Author Archive: Alex Kourvo

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.

Three Books to Bust Writer’s Block

Three very different authors each tackle writer’s block their own way.

The other day, someone asked me about writer’s block. Did I ever get it? Did I ever blog about ways to cope with it? Did I have any advice for him?

Like I usually do in such circumstances, I recommended a book. Three of them, in fact.

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If you want to know why you’re blocked, read The Courage To Write. Ralph Keyes takes a deep dive into the fears that all writers experience. Why are writers afraid? Because a good novel is an intensely emotional experience. In order to make our readers feel things, we have to feel them too. Few people want to face their own deepest passions and then put them on a page for everyone to read. But Keyes will show you that you’re not alone, and that your anxiety is totally normal.

If you’re looking for the kind of compassionate wisdom an older sister would give you, read Make Your Writing Bloom. Shonell Bacon is frank about obstacles that get in the way of writing. But she overcame those obstacles and is absolutely sure that you can do the same. With a positive outlook and gentle encouragement, Bacon reminds writers why they love the craft so much.

On the other end of the spectrum is Break Writer’s Block Now. Jerrold Mundis is serious about writing, about hard work, and about getting out of your own way to get those words written. He wants writers to stop loading writing with a bunch of emotional baggage and just get it done. Mundis advocates forming a habit and writing no matter what.

So there you go. Psychology, sisterly love, or a kick in the pants. If you’re suffering from writer’s block, one of these should fit the bill. At different times in my career, all of them have helped me.

About the Author: Alex Kourvo is an editor-for-hire. She reviews how-to books for writers at the Writing Slices blog.

Five Books for Writers that Aren’t About Writing

Sometimes the best how-to books don’t look like how-to books.

On my other blog, I review how-to books for writers. I learn a ton from them, and I love sharing what I’ve learned. But there’s another kind of book I review: the ones not written for writers that writers can learn a lot from anyway.

Here are my five favorites.

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Mistakes Were Made (But Not by Me) by Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson
This book explains all the different ways humans justify our actions. Our brains can trick us into thinking everything from bickering with our spouse to going to war is perfectly rational. We all work very hard to maintain our positive self-image, and when we do something that’s not in keeping with the great person we think we are, we are quick to think up excuses that make perfect sense in our own heads. This book taught me how to write convincing villains who do all the wrong things for what they think are the right reasons.

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The Introvert Advantage by Marti Olsen Laney
Introverts may have the perfect temperament for writing, but we do not have the perfect temperament to deal with the rest of the world. Our culture values extroversion to such an extent, it’s considered the norm, and introverts are considered oddballs. We can’t quiet the whole world, but we can cope with it, and even thrive.

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Switch by Chip Heath and Dan Heath
This is a book about change. Most writers want to change something about their writing life, whether it’s working at a different time of day, trying a different genre, or simply turning off the internet and putting butt-in-chair. It turns out, change is driven by three different things: planning, motivation, and the environment. People can achieve remarkable changes by working on just one of these, but lasting success relies on all three.

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Better Than Before by Gretchen Rubin
I’m interested in anything that can help me be more productive, and cultivating better habits is the number one way to do it. I have often said that it’s not inspiration that makes a writer. Nor do you have to have a lot of free time, a set schedule, or a deadline. Those things help, but are nothing without the consistent output of words, day after day. In other words, what a writer needs is a habit. This book takes you through every step of habit formation, from initial inspiration to follow-through.

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Eat that Frog by Brian Tracy
Years spent trying to cram writing into overstuffed days has led me to read dozens of time management and organization books. This is my favorite. It’s less a time-management book and more an anti-procrastination book. By focusing on priorities instead of to-dos, I’m able to get the most important things done without over-scheduling myself.

I love diving deeply into the craft of writing, and that’s where I focus most of my attention when reading how-to books. But these five books have helped me become a happier, more productive, and better writer, even though they had nothing to do with writing itself.

About the Author: Alex Kourvo is an editor-for-hire who is passionate about helping writers. 

Unexpected Tools for Writers

Some non-writing things that help me write better

Most writers use the same tools to get the job done. We all have a library of how-to books, both inspirational and instructional. We all have computers with useful software. Many of us also have things like kitchen timers for writing sprints. But I use three tools that most other writers don’t. I’ve been using each one less than a year, but in that short time, they’ve become essential.

