Sunday, May 22, 2016

Creating Suspense Part 2 of 7

Last week, I excerpted a portion of a talk I gave at the TMCC Writers' Conference on Creating Suspense. I left off making the point that the protagonist - the hero - in a suspenseful story almost always appears inferior to the antagonist - the bad guy. The protagonist is always the underdog.

To continue:

When the mythologist Joseph Campbell detailed these aspects of heroes and villains and story format, some people used his concepts in great detail. Back in the 1970s, there was a young man studying cinematography at USC. As he later explained, he took Joseph Campbell’s iconic character and story analyses and wrote a script that utilized them point by point. He then filmed a movie that conformed to every detail of Campbell’s story vision. The student’s name was George Lucas, and his little movie was called Star Wars. Movies have never been the same since.

In 1993, in Edinburgh, Scotland, a divorced mother on welfare began writing a different kind of story, but a story that nevertheless used those same concepts that Campbell and other academics had described. Her protagonist was a kid named Harry Potter. Books have never been the same since.

When you construct the bones of your story according to these basic story principles that have been handed down through the ages, you will have major suspense already built in.

Let’s look at those principles of successful stories.

In nearly all gripping stories, the good guy, our sympathetic protagonist, runs into terrible trouble in the form of an antagonist or an agent of the antagonist. Immediately, we the readers begin to stress. The reason is that the antagonist, the Bad Guy, is usually smarter, stronger, and better prepared than our hero. The Bad Guy always has more powerful weapons than our hero, whether those weapons be physical or psychological. The antagonist also has more knowledge of the territory. This combination gives the antagonist overwhelming advantages, and the poor protagonist is hopelessly out-gunned. This applies across all genres. Even in a romance, the antagonist, whether male or female, is often more charming, richer, better connected, and even better looking than our hero.

These attributes feed our story hunger. As we dive into an entertainment novel, we want to get short of breath and be astonished by the dangerous extent of the hero’s trouble and the depth of depravity that rules the Bad Guy. We never seem to tire of an antagonist whose evil traits seem unlimited. The Bad Guy can be someone as wicked as Hannibal Lecter in Silence of the Lambs, Nurse Ratched in One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest, or Jack Torrance in The Shining. The Bad Guy can be as fantastical as Captain Hook or Moby Dick, as evil as Shakespeare’s Lady MacBeth. All rivet our attention.

When we are amazed and struck by fear and hatred of the Antagonist, that generates our emotions of empathy and worry for the Protagonist.

Leave it to the psychologists to explain why we crave these feelings. Suffice to say that they drive us to read. A really evil, powerful villain makes us hunger for a story in which the underdog hero, battling against enormous odds, eventually wins through tireless grit and innovative thinking.

Next week: A closer look at how Trouble, with a capital T, is the key to suspense.

Sunday, May 15, 2016

Creating Suspense Part 1 of 7

I was asked to give a talk on Creating Suspense at the 26th Annual Truckee Meadows Community College Writers' Conference.

The response was so positive, I decided to serialize it here on my blog. I've divided it into seven parts.

I hope you writers find it useful!

Today I want to talk about how to create suspense in your novel. First, I will give you some general concepts that automatically create suspense. Then I’ll go over specific techniques that set readers on edge. After that, we’ll have some time for Q and A, so please make a note of any questions.

Let’s start by distilling out the common components of stories. Once we have a clear picture of the structure of most stories, the bones as it were, then we can easily see where and how to construct them in a way that naturally grips our readers. More than anything else, suspense is created by a type of story structure.

All stories, and thus all novels, both literary and entertainment novels, are built around conflict. As readers, we get engaged in that conflict, and we want to see how it will turn out. At the most basic level, it is this conflict and its resolution that form the seeds of suspense.

In literary novels, which are written first as art and second as an engaging story, the suspense is often of a lower amplitude. We care of course about how the story will resolve itself, but we are often more focused on the complex, tormented characters, the lovely sentences, the rich metaphors, the deep, moody atmosphere, the thoughtful and heart-wrenching moral dilemmas.

