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Impromptu Blog: The Blood Mage

The Blood Mage came back from copy edits last night, and before I dive into final edits (!), I wanted to take a minute to share some thoughts.

First, I’ve decided to change the dedication to this book. I’ve written about this particular dedication before and how important it is to me. These sentiments remain true, and the current dedication for The Blood Mage will find a new home in a later book in the series. Because the series has now been expanded, some of the text that belongs with this dedication has been moved to later books, so I thought it appropriate to move the dedication as well.

The new dedication, which you can see in the published copy on July 18th, was inspired by some notes from my copy editor. She wrote: “Alena’s pain and anger over the previous events in The Wheel Mages is profound and realistic. She doesn’t simply bounce back like a superhero; she needs to work out her demons…”

Reading this brought tears to my eyes. My developmental editor and I worked hard to convey this message because, as I’ve written, it was essentially the whole point. But when you’re working on something over and over again, sometimes you lose the forest for the trees, so knowing my copy editor saw this was a really important moment for me. This story is about struggle and despair and hope. It’s for those who couldn’t find themselves in the heroes who bounce back. It’s for those who battle their demons, who win and lose with unequal measure. So the dedication now reflects that.

Second, to anyone who hasn’t started this whole editing process or who is struggling with it, I want you to know it gets easier.

Seriously, the first time one of my manuscripts came back from an edit (developmental at that point), I threw a fit. The first time something came back from copy edits, and I saw all the red washed across the screen, I thought I might crawl into bed and never get up again.

Now, I’m excited to receive critique from my editors. I can’t wait to see what they have to say, to dig in and fix things, to make the story better. When my manuscript came back last night, I was so excited to open it up and see all the changes. Because each one represents a change that will make the story more sound, more solid, more real. The red-line is making it shiny and polished and beautiful. This process has gone from dreaded to beloved.

Don’t get me wrong, editing is still hard. It’s an emotional labor, but it’s one I now relish, because I know what the end looks like and the end is awesome. So if you’re stressing out about edits or working with editors, or you’re dreading an edit coming back, it does get easier. Like most things, practice makes perfect.

Speaking of practice–my third and final thought for today: Indie authors, you need an editor. All the writing advice in the world won’t get you far enough away from your work to edit it with the same eye a professional editor can. I’ve said before (multiple times) what a difference my developmental editor makes and how she helps me solve problems with an ease and an eye that I don’t possess because I’m too close, but right now, I want to spend a minute extolling the copy editing process.

I’ve written on this blog about common crutch words like “just” “very” “really” “so” “and” and adverbs. I’ve railed about them on Twitter. I’ve been (I thought) meticulous about killing them in my drafts. The parenthesized comment in the aforementioned sentence is important because, ahem:

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This comment from my copy editor can be found on page 4 of my manuscript. Page. Four. I’ll note she says “throughout.” I thought I came for these words in my many drafts (there are 11 drafts, by the way), and I might have done, but I didn’t catch them all. Not even close. This is one of the many reasons why editors are crucial to creating a polished product. Good editors are expensive, but they’re worth their weight in gold. I really cannot say that enough. Especially for us indie authors. We have stigma to contend with already, and if you’re publishing in a popular, saturated genre like I am, you’re competing with the Big Five presses, so I encourage you to do everything you can to prove that stigma wrong. Good editors will help you.

So, thank you to my incredible editors, Katie and Nikki. I can’t wait to share the shiny with the world.

And to all my blog readers/aspiring authors/writers, keep your heads up, keep writing, keep dreaming. The end is a beautiful thing.

❤ Aimee

TheBloodMagePromo
Coming July 18, 2017

This impromptu blog brought to you by procrastination. Check back next week for the regularly scheduled blog which is about my thoughts on Kindle Unlimited. Don’t want to miss it? Make sure to follow!

KDP Select & Free Books

Last week, I pulled The Wheel Mages from iBooks and Smashwords (the places it was available other than Amazon) to enroll it in Amazon’s KDP Select Program. For those who don’t know what the hell I’m talking about, KDP Select is a program offered to authors who distribute their ebooks exclusively through Amazon. Read more here.

The benefits of KDP Select are that the author is able to offer promotions through Amazon where he/she/they can give the book away for free for a limited period or at a reduced cost also for a limited period. It also enrolls the book in Amazon’s Kindle Unlimited program where a reader can purchase unlimited digital downloads of books in the Kindle Unlimited Library for $9.99 a month (think Netflix for books).

First order of business for me was to run one of these promotions I’d heard so much about. So I did a giveaway blitz this weekend, impromptu (which probably doesn’t come so highly recommended, I think planning is usually better but this was a test run of sorts), and I learned some things! Which I will now share, along with the results of said promotion.

People like free stuff.