1. Alphasmart Neo.

Remember these from the 1990s? Before laptop computers became affordable, these little word processors were state of the art. I thought they were outdated, but after hearing my friends rave about them, I decided to try one myself.

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The Alphasmart has a keyboard and a tiny screen. You type, the Alphasmart saves your text, and when you’re done, you use a USB cord to transfer the words to your computer for editing. It weighs almost nothing and runs on three AAA batteries that last about six months.

I love it because literally all I can do with an Alphasmart is type. That means no Twitter, no Google to “just look up one little thing” (that leads to hours of browsing), no email. Even better: I can’t really edit on the Alphasmart. Scrolling backward is tedious, and not worth it for more than a few sentences. It’s much easier to just write myself a note in the text, telling myself to fix it later, and then push forward.

You can’t imagine what this has done for my productivity. I’ve gone from 1000 words an hour on the computer to 1500 an hour on the Alphasmart. And I think they are better words, too.

Back in the day, when these were new, they were a couple hundred dollars. Now you can get them used for $35. Amazon and eBay always seem to have a dozen or so, but they aren’t being made anymore, so the supply is finite.

2. Fitdesk

Writing is appallingly sedentary. People always tell beginning writers that the secret to success is “butt in chair.” Unfortunately, that’s also the secret to numerous health problems. But what choice do writers have? We need our fingers on a keyboard, which means we need to be sitting still. Some people use a standing desk, but that doesn’t incorporate movement.

Even worse, I live in Michigan, where the winters are cold and dark. If I want to get out for a walk, I have to use limited daytime hours, which are also prime writing hours.

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A Fitdesk solved that problem neatly. It’s an exercise bike with a desk on it. Now I sit and pedal and the more I write, the fitter I am. The pedals are silent, and not at all distracting. I’ve had my Fitdesk for six months, I weigh five pounds less than I did when I got it, and I feel amazing. I’m no longer thinking about what I’m missing by not exercising outside. I just pedal and write.

3. Gunnar Glasses

Although I write on the Alphasmart, I edit on the computer, staring at a screen for hours at a time. My eyes always gave out before my creativity did.

Until I got Gunnar Glasses.

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They look ridiculous. I don’t care.

The glasses block the blue light and glare that can cause “computer vision syndrome.” When I wear my Gunnars, I can edit for a full day without eye strain. Plus, I think they are a subconscious signal to my mind. Glasses on? It must be time to work.

I don’t need these three things to write. Give me a pen and a piece of paper and I will happily write anywhere. But I like having these tools.

One helps me write faster.

One helps me edit longer.

And one makes me happier while I do it.

Who wouldn’t want that?

About the Author: Alex Kourvo is an editor-for-hire who is passionate about helping writers.

The Encouragement Manifesto

You. Yes, you. You’re doing just fine.

Have you seen this quote? It shows up around social media a lot.

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It’s supposed to be funny…I think? I don’t find it so. O’Connor goes on to say that many a bestseller would have been prevented by a good teacher. Because how dare some people think they can write? In O’Connor’s world, not even a college degree is enough to prevent bad writing.

I find this attitude infuriating. I know there are more bad writers than good ones. I also know that some people think they are good writers when they are not. Or more accurately, they aren’t good writers yet.

That’s what bothers me most about the idea of “stifling writers.” It feeds into the myth of innate talent, as if pro writers never had to learn their craft but were born knowing how to write flawless first drafts.

Some people think the way to help new writers is to cut them down—otherwise known as “telling them the truth.” But writing well is hard work and the publishing process is soul-sucking. Why add to that misery?

I teach a class. I help new writers. When I read their sample pages, I tell them they are doing just fine. I tell them to to keep writing. Because you know what? That is the truth. The most important thing a beginning writer can do is write more. It’s the only way to get better.

I’m not patronizing or condescending. I give solid advice in addition to praise. I recommend books that can help with specific problems. And when it comes to publishing questions, I tell it like it is, with no sugar-coating.

