Agency, the Active Protagonist, and Where it All Went Wrong

Author’s note: This post will primarily focus on the concepts of agency and active and passive (or reactive) characters in relation to stories about trauma. I would be remiss not to state clearly this is because I’m focusing on the story I know best: my own. However, I’m white, cis, and American. There are intersectional identities here with their own perspectives that are just as important. For a BIPOC perspective please check out this great post from Vida Cruz. For a more detailed analysis of many of these concepts as they relate to all kinds of storytelling and identities, I highly recommend Matthew Salesses’ Craft in the Real World. (Barnes & Noble).

Content/Trigger Warnings: Detailed definitions/descriptions of C-PTSD including medical symptoms and statistics related thereto.

Disclaimer: As always, I note the views expressed in this blog are mine and mine alone and not representative of a whole identity. Also, when referencing current market and industry trends please note that in this blog post I’m primarily talking about Young Adult Fantasy (traditional publishing).

When I was querying my two YA Fantasies (and pre-PW my Adult Fantasy), the most frequent critique I heard from critique partners, alpha readers, beta readers, editors, agents, and random strangers everywhere was my main character(s) lacked agency. Whether someone had read my entire novel, the first 20 pages, the first 5 pages, a synopsis, query letter, or a 280 character Twitter pitch, the same refrain found itself on repeat in my skull. No agency. Inactive. Passive. Lacks Agency. Reactive. Needs more oomf.

It got to the point every time I saw the word “agency” or “active” whether it was in relation to writing or not, I recoiled. Then, in March 2021, during a regular therapy session, the word agency reared its ugly head, setting the brain worms to squirming.

As it turned out, my characters were not the only ones who lacked agency.

What is Character Agency?

Character agency (aka agency as that word is used in writing) is the character’s ability or power to change things in the direction they want. If you google this you’ll find a million definitions but they all center on this concept. For a character to have agency they must both (1) be able to change things, and (2) want to change things.

What you’ll also find if you google this is about a thousand ways defining agency in this way leads writers with a different story to feel as though their stories don’t matter.

  • “Without agency, characters are little more than leaves, pulled along by the river. They don’t make an effort to change their situation, therefore we don’t care about them.” (emphasis mine)
  • “A character without agency is just a prop. They’re a piece of decoration that doesn’t serve any purpose other than to have the story happen to them.”
  • “Nothing makes a reader put a book down faster than a character who just lets stuff happen to them. These characters feel like shells or puppets, cardboard cutouts that the plot is moving around arbitrarily. Your character should drive the plot, not the other way around.”

I could keep going but honestly, it’s making me sad. Point is, western storytelling circa 2023 is obsessed with agency. If your main character(s) don’t have it, you’ve written a bad book no one will care about.

Photo of a white woman with silver blond hair wearing a red crown, a red and black gown with a long black cape, wielding a sword in front of a fallen tree.
Aka if your fantasy heroine is not this woman, good luck. FTR, I’m not shaming the authors of the cited posts (which is why I left the sources out after a long internal debate, but they can be provided upon request!) They’re not entirely wrong in the sense this is the way the world is. But should it be? I mean, don’t get me wrong, I want to write about this woman (damn!). I just think the entire market already has, and I probably couldn’t anyway. Also – presentation is everything. Do we really want to tell people we don’t care about their stories? That they’re shells? Or not rounded? Because guess what? Writing what you know for me means writing characters with trauma and having C-PTSD often feels like being life’s prop. Or a shell. So what? We don’t want to hear that truth? Because why? It’s not sexy? WELP, I have news. Photo by Dmitry Vechorko on Unsplash

What is Psychological Agency?

Psychological agency or the definition of agency used in behavioral psychology is not dissimilar from character agency. In psychology, agency is roughly defined as a person’s ability to act autonomously to control their own life. Source.

C-PTSD and the Loss of Agency

Complex Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (C-PTSD) is a disorder usually brought on due to sustained, inescapable, relational trauma in early childhood. It is distinct from its singular C-less form of PTSD in that the trauma is ongoing and not a singular incident. This repeated abuse causes a child to suffer a lack of agency during critical times in their brain development. The lack of agency often carries over into adulthood even after the childhood trauma has ceased. Adult survivors of C-PTSD suffer from a wide variety of symptoms including amnesia, alienation, mistrust, chronic physical pain, re-victimization, debilitating flashbacks, nightmares, body memories, anxiety, dissociation, trouble regulating volatile emotions, severe depression, toxic shame, and auto-immune disease. They’re 27% more likely to have COPD, 33% more likely to be smokers, and 24% more likely to be heavy drinkers. Source.

Oh hey, that’s me. More on this in a second.

What is an Active Protagonist?

An Active Protagonist is basically a hero with agency. Usually the main character. Listen, you can quibble with me all you want about well technically agency is more than active because it requires a focused goal, so an active protagonist doesn’t always have agency, and sure. But for the most part, if your main character (1) wants something and (2) actively does stuff to obtain that thing, you have an active protagonist with agency. Trying to keep it simple. I know you’d all appreciate I keep it under 40 pages today.

Where the Active Protagonist Fails and Falls

The Active Protagonist is not the end all be all of storytelling. In fact, to think so is to limit yourself to a very narrow view of the whole of the human experience which is, interestingly enough, one of the reasons people read. To learn and all.

This is where I’m going to plug Mathew Salesses’ book Craft in the Real World again. Oh look! There’s a picture if you click on it, you might be able to buy the book!

Photo of a purple book with an orange sketched hand. Title: Craft in the Real World by Matthew Salesses. Book is surrounded by purple and pink flowers and pink and purple butterflies.
I will never stop talking about this book. Copyright mine (for the photo, not the book. I am definitely not smart enough to write a book this brilliant).

Matthew speaks on experiences outside my own far better than I ever could, but beyond western storytelling’s obsession with agency and the active protagonist is a whole world of literature waiting for us to embrace a style that is… not that. Just saying.

Active Protagonists and Trauma Narratives: Debunking Survival as an Active Want

I write trauma narratives. Even when I don’t mean to. Write what you know, they say. Well, what I know is trauma baked in deep. What I don’t know as well is agency. Despite over a decade (going on two) of therapy, working toward reclaiming agency, that beast is still fuzzy around the edges. Especially when it comes to writing young adult. I find it extremely difficult to write an authentic, traumatized teenager who possesses agency. Probably because the entire concept of a teen with C-PTSD is (in my opinion) their loss of agency.

This is, of course, where that squishy definition of active protagonists could really get squishy. Because I really don’t want to go down the rabbit hole of the focused goal part of this (like I said, aren’t my blogs long enough?) let’s stay with my abbreviated definition of an active protagonist who has agency and try to apply it to a trauma narrative. And yeah, some of you aren’t going to like where this is going, but I hope you’ll stick with me.

Step One: Wants something. Cool. It would be reductive to say traumatized people don’t want things. They do. Obviously. Usually the want at the forefront of their minds, however, is survival. Even after the trauma has ended, the brain of someone with C-PTSD has often developed in such a way as to hyper fixate on survival. And while survival might seem like a big want, it’s not active in the way western storytelling expects. Why? Because of…

Step Two: Actively does stuff to obtain the want. Active is the key word and needs to be delineated from reactive. When you live in a state of survival, you aren’t actually active. You’re reactive. Your central and sympathetic nervous systems have been wired to respond to every stimulus in your environment with a flight, fight, freeze, fawn response. It’s nearly impossible to make forward actions when all your energy is spent reacting to perceived threats because your body and brain are fried by trauma.

Wanting to survive is therefore reactive. Not active. A character whose primary desire is survival is therefore very likely not active but passive. They do not do unto the world and the world responds. The world does unto them and they respond.

Are there other things that a traumatized character can want besides survival? Absolutely! As I said, it would be reductive to say traumatized people don’t want things. In fact, I might go so far as to argue they possibly want things more because they can’t pursue them. But that’s the problem. They often can’t pursue them. Because they’ve lost their agency, aka their ability to actively chase things they want. So even if your character does want something besides survival, if they’re still in that mode, and they haven’t found agency because they’re living in trauma, then they likely can’t pursue it. I know because that’s how I’ve lived most of my life. Wanting desperately. Unable to chase. It’s a sad story I’d love to tell but can’t because it isn’t wanted. Apparently, characters like me are not particularly interesting. Perhaps because they’re too true.

