Sunday, June 29, 2014

Note To Self - It's The Dog, Stupid

Back in 2008, I was asked to write an article for Mystery Readers Journal. I just came upon it and thought I'd reprint it here. Enjoy!

It's The Dog...

“You can kill off any of your human characters, but don’t you dare let any harm ever come to Spot,” the woman said.
Spot's look-alike cousin
She’d been waiting patiently at one of my recent signings, then stepped up to my table and delivered this stern-sounding statement as if I were a recalcitrant schoolboy who couldn’t be trusted not to break important rules. Which, on reflection, I had been, forty years ago.
“I don’t think I ever let Spot get...” I stopped, realizing that the case I was about to make was weak at best.
“Yes, you did hurt Spot,” she said. “In the fourth book. That was terrible. Promise me you’ll never do that again.”
We discussed it some, and I explained that I had to put Spot into occasional danger just as I had to put my detective and his human friends in occasional danger. But I promised her that at the end of each book, just as in the fourth book, Spot would turn out okay.
Only at that point did she say that she wanted me to sign my newest release for her.
I’d known early on that I had a fairly important character in Spot, a 170-pound Harlequin Great Dane who is the sidekick to Detective Owen McKenna, a former Homicide Inspector on the San Francisco Police Department, now turned private investigator in Tahoe. But I’d always thought of Spot as Owen’s sidekick. Although Spot is out-sized physically and occasionally helps Owen in pursuit of the villain, he’s not a Wonder Dog like Lassie. He’s just a friendly dog who thinks all of life is a game. My books also have several other recurring characters who, being human, were, I thought, more important than the dog. Owen’s soulmate/girlfriend Street Casey is prominent. With a Ph.D. from Berkeley, she’s a forensic entomologist and consults on many of Owen’s cases. Equally prominent is Owen’s best friend Diamond Martinez, a recent Mexican immigrant who is a sergeant with the county Sheriff’s Office. As the smartest character in all of the books, Diamond provides a critical component in most of Owen’s cases.
But even if I hadn’t realized the importance of the dog, the reviewers told me as much soon after the books started coming out. “A simply terrific dog,” Barbara Peters of the Poisoned Pen wrote. “A charming Great Dane who likes microwaved treats,” wrote Booklist. “Spot is a great dog,” wrote the San Jose Mercury News.
And so grew one of the unwritten agreements between my readers and me. In my case, these covenants allow me to drop my human characters off the nearest Tahoe mountain at will, but I must be ever gentle with the dog.
It is interesting to note that these rules don’t apply outside of genre fiction. In fact, in the world of so-called literary fiction, the opposite is often true. “Kill your darlings,” is a cliché in literary circles. Among other things, it sometimes refers to eliminating story components that are nice, comforting, and sentimental. A “literary” author’s cred is frequently linked to how their fiction reveals the realities and truths of modern life.
Which, natch, means a world where life is often unfair, human motivations, even among good people, are often dark, where the future may be bleak, and endings are always messy. Those darlings, metaphorical and otherwise, that get killed in service to this ideal are numerous and may even come with four legs and a wet tongue. In the serious world of serious fiction, we dare not let a dog (for metaphor, read, ‘a symbol morally pure and big of heart’) wander long before it succumbs to a real-world end, squashed on the dark, poetic, literary highway. Of course, I know there are many exceptions where man’s best friend survives the literary writer’s axe, but in those cases usually there are other, equally sanguine substitutes that fall instead.
This perception may even lead to a useful definition of just what genre fiction is, after all, whether a mystery or otherwise. In addition to the reader’s usual desires regarding fascinating characters and an exciting plot, genre fiction usually depicts an “unreal” world where the denouement serves up a healthy dose of justice and fairness. Let’s face it. Many of us, maybe even most of us, like stories where the bad guy gets caught in the end, and the good guy lives on to engage in another adventure.
Perhaps this goes back to before the written word, when all stories came down through an oral tradition. We may even be hard-wired for genre stories. One could make the case that the children listening to campfire tales probably had a better chance of learning to find food, evade predators, and get along with other people if the stories they heard had characters who, while triumphing over bad guys, did just that. And if the stories had endings that worked out well, so much the better for encouraging kids to shoot for good endings of their own. Had those early humans been brought up on stories where the endings were realistically bleak – where the dogs often met an equally bad end – those kids probably would not have succeeded as well at life.
So it gets back to not killing your darlings. Unrealistic? Perhaps. But we write genre fiction. We don’t have to be realistic.
A woman from Seattle emailed me some time back. “I’m partway into your first book. I like it so much, I’ve ordered all of your others. But now I’ve had a horrible thought. Can you promise me that no real harm ever comes to Spot? If not, I’m not reading any further.”
Message received. Note To Self: It’s The Dog, Stupid.

