Tag Archives: reading

How Many Stars Should I Give This Book?

It’s not what you say about books, it’s what you do with them.

Being a writer comes with a long list of occupational hazards. Wrist strain, numb butt cheeks, isolation, insomnia, and the inability to browse bookstores without buying an armload of books.

But the worst one is that I’ve become such a picky reader. I can’t help it. I always see the scaffolding as well as the building, even when I’m reading for pleasure. I tried belonging to a book club once but quit after three months. Readers discuss books very differently than writers do and I was not a good fit for this club at all. I wanted to talk about the way the book was written while the other members wanted to talk about how much fun the characters were and how much the plot surprised them.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the five-star rating system and how difficult it is to rate the novels I read. I have friends who give five stars to every book they finish, on the assumption that if it’s good enough to finish, it deserves the top rating. If they abandon the book halfway through, they simply don’t rate it at all. But if everyone rated books this way, there would be nothing but five-star reviews on every book.

I’ve been thinking about a system that’s a little more nuanced and also accounts for my picky nature. I tend to overthink things when it comes to books (and you know, life), but this new system cuts through the indecision quite neatly. I can reliably rate paperback books based on where they end up after I read them. My new system goes like this.

If I finish a book and immediately pass it on to a friend with my recommendation, it gets five stars.

If I finish a book and then put it on my keeper shelf, it gets four stars.

If I finish a book and slide it into a little free library or the charity bin, it gets three stars.

If I couldn’t finish it but it went into the charity bin anyway, it gets two stars.

If I couldn’t finish a book and I threw it into the garbage can, it gets one star.

Yes, I throw away books. Not often, but it happens. I won’t toss a book simply because I didn’t care for it. A book that wasn’t to my taste might be right for someone else. Nor will I throw out a book for being of poor quality. Lots of bad books are published every day. They’re annoying but harmless.

However, I will throw a book into the garbage if it’s offensive. There is no reason to keep books that are racist or sexist or otherwise designed to hurt people. Destroying a single copy of an offensive book won’t stop the other copies from existing, but it certainly makes me feel better.

So there you have it, the Alex Kourvo book disposition rating system. No rating system is perfect, but I feel like this one might be better than most, as I’ve neatly rated my books based on where I’ve put them.

About the author: Alex Kourvo is an editor-for-hire who knows what to do with her paperback books.

We Are All Readers

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.”

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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.

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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.

About the author: Alex Kourvo is a freelance editor. She reads in paper and ebook form.

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.

The Bravest Writer I Ever Met

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.

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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.

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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.

About the Author: Alex Kourvo is an editor-for-hire who works with all kinds of writers, especially brave ones.

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 is an editor-for-hire who is passionate about helping writers. 

The Encouragement Manifesto

You. Yes, you. You’re doing just fine.

Have you seen this quote? It shows up around social media a lot.

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It’s supposed to be funny…I think? I don’t find it so. O’Connor goes on to say that many a bestseller would have been prevented by a good teacher. Because how dare some people think they can write? In O’Connor’s world, not even a college degree is enough to prevent bad writing.

I find this attitude infuriating. I know there are more bad writers than good ones. I also know that some people think they are good writers when they are not. Or more accurately, they aren’t good writers yet.

That’s what bothers me most about the idea of “stifling writers.” It feeds into the myth of innate talent, as if pro writers never had to learn their craft but were born knowing how to write flawless first drafts.

Some people think the way to help new writers is to cut them down—otherwise known as “telling them the truth.” But writing well is hard work and the publishing process is soul-sucking. Why add to that misery?

I teach a class. I help new writers. When I read their sample pages, I tell them they are doing just fine. I tell them to to keep writing. Because you know what? That is the truth. The most important thing a beginning writer can do is write more. It’s the only way to get better.

I’m not patronizing or condescending. I give solid advice in addition to praise. I recommend books that can help with specific problems. And when it comes to publishing questions, I tell it like it is, with no sugar-coating.

But I don’t spend a lot of time trying to fix someone’s manuscript. Leaving my own fingerprints all over someone else’s pages won’t help them. It will only make them believe they can’t do it themselves. But what will help them is knowing that someone sees their potential, thinks they are on the right track, and is rooting for them.

That’s what other writers did for me. And that’s what I will always, always do for other writers.

And there’s no way anyone can stifle that.

About the author: Alex Kourvo is a freelance editor who is wildly enthusiastic about brand-new writers.