Photo of a white woman with reddish hair in a white gown floating under a blue water.
Sometimes the wanting feels like drowning. You’re trying to swim to a surface but it’s so far, and you’re too heavy. You’ll never get there. So you just… drift. To the viewer, it seems passive, gentle, maybe even beautiful. But inside, it’s violent and terrible with teeth and claws. Like a beast that will never let go. But the beast is your brain come to eat you alive. Photo by Alice Alinari on Unsplash

Trauma Narratives and Seeking Agency as the Arc

One of the main arguments for why you, the writer, should write an active protagonist is because people like to see character growth. The argument goes that “people” want the arc. The hero’s journey. The descent into darkness. They want the emotional journey that goes with a character starting off at point A and ending at point B. First, let me just again mention this is a very western view of storytelling that focuses on the individual. Not all cultures require, desire, or demand an emotional, individual journey. Some cultures prefer a moral. Or a history. Some prefer a story that centers the growth of the group, not the individual. Others like stories that are sweeping with no human focus at all. And over the years tastes and wants and societal demands change and change again.

But that isn’t my story to tell, and others can and have made their own arguments better as to why western audiences should pay more attention to non-western storytelling.

If I speak to the story that is mine then, I find myself asking: within the framework of western storytelling and arcs and the active protagonist, is there a place for a trauma narrative? And if so, where?

Let’s try again.

Step One: Want something. In my opinion, survival is always at the core of the trauma narrative. But if we dig a bit deeper into the stage that might come after survival, we turn toward a new want for the trauma survivor. It can take many forms: a friend; an education; a place to live; a pet; a job; a hobby. But often, when you boil these wants down, you find at the center a quest for agency. Through connection, or eduction, or financial independence, or the stability of a place all your own, or simply doing something just for oneself a trauma survivor is cautiously asserting (or learning to assert) agency.

Step Two: Actively does stuff to obtain the want. It seems deceptively simple to write a story about actively seeking agency. Want something. Go after it. Except you need agency to go after something. And around and around our active protagonist seeking agency goes. How do you chase something if you need that same something to know how to chase?

I can tell you one thing: it isn’t something I’ve ever managed to convey in a five or ten page writing sample. Which is probably why the most common feedback I’ve heard from queries and samples is silence. Or form rejections.

Personal experiences aside, I do believe it’s possible to tell this story within the western storytelling framework. In YA Fantasy, where I’ve had least success telling it but where I believe it’s most sorely needed, I think it’s a quieter, slower story than the current market demands. The two books that spring immediately to mind are The Light Between Worlds by Laura E. Weymouth and Ever Cursed by Corey Ann Haydu (please be mindful of huge trigger and content warnings on both these books). Both left me with deeply complicated feelings regarding their content and their endings but as I sit here writing this, I know my own YA Fantasy, Deathbringer, were it to ever find its way to shelves, would be critiqued similarly. Perhaps that’s what it is to tell a trauma narrative. It isn’t pretty or quippy or vibey. It is, in fact, quite ugly, and messy with an arc that doesn’t always lead you to a happily ever after.

But it does lead you somewhere different than the start. And that’s all that’s required of an arc.

Digital painting of a white girl with short dark hair in a bob, wearing a purple, sequined dress and long purple gloves holds a turkey vulture aloft.
Always and forever will drop commissioned art when I have half a reason to. This is Violet, the main character of my YA Fantasy, Deathbringer, a 1920s-inspired second-world fantasy about a religion that has rotted an entire society, ruined a family, pushed magic into the underground, and the traumatized girl at the center of it all who–in the quest to find friends–finds her agency. And a cost far higher than she imagined. Image © Jaria Rambaran   

Tell the Story but Remember the Audience

I wrote this heading about ten different ways before I settled on this. I started with “Tell the Story Anyway.” I wanted to say bold advice like that didn’t come from a place of privilege but was instead a recommendation to the traumatized soul to help with healing. To say that even if the book of your heart doesn’t get you an agent or dies on sub, you’ll have the cathartic experience of pouring your trauma onto the page, and it isn’t a privilege to give yourself space to heal.

That would have been a lie.

Sadly, getting to the point where you’re safe enough to heal is a privilege. Which is why western storytelling has failed so many people, because right now the only maybe sellable trauma narrative (as I see it, in YA Fantasy anyway) is one related to healing. Survival still isn’t sellable. There’s one notable exception, yes. I’m not forgetting The Hunger Games. That’s a whole separate rant for another day. Also, that was 15 years ago. One story every 15 years when we have the amount of early childhood trauma we have in this country is… oop, starting the rant. Gonna stop.

Instead, I offer to you this, take it or leave it, advice is only advice. I don’t believe in hard or fast rules, and only you can know your heart and what you need. But if you find yourself writing a traumatized protagonist who’s getting critiqued for lacking agency, and you’re lost on what to do to change that (and you want to), please know this is the arena you’re playing in, these are the rules you’re expected to follow. I know they’re confusing.

Often, writers are given the advice to put things in the way of their protagonists. To create conflict. Talk of messy middles seems to be based on this concept. Personally, I never have trouble with middles. Or conflict. I’m actually laughing to think of having trouble with conflict. Where I struggle is beginnings. The place where we’re supposed to define the want. The goal. The motivation. If you’re in this position, and you have a trauma history, I might suggest you need a new brand of advice specifically for you. So you can write in a system not made for you even though you shouldn’t have to.

Here’s the advice: If you lived in one of your books (or one of your favorite books) outside the chaos of your life, where the possibilities were bigger (not boundless), what would you want? If no one (including you) was holding you back, what would you do? Where would you go? Who would you dream to be? To learn? To love? To chase?

Picture it. Now, unshackle your characters even if you can’t unshackle yourself.

And run.



Not the Darling: Mortality and Milestones

Note from Aimee: As we traverse through stories and journeys, I find myself saying time and time again I am touched, humbled, honored that you all share them with me and others. Allowing us pictures into your lives at these vulnerable places. There is in some ways nothing more vulnerable than the subject of this post, which hits right where the entire point of this series comes from and hits it hard. What about the stories that do not get told? There is no expiration on the publishing dream, the ever-not-so-helpful anecdotes say. Except for, well, That One. No one wants to talk about That One, present company included. But it’s time to rectify that, so onward we bravely go, thanks to this next author.

Content Warning: This post briefly mentions/explores topics of mortality and dementia.

Mortality and Milestones

By: David Wulatin (Follow David on Twitter @MisterHand1)

I got my first rejection from an agent in 1990. At a 1998 writers retreat, an Oscar nominated screenwriter gave an in-person critique of my screenplay and told me, “There was one part that wasn’t terrible.” I shelved a novel in 2019 after getting 150 rejections for it. I never received an agent like in any Twitter pitch contest, never got accepted into Pitch Wars or any other mentor program.

But there have been some low points, too.

I’ve been openly discussing my failures and setbacks in the Twitter writing community for several years, but my followers are few in number, due in equal parts to a lack of success, a refusal to participate in writer lifts, and a penchant for takes that are only funny in small doses: 

Meme featuring iconic image from the film Titanic where Leonardo DiCaprio is in the water and Kate Winslet is on a wooden plank, the two holding hands. The meme text states: Published Author Rose to Querying Author Jack: Don't Compare Your Journey to Anyone Else's.
Meme text created by David, original image courtesy Paramount Pictures

A person can only take so much of that before pursuing the friendlier confines of, “What assortment of donuts would your MC choose for a baker’s dozen?”

Hopefully at this point I’ve established my Grumpy Old Writer bona fides. (If you’re unconvinced, I’ve got a great little rant about why I’ll never use the word “redirection” in place of rejection.)

But not too old. Because it’s never too late to pursue your dreams. I used to doubt that, but who am I going to believe? The older self-published writers who aren’t pursuing traditional publishing? Or the actuarial table that gives me about 27 more years before I die, and the family history of dementia that could make that window even narrower?