In entertainment novels, which by contrast are written first and foremost and forever focused on an engaging story, the suspense is up front. We still may find a measure of art. We still want well-constructed characters and good prosody and scintillating sentences. But more than anything, we want suspense. I should point out that when I refer to suspense, I don’t necessarily mean something scary, I just mean something that gives us a powerful urge to turn the page. Speaking metaphorically, and sometimes literally, most readers, much of the time, want a novel that grabs us by the throat, drags us out into the rainy, sleet-stricken night, plunges us into the icy black swamp water, there to be held under and shook as if by the Godzilla of all that terrifies us.

In other words, we want a novel that makes us worry and stress and sweat. We want to be afraid. We want to cry even as we laugh at a romantic comedy.

You’ve heard the cliche “Show, don’t tell.” The three parts of prose are action, dialogue, and exposition. Exposition is the stuff where authors explain the things they think their readers need to know about. Get rid of it! Readers are smart. They don’t need to have things explained. As much as possible, show your story with action and dialogue. Those are the things that lead to a gripping, suspenseful story.

Let’s start with the hero, otherwise known as the protagonist.

There are of course a thousand ways to paint a great hero or heroine, and the hero, who’s usually a good person but sometimes isn’t, usually has sympathetic traits. As we get to know the protagonist’s desires and dreams and hopes and fears and worries, we identify with them, and we want their world to turn out well.

In the most common story structure, one that makes us rush to turn the pages and be unable to go to sleep at night, we quickly meet a sympathetic character who is our protagonist. That character gets into big trouble early on in the story. This trouble comes from the antagonist, otherwise known as the bad guy. In fact, the greater the depth of the well of trouble and the faster the hero falls into it, the more we worry and dread what is to come. As the protagonist tries to cope with the terrible trouble, the trouble gets worse. So the protagonist tries a new approach, but the trouble gets worse still. Then worse again. This is what’s called the Rising Plot Curve. And it is the foundation of building suspense.

Novels can of course begin slowly, carefully setting the stage with all of the components that will later be revealed as important in ways we don’t at first anticipate. This foreshadowing can be powerful, and the astute reader learns to pay attention to every detail, wondering which details will become the shotgun over the fireplace mantel, which must, according to Chekhov’s Law, be fired at the story’s climax.

However, increasingly in modern fiction, readers, who perhaps suffer shortened attention spans from the profusion of inputs vying for their attention, demand that the protagonist’s trouble comes on fast and heavy. Books with slow, deliberate beginnings are often put down in favor of books that start off fast and furious.

The famous movie impresario Samual Goldwyn of Metro Goldwyn Mayer said, “I want a story that begins with an earthquake and then builds to a climax.” There is no finer description of a tale that grabs our attention and holds it from beginning until end, a story that starts with the icy hand grabbing us around our throat, followed by increasing tension that builds to a shattering climax.

These stories that barely give us breathing space are the ones that get us talking about them to our friends, emailing and calling and texting our recommendation to everyone we know. If you want emperical evidence of this, you need only glance at any bestseller list. The stories that sell most are usually the ones that have life-or-death trouble on the first page or first paragraph or even the first sentence and then build from there to a climactic battle between the Bad Guy and our poor protagonist, a battle that more often than not takes place on the Bad Guy’s turf.

This basic structure of stories has existed for thousands of years. Philosophers and psychologists who have studied the nature of stories believe that humans are hard-wired to be receptive to stories with the pattern of a sympathetic protagonist in conflict with an antagonist who appears superior to the hero in every way. In other words, heros are always underdogs.

Stay tuned for Part 2 of How To Create Suspense, to be posted next week.

Sunday, May 8, 2016

Best Hikes In Tahoe - South Shore - South Upper Truckee Road Toward Luther Pass

Category - Easy to moderate (gentle road, but elevation gain)
View Rating - 4 out of 10
Distance - 4 miles round trip if you go all the way out and back
Elevation Gain - 700 feet
Highest Point - 7200 feet

Although I love single-track trails that take you high into the mountains, this is another great hike for those who like wider paths for a walk-and-talk. (It also was one of the few hikes currently free of snow at the beginning of May.) 

The hike is along a narrow paved road one and a half lanes wide. Yes, there are occasional cars, rare during the shoulder season and common but not busy during the busy tourist months of July and August. As of the beginning of May, the top half of the hike was closed to cars.