Okay, so maybe this doesn’t actually have to be said, but there are some lessons to be learned here. Let me start by saying I am one of those indie authors who really balks at the idea of giving my book away for free. I’ve done it before through Instafreebie with much, much less success, but it’s still not my favorite thing. I spent close to $5,000 on The Wheel Mages. I already think it’s worth more than its $3.99 sticker price, and I do genuinely wonder if authors (especially indie authors) hurt themselves by offering their books for free so frequently. There’s this thing in the creative professions where people often feel they have to do a lot of free work for “the exposure”. I wrinkle my nose when I hear that term. What other industries require you to do free labor “for the exposure”? My 9-5 is in the law, right? One of the many things I’ve learned in this field is that a lawyer doesn’t learn how to practice law at law school. Just like most other professionals, lawyers learn how to practice by training under a seasoned lawyer. But you don’t ask someone to go to law school, put in all that time, money, and effort, and then require them to work for a firm for free for awhile “for the exposure.” They need exposure, true, but they’re paid while they do it. So this free work for the exposure idea has never really sat well with me. It seems intrinsically devaluing to my labor and education.

Still, my artistic purity or sense of fairness or whatever was not helping me sell books. Exposure (I’m still cringing, y’all) helps sell books. For the record, I don’t actually think this “for the exposure” problem is soley an indie author problem. I think it’s abundant in all the arts and in traditional publishing as well. Traditional authors give their books away for free or reduced rates all the time too. Art just doesn’t have the value I feel it should. But I’m digressing again.

So, back to the things I learned. People like free stuff. A lot. Since The Wheel Mages came out in November, I’ve sold something like 104 copies across all platforms (digital and paperback combined). I surpassed that in digital downloads in less than hour of the book being listed as free on Amazon. An. Hour. With essentially no marketing, just a quick post on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook.

What does that tell me?

Well, it tells me people are, in fact, interested in reading the book. Which is good news. It means my cover and blurb are probably working, because even if the book is free, people aren’t going to download it unless they’re interested in maybe at some point reading it. I hope, anyway. So, as much as it pains me to know I’m giving away all these free copies, this was valuable information to gather and it did give me some sense of validation.

My target market is American.

Also might have gone without saying, but there are a lot of international book bloggers, Goodreads reviewers, and bookstagrammers out there, so I was curious about this.

Okay, so now seems like a good time for some data. Everyone likes data, right?

All total, I gave away 397 copies of The Wheel Mages. 311 of them were downloaded in the United States (78.3%). The next highest market for me was, unsurprisingly, Great Britain, where 36 copies were downloaded (9.1%). Mexico came in third with 18 copies (4.5%) and the only other country to come in with some decent numbers was Denmark (10 copies at 2.5%). I’m confused about where Canada and Australia (other large, English-speaking countries) are at, but whatever. Shoutout to Mexico and Denmark, y’all are awesome.

Anyway, what this tells me is that my audience is largely American and British, which isn’t surprising since Amazon is based in the U.S. and the United States has traditionally controlled this market. This information also mirrors ebook sales trends overall where the United States dominates the English-speaking market at 77% of total ebook sales with the UK right behind at 15%. Good news. I’m standard. This information also tells me where I should focus my marketing efforts and helps me determine which reviewers to target. Although I still love international reviewers, so if you’re one of those, don’t despair, I see you.

The first day of the promo goes better. Or maybe Saturdays are just better. Unclear.

More data. Saturday’s downloads (though I sold to less countries, interestingly) were higher. There were 224 downloads on Saturday (56.4% of total downloads) as compared to 173 on Sunday (43.6%). I’m sure a lot of factors go into this. I marketed a little bit more Saturday (I posted twice on Twitter on Saturday and twice on Facebook and on Sunday I didn’t post on Instagram at all). By Sunday maybe the novelty had worn off, or maybe Saturday is just a better day to download because you have the whole weekend in front of you. The jury is still out on this one, but I think if I do this again (I probably will), I’ll try a one-day download window maybe on a Friday or a Saturday. Now I’m honestly just curious. I like statistics, though I was never particularly good at it.

It doesn’t take that much to get your book to rise in Amazon’s bestsellers ranks. Which is good because visibility.

When you publish in an age group and genre as saturated as mine and one that’s mostly dominated by the powerhouses of traditional publishing, it’s hard to get anywhere in Amazon’s sales ranks. This means you’re basically relegated to the back pages of searches which isn’t at all all that helpful.

Giving the book away for free helped bump me up by stimulating lots of downloads over a short period of time. I’m not going to lie, this was a little bit exciting until I remembered I wasn’t actually making any money off these “sales” nor was I actually doing much of anything except letting my book float out there, but I think it’s worth mentioning because visibility is still important. And really, brain, can you let me have this one thing?

