Author Archive: Alex Kourvo

Ask the Editor: How do I Make the Stakes Meaningful?

Dear Alex,
I got some disappointing feedback from my beta readers about my fantasy novel. They said they had a hard time getting into my book, and it didn’t hold their interest. I understand that story stakes are the way to make readers care, so I made the stakes as big as possible. If my heroes don’t prevail, the entire kingdom will fall. So why didn’t my readers care about my story?
–Daniel

Hi Daniel,

I’m sorry that your betas couldn’t get into your fantasy novel. I’m sure that feedback wasn’t easy to hear. But looking at the story stakes is an excellent first step toward a solid revision.

I admire your commitment to making the story stakes as big as possible, but the paradox is that bigger isn’t always better. As humans, we have a hard time wrapping our heads around mass suffering, and we tend to go numb when an entire kingdom is at stake. One death is a tragedy. A thousand deaths is a statistic.

Instead of trying to go bigger, I suggest the opposite approach. Bring your story stakes down to a human level. Make the stakes matter more by making them more personal.

Some genres have personal stakes built in. Maybe you’re writing literary fiction where the stakes are the heroine coming to grips with her family’s history. Maybe you’re writing romance where the stakes are a couple’s true love. Maybe you’re writing a YA novel about a kid overcoming a learning disability and finally getting that college acceptance. It’s awesome when the stakes are on that personal level, because when readers connect with the characters, they will care intensely about the outcome of the story.

But that’s not the kind of novel you’re writing. You’re writing a fantasy with much bigger things at stake. That means you’ll have to work even harder to make those stakes personal.

The only way that stakes matter to readers is if they’re brought down from the global to the human level. Do whatever you can to tell us why the fate of the whole world matters to this hero. Who is he fighting for? His family? His parents? His lover? In what way will those people have their lives ruined if he fails? Get very specific here. Give the readers enough details to truly understand how important this goal is to this very small number of people that the reader has come to love.

The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien is a sprawling, epic adventure where the entire fate of Middle Earth is at stake. If Sauron takes over, everyone will suffer for generations. That’s huge. But why do readers care? They care because of Frodo. He’s walking to Mordor with barely any resources, trying to destroy the One Ring, and for what? For all of Middle Earth? No. Frodo cares about his family and friends. He cares about the other hobbits. He cares about the Shire. That is who Frodo is fighting for.

You absolutely should have stakes as big as the world if that’s what your genre demands. Readers of fantasy love to see epic battles and political intrigue and great evil ravaging the land. But make sure that you’ve also made these things matter to one person, or a family, or a small group of heroes.

Keep writing. You’re doing great.
Alex K.

About the editor: Alex Kourvo is a freelance editor with over a decade of experience helping writers. She is the author of The Big-Picture Revision Checklist, which is out now.

Ask the Editor: How Can I Make my Heroine Three-Dimensional?

Dear Alex,
My critique group says that my heroine is a “Mary Sue.” She’s too perfect and therefore unbelievable. I tried giving her some flaws in my next draft, but now my critique group doesn’t like her at all. How do I balance it out so my heroine is neither a goody two-shoes nor an unlikable witch?
–Cindy

Hi Cindy,

I sympathize. Making a character three-dimensional is tough.

Nobody wants to read about someone who never makes a mistake. In fact, the entire point of a novel is to watch a heroine grow and change. She can’t do that if she’s already perfect. And if all the other characters in the novel already love her, there will be no conflict.

Most writers realize that their heroine needs some flaws, but they aren’t sure what kind of flaws to give her, so they choose things at random. Suddenly, their heroine is clumsy, or short-tempered, or her house is always a wreck, or she’s late for everything. Any flaw that sounds interesting or fun gets thrown into the book.

The problem with this? Readers will feel the randomness. Your character won’t seem well-rounded. She’ll seem scattered, and therefore, readers won’t believe in her.

Instead, look at your heroine’s strengths. What are they? Make a list on paper. Now turn them upside down. What are the downsides of those wonderful positive qualities you gave your heroine? Is she extremely independent? That probably also means she isn’t good at asking for help when she needs it. Does she see the best in everyone? That can also mean she’s naive, and lets people take advantage of her. Is she brainy? In what ways can you make her “too smart for her own good” as she only sees the high-minded, logical answer to a problem, never the down-to-earth practical one? Is your heroine very athletic, winning every race or match? In what ways is her competitive nature going to be a problem for her?

You can also flip this. If you’re having trouble thinking of the downsides of your heroine’s strengths, you can also look at the upside of her flaws. Perhaps you have a character who is very cynical, always looking for hidden motives or waiting for the other shoe to drop. That’s the person who will spot danger first, long before the other characters see it.

You can give your heroine any strengths. You can give her any flaws. But it’s crucial that you make one the mirror image of the other. If you want to make a well-rounded character whom readers will believe in, you need to make these positive and negative qualities mirror one another. Her good traits are her bad traits, and vice-versa.