To get to this hike, drive to the base of Echo Summit and turn off Highway 50 onto South Upper Truckee Road. Drive 3.8 miles south to a trail head sign. 

As you approach the trail head, you will cross this bridge over the Upper Truckee River.

Here's the trail head with room for several vehicles to park.

This sign exists to mark the single track trail up to Meiss Meadows and Dardenelles Lake, Round Lake, and Showers Lake. As of the beginning of May, these were all buried in snow.

Regardless of the time of the year, for the hike described in this post, you stay on the asphalt. 

The road climbs gently through deep aromatic woods with creeks and old-growth Ponderosa pines 6 feet in diameter.

When people think of giant trees, they usually picture Sequoias and Redwoods and even Sugar Pines. But Ponderosa pines in the Sierra can be monsters. Six feet in diameter and 150+ feet tall.

In one stretch of 300 yards, you will go across three rushing creeks (that is if you go in the spring).  All were in a big hurry to get their work done, transporting fresh snow melt down to the Upper Truckee River, which then carries it to Lake Tahoe.

One mile in (the half way point) you will come to Highway 89 as it rises up from Christmas Valley toward Luther Pass. Continue across the highway. If you come early or late in the season, the gate may be locked keeping cars out, which makes your walk that much more pleasant.

On the upper half of the hike, the road winds through the Luther Pass Campground, one of the more remote and less crowded campgrounds in the Tahoe Basin. It would clearly be a gorgeous place to camp.

At the end of this hike, you will once again approach Highway 89, as it curves around on its climb up the pass. This is where you intersect the Tahoe Rim Trail and the Big Meadow trail head, which is great single track hiking. (Although it was buried in snow in early May).

The Tahoe Rim Trail Association has put up several great informational signs. This one explains how Tahoe got its name from a mispronunciation of the Washoe Name for the lake.

We always know how lucky we are to live in Tahoe, and we never it for granted.

Sunday, May 1, 2016

A Writer's Speedometer

Those of us who are driven to spend long hours writing do so because we have stories to tell.

We certainly don't do it for the money. (Although the money can be very good.) According to a recent survey by the Author's Guild (comprised mostly of authors who are published by the big New York houses), the average Author's Guild member earns $17,500 a year. Poverty level. This is why so many writers have to keep their day jobs. (Self-published writers who figure out how to sell books can do much better because they keep up to 70% or more of sales vs. New York-published writers who keep roughly 5% - 25% depending on their publishing contract.)

So how does any writer get a sense of whether they are succeeding at their work?

One way is fan mail.

The first time a writer wakes up to an email from a stranger telling how much the reader enjoyed the writer's novel, it is a very big deal. It's even a bigger deal if the letter is printed on actual paper!

Same for reviews. These are the things that sustain us in our lonely profession. Don't get me wrong. Writers are world-class introverts. We're happy to spend time alone. But we still love to find out that our writing entertained someone or made a positive difference in some way.

Aside from counting dollars or emails from fans, one of our main speedometers is how many books we have out in the marketplace, whether they are ebooks or tree books. The number of books in distribution is independent from dollars, because tree books usually produce more money per book, while the cheaper ebooks produce less money per book. And some ebooks get downloaded for only 99 cents or even free on special promotions. For example, my first book, Tahoe Deathfall, is permanently free in ebook form. The hope is that readers might be willing to try a free ebook and end up liking it enough to buy other books by the author.

Complicating the book world is the new trend toward subscription reading. For example, subscribers to Kindle Unlimited pay a monthly fee and get to read as many books as they want. The writer, or their publisher, gets paid according to how many pages are read. One has to take that figure and divide by the number of pages in a book to determine how many books have actually been read.

But the bottom line is how many books you're getting out there.

Several years ago, after an interview, the journalist contacted me with a followup question. How many total books had I sold across all of my titles? The answer wasn't immediately clear because one has to add up tree books, and ebooks, and then do a little arithmetic to convert pages read by subscription into an appropriate number of whole books.

Of course, books sold, and books read, are not the same thing, either. Some books only get read by one person before they end up on a shelf, untouched again. Some books get sold and never read at all. Some families have several people who end up reading the same book. And some books go to libraries and get read by dozens of people.