This is the part that doesn’t get talked about much. It’s not something people in my position want to think about, and it’s not something that any author who has reached any traditional publishing milestone can understand. Because once you reach that milestone, you’ll never know what it’s like to go all your life without achieving it. 

“But I remember!” Not the same. “But it took me so long before it happened” But it happened. And once it happens, you’re not one of us and never can be again. The never published, the never rep’ped. The tried until they quit. Or died. In other words, most of us.

Most don’t want to talk about that, including the kind host of this platform, who characterized the voices that needed to be heard the most as the “…not yet successful.” Even she can’t quite let go of the idea that this lack of success for those of us who haven’t achieved the milestones is a temporary (albeit long-lasting) state. 

The Cult of Persistence is hard to get out of. Persistence is a prerequisite to success, not a guarantee. I lost hope of achieving those milestones years ago. I’m also in the final stages of revisions and plan to start querying another novel next month. I don’t need hope to keep trying. 

When I said, “There were some low points, too” earlier in the piece, it wasn’t (just) a throwaway gag. There were much lower points than the ones I mentioned in the first paragraph. There were seventeen years of no serious writing, where the only creative outlet I felt comfortable exploring was writing adventures to run with my gaming group at Gen Con. 

So I can compare a life with writing to a life without writing. For me, a life with writing is better. Even a life without achieving those milestones. Or a life without hope of achieving them.

Bio: Mister Hand is a married servant of two cats and works as a school crossing guard and dog walker. He breaks up the monotony of agent rejections by occasionally getting short pieces published in McSweeney’s and an upcoming issue of American Bystander. Follow him on Twitter @MisterHand1

Let’s Talk: Trigger Warnings

Author’s Note: If you’ve been around here awhile you’ll know this is standard fare from me at this point, but I repeat it for new folks: anything in this post is my opinion as one person not as a monolith. Nothing in this post can or should be used against other people in the same communities I describe.

Trigger/Content Warnings: This post talks about trigger/content warning discourse. Also describes in detail what a triggering event can be like. Brief description of child abuse and related triggering event thereafter; flashbacks; disassociation. References to childhood abuse and trauma.

Let me put this right up front for the TL;DR crowd. I am pro using trigger and content warnings. I am anti policing how people ascribe these things to their personal experiences. I am pro self-exploration about using these words more carefully. I also think we need to do a better job explaining what they are, how they’re different, and why we use them. I also believe failure to do so has caused harm to the communities who need them most.

Trigger; Triggering; To be Triggered

To be perfectly frank, because that’s what I do here, I have a very complicated relationship with the way the term “trigger” has evolved. For me, a person who has C-PTSD (and other mental health issues I don’t need or want to list out today), “trigger” has a very specific meaning. That meaning is the one used by most psychiatrists and psychologists and goes something like this: a trigger is a stimulus that causes a painful memory to resurface (usually the definition used in the context of C-PTSD or PTSD), or a stimulus that activates or worsens the symptoms of a mental health condition. Trigger doesn’t mean something offensive or a bit uncomfortable. It isn’t something that makes me a little sad or a little yick or a little anxious. To be triggered for someone like me means to be mentally fucked for a time.

Considering the volume of trauma I’ve been through, I’m not actually triggered that often. When I was younger, it happened more, but honestly, I couldn’t explain to you what the source of the triggering thing was. Now, I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve been truly triggered in the past five years. But I sure as shit know when I am and what caused it. This is a primary goal of trauma work: identifying triggers and finding ways to lessen their impact on your life.

Impact. That’s what triggers have. That’s what that word is meant to mean.

My C-PTSD wasn’t caused by any one thing, that’s what makes it different from PTSD without the C. A bunch of it stems from early childhood trauma though. I grew up in a violent, chaotic, loud environment. So, I have some sensory issues related to noise (as in, I don’t like it) but I don’t consider all noise triggering, or even all loud noise. Sometimes, when I’m overly stressed or highly tuned in, certain noises irritate me, or distract me. They might even become at times physically irritating, almost like a sting beneath my skin. Those aren’t triggers for me. More like irritations. They’re uncomfortable in the way too many bugs flying around you, ruining your otherwise pleasant picnic might be uncomfortable. Maybe it escalates into the bugs taking a bite or two, causing some frustration or agitation. Is it annoying? Yes. Would I rather it not? Yes. Is it outside the realm of a normal human emotion? Not really. I mean maybe in the sense that most people don’t find noise mildly painful, I suppose. But the emotion itself is not wildly disproportionate in a way that escalates my preexisting mental illnesses or causes a flashback or has any real impact on my life beyond fleeting, everyday annoyance.

Close up photo of a fly on a gray surface with black background.
Tbh, this dude might need a trigger warning of his own. I fucking hate bugs. Image by Christian_Crowd from Pixabay

This is where I’m going to describe a triggering event: Yelling, child abuse. And its impacts: Disassociation. Skip until next bold (after the photo of the bathtub).

What is a trigger for me is the particular noise of a mother screaming while beating her child.

Before I moved to my current home, I lived in an apartment complex. One of my neighbors in the same building a few apartments down constantly yelled at her kids. It bothered me but not to the level of a full-blown trigger. However, one day, I heard her screaming at one of her children. The sound carried through the walls, and with it came the very distinct whap of an object against bare skin. The child screamed. Begged. I had a flashback, then disassociated.

The next thing I remember was coming back to myself to find I was sitting in my bathtub, fully clothed, hands over my ears, rocking back and forth while tears streamed down my cheeks. I have no idea how long I’d been there. Long enough my legs ached and my throat hurt from crying, maybe even screaming.

That is triggering. Real live in the flesh triggering for someone who has a bona fide psychological disorder.

Sepia image of an old bathtub filled with plants on a dirty tile floor.
Bathtubs are a safe space for me. I often sit in them fully clothed when I need to get away from something. It’s just a thing, don’t mind me. Image by Peter H from Pixabay

Who determines what is “triggering?”

The person who experiences triggers determines what they are.

The thing about triggers is they’re highly individualized. No two people have the same set of experiences, or the same brain, so it’s impossible to understand how someone will react to a particular stimulus under any set of conditions. I’ve done years and years of trauma work. In the beginning of this work, I was unable to determine what my triggers were. I knew things triggered flashbacks, and disassociation, that something made me start screaming for seemingly no reason, but it was difficult to discern what those things were. A key part of my early trauma work was focused on identifying triggers (or potential triggers) and working on ways to manage them. I did this with a therapist who specializes in trauma treatment.

I mention it because it’s important to understand that for some people, knowing what their own triggers are might be harder than you’d expect. They’re not as clear cut as the neat little warnings we often see at the top of the page. So if triggers “change” for someone, that’s not abnormal. It’s also why triggers are often given in broad contexts sweeping a range of topics: “abuse,” “trauma,” “domestic violence,” “assault,” because people who experience triggers might not know what specific thing in that wide category will trigger them, but they might know that category contains their past and that content should be avoided. Over the years of my personal trauma work, my trigger sensitivity has been seriously reduced. Not everyone is able to do that or is at that stage in their journey.

Basically, this is not the trauma Olympics. We’re not here to put our scars on display for you to evaluate if that’s a “good enough” reason for us to say “this thing is genuinely triggering to me.” You’ll note I didn’t describe the individual Bad Shit that happened to me as a kid in my story above. Because it’s none of your business. You don’t get to decide if whatever I went through was “bad enough” to warrant my response to my neighbor’s behavior. I control that. Well, I don’t actually which is the annoying part. Because, trust me, if I could make my triggers go away, I would. They’re not pleasant. It’s one of the main reasons I’ve been doing trauma work for a million years instead of putting that money toward I don’t know… literally anything else.

“Trigger” should be used with discernment and self-reflection

Here’s where it gets tricky. I do think the terminology has been a bit… overused. That’s why I provided an example of the reaction I have to a trigger. Reminder about the monolith thing I said at the beginning. And of the definition I used of the word trigger. The reaction doesn’t have to be that extreme for you to consider something triggering. However, a trigger is meant to mean more than, “This makes me feel an unpleasant emotion within the realm of the ‘normal’ human experience.” Feeling sad is normal. Feeling anxious is normal. Feeling uncomfortable is normal. Feeling pissed off is normal. Feeling triggered is distinctly not normal.

