For authors, finding community is vital to success.
It’s a strange business. Most of the time, writers sit alone in a room and make things up. We need to be perfectly fine with doing this for hours every day, for days on end. Then, when it comes time to sell what we’ve written, or talk to readers, or…you know…go to the grocery store, we’re expected to suddenly be at home in the world. And for most of us, being at home in the world is hard.
We have to go to dinner with our in-laws and talk about spaghetti recipes and why they like French wine and why neighborhood garbage pick-up was delayed this week. We have to talk about the weather with the dry cleaner. We have to go to parent’s night at school and make small talk and fit in and don’t make it weird.
Writers need friends. And we really, really need friends who share our quirks.
So I’ve spent most of my adult life hanging out with other writers. I met them in college or at conferences or online. I’ve had coffee and lunches, attended write-ins and retreats. It wasn’t easy to form these connections. An introvert befriending other introverts can be a slow, awkward process. But it’s so, so worth it.
Twice a week, I meet a friend for a quiet writing date. I also attend a weekly critique group, and have breakfast with my co-author every Sunday. I have monthly lunches with friends who feel like family.
That’s a lot of social interaction for a writer, but I don’t just like these groups. I need them. My writing buddy understands the daily grind. My critique group helps me pursue excellence. I bounce ideas off my co-author at Sunday breakfast and get marketing advice from my lunch group.
Without these friendships, I don’t know if I’d even call myself a writer. By sharing our troubles and triumphs, we’re reinforcing that identity. I look at my critique group or my friends or my writing partner and I see myself reflected clearly. We’re all doing this thing, and this is a good thing to do.
A writer alone is an oddity. A group of writers? That’s called the cool kids’ table.
Why are we still fighting about this?
The other day, a silly person time-traveled from 2009 to post this ignorant tweet.
“I still can’t get to grips with how unspeakably disappointing it must be to read books on a Kindle. One of the biggest joys when you buy a book is actually getting it, no? Those lovely wiffly pages. That smooth (or crinkled!) cover.”
Responses were all over the place. The tweeter had a handful of cheerleaders, a ton of people calling her out for her shitty take, and a few people baffled by it all. Several of her friends insisted that paper books were “real books” or “actual” books, and seemed confused when someone pointed out that ebooks were real books too.
In the year of our lord Beyoncé 2019, why are we still fighting about this? Ebooks are real books. Audiobooks are real books. The delivery mechanism doesn’t make the content any different. Loving paper books doesn’t make you better, or smarter, or cooler. It simply makes you a reader. And there are many kinds of readers.
Kindles have existed for over a decade, and regular users aren’t disappointed when reading ebooks. We take our libraries with us when we travel. We read in bed with the lights off. We get our books delivered to us instantly. We can spend hours shopping for books even if we’re not lucky enough to have a bookstore in our town. We hold our Kindles or our phones with one hand while holding a briefcase or a baby with the other.
People not reading in their native language use the built-in dictionary. People with dyslexia read audiobooks. People with arthritis or chronic pain turn the page with a single finger.
My personal favorite thing about ebooks is the ability to increase the font size. I literally can’t read small font books anymore, but every ebook can be a large print book.
Someone’s always wrong on the internet, and I probably should have ignored this garbage tweet, but I hated the way the author dismissed everyone who explained why they loved their ebooks, especially those with disabilities. Most of her follow-up tweets looked like this: the words “Angry Kindle readers” followed by the emoji that’s laughing so hard she’s crying and a stack of paper books. In other responses, she equated paper books with morality. Reading ebooks was not just lesser-than, but wrong.
I truly wish this person the best. I hope her eyesight always remains 20/20. I hope she never gets arthritis in her hands or wrists. I hope she never tries to read and feed a newborn at the same time. And I hope she never has to move into a nursing home where there’s no room for her paper books.
But chances are, at least one of those things will happen to her, and the joy of wiffling through paper pages will no longer be an option. I suppose she’ll just stop reading at that point.
How unspeakably disappointing.
I refuse to read about realtors.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
My new book was published on Tuesday. On Wednesday, it was free.
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.
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!
I have a new book out! My co-author and I have released Zoners, book two in the “Detroit Next” series.
Zoners continues the adventures of PI Aidra Scott. On a stake-out late one night, she sees her teenage son’s best friend jump a fence and head into the Zone–the ring of abandoned neighborhoods surrounding the now-thriving Detroit.
Officially, no one is supposed to live in the Zone. In reality, it’s the home of the hiding, the forgotten, and the criminal. Aidra avoids the area when she can. Tonight, she can’t.
