. He explained that, in considering what books to publish, the focus of New York publishers was deciding which authors had a chance of selling 25,000 copies in hardcover. The main driver of what helps an author sell books is how well that author is known. Does he or she have a syndicated newspaper column that will help sell books? A radio show? Is she the CEO of a big company with lots of employees who might buy her book? Is her aunt a producer on Oprah? Is she a celebrity? Famous or infamous? Is he or she - sorry to say it - beautiful and charming and articulate on the fly? (Those qualities that draw lots of attention in a TV-focused world.)

The measures of platform helped to explain the rumors that Saul Bellow, who’d won the Nobel Prize for Literature and was arguably America’s greatest living writer, had a new novel he couldn’t get published while Paris Hilton could get a book deal well into six figures. Bellow was a wonderful writer but not someone that many people remember as being prime guest material for, say, Jimmy Fallon’s gig.

It all gets down to how big is your impact on the vast pool of readers.

By comparison, a good book, while important, was not as critical as platform. That was true in the early 90s, and it’s still true today. Which brings me to the focus of this piece.

The hardest thing about being an author is not the same as the most important thing. (Note that this all presupposes that the author believes that an audience is critical to the equation.)

The hardest part of being an author is writing a good book. The most important part is figuring out how to get that book in front of readers. Mr. Bellow nailed the hardest part. Ms. Hilton nailed the most important part.

Let’s revisit what makes a good book (focusing, for these purposes, on fiction). You need a gripping story, told with authority and flair. You need to find the magic that gets your reader to suspend their disbelief such that, even though they know your book is fiction, they “buy” into it and get as involved as if the story were true. You need characters that readers connect with, characters that we love or hate, cheer or hiss, worry about or hope will die. You need to have a rising plot curve that makes it difficult for readers to put down the book. You need all the subtleties of clear and lively writing. You need to have an unerring ear for the way people talk as well as the ability to describe action and emotion so that the reader is never distracted by the writing. You need to have mastered all the mechanics of prose, point of view, dialogue, action, and the dreaded exposition. You need to understand and employ foreshadowing for every critical scene in your novel. You need your writing to be intelligent. You may even need the subject of your novel to be educational for the reader who is looking to learn something from every book they read. Last, you need to imbue your writing with that undefinable characteristic of stickiness such that the reader will stay with your book and, when finished, will buy your other books.

This book writing stuff is easy if all you’re trying to do is get 350 pages of stuff down. But if you want an audience larger than your mother and your best bud, it is really quite hard. Think of the books you’ve read - or started to read - that just don’t do it for you. The author went through all the motions and tried very hard, but the book didn’t grab you. If you are the writer, this is a daunting task. Writing a good book is the hardest part of being an author.

But it ain’t the most important part.

Once you have some good books, you will badly want to find readers. I’ve heard of a few authors who wrote dozens novels without finding an audience. Apparently, they were sufficiently satisfied with the joys of writing stories. But they are rare. You should expect to publish more than one book before you find much of an audience. But after several books, most of us will start to develop a strong urge to see other campers enjoying the bonfire we’ve carefully built.

So how does one pursue this “most important” part of being an author?

You identify the people you know or sort of know and you reach out to them with mail and email and social media posts and tweets and Facebook posts and a blog and whatever else you can think of. You figure out how to get the media talking or writing about your book. You participate in blog tours and online discussions. You join author circles where each author promotes every other author’s book. You plan as many “events” as you possibly can, giving talks, participating in panel discussions, making presentations at service clubs, going to libraries and bookstores. In short, you make appearances of any kind where you can introduce your book. Then you introduce it! “Hi there. I’m here today introducing my new book. It’s about .... I think it’s good, and I’m proud of it, and I’d love to have you give it a try!”

Is this easy? No. It’s very hard. Especially for introverts who make up 95% of serious writers. (Because authors by definition need to spend most of their time alone, writing and thinking. The extroverted, life-of-the-party, office gadfly rarely makes a good writer because social interaction and writing are mutually exclusive.)

Jane Austen, drawn by her sister Cassandra.
Austen was likely an introvert. If she were alive today,
she probably would have a very hard time getting
published because she had no platform.

Hard as working your platform is, it’s the most important part of finding an audience for your books. You have to get tough and get to it. When you succeed at earning a living from writing, you’ll be ecstatic, because making up stories is the best job in the world.

Sunday, June 7, 2015

The New Number One Rule To Writing Success

Find a narrow niche and own it.

You're a novelist. You want to find an audience beyond your mother and your best friend. (Because there's no greater thrill than having strangers write to you and tell you how much they love your books.) There's just one big - very big - problem.

The world of books is saturated. 

Amazon now has something like 12 million books available. But there are only about 12 million really dedicated, addicted readers in this country. If each of them read 100 books a year, and if all books sold the same, that would mean your masterpiece would sell 100 copies a year. That would provide you with one or two hundred bucks a year in income. Not enough to buy a Starbucks frap more than once a week. Double the number of readers, the picture doesn't change much.

What's worse is that the above scenario is very generous. The reason is that most of the books in readers' Kindles or on their bookshelves are written by famous authors. So unknown authors have a hard time getting anyone to look at their book. In fact, I looked at one of the popular internet publishers. (Note that I strongly recommend you avoid using internet publishers.) I divided the total books reported sold by the total number of titles available. The result? The average novel they publish has sold less than two copies. 

By contrast, I once read in Publishers Weekly that the average novel published by print publishers sells 80 copies. Big by comparison, but still very bleak.

Where are the authors whose books sell enough to earn a living? They're out there, and we know their names. But they are a tiny percentage of all authors.

Does this mean that all those books by unknown authors are no good? Not at all. Some are masterpieces. This is simply the reality of too many books chasing too few readers. Which brings us to the new number one rule of writing success.

Find a narrow niche and own it.

This is the big fish/little pond concept. Let's say you've written a romance or mystery or fantasy. Or maybe you've invented a new genre. Further, let's say your book is really good and has a fascinating, sympathetic character in major trouble going up against one of the all-time greatest villains. David vs. Goliath. Write a great book and readers will come, right?