At one point, I reached #15 in YA fantasy coming of age books and #16 in epic fantasy which sounds niche but isn’t really. Anyway, I might have gone higher but this was as high as I caught it. Check it.

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For comparison purposes, I’m now #859 in Coming of Age and apparently so low in Epic Fantasy it’s not even worth Amazon mentioning it. So yeah, for a glorious moment, my book got to be on the very first page if someone searched “epic fantasy”. Which is actually kind of exciting to my nerd senses.

If you have a series, free books are helpful.

Okay, final point here because this is getting long. If you’re an author with a series, running a free book promo on the first book is helpful. Probably the most encouraging thing of the whole promotion is the effect it had on my preorders for The Blood Mage. They have doubled already. Okay, that may sound more dramatic than it is, because honestly, I had 3 preorders before the promo and I have 7 now, but seriously, that’s awesome. I’m not discrediting that. It means people downloaded the book, read the book, and liked the book enough to want to BUY the second one. That’s fantastic news, and as I’ve said before, every sale matters.

Have a great week everyone!

❤ Aimee

Next week on the blog: My feelings about Kindle Unlimited. Don’t want to miss it? Make sure to follow.

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#OwnVoices & Self-Publishing

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 MageThe 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.

❤ Always,

Aimee

Both books together

Let’s Talk: Pirating

Note: I haven’t been able to keep up here much lately because the launch of The Blood Mage is quickly approaching, but I hope to catch up with all you lovelies soon! In the meantime, enjoy a somewhat humorous story with a happy ending and a serious message.

A couple of days ago, my very enthusiastic mom posted a message on her Facebook page and tagged me in it. The message informed me she had obtained a free copy of my upcoming novel The Blood Mage.

She was excited, because she’s been dying to read the second book in my series. I was mortified because I had no idea how this had come to pass.

The thing is, the only people who have copies of my second book are reviewers. I sent out ARCs to book bloggers, bookstagrammers, booktubers, vloggers, etc. last weekend. Buuuut I sent out digital copies, meaning pirating is a thing that could easily happen. I trust 99% of reviewers to do the right thing with an ARC and not reproduce or redistribute it, but I was worried I’d made a bad call when I saw this.

My frantic, rambling thoughts went something like this: Holy shit, someone has pirated my book and put it on some website for people to download before it’s out. But how could this happen? I’m not famous enough for someone to pirate my book. Does this mean I’m a little bit famous now? Should I be honored? Alarmed? Oh. My. God. If someone with an ARC is responsible that means there is an uncorrected proof floating out there somewhere on the interwebs.

Seriously. My immediate concerns were not of a financial nature. I was mostly just concerned about readers getting their hands on something that wasn’t the best possible version. The Blood Mage isn’t even back from the copy editor yet. It was hard for me to to send ARCs out at all because I knew they were not final. It makes me cringe to think anyone is reading something that isn’t 100% as good as it could be (which is why I never reread my published works because as my writing evolves, the standard of “as good as it could be” shifts).

The only reason I finally DID manage to send ARCs out was because I talked to some book bloggers who convinced me y’all know what to expect when it comes to ARCs and even though it might twist my gut a little to send something not at its peak, I understand the economic advantages of doing so. Still, it was difficult, so to think someone had put an uncorrected proof out there for anyone to read at any time for ever and ever was horrifying.

Shortly after my mom posted this most of terrible of things, my brother sent me a text message demanding to know how our mother had obtained a book he, too, has been excited to read. I started to panic. Rapid fire messages were sent to my mom demanding to know who, what, when, where, and how she’d gotten this alleged book. I was halfway through drafting the DMCA Take Down Notice I’d need for when I figured out what website would dare host such a thing, when my mom informed me she’d obtained the “book” from a website called Instafreebie.com.

Deep sigh.

For those who don’t know, Instafreebie is a website where authors (most usually self-published authors) can upload their books or excerpts of their books to distribute for no cost to readers. I’ve used it in the past for running promotions and currently you can obtain an excerpt of The Blood Mage right here. Anyone who follows me on Twitter knows that excerpt has been my pinned tweet for awhile.

My mom, bless her, thought she’d somehow downloaded the entire book but after inspection, realized what she had, was, in fact, only said excerpt. Crisis averted.

But this whole event got me to thinking: What does it mean to pirate a book?

I mean, book sharing is a definite thing in the book community. There are libraries, obviously, and you can exchange books on your Kindle, and you can trade books with friends. These are activities that are usually encouraged by authors, right? Plus, authors in general, but especially self-published authors, give their books away for free all the time. So what’s the big deal?

I’m being 100% serious when I tell you I legitimately asked myself this question yesterday. Mainly because I knew if I ranted on Twitter someone else would ask it eventually so I’d better have an answer. But I digress.