The reason this matters is because when the word trigger is misappropriated in day-to-day speech, those who need this language to better explain what’s happening to them are stripped of its value. If the word trigger is so frequently used to mean something less than its definition, it’s devalued. This means the only recourse I have to explain my emotional reaction to a stimulus is to put the actual emotional reaction on display (which in and of itself can be retraumatizing).

I have strange feelings about people who ascribe the word “trigger” to something other than what its general psychological definition is, because this word was given to me and people like me who are suffering immense emotional pain so we might explain that pain without having to relive it. I also have an issue with the idea there is a “trauma” trigger and a sort of everyday use of the word trigger. While practically, I think that might at this point true, it again puts the onus of explanation onto the population whose language was stolen. Triggers also apply to communities of people who don’t have trauma, for one. So to exclude them from their language is a poor solution. And for those who do have triggers because of trauma, forcing us to further delineate “trigger” to “trauma trigger” outs us in ways we perhaps did not want to be outed. Finally, many people have comorbidities that cause this discernment to be almost impossible. I joke with close friends pretty regularly about, “Is it trauma or is it my [x other neurodiversity, mental illness, etc.]?” But the joke hides pain. It’s hard to live like this. Constantly questioning what part of your twisted brain made you lose time this time. Putting the burden of waging that battle of defining pieces of self on people already struggling to do it is unfair and to be honest, cruel. A trigger is a trigger. Sometimes it’s trauma, sometimes it’s not. Always it’s more than uncomfortable.

To be clear: I’m not here to police anyone’s use of the word. This is meant to be a self-exploration exercise only. If you’re using the word casually or colloquially or flippantly, or you might be, or you’re asking communities to drill down language that was already intended to mean a specific thing, then a reexamination could be in order because the casual use of the word is doing actual damage to people who need it.

Photo of a small room with a desk and chair and a round mirror with a man's reflection silhouetted.
Image by Peter H from Pixabay

Content Warnings

What is a Content Warning?

Content warnings can be sort of nebulous. However, I put content warnings in the category of the things you maybe shouldn’t be using the word trigger for. In the context of writing, because that’s what this blog is about, content warnings describe things that may be upsetting or uncomfortable or even things people simply don’t want to read about. Or read about at that particular moment, anyway.

Difference between Content and Trigger Warnings

What makes something a Content Warning or a Trigger Warning is not determined by the person writing, it’s determined by the person reading. That’s what makes them difficult for people to differentiate between because the writer has to use them interchangeably to accommodate multiple unknown readers (i.e. something that could be triggering to me might be something that just makes you uncomfortable, or vice versa).

So, if you’re the person doing their level best to alert readers about what’s coming, using content and trigger warnings interchangeably makes sense as you don’t know your reader. If you’re the person talking about your own TWs and CWs, you should delineate to make room for the nuance in the definitions.

For example, for me personally, I have never experienced a trigger in writing. I think that’s probably because of the way my brain processes information. My trauma is triggered by senses. A book doesn’t have much sensory output (in that it’s not yelling, or flashing lights at me, or smelling of alcohol, etc.). However, I prefer not to read books featuring trauma where the author doesn’t have a personal experience of trauma, because I often find the representations to be poor, stereotypical, and sometimes cruel, and I walk away feeling depressed, uncomfortable, or just pissed. A general content warning is helpful for me, so I know to look into the origin of the author (if that information is readily available), or read reviews to see how other people found the representation, or simply tread lightly on a day I have spoons.

Black and white photo of a stuffed bunny lying on a concrete wall.
Image by Andreas from Pixabay

Use of Content and Trigger Warnings

Step One: Use Them

You can’t know someone else’s life or their experiences. Just because you went through some shit and aren’t triggered doesn’t mean other people had the same experience. Again, we are not here to play trauma Olympics with one another. Don’t be an asshole, use CWs and TWs. You should do your best to use them all the time but especially if someone specifically points out they’d like them. Triply if someone is like THE FOLLOWING THINGS TRIGGER ME LET ME KNOW IF I’M ABOUT TO GO THERE.

If you forget, I’ll remind you to be kind to yourself. Messing up happens. We’re all human. I forget sometimes too, and I’m literally here writing this post at 11:00 p.m. on a Friday after working like 75 hours this week because I care about this topic so much. So, give yourself some slack. Unless you’re being an asshole about it and wantonly refusing to use them because you think people should toughen up. If that is you, I’ll remind you to be kinder to others. And honestly maybe yourself. Because you either have no idea what trauma is like, or you do and you think everyone should suck it up like you have and that is… well, a post for another day.

Step Two: Respect Requests to Include Them

Probably the weirdest thing I’ve seen lately in the writing community is people challenging agents on their ask that TWs and CWs be provided. I mean, listen, this is your future career and all, but my advice is to not do that. Besides being a super bad take for all the reasons I mentioned above about people’s need for them, it’s also just not professional to willfully refuse to do something beneficial to the mental health of the person you’re courting to be your future business partner.

Outside of querying, you should still honor requests to use trigger and content warnings by people when they’re given. The requests are likely not made lightly.

Step Three: Do Not Challenge People’s TWs and CWs

This one is harder than it seems and honestly I’m not 100% sure it’s the completely right advice, so bear with me. There are, in my mind, a spectrum of “Challengers.” On one end are people you should aspire to never be. On the other end might actually be me because here I am writing this post. Nuance. Brains. Complicated topics. Oh my.

Type One: That Asshole. You know the one. The one who has a Twitter bio that’s like “White man and proud. Trump 2024. God, guns, guts. Eats libtards for breakfast.” That’s the one who like gets up in people’s Twitter space and say shit like, “Trigger warnings HA! Do you need a safe space too?” Or “I’ll make sure to send you my [exactly the book the agent requests not to see in their inbox] LOL.” Or the slightly less aggressive but still douchey, “I’m not really a big believer in trigger warnings.” Cool, Tom. They’re not for you. And let me get ahead of you to say I don’t give a shit whether you believe my C-PTSD is real or not.

This type you should never, ever be. But I probably don’t need to tell anyone reading this blog that. Still, any variation on this is a no go. Basically, please refrain from aggressively questioning someone’s triggers or content warning needs because it’s invasive and rude. I might be the type to explain to you in a 7 page blog post about why I need trigger and content warnings and what my precise trauma is, but most people aren’t and shouldn’t be asked to. Whatever caused the need for the warnings is probably hard enough as it is.

Type Two: This Asshole. As in very possibly me. I’m not sure. I much prefer people do self-exploration and reflection to determine if their use of these terms is appropriate when they take into consideration the harm it could be doing to communities that need the language, as I’ve mentioned. However, this blog isn’t going to reach everyone. More like a couple hundred someones. That probably isn’t enough to reclaim the language. And not everyone is going to be self-reflective after reading a long ass blog from some random person on the internet. So what about calling out people’s use of the term nicely?

I’ve seen it done tactfully. Kindly. Gently. I’ve seen people say ‘I have this lived experience, and if you’re using this term loosely or in a knee-jerk way please be mindful of the people it hurts.’ I’ve nodded along with these people. Celebrated that someone finally said it. Then watched them get dragged on Twitter for daring to question a fellow survivor’s experience. Annnnnnnd I see that side, too. Who are we to know? I mean, I think I know. Even now I’m half typing out explanations of how I know, but ultimately no one can know their life except them. So reiterations of self-reflection are as far as I’m willing to go. I just… I would hate to be wrong and hurt someone else more than they’ve already been hurt, I guess. Even though I do really see the collective damage it’s doing. Have felt it myself. Understand the desire to make it stop. But I’ve always been about gentle pushes in the right direction more than sweeping gestures that burn hot and fade fast.

Step Four: There is no step four

Tada! I’m done. It was long again. Sorry. Please accept this token picture of my cat, Apollo, who has lived for 16 years through all my bullshit, just as you, dear reader, have lived through this long ass post full of my bullshit.

