The Pleasures of a Deadline

Nothing worthwhile was ever accomplished without a deadline.

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Last week, I was 5000 words behind where I should have been on my NaNoWriMo novel, which meant I had to write 15000 words in the last five days.

I finished with half a day to spare. In fact, my final day was an easy one, and I only had to write a few hundred words today.

So how did I do it? How did I go from so far behind to easily ahead? I could think of all kinds of abstract reasons, from having a better schedule this week to coming to an easier part of the book. But the real reason I finished on time was because I had a deadline.

It’s funny. National Novel Writing Month is completely arbitrary. Nobody really cares if you write 50 thousand words of fiction in November. You don’t gain anything by finishing and you don’t lose anything if you fail. Reporting is done on the honor system—no one knows for sure if you’ve done what you said you did. But something about having that silly deadline made me want to meet it.

I pushed myself at the end, and I had a couple of very long days. I could have pushed myself just as hard in the beginning of the month. Only I didn’t, because things weren’t urgent yet. Deadlines have a wonderful way of narrowing a writer’s focus, so the writing becomes the highest priority. That’s what I love about them. A deadline names one goal, and one goal only, and that kind of tunnel vision is great for creativity.

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In fact, I was wide awake most of last night, not because I was worried about the deadline but because I was excited about accomplishing my goal. I knew which chapter I wanted to work on and I was eager to get back to the keyboard. These last few days have been productive, happy ones for me, thanks to the pleasure of a deadline.

About the author: Alex Kourvo has recently switched from writing science fiction short stories and novels to writing romance. She wrote 50,000 words this month.

 

Still Writing. Send Pie.

As of today, I am officially 5000 words behind.

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I started off NaNoWriMo so strong. Like many writers at the beginning of November, I was energized by the prospect of writing quickly, encouraged by the community of authors, and in love with my novel-to-be. My novel idea was perky and full of promise and I knew I was going to have fun writing it.

I attended three write-ins, once driving an hour each way just to write with my buddies. Election day came, and I added words to my novel in between checking online for results. My fridge went kaput, but I got it fixed. A friend asked for an emergency beta read, and I found a way to sandwich that in, too. I got ahold of an ARC from my favorite writer of all time and I absolutely couldn’t resist reading a little bit of it.

And still, my word count grew. I love the novel I’m working on so very, very much. My characters are delightful, my world is interesting, and my plot is fun.

But then Thanksgiving happened. I have a big family, we all love to cook, and I was all set to make three dishes, which meant cooking most of Wednesday.

Then my power went out.

After some scrambling, I figured out a solution. I packed up my ingredients, carted them across town to my friend’s house, baked everything there, and then transported it back home. My power returned about four hours later, just in time to think about making Wednesday night’s dinner.

On Thanksgiving day, I went to my sister’s house. I carved the turkey like a boss. My nephew made me cry laughing. We got my mom to play Cards against Humanity with us. Unlike previous Thanksgivings, this year, my sister’s dog did not sneak into the kitchen and eat an entire cheesecake.

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Thanksgiving was awesome. But it certainly didn’t leave any room in the schedule for writing.

I admit, my first emotion when looking at today’s progress bar on the NaNoWriMo website was resentment.

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Why did NaNoWriMo have to happen during such a busy month? How could anyone be expected to write during Thanksgiving? Maybe people who don’t have families can do it. Maybe young people who don’t help their parents cook or do dishes. Maybe rich people who don’t cook at all. So unfair! Woe is me! Wah wah.

I’m ashamed to say that it took me most of this morning to get over myself. I remembered that every single month of the year is busy, not just November. I remembered that I chose most of the activities that were cutting into my writing time. And I remembered how incredibly blessed I am to have such a loving family who wants to spend time with me.