Okay. So what’s the big deal? Well… first of all, it’s stealing and that’s super uncool. If I decide to give my book away it’s a gift. If you decide to pirate it, it’s stealing. Pretty simple.

Right, but pirated or obtained through legitimate means, I still end up with a free copy so does the distinction really matter?

Well, as Lukas, one of the main characters in my new book (which I hope you will BUY) says, “Distinctions always matter.” But more than that, this particular distinction is about timing.

Promotions are run with timing in mind. Books aren’t given away for free or low cost whenever or wherever, forever. There are windows to create buzz or just to show appreciation. But they’re short. They’re short because people are mostly impatient. It’s why we’re not all taking the grocery stores for everything they’re worth like the savvy folks on Extreme Couponing. Most people don’t want to wait. Promotions are run banking on this fact.

Authors run promotions hoping some people will download their books for free and like them enough to talk about them to their friends, family, internet acquaintances, etc. and those people will eagerly buy the book at full price. Or, if they have a series, they hope they can give the first book away for free and people will enjoy it enough to continue the series. Simple. But if the book is pirated (the horrifying unproofed ARC issue aside), then it’s available for free all the time and the author loses out on the whole point behind targeted promotions and timing.

Key point here: The author loses out. Look, I grew up in the time of Napster (I’m dating myself, aren’t I? Youngins’, here’s a Wikipedia article), so I know the allure of free stuff and the counter-culture argument behind screwing “the man”. I get it. But when you pirate the work of an artist, you’re not only hurting the big corporations, you’re also hurting the little guy (read: the artist). You’re actually hurting them the most because they’re less likely to be able to absorb the hit when compared to a big publishing house or a record company or in the case of indie artists, many simply don’t make enough sales to afford to lose any.

And honestly, if you are into art, then you should support artists the same as you support anyone else. By buying their product.

In conclusion: Support artists. Don’t steal their things.

❤ Aimee

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Sorry, I couldn’t resist.

Dear College Writing Professors

Dear College Writing Professors,

It’s been almost a decade since I sat in your classrooms, bright-eyed and full of hope and naivete. A decade. Wow. Hard to believe how time flies.

I wanted to let you all know that I’m still here doing that thing y’all taught me how to do–write. I’m doing something else these days, too. Publishing.

My first book debuted last year. It’s young adult. And genre fiction. And self-published. I might have broken some rules in the last decade. But there are no teen girls crying in bathtubs! So there’s that.

First, I want to thank you. Joking aside, so many of your lessons can be found between the pages of my debut novel. You were right when you said I wasn’t ready to publish at twenty. I had so much growing up to do, still do, really. My second book (which will be released in July) is better than my first, and I hope they continue to improve until the last.

Much of who I am today is thanks to you. You taught me how to pay attention and the fundamentals of craft. I recently read through the notes y’all left on some of my short stories, and I’m amazed how you managed to see through the clumsy mess of the young writer I was to the writer I could be. Seeing the potential of someone is hard, and I sometimes wonder if anyone ever recognizes that quiet but important skill. So, thank you. So much.

There are a few things I wish I’d known before this trial by fire that is the publishing world, though. Self-publishing wasn’t a thing a decade ago (I distinctly remember laughing with peers over the absurdity of “vanity publishing”), so I’m not here to talk about the method of publication, but the industry as the giant, problematic beast it is and has, apparently, always been.

See, the thing is, we never talked about publishing. We all thought about it, constantly. Sometimes we even discussed it in hushed whispers, but it wasn’t really a part of our college writing lives. It seemed a little like repressed sexuality–that thing a lot of us think about but don’t feel comfortable discussing for whatever read-between-the-lines reason. But the thing is, like repressed sexuality, not talking about it makes us think about it more, then when we’re confronted with it we don’t really know what to do.

Manuscript. Query letter. Agent. Publishing house. Check. I did gather that. I didn’t do that and that’s on me for better or worse, but we all know there is a lot more that goes into this business than those things. A lot I wish I’d had a better handle on before I jumped in with both feet.

For example, genre fiction is a thing that happens. And of course craft is craft across genres, but there are conventions at play in genre fiction that aren’t at play in literary fiction. It seems basic, but knowing that would have helped.

On a larger scale, though, some rules of decorum when approaching the industry would have really come in handy, because I’m honestly still a little lost. How are we supposed to act? What are we supposed to say to agents, to editors, to other authors, to readers? A simple list of dos and don’ts for approaching this book-making machine to tape above my computer would have been nice.

Granted, I think some of my confusion has been caused by how rapidly technology and social media has advanced in the last ten years, and I imagine not all of my concerns could’ve been addressed in your classes. Still, professionalism basics would have been good to know. [As an aside to liberal arts professors in general, please teach or at least encourage your students to learn how to use a copier. Seriously, I’m really proud of the fact that I can quote Yeats, but that didn’t make me feel any smarter when I couldn’t figure out how to un-jam a copier.]

