Sunday, August 20, 2017

Throckmorton, The African Grey Parrot

Here is one more great story from Ackerman's The Genius Of Birds.

https://www.amazon.com/Genius-Birds-Jennifer-Ackerman/dp/0399563121/ref=sr_1_1_twi_pap_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1501449324&sr=1-1&keywords=the+genius+of+birds

If you get the paperpack version, turn to page 146 and prepare to laugh and be amazed. Ackerman recounts the story of Throckmorton, an African Grey Parrot whose verbal ability is astonishing.



Throckmorton belongs to a couple, Karen and Bob, and his housemate is a miniature schnauzer. 

Throckmorton perfectly mimics the ring tone of Bob's cell phone. Then he mimics Bob answering it, "Hello? Uh huh, uh huh, uh huh." Then Throckmorton mimics the sound of Bob hanging up. From the other room, Karen thinks (knows) that Bob is in the next room and has been talking on the phone. 

Throckmorton's cell phone fluency is a great way to entertain himself, getting Bob and Karen both running, looking for their phones.

When Throckmorton wants some action, he mimics the schnauzer barking as if someone has knocked on the door. The schnauzer then joins, wondering, no doubt, how he missed the door knocker. No one, including Bob and Karen, can tell the difference between the parrot barking and the dog barking. Karen says that Throckmorton makes their house sound like a kennel.

When Bob has a cold, Throckmorton does his nose-blowing, coughing, and sneezing routine, exactly like Bob. Throckmorton mimics the sound of Bob slurping his coffee. He can do a perfect rendition of Karen gulping water.

And of course, Throckmorton has a comprehensive command of English, including those colorful words that can make certain dinner guests uncomfortable.

Further, he perfectly mimics both Karen's and Bob's voices. So if he wants someone to come, he calls out, "Bob" in Karen's voice, or "Karen" in Bob's voice. 

Never a dull moment in Throckmorton's house!

I highly recommend Ackerman's book.


Sunday, August 13, 2017

Is GPS Making Us Dumber?

Last week, I wrote about Jennifer Ackerman's "The Genius Of Birds," an amazing collection of the latest science on bird intelligence. One of the studies was looking into similarities between the way birds learn to navigate and the way humans learn to navigate.

Birds learn how to navigate by watching their parents and communicating with other birds and flying around learning where places are and by figuring out through experience how to accurately go back to those places. It turns out that if you raise a bird without this experience, the bird, no matter how innately smart, does not learn navigation skills.

Humans are the same way.

The conclusion of the science was something that society has begun to witness anecdotally. When people spend time studying maps and putting the information in them to use (such as driving cross country, or engaging in the sport of orienteering, or finding one's way in the canoe wilderness of Northern Minnesota and Ontario using nothing but a topographical map and a compass) people get very good at navigation skills. Drop a person with such experience into the wilderness at night with nothing but the sun and the stars for information, and they will have a good chance of finding their way out.



By contrast, if a person goes everywhere by listening to the synthetic voice in the car give directions, saying "Turn right in one mile, then turn left at the next intersection," the person never really gets a sense of where anything is in relation to other places. The person never learns geography. Drop that person into the wilderness, they are helpless.

The two people may have equal intelligence, but the one who figures out where they're going is dramatically smarter than the one who just follows directions.




Sunday, August 6, 2017

The Genius Of Birds

We all love birds. Of all the non-human animals on the planet, they are the only ones who are everywhere, all the time, tropics or arctic, and they flaunt their brain power as well as their beauty. Other animals, from meek mice to roaring lions, tend lie low or even hide, whether to avoid being eaten or to avoid scaring off their lunch.

Not birds. They are loud and in your face. They are bold. And they are amazing problem solvers, displaying a brilliance and a group of skills that no other animals possess.

I just finished reading a great book titled The Genius Of Birds by Jennifer Ackerman. I always knew birds were special. Ms. Ackerman explained why and how.



We often notice the smarts of our dogs. We notice the smarts of dolphins and elephants and apes. These animals can all do amazing things with memory (finding buried toys or food), searching (dogs and dolphins using scent to find and track explosives), communication (dolphins give each other names), making tools to get food (chimps make hunting spears), complex social interactions (elephants mourn their dead with specific rituals).

But birds are the only animals who do all of the above plus can learn to mimic other animal communication with astonishing fidelity, use tools to make other tools, build impressive homes using many kinds of materials, make dramatic, colorful art installations that have no functional purpose and are only designed to attract mates, and keep track of the calendar to the day. For example, Hummingbirds can memorize the location of thousands of flower/nectar food sources and the dates those flowers typically bloom. Then they show up each year on the same day after migrating hundreds or even thousands of miles.

One of their most amazing abilities is their navigation ability. Birds create a mental, geographic map of their world that includes vision, hearing, smell, and even magnetic field information. They are of course born with the right wiring. But it is their learning through observation of their parents and trial and error that gives them these skills.

In a notable experiment, scientists in Seattle trapped birds that have lived their entire lives on the West Coast. They attached tiny transmitters to the birds, then put those birds into a closed metal container (comfortable inside for the birds). The container allowed no information, light or sound or magnetism, from the outer world to seep in. Then, using a circuitous route, the scientists took the birds to the East Coast, 3000 miles from anyplace they'd ever been, and released them. The birds flew around a bit as if to do a little reconnaissance about their new area. After a day or so, the birds headed west. In a few days, the birds all returned home.

While many birds are born with certain innate understanding. Scientists have learned, and demonstrated, that most critical bird navigation is learned. And if you take away that learning, birds cannot navigate well at all.

Next week, I'll discuss the question of what that means for people relying on GPS to give them directions to their destination. Hint: It ain't good!

Sunday, July 30, 2017

Perfect Tahoe Summer Break

Let's say you want a little afternoon getaway and you're on the South Shore. 