Sunday, June 22, 2014

Notes For Writers - Think Long Term

Years ago, my wife and I were having dinner with friends and we were talking about things we’d like to master some day. Something came up to which one of us said, “But that kind of accomplishment would take a really long time. I’d turn 40 before that could ever happen.”
Our friend said, “Yeah, but if you’re lucky, you’ll turn 40 anyway, so you might as well pursue it.”
Talk about an epiphany that has stayed with us since.
Some time after that, I was at the Northern California Publishers and Authors (NCPA) conference, and one of the speakers, whose name I forget but who was quite accomplished in the world of books, said, “Don’t judge a writing career until you have at least ten books out.”
At the time, I had two books out. They were doing well, but it seemed that I was a very long way from being able to quit my day job. But I always remembered what he said.
Ten books. Whoa. It would take a long time to write ten books. Probably ten years. But, hey, ten years were going to go by anyway, right?
After my 4th book came out, I started to get the sense that if I quit my job and threw myself at writing full time - no, Double time, Triple time! - I might be able to sell enough books to earn my living from writing.
I talked it over with my wife, who was, as always, incredibly supportive. She said, “Go for it!”
So I quit my job and began working on writing All the time. No weekends off, no vacations, no skiing, no play. It was a ridiculous schedule. Seven days a week. Three hundred sixty-five days a year. If I wasn’t writing, I was giving talks at service clubs, libraries, schools, writer’s groups, and book clubs. I exhibited my books at countless art festivals, the State Fair, street fairs, any library that would have me. I did signings at several dozens of bookstores. I joined every author group from Reno to the Bay Area and went to their meetings. I purchased booth space at the L.A. Times Book Festival, the Tucson Festival of Books, the Sonoma County Book Festival, the Carson City Library Book Festival. I hustled books at every venue I could find from the Reno Rib Roast to the San Diego Harvest Festival. It was expensive, but I scrimped wherever possible. When I was on the road, I never once ate at a restaurant, saving money instead by eating grocery food. More times than I can count, lunch was a peanut butter sandwich while I was driving from one event to another.
If you visit the Events Page on my website and scroll down you’ll find hundreds of events where I’ve done my song and dance. And I didn’t even start that events page until something like 2008.
I entered contests and won awards. I submitted my books to reviewers and got reviews from all across the country. Over the next four or five years, I had maybe four or five complete days off.
What happened as a result of this effort?
My books sold more every year. The news spread. People move around the country and carry their books around with them. Every day I got more emails, and they came from farther afield. Florida, New York, Japan, Australia, Germany. Soldiers in Afghanistan wrote me.
A publishing company in France wrote and bought the French rights to one of my books.
And every year after I quit my job, I came out with a new book. I’m not a fast writer. I identify with the tortoise. I'm slow, but I never missed my annual deadline.
In 2012, I came out with my 10th book. I was finally there, ready to “judge” my writing career.
What was my conclusion?
The man at the NCPA conference was correct. Writers shouldn’t judge their career until they have ten books. My sales tracked a steady upward arc with each additional book. By the time my 10th book came out, I was all grins every time I looked at my sales.
Was I finally able to earn a good living because I wrote ten books? Well, the correct statement would be that I was finally able to earn a good living by the time I’d written ten books. Yes, ten books makes a huge difference in the eyes of readers looking for a new author. But in the process of writing ten books - the focus, the motivation, the drive to get it done - one learns a thousand things about this business. By the time you’ve written ten books, you’ll know better how to write stories, how to publish stories, and how to connect to readers.
In sum, ten books is critical to a career. But it’s not just writing ten books. It’s all the other stuff that comes with it.
Of course, you’re thinking that there are some writers who strike it big with their first book. True. But they are one percent of one percent of one percent. The vast majority of successful writers have a bunch of books on their backlist.
Readers tend to be impressed by writers even if they have only written one book. But if a reader is looking for a new author and they find two whose books seem equally intriguing, they’ll often choose the author with more books. Why? Partly, because more books creates the subliminal impression that the author is more invested in the process and may possibly be a more sophisticated storyteller. But mostly, because readers want to know there are more books to read if they end up liking the author.
So the message is… writers WRITE. One page a day gets you a book a year. Nearly anyone can do that. Yes, of course there is lots of rewriting to be done. Nevertheless, ten years from now, your bookshelf could feature a stack of books with your name on them. The time is going to go by either way.
If you dream of being a writer, don’t ever think about just writing one book. That would be like dreaming of opening a restaurant and serving just one entree. It could possibly be done, but the success rate is almost non-existent.
Get in it for the long term. Think multiple books. At least ten.