Keep writing. You’re doing great.
Alex K.

About the editor: Alex Kourvo is a freelance editor with over a decade of experience helping writers. She is the author of The Big-Picture Revision Checklist, which is out now.

Internet for Your Ears

I visited the Rebel Author Podcast!

This week, I was the guest on The Rebel Author Podcast where host Sacha Black interviewed me. We talked about key lime pie, why Facebook is unnecessary, and…oh yes. Writing craft! Lots of writing craft. Sacha had lots of great questions about THE BIG-PICTURE REVISION CHECKLIST and I had answers!

You can listen to The Rebel Author Podcast on your favorite podcast app or on YouTube (look for episode #106). Here is the direct link to listen online. Be aware that the interview starts at the 13-minute mark if you want to jump directly to it.

Happy listening!

My First How-to Book is Here

Like a book coach in your pocket.

It’s here! THE BIG-PICTURE REVISION CHECKLIST is available in ebook, paperback, and hardcover everywhere books are sold. You can order it online or at your local bookshop. I don’t think any libraries have it yet, although it wouldn’t hurt to ask. The point is, the book is published and you can get your copy today.

One reader compared THE BIG-PICTURE REVISION CHECKLIST to a high-priced book coach. I don’t know if I’d go that far, but…

Wait. Yes I would.

For five bucks and a hundred pages, you can have your own guide to novel revisions. THE BIG-PICTURE REVISION CHECKLIST is the guide you need to revise your novel. It will help you make likable protagonists who are flawed in exactly the right ways, and antagonists that readers love to hate. You’ll crank up your story stakes and pinpoint the five crucial scenes every novel needs.

I wrote this book to help writers who struggle with revision, but all writers will benefit from taking a second look at their drafts.

Your book coach pocket guide to revisions is here.

How Many Stars Should I Give This Book?

It’s not what you say about books, it’s what you do with them.

Being a writer comes with a long list of occupational hazards. Wrist strain, numb butt cheeks, isolation, insomnia, and the inability to browse bookstores without buying an armload of books.

But the worst one is that I’ve become such a picky reader. I can’t help it. I always see the scaffolding as well as the building, even when I’m reading for pleasure. I tried belonging to a book club once but quit after three months. Readers discuss books very differently than writers do and I was not a good fit for this club at all. I wanted to talk about the way the book was written while the other members wanted to talk about how much fun the characters were and how much the plot surprised them.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the five-star rating system and how difficult it is to rate the novels I read. I have friends who give five stars to every book they finish, on the assumption that if it’s good enough to finish, it deserves the top rating. If they abandon the book halfway through, they simply don’t rate it at all. But if everyone rated books this way, there would be nothing but five-star reviews on every book.

I’ve been thinking about a system that’s a little more nuanced and also accounts for my picky nature. I tend to overthink things when it comes to books (and you know, life), but this new system cuts through the indecision quite neatly. I can reliably rate paperback books based on where they end up after I read them. My new system goes like this.

If I finish a book and immediately pass it on to a friend with my recommendation, it gets five stars.

If I finish a book and then put it on my keeper shelf, it gets four stars.

If I finish a book and slide it into a little free library or the charity bin, it gets three stars.

If I couldn’t finish it but it went into the charity bin anyway, it gets two stars.

If I couldn’t finish a book and I threw it into the garbage can, it gets one star.

Yes, I throw away books. Not often, but it happens. I won’t toss a book simply because I didn’t care for it. A book that wasn’t to my taste might be right for someone else. Nor will I throw out a book for being of poor quality. Lots of bad books are published every day. They’re annoying but harmless.

However, I will throw a book into the garbage if it’s offensive. There is no reason to keep books that are racist or sexist or otherwise designed to hurt people. Destroying a single copy of an offensive book won’t stop the other copies from existing, but it certainly makes me feel better.

So there you have it, the Alex Kourvo book disposition rating system. No rating system is perfect, but I feel like this one might be better than most, as I’ve neatly rated my books based on where I’ve put them.

About the author: Alex Kourvo is an editor-for-hire who knows what to do with her paperback books.

The Big-Picture Revision Checklist

How to Revise Your Novel the Easy Way

I have a new book coming soon! THE BIG-PICTURE REVISION CHECKLIST is going to be published in paperback and ebook October 1st, and the ebook is available for pre-order now!

I’ve been teaching writing workshops since 2014, and have talked to hundreds of new writers. All of them love to write. None of them like to revise. Revision is overwhelming, frustrating, and messy.

But what if it didn’t have to be? What if revising a novel was straightforward, with step-by-step instructions to get it done? What if there was a checklist for revision, with good examples to follow and great instruction along the way?