And I remembered that there is never a perfect time to write. I know the origin story of NaNoWriMo. It was accidental that it landed in November. It could have just as easily been another month. But November is actually perfect. It’s a reminder that writers write, period. It doesn’t matter what else is going on, because there will always be something else going on. If it’s not a holiday, it will be a vacation or extra work or home repairs or health problems.

Sometimes my word count will fall behind. Sometimes I’ll surge ahead. Sometimes (okay, a lot of time) I’ll freak out about an upcoming deadline and work extra fast at the end. It’s all normal.

This is my first-ever NaNoWriMo and I’m in it to win it. So if you have any encouraging words to spare, I will take any and all you’ve got to give me. Right now, I’m going to eat another slice of pumpkin pie and dive back to the world of my novel. I’ll check in next week with my word count total.

About the author: Alex Kourvo has recently switched from writing science fiction short stories and novels to writing romance. She is on her way to writing 50,000 words this month.

NaNoWriMo is for Everyone

Even professional writers can do NaNoWriMo.

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I’m doing it. I’m going to participate in National Novel Writing Month this year. I’ve signed up on the website and I’ve got my project outlined and ready to go.

I also feel a little bit silly. I’m a professional writer, author of four published books and numerous short stories. I teach a class for beginning writers, encouraging new authors to write more, and I practice what I preach. As a full-time writer, I typically write more than 1667 words a day and will have no trouble finishing 50k words in a month. I’ve written fast before, and sustained it long-term, so I know the pace is reasonable.

And yet, I still want to try NaNoWriMo.

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National Novel Writing Month has gone on every November since 1999. The challenge is to write a 50,000 word novel in a single month. There are no prizes other than bragging rights, but NaNoWriMo is extremely popular, attracting hundreds of thousands of participants. Some people take it on as a fun lark, just to see if they can do it. Others see it as a viable way to write a first draft quickly. Most of the participants are beginners or early in their careers. Professional writers are usually on the other side of the fence, cheering the participants on.

But today, I’m a beginning writer too. I’ve started writing in a new genre, which means basically starting over. As I’m learning the tropes and conventions of romance novels, I’m freaking myself out a little bit. I’m keenly aware of how much I don’t know, and it leads to second-guessing myself at the keyboard.

Writing with one finger on the delete key is no way to finish a book. If I’m ever going to get out of my own way, I’ve got to keep moving forward, filling page after page until I reach the end. NaNoWriMo seems to be the perfect opportunity at the perfect time. I’ll have an online community of writers, accountability, and no fear of bad results. In NaNoWriMo land, there is no such thing as awkward sentences, nonsensical plots, or putrid prose. Those are problems for later, during the revision stage.

In November, the only thing that matters is word count. You either have words on your page or you don’t. By the end of the month, I will have 50,000 of them.

About the author: Alex Kourvo has recently switched from writing science fiction short stories and novels to writing romance. 

The Novels We Need Right Now

Why romance novels are the perfect stories for our times.

I expected a lot of things to change after the last election, but one thing I didn’t expect to change was my reading habit. I had been a mystery and science fiction reader my whole adult life, and I thought I’d continue to escape into the genres I loved.

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Instead, I found myself picking through my TBR pile, unhappy with the books I’d chosen. Even the “big idea” science fiction books seemed outdated, out of touch, and not what my heart needed.

So I switched to reading romance novels. It’s been almost two years and I haven’t looked back. My favorite romances are the light ones, filled with laughter and fun. When I open my kindle, this is what greets me.

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At first, I assumed I was simply seeking comfort reads. When the real world is full of bad news and it seems to be getting worse by the day, who wouldn’t want a guaranteed happy ever after? Romance novels offer stories of humans changing for the better, becoming their best selves for the sake of another person. Love always wins.

The other day, I tiptoed back to my old pile of books in genres I stopped reading, and I thumbed through a few of them, wondering if it was time to give them another chance.

It wasn’t.