It's hard to beat taking a drive, or a hike, up to Echo Lakes near the top of Echo Summit. Echo Lakes are at 7400 feet. They are just down from the high country of Desolation Wilderness, which, at the end of July, is still buried in snow above 8500 feet. The snow-cooled breeze and the wind off the very cold water drove us to put on sweatshirts even as Tahoe, 1200 feet below, was quite toasty.

When you get up to Echo Lakes, you can hike along the shore and look at the cute little cabins, or you can hike up to the nearby saddle and look down at Tahoe and see a spectacular view that will stay with you forever. Or hike to the summit of Echo Peak or on to Desolation and enjoy an amazing wilderness experience. Echo Lakes is a great place that we go to every year.

Oh, one more thing. Stop in the general store and get an ice cream cone. You'll feel like a little kid again.

That's snow on the mountains in the distance. Up there is Desolation Wilderness and Lake Aloha at 8100 feet. The entire surrounding area is still buried in snow.

Sunday, July 23, 2017

Best Kayaking In Tahoe - Sand Harbor

If you've ever spent time in Tahoe, you probably know that Sand Harbor State Park, on the East Shore of the lake just south of Incline Village, is one of the all-time great spots for beach stuff, water stuff, view stuff, landscape painting stuff, and even theater stuff (Shakespeare On The Beach at the amphitheater).

The park is comprised of a curved spit of land with amazing coves and beaches and foot paths.

If you've never been to Tahoe, check it out when you get here. Bring a picnic lunch and be prepared for an amazing experience.

Launching a kayak at Sand Harbor is extra special because of all of the above.

First, make certain you have your boat inspection sticker/paperwork.

While you can park in any of the lots and carry your kayak to the shore, the easiest way is to park in the boat-launch lot. (There are two entrances to Sand Harbor. The boat launch is at the north entrance.)

Much of the year, you can rent kayaks right on the beach next to the boat launch.

It is glorious to simply paddle around the area. For experienced paddlers, you can go up the shore to the north and paddle along the fabulous houses of Lakeshore Blvd. in Incline Village. This is where the billionaires have their lake cottages that often sell at upwards of $50 million.

You can also go the other way and paddle south down to the Thunderbird Lodge which San Francisco playboy George Whittel built in the '30s. George had a thing for fast boats and cars and exotic animals. (He kept his pet lion Bill at his 40,000-acre estate on the East Shore of Tahoe.)

The lodge, which is actually a stone castle, is now part of the Nevada State Park system. One of the closest views is from your kayak. Enjoy!

Here's a photo tour from our kayak (last fall when the water level was lower than it is now).












Sunday, July 16, 2017

Tahoe Payback Signing Schedule

The 15th book in the Owen McKenna series is Tahoe Payback! I'll be all over the territory signing it and my other titles, giving talks, and meeting readers. I'd love to have you come and join us.

"ONCE AGAIN BORG HITS ALL THE RIGHT NOTES FOR FANS OF DETECTIVE FICTION in the mold of Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, Ross Macdonald, and Robert B. Parker." - Kirkus Reviews


Here's the schedule, organized by location.

Carson City/Carson Valley
August 4, 2017, 6:00 p.m. I'll be signing my new book TAHOE PAYBACK and giving a talk at Shelby's Bookshoppe, 1663 Lucerne St. in Minden Village, Minden, NV 775-782-5484.
August 5, 2017 8:30 a.m. Signing for TAHOE PAYBACK at The Red Hut Cafe 4385 S. Carson, Carson City, NV
September 19, 2017, 4:30-6:00 I'll be exhibiting and signing books at the Minden Library Author's Day, Minden, NV
September 23 & 24, 2017, I'm exhibiting books at the Candy Dance Festival in Genoa, NV.


Foothills
October 18, 2017, 1:00 p.m. I'm giving a talk and signing books at the Murphys, CA Library.
October 18, 2017, 5:30 p.m. I'm giving a talk and signing books at the Jackson, CA Library.


Kings Beach
August 11, 2017, 6p.m. I'll be giving a talk and signing books at the Kings Beach Library in "The Garden", Kings Beach, CA


Mountain View
September 9, 10, 2017, I'm exhibiting and signing  books at the Mountain View Art & Wine Festival, Mountain View, CA


Reno
July 29, 2017, 11 a.m., Talk and Signing for TAHOE PAYBACK, Sundance Bookstore at 121 California Avenue, Reno, NV (775) 786-1188
August 12, 2017 8:30 a.m. Signing for TAHOE PAYBACK at The Red Hut Cafe 3480 Lakeside #1, Reno, NV
September 16, 2017 3 - 8 p.m. I'll be participating in the Nevada Humanities Literary Crawl in Reno(details to be announced)
October 21, 2017, 10 a.m. - 2 p.m. I'm giving a one-day writing workshop called "How To Map A Murder" at the Truckee Meadows Community College Meadowood Center S315 in Reno.


Sacramento
November 3, 4, 5, 2017 Exhibit and sign books at the Sacramento Fine Arts Show,  Sacramento Convention Center, Sacramento, CA
November 17, 18, 19, 2017  Exhibit and sign books at the Sacramento Harvest Festival, CalExpo, Sacramento, CA


San Jose
November 24, 25, 26, 2017 Exhibit and sign books at the San Jose Harvest Festival, San Jose Convention Center, San Jose, CA


San Mateo
November 10, 11, 12, 2017  Exhibit and sign books at the San Mateo Harvest Festival, San Mateo CA


South Lake Tahoe
July 28, 2017, 4 - 7 p.m. The FIRST Signing for TAHOE PAYBACK, Artifacts 4000 Lake Tahoe Blvd (in the Raleys Village Center just southwest of Heavenly Village) (530) 543-0728
August 6, 2017 8:30 a.m. Signing for TAHOE PAYBACK at The Red Hut Cafe at Ski Run and Lake Tahoe Blvd., South Lake Tahoe, CA
August 15, 2017, 6:30 p.m. I'll be signing my new book TAHOE PAYBACK and giving a talk at the South Lake Tahoe Library.