Also, publishing is confusing. I know that now, but because we didn’t talk about it much, I sort of thought it might be simpler than it is. It certainly seemed linear. Manuscript. Query letter. Agent. Publishing House. Barnes & Noble (Borders back then, too!). Got it. But that’s not really how it works. There are conferences and workshops and expos and networking and connections to be made. There are market trends and charts and fads and movements. There are now Twitter pitches (again, I know you probably didn’t see that one coming, I don’t think a lot of us did). There are small presses and large presses, vanity presses and self-publishing. None of which we ever seemed to talk about. There’s a whole vocabulary I never knew existed.

I don’t know if we didn’t talk about it because we weren’t ready and you knew that or if we didn’t talk about it because you wanted to create an environment in which we weren’t tainted by the business side of things. I understand both reasons, but honestly, the secrecy wasn’t very helpful.

Maybe I shouldn’t feel this way. I went to school to become a writer, not an author, and I did learn that. But I mean… we all wanted to be authors, right? At least for those of us who advanced through the program, you knew our endgame was author, correct? Would it have hurt us so much to hear a little bit about the business we were likely headed for?

Because at the end of the day, this is a business. Much more goes into it than art. It’s branding and marketing and readings and seminars. It’s continued education on craft but also on being a savvy businessperson. Honestly, I might not have taken advice to consider a business or marketing class. Knowing me, I probably wouldn’t have, but there are plenty of writing students out there smarter and savvier than I am who would benefit from that tidbit.

At the end of the day, I want you to know I’m proud to have been your student. I’m proud to have learned as much as I did, and I’m extremely grateful for the knowledge you gifted me. But I’ve also made some pretty big mistakes when it comes to this whole writer to author thing, and I was hoping that maybe in the future, you could address the elephant in the room, too. Although now you might just direct your students to Twitter.

Respectfully,

Aimee

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On Beta Readers

I think I promised to write a post about beta readers back in November when my first book came out and then… didn’t. Until now!

Let’s start with basics and branch out, shall we? I’m going to try another FAQ format, because I think that worked last time I used one.

What is a Beta Reader?

Beta readers are non-professional readers (read: not editors or sensitivity readers who are being paid by you or your agent, publishing house, etc.) who read your manuscript (your unpublished book) at varying stages in the process. Some people also use the term “alpha reader” which is basically the beta reader who reads your manuscript first. I don’t differentiate, so for purposes of this post, any non-professional reader will be referred to as a beta reader.

A beta reader is different from a critique partner. A critique partner is another writer with whom you exchange chapters and/or whole works. You scratch my back, I scratch yours, kind of thing. A beta reader does not necessarily have to be a writer nor does the relationship extend both ways. So a critique partner is always a beta reader but a beta reader is not always a critique partner.

When should you send your manuscript for beta reads? 

Every writer is different and the timing of when to send your manuscript for beta reads might vary based on the way your process works and the time your beta readers can devote to the project. For me, I’ve come to a point in my writing career where I don’t send my manuscript out for beta reads until it’s finished and I’ve been through it at least twice. I take beta reads seriously (if you hadn’t noticed, I’m a pretty serious person). My beta readers are reading my manuscripts for free, meaning they’re spending their valuable time on my work pro bono. I don’t want to waste that time by sending them something I know isn’t as good as it could be. Also, if your beta reader is too caught up in gaping plot holes, or confusing description, he/she/they might be unable to really hunker down and get to the meat of your work. Basically, my thought is to treat a beta reader exactly as I’d treat an agent or an editor. I make the manuscript shine, then send it out, then I have the room to really grow and level up my work.

That’s how I do it. Others do it differently (obviously). I’ve been the beta reader for scenes, excerpts, unfinished works, etc. and that’s fine as long as I know what I’m getting myself into. Sometimes bouncing ideas off people and getting a new perspective before the work is complete can help you breathe new life into your ideas or help you get unstuck. I do send small scenes to my beta readers on occasion, mostly to share excitement and get out of my own head, but when it’s time to send the final thing, I want to try and respect the time of my betas by sending them a self-edited product.

How do you pick beta readers?

There are some great resources online about where to find beta readers. I just googled it and briefly perused. This looked like a good start. But that’s not how I found my beta readers.

I’m fortunate enough to have a lot of talented, bright people in my social network who read in my genre, so I put a post out on Facebook seeking beta readers. I had a bunch of responses. It worked well, and I’m extremely grateful for all the help I received on that first manuscript.

