I did it! I wrote over half a million words this year.
Back in January, I made a pact with my brother. We each committed to doing 2017 of something in the year 2017. For him, it was running 2017 kilometers. For me, it was writing 2017 pages (504,250 words).
My brother won the challenge. So did I. In fact, we both finished a week early! I finished my 2017th page on the 24th and he got his last steps in on Christmas day. We are proud of each other. And proud of ourselves. And really, really tired.
I’ve had a lot of people ask me about the challenge, so I’ll answer as many questions as I can here.
You: how did you keep track of how many words/pages you wrote? Did you count each one?
Me: At the end of each writing session, I did a quick word count and jotted down the total in a spreadsheet. I also kept track of what time I started and how long I wrote.
You: Did you learn anything from these spreadsheets?
Me: I learned that I average 1000 words an hour of rough draft. (That does not count editing/proofreading/publishing.)
I also learned that I was wildly inconsistent in the first three quarters of the year, with no set time of day to write. I put words on the page 6 or 7 days a week, which was good, but lacking a routine is how I fell behind in quarter three.
You: If you were behind in quarter three, how did you catch up and also write so much you finished a week early?
Me: In November, I took a class taught by the incomparable Becca Syme. The class changed my life. It sounds like an exaggeration, but I’m serious. This class changed my life.
The class was called “Write Better, Faster,” but really it should have been “learn how your brain works so you can get out of your own way.” It was the most gentle of instruction, but it kicked my ass into gear like nothing else. I learned how look honestly at my own process, know my strengths, and figure out what could be changed and what couldn’t. At the end of November I had a workable action plan, and the moment I started implementing it, the words started pouring out. This past month has been the most productive of my entire career and I’m happier too–probably because I’m working with my natural tendencies instead of against them.
You: So you took a nice class and you got your priorities in order, but readers only care about the finished product. Did you publish anything this quarter?
You: Anything else?
Me: Blog posts, book reviews, classroom materials for the workshop I teach and a monthly newsletter for readers. My co-author and I also wrote a fun short story exclusively for our newsletter subscribers.
You: How many words in this blog post?
Me: 568 words. Combined with the other words I wrote this week, it brings my total to over 509,000 words (2037 pages) for the year.
You: Awesome! What’s next?
Me: Well, today is my birthday. I think I’ll celebrate it by taking a nap.
“It’s like the Discovery Channel…with beer.”
Once a month, nerds gather at their favorite bars to see a trio of 20-minute talks about…well…everything. It’s called Nerd Nite and it happens in cities all across the country. Because I live in a college town, and our Nerd Nite is sponsored by our library, we get a wide range of topics. I’ve attended talks about the science of LED light bulbs, how to critique architecture, and why fruit flies love cake. You never know what you’re going to get at Nerd Nite. Sometimes it’s history, sometimes it’s physics, sometimes it’s…me.
In October, I was a featured speaker at Ann Arbor’s Nerd Nite talking about everyone’s favorite science fiction genre—cyberpunk!
Cyberpunk was everywhere in the 1980s. It started in science fiction, but it influenced fashion, movies, comics, games, advertising, and architecture. After a decade of high-tech, neon-colored, future-looking pop culture, cyberpunk just…went away. Or did it? Could cyberpunk stories still be with us, hiding in plain sight?
Our awesome Ann Arbor District Library taped the talk for their collection, and you can watch the video right on their site.
So if you want to see me nerd out about the genre I love best, here’s the video you never knew you needed.
[Photo: Lara Zielin]
The relaunch of the Detroit Next series.
I have a “new” book out! It’s a re-issue of a book my co-author and I wrote a few years ago called The Caline Conspiracy. Now it’s called Twisted, which is a way better title. It’s also got a better cover and we’re both listed as the author instead of relying on a shared pen name.
Twisted introduces PI Aidra Scott, who is investigating whether a genetically engineered dog killed its owner. The widow of the victim doesn’t think her pet is a killer and hires Aidra to clear her name. Aidra doesn’t want anything to do with dogs, genetically engineered or not. But the more she investigates, the more she’s convinced an innocent animal is being framed. And murder is just the beginning of the conspiracy.
About that cover… If the book is about a genetically engineered dog, why isn’t there a dog on the cover?
Because when readers are shopping for fiction, genre is their first consideration. It’s more important than plot and it’s way more important than the byline, unless the author is well known. This is an uncomfortable truth that was hard to accept. Most authors want some sort of illustration on the cover, a scene from the book. But that’s not what will catch a reader’s eye. Readers know what they’re looking for, and first and foremost, they’re looking for their genre.