Unfortunately, millions of other authors feel the same way about their book. Every year there are another million titles out there. Another romance or mystery or fantasy or mainstream novel has almost no chance of making a blip on the graph.

Which authors have the greatest chance of finding an audience? Those who choose a niche that is narrow enough that their book pops up whenever someone looks for something in that niche.

Let's look at examples. Let's say someone wants to read a great thriller with a racing plot and heroic characters and a world's-about-to-end story line. What would they do? Search for that description on Amazon? Or Google? Probably not. More likely, the reader would think of a subject they really enjoy and search for that. Religious mysteries. Or time-travel fantasy. Or archaeology thrillers. Or twisted psychological novels. If so, would your book pop up? No. More likely they would find a book by Dan Brown or Diana Gabaldon or James Rollins or Gillian Flynn. 

The problem is that general search terms only bring up books that are already popular. Most authors who try to write those kinds of books never find any audience. There is too much competition and the field is utterly dominated by current big-name authors.

If, however, you write a book series that has an unusual story thread about, let's say, a history book club of elderly women who find a way to time-travel to the time just before Christ and, using their knowledge of how historical movements survive, help Caesar come to power. If you write that, you stand a very good chance of owning that niche by the time you've published just a few books in the series. 

Is the audience for this subject large? Probably not. At least, not yet. But there are people who love to read about the Roman Empire, and there are readers who love time travel. Those readers will periodically search on such subjects. Whenever their combined search terms get close to your books, they will pop up, often at the top of the search results. The reason is simply that your books will be the only series with this unique niche.

Assuming your books are well written and professionally edited and have professional covers, those few early readers will spread the word. Eventually, your narrow niche will grow. It may even become popular enough that other writers will try to adopt your niche, which simply gives it more credibility. Whatever attention those writers are able to get will build your audience. Everyone will compare their books to yours because you created the niche. In any discussion of those other writers, you will get mentioned. You will own your niche.

You may be wondering, "But what if no one cares about my narrow subject and my book doesn't take off?" That may be the case. But if you try to be one more of the 12 million minnows in the big pond, that will almost certainly be the case. Choosing a narrow niche at least gives you a chance.

This approach doesn't just work with writing books, either. Jeff Bezos could have decided to jump into the big pond and open a regular bookstore just like everyone else. Instead, he chose a niche so narrow that no one had ever thought of it. Selling books online. What kind of nut case was he? But he immediately became the biggest fish in what was then a very small pond. Of course, that pond grew a bit. And every imitator that came along only boosted his rep.

So how do you pick a niche for your book series? The obvious ones are easy. 

Pick a setting that is not featured in any other series. (Just Google your idea to find out - "books set in Anytown, Arkansas." ) Every person who grew up in, or is otherwise interested in, Anytown will be intrigued by your books. And people who've never heard of Anytown will be curious about books set in such an obscure place. 

Pick an occupation for your protagonist that isn't featured in any other books. Yes, the obvious occupations, like Medical Examiner, are already over-represented. But has anyone written a series featuring an ex-convict woman who makes hand-built, wooden sailing yachts that are prized by smugglers? You get the idea.

Pick a time-and-subject combination that isn't featured in any other books. A gay circus strongman set in the 16th century. A woman physicist who was Einstein's secret paramour and who also gave him many of his best ideas. A mother who's never slept with any man but her husband but discovers that the DNA of her children came from another man. An astronomer who discovers an intelligent laser transmission from outside of the solar system, a transmission that comes from himself in the future. (Maybe that one's been done - I'm not a SciFi expert.) The point is that it's relatively easy to come up with unusual ideas that can be intriguing.

What if you've already written the first novel or two in a series? It's not hard to retrofit them into a narrow niche. Look at your story arc and your characters and consider how they might be changed to take your novel from one of the masses to one that's unique. You might be surprised at how easy it is. The reason is that all stories have similar basic components. Changing the costumes and the stage and some of the themes is not that difficult. Bringing your novel into a narrow niche will distinguish it from a million others.

If you find a narrow niche and own it, you will find an audience. Then the only question is how big you can grow it.

Sunday, May 31, 2015

Tahoe Farmers' Markets

As summer approaches, people start thinking about Farmers' Markets!

But can you find any up in the mountains?

Yes, you can! As of this writing, we have a bunch scheduled all around the lake! I've organized them by territory and weekday.



June 5 - August 28 from 3 - 8 pm
Located on Ski Run Blvd, just up from Lake Tahoe Blvd.
South Lake Tahoe, CA

June 2 - October 5 from 8 am - 1 pm
Located at the American Legion Hall parking lot
2732 South Lake Tahoe Blvd (Hwy 50)
South Lake Tahoe, CA


May 6 - September 16  4 pm - 7 pm
Located at Kahle Community Park
236 Kingsbury Grade
Stateline, NV


May 7 - September 24  4 pm - 7 pm
Located at Tunnel Creek
1115 Tunnel Creek Road
Incline Village, NV


May 8 - September 22 (except July 3) 10 am - 2 pm
Located at the Tahoe Biltmore Hotel #5 U.S. Highway 28
Crystal Bay, NV


May 28 - June 18 & August 27 - September 24  8 am - 1 pm
Located at the Tahoe City Commons Beach
Commons Beach Rd and North Lake Blvd.
Tahoe City, CA

June 25 -  August 20, 8 am - Noon
Located at Tahoe City's Tahoe Lake Elementary School
375 Grove Street
Tahoe City, CA


June 2 - October 20  8 am - 1 pm
Located at Truckee River Regional Park
10500 Brockway Road off Highway 267
Truckee, CA

Sunday, May 24, 2015

The Tao Of Tahoe

Okay, bear with me for a moment. 

Photo courtesy of Wikipedia

My wife and I were out on a hike. We talked as we often do. But we also were silent for a few miles, she no doubt pondering the mountains, forests, lake, and art, while I ruminated on the same, mountains, forests, lake, and writing. Yeah, I know, it sounds pretty trippy.

