Want to Win Some Books?

Over on the Writing Slices blog, I’m running a giveaway for my writer friends. I’m giving away two gift boxes full of goodies, including a how-to book I adore and paperbacks of some Detroit Next novels.

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So if you like how-to books, or book goodies, or stuff by me, go over there and drop a comment. You could win some stuff!

 

White People Code

Using language to hide racism.

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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.

It’s code.

About the author: Alex Kourvo writes science fiction short stories and novels and doesn’t listen to nonsense. 

The Ten Best Things About a Michigan Winter

Who needs to go out?

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Most top ten lists about winter are full of stuff like skiing and ice skating and enjoying the snow.

Wrong.

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’.

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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.”

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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]

Every Reader Has a Hard Limit: This is Mine

I refuse to read about realtors.

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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.

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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.

About the author: Alex Kourvo has recently switched from writing science fiction short stories and novels to writing romance. She does not trust realtors.

 

Why I Don’t Date

I love being in charge of my own happiness.

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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 forever.

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 so full of good things I just don’t see a way to fit a man into it.

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?

20180127_180014Sometimes 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 still not going to date anyone. Ever.

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 refuse. I’m never again going to live on the edge of someone else’s life.

I’d rather live at the center of my own.

About the author: Alex Kourvo writes science fiction short stories and novels. She is happy in her own company.

 

Ending the “Detroit Next” Series

This is the end.

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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.

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

Top Ten How-to Books for Writers

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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If you find my reviews helpful, and you’d like to help me buy more books to review, you can do that here.

About the author: Alex Kourvo writes science fiction short stories and novels. She gives back to the writing community by reviewing how-to books on the Writing Slices blog.

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 fifty 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.