Category Archives: Useful Stuff

Three Books to Bust Writer’s Block

 

Three very different authors each tackle writer’s block their own way.

The other day, someone asked me about writer’s block. Did I ever get it? Did I ever blog about ways to cope with it? Did I have any advice for him?

Like I usually do in such circumstances, I recommended a book. Three of them, in fact.

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If you want to know why you’re blocked, read The Courage To Write. Ralph Keyes takes a deep dive into the fears that all writers experience. Why are writers afraid? Because a good novel is an intensely emotional experience. In order to make our readers feel things, we have to feel them too. Few people want to face their own deepest passions and then put them on a page for everyone to read. But Keyes will show you that you’re not alone, and that your anxiety is totally normal.

If you’re looking for the kind of compassionate wisdom an older sister would give you, read Make Your Writing Bloom. Shonell Bacon is frank about obstacles that get in the way of writing. But she overcame those obstacles and is absolutely sure that you can do the same. With a positive outlook and gentle encouragement, Bacon reminds writers why they love the craft so much.

On the other end of the spectrum is Break Writer’s Block Now. Jerrold Mundis is serious about writing, about hard work, and about getting out of your own way to get those words written. He wants writers to stop loading writing with a bunch of emotional baggage and just get it done. Mundis advocates forming a habit and writing no matter what.

So there you go. Psychology, sisterly love, or a kick in the pants. If you’re suffering from writer’s block, one of these should fit the bill. At different times in my career, all of them have helped me.

About the Author: Alex Kourvo writes short stories and novels. She reviews how-to books for writers at the Writing Slices blog.

 

Don’t Do What I Did

I made an expensive mistake so you don’t have to.

At the beginning of September, my co-author and I tried an experiment to market our new book. The idea was to do a free promotion for five days right out of the gate, when the book was new, in hopes of goosing the Amazon algorithms and finding new readers.

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This wasn’t an easy decision. It’s hard to see your book as a “product,” where its value is divorced from its content. After pouring all our creativity and love into Sleepless, it was difficult to step back and make hard-nosed business decisions about its fate.

But we did it anyway, in hopes that we’d either have wild success, or learn a valuable lesson.

Only the second one happened.

The promotion itself went very well. When Sleepless was free, it rose to #2 on the cyberpunk bestseller list and #3 in the science fiction action adventure category. It even briefly was one of the top 100 free books in all of Amazon.

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Since Sleepless has gone back to full price, its sales have flatlined, while page reads in the Kindle Unlimited program have grown. That means that Amazon is only promoting our book to people who have bought a Kindle Unlimited subscription. People who read on Kindles, but don’t subscribe to KU, aren’t seeing our book. Since KU payouts to authors are so low, we haven’t yet earned back what we spent on promotion.

That’s helpful information to know. The inner workings of Amazon are mysterious, and it’s good to have confirmation that Amazon will promote a book, but only inside their own walled garden. It makes our decision to leave the KU program easier.

And also, we got seven new reviews—all of them five stars—which makes me cry some happy tears. A thoughtful review from a serious reader is truly the best thing on Earth!

So am I sad we did this experiment? Not really. It was an expensive lesson and we learned some things the hard way, but now we know what doesn’t work.

And you do too.

About the Author: Alex Kourvo writes short stories and novels. She is always trying new things.

Five Books for Writers that Aren’t About Writing

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.

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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.

 

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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.

 

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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.

 

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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.

 

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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.

About the Author: Alex Kourvo writes short stories and is working on a science fiction series

How to Make a Protest Sign That Doesn’t Suck

You don’t have to be an artist to make your sign a work of art.

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Marches are a regular part of my life these days, and every good protester needs a sign. I used to just grab a piece of cardboard from the recycling bin and throw some words on it. My signs were legible, and my message sincere, but my designs left a lot be desired.

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With three protests in April, I needed to up my sign-making game. After all, if I care enough to march, I care enough to make a good sign. The problem? I don’t have much free time, I refuse to buy any new materials like stencils or paints, and I’m terrible at art.

So I had to figure out a way to make a decent sign in less than an hour, for less than a dollar, with zero artistic ability. I’m not saying my method—or my sign—is the best. But it is a cut above my recycled cardboard ones, and looks quite good for the amount of time/money/effort I put into it. Want to make one too?