But many times there is an amazing thing that happens in the mountains where swirling clouds that one would never notice on the flats are given dimension as they wrap around the mountains, drop some snow flurries, and then evaporate into the blue. Just as quickly, the snowflakes evaporate, never pausing for that middle step of melting into water drops. They even have a word for that, ice crystals evaporating. It's called sublimation.

When it happens - the clouds, the snow flurries, and other phenomena that is beautiful to the point that words are insufficient to describe it - and then that beauty disappears, it leaves you at a loss. At once, you are so impressed with what you've seen that you want to tell the person next to you.

But a moment later, you can't point it out to anyone because it has disappeared. 

Life is full of ephemera. Beautiful ephemera.

Half way around the world, there are Chinese monks that have taken the ephemera of life - the Tao of Life - and made it into something bigger. So when I saw the picture above, I was frozen for a moment. Here's a guy who is painting calligraphy with water on stone. The work is beautiful, striking, impressive. And in just fifteen minutes, it will be gone forever. Like those spectacular clouds hugging the mountains. In a fit of huff and puff, they hurl a soft, downy, white rain that blankets the world and entices us for two minutes.

Then it's gone. Beautiful ephemera.

The Tao of Tahoe.

Sunday, May 17, 2015

The One Animal Whose Eyes Can Change Your Brain Chemistry

Yet another study is out showing the remarkable relationship between dogs and people.

This study got fancy. Japanese scientists found out that both dogs and people who gazed into each other's eyes developed elevated levels of a hormone-like chemical called Oxytocin. Sometimes referred to as the "Cuddle Hormone," Oxytocin creates a wide range of positive effects that lead to bonding, attachment, and it plays a significant role between mothers and babies.

The study demonstrates that dogs and humans have a special - maybe even unique - relationship. When we spend time with dogs and stare into their eyes as they stare into ours, good stuff happens to our brains and to dogs' brains as well. 

Here are links to information about the study:
Scientific American
Today Health
Medical Daily

All pets are valuable. But dogs provide something extra to celebrate. Dogs are good for us, and we are good for them.

Now go give your dog a pet, look into her eyes, and watch how she looks back at you. Aside from dogs and people, no other animals on the planet will ever look at you that way.

Sunday, May 10, 2015

Will The Drought Affect Tahoe Boating?

The short answer is yes.
But will there still be great boating experiences to be had on Tahoe in the summer of 2015?
Absolutely, but with a caveat. Read on...
Lake Tahoe is 1645 feet deep, so there will be water to enjoy no matter how long the drought lasts.
But the key to enjoyment is found in the size of your boat!
For those of you who like to bring your own boat to Tahoe, you need to know that the number of boat launches available to use this summer will be restricted. Some will never open because the water level is already below their ramps. For example, Sand Harbor State Park already announced that their boat launch will not open this year. Other ramps around the lake will be open but only for smaller boats.

The biggest issue is the draft of your boat. If it has very little draft like a Jet Ski, you will have more success. If you have a deep-keel sailboat, this is not your year for Tahoe.

There are multiple websites that provide boat launch information, but this summer it's especially important to confirm launch information by phone or email before you make plans. As the water level continues to drop, boat ramp availability will change throughout the summer. Here are some websites with launch information:

Cave Rock Boat Launch (East Shore)
El Dorado County Boat Launch in South Lake Tahoe (South Shore)
North Tahoe Boat Launch Facities (North Shore)
Obexer's Boat Launch (West Shore)

As always, remember that ALL boats (even kayaks and paddleboards) must be inspected at one of the inspection stations. To go out on Tahoe without an inspection is to risk infecting the lake with nasty foreign critters (mussels, fish, sea weed) that will spread through the lake and do it irreparable harm. (And of course, there are large fines and worse for interlopers!) Here's a blogpost on Tahoe Boat Inspections.

Another great approach this year is to rent your boat, i.e., a boat that is already in the water. There are many businesses around the lake that won't let you launch your own boat, but they'll let you rent one of theirs. An example is Camp Richardson.

Camp Rich is on the southwest corner of Tahoe. They have multiple kinds of boats to rent.
In addition to the marinas that rent boats, there are several "beach vendors" that bring kayaks to the beach so you can rent them there. Check out Kayak Tahoe.

Or, if you want to go on an organized kayak tour, check out Tahoe Paddle.

Tahoe Paddle will take you to great boating locations
Perhaps you want to get out on the lake in the easiest way possible. Consider taking a ride on a tour boat. Some tour boats won't be in operation this year because of the low water. But others will. 

The Tahoe Queen is just one of several tour boats that will give you a great tour.
Check out the Tahoe Queen. (South Shore and Southeast Shore)
Tahoe Gal (North Shore)
Safari Rose (Sails from Roundhill Pines Resort on the East Shore, but they have free shuttle service from many points around the lake.

The Safari Rose is an 80-foot luxury yacht that gives tours all over the lake.

Now comes important information to consider if you want to maximize your potential fun and minimize your potential frustration.

Consider making this season the year of the Kayak, Paddleboard, or Canoe. Why? Because then you can launch your boat without an official boat launch facility. You merely bring your paddle-powered craft (after you get your inspection, of course) to any lakeside park or public beach and carry your craft to the water! If you want to make it even easier, you can get wheels for your craft. Here's an example of Amazon's Kayak Carts.

Here's a post on launching a kayak from Baldwin Beach.

Paddle-powered craft are unaffected by the drought!

The bottom line is that, with a few adjustments in your expectations, boating on Lake Tahoe will be great during the summer of 2015!

Sunday, May 3, 2015

Psst... Want To See A Great Concert In Tahoe This Summer?

Sure, Tahoe is increasingly known for year-round recreation. It's been decades since people flew in from all over to gamble in the mountains. However, now you can gamble anywhere. But there is still only one place in the world with our combination of hiking, biking, boating, and skiing all centered around the highest, biggest, clearest lake in the Northern Hemisphere.