But I don’t spend a lot of time trying to fix someone’s manuscript. Leaving my own fingerprints all over someone else’s pages won’t help them. It will only make them believe they can’t do it themselves. But what will help them is knowing that someone sees their potential, thinks they are on the right track, and is rooting for them.

That’s what other writers did for me. And that’s what I will always, always do for other writers.

And there’s no way anyone can stifle that.

About the author: Alex Kourvo is a freelance editor who is wildly enthusiastic about brand-new writers. 

Five Carl Sagan Quotes That Will Make You Happy You’re a Writer

Scientist, educator, philosopher, writer. Carl Sagan’s life and work continue to inspire us.

Having a hard day? Finding it difficult to get words on the page? Here are five quotes from Carl Sagan that will brighten any writer’s day.

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Sitting in a room and making stuff up? It’s your job. Your imagination is taking you places!

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…and the reality is, you’ve got to get some chapters written.

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I love how Carl lapses into second-person here. As if maybe he, himself, isn’t quite human? But he’s captured the essential nature of humans: we need to live together, and we need the stories that teach us how.

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You have an obligation to future generations. Start working that magic!

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So let’s go discover it in a book.

About the author: Alex Kourvo is a freelance editor who is passionate about helping new writers.

Six Reasons to Embrace the Singular They

Sometimes “they” is just one person.

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Language is always changing, and proper grammar is nothing more than consensus. What is considered incorrect today will probably be tomorrow’s norm—and just as vigorously defended and argued about.

Consider the pronoun “thou,” which used to be the second person singular. By about 1700, it was gone, as everyone was using “you” for both singular and plural. The same thing is happening with they.

While English teachers and the grammar police freak out, the rest of us are happily using they to mean just one person. Here are six reasons that’s okay.

1. The singular they has been used for a long, long time. Since the middle ages, in fact. Chaucer used the singular they. Shakespeare used the singular they. Austen used the singular they. If they can do it, you can do it.

2. In the singular third person, English does not have a gender-neutral pronoun. “He or she” is not all-inclusive. Some people are neither he nor she. Besides, you’re not talking about an either/or situation. You’re not choosing from many possibilities, you’re talking about a single person. Some academics use “one” here, and I suppose one could do that, if one doesn’t mind sounding like a pretentious ninny.

3. Everyone is already doing it, including you. Don’t believe me? How would you finish this sentence? “If someone wins the lottery…” I bet you started the next clause with “they should…” You’ve also said something like this: “Someone left their cell phone behind. I hope they come back for it.” We do this all the time, especially when words like someone, everybody and anyone are involved.

4. Authorities say it’s correct. The singular they was chosen by the American Dialect Society as their 2015 word of the year. Bill Walsh, the Washington Post editor in charge of the style guide also says the singular they “is the only sensible solution.” The Chicago Manual of Style, The Guardian, The Merriam-Webster dictionary and many other publications also say the singular they is correct.

5. The pronoun does not have to agree with the number of its noun. Although “they” is most often plural, it does not have to be. Consider the following sentence: If our team plays well in the semi-finals, chances are they will play well in the finals, too. We see that the noun “team” is singular, by the use of the verb “plays.” But in the second clause, we use the word “they” to refer to the singular “team.” Or how about this sentence? My family stops by often and they always forget to bring beer. “Family” is singular, yet referred to as “they.”

6. “He” isn’t gender-neutral. Do you insist that “he,” “him,” and “his” includes men and women and non-binary people? Then you won’t mind a sentence like this: I can’t remember: was it your brother or your sister who had his graduation party last week? Or how about this one? Each student should wear his nicest suit or his prettiest dress to the dance. Those sentences are crying out for a singular they. Even worse, when the masculine form of a word is considered the generic, the feminine form usually takes on sexual or derogatory tones. Consider “master” and “mistress,” or “bachelor” and “spinster.”

You can stubbornly plow on, using he or one when the word you really want is the singular they. Eventually you’ll get tired of people rolling their eyes at you and you’ll remember that grammar rules are descriptive, not prescriptive.

In the meantime, don’t you dare tell anyone who is using they as a third-person singular pronoun that they are wrong. Because they are not.

About the author: Alex Kourvo writes short stories and novels. She loves the way language is always changing.