Tahoe City
July 29, 2017 3 p.m. Signing TAHOE PAYBACK at Geared for Games, Boatworks Mall, Tahoe City, CA
August 14, 2017, 12 Noon. I'll be giving a talk and signing books at the Tahoe League for Charity, Tahoe City, CA (details to be announced)


Truckee
August 8, 2017, 6:00 p.m. I'll be signing my new book TAHOE PAYBACK and giving a talk at Word After Word Books, 10118 Donner Pass Road, Truckee, CA  96161


Sunday, July 9, 2017

A Bike Ride Called The Death Ride? Yes!

Image a bike ride 129 miles long, with five climbs up mountain passes for a total of 15,000 vertical feet of climbing. Now put that entire ride at elevation with the low point being 5100 feet and the highest at 8730. Would anyone be nuts enough to do that in one day?

Over 3000 bike riders.

Welcome to the Death Ride - Tour of the California Alps, an annual ride that took place this year on July 8, 2017


Unlike the Amgen race, which came through Tahoe earlier this spring, the Death Ride is open to any bicyclist brave enough to try it. (But don't try it unless you are in SERIOUSLY good shape.) All the details can be found by poking around on the Death Ride website.

So just where does this ride take place? The California Alps are a bunch of mountains in Alpine County just south of Tahoe. There are three roads with high passes that go through the area, and the ride goes over those passes, Carson Pass, Monitor Pass, and Ebbetts Pass. The latter two are closed during the winter due to snow.



Here's a bit of detail about the route.

Just south of the Tahoe Basin on Highway 89 is Hope Valley. East of Hope Valley, down the canyon where the West Fork of the Carson River flows, is the tiny hamlet of Woodfords. This is where the Death Ride begins and ends. From Woodfords, the route climbs up Monitor Pass at 8300 feet and down the other side to near Topaz Lake at 5100 feet. Then you turn around and go back up and over Monitor. From there, you head up Ebbets Pass at 8700 feet, down the other side to Hermit Valley, and once again turn around and do it all over again. After that, you head back to your starting point in Woodfords and then climb up to Hope Valley and on up to Carson Pass at 8600. Then you make your final ride back down to Woodfords.

The final climb from Hope Valley up toward Carson Pass
In this photo near the end of the race, the 3000-plus riders were so spread out as they made the final climb, that this photo shows just one rider heading up and one of the earliest finishers coming down.

The Death Ride is a grueling ride through some of the most gorgeous scenery on the planet. Riding 129 miles with 15,000 feet of climbing is an astonishing feat. Anyone who completes it is amazing.

P.S. The oldest participant was 87 years old. The oldest person to complete the entire course was 79.
The youngest participant was 12. The youngest person to complete the entire course was 13. Wow.

Sunday, July 2, 2017

Craft Brew In Tahoe? Yes!

When we think of Tahoe, images of skiing and boating and hiking and biking come to mind. Recreation paradise, right? But increasingly, what goes along with those activities is a nice glass of craft beer.
Like so many other places, craft beer is exploding in Tahoe, with great tasting opportunities around the lake. Here are a few, from south to north:

South Lake Tahoe and Stateline







Tahoe City


Incline Village




Sunday, June 25, 2017

The Most Important Ingredient For Writing Success, Part Two

Last week I wrote about how Lin-Manuel Miranda didn't just write some great tunes and then, presto, had a smash hit with his musical Hamilton. It was clear that he had a plan to succeed. He knew that he had to write an enormous amount and he had to have a focus on how he was going to make it all come together. The message to the rest of us creative-content producers is to realize that you can't just write some stuff or even a bunch of stuff. You have to know how it will all come together, and then you have to doggedly work to assemble the steps, one by one.

A musical is a good example of how a plan is necessary because we instinctively understand that it is a big production. It's not like writing a single novel and then hoping to have a smash hit.

And yet, it actually is very much like writing novels.

With very few exceptions, almost no one has ever written a single novel and then had a smash hit. It sometimes looks from the outside like that is what happened. But when you do a little research, you find that the one-book wonder actually wrote multiple other books under a pseudonym. Or has a pile of books in a drawer that no one has ever seen. Or ghost-wrote books for a celebrity author who has no writing skills. Or, like Lin-Manuel Miranda, wrote a series of books without immediately publishing them, then edited and rewrote and edited and rewrote some more. When the first book was delivered to the agent/editor or was self-published, the advance reviews and blurbs were all ready to print. If you haven't done that, why not?

This is not a write-it-and-the-readers-will-come enterprise. This is a careful, thoughtful process where every major question has been posed and then answered before the writer ever reveals her first book. Lin-Manuel has shown us the way. Have a thorough plan and then execute it step-by-step. Know where you're going. Do your due diligence.

So my challenge to anyone who reads this is the same as my challenge to myself. Look very carefully at what motivates readers (or theater goers) to devour certain kinds of books or stage shows or any other type of intellectual entertainment (as opposed to watching team sports or riding the roller coaster at the amusement park). There are a thousand components. Study them. Sympathetic characters in trouble, gripping plots that intensify those troubles. surprise that worries and surprise that delights.

Next, study how it is delivered and how an audience is built. Miranda learned how the theater works. And he didn't just produce one spectacular show. He built a body of work. Multiple musicals. (And starring roles for himself!) Miranda shows that you don't have to brag your way to getting attention. Instead, position yourself to get noticed. Be ready to take on opportunity. If you write a musical and your skill is such that someone is willing to put up the dollars to produce it, does the starring role go to someone you've never heard of? Much better to take the time to learn to sing and dance and act. Be available for your success! This approach applies to all of the creative arts, including novelists. When the libraries and book clubs call and ask you to come and give a talk, is it already written? Can you give them 20 minutes or 40 minutes plus Q & A? Are the jokes and the self-deprecating lines ready for their laughs? Will you be prepared for the radio interviews? If not, why? You're a writer. Write those talks. Write those jokes. Be ready for your success.