Cut off from her high-tech assistant and all the resources of modern life, Aidra has to rely on her own wits to navigate the Zone. She finds unexpected allies in a larger-than-life reporter after the story of his career, an ambitious cop looking to prove himself, and a clever street rat just trying to survive. All Aidra wants is to find the kid she’s looking for and get out.
But it won’t be easy, especially after she makes an enemy of the local warlord who’s using the Zone to hide a dangerous piece of rogue technology.
Aidra is in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Looks like her simple search-and-rescue won’t be so simple after all.
This book stands alone. Although it’s book two in the series, you don’t have to read book one first or have any familiarity with our world or characters. Does it help? Sure. Is it more fun? Absolutely. But trust me, you can jump in anywhere.
We were lucky enough to get the same cover artist as our last novel and we love how it turned out. The cover isn’t as “glowy” as the cover of Twisted, but we like the subtle 3-D effect.
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?
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]
The world has changed, and so have my reading habits.
Until recently, the books I read looked like this.
I was a heavy science fiction reader. I think what I liked most about it was the challenge. Not that the books themselves were hard to read, but that the plots and themes always challenged my worldview. After all, the best science fiction shines a spotlight on today’s world. They’re either metaphors for current events, or asking a very specific question. And that question is always: “How would life be different if this one little thing was changed?”
I absolutely required this of my science fiction books. I wouldn’t finish a book that simply reinforced my preconceived notions. How the book made me feel was less important than how it made me think.
Now? Not so much.
In the last few months, we’ve all been bombarded with bad news upon bad news, and it’s getting worse. I’m worried about the future all the time. Books that once seemed like harmless thought experiments now read more like predictors of doom. Even light, funny science fiction has an edge I can’t deal with right now.
What I’m looking for in books these days is an intensity of feelings and a guaranteed happy ending. I think my mind wants to experience emotions in a safe way. I want to feel deeply without getting my heart broken.
So I wandered the library shelves, flipping through memoirs, reading the jackets of mysteries, looking at the covers of literary fiction, and avoiding the horror shelf completely, until I finally found what I was looking for.
A romance novel.
It isn’t just that I crave escape, because all novels offer that. Even my big idea science fiction novels are full of heroes and adventure and other worlds. But romance offers the specific kind of escape my heart needs right now. Romance novels are full of love and sacrifice and doing the right thing for the sake of another person. Every hero and heroine ends up a better person than when they started, and love really does trump hate. Every. Single. Time.
So now the books I read look like this.
The world is still crappy. I’m still fighting against the bad. But I’ve found a safe place for my emotions to go. Thanks to some wonderful authors who write about love, books have once again become my happy place.
About the author: Alex Kourvo writes short stories and is working on a science fiction series. Her TBR pile is overflowing with love.
What’s the purpose of a memoir?
I’ve been reading a lot of memoirs lately. These books occupy an odd space between fiction and nonfiction. They’re true stories, but they’re marketed like novels and the audience is mostly the same. I used to think of them as simply novels-plus. All the drama and entertainment of a made-up story, with the added emotional thrill of knowing that this really happened.
But why do people write them? Is it all just narcissism? Cheaper than therapy? And why do readers love memoirs so much?
Then it hit me. We read fiction to be entertained and we read nonfiction to be informed, but we read memoirs to be inspired. The unspoken subtitle for every single memoir is “the inspiring true story of…”
Wild by Cheryl Strayed is a memoir about loneliness. Strayed hiked the Pacific Crest trail by herself, while dealing with a divorce and the death of her mother and also kicking a drug habit. Reading about the way she dealt with her loneliness made me feel like I could also cope with feeling alone.
Heather Sellers has face blindness. She can’t recognize faces, not even of the people she loves, and the condition has no cure. Reading You Don’t Look Like Anyone I Know was heartbreaking, but watching Sellers handle one deeply awkward situation after another made me see my own social blunders as no big deal.
Chris Gardner went from homelessness to running a successful brokerage firm, never losing sight of his dream, no matter how bleak things got. He never felt sorry for himself, nor did he let others feel sorry for him. Reading The Pursuit of Happyness showed me how to be strong, no matter what life throws at me.
My own life has been full of ups and downs. I’ve lived in interesting places, met a wacky bunch of characters, and dealt with some tough challenges. But I never had the urge to put my own life on paper. Memoir writing is not my thing. But I will continue to read memoirs, because finding that rush of inspiration between the covers of a book is like no other feeling in the world.
About the author: Alex Kourvo writes short stories and novels. She finds other people fascinating.