Photo of a white cat with a red collar sitting on a scale on a kitchen floor.
In case you can’t read it, his collar says “Mom’s Fav Asshole.” And yes, he is the asshole in chief.

Until next random thought, please remember: language matters, and be kind to yourself and others!



Not the Darling: When Your Brain Works Against You

Note from Aimee: The following post has found a special place in my heart (as they all have, really) because it discusses some topics that are only now finding their way to the surface. The one that resonates most heavily with me being Rejection Sensitive Dysphoria (“RSD”). For those unaware what RSD it is, it’s an extreme emotional sensitivity and pain triggered by rejection and criticism (perceived or actual). It is commonly linked with neurodiversity. On a personal note, I had no idea what RSD was before Pitch Wars, until a fellow mentee mentioned I might be suffering from it. I vehemently denied this notion, but mentioned it to my mentor when it wouldn’t stop nagging at me, who sent me some information on it and said she thought my fellow mentee was correct. Despite being diagnosed with C-PTSD my entire adult life, and diagnosed with ADHD semi-recently, no one mentioned this. Not my therapists, not my psychiatrist. It took a fellow neurodiverse person to tell me what it even was. Because there are so many neurodiverse writers putting themselves through this process that essentially demands a near-constant onslaught of rejection, I think bringing this out of the shadows is important. I’m glad this next author was brave enough to write so candidly about it. If you’re looking for information on RSD, here’s an article to start. If ever querying gets too dark, know there’s help. If you live in the US, you can call or text 988 to reach the Suicide & Crisis Lifeline.

Content and Trigger Warnings: Mention of suicidal ideation; struggles with mental health; discussion of effects of rejection sensitive dysphoria; dark thoughts; query statistics.

When Your Brain Works Against You

By: Anonymous

“It is true that I am endowed with an absurd sensitiveness, what scratches others tears me to pieces.”

― Gustave Flaubert

Reader, I am struggling.

Since August 2021, I’ve been querying the book of my heart. The book I’m most proud of. The book I want more than anything to be my debut. And nothing I do seems to be working. I am really starting to think that I am never going to be what gatekeepers want. And that’s ok. Sort of.

Let’s talk about it.

92 queries. 61 form rejections. Too many CNRs to count. 13 fulls, 6 partials, and so, so much waiting. I am still waiting. Only I’m not convinced a response is ever coming.

Like many others, I’ve done everything you’re “supposed” to. I leveled up my craft. I did Pitch Wars. I read through the entire QueryShark archives. At risk of sounding arrogant, I know my shit. I’m an excellent writer with great stories to tell. 

It doesn’t matter.

Right now, it feels like book Twitter is populated entirely by people getting agented or getting book deals. Everyone except me. And I am so, so tired of waiting. I’m tired of begging for the things that I want. When will it be my turn? When will all of my efforts and suffering be enough to deserve it? 

Here, look. I’m following all of your rules. I’ve laid down my marginalizations at your feet in the prettiest package I can muster. I’m doing everything I’m supposed to. Love me. 

I need to make sense of this, but there’s no sense to be found. I go days veering my thoughts frantically away from the open wound inside my skull that is querying. Other times, I go down the rabbit hole. I search for blog post after blog post, all the while seeking an answer to the same question: why is this so much harder for me than it seems to be for everyone else? 

I struggle to drum up excitement for full requests, because they no longer seem like signs I am onto something. They end in form rejections, or even worse, ghosting, more often than not.

I struggle to engage in reading in my genre. Querying in 2022’s pandemic environment has sapped all the enjoyment out of a lifelong love of reading. While I used to gobble up book after book, enjoying each for its own merit while fantasizing about someday seeing my own book on the shelves, my time in the querying trenches with the book of my heart rendered each fantasy book I picked up proof of my own failure and inadequacy. Proof of someone else’s “yes” while all I’ve gotten is an unending string of “no. ”

I’ve become a shell of my once joyful reader-writer self.

The way that my brain works makes querying particularly difficult and traumatizing, and it wasn’t until I started to suspect I might be autistic that I fully began to understand why I seemed to struggle with this more than other people. My mind craves order and structure, clear expectations aligned to clear outcomes. If I’ve done something wrong, I need to know why and how to fix it going forward. I need clear stepping stones that outline the path to improvement. Without all of this, I’m left feeling lost, unsettled, and confused at best, and angry, depressed, and hopeless at worst. 

So much of my life has (unknowingly) revolved around trying to make sense of arbitrary social norms that everyone else seems to understand and easily endure, and querying is all of that and more boiled down into a particularly painful microcosm that stands between me and my dreams. No wonder I’ve been so miserable, for so long.

Querying offers no order, no structure. No clear stepping stones. Querying demands that you continuously bang your head against what feels like a concrete wall, while hoping that an industry gatekeeper on the other side eventually decides they like the particular rhythm of your skull on the stone and extends a hand to guide you through. Some believe that voicing (totally justified!) complaints of the system makes you “negative” or “whiny” and means you “need to grow a thicker skin.” It’s just the price you have to pay. If you can’t handle it, don’t even try, and if you do try, well, just don’t let us hear you cry too loudly. It’s not a good look.

And Twitter is chock fucking full of well-meaning but (for me at least) ultimately useless advice surrounding querying. They’ll say, write through the wait! Write something else! Reader, I wrote TWO WHOLE something elses while querying!! And I was still waiting!! Still as head over heels with my querying MS as the day I sent it out! Writing something else didn’t distract me at all or help me move on from the project. It only made me more and more aware of the fact that this timeline, this process would not be kind to my brain. 

Querying is the worst thing I’ve done for my mental health in over a decade. It has very nearly broken me. I still can’t fully articulate how difficult it is to endure. All I will say is this: the first time I seriously contemplated taking my own life, I was 14. The second time? This past year, while watching my dreams slip through my fingers, watching my number of red rejection smiley faces on QueryTracker grow. 

It hurts to be told, however indirectly, that your best wasn’t good enough. Who you are isn’t interesting or marketable enough. It hurts so much that sometimes I am jealous of my recently-dead father, because he, at least, no longer has to endure any sort of pain. 

I really was not expecting that simply trying to follow my dreams would make me hate myself this much. 

My rejection sensitivity means that each rejection, no matter how couched in well-meaning platitudes like “I’ll be cheering from the sidelines!” or “It’s a subjective industry!” feels like a slap in the face. Even worse is the lack of actionable feedback. How am I meant to move forward and move on without knowing what I did wrong? My brain NEEDS that answer. 

Why, exactly, would I put myself through that misery again?

It truly feels like a twisted game of Russian roulette. Only the gun is loaded with more live rounds than blanks. If you knew shooting your shot was more likely to hurt you than help you, would you even bother pulling the trigger?

Often, I hate how unfair this all is. I’m so angry I feel like I could spit acid. I see doors open for some people so easily, and yet here I am beating myself bloody against a closed door in the hopes of breaking through. I watch others from my Pitch Wars class get agents, sell books, and have those books near release while I am still sitting here waiting on query responses that feel like they will never come.

With nothing else concrete to point to, I am left to conclude that the problem is me.

I tell myself, this is my last try. If this book isn’t it, I’m done trying for traditional publishing. Since I started querying, my blood pressure spiked, I gained 20+ pounds from pure stress, and I experienced severe anxiety. I am just not made for this.

I hate what querying has turned me into. I hate how thoroughly that trying to claw my way into a place in this industry has warped and muddied my thoughts. I am a miserable, envious, bitter husk of a human. I’m so full of rage and jealousy and despair that it feels like I will simply explode. 

I’m not particularly interested in the business aspect of self publishing, but I tell myself I’ll learn because it can’t possibly feel worse than querying. When I contemplate a future of querying book after book over the course of years just to try and finally hit that lightning strike of luck and timing, I feel nothing but dread. I know I won’t survive this process again. I am barely surviving the current round. 

I hear stories of people who queried for 5, 10, 15, 20 years before getting an agent, stories that were meant to be inspiring. If that’s you, I admire your perseverance. But I personally fear that I cannot pour that much energy into a system that actively harms me. I worry that I don’t have it in me to endure that much suffering just for a shot at my dream. If trying to do this–the only thing I’ve ever really wanted or cared about–hurts this much and makes me this miserable, I don’t think I can try anymore. And I worry that I am not resilient enough to frequently participate in a system that very nearly killed me, and could, at any time in the future, before I manage to make any progress.