While people often think the big stars (think Sinatra and company) left with the big gambling days, the reality is that some of the biggest stars in the world - people like Elton John (Billboard's #1 solo male artist ever), Aerosmith (biggest American rock band ever), and others - still come to perform in Tahoe, and this summer is no exception.

All of the events listed are at the big South Shore Hotels.

Here's a list of coming concerts by dates:

May 23   Boz Scaggs (Mont Bleu)
May 30   Big Bad Voodoo Daddy (Harrah's)
June 6    Elvin Bishop (Harrah's)
June 6    Foreigner (Mont Bleu)
June 11  Brad Paisley, Justin Moore & Mickey Guyton (Harveys) 
June 20  Dave Mason's Traffic Jam (Harrah's)
July  3    Aerosmith (Harveys)
July  18  Imagine Dragons (Harveys)
July  18  Carlos Mencia (Mont Bleu)
July  21  Train The Fray & Matt Hathanson (Harveys)
July  22  Kenny Chesney (Harveys)
Aug  1    Three Dog Night (Mont Bleu)
Aug  7   Jackson Browne (Harveys)
Aug  8   Elton John (Harveys)
Aug  13 Slightly Stoopin, Dirty Heads & Stick Figure (Harveys)
Aug  23 Dierks Bentley  (Harveys)
Sep  5  Sammy Hagar and the Circle (Harveys)
Sep  9  Dave Matthews Band (Harveys)

Come on up the mountain and take in some tunes!

Sunday, April 26, 2015

Tahoe Highway Avalanche Control

Now that our driest winter in history is nearly over, it was a good time to get up on slopes that are normally buried in snow and check out what is used for avalanche control.

I was curious about Highway 50 where it comes down from Echo Summit.
This is the last big curve as you drive down from Echo Summit.
Just on the other side of that rock, up a thousand feet, is Echo Lakes.

In the old days, Hawley Grade was the rugged route from the far end of what we now call Christmas Valley up and over Echo Summit. It was the trail used by the Pony Express along with miners and settlers during the late 19th century. More about Hawley Grade in a future post.

The first modern road was what we now call Meyer's Grade. It was and still is a good road, although a bit steep for vehicles in the snow. It is now closed and used primarily by walkers. They only open it up for traffic when the newer highway gets closed by avalanches. Here are two posts about Meyer's Grade. Meyer's Grade hike and Meyer's Grade to Echo Lake hike.

Which brings me to this post.

The newer Echo Summit Highway (Hwy 50) was stretched out to make a shallower grade. The road, as you can see above, loops around under the rocky ridge that makes up the north side of Echo Lakes. Unfortunately, during snowy winters, the highway has a huge problem.


I met an old-timer at a book event, and he explained it to me. Back when the newer road was constructed, in the 1950s or '60s - I forget - he worked on the crew that designed and built the highway. He said they'd laid out the entire route, focusing on the percent of grade, the drainage, and all the other stuff that highway builders concentrate on. They were well into the project- too far in to make changes - when someone looked up at the massive slope of smooth rock above the road and said, "Gosh, I bet this is one of those places where snow slides pretty easily."

Talk about an understatement.

The Echo Summit highway is one of the worst for avalanches anywhere. Smooth, steep rock rising up thirteen hundred vertical feet in an area famous for massive snowfalls. For example, in the winter of 2010-2011, Echo Summit received around 700 inches of snow.

The result is sometimes continuous avalanches. At times, the avalanches will bury the highway 20 feet deep in heavy compressed snow. To keep the highway open requires serious avalanche control. (For comparison, the slopes above the Old Meyer's Grade are forested, and trees are very good at holding snow in place.)

The basic process is this. Instead of waiting for massive snow pack to build up and possibly release in a catastrophic slide, they create frequent, smallish, man-made slides. After a storm, Caltrans closes the highway so no one gets hurt, then they use a range of ways to make the snow slide.

The main one is air cannons. We hiked from Echo Lake, over the ridge to take a look at them.
Note the Echo Summit Highway down below in both pictures

They are called Gazex cannons. Made by a French manufacturer TAS, they consist of a big curved pipe, which is filled with a mixture of propane and oxygen. The operator, sitting in an office in Meyers, runs them from a computer. When the signal is given, the gas is ignited, and it explodes in a serious percussive Whump, directing the blast down at the snow. The shock wave is significant (You can hear it miles away - it sounds like an artillery explosion or a sonic boom) and the blast release any snow that is ready to slide.

Gazex exploding to release a controlled avalanche

There are several of these Gazex cannons spread across the rock face above the highway.

But what if they aren't enough?

At the bottom of the slope is a Gun House that has a LoCat-type cannon that is operated by compressed air. It shoots an explosive projectile up onto the slope. The projectile explodes and releases the nearby snow.

Zooming my camera lense from above, you can just see the Gun house in the picture. It sits near the bottom of the rocky slope.

The Avalanche Gun House up close

Behind those green doors is a compressed air cannon. After a major snow storm, the cannon can be pointed at any problem area on the slope above to shoot down the snow.

Most of us tend to take clear highways for granted. But keeping them clear is a big deal in snow country. (Except this dry year!)

Sunday, April 19, 2015

Bookfest Solano Keynote Speech

Last weekend I gave the Keynote Speech at Bookfest Solano. Afterward, I had many requests for copies of the speech, so I decided to post the entire talk here.
You may print and use any or all of my words, but please give me credit and, where appropriate, include a link to this blog. Thank you.

Thank you all for coming. I’m honored to be part of Bookfest Solano.
When I was first asked to talk, I understood that Bookfest Solano was for both readers and writers. But after today, I realize that there are more writers here than I’d anticipated.
So before I get into my main subject, I want to say a few words about the writing side of the reading/writing equation.