Sunday, June 15, 2014

A Great Dane...A Great First Memory

As many of you know, my books all have a Great Dane named Spot, who belongs to Tahoe Detective Owen McKenna. I thought I would mention how I know about Great Danes.
My earliest memory is sitting on the floor underneath Thunder, the family Great Dane. I was three years old.
Photo from akc .org

While some people can remember back to when they were two, three ain't bad. Of course, my memory was of a dog. It doesn't demonstrate a particular aptitude in the literary arts. I imagine that the first memories of Hammett and Chandler and John D. MacDonald featured Underwoods and the New York Times Book Review.
But I took that early dog memory, used it in acquiring my first dog as an adult, and I eventually used the breed in my books, to much appreciation from my readers. Can James M. Cain claim as much?
Probably more.
But I still like to think that there is a connection between that first memory and my life as a mystery novelist.
I still recall a sense of comfort and safety that came from having that giant black dog standing over me when I was a toddler. (I realize that recent research shows that memory is a malleable and creative thing, and that there is no such thing as hard facts in memory. Nonetheless, that is my memory.)
Twenty-some years later, my wife and I acquired the first major addition to our family when we purchased a Great Dane puppy, the first of three Great Danes we had over the years. As our first Dane grew she began to demonstrate the same stand-over-you behavior.
Is it protective? Or is it yet another manifestation of how Danes really just want to be as close to you as they can get?
If my wife and I sat on the floor, leaning against the couch to watch TV, our Dane would step over our outstretched legs, blocking our view. (Yes, we had a 13-inch black-and-white TV back then, but when it died, we never replaced it – a great boon to finding time to write.) If we sat cross-legged, facing each other to play Scrabble on the floor, our dog would step over my wife's legs, massive dog chest in front of my wife's face. When my wife coaxed her into moving, often as not she would sit next to one of us and then flop over sideways halfway onto our laps, scattering the Scrabble pieces across the room.
“C'mon, you gotta move,” became a common request. (When a dog weighs 150 pounds, commands are merely requests. You can't pick them up and set them down elsewhere. They have to want to do your bidding.)
Often at book signings, my readers will bring their Great Danes. It has been one of the great surprising joys of this business, something that I never anticipated. And every single Dane that I've met does these same things. If you're sitting, they'll try to stand over your lap. Or they'll lower their head way down so they can rest it on your lap. If you're standing, they lean against your leg with increasing pressure by the minute.

Danes are lovers, and they just want to be in your lap like one of the micro-breeds.

Sunday, June 8, 2014

Notes For Writers - Upon Entering Writing School

For the last year, I've been mentoring a very bright young writer. This student is preternaturally skillful and desires a career as a writer of entertainment novels, and I believe this writer can make it as a commercial novelist. This writer has also been accepted into a great writing program and possibly doesn't know of a potential conflict between the writer's goals and the program's focus.