It soooo wasn’t. But not for the reason I assumed. It had nothing to do with the dystopian settings or dire predictions of the future or crimes and evil in everyday life. It had to do with violence. Specifically, violence against women and minorities and queer folks. Over and over, if there was violence in the book, a marginalized person would be the victim of it.

I realize that this is true to life. It’s so realistic that it’s not shocking to most of us. But it took me over a year—a year of reading something else—to realize how lovingly that violence is portrayed on the page, especially when it’s violence against women.

I always assumed I’d go back to my old reading habits someday. Later. When I could handle it. But now I’m realizing I may never be able to handle it. And why should I have to?

Am I saying that that books with violence against women and minorities shouldn’t exist? Absolutely not. I’ve read those books. I’ve written those books. I’m saying that right now, my money won’t be spent on those books. I’m reading for fun, and therefore, I’m reading other things.

Today, I want to read books where good things happen to women. Lots and lots of good things. Modern romance heroines don’t just find love. If they’re having career troubles, those get fixed too. Family issues? Done. Problems with friends? Solved.

It’s powerful. We have an entire genre where a woman’s concerns are front and center. Where her voice matters. Where what she wants is the important thing, and her happiness is literally the only way the book can end.

This is not news to women who have been reading romance novels for years, but it’s new to me. Until now, I thought romance novels were about women’s desires and women’s pleasure. Now I know they are about women’s triumph.

Those are the novels I need in my life.

About the author: Alex Kourvo writes science fiction short stories and novels. Today, her TBR pile is overflowing with love stories.

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 writes short stories and novels. She reviews how-to books for writers at the Writing Slices blog.

 

The Right Color

The color pink makes me happy.

I have a pink toothbrush. I also have a pink kindle cover and a pink backpack and pink earbuds and scissors. My water bottle is pink. My stapler is pink. My calendar and all my notebooks are pink.

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I don’t wear pink clothes or sit on a pink couch or live in a pink house or anything like that. I don’t live in a cartoon Hello Kitty paradise. But all the small, personal items I touch on a daily basis are some shade of pink, from rose gold right through bubblegum to screaming neon. Why? Because it makes me happy.

The color pink has a joyful vibe full of optimism. It’s a feminine color that always looks fresh. And studies have shown that a soft shade of pink can have a calming effect. To me, pink just looks right. Like, if it’s not pink, it’s the wrong color. I’m always shocked when I see someone walk up to a display of flowers and pick an orange and yellow bouquet to take home. Why would someone do that when there are pink bouquets right there? What is wrong with those people?

Which brings me to this lady.

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I hate Dolores Umbridge for all the same reasons you do: her petty power plays, her casual cruelty, her bigotry. But it goes deeper with me. How could someone who loves pink as much as I do be so evil? Betrayal! After seeing Umbridge on the big screen, I stopped wearing pink so much. Now, most of my clothes are black or navy.

But even she couldn’t ruin pink completely. I still love pink for literally everything else. Once, I was talking to my friend Bronwyn about how delighted I was to find a snap-on shell that made my computer pink.

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Bronwyn said she’d like to get one of those for her computer, but she didn’t know what color to get. I blinked at her in silence. Blinked again, waiting for my brain to catch up. I heard the words she was saying, but I couldn’t get them to make sense in my head. Because for me, there was never a choice of what color computer shell to get. I never make a choice about the color of anything I buy. If it comes in pink, that’s the one I want.

And if it doesn’t come in pink, it’s the wrong color.

About the Author: Alex Kourvo writes short stories and novels. She writes them on a pink computer.

Don’t Do What I Did

I made an expensive mistake so you don’t have to.

At the beginning of September, my co-author and I tried an experiment to market our new book. The idea was to do a free promotion for five days right out of the gate, when the book was new, in hopes of goosing the Amazon algorithms and finding new readers.

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This wasn’t an easy decision. It’s hard to see your book as a “product,” where its value is divorced from its content. After pouring all our creativity and love into Sleepless, it was difficult to step back and make hard-nosed business decisions about its fate.

