Sunday, October 4, 2015

Best Hikes In Tahoe - Hawley Grade - South Shore

Category - Moderate
View Rating - 6 out of 10
Distance - 3.8 miles round trip
Elevation Gain - 900 feet
Highest Point - 7400 feet
Special note: This trail crosses a waterfall, so it is often impassible in the spring and early summer. The trail is best hiked in late summer or fall.

Hawley Grade is a relatively easy hike that combines some nice views with great history of miners as well as the Pony Express crossing the Sierra.

When the Gold Rush began in 1849, thousands of would-be miners headed west across the country with dreams of striking gold. Their goal was Hangtown, the center of the Gold Rush area and what is now known as Placerville. The problem was getting over the Sierra. The best route to Hangtown had been to go from the south end of Carson Valley in Western Nevada, up the canyon past what is now known as Woodfords and up into Hope Valley at 7000 feet. From there, they followed a difficult route up and over Carson Pass at 8600 feet before heading down to the foothills.

Looking for alternatives, explorers wondered if they could get to Hangtown from the Tahoe Basin. They soon found two routes from Hope Valley into the Tahoe. One was Armstrong Pass, also high at 8400 feet, and Luther Pass at a mere 7800 feet. The problem was getting out of the Tahoe Basin. Echo Summit was the logical destination because it sits at a relatively low 7400 feet. Unfortunately, getting from Tahoe up to Echo Summit meant climbing steep rocky slopes with many cliffs.

Private parties financed and built Hawley Grade in 1857, and named it for Asa Hawley, owner of a nearby trading post. The trail was the first one gentle enough for horse-drawn wagons to get up and down the slope. (Although when you hike the grade, you will find it hard to imagine a wagon of any size on the trail. Any wagon would have to be small and narrow!)

For several years, Hawley Grade became the choice of travelers heading west to Hangtown and their dreams of gold. In 1860 - 1861, the short-lived Pony Express riders also used the grade before the telegraph put them out of business. After the Gold Rush waned and silver and gold were discovered in the Comstock Lode beneath Virginia City, many of those Hangtown miners reversed their earlier travel and headed east back up to Echo Summit and then down Hawley Grade on their trek to Virginia City. Several years later, Hawley Grade was itself eclipsed by the construction of Meyer's Grade, an even gentler route down from Echo Summit.

To get to the Hawley Grade trailhead, drive Highway 50 to the base of Echo Summit and turn south on South Upper Truckee Road. Drive about 3.5 miles south down a valley that locals call Christmas Valley. Look for a smallish sign on the right announcing Hawley Grade. It is at a green Forest Service gate that may be locked during the snow season, so be aware of weather if you are going late in the year. Take a pass if it is snowing. If you get to a point on South Upper Truckee Road where the road veers to the left and crosses a bridge over the Upper Truckee River, you went too far and missed the turnoff.

If the gate is unlocked, turn right off South Upper Truckee Road at this sign. If the gate should be locked, you can park off the main road and hike in. As you can see in the picture, the short road to the trailhead is numbered 1110. A short distance in is a small parking area. (See below.)

This is the beginning of the hike. A short distance in, you may hear the Upper Truckee River on your left. You can take a short detour through the trees and brush to see it.
In the spring and early summer, this is a gorgeous rushing rapids.
(But this is not the waterfall path that Hawley Grade crosses.)

Back on Hawley Grade, the path does an about face from south to north, and you begin climbing up a long gentle incline toward Echo Summit.

As you climb, you begin to get some nice views across Christmas Valley.

The trail goes by some gorgeous Incense Cedars.

This one has a Hobbit hole. A narrow, rickety, circular stairway wound down three flights, and, peeking down, we could just make out the edge of a rocking chair lit by a flickering lantern. The smell of baking biscuits mixed with a strong, crisp hoppy scent. I guess they like beer as much as we do.

Eventually, the path crosses a waterfall. Although gorgeous in the early summer, it's a heck of a lot easier to navigate when the water isn't flowing.

As we climbed higher, we got our first view of Tahoe in the distance to the north.

Although the valley drops away to the side, it doesn't feel dangerous. But as with all hikes, BE CAREFUL. There are a few places where one could slip and slide a long way.

Higher still, Tahoe gets closer. If you look close on the upper left, you can see the ledge where Highway 50 climbs around the cliff below Echo Summit. Our end destination is not far from that point.

Near the end of the trail, the path switchbacks up a steeper slope with some large steps to help you hike. You will hear the traffic of Highway 50, which is just past the upper edge of this photo. The path brings you out on one of the side roads that lead to Forest Service cabins. The view is fine, but I wouldn't walk out onto the highway as there is no shoulder to walk on and the traffic is moving fast. It is best to turn around and head back down.