Nevertheless, books in distribution is a pretty good speedometer. So when I gathered the figures for the journalist, I was surprised to find out I'd just crossed over 100,000 books in distribution.

I never had a goal of a certain number of books, but I was pleased to have gotten a bunch of books out there. The number of my books in distribution began to rise fast after I had ten titles out. I recently added up the numbers again, and I now have over 500,000 books in distribution.

While I'm pleased, this is nothing compared to the heavy hitters. There are many authors you can name who have numbers in the 10s of millions. The Rowlings and Kings and Grishams of the world are in the 100s of millions. I'll never be in their league.

But I do have another book coming out this summer, which should bump my numbers a bit. Stay tuned for a sneak preview...

Sunday, April 24, 2016

April 23rd Snow!

Yes, we've had more snow at later times in the season. But it sure was pretty Saturday morning, waking up to see 8 inches of fresh powder!

Sunday, April 17, 2016

Of Sun And Sunglasses!

Warning: Public Service Announcement follows. This is info that falls into the category of, "It might be good for me, but I don't want to hear it..."

 On an amazing day last week, we went for a hike under a blazing, hot, high-altitude, spring sun. We went by a dad who carried his little girl on his shoulders.

This picture of fatherly devotion was unfortunately marred. While dad had on a hat and dark sunglasses, daughter - a cute little blonde girl - was without hat and without sunglasses. She squinted against the blinding reflection of the sun on snow.

Even from a distance, we could see that her blue eyes were red, and her scowl was intense. The poor girl was suffering from a serious burn to her skin as well as her retinas. Dad was being so nice to take his daughter out, and he no doubt had no clue about the health hazard he was inflicting on his daughter.

Some years ago, I interviewed an ocularist, a person who makes artificial eyes. She told me that the number one cause of loss of eyes was eye cancer contracted by people with blue eyes, people whose pale irises couldn't take intense sunshine.

And of course we all know what dermatologists say, that sunburn as a child contributes to melanomas as an adult.

Maybe the dad had tried to get his daughter to wear sunglasses and hat and she refused. As a guy without children, I don't pretend to know what difficulties ensue when attempting to convince kids to take protective measures.

But I often notice that teenagers wear sunglasses in dark situations, times and places where it's obvious that they are putting on their Oakleys more because they look cool than because they are trying to protect their eyes.

There must be a simple psychological approach to getting young kids to think that their sunglasses and hat are as cool as their new shoes. Instead of treating sunglasses as protection,  parents could probably do the "reverse psychology" thing of treating sunglasses as a cool accessory, like a new pair of Nikes, a reward to be bestowed as an honor rather than a nagging request for sensible health.

It's hard to get the image out of my mind. Dad happy to enjoy his sunglasses-shaded outing in a spectacular landscape on a beautiful day while his daughter burns. For the next several days, he'll think his little girl is an irritable, complaining problem child while in fact she is coping with serious injury that may lead to future eye cancer.

He wouldn't let his daughter put herself in danger with other sources of burn. But he's willingly carrying her around at 7000 feet under the hot sun with no protection at all.

Please help spread the word to people you know who have children. Sunglasses are not just comforts for adults. They are essential protection for all people without very dark eyes. Especially on reflective snow or water. Especially at high altitude. Make those sunglasses cool. Be hard and uncompromising if necessary. Do whatever it takes.

That ocularist earns a good living making prostheses for people who are blinded by too much sun.

Sunday, April 10, 2016

Late-Winter Magic

The most recent major snow got us away from the computer and painting easel, and we headed out for some springtime back-country skiing. (See last week's post.)

Combine Tahoe views with snow and you get OMG beautiful.

There are a thousand places in Tahoe where you can just head out the door of your vacation rental or SUV and head into the high country. Each hundred feet of elevation gained gets you deeper snow and grander views. (Always be aware of avalanche danger and stay off and away from steep slopes, especially those that face northeast.)

Nearly all of Tahoe is U.S. Forest Service land and open to the public. As long as you don't park where snow removal operations are in progress, your options are endless.

Strap on your boards or snowshoes and find a gradual path up through the forest.