But we did it anyway, in hopes that we’d either have wild success, or learn a valuable lesson.

Only the second one happened.

The promotion itself went very well. When Sleepless was free, it rose to #2 on the cyberpunk bestseller list and #3 in the science fiction action adventure category. It even briefly was one of the top 100 free books in all of Amazon.

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Since Sleepless has gone back to full price, its sales have flatlined, while page reads in the Kindle Unlimited program have grown. That means that Amazon is only promoting our book to people who have bought a Kindle Unlimited subscription. People who read on Kindles, but don’t subscribe to KU, aren’t seeing our book. Since KU payouts to authors are so low, we haven’t yet earned back what we spent on promotion.

That’s helpful information to know. The inner workings of Amazon are mysterious, and it’s good to have confirmation that Amazon will promote a book, but only inside their own walled garden. It makes our decision to leave the KU program easier.

And also, we got seven new reviews—all of them five stars—which makes me cry some happy tears. A thoughtful review from a serious reader is truly the best thing on Earth!

So am I sad we did this experiment? Not really. It was an expensive lesson and we learned some things the hard way, but now we know what doesn’t work.

And you do too.

About the Author: Alex Kourvo writes short stories and novels. She is always trying new things.

My Neighbor Mister Rogers

 

He was the best at being human.

As I watched today’s Google doodle, I cried happy tears remembering good things from childhood, sad tears that one of my heroes is no longer with us, and even sadder tears thinking how much the world of 2018 needs his voice.

I remember once—I must have been about four—when we were running late for preschool and my mom was super busy. I don’t remember why we were late, maybe one of my siblings was sick or something. But my mom, frazzled, handed me my clothes in the morning and told me I could get dressed while watching Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood.

I dressed behind the couch so Mister Rogers wouldn’t see my underwear.

That’s how real he was to me. His calm, measured voice, and the way he looked at the camera, made me certain he was talking just to me. So of course, I assumed he could see me too.

Have you seen the documentary about Mister Rogers?

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I sobbed my way through that one too, along with the rest of the audience. It turns out that the Mister Rogers we saw every day on television really was the same in real life. He was the best of us. He was the human we all aspire to be—kind, understanding, smart, playful, and seemingly without ego. And he could play piano too.

Along with that intense hit of nostalgia right to my heart, Won’t You Be my Neighbor made me think. What would Mister Rogers say if he was alive today? What would he say about the Nazi rally in Charlottesville? About the shootings in Orlando, in Las Vegas, in Parkland? About refugee children taken from their parents and locked in cages?

Even in the hardest of times, Mister Rogers seemed to know the right words to comfort children—and adults, too. His “look for the helpers” quote got a lot of us through 9/11 and it seems to pop up on social media whenever there’s a tragedy.

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I don’t know what Mister Rogers would say about our current world. But I know he would say it with kindness and empathy. He would teach us lessons about living in harmony with other people. He would acknowledge how important our emotions are. And he would never, ever let us forget that he liked us, just the way we are.

If you need me today, I’ll be watching some old episodes of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood on Netflix. You’ll probably find me behind the couch.

About the Author: Alex Kourvo writes short stories and novels. She’s trying to be a better human.

Why Make a Brand-New Book Free?

My new book was published on Tuesday. On Wednesday, it was free.

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In this new world of ebooks, we’re used to seeing freebies. Indie authors put their books on sale for scandalously low prices, including giving copies away. Often, the first book in a series will be permanently free.

But those are older books, some of them years old. Certainly an author wouldn’t set the price of a brand-new book to free and then keep it there for five whole days?

Oh, yes, we would. My co-author and I released SLEEPLESS, our fourth “Detroit Next” book, on Tuesday. The book was free the very next day. It seems counterintuitive and backwards and flies in the face of all the traditional marketing advice we’ve been taught. So why would we do that?

One word: Amazon.