Harry and I write cyberpunk. You can call our books near-future thrillers if you’re feeling fancy. We abide by the tropes of our genre, giving readers exactly what they want. The new cover tells readers that yes, this is the kind of book they are looking for. It’s up to the blurb and the first few pages to ultimately sell the book, but if our novel’s cover doesn’t scream “cyberpunk!” then the reader won’t even get that far.
Plus, the new cover just looks really, really cool. That glowy effect? It’s not just in the backlit ebook. The paperback has it too. See?
It takes guts to write something. It takes even more guts to delete it.
I recently got a new job working as a part-time editor for a small press. The first book I was assigned to work on was a memoir called Ginger Stands her Ground. It was written by the bravest writer I’ve ever met.
Ginger Ford has lived with polio for 66 of her 70 years. Her life’s story details the complexities of being disabled before the ADA. In the era before ramps and automatic doors, Ginger had to learn to adapt to a world not built for her. She recalls trying to hide her leg braces to fit in at school, the terror of learning to drive a hand-controlled car, the near-impossibility of finding an accessible college, and the worry that she’d never get married and have a family of her own.
But here’s the thing. Ginger Stands her Ground is not a downer. Ginger has a relentlessly cheerful spirit and she always, always looks on the bright side of things. It’s as if the word “resilient” was coined just for her.
The memoir she wrote was utterly fascinating. It had a problem, though. A big one. The manuscript she turned in was 235 pages long, but the story effectively ended on page 200. The final 35 pages were well-written, but they didn’t fit the current story whatsoever.
I paced the floor, agonizing. Could I really ask her to lop off the entire last section of her book? How would she take it? Would she complain to my boss? This was my first project with Fifth Avenue Press. Ginger was a first-time author. I saw so many ways this could go badly.
But I’m an experienced editor, and I knew my instincts were right. Those 35 pages had to go. So I wrote the most gentle editorial letter of my life, explaining what needed to be done, and then I held my breath, waiting to see what Ginger would do.
She cut those pages without a second glance.
It was the bravest thing I’ve ever seen a writer do.
Some people might think it wasn’t a big deal, but let me tell you something. It was. I’ve seen professional writers who’ve been writing for decades fight to preserve pages they know aren’t working. I’ve been one of those writers from time to time.
It would be one thing if I’d asked her to cut bad or ineffective writing. But I was asking her to cut pages that were very, very good. Later, Ginger took that section and submitted it as a stand-alone piece to the Writer’s Digest competition, where she won an honorable mention. But at the time, she didn’t know she could do that. For all she knew, removing those pages meant they were lost forever. But her editor asked her to remove 1/6 of her book, so she immediately ripped it out and didn’t look back.
That’s not just brave. That’s like, writer superhero brave.
And the thing is? She didn’t think she did anything remarkable. She approached the editing of her memoir the way she approaches everything—with cheerful good humor and the determination to make the best of the situation, no matter what.
If you want to check out Ginger Stands her Ground, it’s on sale now at Amazon and everywhere else. Ginger isn’t on social media, but she gave me permission to post this, and I’ll be sure to pass along any words of encouragement left in the comments.
The darkest part of every story is also the most essential.
There comes a time in every story, about 75% of the way through, where the heroine gives up. She feels utterly defeated because try as she might, she can’t find a way to achieve her goal. She’s beaten and knows she’s beaten.
This is called the all-is-lost moment.
It’s the moment in ET: The Extra-terrestrial when the little alien dies. It’s the moment in Inside Out when Joy is lost in the memory dump. It’s the moment in Mad Max Fury Road when Furiosa discovers the Green Place is gone.
It’s in every novel, every movie, every short story. Even children’s books include it. Three-quarters of the way through Where the Wild Things Are, Max discovers that being with the monsters doesn’t make him happy, and he longs to be where someone loves him most of all.
This is a necessary part of every story. It’s the dark before the dawn. There is an important reason the heroine needs to be brought to this low, low point. She has tried, and failed (so far) in her quest because she hasn’t changed. She’s still trying to solve her problems using old methods, and they aren’t working anymore. She can’t achieve victory until she learns the lessons the plot is trying to teach her. Heroes don’t want to change. All-is-lost moments force them to change.
Can you imagine a novel or movie without the all-is-lost moment? It would be terrible. The heroine would either achieve her goal without any self-reflection or internal change, which would be trite, or she’d keep using the same old methods and never get anywhere, which would be pointless. In fact, the entire story would be pointless without that crucial moment of character change.