This presented a dilemma. Prestigious writing programs almost universally teach writing as art, not as entertainment. Writing as art - what we call literary writing - is instructive, helpful, worthy, and generally wonderful. And the stellar examples of literary writing will be studied forever. However, literary writing comes up short in one significant area. It generally doesn't sell very well, which makes it difficult for literary writers to ever quit their day jobs and pay the bills with writing alone. There are, of course, notable exceptions to this generalization, literary novels that find a wide audience and make their writers financially comfortable. But they are rare exceptions.

In contrast, the vast majority of novels that earn much money fall into the category of writing as entertainment.

Thus my dilemma was whether or not I should tell this young writer about the usual writing program focus on literary writing, a focus that sometimes disparages the very writing that this young writer hopes to pursue for both emotional fulfillment as well as financial success.

Both categories of writing are valuable. Learning all one can about literary writing could only benefit an entertainment writer and vice versa. The problem comes in the attitude with which literary writing is taught. Many literary writers feel that their calling is loftier and worthier than the calling of entertainment writers. At best, some literary writers are indifferent and believe there is some value in most writing. At worst, some literary writers are condescending toward entertainment writers. As an entertainment writer, I've personally experienced this condescension many times, from universities to community colleges to writing conferences to poetry slams to support groups.

I decided that the writer I've been helping should know of this possibility in advance of attending the writing program.

So I wrote the writer a letter. Because other writers may be interested in this subject, I print much of it here:

Dear Young Writer,

Once again, you've impressed me with your story. Great characters (some of whom we cheer on and some of whom we love to hate!) and great plotting. I'm eager to see where this story goes.

I've done my usual scratchings all over your pages, mostly finding nothing to fix other than fussy copy edits. All the important stuff, the characters, the plot, the storytelling, is really good.

Many congratulations are deserved for getting accepted into such a famous writing program! I expect that you will receive a marvelous education and benefit from it for the rest of your life.

While I want you to be enthusiastic about all that your university has to offer, I also want to give you the caveat that many if not most writing professors in MFA programs have a strong bias toward literary writing, and they celebrate those stories and styles that garner National Book Awards and Pulitzers etc. Although there are numerous and notable exceptions to much of what I'm about to say, these literary works are often realistic stories with beautiful sentences, strong characters, purposefully weak plots, and bleak endings. Many professors are suspicious of strong plots, and are especially uncomfortable with stories that end well and hence are not realistic and true to life.

Your professors may well love your writing, and I'm certain they will like you. But if you should find that your teachers are not as enthusiastic about your storytelling as you'd like, please remember that they are generally not enthusiastic about the writing of most successful writers of popular fiction, especially the ones who have found the greatest audience. This has been the case for hundreds of years, and there are many writers who were successful in their day who were considered hacks by the critics and the professors. Some of those writers are celebrated now. Even Shakespeare was considered to be nothing notable during his lifetime.

There is a frightful snobbishness in some circles that equates popularity with bad writing. Of course, many popular novels are bad writing. But there is no causality. To dismiss popular writing simply because it's popular is absurd, yet many in the literary community do just that. The contrary also applies. To celebrate writing simply because of its literary pretensions is equally absurd.

There is a catchphrase in the online writing community that says that just because Big Macs are popular doesn't make them great food. This is a silly straw man argument. It is easy (especially for a good writer) to twist the discussion such that a pejorative judgment about entertainment writing seems obvious and appropriate, ignoring the fact that no one is saying that popular writing is inherently good any more than popular food is inherently good. This applies across many arenas. For example, everyone knows that more people frame and hang prints of typical pretty pictures or contemporary pop art in their homes than hang prints of art that has been endorsed by art critics. But that doesn't make all pretty pictures bad. The list of visual artists who painted pop art and were once scorned by critics and professors but now take up wings in museums is as long as the list of writers who were once dismissed or ignored but are now considered good or even great. Some of those very writers are even studied in graduate writing programs.

The slow process of critics coming around to appreciate successful writers has accelerated just a bit in recent years. Stephen King is still reviled by many literary writing teachers, although some have begun to reluctantly acknowledge that he is quite a good storyteller. Eventually, he will likely be regarded as a something of a master who wrote some spotty stuff in with the good stuff. J.K Rowling has undergone a similar trajectory. The general opinion in MFA circles is that if it's popular, it can't really be good unless it was written by Barbara Kingsolver or Richard Ford or Alice Walker or Saul Bellow or... You get the idea. Working in the thriller and mystery genres, I've always noticed the writers who were pejoratively categorized as pulp and noir writers years ago, writers who are now studied extensively in many writing programs (Think James M. Cain, Raymond Chandler, Elmore Leonard).