The Big-Picture Revision Checklist is the guide you need to revise your novel. It will help you make likable protagonists who are flawed in exactly the right ways, and antagonists that readers love to hate. You’ll crank up your story stakes and pinpoint the five crucial scenes every novel needs. With in-depth chapters and examples from contemporary fiction, this clear-eyed manual gives you all the tools you need to bring your book to the finish line.

The book is short and to the point, so you can get to revising your novel right away.

Pre-orders are available wherever books are sold, including Kobo, iBooks, Barnes and Noble, and Amazon. When the book is published, local bookstores can order paperbacks for you.

Get The Big-Picture Revision Checklist for a step-by-step guide to a polished and professional novel you’ll be proud of.

Do You Shovelglove?

Could this be the perfect workout for writers?

Some people love going to the gym. I am not one of those people. The gym seems like hell to me, mainly because I’m not doing anything. Picking up a heavy object and putting it down again or running in place on a treadmill just feels pointless. And if something doesn’t have a purpose, I won’t do it.

So I don’t exercise. Ever. Instead, I move my body. I do activities. I go places. I play.

I have one of these instead of a desk.

IMG_2778

I walk to the library or the bank or the post office. Anything within two miles of my house is considered walking distance and most things I need are in that zone. Shoveling snow or weeding the garden gives me the satisfaction of a job well done.

And then I discovered shovelgloving. It changed everything. I’m actually doing weight training and I like it.

20190306_203532

Shovelgloving is when you take an old sledgehammer, (the shovel) and wrap an old sweater around it (the glove) and use that tool to perform the kinds of moves you’d use in everyday life. You bend and twist as if you’re shoveling snow or lifting boxes or chopping wood.

It’s functional fitness, meaning that you’re building the muscles you’ll need for life, not to achieve some kind of idealized gym body. Maybe I won’t be the cutest zombie killer in the coming age, but I’ll be the most badass.

I kid, I kid. But only a little. Because while shovelgloving is extremely practical, it’s also fun. To me, it’s the ultimate roleplay. The originator of shovelgloving encourages this, although he thinks you should pretend to do very boring things like pitching hay or stoking a fire.

But if you’re going to swing a ridiculous sweater-covered sledgehammer around, why not have fun with it? When I move this way, I’m smiting orcs. When I move that way, I’m canoeing down a mighty river. When I’m shovelgloving, I’m pulling the rope that will ring the cathedral bells or digging my way to freedom or lighting the top of the bonfire.

20190306_204322

I’m a practical gal, but I’m also a writer with a vibrant imagination. I never want to exercise. I just want to move around and tell myself stories. Shovelgloving is the perfect activity.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I think there might be some monsters in my basement. Or maybe some buried treasure I need to dig up. Who knows what might be down there? But I’ve got a sweater-wrapped, eight-pound sledgehammer to take on another epic adventure.

About the Author: Alex Kourvo is a freelance editor. She has never belonged to a gym.

We Are All Readers

Why are we still fighting about this?

The other day, a silly person time-traveled from 2009 to post this ignorant tweet.

“I still can’t get to grips with how unspeakably disappointing it must be to read books on a Kindle. One of the biggest joys when you buy a book is actually getting it, no? Those lovely wiffly pages. That smooth (or crinkled!) cover.”

Screen Shot 2019-02-24 at 2.18.25 PM

Responses were all over the place. The tweeter had a handful of cheerleaders, a ton of people calling her out for her shitty take, and a few people baffled by it all. Several of her friends insisted that paper books were “real books” or “actual” books, and seemed confused when someone pointed out that ebooks were real books too.

In the year of our lord Beyoncé 2019, why are we still fighting about this? Ebooks are real books. Audiobooks are real books. The delivery mechanism doesn’t make the content any different. Loving paper books doesn’t make you better, or smarter, or cooler. It simply makes you a reader. And there are many kinds of readers.

Kindles have existed for over a decade, and regular users aren’t disappointed when reading ebooks. We take our libraries with us when we travel. We read in bed with the lights off. We get our books delivered to us instantly. We can spend hours shopping for books even if we’re not lucky enough to have a bookstore in our town. We hold our Kindles or our phones with one hand while holding a briefcase or a baby with the other.

People not reading in their native language use the built-in dictionary. People with dyslexia read audiobooks. People with arthritis or chronic pain turn the page with a single finger.

My personal favorite thing about ebooks is the ability to increase the font size. I literally can’t read small font books anymore, but every ebook can be a large print book.

Someone’s always wrong on the internet, and I probably should have ignored this garbage tweet, but I hated the way the author dismissed everyone who explained why they loved their ebooks, especially those with disabilities. Most of her follow-up tweets looked like this: the words “Angry Kindle readers” followed by the emoji that’s laughing so hard she’s crying and a stack of paper books. In other responses, she equated paper books with morality. Reading ebooks was not just lesser-than, but wrong.