Here’s what you’ll need:
Poster board (One sheet cut in half to make two signs)
An index card
A ruler or yardstick
Markers, pencil, and scissors

I had all these things on hand except for the poster board. That cost me 79 cents.

Here are some optional things:
Tape
Artwork printed off the internet
glue

Here’s how to do it in ten easy steps:

1. Decide what your sign will say.  Shorter is better! The experts say fewer than seven words is ideal. My sign for the tax march says “No one is above the law.” That’s a message I think we can all agree on!

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2. Measure your space. Now that you know what you want to say, you know how many letters per line you’ll be writing. Be sure to count the space between words! In my case, I was doing two words per line, so my longest string was “is above.” I’d need eight spaces for that.

3. Do the math to figure out how big each letter should be. My poster board was 14 inches wide. Therefore, each letter could only be 1.5 inches wide. (8 x 1.5 = 12 inches, plus .25 inches between each letter for a total of 14 inches.)

4. Make a rectangular stencil out of your index card. I made mine 1.5 inches wide and 2.5 inches tall. That’s the orange rectangle in my photo.

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5. Very lightly, in pencil, trace around the index card as many times as you have letters. For me, that was 6 boxes for line one, 8 boxes for line two, and 7 boxes for line three. Remember that the space between the words counts as a box! (Also: I discovered that with fewer letters on lines one and three, I could make those boxes slightly bigger. But let’s pretend for this tutorial that they were the same.)

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6. Now you have neat little boxes to make your letters in. Every letter will be the same size and you won’t run out of room. A good artist would simply freehand the letters at this point, but I am not a good artist. I penciled in every letter. It didn’t take long and made me more confident with the markers. Make your letters really thick! Thin ones can’t be read from far away.

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7. Color in the words with markers. This is always my favorite part. I love to color.

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8. Erase the pencil lines. Also my favorite part.

9. How about some artwork? Here’s my big secret. I simply found an image I liked on the internet, printed it, cut it out and glued it to my sign with glue stick. Done! The sign is ready to be carried to the march. But what about that second piece of poster board?

10. If you want to, you can use the other piece of poster board to make a second sign. Tape the signs back to back, and put a yardstick (or a cardboard tube) in the middle for a handle. Your sign will be more visible if you carry it above your head.

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Have a good march! Make new friends. Yell really loudly. Connect with important local organizations. Remember to stay hydrated and always clean up your trash. Peaceful assembly is your constitutional right and speaking truth to power is one of the very best things Americans can do.

Especially when our signs don’t suck.

About the Author: Alex Kourvo writes short stories and is working on a science fiction series. She finds protesting an important part of being a good American citizen.

[Update: Want to see more of my signs? Click here, here or here.]

Unexpected Tools for Writers

Some non-writing things that help me write better

Most writers use the same tools to get the job done. We all have a library of how-to books, both inspirational and instructional. We all have computers with useful software. Many of us also have things like kitchen timers for writing sprints. But I use three tools that most other writers don’t. I’ve been using each one less than a year, but in that short time, they’ve become essential.

1. Alphasmart Neo.

Remember these from the 1990s? Before laptop computers became affordable, these little word processors were state of the art. I thought they were outdated, but after hearing my friends rave about them, I decided to try one myself.

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The Alphasmart has a keyboard and a tiny screen. You type, the Alphasmart saves your text, and when you’re done, you use a USB cord to transfer the words to your computer for editing. It weighs almost nothing and runs on three AAA batteries that last about six months.

I love it because literally all I can do with an Alphasmart is type. That means no Twitter, no Google to “just look up one little thing” (that leads to hours of browsing), no email. Even better: I can’t really edit on the Alphasmart. Scrolling backward is tedious, and not worth it for more than a few sentences. It’s much easier to just write myself a note in the text, telling myself to fix it later, and then push forward.

You can’t imagine what this has done for my productivity. I’ve gone from 1000 words an hour on the computer to 1500 an hour on the Alphasmart. And I think they are better words, too.

Back in the day, when these were new, they were a couple hundred dollars. Now you can get them used for $35. Amazon and eBay always seem to have a dozen or so, but they aren’t being made anymore, so the supply is finite.