Another aspect to your plan is the big picture. If you are a novelist, don't, I repeat, DON'T just write one novel. Unless you are Margaret Mitchell or Harper Lee, you won't go anywhere. Plan your SHELF of books. Plan them IN ADVANCE. Plan a series. Plan characters who will populate that shelf. There are almost no one-book wonders. In fact, even among authors who write multiple books, there are almost none who are successful unless their books fit into a plan, books that are linked by series or characters or, at the minimum, theme. Don't just write. Write to a comprehensive plan.

That may just be the most important ingredient for writing success.

P.S. We saw Hamilton in San Francisco, and it was great. It was obvious that it wasn't put together by someone who merely had a great idea about writing a musical. This was a tour de force, created with great planning and relentless effort and follow through. We can all learn from that kind of focus. That kind of plan.

Sunday, June 18, 2017

The Most Important Ingredient For Writing Success

Let's say you came up with a great idea for a novel. Now let's say you sat down and wrote that novel.

Is that a big deal? Yes, absolutely, that's huge. Congratulations. You've done something that very few people have done. If you're like most writers, you don't have any friends who have written a novel. This is a rare accomplishment, so you deserve to feel proud.

Will it bring you writing success?

If all you've got is a novel, even a very good novel, probably not.

Sorry, I realize that's harsh. The unfortunate truth is that there are millions of novels out there, and a significant number of them - if not a large percentage - are good. But hang in there a moment. I'm going to give you an idea of how to get success.

So what else do you need?

The answer came to me like an epiphany, which, as the cliche says, only took ten years to strike me overnight.

What else do you need? A COMPREHENSIVE PLAN. Is acquiring a plan an incredibly hard thing to do? Maybe not. But you must have it, and I'll explain why.

First, let me tell you how this realization came to be.

I was thinking about Lin-Manuel Miranda and his extraordinary success writing the book and music and lyrics for the musical Hamilton. Oh, right, he also starred in it. And it immediately went on to become the most successful Broadway show in memory. It made an ungodly number of millions of dollars. His Hamilton cast recording topped Billboard's Rap chart for ten weeks, and his Hamilton Mixtape album hit number 1 on the Billboard 200. The musical is still sold out on Broadway even as the national touring company is beginning to bring it across the country.



Has Mr. Miranda done anything else notable? Just a little. He wrote the musical "In The Heights" and also starred in it on Broadway. (He completed the first draft of In The Heights while he was a sophomore in college. And he wrote other musicals while in college.) He also helped write the hit Disney movie Moana. He's starring in the upcoming movie Mary Poppins Returns. He's won a Pulitzer Prize, two Grammys, an Emmy, three Tony Awards. And there was that little confidence booster he won called a MacArthur Genius Fellowship. He's written jingles, co-founded a Hip Hop comedy group and a whole lotta other stuff. As a result of his amazing body of work, he was awarded an honorary Doctorate from Wesleyan University.

Of course, all of this success takes a huge amount of time, right? I imagined that putting together such a career would take many decades of hard work. When I first learned about Miranda, I guessed that he was probably 60 years old. Maybe 50 at the youngest. Possibly 70. Good guess?

No. Miranda is only 37.

So my rhetorical question to myself was this: Did this Miranda dude just happen to write some stuff and it became enormously, immeasurably successful? Was he a one or two-musical wonder boy? No. It seems obvious that he had a plan. A comprehensive, well-thought-out plan. I don't know the exact details, but I have a pretty good idea of how it went down.

Way back in high school, he was focused on writing and working in theater. While the rest of his classmates were, like me at that age, riding their bicycles and skiing and thinking about dating, he was working. When he went to college, he wrote with great determination. I don't imagine he participated in many pizza-and-beer parties.

Is there anything wrong with biking and skiing and pizza parties? Of course not. But Miranda had a plan that was more important. He was one of those people who won't be denied. His future success at writing was like the laws of physics, immutable. I'm certain that he didn't just try to write clever rap songs that would be shaped into a musical. Instead, he no doubt determined that he would find theatrical success by thinking carefully about how to set himself apart from all the other wannabes. And once he decided how he would write to that goal, he pursued it step by step, refusing to be deterred by the uncountable obstacles in the way of all creative people.

Of course, the usual stuff about work ethic and tenacity still applies. Stuff like what Einstein said, that persistence trumps genius. The current popular term is grit. Success comes to those who have the grit to keep going no matter what. The Japanese proverb also applies, Fall Seven Times, Stand Up Eight.

The problem for writers is that grit and persistence, while very important, aren't enough. Just because you keep on writing doesn't mean you'll find a writing career.

This is where a comprehensive plan comes in. What are the steps in this plan? Tune in next week, and I'll lay out some ideas to get you there.

Sunday, June 11, 2017

June 8th and 9th, More Winter In Tahoe

June 8th, 2017. The snow has been gone on the north side of our house (elevation 6450) for a week. Most Tahoe areas below 7000 feet are snow free. (Although there are many patches along the West Shore at lake level.) 

But the upper elevations are heavy with snow. Our season total at our house was around 40 feet. The official measurements at the tops of the ski areas were season totals of 65 feet. Squaw Valley had to dig tunnels down to the chairlifts so that riders could get up the mountain as if riding along a walled-in snow road. Squaw announced that they will be open until July 4th. There has even been talk of them not closing at all and staying open continuously through the summer and fall, a season that would stretch 18 months until spring of 2018. They probably won't, but it will be because of lack of skiers, not snow. 

Every time the temperature goes up a bit, the weather service issues flood warnings, and the rivers and creeks are at the top of their banks with snowmelt. 