Now, though, I’ve narrowed my beta readers down to three. These three all bring something different to the table, but they share some commonality I think is important to have in a good beta reader:

  1. Knowledge of the genre. Meaning they’re widely read and are up to date on the latest works. They might not be market experts, but they know what they like and they’ve read the big names of the genre. They know what a book in your genre is supposed to look like. Bonus points if they’re aware of popular tropes and themes and are willing to discuss their likes and dislikes and why they have those views.
  2. Analytical readers. My beta readers don’t stop at “this is good” or “this is bad”. They all tell me why they like what they like in my work and why they dislike what they dislike. They know what world building is, they know some common pitfalls, and they have a good understanding of what good writing looks like, even if they don’t know the technicalities. Bonus points if they do know the technicalities.
  3. Constructive Criticism. This one seems like a no brainer in a beta reader, but I’ve found that it’s not. I see a lot of writers default to beta readers who are “safe” for the writer. And by safe I mean they’ll serve as an ego booster to the writer. “My beta reader said it was great!” Is something I see a lot. My first thought when I see this is: “You don’t have a good beta reader.” I know, it sounds shitty, but in my experience, it’s true. “This is great,” is the least helpful “critique” you can receive. Nothing is ever perfect, not published works, and certainly not manuscripts. Having someone there to cheer you on is excellent and important for writers who tend to be a down on themselves lot, but a cheerleader is not a good beta reader. A beta reader is someone who will be willing to tell you the hard truths behind your work. The opposite end of the spectrum is a beta reader who only sends negative feedback through the line. Negative feedback is arguably more important than positive, but you need to know what is working, too. I like to have beta readers who understand how to provide both.
  4. Enthusiasm. Not to be confused with “cheerleader” as discussed above. A beta reader should be enthusiastic about your work, but not to the point where he/she/they is blinded by said enthusiasm and defaults to “everything you write is divine.” True enthusiasm, as I see it, is a beta reader who enjoys your work so much she’s excited to help you make it better. One of my beta readers, for example, consistently kicks my ass on her critiques, but she was the first person to buy my book when it came out, and she was the first person to get my book into a real library. A good beta reader has some skin in the game, and is emotionally invested in your work because they helped make it what it is.
  5. Growth. A great beta reader will become a better reader as you become a better writer, and you’ll grow together. When I learn something at a conference or workshop or read an article that sparks me or something happens on Twitter that makes me reflect on my own work, I share it with my betas. We all learn and grow together. It’s definitely a collaborative process.

How many beta readers do you need?

I think this is subjective. I currently have three, as I said. These three give super detailed feedback. I’m confident in their opinions, and I’ve created a close working relationship with them. I might seek more readers for the standalone fantasy I’m working on right now, but for my series, I’m content. I tend to prefer a smaller number of readers who will give me more detailed feedback than lots of readers who will give me small amounts of feedback, but there’s a lot to be said about many different eyes and points of view as well.

If you could do it again…

I definitely made some mistakes with my beta readers in the beginning, and my process is constantly changing as my knowledge of craft grows. The good news is that if you’re planning on doing this writing thing for a living, you have more books in you, so you can make some mistakes and still keep moving forward. I’ve been able to correct my beta reading process in subsequent manuscripts, but if you’re looking to maybe save time and do this a tad more efficiently than I did, here are some things you might want to consider.

  1. Sending your manuscript too soon. See: When should you send your manuscript? I was so excited to share my first manuscript with the world that I sent it for beta reads before it was ready. As a consequence, I think some of my potential beta readers dropped out, and I might have lost some good readers. This was also a problem because for those beta readers who did stick around, a lot of time was spent discussing things I knew had to be fixed, which wasn’t especially helpful and was frustrating for both parties. Additionally, for the few beta readers who were willing to give the manuscript a second look after I’d made changes, some things became confused because they no longer had “virgin” eyes. They’d already read the work at that point and versions became confused, dampening the impact of some of my revisions.
  2. Being specific. I am one of those people who doesn’t like to feel like they’re infringing on someone or being too pushy or sounding ungrateful. Beta readers are doing me a huge favor in agreeing to read my work, so when I sent my first manuscript out I was basically just a ball of excitement, fervent gratitude, wishful thinking, and “here it is.” This was… not helpful. As the writer, it’s your job to explain to your betas what they’re getting into, especially if they’re not a writer. You need to be specific: “This is not finished. There are going to be grammar errors.” Your beta readers aren’t line or copy editors, but they might not know that, so you should tell them. Specific instructions can help. “Please tell me the exact location where you stopped reading or felt thrown from the story.” “Please tell me where you became bored.” “Please tell me where confusion happened and what you were confused about, specifically.”
  3. Thicken your skin. Seriously. This might sound callous, but I mean it. Criticism is hard, and it hurts, and thickening your skin is the only way you’re going to be able to protect yourself from it. If you want to be a writer, be prepared to take some hits. I joke that my beta readers are the toughest reviewers I have, but my betas are also people I know in real life who are aware they’re speaking to an actual human being on the other end of the keyboard, one they mostly like. The critique of your betas is nothing compared to hits your manuscript-turned-book will receive in the big, wide world, so consider this a test run.

