Thursday, July 29, 2010

At long last . . .

. . . the full-fledged e-book reader has come down into my price range. Yesterday, in another price-war salvo, announced its third-generation Kindle, a wi-fi-only (no 3G wireless) model with a six-inch screen for $139. (If you must have 3G, it's $189.)

There are other sweeteners, such as a claimed 50 per cent improvement in screen readability, and a smaller and lighter overall size (8.7 ounces). But it's the price that most caught my eye. I can afford that. And so, I suspect, can most other folks who like to read books.

I've been reading e-books for more than a year on my iPod Touch, and it has done very well, especially in dim light, for it's backlighted. The thing is easy to carry on a belt, and it does e-mail and light Web surfing, too.

But the three-inch screen doesn't lend itself to all-day reading. The iTouch is best for stop-and-go "snatch reading" such as a few minutes in a coffee shop or an hour in the doctor's waiting room.

So early this fall, I'll be buying myself either the new Kindle or perhaps its chief competitor, Barnes & Noble's $149 Nook. The Kindle will start shipping August 27, but by nature I'm not an early adopter, preferring instead to let the impatient discover kinks to be ironed out.

I do believe that this is the tipping point for e-books over dead-tree books. Already sells more e-books than it does hardcovers.

Let the stampede begin.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Page 201

This morning, after the manuscript of Hang Fire, the mystery-in-progress, reached Page 201, I realized two things:

1. I now know the identity of the murderer.

2. There seems to be light at the end of the tunnel.

Progress on the fourth Steve Martinez novel had been slow, agonizingly slow, since my little cardiac event of nearly a year ago. No doubt the infarction and consequent triple bypass of last August took some of the wind out of my sails, but the deeper truth is that as a writer I am chronically feckless. From time to time a pang of guilt will get me going, but not for long.

The last month I have been working every day, forcing myself to put in two hours or get at least two pages done before goofing off. Discipline, discipline, discipline. (I used to have it but retirement gave me an irresistible opportunity to loosen my belt and liberate the paunch.)

There's now a strong possibility this manuscript might get done by the end of the summer.

Then the really hard work -- rewriting, rewriting, rewriting -- lies ahead. Sigh. I hope I'm up to it.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Self-publishing isn't so bad

It wasn't so long ago that I'd never pick up a self-published book even to skim, let alone allow to be reviewed in the Chicago Sun-Times book section. Self-published books came from what we in the professional publishing world derisively called "vanity presses." Their writers were deemed too lacking in talent, savvy or sophistication to be picked up by commercial presses.

But times have changed, and so has my mind.

With paper-and-ink book publishing in slow decline, commercial publishers have retrenched. They're offering smaller advances, ignoring niche markets and giving the boot to well-praised but slow-selling authors while focusing on a few mass-market blockbusters. "Midlisters" (like me) and regional writers (also like me) haven't many places to turn. University presses increasingly can't pick up the slack -- they are having their own sales problems.

What's left is the self-publishing industry, in which the writer pays all the printing and distribution costs and does all the promotion and publicity work -- and takes all the risks. (Some of these publishers provide basic editing and design services and call themselves "subsidy presses." But the author still has to foot the bill.)

It's a long shot. Many if not most self-published books are hopeless messes. They're full of errors -- typographical, spelling, factual and grammatical. They're poorly organized and wretchedly designed. Their audiences are undefined beyond the author's own family and friends. One wonders why they ever saw the light of day.

But I'm seeing more and more self-published books that are worth many readers' trouble. Some of them are from old pros who can't get published commercially anymore but can edit their own stuff and deliver a polished manuscript to the printer. Some of them are diamonds in the rough from talented writers and just need TLC from a good editor who knows how to shape a manuscript as well as edit it line by line. (Never trust a spell-check program. Ever.)

To be successful, these books need to be aimed at a well-defined niche of potential readers, and must be delivered with effective promotion and publicity. That's easier said than done. Even good-sized newspapers tend to avoid any kind of book coverage, because few of their readers are interested. Small-town papers, however, often will do stories on local writers, especially if their subjects are local ones.

Television? Don't even think about it.

Authors therefore need to dig in for a long, sweaty slog of library and bookstore presentations and signings, snailmailings and e-mailings, and postings on Internet forums. But not all authors, either professional or amateur, possess the sort of sunny personality it takes to make direct selling work.

Still, there is always hope for localized word-of-mouth sales, either of printed books or e-books. They are unlikely to be big, but they might bring a sufficiently satisfying return to the wallet as well as the ego.

