I’m temporarily pausing this blog, and won’t be doing regular updates for a bit.
The Writing Slices blog will continue monthly updates, so if you’re looking for book reviews, you can still find them there.
Thank you for everyone who has read along with me these last few years.
For authors, finding community is vital to success.
It’s a strange business. Most of the time, writers sit alone in a room and make things up. We need to be perfectly fine with doing this for hours every day, for days on end. Then, when it comes time to sell what we’ve written, or talk to readers, or…you know…go to the grocery store, we’re expected to suddenly be at home in the world. And for most of us, being at home in the world is hard.
We have to go to dinner with our in-laws and talk about spaghetti recipes and why they like French wine and why neighborhood garbage pick-up was delayed this week. We have to talk about the weather with the dry cleaner. We have to go to parent’s night at school and make small talk and fit in and don’t make it weird.
Writers need friends. And we really, really need friends who share our quirks.
So I’ve spent most of my adult life hanging out with other writers. I met them in college or at conferences or online. I’ve had coffee and lunches, attended write-ins and retreats. It wasn’t easy to form these connections. An introvert befriending other introverts can be a slow, awkward process. But it’s so, so worth it.
Twice a week, I meet a friend for a quiet writing date. I also attend a weekly critique group, and have breakfast with my co-author every Sunday. I have monthly lunches with friends who feel like family.
That’s a lot of social interaction for a writer, but I don’t just like these groups. I need them. My writing buddy understands the daily grind. My critique group helps me pursue excellence. I bounce ideas off my co-author at Sunday breakfast and get marketing advice from my lunch group.
Without these friendships, I don’t know if I’d even call myself a writer. By sharing our troubles and triumphs, we’re reinforcing that identity. I look at my critique group or my friends or my writing partner and I see myself reflected clearly. We’re all doing this thing, and this is a good thing to do.
A writer alone is an oddity. A group of writers? That’s called the cool kids’ table.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
Using language to hide racism.
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.
Who needs to go out?
Most top ten lists about winter are full of stuff like skiing and ice skating and enjoying the snow.
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’.
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.”
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 secretly writing romance novels. She is currently cuddling a puppy.
[center photo: David Wong. Licensed under a Creative Commons attribution generic license]
I refuse to read about realtors.
Romance heroines tend to have the same cluster of jobs—wedding planners, B&B owners, and bakers. So. Many. Bakers.
I have read dozens of books about bakers and would happily read dozens more. I love to read about sugar and carbs as much as I love to read about kissing, and I’m always rooting for the heroine to find the chocolate-covered happiness she deserves.
I’ll also read about heroines who are interior designers, housekeepers, dog walkers, and photographers. I’ve never read a novel that starred a mortician or a sewer inspector, but I bet my favorite authors could make it work.
However, there are limits. I will not read about a heroine who is a realtor, nor will I read a novel where a realtor is the heroine’s best friend. This is my hard limit when it comes to books.
Yes, yes. I know. Your realtor was lovely. Your realtor was the best, the smartest, and totally honest. Not like all those other realtors. But those horror stories come from somewhere. You know where they come from? From reality. A 2018 study by Businesswire found that only 11% of people trusted realtors. I’m not at all surprised.
Four years ago, I sold one house and bought another. I’m still scarred by the experience. My realtor found me in a vulnerable spot and she didn’t see a client. She saw a mark. She lied to me. She tried to steer me toward shady bankers. She made up a fake offer on the house I was selling that “fell through” twenty-four hours later. But the ultimate betrayal was when she blocked me from trying to buy a desirable house so that one of her friends could swoop in and buy it first.
I wasn’t going to give her a second chance to screw me over so I started looking for houses on my own. When I told her I’d chosen my new house and was going to make an offer, she was surprised, saying she was “just about to tell me” about this “brand new” listing (which had been on the market for nearly a week). I found out later that one of the other realtors in her firm had his eye on the house, which is why my realtor never told me about it.
So when I’m reading for fun, the last thing I want to read about is a realtor—unless she’s the villain and suffers a terrible fate. The pleasure of reading novels is identifying with the heroine and I will never, ever be able to identify with someone who lies for a living.
Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to go into the perfect kitchen of my perfect house to bake a chocolate tart from a recipe I found in a romance novel. Because bakers—fictional and real—have never done me wrong.
I love being in charge of my own happiness.
For most of my adult life, I was married—happily at first, and then not. Now that I’ve settled into being single, I want to stay that way.
Not because I’ve given up on love, not because I don’t think I’m worthy of it, but because I need time. I need time to read and think and walk. I need time to be completely myself.
Society doesn’t want to grant me that time. Words hover around me. Words like isolated and lonely. Words like worry. My sister asked if I hated eating alone. (Answer: no.) Some friends are shocked when I tell them I’m planning a solo vacation. People ask me point blank when I’m going to start dating again. It’s always a “when,” not an “if.”
Perhaps it’s assumed, since I was married for over twenty years, that marriage is my natural state. What people don’t know is that I was never more lonely than when I was married. Ironically enough, I feel more connected to other people now—my children, my parents, my siblings. I’ve made lots of new friends. I go to more movies, more book readings, more community events. I go to the library and the coffee shop. I eat lunch with my writer buddies. My life is full of good things. I don’t need a relationship to make it complete.