On June 8th, we hiked up to Angora Lookout. It is only 7000 feet of elevation, yet the clouds were swirling. The temp was in the 40s. Cold rain soaked us. Looking down at Fallen Leaf Lake, we could see snow patches still lingering at Stanford Camp, elevation 6400. Looking across at Mt. Tallac, elevation 9735 feet, the summit was obscured by a snowstorm. Because the temperature drops 3 to 4 degrees for every thousand feet of elevation rise, Tallac's summit was probably about 30 degrees. And it will drop to the high teens overnight. The precip is supposed to continue, so we'll wake up to fresh white on the mountains.

When we get high wind warnings and gusts to 35 down at lake level, as forecast this day, the Sierra crest often gets 100 mile-per-hour gusts, sometimes much more.

Which means, the summit of Tallac was experiencing a blizzard during the photo below.

Waves of snow sweep across the sky.
At center left on the photo, there are still snow patches down at Stanford Camp.
The summit of Mt. Tallac is obscured by a June blizzard.
I wouldn't want to be up there!
The next day, June 9th, I gave a talk to the Incline Village Golf Club. I took another picture of Mt. Tallac, this time from 20 miles away. In the picture, Tallac is the mountain on the far shore with sunlight shining on the snow fields. The day was blustery. There were multiple showers. In conditions like this, rain showers look gray. Snow showers look white. So it appeared that the heavy shower to the right of Tallac was snow. Later on the 9th, I looked at the weather forecast. On Sunday (when this blog will post), they are predicting snow for Tahoe. Life in the mountains is Fun!

Mt. Tallac as seen from the Northwest Shore, 20 miles distant. The showers to the right are snow falling over the water.



Sunday, June 4, 2017

The Hardest Part Of Writing, Part Two

Last week, I left off with my poor, lonely first novel, floundering out there in a vast, rough sea. Agents and editors were cruising in life boats, but they weren't going to take a chance at hoisting me aboard.

But if an agent or editor had responded to my novel, they might have said that my prose was purple, full of adjectives and, worse, adverbs. My dialogue tags also included the dreaded adverbs and called attention to themselves instead of being invisible helpers. My points of view jumped around from character to character within any given scene, destroying any ability of the reader to identify with a single character. My tense moments were filled with passive verbs instead of active verbs. And those same tense scenes had long, languorous, run-on sentences, taking all the brisk tension out of the scene. My dialogue was so realistic that it was like, what do you call it, totally, you know, um, whatever, boring, I guess. I had multiple scenes where there was no conflict or trouble. My hero wasn't sufficiently sympathetic for the reader to care. It took three chapters of stage setting to get to the beginning of my story. The bad guy had no believable motivation and read like a cartoon character. My other characters showed no emotion. The violence was cheap and sensational. My single love scene was cheap and sensational. It appeared that my characters had vision, i.e., they could see, but they couldn't smell or hear or touch or feel. The most important plot points hadn't been foreshadowed, so they just fell out of the blue and, hence, were unbelievable. Even worse, things happened by coincidence. Here and there I'd used big vocabulary words for no apparent purpose other than to make my book seem smart. My book had nothing to teach a reader. And possibly no reader would want to spend much time in this world I'd created because there were few redeeming qualities to my story or my characters.

I can go on. But you get the picture.

In many if not most of the arts, it's very easy for an amateur and expert alike to make an immediate assessment of quality and be fairly accurate. But with any writing at the level of someone who's actually succeeded in completing a novel, it's very difficult to make that assessment. It's especially difficult for the writer to judge his or her own writing because the writer's perception is completely shaped by their internal sense of the story they were trying to write. A writer doesn't see what they wrote. They see what they think they wrote.

So how does one get past this difficulty? By writing lots and lots and lots. You need to put in ten thousand hours at it. Very few writers create a good novel the first time they write one. In fact, most of the one-book wonders out there actually wrote a great deal of fiction before that "first novel." They may have written under a pseudonym as well. The public never knew what was still in their drawer. Most writers have to put in the equivalent of writing multiple novels before they start to develop the skills to do it well or even to simply judge it clearly.

As I've often said. You wouldn't think of putting on your first pair of figure skates and performing spinning leaps. Nor should you think you're going to produce a great novel on your first attempt.

While it's easy to judge if a figure skater is doing it well, even when the judge is a novice figure skater, it's very hard to judge if a novel is any good.

It's possible that, more than any other art, writing requires editors. Sure, a painter can benefit from the critique of a trained art teacher. But when a good painter finishes a canvas, he or she can often tell if it's good. Whereas, in writing, the input of editors is critical. It may be that the single greatest mistake novice writers make is to forego getting/hiring editors. (If you are relatively new to this writing gig, note that all professional writers use editors. It is only an amateur writer who doesn't hire a professional editor or three. And most readers recognize that by the end of the first page of their novel.)

This is also why very few successful writers think of writing as a one-book effort. They plan, from the very beginning, to write a shelf full of books. They put in enormous amounts of time.

After enough practice, that hardest part of writing gets easy. Once they can see the full picture of what makes for decent writing, it becomes much easier to do it.

If writers are persistent enough, the rewards are great. They live in a fascinating internal landscape. Many live in fascinating external landscapes. They are never bored. Never. They get to live by their own terms and their own schedule. They have no boss. And, for some writers, they even earn good money making up stories.

I highly recommend it.

Okay, time for me to go work on some fiction.




Sunday, May 28, 2017

The Hardest Part Of Writing? That's Easy.

I learned about this "hardest part of writing" back when I wrote my first novel, which is still in a drawer along with three other novels. The hardest part of writing is, simply, that it is very difficult for a novice writer to know if their writing is any good. Actually, it's also hard for an experienced writer to make an accurate judgment of their own writing.

To explain, please allow me to digress.

Imagine you just painted your first painting, a portrait done in oil. You hang it up on the wall between a portrait done by Rembrandt and a portrait done by Sargent, and you compare. Your first thought will be something like, Whoa, those other painters are way mo' bettuh. It will be painfully obvious that you've a very long way to go.