Many of us writers think that writing is the greatest job in the world. Why? Well, we get to stay up as late as we want, we get to sleep in as late as we want, our commute is from the coffee maker to our desk, and - here’s the main part - all we do is make up stuff. And what’s involved in that? Arranging words. On paper, on screen, that’s all we do. We move words around until they make a story. How hard is that compared to a real job where you have to be at the office or the loading dock everyday at eight in the morning?
Of course, there are other perspectives on the business of writing. Steinbeck said that, "Compared to writing, horse racing is a solid stable business." Frank Allen, a comedian back in the 1950s - not to be confused with Steve Allen - Frank had an even more basic take on this business of arranging words. He said, "Why on Earth would anyone spend an entire year writing a novel, when you can buy one for a few bucks?"
Well, tonight, the answer will be found in the future of reading and writing.
My talk is called:
The Secret Future Of Books Revealed
What Bookstores, a Disney musical, and Hip 6th Graders Tell Us About The Resurgence Of Reading In America

My talk is all good news. Actually, it’s great news. Whether you’re a reader or a writer. The news is that reading is bigger than ever. And reading among the coming generation is huge. We’ve all heard the concerns about reading fading away, bookstores closing, kids spending all their time playing video games. As of tonight, you can relax. The sky isn’t falling, and I’ll explain how I know that.

But let’s start by talking about story. Not about a particular story. Just story. What makes stories tick. And in that ticking - for anyone who tells stories - are the keys to making your story tighter, punchier, and more capable of robbing your readers of sleep.
When Joseph Campbell wrote The Hero with a Thousand Faces back in 1949, he outlined the hero’s journey and the basic components of stories. Some of the most enduring stories of all time, from those of the world’s major religions to the writings of authors from Cervantes to Shakespeare, Tolstoy to Twain, Joyce to Hemingway and beyond exhibit many of Campbell’s elements. We now know that people are hard-wired for stories that contain these characteristics.
George Lucas has explained that when he wrote Star Wars, he specifically based the story on the mythology that Campbell wrote about. That movie became the highest grossing movie of all time and held that record for six years.
True or fictional, if you tell us a story with a sympathetic, sometimes reluctant, character (the protagonist) who is in terrible trouble and who tries to solve his or her problem only to have the trouble get much, much worse, and if you include in the story an evil, all-powerful antagonist, whether Satan or Darth Vader or even a crippling emotional problem, people will respond. It’s in our neurological wiring. The audience will cheer the good guy and hiss the bad guy and stay riveted through the story’s climax and denouement.
This trouble that imbues all fiction exists across all genres. Even in a romance or a comedy, the character’s trouble seems - to the character - like the potential death of all that the character wants most in life. As readers, we see that passion and yearning that may never be fulfilled, and we care deeply about that.

Joseph Campbell, Carl Jung, and others figured out that these iconic mythical story structures date from the earliest stories. Maybe it was as simple as prehistoric parents discovering that to simply issue edicts to their children about not leaving the cave except under certain special circumstances was not very effective. In spite of the rules, even the most well-behaved child would be driven by curiosity to venture forth into the forest, there to fall victim to unknown hazards. But when those same parents told their children a story about a child who sneaks away unaccompanied by protective adults and who is then pursued through the dark, scary forest, chased and tormented by wolves or tigers or - even worse - evil monsters, their listening children would be rapt, enchanted, spellbound. And when the story’s protagonist finally figured out a way to outwit the monster and survive, any child listening remembered forever the lessons learned.

Nearly all stories have some variation of that dark, scary forest outside the cave. It’s called the Mysterium Tremendum, which from the Latin, refers to the Great Mystery, and it is usually where the story’s antagonist lives and plots his evil deeds. In the climactic battle of many of the most compelling stories, the protagonist decides to take on the bad guy on the bad guy’s turf. Our hero often changes his uniform or clothing to be better prepared, double checks his best weapons be they swords or words, and then steps over the threshold and into the territory of the powerful villain. There, the hero enters a new world where all rules are different. Although this mysterium is strange and unknown to the protagonist, it’s the familiar backyard of the villain, giving the bad guy a huge advantage of knowledge to go along with his already-demonstrated greater firepower.
In nearly every gripping story, the hero, through nothing more than sheer determination and grit and innovative thinking, manages to overcome his or her opponent, an opponent that, by every measure, is superior. David strikes down Goliath.
How can a child not be transfixed when told a story with these elements?
In fact, all of us, children and adults, are struck with wonder by stories. Stories make even the most jaded and cynical among us laugh and cry, hope and worry, yearn and despise and cheer. A good story gets into our psyche like nothing else. A good story creates a world more exciting than the real world, scarier than the real world, sadder or funnier than the real world.
So as writers, if we take a hint from George Lucas and put these mythic story elements into our novel, we are moving toward creating a story that will deprive readers of sleep. Your story can still be unique and surprising and steer far from those stories that get accused of being formulaic. But if your story has those mythic bones giving structure to the characters and plot, the world you create will fire the brain circuits in readers that draw them in and rivet their attention.

A month ago, I was listening to NPR’s Science Friday program. The subject was whether or not computers could ever replace us as storytellers.
The guests on the program were two professors, artificial intelligence experts. They belong to that group of people with the amazing ability to create worlds just using binary code, ones and zeros, certainly a Mysterium Tremendum of its own.
One of the Science Friday guests had written a program that creates metaphors. You plug in a couple of subjects as varied and unusual as you can think up and the program will produce an intriguing metaphor that gives you a new way to think about your subjects. The examples given were at once fascinating and humbling. If a computer can think of that, then what good is my poor, limited brain?
The second guest had written a program that was sort of a second cousin to the first. In his program, you come up with some characters and a few other parameters, and the program will write a story. It isn’t a crude, simplistic story. It’s a full-fledged story with realistic scenes, a beginning, a middle, and an end. And if that isn’t enough, both the metaphor program and the story program can do this at high speed, producing thousands of metaphors and stories in seconds.
The Science Friday host was a little troubled. Did this mean the end of human storytelling? Would novels and plays and movie scripts be written by machines in the near future?
As a novelist, I too was concerned.
But the computer experts said not to worry. They didn’t see that world coming in the foreseeable future.
The man who’d written the story program explained that something was missing in the computer-generated stories. He said that they lacked excitement. Whatever it is that takes Campbell’s iconography of stories and stirs it up into a level of trouble so bad that readers start biting their fingernails is itself some kind of mysterium, a world that computers don’t fully understand.
I’m relieved to know that my job won’t be rendered obsolete in the near future. And it’s exciting to consider that this mysterious business of storytelling is so, well, mysterious. A computer can use the most complex math and make thousands of computations a second to plot a trajectory that will send a spacecraft to land on an asteroid moving 50,000 miles an hour, an asteroid that can’t even be seen with most telescopes, but that computer can’t tell a story that will get a reader’s heart pumping?
That is both amazing and fantastic.