2. Fitdesk

Writing is appallingly sedentary. People always tell beginning writers that the secret to success is “butt in chair.” Unfortunately, that’s also the secret to numerous health problems. But what choice do writers have? We need our fingers on a keyboard, which means we need to be sitting still. Some people use a standing desk, but that doesn’t incorporate movement.

Even worse, I live in Michigan, where the winters are cold and dark. If I want to get out for a walk, I have to use limited daytime hours, which are also prime writing hours.

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A Fitdesk solved that problem neatly. It’s an exercise bike with a desk on it. Now I sit and pedal and the more I write, the fitter I am. The pedals are silent, and not at all distracting. I’ve had my Fitdesk for six months, I weigh five pounds less than I did when I got it, and I feel amazing. I’m no longer thinking about what I’m missing by not exercising outside. I just pedal and write.

3. Gunnar Glasses

Although I write on the Alphasmart, I edit on the computer, staring at a screen for hours at a time. My eyes always gave out before my creativity did.

Until I got Gunnar Glasses.

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They look ridiculous. I don’t care.

The glasses block the blue light and glare that can cause “computer vision syndrome.” When I wear my Gunnars, I can edit for a full day without eye strain. Plus, I think they are a subconscious signal to my mind. Glasses on? It must be time to work.

I don’t need these three things to write. Give me a pen and a piece of paper and I will happily write anywhere. But I like having these tools.

One helps me write faster.

One helps me edit longer.

And one makes me happier while I do it.

Who wouldn’t want that?

About the Author: Alex Kourvo writes short stories and is working on a science fiction series. She is happiest when she’s writing.

Why You Should Encrypt Your Texts

Just because you’ve got nothing to hide doesn’t mean you’ve got nothing to fear.

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You’ve got spies in your house.

You let them in.

The day you bought a smart phone, an Amazon Echo, Google Home, or a smart remote for your TV, you placed an always on, always listening device in your home. Even Siri is always listening for her name, meaning she’s always listening, period.

You don’t care. You think “I’m not that interesting” or “I’ve got nothing to hide.” But there are three problems with that.

First, if you think that surveillance programs are only there to catch bad guys, think again. Second, the “nothing to hide” argument puts the burden on you to prove your innocence. Constantly. “Why are you so worried about privacy?” law enforcement will ask. “are you doing something you’re not supposed to?” Third, you’ve given up the choice of what you share and when. Are you okay with the government reading your email? Out loud? In public? How about searching your house and car and body any time they want? Why not publish your bank balance and parade around naked while you’re at it? After all, you have nothing to hide.

Everyone is probably breaking some law at some time. I speed. I also routinely run the bullshit stop sign at my corner unless there’s a car coming from the other side. Chances are 100% that you, too, break the law in ways big and small.

And we all have tracking devices in our pockets, meaning government officers know, or can easily find out, what we did. Since they can’t arrest everyone, laws are selectively enforced. Marginalized groups such as young people, minorities, immigrants, and the poor are the ones who get arrested for stuff we all do.

Your friends, your colleagues, your children, your children’s friends. I guarantee at least one of them has something to hide from the government. Not because they are doing something illegal or wrong (technically, we all are), but because of selective enforcement.

We can’t do anything about selective enforcement. And in most cases, we can’t live without the spies in our pockets. But at least we can minimize the harm they do.

One easy step you can take is to encrypt your text messages. Instead of sending plain texts, that are easily read by anyone with a search warrant (or in many cases, without one), you can easily encrypt your messages, so that no one but you and the recipient can read them.

Think of it as herd immunity. Journalists and human rights activists around the world encrypt their texts, for good reason. But the problem is, simply encrypting texts by itself can throw suspicion on someone. However, if we all encrypt our texts, it becomes the new normal. Nothing to see here, journalists and humans rights activists and young people and minorities are simply doing what everyone else does.

Lots of apps can encrypt your messages. I like Signal.  It’s made by a hacker collective and gets high marks from the ACLU. PC magazine says “It’s the best secure messaging app we’ve tested.”

It’s free and seamlessly replaces your usual texting app. You need zero tech know-how to use it. You send texts just like you always do. If you’re messaging someone who also uses Signal, it encrypts the message. If you’re texting someone who’s not using Signal, then a regular message goes out as normal.