Now imagine you've just written your first symphony. Afterward, you listen to a Beethoven symphony, then yours, then a symphony by Mozart. Whoa, that's also harsh. In fact, it doesn't even seem like the same kind of art.

Let's try something less grand than a symphony or an oil portrait. You've downloaded sound recording software, got out your acoustic guitar, and sang and recorded your first song, a song you've been working on for months. After listening to it, you put on Joni Mitchell or James Taylor or Beyonce. Ouch.

People have always told you that you're a good dancer. (Kind of like the way people always told you that you were good with words.) So even though you haven't had specific training, you choreograph a piece and hire a dance troupe to perform it. Later, you watch the same group perform a dance by Twyla Tharp. You immediately think that maybe you should just be happy being an accountant.

Okay, last comparison. You just finished writing your first mystery and you set it on the table next to ones by Patricia Highsmith, Agatha Christie, John D. MacDonald, and Edgar Allen Poe. You flip through the pages of each.

Hey, this is a lot better than comparing paintings and music and dance performances and orchestral compositions. Sure, you can see some things the masters did that you make a note of to try yourself. But all things considered, your mystery seems pretty good. Just like the others, you've got a character in trouble, and a very nasty bad guy, and you've got a nice variety of scenes, and there's that real tense sequence at the end where it looks like your hero is going to die. While it's obvious that your second novel will be much better, your first is looking good, right? Even when it sits next to those by the masters, right?

Then you send it to an agent or a publishing house and hope that someone pulls it out of the slush pile and recognizes its genius.

Here's what happened to me. When I sent out my first book, agents and editors didn't respond except to send me little pink or green slips that said, 'Dear Sir or Madam. Thank you for your submission. Unfortunately, it doesn't meet our needs at this time. Good luck placing your work elsewhere.'

Why didn't my first novel make the grade?

Tune in next week for Part Two.

Sunday, May 21, 2017

Sneak Preview... Tahoe Payback!

It's not yet on my website...
It hasn't even been printed...
But it's done. Edited. And the cover is finished.
(Thank you, editors and cover designer!)
My new book is called:
TAHOE PAYBACK

Here's the scoop.

A distraught man asks Owen McKenna to find his missing girlfriend. When McKenna investigates, he discovers that the woman's body was found hanging by her ankles, the line stretched up and over the top of the tea house on Fannette Island, the only island on Lake Tahoe. The woman had three red roses taped into her mouth and a rose necklace and a rose-themed haiku stuffed into her cheeks.

After some serious gumshoe exercise, McKenna finds out that the woman ran a scam charity and used it to steal millions.

While McKenna and his Great Dane Spot work the streets, they learn of two more victims who also ran fraudulent charities. They, too, were hanging by their ankles.

Meanwhile, McKenna's girlfriend Street Casey believes her ex-con, parole-skipping father wants to punish her for her testimony that helped put him prison 20 years ago. Street has McKenna teaching her about self defense. Not just the basics, but the really nasty stuff that only ex-cops know about.

McKenna and Street are both about to encounter someone who wants them very dead...


TAHOE PAYBACK will be out August 1st. I'll be doing the usual series of appearances, talks, and signings beginning at the end of July. Artifacts in Tahoe, Sundance in Reno, Shelby's in Minden, Geared for Games in Tahoe City, Browsers Books in Carson City, Word After Word Books in Truckee. You get the idea. I'll do a blogpost with those dates. And those of you who've written and asked to be on my email list will get an email about my schedule.

Thank you very much for your continued interest and support!

Oh yeah, Tahoe Payback is available for pre-order, both paper book and ebook. Here's the link to the paper book: TAHOE PAYBACK
Here's the link to the ebook: TAHOE PAYBACK
(Eventually, Amazon will merge both paper and ebook onto the same page.)

I think you will find this book the perfect beach read, or late-at-night-under-your-covers read, or gift for anyone on your list who likes mysteries, or travel-appropriate read for anyone who likes Tahoe.

Enjoy!!!


Sunday, May 14, 2017

The Greatest Bike Race In America. The Greatest Bike Racers In The World.

Women racers circling Tahoe in Stage 1 of the Amgen Tour of California.
Too bad they couldn't find a scenic place to hold the race!


Hey everybody, pull up a cushion or chair, sit back, and I'll tell you a story about some amazing young women who are part of a group of bicycle racers kicking butt in the road racing world. These women set Tahoe bike racing on fire three days ago. Unlike lots of what I write, this story won't be fiction. It will be the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.

On Thursday, May 11, the Amgen Tour of California began here in Tahoe. The Amgen Tour is a 10-day bike race throughout the state and is regarded by many as the most important race in the country. The tour runs in four stages (races) for women and seven stages for men. The stages take place all over California and add up to many hundreds of miles. Think Tour de France California style.

The opening race was the women racing around Lake Tahoe. 72 miles with lots of elevation gain and loss.

Nearly 100 of the best women racers in the world, coming from 20 countries, started at Heavenly Resort and rode around Lake Tahoe in about the same time it takes to drive around the lake! As they finished, the winner was Megan Guarnier, an American who races for the Boels-Dolmans Cycling Team from The Netherlands. No surprise there, as Megan won the overall Tour of California last year. She is, by every measure, one of the racing world's biggest stars. In second place, just 8 seconds behind, was Anna van der Breggen, a powerful racer from The Netherlands and one of Megan's teammates. It was a spectacular race.

This is when the racers first appeared as they approached Emerald Bay.