As the sun lowers, and the clouds roll through the mountains, it's time to take a break, pull the cheese and beer out of your pack and take in the view. This view is looking at Heavenly Mountain. The highest hump, lit by the afternoon sun, is the top of Sky Chair at 10,000 feet.

And this view is of Mt. Tallac, 9735 feet, as the sun brushes the ridgeline leading to the summit. The bare slope in the foreground is where the Angora Fire swept through in 2007.

Several of the ski resorts, like Squaw, Alpine, and Kirkwood, will likely be open well into May and maybe even June. And there'll be high-altitude back-country skiing through most of the summer.

Come on up the mountains for spring! The tourist crowds are gone, and you'll have Tahoe mostly to yourself!

Sunday, April 3, 2016

Which Is Better? Back-Country, Or Lift-Served?

Planning one last winter blast in the mountains? Then you have a decision to make. Do you want to thrill to the wonders of lift-served terrain? Or do you want to find your own place in the wilderness?
View Of Heavenly Mountain From The Back Country

View From Up On Heavenly Mountain
Here’s quick primer on which sport is better. Find the traits you like most, then check the appropriate sport, Back-Country Skiing and Boarding, or Lift-Served Skiing and Boarding:

Desires I Most Want Back-Country Lift-Served
Excitement Check Check

Greatest Rush Of Speed Check

Affordability Check

People Watching Check

Wildlife Watching Check

Gorgeous Views Check Check

Crowd Excitement Check

Exercise Check Check

Least Traffic Check

Solitude Check

Beer and Burgers 
on the Sun Deck Check

Most Vertical Feet 
Skied Per Day Check

Best Place To Meet 

People Like You   Check Check

Best Place To Take Your Dog Check


Total Checks 9 9

Winner Check Check

Sunday, March 27, 2016

The Blood-Tainted Winter Is A Winner

I recently read an affecting debut novel titled The Blood-Tainted Winter. Written by T.L. Greylock, the book is the first of what I understand will be a trilogy.

The Blood-Tainted Winter takes its name from a line in the epic medieval poem Beowulf, which suggests its setting in ancient blood-stained lands. Set in the far north and peopled by Norsemen, The Blood-Tainted Winter is the story of Raef Skallagrim, a young man who is about to set off on a life-defining sea voyage, when his father, the lord of Vannheim and possible successor to the king, is murdered. Raef is a classic reluctant hero. Against his desires he’s drawn into the resulting turmoil. Raef doesn’t know who killed his father, nor does he know the reason the man was murdered. But he wants vengeance.

The Blood-Tainted Winter is a story of the war that grows in the vacuum of a dead king. It is also a complex tale with dozens of characters spread over a large canvas, lords from many lands jockeying for position and fighting side-by-side with the warriors who’ve sworn allegiance to them. 

Greylock seems to be a student of medieval war strategy, and I learned a thing or two about fighting with swords and spears from horseback and with knives and axes on the ground, mano a mano.

While Greylock’s novel doesn’t feature an appearance of a vicious monster on the scale of Beowulf’s Grendel, the novel is quite violent, and it doesn’t shy away from the realities of war in an era when each warrior carried multiple weapons and didn’t hesitate to use any or all of them dispatching enemies.

In addition to burly men who fit our image of brutal vikings, there are also female warriors who are as deadly as any man. Add to the mix a collection of gods and half-gods, some benevolent and some not, wolves and ravens and crows that may or may not be as they appear, a shapeshifter or three and other possibly magical characters, and you realize that T.L. Greylock has done some serious world building. At the end of the book is a list of the characters. I counted 59 of them, which communicates a sense and scope of Greylock’s vision.

The Blood-Tainted Winter is not for the squeamish. And while I didn’t find the violence gratuitous, it was dramatic and abundant. Many people die by these medieval weapons. Blood flows and heads roll, sometimes literally.

Less plentiful, but still there, were tender moments, touching scenes of friendship and love. There is even the occasional child trying to survive in an epic landscape that provides little if any tolerance for play or delight or mirth.

The book is well-written, and Greylock has professional chops. I knew I was in good hands from the well-constructed and unhurried beginning, which is populated with many marvelous sentences such as “Raef let his anger slide away, a silver mackerel in the dark fjord waters not to be forgotten."