Screen Shot 2019-02-24 at 2.35.04 PM

I truly wish this person the best. I hope her eyesight always remains 20/20. I hope she never gets arthritis in her hands or wrists. I hope she never tries to read and feed a newborn at the same time. And I hope she never has to move into a nursing home where there’s no room for her paper books.

But chances are, at least one of those things will happen to her, and the joy of wiffling through paper pages will no longer be an option. I suppose she’ll just stop reading at that point.

How unspeakably disappointing.

About the author: Alex Kourvo is a freelance editor. She reads in paper and ebook form.

White People Code

Using language to hide racism.

mjaxmy04ywvhzge1nta5ndcymwq4

White people talk in code. We say things that don’t sound at all offensive, but are filled with racist subtext. It’s a code that’s not really code at all, since the meaning is so plain.

But it’s hidden just a single layer below the surface of deniability. If called out, the white person can instantly backpedal into “what I really meant was…”

I’m a white lady who hangs out with other white ladies. I was taught this code from birth and speak it fluently. I’m also done tolerating it. I need to come for my own, and that starts with stripping away the euphemisms and translating these bullshit phrases into plain English. Here are ten things white people say and what they really mean.

10. Good school / good neighborhood  White school / white neighborhood

9. Mainstream  Used in Hollywood for movies and New York for books. It means white.

8. You’re very articulate  You’re black and I’m racist.

7. A gentleman by the name of…  I’m a liberal white person who wants other white people to know I’m talking about a black person.

6. We don’t know what happened before the cameras started rolling  The white police officer can’t be wrong, therefore, the black victim must be at fault.

5. I don’t see color  I would like to pretend racism isn’t systemic.

4. I’ve been discriminated against, too  I would really, really like to make racism all about me.

3. #NotAllWhitePeople / #AllLivesMatter  I’m this close to saying the nonsensical phrase “reverse racism.”

2. You’re being divisive  White feelings matter more than black safety.

1. Racially charged  I think calling someone a racist is worse than being racist.

It’s code.

About the author: Alex Kourvo is an editor-for-hire who doesn’t listen to nonsense. 

The Ten Best Things About a Michigan Winter

Who needs to go out?

img_20180307_105652_514

Most top ten lists about winter are full of stuff like skiing and ice skating and enjoying the snow.

Wrong.

Winter in Michigan is cold and gray and way too long. It’s front-loaded with all the good holidays, leaving a long slog from January to March. I love Michigan and I’ll always live here but everything I like about winter involves staying inside and staying warm. Which is actually pretty great, especially for an introvert. I mean, nobody can expect you to actually go out when the weather is like this, can they?

So here is my list of ten things to love about a Michigan winter.

10. Slippers. Cute, fuzzy, warm. The funny thing about slippers is that they don’t always match your outfit, but they always match your personality. Is it any wonder we northerners love our slippers? And they often go on sale in January, in case you didn’t get a new pair for Christmas.

9. The movies you missed last summer are all on DVD now. In the summer, we’re often too busy enjoying the actual sun to sit in a dark theater. But now, we can ignore all those serious Oscar-bait dramas, stock up on popcorn, and enjoy the blockbuster action flicks without leaving the house.

8. Electric Blankets. Is there anything more inviting than a pre-warmed bed waiting for you to crawl into it?

7. Darkness. Michigan has short winter days and loooong winter nights. For light sleepers who need darkness and quiet, winter is the time to get some rest. A late sunrise means no birds waking you up at five in the morning.

6. Soup. The ultimate comfort food. Chicken noodle, hot and sour, even that weird vegetable soup that’s supposed to help you shed the excess holiday pounds. I don’t know about you, but soup is what gets me through the month of February.

5. Fancy lattes. Nobody wants a hot, milky, sugar-laden coffee in August. Just sayin’.

screen shot 2019-01-24 at 11.41.30 am

4. Baking. Is your house too cold? Bake bread. Have you eaten all the Christmas cookies? Make more. Exhausted from having to put on six layers every time you leave the house? Bake a huge lasagna and you won’t have to cook for days.

3. Sweaters. Sweaters will both hide winter pounds and embrace you in cozy warmth. Never has there been a garment so wonderful. It’s like a blanket you can wear.

2. Feeling like a badass just for driving somewhere. “Yes, I know the drugstore is only half a mile away, but I could have died.”

20180928_192300~2 copy

1. Cuddling. Whether it’s cuddling people or pets, summertime cuddling just sucks. Ten seconds in and you start sweating all over each other and nobody can breathe. But wintertime? Let me grab my loved ones and not let go.

Hope everyone finds someone they love to cuddle today. Happy winter.

About the author: Alex Kourvo is an editor-for-hire. She is currently cuddling a puppy.

[center photo: David Wong. Licensed under a Creative Commons attribution generic license]