Part of bike racing strategy is to stay back in the group so the group leaders do the work of blocking the wind. Teammates help each other out by shielding the one they think has the best chance of breaking free from the group and carrying that momentum to the finish and possibly win. Racing strategy is complex, making it very hard to predict the winner.
(A group of bike racers is called a "Peloton," French for "platoon.")
The next day was the second race, 68 miles with huge climbs and descents. This circuit was a tortuous loop that went from Heavenly, out through the South Shore, up over Luther Pass at 7740 feet, down through Hope Valley and then down to Carson Valley at 4700 feet of elevation. The racers then climbed up Kingsbury Grade, a 2,800-foot ascent to Daggett Pass, rode back down to Lake Tahoe, and then back up the final ascent to Heavenly.

The first racers coming down from Luther Pass toward Hope Valley. How fast were they going?
I don't know, but it was FAST. 50 mph? 60 mph?

The curve they were approaching wasn't sharp (just to the left of this photo). But their speed required them to lean hard into the turn.

A few hours ago as I write this on Friday, May 12th, I was at the finish line at Heavenly Resort as the second race was nearing the finish. 

The announcer was getting race reports in his headset and was passing the information on to the crowd. He spoke loudly into the microphone, his excitement contagious as he relayed the information that Anna van der Breggen, the second place finisher from the day before, was in the lead. But it turned out that another racer, an American named Katie Hall was coming up from behind. Known as a hill climber without equal, Katie Hall had apparently demolished the crowd on the Kingsbury Grade ascent. However, she is apparently not as fast as some racers on the level and on the descents. As they came down the lake side of Kingsbury and headed toward the final climb, Anna had taken a strong lead.

The announcer's words were something like, "The latest report is that Katie Hall is launching an attack on Anna van der Breggen's lead. Katie's approaching from behind. If she can narrow Anna's lead just enough, then Katie can possibly catch her when they get to the final ascent, which is Katie's specialty." 

"Anna van der Breggen knows she has to maintain a good lead in order to win. If she doesn't have enough distance on Katie Hall, Hall might power past her on the climb."

"Now Katie has caught up to Anna van der Breggen!  They are just two K out, on the final climb to the finish. Anna is an amazing racer. But Katie Hall, who races for UnitedHealthcare Professional Cycling Team, is known for being a climber. She has an astonishing ability to power up mountains."

The announcer was now shouting. 

"Now Katie Hall has pulled ahead of Anna van der Breggen. Katie Hall is the lead! Nothing can stop this woman! She is a climbing star! Okay folks, she's now five seconds ahead of Anna. She's moving faster. Increasing her lead. Wait, I've just been told she's opened her lead to ten seconds. These women have already climbed and descended six thousand feet in this race. Luther Pass. Kingsbury Grade. The climb up to Heavenly. Kingsbury alone is almost three thousand feet of vertical rise in just seven miles. Hold on, everybody. Katie Hall's lead has increased to fifteen seconds! This is amazing! She will be coming into view any moment. Folks, this is one of the most amazing finishes in Amgen California Tour history!"

At that moment, down where the final stretch turns into the Heavenly finish lane, the crowd saw a patrol car appear, light bar flashing. Next to it was an official car and a race-official on a motorcycle. The flashing lights got brighter, then pulled off to give the entire lane to Katie.

"There she is!" The announcer shouted. "Katie Hall's lead is still increasing! She's now ahead twenty seconds, so much that she could possibly pull into the overall tour lead and earn the coveted yellow jersey!"

We all squinted against the sun, which reflected off the vehicles and the distant snow-capped mountains. Mt. Tallac loomed over the western side of Lake Tahoe, its jagged cliffs and brilliant snowfields demanding attention. Behind Tallac, the Sierra Crest ridge line was a row of 10,000-foot saw teeth. In front of that spectacular view, heat waves off the pavement made the patrol car shimmer. The red and blue flashes danced, rising a step, wavering to the side, then coming back into position like a mirage that couldn't be trusted.

We stared. The crowd hushed.

Through the mirage, a tiny figure gradually emerged.

"Folks, Katie Hall is coming down the stretch! She seems to be accelerating. She's still increasing her lead!"

As the racer approached, wearing a blue jersey, we sensed the rapid pulse of her legs and feet churning into a circular blur. The crowd started cheering.


Katie Hall coming first over the finish line. An attending motorcycle follows her because she is all alone out front of the group.

There seemed to be a kind of group surprise about the image taking shape down the stretch, an awareness that this person who was winning the race was so small as to be shocking. The racer approaching at high speed was nothing like the conquering, muscular athlete we'd imagined. She was closer to a diminutive Nike, a small, winged goddess of victory.

There is a kind of disconnect in these situations. When we see a victor like Katie Hall, we tend to categorize her into the dancer or gymnast box, a tiny athlete who can do amazing things. But then, when we reconsider what she's done... when we realize that, but for a few elite male bike racers, she can blow every male bike racer wannabe off the road, we get a sense of the enormity of her accomplishment.

(Hey, male bike riders, feel good about your accomplishments. Be proud that you're in shape. Bask in the joy of getting out and pointing your bicycle up the mountains while your friends are sitting in front of the TV. But the next time you see a tiny woman out on her two-wheeler, working up a sweat, don't ever, ever think that she's "pretty good for a girl." And never dare suggest a challenge to her about who could ride up the next hill first. Because if you do, and if anyone's around to witness, they'll engrave "Here Lies a Fool" on your gravestone.)

The crowd roared as Katie flashed by.

Katie Hall has won a ton of races. She's in the top tier of women racers worldwide. Today, she did it again. She took on a grueling race, climbing up mountains at high altitude, and she crushed the competition and was all alone as she came through through the finish. Anna, pedaling very fast, appeared down the finish lane and came in second, repeating her standing in the previous day's race.

Katie's win was so pronounced that her combined times for two days of racing put her in the overall lead, winning the coveted yellow jersey.

When she took the podium and received her award, the cheering began again. We all knew we had witnessed something we'd be talking about it for years.


Katie Hall's combined times for two days of racing earn her the number one position and the coveted yellow jersey.