As violent and dangerous as the world of The Blood-Tainted Winter is, I liked spending time there. Perhaps I was attracted by the beautiful world of snow and ice in a vast land of forests and mountains and lakes not unlike the Sierra where I live. This harsh, elemental place with a hostile climate contrasts with the warmth of men and women with a deep sense of history and friendships. I was also drawn to those moments that reveal the connections and bonds between the characters, the thoughtful and telling dialogue, the strategies of both friends and foes, the feasts cooked over fires and cemented by a celebratory sharing of mead, a honey wine. I found myself worrying over the fate of the characters. And since I finished the book, I’ve often revisited it in my mind and imagined what it would be like to have lived in that time and place.

The Blood-Tainted Winter is an atmospheric tale that envelops you like a heavy mist flowing out of the northern forests, its scents as enticing as they are ominous. You will not soon forget the characters, virtuous and evil, the promises of allegiance and the treachery of lies, the sounds and smells of the charging horses, the battles on foot with the spray of sweat and blood, the sharp pain of physical wounds and the longer-lasting scars of betrayal.

If you like to spend time in a world unlike any you’ve ever experienced, give The Blood-Tainted Winter a try. You may, like me, find yourself entranced and eager to find out what happens to Raef and company in Greylock’s next installment.

If you want to check in on Greylock's progress, you can visit Greylock's blog here:

Sunday, March 20, 2016

Dogs Have A Thing For Human Faces

There's a new study out that shows what happens in your dog's brain when she gives you that intense, focused, you're-the-most-important-thing-in-the-universe stare.

Most other animals, including our closest primate relatives, don't really care much about us. And when they look at us, it's pretty much the same as when they look at regular stuff in their environment. We're just not that important.

But unlike those other animals, when a dog looks at your face, multiple areas in her brain "light up." If a dog looks at other things or animals, not so much. It turns out that looking at you is a big deal, and a dog devotes a lot of brain space to this.

How did people figure this out?

Scientists trained dogs to sit still in an MRI. Then, while scanning the dogs, the scientists projected a wide range of pictures on a screen in front of the dogs. Most pictures are just processed in the dog's occipital cortex, the area where most vision is processed.

But show a dog a person's face, and multiple parts of their brains sit up and pay attention.

Is this dog dedicated to helping science or what?
Once again, we see science illuminating the amazing link between dogs and people. As all of you dog owners know, you and your dog have a powerful connection. Now we can see that connection in brain scans.

If you want an abridged version of the study, try this article: Dog Perception of Human Faces

If you want all of the involved and fascinating scientific details, here's the link: Full Study of Dogs and Human Faces.

Sunday, March 13, 2016

Your New Book Hasn't Caught Fire? Write A Bunch More.

You've written a novel. Fantastic. You should be proud. Few people ever have the chutzpah to try such large, complex, intellectual undertaking. And of those few who try, only a small percentage follow through to the finish.

It's very exciting when you type "The End," and it's reasonable to want to send it out and pursue the dream of finding a publisher. Or maybe you decide to publish it yourself. The thrill of having your book produced as a physical entity, there to look great on your shelf or coffee table, is like no other. It's a big deal, this book stuff.

But why is it that when someone writes a novel and nothing big happens with it, they think it's a failure, or a giant disappointment, or terribly unfair, or... fill in the blank.

I have four completed novels in a drawer. Two of them garnered a bunch of rejections. The other two I never even sent out. I also have many partial novels and even more treatments and outlines. Nothing happened with any of them. Is that a failure or a giant disappointment, or terribly unfair?

Let's look at it from a different perspective. Think of any desirable career. What does it take to succeed in that career? Probably four years of college, maybe a graduate degree or two, a bunch of specific career training, an apprenticeship or residency or internship or on-the-job training, possibly multiple jobs before you find your rhythm. If you want to be a successful professional, you can expect to spend many years getting up to speed. Six, eight, ten years. If you want to be a cardiac surgeon, you might expect to spend 16 years from college to medical school to your residency to a lot of on-the-job training. Then you'd spend another 10 developing true excellence.

Yet a novelist wants success after writing one book? Is becoming an excellent novelist much easier than becoming a surgeon? I don't know. But writing novels sure ain't ditch digging. It takes time. Lots of time.