Some advice to would-be subsidy-publishing authors: Unless you possess sharp editing as well as writing skills, you ought to find a free-lance professional copy editor who can mercilessly vet a manuscript and hammer down loose and unruly ends. That won't be cheap, but it need not be expensive, either -- there are a lot of laid-off editors out there who need to eat and won't charge prohibitive sums. Google "freelance editor" or "editorial services" and you'll find some.

Don't rely only on friends to read your manuscript and tell you their opinions. Too often they'll tell you what they think you want to hear, or focus on picayune matters rather than substantial ones. And unless they're veterans of the publishing business, any advice they might offer is likely to be amateurish.

Listen to the pros. Rewrite, and rewrite again. Then polish, and polish again. Never, ever publish your first draft.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

He's back

The pain-in-the-ass midnight marauder that plagued us in May, trashing our bird feeders, has returned. This time the bear also did a number on our garbage cans. This means that not only do we have to resume bringing in the feeders at night, we'll also have to store the stinky garbage cans in our little barn, which is also my woodworking shop. Life up here in the Far North is difficult, difficult, difficult, I tell you.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Mama and merganserlings

Click on the photo for a large desktop-sized version.

The common merganser is hardly uncommon on the shore of Lake Superior, but it's always photographable, like the ring-billed gull so often seen on this blog. This morning a family tarried on the beach outside our cabin just long enough for me to grab a camera and tiptoe to a good spot to take their portrait.

Mergansers, unlike Canada geese, mainly mind their own business and don't crap up the place or emit a lot of noise. Now and then, however, these toothed diving ducks will make trouble.

A couple of years ago several took up residence inside our chimney -- they are fairly brainless and will build their nests just about anywhere -- and when I opened the damper and laid the first fire of the season, the heat and smoke dispatched them.

We went home for a month, quite unaware of our unwelcome (and now deceased) guests. During that time our contractor came to do some work on the Writer's Lair, and encountered a terrible stink. He soon found the source but had to dismantle the fireplace damper in order to get the carcasses out. He replaced the damper but left it closed.

A week or so later we returned. The weather being chilly, we built a fire in the fireplace, with expectable results. Choking and cursing, we had to evacuate the place and open all the windows to clear the smoke. I distinctly remembered opening the damper a month before and wondered how it had come to be closed again. Had a damper-tampering poltergeist taken up residence in the cabin?

A day later our contractor came to pick up the check for his latest work. "By the way," he said, "when we arrived to begin the job there was this awful smell . . ."


Monday, July 12, 2010

Sunset No. 3

A boat passing across the horizon as the sun sets is a cliche shot, but sometimes they are pretty anyway. Last night a couple of fishermen chugged by as I sat out on the new cedar love seat in front of the Writer's Lair, and I just couldn't resist. Click the photo for a desktop-sized version.

Friday, July 9, 2010

Bush planespotting

Last year I had a heart attack and a triple bypass, sold my little Cessna 150, and said good-bye to 15 years and more than 1,300 hours of flying. Still, "once a pilot, always a pilot," they say, and every time I see a Piper or Cessna rise from a grassroots airfield, the old obsession -- the irrepressible impulse to aviate -- nearly overwhelms me.

But not for long. During the last decade four of my friends, three of them first met during my coast-to-coast adventure for Flight of the Gin Fizz, have died in air crashes. I've had some narrow escapes, two of them involving engine failures while in flight.

The last year or so I flew, it was nervously, constantly looking for a field for an emergency landing, always swiveling my head searching for potentially hostile traffic. As, of course, every good pilot should.

But this time flying wasn't fun anymore.

It seemed a good idea to quit while I was ahead, and that little cardiac episode forced me into it.

Still, the sight of an airplane always perks me up, and has since World War II, when I was a junior planespotter, able to tell a Zero from a Messerschmitt. On my trip to Alaska last month I was constantly cheered, often with camera in hand, by the sight of small planes of all kinds. Alaska wouldn't be Alaska without single-engine bush aircraft that can take off on a dime and land on a postage stamp, often a watery one. Here are some of them:

Piper Super Cub on floats demonstrating landings and takeoffs for tourist-boat passengers on the Chena River at Fairbanks, Alaska.

Another Super Cub by the Chena River, this one on oversized "tundra tires" enabling it to land on soft ground without digging in.

Just down the riverbank sat this Bellanca Scout, whose tundra tires are so large they make the airplane look like Bigfoot.

A Cessna 185 at its private dock on the Chena River.

This Cessna 185 is taking off by the waterfront at Ketchikan, Alaska. I shot the photo from the cruise ship Statendam coming in to dock.