Signal uses strong, tested end-to-end  encryption tools, which means that even if a court order demanded it,  the developers of Signal would be unable to deliver your messages to the government. It’s not that they’d refuse to do it. They simply couldn’t.

You can’t afford to be passive about this issue. Not now. If you won’t do it for yourself, do it for the most vulnerable among us. And with free, simple, and seamless apps that will help, there is no excuse not to.

About the author: Alex Kourvo writes short stories and is working on a science fiction series. She sends as few texts as possible, and encrypts every one.

See You at the Polls

If you don’t vote, you’re giving away your power.

 

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Vote for your favorite or vote against your least favorite.

Go in educated about the issues or go with your gut.

Carefully consider what you’re doing or decide at the last minute.

Do it as cheerful exercise of your citizenship or do it as an unhappy obligation.

But whatever you do,

VOTE.

About the author: Alex Kourvo writes short stories under her own name and near-future thrillers under the pen name M.H. Mead. She can’t wait to vote on November 8.

Travel Hacks

Taking the “duh” out of traveling.

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I’m tired of reading about “travel hacks” that promise to save you time and money, but in reality, only save one or the other. Of course you can spend extra money to save time. Of course you can spend extra time to save money.  That’s not a hack. That’s the kind of trade-off everyone already does. That’s travel 101.

In short: duh.

There are very few true travel hacks: things that save both time and money, without being inconvenient or tedious. If there were, we’d all be doing them and they wouldn’t be called hacks anymore, they’d just be called “travel.”

I’m a casual traveler, flying to other cities only once or twice a year. But isn’t that most of us? Perhaps experienced travelers will laugh at these, giving me a well-deserved “duh” of my own, but I’ve found three things that truly help me save both time and money and I’m sharing them here in hopes that other casual travelers will find them helpful.

1. Don’t fly to small cities. It’s almost always cheaper to fly to a big hub, and you get more choices of flight times. Flying to a hub does not mean you have to rent a car. Look into shuttle services that will take you by bus or van to your final destination. For example, last year, I went to a conference in Colorado Springs, but I flew into Denver. A quick google search turned up three different shuttle services that would take me from the Denver airport to my hotel in Colorado Springs an hour away. I spent $50 on the shuttle instead of an extra $250 for a flight, and I saved time too, because I never changed planes. Closer to home, my relatives in Lansing always fly in and out of Detroit, relying on the Michigan Flyer motorcoach to take them the rest of the way.

2. With airlines charging for every checked bag, it makes sense to pack everything into a carry-on. With a little thought and effort, it’s not hard to pack for a whole week in one 25 x 14 x 9 inch bag. But the trick is to pack two carry-ons, one a small suitcase and one a small backpack. The backpack should contain all the in-flight essentials as well as your computer and any medications you need.

Then you simply wait for that magical announcement at the gate, when the staff desperately tries to get you to check your carry-ons at the gate. By all means, give up the larger carry-on at that point. It’s the ideal way to check a bag because it’s free and you know it won’t get lost because it’s going on the same plane you are.

3. When I vacationed in San Francisco last year, every taxi driver wanted to take me on a magical mystery tour of the city. I suppose they thought I wouldn’t notice they were driving in circles, even though I had the GPS on my phone working the entire time. After my second tour of the city, I swore off cabs altogether and decided to take the bus. But how to navigate public transport in a strange city? It’s easy with a free app called Moovit. Just tell Moovit where you want to go and it will tell you when the next bus is coming and how to walk to the stop. Once you’re on the bus, it will count down the stops and vibrate when yours is coming up. After you leave the bus, Moovit will guide you the last few blocks to your destination.

This app does everything except ride the bus for you. Not only did it save me time and money, it lowered my stress. Instead of trying to second-guess the cabbie while watching the meter climb ever higher, I was able to relax and enjoy beautiful San Francisco. When I got home, I kept using Moovit for my local bus trips. It’s available in most American cities and many international ones too.

Those are the three best travel hacks that I know, but those just cover getting from place to place. I bet there are equally good hacks for hotels and restaurants. If you know of a way to save both time and money when going out of town, please share in the comments so we can all be better travelers.

About the author: Alex Kourvo writes short stories under her own name and near-future thrillers under the pen name M.H. Mead. Her characters only use the word “hack” when they are talking about computers.

(Photo credit: © Clarita | Dreamstime Stock Photos)