I remember reading stories to my nieces back when they were very young. They were just learning to speak in complete sentences. But it was obvious that they understood stories. Their brows wrinkled with worry when the hero was in deep trouble, and they grinned with excitement when the hero vanquished the villain. We can see that the youngest of children are wired for stories. And now we know that the stories that really engage children and adults alike can only be written by real people.
There’s obviously something very special about stories.
Yet over the last decade or two, it seemed that some kids lost the fire for reading. Many times, when I exhibited my books or gave talks at libraries or at schools, parents told me that their kids inhabited the world of video screens and that it was hard to get them to read. Occasionally, people would say that their daughters were voracious readers, but that their sons lived for computer games and didn’t read books. I’m as suggestible as anyone else, and I bought into the idea.
But I kept noticing that very young kids - even boys! - would look at my books all lined up on my exhibit table. They’d stare at the covers, and sometimes they’d pick them up, look at the back copy, maybe even flip through the pages.
I began to wonder if maybe all of us, parents and teachers and authors alike, were missing a trend.

I also wondered if we were selling boys and men short when it came to reading. After all, I’ve communicated with many men who keep their novel reading at a very low profile. Some write me revealing emails that intimate that their love for novels is not something they share with the guys at Monday Night Football. I’ve been to nearly a hundred book clubs, about 98 of which were comprised exclusively of women. But at a surprising number of them, the husband of the host was not out in the yard or off at Home Depot, but in the kitchen or study, within hearing distance of the club and our discussions about characters and plots.
I’ve also met men who say that their Kindle or Nook allows them to read in situations where they’d be uncomfortable pulling out a book, the cover visible, there to be judged by others in the airplane or the doctor’s waiting room. These readers realize that some men take a pejorative attitude toward a guy who reads.
The most callous of men are of course fine with reading as long as it’s the sports pages. But for some, to read a novel is like going to the ballet or listening to opera, an emasculating activity in the kick-butt American psyche that is only a few decades removed from cowboys and their six-shooter world, a world that America sometimes seems to be going back to. Obviously, there are still some philistines in my half of the species.
So e-readers have been a liberator for many men who read. And any guy holding one could, in fact, have Sports Illustrated on the screen.
I have a reader from back east who writes to me each year when my new book comes out. Because he’s spent so much time with my characters, he correctly feels that he knows me well. He sees me as a friend.
This man has told me that he doesn’t tell his friends that he reads novels. He’s told me that my books sometimes make him cry, but that he had never admitted that to anyone besides me. This man told me that when he writes a review of my book and posts it on Amazon, he won’t include his real name. This man has obviously thought a great deal about how his reading would be judged in the town where he lives and works.
Never having met each other, the anonymity of our relationship allows him to tell me the truth of his isolation as a male reader. He’s eager to escape into the world of novels but unwilling to let his judgmental friends know about it.
I imagine that many boys are the same, boys who read but who don’t advertise it. As a result, we may have underestimated the size of the reading population.

Three weeks ago, I spoke at the Lenz Elementary School in Reno as part of their reading week. My audience was about 130 4th, 5th, and 6th graders. I brought my books to display, wore my Sherlock Holmes cap, and told them about the writing life.
Remembering my youth, a time when I read but never considered the people who wrote the books with which I spent so much time, I wanted these kids to think about writing and even possibly consider pursuing what I and other authors believe is the greatest job in the world. So I told them all about the process of writing books and how much fun it is.
Those grade school kids were inspiring with their intelligent questions, their intense focus, their eager enthusiasm. They wanted to know everything about writing from how long it takes to write a book, to how one dreams up characters, to what’s the best thing about writing stories.
While they peppered me with questions, I also asked them questions. When I asked what books they read, they shouted out J..K. Rowling, Rick Riordan, and Jeff Kinney. And then the kids asked me if I’d met any of their favorite authors. When I said that I’d just had dinner with Daniel Handler, AKA Lemony Snicket, at the Sacramento Library Authors on the Move fundraiser, the kids swooned as if I’d met a writing god. Perhaps I had.
When I walked out of that school, I had the very strong impression that those kids really loved to read. Sure, they love movies and video games, too. That’s assumed. It’s even assumed that a kid in a room with a book and a loud TV is probably going to focus on the TV. But it seemed that these kids find places and times conducive to reading.
I wondered if these kids gave me a skewed view of how much boys and girls read. Did my experience at an upper middle class elementary school provide a false picture? Are other kids growing up without the joy of books and the pleasures of stories so intricate that computers still can’t produce them?
So I did some research.

My first stop was Amazon. As everyone knows, they have the largest database of books, much larger than Books-in-Print, and their search engine is comprehensive. It includes the ability to search the best-selling books of any year.
My question was this: Of the twenty best-selling books each year, how many are novels aimed at kids and how many are novels aimed at adults? And once I knew that information, I wanted to see if things were trending one way or another.
I started with 1997 for the simple reason that Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone was published that year. Rowling is often credited with creating a generation of readers, readers who are now mostly grown up.
It turns out that Harry didn’t take hold right away. There were no novels aimed at kids in the top 20 books from 1997, although there were 5 adult novels on the list. That left 15 non-fiction books to make up the bulk of the best selling titles. In 1997, fiction in general just wasn’t that popular. In 1998, there were 8 adult novels among the top 20 books. But again, not a single novel for kids or young adults made the list. It wasn’t looking good for young readers.
Things changed dramatically in 1999, the year that Harry took over. In 1999, the top three bestselling books of the year were three installments of Harry. But despite Rowling’s voracious young readers, from 1997 to 2007, there were only 17 kids titles in the top 20, and most were Harry. This compares to 47 adult titles. Outside of Harry’s fans, it looked like we were losing many of the new generation of readers.
What was happening? Did kids only read Harry Potter?