A de Havilland Beaver touching down for landing, one wing and float low against the crosswind, on Misty Fjord near Ketchikan. Later I looked up the history of N4787C and discovered she had been involved in a fatal crash off Ketchikan in 1997 and the wreck rebuilt. It's safe to say that the sightseers aboard knew nothing about that.

Just ahead of the Beaver came its big brother, a de Havilland Turbo Otter.

The two de Havillands at the seaplane dock at the end of Misty Fjord. Passengers debarked the planes and embarked on our sightseeing boat, and new passengers from the boat boarded the planes for the flight back to Ketchikan.

Another Turbo Otter and Beaver combination just outside Ketchikan.

Did I regret not booking a flightseeing trip up Misty Fjord? Not at all. Of course those Alaskan flightseeing outfits have stellar safety records. But it just wouldn't have been fun. Maybe, with time . . .

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Glories of the Alaska Railroad

The extravagantly photogenic Alaska Railroad is heaven for the amateur photographer who is also a train buff, and the following shots, captured on our recent Holland-America Line cruise tour, will help explain why. They were taken on two of the landlocked railroad's best trains, the Denali Star from Fairbanks 344 miles south to Anchorage, and the Cruise Train 114 miles east and south from Ted Stevens Airport in Anchorage to Seward.

Alaska Railroad powers its passenger trains with 4,000-horsepower SD70MACs built in the mid-1990s, keeping the paint on all its equipment fresh and shiny. On June 19, 2010, Nos. 4319 and 4328 hauled the railroad's flagship Denali Star from Fairbanks to Anchorage. Here it pulls into the Denali National Park station.

Aboard the Denali Star, "Gold Star" first-class passengers ride in luxury bilevel dome coaches that feature upper-level open-air observation platforms (look to the rear of the car). A dining room and galley is on the first level.

The Gold Star coach's observation platform. As many as ten photographers can squeeze along the rail of one side. Hang on to your hat, though; it gets windy at speed up there.

Private double-deck dome coaches even more luxurious than the Denali Star's are towed behind the Alaska Railroad cars. Holland-America's McKinley Explorers are reputedly the largest and heaviest passenger carriages ever built.

The McKinley Explorer cars' open-air photo platforms are on the first level and also serve as an entry vestibule to board and detrain passengers.

Interior of a McKinley Explorer's upper-level dome. For seated passengers, the sight lines from this car are unbeatable. A steward serves drinks above and full meals are "available for purchase" (in the cruise line's coy term) in the dining room below.

The front of the Denali Star climbing into the mountains.

Looking to the rear from our McKinley Explorer coach. There were five of them on the June 19 southbound, plus a smaller Princess Cruises carriage on the rear.

The Star parallels the gorge of the Nenana River for much of the trip.

Several times we spotted rafters on the river, milky from glacial silt.

The Alaska Range in the distance counterpoints the thick boreal forest and winding Susitna River.

Inside the single-level Gold Star coach of the Cruise Train before it departed Ted Stevens Airport at Anchorage for Seward on June 20.

From Anchorage the Cruise Train follows Turnagain Arm of Cook Inlet for many picturesque miles.

Our coach was the first behind the engine, also a SD70MAC.

Glaciers abounded on the line.

As the train rolled farther into the Chugash Mountains, snowfields appeared. That's a view to the rear of the train; the Cruise Train has locomotives on both ends because it cannot be turned at either Seward or Ted Stevens Airport.

The passing train spooked this trio of black bear cubs. We didn't spot the mother.

At Seward the Cruise Train rolled right up to the quay, where Holland-America's MS Statendam awaited.

Sunday, July 4, 2010

From ship to train and the mountains

This one's for train lovers. The rest of you have neither the sophistication or thoughtfulness to appreciate the following post, so please depart for more mundane jollies elsewhere.

Looking back from the open vestibule of the last car of the 12:15 p.m. White Pass & Yukon train as it climbs up the valley of the Klondike River from Skagway, Alaska, to Fraser, B.C.

There is no more glorious place to behold the mountains and gorges of North America than the open platform of the last coach of a narrow-gauge railway train. Only the engineer has a better view.

A couple of weeks ago I rode behind the drumhead on the rear car of one of the world's biggest little railroads, the White Pass & Yukon Railway from Skagway on the coast of Alaska to Carcross in northern British Columbia.

It was born during the Klondike Gold Rush of 1898-99 to carry gold seekers and their freight deep into the Yukon, and today it is devoted to thrilling cruise-line passengers who land at Skagway and nearby Haines.