Be sure and pack a picnic lunch and pick a nice spot with a view to relax. Enjoy!

Sunday, September 27, 2015

The Key To A Completed Novel Is Completion

There's a catchy meme circulating on the internet.

Done Beats Perfect.

As soon as I read it, I thought about several writers I know who have been working on their novel for a long time.

A loooooooooonnnng time.

It is good, of course, to make your novel a quality piece of work. In fact, it could probably be said that most writers decide too early that their novel is done, and they put out a volume that could still use significant editing and rewriting.

But there are those perfectionists - you know who you are - who believe that they can continue to improve their novel, and they want to get it just right before they launch it.

The flip side of their desire for perfection is the fear that if it isn't perfect, they will find embarrassing mistakes after their book is published.

Well, let me corroborate your fears right now. No matter how perfect you make your book, it will almost certainly have mistakes. Because as you rewrite and fix every last mistake in the book, that very "fixing" process will create more mistakes. So know going in that your book will have at least a few glitches. And also know that if you've done a good job, they will be few, and your readers will forgive you.

Better that than having your novel be a work-in-progress forever.

You've probably read Winston Churchill's famous quote about a book starting out as an amusement, then becoming a mistress, then a master, then a tyrant, and that you must eventually kill the monster and fling him to the public. What he said is appropriate. At some point you simply have to make the decision that the book is done and move on to the next one.

There is actually evidence that suggests that switching your focus from perfection to production leads to greater perfection.

In their perennial bestseller Art & Fear by David Bayles and Ted Orland, the authors discuss an experiment one of them did in a ceramics class he taught. He divided the class into two groups.

The assignment for members of the first group was to create a single perfect pot. They could take the entire semester to produce this pot, and their grade would be determined by how perfect the pot was.

The assignment for members of the second group was to produce as many pots as possible over the course of the semester. Their grade would be based only on the final number of pots, regardless of quality. They were told to ignore quality.

What happened?

The group that focused exclusively on quantity ended up making the highest quality pots.

The group that focused exclusively on quality ended up making inferior pots.

The benefits of practice are clear in every field. If you want to be a better skier, spend more time skiing. If you want to write a better book, write more books.

If you are one of those perfectionists still trying to make your first novel better, now is the best time to decide it is done, or at least set a hard deadline for when it will be done.

With a few notable exceptions, the best writers tend to be the ones who've written several books at the minimum.

Speaking for myself, I utilized some skills in my most recent book that I'd never even thought of at the time I finished my first. I won't claim any particular level of quality, although my most recent book is getting great reviews. But I do know that writing more leads to writing better.

So go ahead. Take the leap. Finish your first novel.

Sunday, September 20, 2015

Smart Writing That Really Isn't

We writers all do it. We write something especially smart or clever. When we reread it, we feel a self-congratulatory smugness. Look how insightful we are.

A few days later, if we're observant, we become aware that we're still noticing our words, oozing with perspicacity. Wait. Is that what we really want? Words that emanate intelligence?

No, we want our writing to be intelligent to the point of getting our story across in the best way. But if the reader is distracted by writing that seems so intelligent, then the writing is failing at transporting the reader to the place the writer wants to get them. Unless, of course, the writer primarily wants the reader to think that they are really smart. Which almost guarantees that the writer will have very few readers.

Mark Twain said, "Never use a quarter word when a nickel word will do the job."

Clever writing tends to dog entertainment writers who are uncomfortable with merely telling an entertaining story. So they spruce up their writing to make it appear, well, smarter.

It also happens to literary writers who are a little too taken with the idea that they are producing great art. So they write sentences that are puffed up and pretentious. Precious is a word that writers use to describe such writing.

All writers do this, writing fancy words and sentences that call attention to themselves and distract from the story. Our job is to go back and find those sentences or phrases or words, and edit them out.

The late great Elmore Leonard was famous not just for his novels and short stories, but for his Ten Rules Of Writing. He followed those with an eleventh rule that summed up all ten and said, "If it sounds like writing, rewrite it."

All writers, entertainment and literary, do best when they follow Leonard's last rule.

Sunday, September 13, 2015

Speed Writing For A Tortoise

Last night, I finished a two day marathon writing session where I did nothing from when I woke up until I went to bed but work on my new book. I looked at the word count and found I'd written 15,900 words. In my current format of approximately 300 words per page, that worked out to 53 pages of new material. For me, that's speed writing.