If given the choice between protecting my peace and repeatedly suffering the querying process that stands between my dreams, I don’t blame myself for dreaming smaller. I’m happy to content myself with less if the alternative is literally being suicidal.

But who knows if I can convince myself to stay away? One day, I’m done with it all. No more querying. The next, I come crawling back. I don’t know what to do, only that I can’t do this

I don’t have any answers. I don’t have any advice. I can see no way through that is within my control. My hope with this is that maybe I can show one person who is suffering like me that they’re not alone in that pain.

Obviously I understand that the industry is on fire. Everyone is overwhelmed, overworked, and underpaid. I get it. So much of what makes querying downright unbearable for me and other neurodivergent writers is simply a business reality that is not likely to change anytime soon. 

But I wonder at what point we ask ourselves: When does perseverance and resilience turn into downright insanity? How much are we willing to endure? How much is actually ethical to ask an aspiring writer to endure? And at what point does all of this suffering for the off chance of making your dreams come true stop being worth it?

Graphic on a black background with a multi-colored brain at the center and dotted lines linking out. Text of graphic reads: RSD is common in neurodivergence with different arms that state: Acute memory of past rejection; difficulty reading tone; tired of being underestimated; intense sensory and emotional reactions; PTSD; being different means being frequently rejected.
Photo added by Aimee not author. Graphic from @NeuroClastic (along with a great article and more graphics which can be found here).

Not the Darling: The Business Case for Quitting

Note from Aimee: This post right here grabbed me by the throat, punched me in the gut, then never let go. I thought about it for days. The wisdom, the business acumen, the voice, the message laid brutally honest and bare. I keep saying this, but every single one of these posts has humbled me in a new way with a new perspective. Yes, I find myself saying. Also something I wish I’d heard. Yes, also something we need to talk about more. Yes, true. So thank you all, again and always, for allowing me a window into these truths.

Disclaimer: The links in the post were added by me, not the author. Most of the sites listed are free for querying authors to use and explore. does have a paid, premium version. This is not an endorsement for any paid product by either the author of this post or myself, simply a tool for folks who might not be familiar with the resources referenced.

The Business Case for Quitting

By: Regina Weaver (Follow Regina @ReginaWAuthor on Twitter)

My writing origin story is unremarkable: I’ve been writing since I was a kid but never really finished much.  I drifted away from it for a while when the obligations of work/parenting/adulthood didn’t leave enough time to sustain a writing practice. Then, about 18 months ago, the planets aligned to provide the right mix of financial security, motivation, and free time to start writing again. The end result was a 98,000-word contemporary romance that I absolutely adore.

I wrote it selfishly. It is the book I, a long-time romance reader, have been searching for but unable to find. It was so purely for myself that I didn’t even tell anyone I was writing until I was nearly done. When I did reveal I was writing my own novel to a few close friends in the context of discussions about the romance genre generally, to my surprise, they asked to read it. 

My friends are lovely people, so I worked up the nerve and shared it with the folks who asked (2 of 5 actually read it) and got some very nice feedback. It wasn’t a totally horrific experience. I started to toy with the notion of sharing it with even more people.

I Googled “I wrote a novel, now what?” and two things quickly became apparent: 

  1. I’ve got a full-time job, a kid, and I suck at self-promotion; self-publishing wasn’t for me.
  2. At 98,000 words, my book was too long for trad pub. Also, it is atypically structured and more slice-of-life than plot-y. Trad pub wasn’t for me, either.

That was where my publishing journey should have ended. But my friends were so encouraging….  As were the online writing spaces I had started lurking in, where folks with books outside the publishing norms were regularly encouraged to query anyway. The daydream of my book being out in the world, finding other people who liked it slowly grew more vivid. I kept researching how to query, feeding that dream like a feral stray, though I knew it was neither wise nor practical, until one day I saw a “how I got my agent” post from the author of a 94,000 word CR debut. I let that post confirm my bias. If other too-long books were being picked up by agents surely mine had a chance? Querying didn’t cost anything after all, so why not shoot my shot?

Thus began a month of querying prep. I read everything on r/pubtips and scoured query blogs. I agonized over comps. I drafted and redrafted query letters, synopses, and 1 and 3-sentence pitches. All of which sucked. I enjoyed none of it. I read Manuscript Wish List and made a list of potential agents on Query Tracker which I cross-checked against agency websites and social media. I made a crappy author website and signed up for all the social medias and even “engaged” on the platforms. All of the free time that, a year ago, had been devoted to writing was now devoted to making me and my book as appealing as possible to agents. I also started another WIP that I barely touched, promising myself I would work on it once the query package was done.

I sent out my first round of 10 queries. The first rejection came 4 days later. I knew almost all authors get rejected. I knew about Steven King’s railroad spike; about all the pillars of the cannon and blockbusting bestsellers that had been rejected scores of times before they were published. I had done my very best to temper my expectations and keep the fact that my book was a longshot for multiple reasons front-of-mind. That first rejection still hurt. Even with all that foreknowledge and my realistic expectations, I cried. The next day, I dutifully sent out another query because that’s what all the blogs said to do.

One month later, I had 6 more form rejections and no indication any agent had ready anything beyond “98,000 word contemporary romance.” I also knew a lot more, not about querying, but about the publishing industry. In that month, I learned that the majority of US agents are only paid when an author is paid and the amount is a) not much per book and b) usually split over YEARS. I learned how under-resourced and over-worked editors are and how much pressure they are under to prove ROI* to the finance bros who actually run the publishing houses. It’s always been this way, but due to a combination of VC** funding in publishing, houses consolidating, and agent and editors leaving during the pandemic, it’s apparently gotten worse. Multiple sources were said querying is harder now than it’s been in modern memory.

With a clearer and more nuanced picture of the publishing business, I reevaluated my book not as a piece of art but as a business proposition. If I were an agent looking through the hundreds of manuscripts in a slush pile for something that would pay my rent, would I pick my book? The answer: No.

A smart agent is going to try and find books in the slush pile that are going to be the fastest, easiest sale so they can maximize their ROI and stand a fighting chance of paying their bills. Their best bet isn’t an outlier; it is a book that has the expected word count, is easy to comp, on trend, with query materials that demonstrate the author can effectively promote themselves. My book could be the objectively best thing in the slush pile (it is not) and the smart agent is still sending me a form rejection and requesting a full on the 83k manuscript with a quirky 24-year-old FMC that lists 5 different tropes in the first paragraph of the query and comps itself to the books most beloved by the BookTok algo last spring.

[This is not a criticism of agents! I, too, like shelter and providing for my family and maximizing the money I get vs. the hours I spend on my work.]

Since I am not a once-in-a-lifetime talent, for my book to be a good business prospect, I would have to make it conform to market. I would have to cut 18,000 words and add in elements and structure that are more expected of the genre (that I consciously omitted or subverted because I am tired of them as a long-time reader). I would have to make it something other than the book I love. However, publishing offers me precious little incentive to do that.

There’s no financial incentive: I am never going to make more writing than I do at my day job. If I’m going to expend effort on something I find neutral to unpleasant for money, I’ll just log a few extra hours at work. I’ll make a lot more and it doesn’t involve hacking up my art. I don’t want to be famous. Being a recognized author would be cool because it would potentially provide opportunities to geek out with readers and other authors but otherwise fame seems like a pain. The only thing publishing offers that I desire is people who know how to make and sell books who could put my book where the readers who might like it could find it. But it wasn’t going to give me that for a cost I was interested in paying.

It also turned out that querying wasn’t free. It was costing me something. Though my query package was done, querying was still occupying large chunks of my very limited free time and mental bandwidth. When I did manage to allocate time to my WIP, the persistent, low-grade angst from the rejections and the silence and the fact that I was constantly thinking about Book 1 made getting into the right headspace to write Book 2 incredibly difficult. After a month, I was dejected, the WIP only had 6,000 new words, and writing, which had once been an absolute joy, had become a slog. 