And of course, right after this dark night of the soul, a plot twist happens, the heroine finds a new way of dealing with the problem, and faces it head-on. The more horrible the all-is-lost moment feels, the better the climax of the book. Overcoming that failure is huge. It means the victory wasn’t handed to the heroine. She earned it.
I’ve been experiencing an all-is-lost moment myself lately. Here we are 75% of the way through the year, so it’s arrived right on schedule. I made an ambitious goal for myself this year: I would write 2017 pages in the year 2017 (which is 504,250 words). And for the first and second quarters, I was right on track. And then I tried to shoehorn a bunch of big projects into my already-full life. I took on several freelance editing jobs at once, ramped up hours at my volunteer job, tried to edit a couple of my own manuscripts, all while doing home improvement and social activism and working around my kids’ strange summer schedules and staying glued to the 24/7 news cycle.
And, like any plucky fictional heroine, I decided I could do that without making any changes to my life. In addition to writing, I would edit, teach, volunteer, and parent. I would also still have coffee with my friends and socialize on the internet and read the newspaper and ride my unicycle. I’m not exactly sure where I thought the extra hours would come from. Something had to give, and I stole time from the two places that could least afford to lose it: writing and sleep.
I got cranky, and my daily word counts got smaller and smaller. I slid further from my writing goals with every passing day. My editing jobs went really well and I’m proud of the other work I did but the cost was high because I gave up the wrong things in order to achieve it. I should have cut down on house cleaning and Twitter, not on writing and sleep.
I’m staring my quarterly word count total in the face and I don’t like what I see. I only wrote 458 pages this quarter, which is 46 pages short. 458 pages is a ton of writing, and I know I should be proud (I am!) but I also know I could have made my goal if I’d spent my time wisely.
Things aren’t hopeless. I still have three months to make up the difference. But I’m seeing what a blessing the all-is-lost moment can be. It’s forcing me to change. The next time a big project comes in, I’ll have to make better choices, because the world keeps turning and we all have 24 hours in a day. How I use those hours is up to me.
About the Author: Alex Kourvo writes short stories and is working on a science fiction series. She is learning how to prioritize writing and sleep.
[Photo credits: Warner Brothers/Village Roadshow pictures and Harper & Row]
Three no-bullshit rules for happier living.
Do you have rules for life? I have a lot, although most of them are common sense and many are more like guidelines than actual rules. But I have three unbreakable ones.
1. Leave useless lectures
I love a good informative presentation. I seek out opportunities to hear smart people say smart things, and TED talks are my jam. But I’ll leave any presentation that consists of the speaker reading the slides out loud. I’ve walked out of three important meetings this year and will happily walk out of more. These meetings were billed as “essential” and “attendance mandatory,” like the one about college scholarships and the one about a big field trip for my kid.
But this is a hard limit for me. If the presenter is doing PowerPoint Karaoke, I’m leaving. I know how to read. I don’t need anyone to do it for me. But what about the question-and-answer period that always comes at the end? Isn’t that valuable? No. The questions are always super specific and come from people seeking an exception to the rules. No one asks a question seeking clarification. They all want a dispensation.
Fun fact: one hundred percent of the time, the lecture I’ve left has either included a handout or a website with all the information on it. There is never any downside to walking out of a purely informational meeting because the information is always available elsewhere.
2. Never keep a folder of papers
People love to give me those shiny cardboard folders filled with papers. I got my taxes done with a new accountant. She gave me a folder. I hired a realtor to sell my house. She gave me a folder. I got a new insurance policy. It came with a folder. My doctor, my banker, my lawyer…in fact, it seems that anytime I hire someone, trying to deal with them adult-to-adult, I’m given a folder, as if I were a child still in school.
I have my own filing cabinet and folders don’t fit in it. Besides, ninety percent of what’s in the folder is crap and the other ten percent can be found online. I can’t stop people from giving me folders, but I don’t have to keep them. I take out anything with my signature on it, file it in my own filing cabinet, and immediately recycle the rest of the papers and the stupid folder too.
3. Don’t photograph events
Every time I go to a show, a play or a concert, especially one my child is in, my phone/camera is powered off and in my pocket. I came to the event to experience it, not to document it.
I’m a parent of two musicians. My kids have been in multiple concerts every year since fifth grade and I’ve adored every single one of them. But I don’t have photos to prove it. What would be the point? Music is auditory. Plays are a story told in time. They can’t be captured by a static image. Besides, studies have shown that taking photographs can keep us from forming detailed memories. Do I want to hear the music, or do I want to stare through a three-inch screen trying to get the perfect picture that I’ll post to Facebook and never look at again?