While I'm usually a slow writer, I'm not like the poet who considers finding and removing an unnecessary comma to be a good day's work. Nor am I remotely close to those prolific writers who expect to produce 20 pages every day and thus complete a rough draft after a mere three weeks work (the term "work" being uncomfortable for me considering that a farmer or a logger or even a computer code writer would not consider making up stories remotely close to real work).

Never mind that. I wondered what it was that contributed to such - for me - prodigious production. Thinking back, it was movement. Plot. Action. Those things tend to get down on the page fast. Had I been writing "character," I'd have produced a fraction of the words. I'm not talking of writing about "a" character, but simply "character." Writing "character" is getting down the words and phrases that reveal something subtle and telling about the characters. Writing "character" is slow. Writing plot is fast.

Years ago, when I had completed only four novels, books that are unpublished and entombed in a drawer, there to stay, like a diploma, as an iconic reminder that writers need an education like everyone else, I thought that plot was easy and character was hard. (How's that for a run-on sentence?) But once I came to understand how character worked, I realized that character was relatively easy and plot is relatively hard.

This is ironic. Although I came to develop skills that made creating character fairly easy, it writes slow. In contrast, while creating plot is hard, it writes fast.

I have a poet friend who says he can't plot his way out of a paper bag. I used to think it was because he hadn't tried much. Now I think it's because it's hard to plot your way through even the simplest scenario if you want to surprise the reader, get your characters wrestling with interesting dilemmas, work toward a rising conflict that makes the story interesting, and, hopefully, also include some intelligence and intrigue in your opus. Even more difficult is the plot of a mystery, where the puzzle aspect of the story is critical.

But once you figure out the plot, putting it into words often involves scenes where it unfolds in your mind much faster than you can type, and the typing becomes a rushed torrent, words tumbling over each other as you get it down.

Once you've developed the skills, creating a character is relatively easy. You imagine a specific individual with hopes and dreams and worries and fears. You figure out what makes that person unique, one of a kind, unlike any other person you've ever met, read about, or watched on the screen. You give that person a name. You dream up what they look like and what they wear and how they talk and how they walk. You give them a past. The creation of character comes pretty fast.

But once you figure out a character, putting that person into words is a slow process because you don't just tell everything up front when you first introduce the character. That would be a long, painful exposition and would bore the reader to sleep. Instead, you reveal bits and pieces of your character as they cope with the dilemmas imposed by the plot. Writing these "telling" details, these revealing phrases and sentences that build your character and set them up for a surprising and satisfying transformation, takes a great deal of time and head scratching and walking in the woods.

The next time I get enough of a break from the business of writing to begin another writing marathon, I might be focusing on character. In that case, two days of morning-to-night work might produce a page or two.

Writing slowly is still writing.

Will all 53 pages of my marathon end up in the next book? No. For most of us writers, future editing will cut the chaff from our first drafts, and we'll end up with half or less. But we have to get the first draft down before we can begin the rest of the process.

Sunday, September 6, 2015

A Novelist's Law Of Trouble

Can you be successful with a first novel? Yes, and the key is found with The Law Of Trouble which states: First Novels Should Have Life-Or-Death Trouble In The First Few Sentences.

My first novel did (as did #s 2, 3, & 4), and it was one of the smartest (luckiest!) things I've done.

I've talked about this before. But it bears repeating. And repeating...

Multiple times in the past, I've checked the bestseller lists looking for first novels, there to peruse the first few sentences and see how they run. Because bestselling first novels are very rare, it seems especially instructive to see how they grab potential readers and pull them into a story successfully enough that a browsing reader decides to purchase the book.

Here's what I found. Nearly always, the first few sentences of bestselling first novels either had a character in life-or-death trouble, or the narrative intimated that a character was soon to be in life-or-death trouble. Note that I'm not talking about Big Trouble or Serious Trouble or Really Bad Trouble. I'm talking about LIFE-OR-DEATH Trouble. Note, also, that I'm not talking about the first few pages. I'm talking about the first few sentences. Often, the life-or-death trouble shows up in the first sentence.

(I've previously pointed out that the Law Of Trouble doesn't apply to established writers because their readers will buy their books based on other books by the author or the author's reputation, a luxury new authors don't have.)

Last week, I once again checked in with the bestseller lists. The most complete one, with the 100 bestselling books of all kinds, updated every minute or so, is Amazon's. Another one, less complete but equally popular, is The New York Times. As in the past, I was looking for first novels. If I noticed anything different in this last check, it is that there were even fewer first novels than ever before. There were only four first novels on Amazon's Top 100 bestseller list!

