First, I would like to say I use this hashtag (even in this blog) with incredible caution because I’m aware of my privilege. I’m white, straight, cisgender, heterosexual, and able-bodied (ish). I have a huge amount of privilege, which I acknowledge. I don’t want to undercut other marginalized voices by speaking over them. To avoid doing so, in this post, I will be as specific as possible. I’ll discuss my mental illness and how it impacted my publishing decisions, especially in relation to my upcoming novel, The Blood Mage. I’ll talk about #OwnVoices as it relates to me, my marginalization, my work. But please be aware this is not the only opinion in this discussion, so seek out others and listen. Always, always listen.
K, so if you don’t know what #OwnVoices is, read this. Also, check out We Need Diverse Books. That’s all I’m going to say on that. From here on out, I’m going to assume you know what I mean when I say #OwnVoices.
The Blood Mage is #OwnVoices. Without spoilers, it’s a book centering a character who has post traumatic stress disorder. It largely deals with her struggle with the darkness that often accompanies mental illness. This book was extremely difficult for me to write, but it was also one of the great joys of my life.
The Wheel Mages will always have a special place in my heart because it was the first book I published, just as In the Light of Dawn will occupy a similar place because it was the first manuscript I ever completed. But The Blood Mage is me spilled onto the page. Alena’s struggle is very much my struggle. That makes this launch both the most exhilarating and most terrifying experience of my life.
I knew what this series was going to be before I started it. I knew The Wheel Mages was in some way the vessel to get to The Blood Mage. I am not a plotter, but I did have a general sense of direction when I sat down to write this series. PTSD can’t be unlinked from the trauma that produced it. That’s sort of the whole of it. And, when I set out to write the Changing Tides series, I knew that, because I’ve lived (and continue to live) that reality.
When I contemplated this series, I thought about what bothered me in the fantasy I’d grown up with. I loved stories about magic and romance and heroic, epic battles. But something that rang intrinsically false to me was this idea that epic battles have no consequences. Frequently, battle scenes proceed like so: A hero or heroine kills someone (or lots of someones), throws up, a fellow warrior pats him/her on the back and says it’s normal and that’s the long and short of it.
Part of the problem is that epic battles tend to be the climax of fantasy novels and denouements in young adult and adult literature are notoriously fast-paced. In young adult literature, there’s also an emphasis on happily ever afters so things need to be wrapped up with a nice bow quite quickly. That doesn’t leave much room for exploration of trauma and what it does to the psyche.
I wanted to make some room. But to get there, I needed a series. One book to lead to the trauma and at least two more to flesh it out. I needed space, and space isn’t something that’s always guaranteed in the traditional publishing world. Of course, people sell series all the time. But if book one flops, there’s no guarantee you’re going to get book two. For me, book two was critical. Without The Blood Mage, The Wheel Mages is a rather traditional young adult fantasy (albeit with a somewhat nontraditional ending).
Now, anyone involved in publishing knows there are not many things you can guarantee, especially when it comes to sales. But this wasn’t about sales–not really. This was about putting this series out there. It was about knowing it existed. And that was something I could, in fact, guarantee.
If I self-published.
For someone like me, someone who was trained to traditionally publish, who was constantly fed the lie that only rejects self-publish, making a decision to walk this road was not easy. Several times, I contemplated giving up and querying. I know, it might be funny to some to hear it said this way, because usually it’s the other way around: giving up querying to self-publish, but for me, this was how it worked.
The main reason I didn’t give up though, was because I wanted this series out there. I grew up reading stories of epic battles, but what I saw was different than what others might see. I didn’t see stories of valor; I saw stories of trauma with no consequences. I saw characters doing and living through horrible things and coming out on the other side with their psyches intact. Epic battles in fantasy novels didn’t make me feel strong. They made me feel weak. Because I hadn’t come out of my own trauma with my psyche intact.
If I went traditional, and The Wheel Mages didn’t do well, and the publisher decided not to continue the series, I would have written a traditional fantasy novel with an epic battle at the end and no consequences, essentially perpetuating the lie I was trying to fight against. I couldn’t have that, not on my watch.
So why didn’t I simply write The Blood Mage first, then? Well, because trauma is a tricky thing. Like I said above, the effects of trauma can’t be separated from the trauma itself. Could I have created a character who was #OwnVoices from the beginning? Surely. But in my personal experience, the trauma is as important as the post traumatic stress, so I wanted the reader to get the whole picture in real time, not through flashback or compression.
There are a lot of factors that go into making this critical decision, and everyone has to choose his/her/their own path, but for me, this was the right one, at least for this story.
In short, don’t let anyone tell you your story isn’t important, or that it’s not worthy, or that no one is interested in reading it. Because somewhere out there, there’s someone who has been reading the same story over and over again, desperate for something new, something that speaks to their experience, and you might be the one to finally tell it.