Amazon is really, really good at selling books. We are not good at selling books. If you judge by our reviews, we’re good at writing books, but we need Amazon’s help to sell them.

And Amazon wants to help us. It has sophisticated algorithms that are awesome at matching the right book with the right reader. But what the algorithms can’t do is guess. They need data. Lots and lots of data. The bots need to know who this book appeals to. What kind of reader likes books about near-future Detroit and a badass female PI and her hacker sidekick and a twisty mystery and nanotechnology run amok? Who buys such books?

We need to teach Amazon. We need to feed the algorithms a core set of interested readers so they use those readers as mirrors to find similar readers. Once it “learns” who buys books like SLEEPLESS, Amazon’s own marketing machine (emails and such) should kick in.

But we have to do this quickly. Amazon needs to understand readers of new titles within the first 30 days, or they’ll stop trying. And the best way to get SLEEPLESS into the hands of many readers quickly is to do a free run, and then advertise the freebie in reader-centric newsletters like Fussy Librarian and Freebooksy.

And it’s working! As of last night, SLEEPLESS was #3 in Amazon’s cyberpunk category and #4 in science fiction adventure stories. That’s amazing! Usually, books that climb that high in the charts have hundreds of positive reviews and we have none.

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So that’s what we’re doing. I’m not saying this is a good thing or a bad thing. It’s just a thing. This is the ebook world we live in now. And also? Honestly? We’ve tried everything else.

I hesitated writing this. I didn’t know if it was too much a peek behind the curtain, but I feel like I can be honest with you guys. And I also feel like I can ask for your help. As I mentioned, SLEEPLESS doesn’t have any reviews right now, and boy, could it use some. If you read SLEEPLESS, please give it a review. Reviews can be as long or as short as you’d like, and they don’t have to be positive to be helpful.

SLEEPLESS is free until Sunday night. And it’s the fourth “Detroit Next” book but the books can be read in any order, so don’t let that stop you from reading and reviewing.

Who knows? Maybe this won’t even work. Maybe SLEEPLESS will fizzle at full price. If it does, then we’ll all have learned something—you the easy way and me the hard way. In any case, I’ll report back in two weeks and let you know.

In the meantime, thank you in advance for the reviews. And happy reading!

Taking a Productivity Break

This is my week to write.

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I need a break. Lately, I’ve had too much internet, too much political news, too many interruptions, too much time in the kitchen and the laundry room and the car. Too much of trying to fit writing into the edges of my life. I’m craving long, uninterrupted hours to be creative. Forget chocolates and flowers and diamonds—a writer girl’s best friend is a quiet room with the day stretching out in front of her.

So I’m taking a week away. Not away from my house—I’m staying right here. But I’m taking a week away from the world. For the next seven days, I won’t socialize or do housework. I won’t read books or the news or the internet. I’ve put an autoresponder on my email and I won’t answer the phone unless it’s my mom calling.

My kids will be gone this week, so I’ll be home alone. I can wake up when I want, eat when I want, and go to bed when I want. I’ll let the crazy news cycle roll on without me for a few days.

I’m just going to write. I have a half-finished manuscript I set aside a few months ago and I’m aching to get back to it. I miss it the way you’d miss an absent lover. I want to lavish it with attention, get to know all its secrets, and write every page until I’m completely satisfied. I want to have my way with this book, and I don’t want to do it on the margins of my life. I want to give this book my full attention.

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I’ve been trying to find a name for this week. It’s not a staycation, because that implies leisure. The words retreat and sabbatical make me think of relaxed study. A friend suggested unworkshop, which I like a lot but it still doesn’t quite fit.

Then I thought of the words “Productivity Break.” It’s an oxymoron. It’s also perfect. I’m taking a break from the world to be more productive.

See you on the other side.

About the Author: Alex Kourvo writes short stories and novels. Sometimes she needs a week on her own to get that done.

[Photos: Bitstrips/Snap Inc.]