Of the four first novels on the current lists, novels that were recently written, the highest ranked on the Kindle list was The Good Neighbor by A.J. Banner, #1 on Amazon's Kindle list as I write this. How does the book open? The first words are, "I'm drowning." By the second paragraph, we realize that the person drowning is trying to save another person who's also drowning. A few lines later, we find out the drownings that are about to happen are murder. Life-or-death trouble.

The next first novel on the lists is The Martian by Andy Weir. As many of you know, the novel has been a monster success (at #2 on Kindle as of this writing) and has been turned into a soon-to-be-released movie starring Matt Damon. What were in its first sentences? Trouble from the first four words. Trouble that, by the end of the first eight lines, reveals itself as life-or-death trouble. Trouble that continues to build and get worse.

The next first novel breaks the pattern and belies my law. The Girl On The Train by Paula Hawkins (#3) on the list does not open with life-or-death trouble. Does that suggest that my law is no good? I looked closely at the first few lines. What about this book is compelling from the beginning? I decided that it is voyeurism. And of course voyeurism pretty much always leads to trouble. So perhaps that is its reason for success.

Even so, it still doesn't fit my Law Of Trouble. Is there anything else about it? Well, it should probably be pointed out that it isn't really a first novel. According to the New York Times, Paula Hawkins published five other novels under the pen name Amy Silver before she wrote Girl On The Train. She also wrote a financial advice book. Did her previous writing successes make a difference? No doubt. You expect a or 6th or 7th book to be pretty sophisticated. But of course many or most of Hawkins' readers were drawn into the book thinking it was her first novel, so they didn't know beforehand that they could count on Hawkins to tell a good story. But her publisher knew that she'd written multiple other books, and that no doubt affected their marketing approach.

So I'll call Girl On A Train a qualified exception to my law, a "first novel" that doesn't begin with life-or-death trouble, but it isn't really a first novel either.

The fourth first novel on the bestseller lists is In A Dark Dark World by Ruth Ware. It opens with someone in a panicked run. The words are rushed, and the tension is significant. By the end of the first page, we've gotten to Life-Or-Death trouble.

In sum, of the four "first" novels among the top 100 bestselling books, three demonstrate my Law Of Trouble, and the fourth isn't really a first novel.

What about those experienced novelists on the list who already have an audience for anything they write? They don't have to put life-or-death trouble in their first sentences. But do they do it anyway?

To check, I looked up other novels on the list. The first one I came to was Anthony Doerr's All The Light We Cannot See (#21) on Amazon. If any writer need not put trouble up front, it is Doerr. Yet All The Light begins with trouble, which, by the 5th line, seems life or death. By the 9th line, it appears that mass casualties are imminent.

What to take away? The lesson seems clear. Why not emulate those writers who write bestsellers, whether they are first novelists or experienced novelists. If you want to find an audience with your first novel, move some life-or-death trouble up to the very front of your story.

Sunday, August 30, 2015

The Best Time To Visit Tahoe

This one is simple. If you're a snow enthusiast, come January through the middle of April, avoiding all of the holidays.

But if you're the warmer weather type, the best time to visit Tahoe is during the next five weeks. From the end of August through the first or second week in October, the weather is generally perfect, the crowds are fewer (families with kids and college kids having returned home for school), the lodging prices are better, the restaurants less jammed. The trails have fewer hikers and mountain bikers. All of the main services from boating to golfing to horseback trail riding are still in full swing but with less customers. The beaches are still open and the water is still as comfortable as it ever gets. If you want to ride Squaw's Cable Car or Heavenly's Gondola, you can get a ticket without waiting forever in line.

In short, for a perfect Tahoe experience, think September.

Come on up the mountain!

Sunday, August 23, 2015

The Eight Most Important Things I've Learned About Finding Success Writing Novels

Last weekend, I exhibited at the Burlingame Art & Wine Festival. (For those of you from out of town, Burlingame is "on the peninsula" just south of San Francisco.)

Many people came by to get my new book, and many more stopped to see what these "Tahoe Mysteries" were all about. I found lots of new readers, which is always great.

I also had three writers stop by, all of whom were at an early point in their writing careers, still working on their first novels. They had many questions. I realized that the answers comprised some of the most important things I've learned since I began in the business.

Do I know it all? Absolutely not. I'm just one writer with one set of experiences. Nevertheless, perhaps the things I've learned have some value. So I write them down in case they are of any help...