I take photos of my children after the show. They look amazing in their band tuxedos and after the concert, they are relaxed and happy. But during the show, I sit down, shut up, and listen to the music.
These three rules for life have eased my way and made me happier. I’m thinking of adding a fourth rule: delete all voicemails without listening to them. My mom still calls me sometimes, so that one isn’t absolute. But for everyone else? Text me.
About the Author: Alex Kourvo writes short stories and is working on a science fiction series. The first of the re-issued books will be out this fall.
[Photo by Sholeh used under a creative commons 2.0 license]
Sometimes the best how-to books don’t look like how-to books.
On my other blog, I review how-to books for writers. I learn a ton from them, and I love sharing what I’ve learned. But there’s another kind of book I review: the ones not written for writers that writers can learn a lot from anyway.
Here are my five favorites.
Mistakes Were Made (But Not by Me) by Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson
This book explains all the different ways humans justify our actions. Our brains can trick us into thinking everything from bickering with our spouse to going to war is perfectly rational. We all work very hard to maintain our positive self-image, and when we do something that’s not in keeping with the great person we think we are, we are quick to think up excuses that make perfect sense in our own heads. This book taught me how to write convincing villains who do all the wrong things for what they think are the right reasons.
The Introvert Advantage by Marti Olsen Laney
Introverts may have the perfect temperament for writing, but we do not have the perfect temperament to deal with the rest of the world. Our culture values extroversion to such an extent, it’s considered the norm, and introverts are considered oddballs. We can’t quiet the whole world, but we can cope with it, and even thrive.
Switch by Chip Heath and Dan Heath
This is a book about change. Most writers want to change something about their writing life, whether it’s working at a different time of day, trying a different genre, or simply turning off the internet and putting butt-in-chair. It turns out, change is driven by three different things: planning, motivation, and the environment. People can achieve remarkable changes by working on just one of these, but lasting success relies on all three.
Better Than Before by Gretchen Rubin
I’m interested in anything that can help me be more productive, and cultivating better habits is the number one way to do it. I have often said that it’s not inspiration that makes a writer. Nor do you have to have a lot of free time, a set schedule, or a deadline. Those things help, but are nothing without the consistent output of words, day after day. In other words, what a writer needs is a habit. This book takes you through every step of habit formation, from initial inspiration to follow-through.
Eat that Frog by Brian Tracy
Years spent trying to cram writing into overstuffed days has led me to read dozens of time management and organization books. This is my favorite. It’s less a time-management book and more an anti-procrastination book. By focusing on priorities instead of to-dos, I’m able to get the most important things done without over-scheduling myself.
I love diving deeply into the craft of writing, and that’s where I focus most of my attention when reading how-to books. But these five books have helped me become a happier, more productive, and better writer, even though they had nothing to do with writing itself.
Goodbye pen name, hello real names.
I used to share a pen name with my co-author, Harry Campion. We released four novels in the Detroit Next series under the name MH Mead. However, it’s not working for us anymore. In fact, we’re not sure it ever did. Starting this fall, we’re killing the pen name and re-issuing the novels under our real names.
A shared pen name seemed to make sense at the time. Back in 2010 when we were starting our collaboration, indie publishing hadn’t taken off yet, and traditional publishing was still an author’s best choice. But when we approached editors and agents, they said, “Readers don’t like co-authored books.” A trip to any bookstore would show how false that was, but we were still told that over and over.
When we started submitting our co-authored novel under a single pseudonym, we quickly got several offers of representation from agents. So we started to think that maybe there was something to this idea of a single pen name. Our agent was cool with a co-authored novel, but he still thought it was better to submit it under a single name.
Within a year, we’d fired our agent and turned our back on traditional publishing, but some of the bad advice we’d been given along the way stuck with us, including the idea of a shared pen name.
Four novels later, we’ve come to see that a shared author name comes with numerous downsides and few—if any—upsides.
A shared name makes it harder to promote the books, since any blog posts or social media we engage in has to make it clear who the author is. Guest blogs and interviews always start with a long paragraph of explanation about our co-authorship. Readers had to figure out who we were before they could hear what we had to say. The short stories we’ve written by ourselves aren’t linked to the novels in Amazon’s system, so no cross selling is possible. Even hand-selling books to people we know has a barrier, since readers can’t readily identify with an author who doesn’t actually exist. We also lost street cred with our students. Teaching is a huge part of our identities, and having books with our names on them helps our credibility.