Among the MFA crowd, there is a deep mistrust of the preferences of average readers. Much the way "serious" film critics rarely praise popular movies and instead heap their praises on “art films,” people in the business of literary writing might feel foolish if they found anything to praise in a work of popular fiction. They might even worry that their colleagues would think they'd gone soft and lost their edge.

By the way, I should point out that there is nothing wrong with “writing as art.” Writers like James Joyce are still celebrated even though almost no one reads their work. I only take exception to literary writing teachers dismissing entertainment writing wholesale. (I think of the way T.S. Eliot dismissed Hamlet. It brought Eliot some notoriety, but it didn't seem to nick Shakespeare's cred.)

It could be argued that any novel that people eagerly pick up in order to escape the minutia of day-to-day life is something to respect. It could be argued that any novel that simply gets people reading - people who otherwise might sit in front of the TV - is something to admire.

I mention all this because I believe you have an understanding of story that will, with practice, allow you to find success as a writer of popular fiction. You know what the characteristics of successful popular fiction are - a strongly sympathetic protagonist in deep trouble early on, other distinct characters, good and bad, a prominent antagonist who is believably evil, and a pounding plot, rising to a big climax.

Some of the very characteristics that will help you launch a successful writing career, strong plots, for example, are characteristics that are sometimes treated as crassly commercial in advanced writing programs. Never mind that the pounding plot is one of the characteristics that Shakespeare rode to the top of everyone's list. (Except T.S. Eliot's) If a contemporary writer wrote plots as over-the-top as Hamlet, everyone in the business, including writing professors, would laugh. But of course, readers would voraciously suck it up and make that writer rich.

So while I applaud your school choice, and I believe you will find it a fantastic experience, I also want you to be strong if you get any flack for those aspects of your writing that will help you to find commercial success. You may see professors praising well-written stories that are moody and bleak and not very exciting. They may use as fine writing examples stories that are so rich with metaphor as to be inscrutable. They may commend character transformations so subtle that no one outside of writing classes even notices them. They may fill your studies with complex discussions of literary theory and aesthetics, all of which are good but some of which might distract from your focus.

If these things happen, don't let it intimidate you. Those moody, bleak stories with little or no plot don't generally sell. Their writers sometimes win prestigious awards, but most of them have to work a day job their entire lives. There are of course literary writers who get good advances and find a large audience. But with “good” advances trending below $30,000 (especially for literary fiction), and with the net after taxes, agent fees, and expenses being a portion of that, it is very difficult to earn a living. To add perspective, the average advance on a novel is now $5000. Divide by the number of hours it takes to write a novel and you can see that any sane writer would either augment their hobby with a teaching career or else focus on polishing up their “entertainment writing” chops.

In contrast, successful entertainment writers will find higher average advances (because their books sell better). Research will uncover many entertainment writers who get $75,000 advances and, by writing multiple series, do that with two or three books a year. Carry that forward for a 20 or 30-year writing career, and it adds up.

And in the new world of publishing, increasing numbers of authors are jumping their New York Publisher's ships and finding that they don't need a publisher to reach an audience. So why give a publisher the majority of the income? Many of the growing numbers of successful self-published authors are making more money than all but the very top tier of New York-published authors.

What does this have to do with your writing school?

This is another area that elicits groans from many in the literary community. Because the MFA crowd regards the imprimatur of a New York publisher as the required indication of approval for any writing, the author who goes it alone is considered to be trapped in the ghetto of self-publishing, clearly unworthy.

This critique group also overlooks the many authors they revere who started out - and in some cases have gone back to - self-publishing. Or maybe they simply don't know how many of their favorite authors have a long and/or current history with self-publishing.