But beginning in 2008, the reading world shifted. Between 2008 and 2014, there were over twice as many kids titles as adult titles in the Top 20. 45 to 21. Over the last seven years, kids books have kicked butt on adult books.
I don’t know, but I suspect it is a combination of parents and teachers putting more focus on reading. I suspect it’s also the appearance of many more authors who began writing compelling books aimed at kids. In addition to the authors I already mentioned, we also saw the emergence of Stephenie Meyer, Christopher Paolini, Suzanne Collins, John Green, Veronica Roth, and others.
Is this a case of Build it And They Will Come?
Maybe. And it’s worth noting that many of these authors construct stories as if they’d had a Joseph Campbell How-To book on their desk.
Let’s look at an unusual example that I think epitomizes how much kids, even very young kids, read today.

The biggest movie worldwide in 2013 was the Disney musical Frozen. In fact, it’s the 5th biggest movie in history. Note that it is aimed at kids. And perhaps a worthy footnote is that the 4th biggest movie worldwide, ever, is Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. Which certainly points out that kids are ravenous consumers of stories.
We already know that today’s kids devour books by the new crop of famous authors. But do kids read other books? Do they read novelizations of movies they already know by heart? So I wondered about the movie Frozen. A long animated feature about a princess with several catchy songs doesn’t seem, at first glance, to be something with novel-type components sufficient to compete with all the other books out there.
Yet Disney allowed many story versions to be released, different versions for kids of different ages.
I typed Frozen into Amazon’s search box and started counting. I gave up when I got to 80. I didn’t count sticker books or songbooks, coloring books or puzzle books. I only counted novels and novellas, and for younger kids, short story versions of Frozen. In other words, I only counted books one reads.
I assumed that spreading an audience out over 80-plus Frozen titles would make it so that no single title sold very well.
Was I ever wrong. It turns out that according to Amazon, the number one fiction title in the country in 2014 was a version of Frozen.
Yes, kids love the movie. Yes, they probably saw it lots of times. But what may have been the most significant response to the hit movie was that kids read one of the books. Kids love to read. Over and over. Story after story.
I know that some of you are wondering about the dichotomy between ebooks and print books. Are these statistics based on the growing sales of ebooks? Even though Amazon is the biggest seller of books in the country, do their numbers really reflect what is happening in the rest of the market?

Publishers Weekly breaks out print sales from ebook sales.
On January 2nd, 2015, the Publishers Weekly website reported the results of the 1209 publishers that belong to the Association of American Publishers. Of the Top 10 print books of 2014, nine were novels. (Only one non-fiction book made the list!) And of those nine novels, eight were kids or young adult! (Only one adult novel made the list!)
Message? Today, kids books rule! In every category, and by every measure, we are in a gold rush of reading for kids. It is amazing. It’s wonderful.

So what about bookstores?
Over the last twenty years or so, it’s been reported that bookstores have been closing in large numbers. First, the independents began closing because the chains took more and more of their business. Then the second biggest chain, Borders, closed, possibly because of Amazon, possibly because they made bad business decisions. Then the single remaining national chain, Barnes & Noble, began closing stores. Again, the reason was probably partly traceable to Amazon, and partly to the shift to ebooks. Their Nook reader came out of the gate fast, but it’s been struggling.
Unfortunately, independent bookstores were hit hardest. Whether because of chain stores or Amazon or other changes in the marketplace, over half of all independent bookstores closed between the mid-1990s and 2009, the bottom of the market.
But then, something wonderful happened. Independents began coming back. According to the American Booksellers Association, the U.S. has gained over 300 independent bookstores since 2009. Sixty every year. More than one new bookstore every week! That’s a big increase for a business that was given Last Rites by many pundits. Not only are there more bookstores, but most already-existing independents reported rising sales last year.
Of course, the biggest bookseller is Amazon. Love it or hate it, everyone who studies it agrees that more people are now reading than ever before and a good part of that is connected to the way Amazon has made it easy to find any book in the world and get it downloaded or sent out fast and at a good price. Even independent bookstores, in which it is forbidden to speak the name of Amazon’s ebook reader, sometimes benefit.
I know an independent bookstore that gets all their special orders from Amazon, which provides easier ordering and a more efficient website than the distributor from which they order their main inventory. And unlike the distributor’s limited selection, Amazon generally has every title, no small thing when the number of books out there has rocketed up to over 11 million. When a customer comes into this independent and orders a book, no matter how obscure, the store gets it in two days. The price is discounted, so the independent can resell at a small profit, and the shipping, after the store pays for the annual Prime membership, is free.
Everybody wins. The customer, who doesn’t know that Amazon is even in the equation, thinks this particular independent is awesome because, unlike most other bookstores large or small, they can get pretty much any title and get it fast. The independent benefits because they keep the customer happy. And of course, once the customer is in the store to pick up the book, they often find other books that they want.