I might not be able to make a business case for my book to publishing, but publishing wasn’t exactly making a compelling case to me.

If my book wasn’t a good business prospect for agents and changing it wasn’t a good business prospect for me, then what was the point? And why should I continue?

The answers were, of course: There is no point, and I should stop.

A proportionally brief digression about the prevailing attitudes around querying:

The refrain of the querying community is overwhelmingly “Just keep querying and you’ll get your turn one day.” A certain amount of irrational optimism is necessary to query and have the fortitude to keep going in the face of repeated rejection. Writers certainly should support and encourage each other in the query trenches. But it is a truth almost universally unacknowledged by the #amquerying world that not all of us will get there one day.

A writer can do everything right–stellar query letter, great comps, snappy synopsis, flawless manuscript–and still not get an agent for one of a dozen reasons that have nothing to do with merit and are wholly beyond their control. A writer with an amazing book who did something slightly wrong–weak query package, book too long or short, doesn’t fit neatly into a genre–has even dimmer prospects. The fact is, there are thousands of wonderful, worthy books we will never read because the system is jacked up.

“Just keep querying and you’ll get your turn one day,” is a lie; a tempting illusion. It gives writers a false sense of control: that if you just tweak your query letter/find the agent with the best Query Tracker stats/revise that log line then you can cause an agent to request a full. It also allows us to blame other writers when they fail to secure representation and differentiate ourselves, so we don’t have to acknowledge that publishing is subjective, capricious, and that worth and merit have a very small role in the process. “If they didn’t get any requests, it was because they did something wrong. I did [online query wisdom] so that won’t happen to me.” Further, it allows the publishing industry to shift the responsibility of its systemic failures to writers. I spent thousands on therapy fighting to keep my illusions of control because admitting you are powerless, that the universe isn’t just, and that good work and good people aren’t always rewarded is terrifying. But illusions help no one. You can’t make good decisions based on lies.

Back to quitting: Though quitting was eminently logical, deciding to actually do it was hard. The dream of being published, of having my book out in the world where other people might love it didn’t get any less lovely, and I didn’t want it any less once I figured out it was impossible. Also, the well-intentioned but relentless drumbeat of, “Just keep trying! You’ll get there!” from the online writing community made even considering quitting felt like cowardice. Acknowledging this might not work out felt like a personal failing, a fundamental lack of tenacity and gumption on my part that made me unworthy of being published. 

I spent many days examining quitting, weighing the pros and cons, and “sitting with my feeling” (gross) before I could bring myself to do it. I spent another few days after that figuring out whether I wanted to stop entirely or if I wanted to finish off all the open agents on my list. I opted to finish the list, though it was not strictly rational, for two reasons. 1) My deeply Type-A ass needed that feeling of “completion.” 2) So when I encounter well-meaning folks in writing spaces who try to encourage me to query again because me giving up freaks them out about their own querying prospects, I can say I gave it a legitimate try, with the numbers to back it up.

My last outstanding query closed last week with 0 requests of any kind. The evidence is in: my book was not a good business prospect.

The evidence also shows that quitting was the right decision for me. My morning pages are no longer 30% Publishing Feelings. The rejections that came in after I decided to quit were easier to take. The biggest proof, however, is in the writing. In the two months I was actively querying, I added 6,000 and 6,500 words, respectively, to my WIP.  The month after I quit, I added 10,000 even though I couldn’t write every day. The day after I resolved to quit, I wrote 1,500 words, and it didn’t feel like squeezing blood from a stone for the first time in weeks. With some distance, I’m also starting to appreciate the positives of doing this purely as a hobby, most of which boil down to not having to give a fuck about “the market” however publishing defines it at the moment. 

If I had known what I know now when I started querying, would I have still done it? I honestly can’t say. I have more than my fair share of hubris, and humans are bad at estimating risk. But I think I would have done it a bit differently. And quitting would have always been a part of the plan.

As for what’s next, I don’t know.  This whole exercise has shown me that I do want to share my writing, far more than I realized. I’ll spend some time this year exploring ways to do that and build more community. Though I worry that I’ve limited the spaces I can find community by opting out of publishing. I have no idea what that looks like yet. Whatever I end up doing though, this time I know that if it doesn’t work out, I can quit.

Photo of the corner of a laptop next to an open notebook on top of which lies a cell phone, all on a wooden desk.
Image added by Aimee, not author. Image by David Schwarzenberg from Pixabay.

Bio: Regina Weaver is a self-described “chronic overthinker” and author of contemporary romance. Occasional destroyer of worlds. You can follow her on Twitter @ReginaWAuthor or checkout more of her writing on her website:


*ROI = Return on Investment. Calculated by dividing the net profit (or loss) by cost. A publisher yields a high ROI when (a) a book sells well; or (b) it is produced cheaply; or (c) both.

**VC = Venture Capital. Private equity funding where a financer provides money to a young company with the intent the money will spur the business into rapid growth ending in an “exit” (usually a merger or acquisition where the company is bought by a larger company for a sum much higher than the investment).

Adult Fairytale Retellings, Romantasy, and Why It Matters that We Shelve it Fantasy

Trigger and Content Warnings: This post will delve into my past so contains references to trauma/domestic abuse/childhood abuse. Also contains gaslighting/verbal abuse from a domestic partner. Very brief reference to potential infertility struggles (one sentence, vague reference).

Author’s Note: This is sort of a companion piece to This One where I talk about expanding the options available to readers of Adult SFF but focuses more on the YA/Adult Fantasy differences, why Adult Fairytale Retellings and Romantasy are perfect for a certain target market, and why we should not exclude these from Fantasy shelves.

Disclaimer: I am writing this post at 1:15 a.m. after not having slept more than 2-3 hours a night for 12 consecutive days. I will edit it prior to posting; however, please understand that any references to “Millennials” should not be construed as an attempt to encompass the entirety of this huge and diverse group of people but is being anecdotally genericized for purposes of this post based on trends I’ve noticed, things I’ve watched over the years, being part of this group myself, and having many conversations on this topic with other Millennials. Similarly, the “Target Market” has been roughly defined but is not meant to contain every member of the group stated or exclude any group not specifically stated. Where there are references to fairytale retellings or mythos, I have attempted to acknowledge and honor non-western mythos and tales as well as western mythos, but the reader should understand I write western fairytale retellings from a western lens (even that word, “western” is loaded because it really means American and European, doesn’t it? A specific kind of European, even). There are nuances that go into all kinds of ways of storytelling that cannot be encapsulated well here, but which are all valid, and I believe deserve recognition and seats at the table. Finally, I have attempted to be sensitive of the current discourse regarding this conversation and want to acknowledge the ace and aro perspectives. I have done my best to avoid aro/ace erasure in this regard but acknowledge I am not perfect and welcome input if anyone feels erased or harmed by this post.

Once upon a time, there lived a lonely little girl. She lived a lonely little life in a small house made smaller by violence and noise. With no brothers or sisters to play with, and parents who declared loudly they did not want her and beat her when they saw her (if they could be bothered to stop beating one another), she spent most of her days hidden away with nothing but books and animals for friends.

The little girl grew up, as little girls so often do. Her house got bigger. Her world did not. Violence and noise followed her wherever she went. Like moths to a flame, people like her parents were drawn to her. She let them in. One by one by one. They came, they destroyed, they abandoned. Until she was a ghost of a thing.

Always, though, she had her books.

Black and white photograph of a waterfall over concrete with a white girl (me) in a long black skirt sitting on a pile of rocks and debris in front.
Me, circa senior year of high school.

Among her favorites were fairytales. Not because they had happily ever afters, because many do not, but because they had rules. They followed a pattern. At the end was a lesson explaining what was right and what was wrong. If you trust blindly, you will be eaten. If you open that door you’re told you shouldn’t, you’ll be murdered. If you work hard, you’ll be rewarded. If you abuse your children, your eyes will be pecked out (all right, maybe she liked that one for its ending).

Justice. Order. Black and white. Right and wrong. In all the chaos, fairytales soothed something inside her. They gave her peace and fortitude. The strength to continue to flit and flirt and smile and laugh while the moths gathered and ate up her insides chunk by chunk.

