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 is a freelance editor. 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.

Not because I’ve given up on love, not because I don’t think I’m worthy of it, but because I need time. I need time to read and think and walk. I need time to be completely myself.

Society doesn’t want to grant me that time. Words hover around me. Words like isolated and lonely. Words like worry. My sister asked if I hated eating alone. (Answer: no.) Some friends are shocked when I tell them I’m planning a solo vacation. People ask me point blank when I’m going to start dating again. It’s always a “when,” not an “if.”

Perhaps it’s assumed, since I was married for over twenty years, that marriage is my natural state. What people don’t know is that I was never more lonely than when I was married. Ironically enough, I feel more connected to other people now—my children, my parents, my siblings. I’ve made lots of new friends. I go to more movies, more book readings, more community events. I go to the library and the coffee shop. I eat lunch with my writer buddies. My life is full of good things. I don’t need a relationship to make it complete.

I choose how much to save and how much to spend. I decide when to do laundry and how late to sleep in on Saturdays. I don’t share a bed or the TV remote. I make my own decisions about big things like what car to drive and small things like how often to have tacos for dinner. (Correct answer: twice a week.)

This is threatening to some people. I’m the source of amusement on good days and naked hostility on bad ones. Our society doesn’t like to see a woman in charge of herself. Who am I to drink an entire key lime milkshake and call it dinner? To buy jewelry I chose myself? How dare I spoil myself in any way?

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 not going to date anyone right now.

The world keeps telling me, over and over, in big ways and small, that I should be paired up, or at least striving to be. But I don’t want to live on the edge of someone else’s life.

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

About the author: Alex Kourvo is an editor-for-hire. She is happy in her own company.

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.

About the author: Alex Kourvo is a freelance editor. She gives back to the writing community by reviewing how-to books on the Writing Slices blog.

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 is an editor-for-hire. 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 is a freelance editor. She works on a pink computer.

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 is an editor-for-hire. She’s trying to be a better human.

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.” 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 is a freelance editor. 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.

Me standing in front of the RBG movie poster

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.

Ruth Bader Ginsburg as a young lawyer

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 is a freelance editor who has recently started wearing “Notorious RBG” t-shirts.

Ten Conversations I’m Tired of Having About Nazis

The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.

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It usually happens on social media. I’ll post an anti-Nazi meme like this one, or this one. Or I’ll suggest that hey, maybe as a community, it’s our job to bail out antifascists who were arrested while protesting white nationalists.

And then the pushback comes. And it always, always comes from nice white folks—people who look like me. And those well-meaning white folks always, always want me to ignore the Nazis, because they’ve never had to look beyond their own privilege to see why that won’t work.

So here are ten arguments I’m sick of having about Nazis, because it’s time for me to come get my own people.

1. Why are you protesting Nazis? All you’re doing is giving them publicity.
More publicity is a good thing. It’s important for people to know what the alt-right stands for and what they’re capable of. I think what privileged white people are really saying is, “It makes me uncomfortable to read about this in the news.” But rather than sit with that discomfort, they’d like to blame the antifascists for calling attention to the problem of Nazis in our midst.

2. Just ignore them! Wouldn’t it be funny if the Nazis came out and nobody showed up? 
No, it wouldn’t be funny if Nazis came to my town and no one showed up. If we all cowered at home while Nazis marched through our streets, it would mean we’ve surrendered the public square to them. They would then know that they could go anywhere they wanted, do or say anything, and the citizens would just go along with it. I don’t find that funny at all.

3. All you’re doing is making them mad.
Upsetting Nazis is a good thing. Besides, they’re already plenty angry. Perhaps this well-meaning person is telling me not to provoke the Nazis, which sounds a hell of a lot like victim-blaming. Like the abuser who tells his victim it’s her fault he hit her, because she made him mad. And please, miss me with your respectability politics.

4. The Nazis just want attention. Why are you playing into their hands?
No, they don’t just want attention. They want my children dead. That’s not an exaggeration. My children are mixed-race and queer. According to the alt-right and their ilk, my kids should not exist.

5. But what about freedom of speech?
Nazis and the KKK are calling for ethnic cleansing. They advocate domination of one group over another by violent means. This is not free speech, it’s hate speech. The US supreme court has ruled that this kind of hate speech—the kind that is inciting violence—is not protected under law.

6. All they wants to do is share ideas! Can’t you debate the points on their merits? 
It’s adorable that someone thinks that Nazis want a civil debate. But more importantly, freedom of speech does not mean freedom from consequences, and it doesn’t mean a guaranteed platform. Straight, white, rich men often mix these two things up, because up until now, they could say anything they wanted without pushback, and they always had an arena in which to say it. But these days, the alt-right will show up to an event with a dozen supporters and come face to face with a wall of hundreds of protestors. And suddenly, they start squawking that their freedom of speech is being infringed somehow. Nope, we’re just using our own freedom of speech to shout louder.

7. But you’re trying to silence the alt-right! That makes you the fascist!
This is propaganda, pure and simple. Nazis love to brand all antifascists as dangerous extremists. They use that to create a convenient cover for their own, more dangerous, extreme views. Remember: hate speech is not protected speech, antifascists have the right to speak out against Nazis, and ignoring Nazis will not make them go away. Besides, when has “they’re just as bad!” ever been a valid argument?

8. As Voltaire once said, “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”
First, Voltaire never said that. Second, how nice for you, that you can defend Nazis. How nice for you, that your skin color protects you from them.

9. But why should we fight the Nazis? If they’re being disruptive, shouldn’t the cops handle it? 
Let me tell you what happened when Richard Spencer and his Nazi brethren came to Michigan State University this week. Hundreds of protestors showed up. They were peaceful, but they made noise. They made their presence known. Police, wearing full riot gear, lined the streets hundreds deep. As soon as Spencer and his followers arrived, the police took the Nazis in small groups and escorted them into the building. Sometimes, the cops would put the Nazis into their cars and drive them through the crowds. Basically, the police acted as the Nazis’ personal bodyguards, while beating back protestors with their bikes and their clubs. The police “handled” it by protecting the Nazis.

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10. Now you want me to help post bail for the protestors?
Yes, that’s what I want you to do. All of us in the community should do that. These brave young people were arrested for trying to stop Nazis from recruiting.
Arrested.
For trying.
to stop Nazis.
From recruiting.
Over twenty people were arrested. You know what the most common charge was? “Failure to obey a police officer.” I don’t know about you, but that sends a chill down my spine. The message is clear: obey the Nazis’ bodyguards, or else.

You know what the others were arrested for? Trespassing (it was a public place), disorderly conduct, and obstructing police business. A few were arrested for peeing in public. Only two were arrested for having weapons, and it’s not specified what those weapons were. (Water bottles and rocks qualify, if the officer felt “threatened” by them.)

We should be sending a clear message that Nazis are not welcome in our towns, and if they come here, we will protest them, and if we can’t protest them, we will support those who do.

Have you ever wondered what you would do if you lived in Germany in the 1930s or in America in the 1960s? That’s what you’re doing. You’re doing it right now.

And I know what I’m going to do.

Update: One week after Richard Spencer came to Michigan State University, he posted a YouTube video in which he said he was rethinking his whole approach, because anti-fascists were shutting down his speeches. He is no longer going to try to recruit or give speeches on college campuses.

Directly engaging with Nazis works.