1) Learn how to write a very good book and then do it over and over. Study writing. Take classes. Go to multiple writing conferences. Join critique groups. Get multiple critiques from people who aren't your buddies, the harsher the critique, the better. (Friends and relatives are usually reluctant to tell you "the truth" about reservations they have regarding your writing. Whereas serious critique from relative strangers can save you a huge amount of embarrassment by helping you fix stuff before you publish or send your work to agents.) Join several writing organizations and go to their meetings. Find beta readers. Get your book "work-shopped" over and over. Some writers think that because they are voracious readers - which of course is good - they will be skillful at learning it all without outside input. Those authors may be doomed to fail. And, from what I've seen, they'll blame it on "how hard the business is" rather than considering that their books are filled with pages of needless exposition, a plot arc that doesn't rise, a protagonist who isn't in life-or-death trouble, an antagonist without proper motivation, head-hopping point-of-view shifts within a single scene, irregular writing mechanics, and countless other problems that any of those outside inputs would have found and solved. Write a very good book, and you've taken the single most important step to success.

2) Don't think about writing just one book. Before you've even gotten close to finishing a first draft of your first book, it will benefit you in uncountable ways to be planning and thinking about your future books. Just the act of considering what your second and third novels are going to be will inform and improve how you write that first one. As I've said before, you can't create a successful restaurant with just one entree. At the earliest opportunity, it helps to start thinking about your entire future menu.

3) Plan not for a book but for a writing career. Think long term. Consider your first book as the Beginning Of Your Back List. It is an author's back list more than anything else that creates their rep, their cred, and - this is the huge part - their future income. Almost without exception, the most successful authors have the most books. They rarely think about their current project without considering how it fits into the big picture.

4) Think Series. The portion of bestselling books that belong to a series has grown from a small percentage 25 years ago to a significant majority today. Readers love to revisit the worlds of characters they've come to know. And when you find readers who love just one of your books that is in a series, you need not ever sell them again. They will buy the entire series. But if you step outside of a series, you have to sell them all over again. If you want to write another set of characters, create another series.

5) Write at least one book per year. Yes, it's work, but it's the best work in the world. The only reliable way to keep your readers happy is to give them a new story at least once a year. If you can do more books - and MANY authors do - do it. But if you do less than one book per year, you will have a hard time maintaining an audience. (I've only been writing one book per year, so I'm painfully aware of what I'm missing by not writing more. I'm trying to step up my game, but it will require that I back off events or, possibly, writing this blog!)

6) Be wary of stepping outside of your genre. If someone were to buy the latest Stephen King and find out it was a Nicholas Sparks-style tearjerker, they would likely be upset. Leaving your genre is dangerous to your career. If you insist on switching from, say, mysteries to romantic comedies, consider writing each genre under a different name. Many writers do this and have as many careers as they have pseudonyms. Just remember that you have to produce.

7) Always remember that it is up to the author to sell his or her books. Knowing this up front helps you plan your strategy for developing your platform and reaching your audience. We always read about those lightning bolt success stories where an author catches fire with their first book. But they are beyond VERY RARE. You simply cannot plan on that happening. Look at how many garage bands there are in every little town in the country. Now compare that to the number of rock stars. Yes, writers sometimes shoot to the top - think Gillian Flynn or Paula Hawkins - and the media focuses on them so much that we get a mistaken impression that stardom is what happens to authors. But because the media doesn't write about the millions of authors who never become known, we get a distorted impression about the odds of success. The reality is that they are the top 1% of the top 1% of the top 1%. Statistically, those are impossible odds. So plan from the beginning that you will cultivate and grow an audience reader by reader. If you do that, write multiple good books in a series, and plan to put in many years as you would with any serious career, you will find success.

8) Approach a writing like a business. You have to invest an enormous amount of time and energy and, yes, significant money, too, if you want to succeed. If you are published by a New York house, plan to take your entire advance and maybe double it and spend it on marketing. Seriously, that is what many successful authors do especially in the beginning. (Of course, many of them are reluctant to confess that they've done this as they'd prefer to have people think that their success was a foregone conclusion, so great was their writing.) The authors who celebrate publication by spending their advance on a trip to Maui are the ones whose options aren't renewed. Publishers don't sell books, they merely make them available for sale and include them in their catalogs. Publishers are looking for the few authors who get out and hustle books. (Just ask a publisher or editor after they've had a couple of drinks and are willing to tell the truth.) If you are published by a small house with a small or non-existent advance, your bar for success in the publisher's eye is lower. But don't you want to succeed anyway? Sell a ton of books and then move up to a big publisher? And if you self-publish, then you have the advantage of keeping the majority of your sales revenue, which, for the most successful authors, is a huge motivation. Sell enough books and you'll get rich.