Keep the faith. Stories like yours have value. Stories like yours provide entertainment for countless readers. Stories like yours sell. And writers like you - after a lot of practice and polishing your chops and, usually, multiple books - get to have the greatest job in the world. Your commute is from your desk to the coffee maker, you can stay up as late as you want, sleep in as late as you want, and you have no boss hanging over your shoulder. And you will get thousands of gushing emails from happy readers, asking you to write faster!

I don't want you to get a chip on your shoulder. There will be a great deal to learn from your professors, and it will be worth every minute. But don't let the literary community make you doubt the value of your goal to earn a living as an entertainment writer. Writing popular fiction compared to writing literary fiction is like swing dancing or jazz dancing compared to ballet. It's like playing music by ear compared to following the strict dictates of a score. It's like painting the subject of your choice in the studio of your choice rather than mastering figure drawing at an atelier before you are allowed to start using color pigment. It's like free skiing in deep powder compared to a rigorous discipline of slalom racing. All the above categories have value, and none is better than the others, but the former in each case is probably more fun. And for writers, entertainment writing certainly pays far more on average than literary writing, which allows you to chuck the day job once you find your audience.

So learn as much as you can, but don't ever jettison what you already know about writing fiction. You may even find yourself writing in two styles, one to satisfy teachers (nothing wrong with that) and another style to satisfy your future readers. All will be good practice and a good experience.

Good luck, have fun, and stay in touch!


Sunday, June 1, 2014

Best Hikes In Tahoe - Chiapa Water Tower, South Shore

Category - Easy
View Rating - 6 out of 10
Distance - Approximately 1 mile round trip
Elevation Gain - 150 feet
Highest Point - 6800

View from the top of the hike

Would you like a short easy hike with great views all to yourself?
Would you like to visit what might be the grandest location for a ballroom dance floor on the top of a mini-mountain?
This hike is not only unpublicized in the hiking books, not even most avid local hikers know about it. In fact, the only time that anyone goes to this spot is when the rare water utility worker unlocks the gate and drives in to check it out.
To get there, drive from Meyers on the South Shore up Hwy 50 toward Echo Summit. You will only go a short distance from Meyers before you cross the Upper Truckee River. A long block after that, you’ll pass North Upper Truckee Road. Stay on Hwy 50. Less than a quarter mile farther comes Chiapa Dr. on your right. Turn onto Chiapa and stay on it to its end approximately 3/4 mile from Hwy 50.
There is plenty of parking on the street where the road dead-ends, and your vehicle won’t bother the neighborhood residents because they are all some distance away.
There is plenty of parking on a deserted, dead-end street.

There is a gate to the left. That is the beginning of your gently-climbing hike up to a large water tower/tank. 
The gate marks the beginning of the hike.
The climb is gentle, the path wide.
As the trail climbs higher, the views get grander.
Eventually, you will see the water tank. The trail loops around it and continues up a short way.

Continue up, past the tank a short distance and you will come to a new, flat concrete platform that caps the old reservoir. This is the actual top of a mini mountain, and it makes a fantastic picnic spot.
This is the concrete cap on top of the old reservoir.

To one side of the concrete cap there is a place where you can step up (about three feet) to the surface, a 60-foot square where you can practice your dance moves under a circle of mountain peaks. And no one will be around to tease you if you start singing, “The hills are alive with the Sound Of Music…”
Your 360-degree views stretch from Stevens Peak to the south, Flagpole Peak to the west, Mt. Tallac to the northwest, Freel Peak and Heavenly to the east, and Mt. Rose a healthy 30 miles to the north.
Looking across the 60-foot-square ballroom dance floor at the top of the mini mountain.
In the distance is Echo Ridge. Just on the other side of the wall of rock is Echo Lake.

Flagpole Peak
Echo Peak
The diagonal line is Hwy 50 crawling down from Echo Summit.
Steven's Peak is just visible beyond the ridgeline.
Mt. Rose is the far mountain, right rear, 30 miles away.
Hwy 50 as it goes through Meyers, which is south of South Lake Tahoe.
The mountain rising up at the left rear is Heavenly Ski Resort.
To the south is Christmas Valley. The valley floor is out of sight, a few hundred feet below.

This is the perfect hike for anyone who doesn’t feel up to longer, more strenuous hikes, but wants a real hike where you still climb (gently) a short distance to nice views.