The Ultimate Gift Guide for Writers

I’ve seen a lot of holiday gift guides for writers that promise “the most beautiful, unique, and necessary gifts for the writer in your life.” I excitedly open it, only to see notebooks, pens, candles and mugs. Those things are nice, but they are also super generic. And trust me, the writer in your life already has enough pens.

Your writer friend deserves better. Here is a list of ten thoughtful, practical, and fun gifts for writers.

1. A T-shirt That Says it All
Daydreaming? Woolgathering? Lost the thread of the conversation? No! You’re plotting.

2. A Soft Foam Footstool
This soft footstool elevates the legs to just the right height for a laptop to be comfortably perched on the lap. I have one of these under my desk and I don’t know how I ever sat for hours without it.

3. Storymatic
This is a little box filled with the most interesting writing prompts you can imagine. You can use Storymatic for brainstorming, writing exercises, cooperative storytelling, or just for fun.

4. Blue-Blocking Glasses
Blue light is the worst light, causing headaches, fatigue, and insomnia. These glasses block glare and blue light from computers and other devices. When I wear mine, I can write longer with less eye strain.

5. Light Therapy
Sometimes, it’s not too much light that’s the problem, but lack of it. Even those of us who don’t suffer from Seasonal Affective Disorder can benefit from a few extra lumens in the winter months. Some therapy lights cost hundreds of dollars, but this one is small and inexpensive but still works great.

6. Typewriter Key Necklace
Every writer I know loves old typewriters. Typewriters aren’t practical, but who cares when they are so cool? Many companies make jewelry out of typewriter keys, so we can carry a bit of that retro chic with us. Here’s one of my favorites.

7. A Tote Bag That Tells the Truth
Writers make choices with each word they put on the page. If a book is problematic, that is 100% on the writer. Hold yourself and your fellow writers accountable with this awesome reusable tote.

8. Bathtub Caddy
There are writers who use a bath to relax. There are writers who read in the tub. And there are writers who actually write while submerged in water. Whatever kind of writer you are, this bath caddy will hold all the essentials.

9. Shower Curtain
Eureka moments and showers. The two naturally go together. Maybe our muses are activated by water, or maybe they just live in the bathroom, but either way, this shower curtain will show the muses that you respect what they do.

10. Library Due Date Notecards
These 3×5 inch notecards are the perfect size. You could use these to remind you which of your friends borrowed books from you, or you could turn them over and write notes on the back. Either way, they are adorable little blasts from the past, and a wonderful way to remember the books we cherish.

About the Author: Alex Kourvo is an editor and book blogger who doesn’t need any more notebooks or pens.
This post contains some affiliate links. (The author gets a tiny commission even though you don’t pay more.)

Ask the Editor: What’s the Difference Between a Trope and a Cliche?

Dear Alex,
I’m writing a young adult fantasy novel. I’ve researched the market, so I know what other authors are writing and I know what sells. My question is this: must I write the one thousandth novel about a “chosen one” who saves the world? It seems like such a cliché. On the other hand, if this is a trope that readers expect, what’s the harm in using it? Maybe I just don’t understand the difference between a trope and cliche, so I guess that’s my real question: trope, cliché, what’s the difference?
–Hashi

Hi Hashi,

A trope is an ingredient. Let’s say your son has asked for a grilled cheese sandwich for lunch. He wants bread, cheese, and butter, toasted up medium well. Think of those ingredients as tropes. They are essential to make that particular kind of food. In romance, you’ve got the meet-cute, the first kiss, the happily ever after. In mystery, you have the dead body, the misfit detective, and the midpoint plot twist. Other tropes, like the chosen one or the fired cop solving the crime anyway or the marriage of convenience are perfectly fine. They are the bread and butter and cheese of our books. You literally can’t make a book without them, just like you can’t make a sandwich without bread.

A cliché is like an ingredient that’s been sitting out on the counter too long. So long, in fact, that it’s gone bad. The bread is moldy and the butter is rancid. It might have been fine once, but now it’s spoiled. If you make a grilled cheese sandwich with moldy bread, it will still be a grilled cheese sandwich, but your kid won’t want to eat it.

Clichés are things that have been done to death, such as the villain’s monologue or the literal saving of a cat. These have been done so many times, in fact, that they are ripe for parody. So when we’re watching The Incredibles and Buddy says “You caught me monologuing,” we laugh because it’s such a cliché that it’s funny.

In short, tropes are good. They are the healthy ingredients that make up our stories. Readers want them and love them. Clichés are tropes that have been on the shelf so long that they’ve gone bad. They are not healthy or good for readers, or for you.

And the terrible part is, we are never sure when a trope becomes a cliché. Here’s my thought. If you’re using a trope and still getting a good story out of it, something that feels like a fresh take (using fresh ingredients) then you’re absolutely fine. You don’t have to subvert the trope or turn it on its head, you just have to make sure you’re bringing something fun and new to the table. Maybe you’re writing the cynical detective story, but instead of a grizzled veteran who’s seen it all, he’s twenty-two. Why such cynicism in one so young? That’s your story.

The other way to make a trope work for you is to reach deep within yourself to bring the most authentic, heartfelt version of that story into the world. Think of it as artisanal grilled cheese on sourdough bread with local farm cheddar and hand-churned butter. So to take our cynical detective story, perhaps he fits the stereotype to a T. He’s sixty years old, lives alone, trusts no one, keeps a bottle of Scotch in his file cabinet and a loaded pistol in his pocket, and solves crimes between benders. How did your detective get this way? What heartbreaking part of his backstory could you explore? (By the way, if you want to see this done well, read the Matthew Scudder books by Lawrence Block. Tropes galore. Awesome books.)

You’ve got to go deep if you’re taking this approach to fiction, though, and it has to be one hundred percent sincere. You have to write that trope with all the honesty and emotion you have, because the moment you wink at the audience, you’re done for.

However, where things go badly is when you’re using a trope in a lazy way, just coloring in an outline that someone else has made, with nothing new and no sincerity. If you “write to market” in this shallow way, you’re using rancid ingredients and you’re going to end up writing a cliché.

So go ahead and use those tropes! They are the vital ingredients your story needs. Just be sure you’re using the best ingredients you can find and you’re treating them with respect. And then, cook them up and serve them to a happy audience.

Keep writing, you’re doing great.
Alex K.

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.

Fall Color

Here in the Midwest, we’re obsessed with fall. It evokes coziness, sweetness, comfort. And because school starts in autumn, we associate it not with an ending, but with a fresh start.

My favorite part of autumn is the trees, especially the blazing orange maples. Winter is right around the corner, but these beauties are going to shine before they fall.

I took these pictures in my neighborhood in October, right at peak color, and looking at them makes me happy. I hope they’ll make you happy too.

Alex Kourvo is a freelance editor and the author of The Big-Picture Revision Checklist. She loves living in the Midwest.

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.

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.