In sum, successful authors think about and plan for the big picture, and they study the business enough to have a realistic idea of what is involved. Naive authors think that their book will light up the reading world like a space shuttle launch. Were they choosing any other career, they would probably have a more sensible approach. (If they chose a career as a surgeon, they would probably expect to do a thousand surgeries before they found stardom, if ever.) But writing has such a magical aura about it that people get starry eyed.

Do your due diligence, learn your chops, study the business, be realistic. Those who do have the best chance of being successful, and once successful, writers relish having the hands-down, best job in the world.

Okay, I gotta go make up a story...

Sunday, August 16, 2015

Does A Novel Need A Theme?

Do you need a theme for your novel?

If you want to simply get readers to turn the pages, no.

But if you want readers to remember your novel and recommend it to all their friends, yes. If you want your novel to potentially cross over the threshold into that rare category of entertainment novels that may one day be considered significant or even a work of art, absolutely.

Let's break it down. First, the word theme may seem off-putting and even pretentious. (It does to me.) But what we're really talking about is making sure that your novel has intelligence and some lasting ideas that people will remember long after they've forgotten most of the plot.

To illustrate, let's look at a page-turner novel with no real theme.

Here's the plot: The story opens late at night. There's an isolated country house. It's rented by a single woman who has two foster kids, young boys, two and three years old. A man turns up outside the house, lurking in the shadows, peeking into the window of the woman's bedroom. He's holding some kind of large carpenter's auger. After he's satisfied that the woman is asleep, he moves over to another bedroom window where the boys are sleeping, slides up the window, and crawls inside, carefully lifting the auger through the opening so it doesn't make any noise.

Do I have your attention? Will you turn the page? Probably. One, we worry about the boys and the woman. Two, we don't know what the auger is for, and that rivets our attention as our imagination roams through a plethora of horrible ideas.

But while a little bit of storytelling technique can help you craft a page-turner plot, and while readers may race all the way through the story, if the novel doesn't have some larger, intelligent theme, the reader may well get to the end to see what happens, then close the book and completely forget about it over the next day or two.

But what if the writer adds some intelligence and depth?

Let's say there's a detective in the picture, a man who's been a cop for 25 years. This cop is tormented because his kid brother was staying in his home 15 years ago and was murdered by a home invader. (And maybe the murder involved a carpenter's auger.) What made it worse was that the cop was home at the time, passed out on the couch having fallen off the wagon for just that one night after being sober for 10 years. The cop, of course, blames himself for his brother's death. The cop knows that he can never make it better, but perhaps he can catch the killer and spare someone else's life.

We've added the themes of guilt and the pursuit of redemption. This moves the book away from a simple page-turner to a page-turner with something more.

Of course, we can go further. Maybe the cop has tracked the killer to this woman's house and he sees the man enter the boy's bedroom window. He wanted to chase after, but he's paralyzed by what he saw, a glimpse of the man's face, a man who very much looks like...

You see the possibilities...

Construct your punchy plot with its can't-look-away scenes. Then add an intelligent theme or two to make it a novel with much more.

Sunday, August 9, 2015

The Girl With The Lemonade Stand - Hey Novelists, Check It Out

I was driving to a book signing and went by a lemonade stand on the street just down from where I live. A girl had a table set up under an umbrella. On the table were glasses and pitchers of lemonade and an eye-catching sign.

Three things about it struck me.

First, the girl was giving a big smile to all who walked or drove by, engaging them with charm before she even had to say a word.

Second, although I had no idea if her lemonade was any good, I was absolutely certain she'd sell it. Her smile, her catchy sign, and her determination to put her product before the market would get a percentage of all who went by to stop and give it a try. Even if the percentage was small, the traffic was significant. Just a portion of one percent of a big crowd adds up.

The third thing that made an impression on me was that nearly every novelist could learn a great deal from this girl. In fact, the lesson might be profound enough to make a success out of a novelist who is otherwise destined to fail (assuming that novelist defines success as finding an audience).

What's the essence of the lesson?

Consider two kinds of lemonade producers.

The first would-be lemonade magnate spends lots of time and money and energy studying a formula for producing a good lemonade and learning marketing principles that might apply to selling lemonade. Then this lemonade entrepreneur does a targeted campaign aimed at the biggest buyers in the business to try and convince them how tons of people will be love this lemonade.

What happens? Despite such a serious effort, it's likely that no manufacturer producing lemonade will buy the creator's lemonade formula.