Speaking of the explosion of book titles, let’s look again at the people who write them.
What I said to the kids at the elementary school was true. Writing is the best job in the world. As the song says, ‘Nice work if you can get it, and you can get it if you try.’
Of course, a lot of writers believe that getting into the business is extremely difficult no matter how hard they try. But a quick study of successful authors shows that the most significant thing they have in common - perhaps the only thing they have in common - is that most of them have written a lot of books.
A quick survey of authors who haven’t found much success will show that very few of them have written a lot of books. As Malcolm Gladwell pointed out in his book The Outliers, if you have the basic physical or mental capacity required to succeed at something and then put in ten thousand hours of serious practice - the equivalent of five years of full time focused work - you will likely reach a professional level of skill whether it be in figure skating, chess, accounting, or novel writing.
Five years of full time novel writing will get you at least five books. Maybe lots more. Now you are ready to begin writing as a pro. You wouldn’t expect people to have high regard for your surgical skills if you hadn’t spent five or ten years practicing how to cut into and fix peoples’ insides. Why should you expect people to have high regard for your first or second novel, something so complicated that not even a supercomputer can do it well?
There are a few so-called one book wonders out there, authors who found a large audience on their first book. They get a disproportionate amount of press, but they are very rare in the big picture. And if you look closer, you will often discover that many of those authors wrote many previous books under a different name.

If I were to give a single bit of advice about how to increase your chances of making it as a writer, I’d say practice. Writers write. There are two kinds of people who are enamored of the writing world, those who are in love with the idea of being a writer, and those who are in love with writing. It is the second group that succeeds. Write a book. Then write another. Then another. Emulate successful authors. They have lots of books. It would be nearly impossible to have a successful restaurant with only one item on the menu.
Take yourself as seriously as does a doctor or lawyer or architect. Put in 10,000 hours. Your successful fellow authors did. Many authors agree that you can’t judge a writing career until you have ten books out. Certainly, my 10th book was a turning point for me, and my sales growth ratcheted up several notches. This is partly because readers take you more seriously the more books you have. It’s also partly because the more books you have, the better a writer you become.

This is the best time in history to be an author. A writer no longer needs to heed any of the traditional gatekeepers. If you want to try for a big New York deal, they’re still out there. Polish up your query letter and your elevator pitch and get in line.
If you don’t want to take the time and energy to wait for responses from agents and then from editors and then wait yet longer for the publication pipeline to finally spit your book out into the world, you can do it yourself.
There are a hundred ways to self-publish, and basic research will uncover all the options as well as the huge number of scams and schemes that salespeople use to fleece new authors who are blinded by the excitement of seeing their book on a shelf.
Because of this, I’m going to digress and give would-be self-publishers some quick hints. These are, of course, just my personal opinions.

1) If you self-publish with a Print-On-Demand business model, expect to do it for free or nearly free. You don’t need to pay good money to any company for what you can do yourself for free. For ebooks, you upload to Amazon’s Kindle platform and to the Smashwords platform, which gets your ebook into every other online store. For paper books, you can upload to Amazon’s Create Space platform for free as well. Once you find your core audience, you can upgrade to offset printing in volume and make more money per book.
2) Seriously consider owning your own ISBN number. Then you are the true publisher in the eyes of reviewers. Many reviewers are loathe to review books that are put out by internet companies. Reviewers are biased against such books because many or most of these companies have little or no editing review, so many of the books they put out are filled with problems. If you are self-publishing, never choose any publishing route that doesn’t give you complete control. Despite what they say, if an internet company owns the ISBN, they are in control, they are the publisher.
3) Whatever publishing route you choose, be double sure that many authors are making a good living by publishing their books that way. After a quick Google search, I could name hundreds of businesses in the so-called self-publishing world that don’t have a single author on their list making $50,000 a year. Most don’t have a single author making $5,000 a year. These businesses are no good at publishing and selling books. What they are good at is taking your money by telling you tall tales of how to spin straw into gold. In contrast to the internet companies, there are many hundreds of self-published authors who use due diligence in choosing their publishing approach and make $100,000 a year. Many dozens make $500,000 a year. More than several self-published authors make a million dollars a year. We have one right here in the Central Valley. No wonder so many authors are jumping their New York publisher’s ships where they have no control and get only ten percent of the money, and decide instead to do it themselves so they have total control and keep nearly all of the money.
4) Get a professional cover. The vast majority of self-published authors cobble together a makeshift cover cheap. They’re proud of the money they save, and they think it looks great. The rest of the world disagrees. The vast majority of self-published books - just like the majority of New York published books - don’t sell in any numbers, and their cover is one of the main reasons. Until you find a devoted audience, your cover is your only effective sales tool. No one will buy your book because you have an MFA in creative writing. But they’ll buy it if the cover is sufficiently enticing. A great cover won’t guarantee big sales, but it will guarantee some sales. And if those readers love your book, they’ll spread the word, and your career will slowly grow.
5) After you’ve gotten multiple critiques from your writing group and you’ve re-written your book multiple times, hire a professional editor. That person will save you from getting one-star reviews complaining about misspellings and repeated words and mixed metaphors and point-of-view shifts. That editor can save your career from being destroyed by bad reviews.
6) While you don’t need to spend money on many of the aspects of publishing, expect to spend some real money on your cover and editing. Your book is one of the most important things you’ve ever done, right? So buy a used car instead of a new car, cut back on your vacation, stop going to restaurants, and launch your book properly.
7) Don’t rush into publishing. You spent a year or three writing your masterpiece. Expect to spend at least a few weeks researching the best way to bring it to market. Buy multiple books on publishing and study them. Read a hundred blogs on publishing.
Okay, end of digression.

Is there a moral to this story about the future of books and the resurgence of reading?
Yes. This is the greatest time in history to be a reader or writer.
There are more readers reading more books than ever before. Book sales are up. The number of bookstores is up. The number of book titles is up. The number of authors making a living is hugely up.
For writers, the change in the last ten years has been astonishing, like an earthquake that crumbled the entire world of book acquisition and distribution. For the first time, writers are in charge of their careers, not publishers, not agents, not distributors, not even booksellers. Never before has a writer been able to easily put his or her work before the world without first navigating a Byzantine maze set up to reward a few publishers at the expense of the very authors they depend on.
The children of today are ravenous readers. They devour good stories.
Those children are going to grow up and become ravenous adult readers.
The Secret Future Of Books reveals a reading writing universe that is exploding. And we are all extremely lucky to be along for the ride.

Thank you.