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.