But let's say that one of the companies in the soft drinks business decides to give the product a try. They do an initial production on a small scale and test-market the product in some stores. The stores put the lemonade on a shelf with a thousand other products. Meanwhile, the lemonade creator develops a sales strategy that will possibly convince people that this new lemonade is worth trying. This lemonade creator also hires a publicist who puts out a comprehensive social media presentation.

If the lemonade entrepreneur is very lucky, some stores put in a free-standing display and hold tastings. But if they don't get a dramatic, positive response, they'll send the product back to the manufacturer for full credit, knowing they will never give shelf space to the lemonade inventor again. The reality of the big-business approach to lemonade production is that most new, great lemonades don't sell because there's simply too much competition.

The second kind of lemonade producer decides to produce her own lemonade, skips most of the marketing, and simply comes up with some attractive packaging, a professional brochure, and a fun pitch that is all about the story of the lemonade with none of the "sales" buzz. Then the second producer hits the road, stops wherever there are a lot of people, and sets up a lemonade stand. To state it in different words, the second lemonade maker ACTUALLY MEETS PEOPLE AND INTRODUCES THEM TO HER LEMONADE.

A small percentage of the crowd gives it a try. If the crowd is large, a good number of people will end up trying her lemonade. If her lemonade is good, they will spread the word. The girl with the lemonade stand doesn't have to shout like a carnival barker. She doesn't have to make cold calls. She doesn't have to convince agents and their colleagues that she has a sizable platform. She doesn't have to master internet marketing. She doesn't need to pay people who claim to sell sales results. All she needs to do is get her lemonade in front of ACTUAL PEOPLE.

Most people in the first category of lemonade creation get disillusioned fast and decide that the business is extremely difficult. They come to think that most successful lemonade makers have some kind of lucky connection to a buyer in the biggest chain stores and an uncle who is a writer for a major lemonade review journal.

Most people in the second category of lemonade producers realize that despite the pros and cons of twelve thousand ways to approach marketing, you can short-circuit the whole process by simply going to people and setting up your stand.

Of course, if your lemonade isn't very good, you're out of luck no matter which way you go. But if your lemonade is somewhere between very good and great, you can know that by getting in front of people, a portion of the passersby - whether a large number or a small number - will become your audience and be eager to drink your lemonade over and over for as long as you produce it.

Which group do you want to be in?

If you can't imagine ever creating your own version of a lemonade stand - some kind of concept that gets you and your product in front of actual people - then you should probably try to join the first group. And the truth is that some people in the first group may strike gold, find a huge audience, and get rich and famous.

Don't hold your breath.

If you can conjure up an approach that gets you and your product in front of real people, then - if, and only if, you have a very good product - you can build a following. The more you work it, the bigger your following will be. By taking a good product directly to people who consume that product, you go from almost no chance of success to a very good chance of success.

How bad do you want it?

Sunday, August 2, 2015

What To Do In Tahoe? Whoa...

In my business as a writer of Tahoe mysteries, I often drive around Lake Tahoe, always appreciating its beauty, but sometimes missing the breadth of what it has to offer.

When you go to a vacation hotspot, you expect it to have fantastic recreation. When I think of the places we love to go, what comes to mind is usually three or four activities that are at the world class level. Surfing, scuba diving, beachcombing, fishing. Mountain biking, hiking, skiing. Canyon exploring, fossil hunting, photography.

In the last couple of days, as I went around the lake delivering books and doing signings of my new book in South Lake Tahoe, Truckee, Reno, and Tahoe City, I made a note of the different kinds of outdoor recreational activities I saw from my car window. Here’s a list.

Road biking, mountain biking, kayaking, parasailing, water skiing, boogie boarding, kite skiing, hiking, running, beach walking, motorcycling, Jet skiing, sailing, general boating, paddle boarding, sail boarding, swimming, canoeing, climbing, volleyball, badminton, tennis, horseback riding, golfing, dog frisbee fetch, disc golf.

I saw arts activity: plein air painting, landscape photography, tai chi.

I saw people barbecuing at parks, on beaches, from condo balconies.

I saw people on restaurant decks taking in the view with their gourmet meals. I saw people tasting beer at brew pubs, sipping their ales under the high-altitude sun.

I saw people leaving on horseback trail rides and tour boats.

Of course, much of what Tahoe has to offer is out of view from the highway. Many people hike the mountains for gorgeous views from up above. Some first take the Heavenly gondola up 3000 feet to hike or ride the zip line up at 9500 feet, test themselves on the adventure ropes course, or go summer tubing. Some people ride the Squaw Valley Aerial Tram up to “High Camp” to swim in the pool or pursue geocaching, try the climbing wall, or go roller skating.