I’m not exactly sorry that we tried this experiment. Now that we know what doesn’t work, we can try rebranding the books with our own names in hopes that it works better. The timing is good, too. Harry and I have a new novel ready to go, and we’ll be able to reissue the older books quickly. We hope to get some momentum for the series by publishing the novels every few months.
We’ll be updating the covers as well. The first one is ready to go and we’re excited to share. Look for a new novel in the Detroit Next series by Alex Kourvo and Harry R. Campion coming to (virtual) bookshelves this fall.
Please play along as I give my quarterly update.
Back in January, I made a pact with my brother. We each committed to doing 2017 of something in the year 2017. For him, it was running 2017 kilometers. For me, it was writing 2017 pages.
We did the math. To reach our goals, he would have to run 5.5 km per day and I’d have to write 5.5 pages per day. If you figure an industry-standard 250 words per page. It’s about 1400 words every day.
My brother is keeping me accountable, but public accountability helps too. So I need you to ask me all the tough questions about how I did this quarter. Ready?
You: Did you reach your goal or what?
Me: Close. Sooooo close. I wrote 125,318 words, which is less than 750 words (3 pages) short. But I had a cushion from the first quarter, so I’m still ahead for the year.
Of that, 80 percent was fiction (short stories, progress on the novel, writing exercises) and 20 percent was nonfiction (blog posts, book reviews, class materials for my writing workshop).
You: Was the second quarter easier or harder?
Me: It was harder. A lot harder. I was busier, for one thing. My volunteer job needed me almost every day in May and my basement flooded and generally, life happened. I didn’t use that as an excuse. I still got my words done, but some nights I didn’t start writing until 9:00 at night.
Also, this wasn’t new anymore. The first quarter was a fun challenge. By March, the newness wore off and reality set in. I realized that woke up every single morning already 1400 words behind.
You: So why not give up?
Me: Oh, hell no. I’m in it to win it.
From now on, I will allow myself a deliberate day off once a week. I’ll have to increase my word count on other days to make it up, but it will be worth it. I think that by taking a day off once a week, I’ll feel more in control of my output, and less like I’m always scrambling to catch up.
You: So you wrote your little exercises or whatever, but readers only care about finished, edited work. Did you publish anything this quarter?
Me: I published two more stories under my super-secret penname. The rest of my word count went toward progress on two new novels, which are nowhere near finished.
You: You’re still not sharing your secret pen name with anyone?
Me: Nope. Taking that to my grave.
You: How many words in this blog post?
Me: 455 words, and I’m totally counting them toward next quarter.
About the Author: Alex Kourvo writes short stories and is working on a science fiction series. She is writing half a million words this year.
Thirty years ago, I made a promise. I’ve kept it ever since.
I hate wearing a bike helmet. When I wheel my bike out of the garage, I always pause with the helmet in my hand, fantasizing about riding with a bare head, arriving at my destination without a sweaty neck and flat hair.
But every time I go somewhere on my bike, I plop the helmet on my head. Not because I think it will save my life. It probably won’t. Not because of peer pressure. In the college town where I live, hardly anyone wears a bike helmet. But still, I wear mine each and every time I ride my bike.
Because of this guy.
That’s my dad, holding me as a baby. I bet he’d still hold me that tenderly if he could.
When I was in college, we worked together one summer painting houses. I loved hanging out with him, working side by side, listening to the radio and chatting. One day, I mentioned that a few months earlier, while biking to class, I’d fallen off my bike and hurt my knee and elbow. Dad expressed sympathy, but didn’t say anything else about it until the next afternoon.
“You know, I’ve been thinking.” He dipped his brush into the can for more paint and expertly applied a line. “If I bought you a bike helmet, would you wear it?”
I could tell by his expression that this meant a lot to him.
“I’ll wear it every time,” I added. This was the late 80’s. Nobody on my college campus wore a bike helmet. I’d certainly never worn one growing up. I had no idea how hot and uncomfortable it would be.
I wore it anyway. And when I went back to college, I got teased for it. The girls mostly left me alone, but the guys always had something to say.
“Are you wearing that so your brains don’t fall out?”
“Do you just walk around with that on all day like a special ed kid?”
“Did you leave your motorcycle somewhere?”
My campus was ninety miles from home. My dad would never know if I rode without a helmet. I could take it off, ride bare-headed, be cool, fit in.
I didn’t. I kept it on. Every ride. Every time. I didn’t care what the other kids said. I wasn’t wearing the helmet for them.
I was wearing it for someone more important.
And I still do.