As this blog "goes to press," the Stage 3 race just concluded in Sacramento. The overall rankings have Katie Hall, Anna van der Breggen, and Megan Guarnier in first, second, and third place, with only ONE SECOND separating Katie and Anna! Sunday's 4th stage will tell who wins the overall First Place! Check out the lastest on the Amgen Tour of California website here.

Sunday, May 7, 2017

In Tahoe, May Is A Winter Month

Yes, we've had some nice spring weather in the last couple of weeks. But we don't let that fool us.

Six times in the past, I've done outdoor shows in Tahoe on Memorial Day. Five of those times it snowed. Once, it was a lot of snow.

So today, Saturday, May 6th, was no surprise when the snow came in fast and furious. I'm not kidding when I say that the flakes conglomerated into golf ball-sized artillery. It didn't hurt when they struck. But they covered me in white in the time it took to run from the car into the grocery store.

Don't get me wrong. We'll take this record snow that has filled up the lake and inundated our soil. Our road has developed a gushing spring. A hole opened up in the middle of the asphalt and water flows 24-7. Nearby roads have turned into continuous small creeks. Squaw Valley and Mt. Rose ski areas have recorded season totals over 60 feet. At our house, our season total was, perhaps, only 40 feet. We still have 8 feet on the north side of the house. My full-time job of snow removal is over. But I won't soon forget what it's like.
Shoveling into our house back in 2011 and again this year.

Here's to the coming summer!

Sunday, April 30, 2017

The Advice I Wish I'd Gotten When I Was 18

I didn't like high school. I got through it by focusing on music and skiing and riding my bicycle. I never had a broad outlook on education. Unfortunately, when I went on to the university, I still didn't have a big picture of education. I tried some different subjects and even went so far as to major in Pre-med (because I was good at the sciences). But that approach didn't take.

I'm happier now as a writer than I've ever been. But I wish I'd gotten focused on this novel business at a younger age. What would have provided a focus sooner? I knew that a broad education was valuable. But when I was young, I needed something more concrete. Something that, for me, would have explained the dichotomy between common knowledge and uncommon knowledge.

It would have helped if someone I respected had said something like, "You can't just hang out and hope a good life or a good job comes along. It is best to plan. And the best plan is to look at all the things you might like to do, and then study the ones that give you uncommon knowledge."

Perhaps that is obvious. But the obvious often escapes me.

The desired sage advice would have gone on with specifics: "The more common your knowledge and skill, the harder it will be to find an interesting, well-paid career. The more uncommon your knowledge and skill, the easier it will be to earn a living in an interesting way."

The advice would have included examples:

"If you become very good at skiing (a somewhat common skill), you can teach it. But you won't be able to charge much or find many takers because tons of people are good skiers. In contrast, if you become very good at brain surgery (an uncommon skill), you can explore some of the most interesting stuff known to man. And you will be in high demand because of the rarity of your knowledge. A bonus is that you'll likely get wealthy in the process."

"If you get very good at waiting tables or tending bar (a somewhat common skill), you can always find a job, which, unfortunately, often doesn't pay well. But if you get very good at being a professional chef (an uncommon skill), you might be able to start your own successful restaurant."

"If you spend a great deal of time watching TV, you'll learn the latest TV trivia and celebrity gossip (very common knowledge), and you will have spent much of your life acquiring knowledge that has almost no value. But if you learn how to write and/or produce those TV shows (uncommon knowledge), you will be able to work in the television field creating the content that so many millions enjoy.

A corollary to creating TV content would be that if you know how to write novels (less common knowledge), you can tell stories about most anything you like and maybe earn a living from it as well and work on your own terms and your own schedule and rarely have to get on the freeway during rush hour."

If only someone I respected had told me that at 18. Oh, well, we figure these things out in time...

Sunday, April 23, 2017

Writers, Be Careful With Your Bad Guys...

In the world of fiction, it sometimes seems that the only kind of Bad Guy that doesn't get a writer in trouble is a white, male lawyer or doctor in his 40s or 50s. If you move very far from that model, watch out.

In one of my books, the "Bad Guy" was a lesbian. The fact that she was lesbian had nothing to do with her being the antagonist in my book. Yet I got hate mail. After saying some nasty things about me, the person added, "Being a lesbian doesn't make you more inclined to be a murderer."

Of course not. A person murders because they are evil or because they are pushed up against an unmovable wall and see no way out other than murder. I think I made it very clear that my "Bad person" was bad for reasons that have nothing to do with gender preference. But I learned an important lesson. Some people are extremely sensitive about certain characteristics that have made people prejudiced against them.

People who belong to groups that have rarely suffered prejudice or have even benefited from privilege that comes from belonging to such groups may not be so sensitive if a Bad Guy appears to come from their group.

But lots of people are part of groups that have suffered prejudice. At the very least, that prejudice is insensitive and unfair, and it brings people pain. At the worst, members of such groups have been subject to unspeakable acts that can't be described in a PG-13 blog. So we need to walk softly if we identify a Bad Guy as belonging to any groups that have suffered from bigotry. We don't walk softly only because we're afraid of the reaction we might get. We walk softly because it is the right, thoughtful, sensitive thing to do.

There is an emerging flip side to this as well. If you identify your Bad Guy as a member of one of innumerable groups that are known for promoting hateful prejudice, you may incur that group's wrath as well. The last thing an author wants is for the wacko (fill in the name of one of the many hate groups here) to come after them.

As always, your Bad Guy does his nastiness because he's evil, not because of the groups he or she can be associated with. But not everyone will realize that. Some people will draw a connection.

You can give your novel's antagonist any kind of characteristics. But do it thoughtfully. And make it clear that those characteristics are incidental to the Bad Guy's motivation and have no connection to the cause of it.

If you're not sure you can pull this off such that your reader is confident you're playing fair with your Bad Guys, then you can always fall back on a white, male doctor or lawyer in his 40s or 50s...