Some people take in a concert, a show, Shakespeare On The Beach. Others go for a moonlit sail.

When you consider the vast number of activities in Tahoe, it stands out as a one-of-a-kind destination. I can think of no other place on earth that offers so many outdoor recreational activities.

Want to learn more about your favorite activity. Just Google the activity with the word Tahoe in front of it. A great experience awaits.

Sunday, July 26, 2015

Can't Get Luckier Than This

Last night I had my inaugural signing of my new book TAHOE BLUE FIRE. The signing was held at Artifacts in South Lake Tahoe. I was so fortunate to have an amazing turnout. That so many of you had such positive things to say about my characters and their previous adventures was even better.

We writers build a fictional world, and we tell stories with elements of truth and reality embedded in that fiction. If we're very lucky - as I have been - people respond. When readers want to spend time in the world of Owen and Spot, Street and Diamond, it is the most wonderful, gratifying reward that I can imagine.

Thank you all for your support. I'm eager to dive into this book launch. My next event is Wednesday, July 29th. I'm giving a talk about TAHOE BLUE FIRE at the South Lake Tahoe library at 6:30 p.m. I know I'll see a lot of you there.

Thanks again. I'm a lucky guy.

Sunday, July 19, 2015

Is Your Character Development Too Much, Too Little, Or Just Right?

Last week, I received an email from a fellow writer. This person asked how a writer knows when they’ve developed a character enough, not enough, or too much. I thought the question and my answer would make a useful blog post.

Here's the letter:


Realizing you met several people at the Book Fest Solano in Vacaville this spring, I do not expect for you to remember me!

Having said that, I enjoyed visiting with you and purchased several of your books. All favorites. Thanks for writing!

If you have time, I have a fairly basic question that bugs me as I write my mysteries.

As a mystery writer, I find myself either not developing my characters enough (I don't want to bore my reader) or possibly too much. How do you know when too much is really too much? Does this apply to all characters in the same mystery or should it vary?

Thank you in advance...

My answer:

Hi Fellow Writer,

Thanks for writing.

Your question is a valuable one, but I don't think there is a black-and-white answer. So I'll toss out some general guiding concepts that I use.

Yes, I'd vary how much you reveal of character according to how important your character is to your story.

Deciding how much one should develop characters is probably best looked at by the principle of making sure that everything you write advances the story and moves it in the direction you need. No matter how interesting a particular character tidbit is, if it doesn't help move the story forward, then it should go.

Thus some characters need only the briefest mention with, perhaps, one telling detail. Other characters that are central to the story might need a great deal of development for us to understand where they came from and what is involved in their character transformation.

A critical aspect to how you reveal character is to try to stick only to dialogue and action and delete your exposition (the stuff you tell the reader because you think the reader needs to know it). Don't worry, we all write with exposition, but the more of it we can eventually cut out, the more interesting the story will be. (Readers are very smart. They can figure out all manner of aspects to your story without being told. All they have to do is read action and dialogue, and those reveal nearly everything the reader needs to know.)

This is another variation of the "show, don't tell" rule, i.e., don't tell us that your character is a fastidious dresser and might be a misogynist and that he smokes cigars. Instead, show him standing in front of the mirror adjusting his tie and picking at flecks of lint on his shirt all while saying disparaging things to the woman in the room. Then show the woman nearly gagging on the smell of the cigar in his teeth. 

If the nature of this character's personality is critical to the story, and if you show it instead of telling it, then we probably can't get too much of it. And we'll be intrigued to see every little aspect of this character as it is revealed.

Here are two editing techniques that many writers use to help with character development. I do both of these things.

First, when you are done with your first draft, go through and determine to trim it by 30%. Your goal should be to tell the same story as you go from, say, 500 pages to 350 pages. What happens is that you'll never throw out your best stuff. You'll automatically keep every passage that makes you laugh, or cry. You’ll keep everything that gives you anger or tension or fear. You'll keep your most scintillating dialogue and your most emotional scenes. As you force yourself to cut, you'll toss the weakest stuff, perhaps a bit of dialogue and a bit of action, and you’ll take out a whole lot of exposition. In the end, you'll have a much tighter story that will leave the reader wishing the book was longer (the best way to ensure that they rave to their friends and buy your other books).

Second, read your book aloud, imaging that famous book reviewers and English professors and New York agents are listening. That is a good way to identify unnecessary stuff regarding both characters and plot. As you read, you'll be proud of certain parts. You might also suffer hints of embarrassment at other parts as you think that your imaginary listeners are frowning or rolling their eyes. (At least, this is my response to the reading aloud exercise!)

Good luck, and keep writing!