If a novelist were to be realistic about the job training, he or she might expect to spend ten or twelve years writing ten or twelve novels to become expert at the job.

Yet, many writers write a single book, and when nothing much happens - no best-seller list appearances and no starred reviews in the big journals - they think that they're a grand failure at worst and a grand disappointment at best? What are they thinking?

A typical professional writer writes at least one book a year. Four books could be considered a minimum of college-level education in the field of writing. Figure in another couple of books for your Masters equivalent. Add four more years of writing to hone your writing chops. Do you see why so many successful writers have dozens of novels under their belt before they achieved success? And why so many writers whose successful "first novels" were actually preceded by a dozen novels written under a different name?

I've mentioned before the old joke about the neurosurgeon who comes to an author signing and says to the author, "When I retire, I'm going to write a novel." And the author says, "Really? When I retire, I'm going to do brain surgery."

Becoming an accomplished writer takes years and years of hard, focused effort. Anyone who thinks they can pound out a first novel and have it catch fire is either deluded or is the next Truman Capote.

Of course, all of us in the trenches are eager to find the next Capote, so go for it. Show your chops.

If, possibly, you're not quite in that category, then your best chance for success is to be realistic. Stop hoping you're the next shooting star. Start thinking of yourself as a future professional writer, with all of the related aspects. Think of your career the way would-be doctors think of theirs. Plan to put in years and years of effort.

The payoff is extremely attractive. Making up stories for a living is the best job in the world. It's worth the investment of time and work and energy. The critical realization is that it takes time and work and energy.

Sunday, March 6, 2016

What's The Best All-Wheel-Drive Vehicle In Snow?

When you first move to Tahoe, it only takes one experience of lying on your back in a slush puddle at night, flashlight in your mouth, as you try to wrestle on chains because you need to get over the pass or even just up the road to your house. As the dirty ice water seeps down your back and down your pants, you decide at that very moment to start the All-Wheel-Drive savings account and upgrade your car or pickup at the earliest possible moment.

For those of us in snow country, AWD has transformed our lives. But are they all the same? And if not, which is the best?

Here’s a quick primer.

First, many people wonder what is the difference between all wheel drive (AWD) and four wheel drive (4WD or 4X4).

Back in the old days when four wheel drive was invented, one had to shift from “normal” 2-wheel drive into 4WD. Most driving was done in 2-wheel drive. It was only when you got stuck in a snow bank or when you strapped a snow plowing blade to the front of your pickup that you shifted into 4WD. The reason for shifting back and forth was that when driving in 4WD, the engine power got sent evenly to the front wheels and the back wheels. That was okay for the slow grind out of a ditch or plowing snow. But in normal driving, every time you turn, your front wheels are going a slightly longer distance than your rear wheels, because your rear wheels are "cutting the corner," hence a shorter distance. Because 4WD tries to make the wheels all turn the same speed, your front and rear wheels end up “fighting each other.” Thus your vehicle does not track well in 4WD.

If you were driving faster than a crawl, 4WD gave you LESS traction instead of more. Back in the ’90s, a friend of mine had a Jeep Wrangler. When we had a ton of snow, he wanted more traction on the roads. But he said it was impossible to drive faster than walking speed in 4WD without the Jeep wanting to skid and slide and spin around. Our own experience with 4WD came when we rented a Toyota 4-Runner during a particularly snowy winter. The 4WD option worked well at speeds appropriate for, say, plowing a farmer’s field. But it was worthless for normal driving on the roads. Just turning a corner, where the front wheels have to track a bit farther than the rear wheels, the 4-Runner bucked and shook and slid until you shifted out of 4WD. Then it ran just the way you’d expect.

(Please note that the manufacturers never recommended 4WD for normal driving!)

Manufacturers eventually realized that a reliable 4WD with perfect balance of power to all four wheels, i.e., a vehicle that tracked well at any speed, would be a great advantage in any snow country, especially in the mountains, because people would have much more traction at any speed. So they developed 4WD systems that used both sophisticated mechanics as well as computers to send power to all four wheels yet keep them from fighting each other. This new approach would always be “on” so you never had to shift into it.