I choose how much to save and how much to spend. I decide when to do laundry and how late to sleep in on Saturdays. I don’t share a bed or the TV remote. I make my own decisions about big things like what car to drive and small things like how often to have tacos for dinner. (Correct answer: twice a week.)
This is threatening to some people. I’m the source of amusement on good days and naked hostility on bad ones. Our society doesn’t like to see a woman in charge of herself. Who am I to drink an entire key lime milkshake and call it dinner? To buy jewelry I chose myself? How dare I spoil myself in any way?
Sometimes other words hover around me. Words like bitter and frigid. What can I say, except I don’t hate men, I find a lot of them quite sexy, and I’m not going to date anyone right now.
The world keeps telling me, over and over, in big ways and small, that I should be paired up, or at least striving to be. But I don’t want to live on the edge of someone else’s life.
I’d rather live at the center of my own.
This is the end.
My co-author and I spent most of last year trying—and failing—to write a fifth Detroit Next book. No matter what we did, we couldn’t make it work. We were either rewriting a plot we’d already done, or going in a direction we didn’t like. After months of little-to-no progress, we knew it was time to stop. It wasn’t an easy decision, but it was the right one.
When we started writing and publishing the Detroit Next series, the world was a very different place. This was before datapads and Google Glass and self-driving cars, before the revitalization of Detroit, before CRISPR took gene-altering out of the imagination and into every university lab, and before hacking had gone from stealing the design of a car company’s fender to something that could change the outcome of an election.
One thing we’ve always liked about reading and writing cyberpunk is the glimpse five minutes into the future. But it’s hard to write near-future stories when the world keeps catching up. We’re constantly trying to walk that line between a plausible future and a fantastical one. How do you do that while the line itself is moving so quickly?
By ending things now, we’re satisfied that we’ve left our characters in a good place, each with their own happy ever after. And as for Detroit itself? The Detroit of the future is probably going to be a whole lot like the Detroit of today—a city that’s struggling with a difficult past and looking for a brighter future. It will have some rich parts, some poor parts, and every citizen will love the city as it is, while wanting it to do better
We’re grateful that we got to spent time with those characters in that imaginary place. And we’re grateful that you spent that time with us. It’s been a good ride. Thanks for coming along.
And we’re not giving up writing—or even our collaboration. Harry and I still meet for breakfast every Sunday morning, where we share chapters of our (solo) works-in-progress. Harry is writing hard SF, while I have switched gears completely into a new genre with a new pen name. We will always be each other’s first readers, so even if you see a novel with only one of our names on the cover, you can be sure the other had a hand in it.
We wouldn’t want it any other way.
There is a writing book for every problem.
When people find out that I review how-to books for writers, they often ask me, “What’s your favorite?” I always sweat and stammer and give a vague answer, because how can I choose just one?
I have over 200 how-to books on my shelf, and those are just the keepers. My favorites are the practical ones. Airy theory is nice, but I prefer the books that get right into the trenches with me, through concrete examples and positive action steps.
Even though I can’t recommend a one-size-fits-all book, I’m good at recommending specific books for specific problems. So here are ten books to take with you on your novel writing journey. Whether you’re looking for help with character, plot, or just getting your butt in the chair, these are my top ten problem-solvers.
For help with plot, read Save the Cat Writes a Novel by Jessica Brody. This book breaks down popular novels to show you exactly how they were put together. Understanding story structure is the fastest way for a writer to “level up” her craft.
For help with characters, read Dynamic Characters by Nancy Kress. This book gives authors tools to create three-dimensional characters. All the examples are positive ones, focusing on what works, rather than what does not.
For help with emotion, read Writing with Emotion, Tension and Conflict by Cheryl St. John. This is the book to read after you’ve mastered plot and character, because the deeper you can make your readers feel things, the more they will connect with your novel.
For help with dialogue, read Writing Vivid Dialogue by Rayne Hall. This is a book I’ve wanted for years. There are dozens of very bad books about dialogue on the shelf. Ignore them. This is the one you need.
To learn about stakes, read Story Stakes by H.R. D’Costa. It will give you tools you to make your stories as gripping as possible. There’s an art to upping the stakes, and this book will show you how.
For help with outlines, read Outlining Your Novel by K.M. Weiland. It’s truly the outline book for everyone, whether you’re a meticulous plotter or a fly-by-your-seat pantser. This book will show you how to use an outline and why you should.
To learn good habits, read Lifelong Writing Habit by Chris Fox. It’s guaranteed to help you get your butt into the writing chair every day. The books listed above are great for story craft, but it’s the daily grind that will make a real writer out of you.
To learn time management, read Eat That Frog! by Brian Tracy. It’s the book you need when just getting to the writing desk is a struggle. This book will help you beat procrastination once and for all.
To push yourself, read Writing Fiction for All You’re Worth by James Scott Bell. It’s inspirational, but it includes solid instruction along with its cheerleading. This book is about never-ending self-improvement, stressing the inner work a writer must do to have a long-term career.
And for a dose of wisdom, read Writing the Novel from Plot to Print to Pixel by Lawrence Block. For so many reasons, this book will always be special to me. It’s a practically a complete writing course in one volume and is so full of good advice it’s like having a paperback-sized mentor you can consult at any time.