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 Even the “big idea” science fiction books seemed outdated, out of touch, and not what my heart needed.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.]

The Invisible Women of Ocean’s 8

Getting away with it in plain sight.

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(There are mild spoilers ahead. Read at your own risk.)

I went to see Ocean’s 8 last weekend and it was a delight. It had everything I love in a movie: a tricky plot, fun dialogue, genuine female friendships, characters who are great at their jobs, and an underlying theme that makes you think.

And the men? Eh, they were there, and yeah, they added a thing or two, I guess. They were more plot devices than actual characters.

Oh, wait… Could that, maybe, have been the point?

The women of Ocean’s 8 aren’t love interests or motivating factors for men. They are the heroes. And they are so, so good at what they do. The heist at the center of the movie—set in the world of high fashion and a fancy ball—is specifically female coded. Men literally could not do it.

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What I love most about Ocean’s 8 was the way the gang uses society’s assumptions about women as one of their weapons. When one of them asks why there are no men involved, Sandra Bullock’s character says, “A him is noticed, a her is ignored.” Middle-aged women, especially women of color, are invisible, allowing the gang to pull off the heist in plain sight. Rihanna, Mindy Kaling, and Awkwafina play the janitor, the dishwasher and the waitress. Time after time, people look right through them. Sandra Bullock gets to play the entitled, middle-aged white woman—another easily-dismissed stereotype. Even in the film’s final act, they use old women as fences. And they get away with it, of course. If middle-aged women are invisible, then old ones might as well not exist.

The only women who are ever noticed—ever seen—are the young and pretty, so why not use that fact as well? Anne Hathaway’s character becomes a magnificent distraction. Every eye in the room is on her while the brown and black and over-the-hill women get on with the job at hand.

And what do these women buy with all their ill-gotten millions? Surprisingly modest things. A business, a production company, a solo motorcycle trip, an apartment. But they all represent the same thing—a woman who is the boss of herself, where she’s in charge.

And maybe, for once, even seen.

About the Author: Alex Kourvo writes short stories and novels. She loves being her own boss and is glad she didn’t have to pull off a heist to make it happen.

[Photo credits: Warner Brothers/Village Roadshow pictures]

An Open Letter to the Mayor of Ann Arbor

Standing up to Nazis really should be a basic qualification for office.

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Dear Mayor Taylor,

Last fall, Richard Spencer wanted to come to Ann Arbor to make a speech and to recruit Nazis. You immediately gave in to his demands, telling the community that you would not take steps to stop him.

There was a great outcry from the students at the University of Michigan and the citizens of Ann Arbor. Outcry which you ignored. Instead, you gave a tepid press release about free speech and then dismissed anyone who asked you to take a stronger stance.

The fact that Spencer met resistance elsewhere and then changed his plans to come to Ann Arbor doesn’t get you off the hook. It was students who scared him away, while our mayor stood silently by.

The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing. And you, sir, did nothing.

You can spin this any way you want to, but the bottom line is this: you are an elected official who will not stand up to Nazis. You displayed cowardice and lack of leadership when you used students as your human shields, putting them on the front lines of resistance against fascism and violent white nationalism.

Members of the alt-right including members of the Traditionalist Workers Party fight with protesters outside of a Richard Spencer speech on the campus of Michigan State University in East Lansing, Michigan

Let’s say it again, with the proper emphasis. You are an elected official who will not stand up to Nazis.

To my mind, this disqualifies you from office. It should disqualify you from humanity.

Now that you are running for re-election, you are suddenly paying attention to those voters you ignored last fall. You’ve repeatedly asked for my vote. You will not get it. The primary is in 60 days, and I look forward to voting for your opponent.

Sincerely,

Alex Kourvo

P.S. If you’d like to argue with me about Nazis, please read this first.

Author’s note: I contacted Christopher Taylor’s office in advance of this publication to ask for his comment. He did not respond.

 

Where Would We Be Without RBG?

So much of where we are today is because of where she was in the 1970s.

On Mother’s Day, we went to see the movie “RBG.” It seems that everyone else in Ann Arbor had the same idea, because the theater was sold out and every seat was full. RBG is a hit. It broke into the top 10 for the weekend, which is almost impossible for a documentary to do, especially when it’s showing on limited screens. But, like Ruth Bader Ginsburg herself, this film is small and unassuming and also amazingly powerful.

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I knew Ginsburg was awesome. I’d seen the memes about the “Notorious RBG” and watched the way the internet blew up whenever she wrote one of her dissenting opinions. But until I saw the movie, I never knew quite how awesome she was.

As the movie showed her early life, I saw many older women in the theater nod knowingly at the details of the sexism Ginsburg endured. She navigated college and law school by keeping her head down and being better than her classmates. She made Law Review in her second year at Harvard while caring for a toddler and a husband with cancer. Just one of those three things would have overwhelmed most of us, but RBG did it all.

Ginsburg spent the 70s and 80s working with the ACLU to fight discrimination. She successfully argued six landmark cases before the Supreme Court, changing the law for everyone. She chose those cases the way she does everything—carefully, systematically, always with one eye on the long-term benefits.

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In the theater, there were several gasps from the younger crowd as a list of laws rolled by on the screen—laws that explicitly discriminated against women. It felt like the best history lesson ever as we watched Ginsburg’s work help overturn them one by one. But this is history that is still alive, still with us, still working for our benefit today. Thanks to one remarkable woman, women everywhere can almost take our rights for granted…. Almost.

We still need Ruth Bader Ginsburg and people like her. We’re grateful she’s still alive, still working for us, still notorious as ever. Which is probably why that packed theater burst into applause when the movie ended.

“RGB” has been rolled out into even more theaters this weekend, but who knows how long it will be showing? You should go see it while you can.

And you should bring your mom.

About the Author: Alex Kourvo writes short stories and novels and has recently started wearing “Notorious RBG” t-shirts.