Voila! It worked. These new systems were called All Wheel Drive and, as you know, there are many manufacturers that produce AWD cars and trucks and vans.

But are all AWD vehicles the same? Do they work equally well? Nope. 

Of course, everyone who has driven multiple vehicles has preferences. And many have written about those preferences. So I’m adding my personal experience to the mix.

My wife and I have had four different makes of AWD vehicles. Like all vehicles, each has its strong points and weak points. But when it comes to the AWD aspect, one stands out.


The other three brands we’ve had are clunky. If you go around a slippery corner, you can feel the vehicle making these little jerks as if it’s trying to decide which wheels to send power to. If you go up a hill and either a front wheel or a back wheel starts to spin, the clunkiness is even more dramatic. It’s as if the system waits until a wheel starts to spin, then it detects it, then it thinks about it, then it stops sending power to that wheel and starts sending power to the other wheels. It makes noise, and the vehicle jerks, and then it starts to grab.

Two of the three clunky AWD vehicles are late models and have electronic stabilizing (non-skid) systems. But I’m not sure they do any good at all. And if they do help, they are hobbled by flaws in the AWD design.

On the other hand, the Subaru just drives. We never think about its AWD system because we never notice it. No jerking, no clunkiness, no weird sounds. And if we turn up a hill after a fresh snow storm, we can be pushing snow with the front bumper and we still don’t pay much attention. Our other vehicles (two of which we still have) can’t even make it up a street when the snow is as deep as the bumper. (We learned that the hard way.)

Bottom line: AWD is great for regular driving, much better than 4WD. It's a thousand times more convenient than putting on chains. But of the AWDs we’ve owned, Subaru is not just the best, it is far and away the best.

Are there other great AWDs out there? No doubt. There are many brands we haven’t tried. But from our experience, you wouldn’t go wrong with a Subaru.

P.S. In a recent Consumer Reports study of which AWD vehicles worked best in snow, their Number One choice was the Subaru Outback.

Here's the link: Consumer Reports Best AWD

Here's the Consumer Reports ranking of AWD, which concurs with our own experience:

Snow traction (best listed first)

Rank                Make & model
1.                      Subaru Outback
2.                      Subaru XV Crosstrek
3.                      Subaru Forester
4.                      Audi Q5
5.                      Chevrolet Suburban/GMC Yukon XL
6.                      Jeep Wrangler
7.                      Chevrolet Tahoe/GMC Yukon
8.                      Jeep Grand Cherokee
9.                      Toyota 4Runner
10.                    Ford Expedition
11.                    Volvo XC60
12.                    Ford Edge
13.                    Volkswagen Touareg
14.                    Buick Enclave
15.                    Lexus RX
16.                    Toyota Sequoia
17.                    Volvo XC70
18.                    Acura MDX
19.                    Lincoln MKX
20.                    Jeep Cherokee
21.                    Dodge Durango
22.                    Mercedes-Benz M-Class
23.                    Chevrolet Traverse/GMC Acadia
24.                    BMW X3
25.                    BMW X5
26.                    Ford Explorer
27.                    BMW X1
28.                    Mercedes-Benz GLK-Class
29.                    Honda Pilot
30.                    Chevrolet Equinox/GMC Terrain
31.                    Toyota Highlander
32.                    Toyota Venza
33.                    Ford Escape
34.                    Mercedes-Benz GL-Class
35.                    Hyundai Santa Fe Sport
36.                    Toyota RAV4
37.                    Buick Encore
38.                    Honda Crosstour
39.                    Hyundai Santa Fe
40.                    Volkswagen Tiguan
41.                    Honda CR-V
42.                    Ford Flex
43.                    Nissan Murano
44.                    Mazda CX-5
45.                    Mazda CX-9
46.                    Cadillac SRX
47.                    Acura RDX
48.                    Infiniti JX, QX60
49.                    Nissan Pathfinder
50.                    Kia Sorento
51.                    Hyundai Tucson
52.                    Nissan Rogue
53.                    Nissan Juke
P.P.S. Now the usual qualifiers and disclaimers... AWD won't keep you from sliding off the road or hitting another car or causing any amount of deadly mayhem if you drive too fast. AWD won't make you stop any faster. So if it's snowing or slippery or icy, SLOW DOWN.