Final thoughts

LISTEN. You don’t have to take every bit of advice your betas give you, but make sure you consider it and consider it hard. Think past the sting and the pain it might cause you and really chew on it, then digest, then edit.

WAIT. Always, always let your critique rest before you start making edits. Do not allow yourself to be blinded by whatever initial feelings you might have about your critique. Give yourself some time to get over yourself (and your feelings) before you make a determination about any critique point. Bonus, as you grow as a writer, and as your relationship with your betas grow, a lot of your knee-jerk reactions to their critique and advice will fade and you won’t have to wait as long.

THANK. Do not forget to thank your beta readers. They are awesome, amazing people who have done you a great service. Put them in your acknowledgements, talk about them on your blog, bake them cookies, give them free copies of your book, bring them presents, and mostly, when your book is out there in the wild, make sure to remind them that their hands are on this thing, too, and you love them for it.

Have things to add? Pop them in the comments.

❤ Aimee

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The Great American Lie

My alarm goes off at 7:00 a.m. I don’t hit snooze. Fun fact about me, I’m not someone who hits the snooze button. I know. That’s super annoying, right? Morning people.

Here’s another fun fact: I’m not a morning person. I don’t hit the snooze button because I never have an opportunity to do so because every single morning I wake up with debilitating anxiety. As soon as that alarm sounds, my stomach begins to turn. My brain comes out of slumber like a racehorse out of the gate. Usually, I run to the bathroom to throw up. It’s all stomach acid and blood, and it’s incredibly painful.

My dog licks my face from around the edges of the toilet. I stand up, wipe away tears of pain, and start my day. I say to my Google Home, “Okay Google, play music,” like a real suburbanite. I listen to Christian rock mostly (weird, I know). I brush my teeth, get dressed, do my hair, put on layers of makeup to cover the bruising and redness from under my eyes. If you ever wondered what someone my age is doing still wearing so much eyeliner, it’s basically because I suck at makeup and figure eyeliner is better than bags. I feed my pets, make my coffee, do all the regular get ready for work things.

I take my dog out to play ball and go to the bathroom, bring her back in, get in my car. It takes me about 45 minutes to get to my 9-5:30. I don’t talk about my “real” job much here on the blog because this is a space for my writing career, but yes, I do have full-time employment other than writing. I have to pay the bills, after all, and only selling a few books a month isn’t going to make rent. So Monday through Friday, I work as a paralegal at a civil defense firm–labor and employment. I love my firm and my coworkers, but ask anyone who works in the legal field about it, and you’ll likely hear that it’s high-paced and stressful. Sometimes we have slow periods, but when it’s busy, you better buckle up because you’re in for a hell of a ride.

After the 9-5:30 is over (if it’s over at 5:30, sometimes it’s not), I travel 45 minutes home. I feed my pets, take my dog out to play ball again. While I’m throwing the ball for her, I’m trying my best to answer/send emails. A self-published author has no marketing team, so I have to find people to blurb my books, I have to find book bloggers to read and review the book, I have to run my own website, I have to try and find new and interesting ways to self-promote. A large chunk of this is done with a tennis ball in my hand. In case you ever wondered.

When I go back in the house, I turn on CNN. I allow myself approximately 1 hour of TV time per day, and it’s always to watch the news. Depending on the day and if I have any after work appointments, it’s the end of Wolf Blitzer and beginning of Erin Burnett or the end of Erin Burnett and beginning of Anderson Cooper. While I’m catching up on the news, I’m trying to throw something together for dinner.

Let’s be real, here: most of my meals come from a box. Frozen pizza, pasta with some Alfredo sauce (bought, not made). Hell, even my salad comes out of a bag. Why? Because I don’t have time or money to spare. Don’t talk to me about crock pot meals or Pinterest ideas or planning my meals in advance. They all sound perfectly lovely, but I’m not going to do them, so don’t waste your breath. I’m overwhelmed by my daily existence as it is without having to try to figure out cooking or planning or any of it. And yes, I know it’s healthier, and cheaper, and would save me time, and why-don’t-I-just-go-vegan-if-I-love-animals-so-much? But it’s new and trying new things is a constant source of anxiety for me, and there’s only so much of that I can take. My anxiety quota is spent mostly on my full-time job and my fledgling writing career, not meal planning.

As I eat and listen to whatever CNN is talking about (something loud and orange, usually), I’m continuing to answer emails and update social media, maybe working on a blog. Very, very rarely am I doing only one thing at once. I’m high strung and hyper focused. Slowing down is the enemy because slowing down leaves me exposed.