Its rails are just 3 feet apart instead of the 4 feet 8 1/2 inches of standard railroads. Narrow-gauge lines can't carry as much tonnage as the big boys, but they're decidedly cheaper to blast through the solid rock of mountainsides. Their locomotives and cars are much smaller, easier to get around tight curves.

Best of all, the WP&Y does not forbid passengers to congregate on the open platforms of its replica shorty coaches. This makes getting good photos a lot easier than battling window reflections from inside the cars. Is it dangerous? Not particularly; the trains never go much faster than 30 miles an hour, so steep and winding is the line.

Here are some shots from my recent trip to Alaska with Holland-America:

This coach is parked by the station in downtown Skagway, but the line extends to sidings at the docks where trains wait for incoming cruise-ship passengers.

A conductor rides the step into Skagway station while shooing an overeager passenger back into his coach.

Shovelnose General Electric locomotive No. 90 was among the first WP&Y diesels, arriving on the property in 1954. Originally rated at 890 horsepower, it was rebuilt and re-engined to 1,400 h.p. in the 1990s. Three of them are required to haul a 15-car train.

This 1,200 h.p. Alco/Montreal Locomotive Works engine is one of several built in 1969, some of them sold to the Colombian national railroad after the WP&Y closed down in 1988, but was bought back in 1999 to serve the ever-increasing hordes of Inside Passage cruise passengers.

WP&Y's most modern locomotive is this 1,200-horsepower model built in 1991 by Bombardier near Montreal. It was being used in switching service when the photo was taken.

The oldest piece of equipment on the WP&Y is No. 1, a rotary snowplow built in 1898 and retired in 1962, then restored to service in 1995. Since the railroad is a essentially a summer tourist operation, the rotary is not used much these days.

One of the railroad's newest cars, the coach Lake McClintock, was built in 2005 to help meet tourist demand. Here its train is backing into a siding on the cruise-ship dock at Skagway while a conductor mans the air brake to stop the train at its appointed spot.

Photographers congregate on car platforms as the train winds around a curved bridge over the Klondike River gorge.

Another train follows far below, about three miles behind ours high up on a mountainside. The WP&Y runs three trains simultaneously, staggering their departures to keep a safe interval between them.

This high trestle is built right in front of the entrance to a tunnel . . .

. . . and here the train rumbles over the trestle and plunges into the tunnel.

After clearing Canadian immigration at Fraser, B.C., 27 miles up the line from Skagway, most passengers boarded buses for the return trip. The rest went on to Carcross, B.C.

Saturday, July 3, 2010

Holiday album, continued

The "front yard" of Chena Village, a replica Athabascan fishing settlement on the Chena River outside Fairbanks. Salmon are captured in the weir, cleaned and dried on racks, then smoked for winter use. The Lady Friend (a k a Deborah Abbott) took the photo; click on it for more detail.

On our first day in Alaska, I was not looking forward to the sights in Fairbanks especially concocted for Holland-America cruise passengers. They are not exactly authentic; "reconstructions" and "replicas" are kind words for most of what we saw. A cynic might use "Disneyfied."

But the pretend steamboat ride (powered by a diesel engine, of course) for a short way on the Chena River had a couple of redeeming features. One of them was the stop at Chena Village, a slick and probably quite accurate museum reconstruction of an Athabascan fishing village from, say, 300 years ago.

Its chief attraction was the trio of charming Athabascan (as the interior Alaskan Native Americans are called) college students whose summer jobs were as docents for the museum town. The Lady Friend and I have rarely encountered young people as articulate, enthusiastic and knowledgeable as these three. They kept 250 or so restless cruise passengers rapt as they described Athabascan culture, in which they took considerable pride. Life in the Alaskan bush, especially in the winter, was arduous, and the Athabascans long have been masters at dealing with it -- trapping and trading furs, subsisting on salmon, traveling by dog sled.

Here is a selection of photos from the event (the Lady Friend took some of them):

Two of three young Athabascan docents at Chena Village display their people's winter dress. Modern Athabascans use zippers, of course. More efficient than whalebone buttons.

She's simply irresistible, isn't she?

This young woman grew up in her family's fish camp before going to college, and expertly demonstrated salmon filleting.

Latter-day Athabascan cabins feature glass windows and sod roofs. (Deborah Abbott photo)

Athabascans adapted to snowmobiles long ago. This machine probably dates from the 1930s. (Deborah Abbott photo)

In the wild they're caribou; when domesticated they're called reindeer. Chena Village had a quartet of them on display.