Whenever my hour of TV time is over, I get back to work. I write or edit or work on yet more lists of reviewers to query and people to solicit. Whenever I run out of steam for whatever I’m working on, I move to something else. If I get stuck on what I’m writing, I work on editing another book. I’m currently developing three books, all in various stages of the process. I ALWAYS have something to do. And if I’m not feeling creative, I’m sending out requests to reviewers, or I’m working on a blog, or I’m trying to schedule social media posts, or I’m simply running through Twitter to take stock of what the market looks like, what’s happening, what people are enjoying, and what they aren’t. I’m constantly watching and listening and learning.

This goes on until somewhere between 1 and 2 a.m. Then I try to go to sleep. I put on something narrated by David Attenborough. His voice is soothing. I fall asleep to the sounds of science.

But I don’t stay asleep. Somewhere between 2:45 and 3:15, my dog paws my face. She does this because she’s a service dog trained to wake me up when I’m self-harming in my sleep, which happens when I have night terrors. When I start to scratch myself bloody, or grind my teeth into nothing, or scream, Gabi will whine. If I don’t wake up at the sound of her whining, she’ll smack me right across the face.

Rinse and repeat. Sometimes, she only has to wake me up once. Sometimes, she has to wake me up half a dozen times. Depends on the night. Either way, there is very little sleep. Then, at 7:00 a.m., I get up and do it again.

Why am I telling you all this? Well, I’m telling it to you because I want to expose a lie that we’ve been told all our lives and that is this: If you simply work hard at the thing you love, success will come to you.

I’m sorry to burst your bubble friends, but this. is. a. lie. Not only is it a lie, it is a harmful lie. It’s not a little white lie. It’s not telling a friend she looks great in that dress that’s the wrong color for her complexion. It is a problematic, harmful lie that can lead people to burnout and early graves. I know because I’m headed toward one, and even though I’m aware of it, I’m unable to stop.

There are so many things that go into success that we don’t have control over. There is no secret formula to “making it”. You can do everything “right” and still struggle. You can have talent and persistence and grit and still fail. It’s horribly frightening, not having control, but that doesn’t mean we can or should lie our way out of reality. And reality is this: there are forces at work in our lives we cannot control. We cannot always work away our socioeconomic status. We cannot lie away racism or homophobia or the way society looks on “the different”. We can’t say, “If you just worked harder, then…” and wipe our hands of the very real outside forces at play in our lives, one of which is simple luck. Another of which is privilege, in all it’s varying forms, which I’m very aware has helped me get as far as I am today.

Now, I’m not saying you shouldn’t work hard and do your best, because obviously, you should. It’s like the saying about the lottery, “You can’t win if you don’t play.” The work is the “play” part, but just because you play doesn’t mean you’ll win, either. Work is not everything. Hard work and persistence and grit are only a few of many, many factors at play in overall success. Reaching the “American Dream” is not a one-two punch, “Work hard. Get rich.” Sorry, but it’s just not. If it were, I would be working full-time as a writer, as would many others.

What I am saying is that we need to be more careful about our vocabulary. I had no idea how deeply the “work hard” mentality was ingrained in my psyche until I started seeing a therapist, and she pointed out that I was slowly killing myself. Not a metaphor, that’s meant in a very real way. “Work hard” is a mantra I’ve heard my whole life. It’s one of the foundations of my belief system, one of the hardest things to root out of a person, and though it seems benign, maybe even positive, when it’s taken to the extreme, it can be damaging.

I’m one of the people quickest to advocate for self-care and one of the last to practice what I preach on that front. I hold myself to a higher standard than those around me. I’m less empathetic with myself than I am with others. And that’s not actually a compliment, it’s a very real character flaw. One that’s premised upon the “work hard” mentality. Even now, sitting here writing this post, knowing without a shadow of a doubt that what I say about other outside factors influencing my life, my career, my ambitions, is true, I’m hesitant to publish this because I must be wrong, I must not be working hard enough.

That’s why I explained to you what my day looks like. Because this is how insidious this mentality can be. I have myself convinced that the reason I haven’t “made it” as a writer is because I’m not working hard enough. There are a lot of reasons I might not have made it: time; luck; talent; ingenuity in marketing; the market in general; other people’s tastes; biases toward self-published authors; bad SEO on the website; shitty Amazon keywords; a product people don’t like. I mean, there are a bazillion things that could be affecting my sales figures but probably the least likely is how hard I work, yet here I am, convinced that if I just work harder I can turn everything around.

This is a really unsafe mentality to foster in young writers specifically, but I think it’s pervasive in all career paths. Be persistent, and gritty, and work hard, yes, but hard work is not a magic cure to all the ills we face in our lives, and we need to stop acting like it is. We need to stop telling the Great American Lie.

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As always, take care of yourselves. ❤ Aimee