Until one day, one of the moths who she loved more than all the others said he was done with her, too. It was a pattern she should have recognized, because she was so very good at recognizing patterns. But she wasn’t ready to let go. So she did something she hardly ever did. She fought. With words and tears and fisted hands, she screamed and raged and begged like a wild thing caged. The world was big around her but inside her head it was so very small. She thrashed against it. Begging to be freed.

The moth looked upon her with disgust, this caged creature he only now realized was more beast than girl, and he said, “That’s the problem with you. You think life is a fucking fairytale. It’s not. Grow up.” He flickered away.

That day, the girl who was a beast became a woman.

She stopped believing in fairytales.

Sort of.

Now you know my origin story. You know my anecdote and perhaps one reason why I believe there is true power behind fairytales. But there are practical reasons I write fairytales beyond spiting that asshole who told me life isn’t one (which, obviously). Specific reasons I write Adult Fairytale Retellings despite that being the harder path for an author who writes both Young Adult Fantasy (where fairytale retellings exist and are popular) and Adult Fantasy (where they are not). Why do I choose to make things so much harder for myself? Well, I’m so glad you asked.

But First! An Announcement!

This post is about traditional publishing. Specifically, Big Five traditional publishing (and their imprints). I can’t encompass the whole of everything going on in fantasy, this is already too long, but it is important to note that what is trending in the self-publishing space and the indie publishing space (i.e. smaller, independent presses producing primarily digital only or digital first editions of books) is not always the same as what is trending in Big Five traditional publishing. I would argue that is the case in fantasy right now. With the rise of BookTok, this nuance seems to have been lost. For readers who perhaps don’t know or care where their books are coming from (which is awesome, I am highly supportive of self-publishing and indie presses getting more attention), the distinction might not seem to matter, but for authors it does. This disconnect should not be ignored.

Are my posts long? Yes. But this is precisely why. There is so much nuance it’s impossible to capture it all even in a blog, let alone a Twitter thread. Still, when we speak let us try to be clear. When I speak, I will do my best to be so. Self-publishing and indie publishing are not the same as Big Five traditional publishing. What is trending on BookTok does not necessarily represent the whole of traditional publishing (it might not even be traditionally published). For example, Adult Fantasy Romance is killing it in the self-published space right now (thanks in good part to BookTok) and has been for several years. In traditional publishing this is not the case. Do readers know that when they expect certain things from traditionally published adult fantasy authors who are facing different struggles in their markets (which are not Romance, by the way, a point I’ll talk about in a minute)? Perhaps not. Should they care? Also maybe not. But the authors certainly do, and I am about to argue that traditional publishers (specifically the Big Five presses and imprints thereof) should, too.

All right, back to fairytales, and why I tell them for adults…

I Write Adult Fantasy for Millennials

For my Adult Fantasy, my target market is primarily adult women aged 27-42 (aka today’s Millennials). Birth years for this age group range from about 1981-1996. This will be important for the timeline I’m about to set up.

Millennials and Young Adult Literature – A Brief History Source of some of the below, some gathered from life experience

While young adult literature has arguably existed since S.E. Hinton’s The Outsiders (1967), most of the popular young adult literature of the 60s, 70s, 80s, and 90s was contemporary, with the first “Golden Age of YA” occurring in the 1970s ushered in by books such as Go Ask Alice, Beatrice Sparks; The Chocolate War, Robert Cormier; Forever, Judy Blume; and Flowers in the Attic, V.C. Andrews.

In the early 2000s, (when our Millennial age group was aged between 4-19) YA experienced the second Golden Age of YA. This new resurgence in popularity of young adult titles was led by speculative fiction. Since then, fantasy has largely dominated young adult fiction with only recent shifts toward contemporary preferences. Meaning that for a majority of Millennial readers, speculative fiction was the Thing to Read during their formative years with such titles as Harry Potter, JK Rowling (technically shelved as Middle Grade in some instances but crossover as it ages up); Twilight, Stephanie Meyer; City of Bones, Cassandra Clare; and The Hunger Games, Suzanne Collins appearing in the 2000s (and their subsequent books coming out far beyond).

Continuing this trend, in the next decade (when our Millennial age group was aged between 14-29) came the YA powerhouses most of us will know best today: A Court of Thorn and Roses, Sarah J. Maas; Six of Crows, Leigh Bardugo; Ember in the Ashes, Sabaa Tahir; The Young Elites, Marie Lu; Scythe, Neal Schusterman; Children of Blood and Bone, Tomi Adeyemi; The Cruel Prince, Holly Black; The Raven Boys, Maggie Stiefvater; and many, many more.

Less than halfway through this decade, however, by 2014 in fact, our Millennials had “aged out” of YA if you use the technical definition of YA as being for readers between the ages of 12-18.

It was time for them to move upward and onward into greener pastures.

Adult Fantasy, here we…


Image of a white clay figure with no face holding a hand up in front of a red stop sign.
OMG, look! It’s a vague, faceless, white guy telling me not to go hang out in Adult Fantasy. I wonder why? Let’s go find out! Image by Arek Socha from Pixabay

Adult Fantasy v. Young Adult Fantasy

Until recently (within the last couple years), I would argue that Adult Fantasy made no meaningful attempts to appeal to a big chunk of Millennials. That chunk being primarily women and marginalized voices. By “Adult Fantasy” I mean traditional publishers, not authors. There were for sure people trying to get things published. But gatekeepers going to gatekeep.

Meanwhile, YA Fantasy continued to offer things that appealed to those people. Like what? Well, like this list I’m about to caveat. Caveat: this list is not intended to be exhaustive, or to represent every point of view from every marginalized group (clearly), nor is it intended to absolve YA of anything that hasn’t happened, hasn’t happened fast enough, or got messy along the way.

The List of Cool Things YA Fantasy has that appeal to Millennials even though we’re now Certifiably Old:

  • Targeted efforts to diversify the stories told (both through movements to push for the publication of more diverse authors and via non-marginalized authors paying more attention to how they depict marginalized people in their works)
  • Faster-paced books
  • Character-focused fantasy that gets deeper into human interiority
  • Shorter books (+ more standalones and duologies as options versus trilogies and beyond)
  • SUBGENRES: High Fantasy; Contemporary Fantasy; Urban Fantasy; Fairytale Retellings (from western and non-western origins); Steampunk; Paranormal Romance; Dystopian (which arguably falls under the Sci-Fi umbrella but in YA, fantasy seems to own it); Portal Fantasies; and Romantic Fantasies (aka Romantasies)
  • Second world fantasy with lighter, more grounded world building and less complex magic systems

While YA has been doing this, Adult Fantasy has largely stayed sort of exactly the same. It’s still primarily dominated by white, cis, male authors writing massive tomes that are grimdark, epic, and/or sword or sorcery. Are there exceptions? Absolutely. Are they hard to find. Fucking yes. And even where the authors themselves are not meeting the classic fantasy author archetype, much of the work still is. Long. Political. Dark. Violent. In short, the age group hasn’t evolved in step with its YA counterpart.

Photo of a white person in a black hoodie holding a black crystal ball to their face. Behind them is a snow covered forest.
Oh hey, maybe this person can scry me up an Adult Fantasy that isn’t more depressing than the year 2020. Photo by petr sidorov on Unsplash

Why This Matters

I’ll be real. I’ve been trying to age myself into Adult Fantasy since YA authors started talking about how creepy it is for grown ass women to be shipping teenage characters. Which I think was the YA Twitter tea of like… 2017. So it’s been a minute.

I’ve tried to embrace Adult Fantasy. I’ve listened to YA readers (who I write for as well) and done my best to remove myself from their space. I hear MG and YA authors (and teachers and librarians and booksellers) now in 2023 begging for YA for younger teens. Wishing for a ramp from MG to YA. Especially for boys. YA Fantasy has become so oversaturated with a particular kind of book (the one appealing to my referenced target market, in fact) that there’s no room for other books actual teens not only want but need. We (authors but also sort of society) are losing readers. This is an actual issue. I hear you. And I agree 100%.

But because there are no books for people like me in Adult Fantasy as it currently exists, we keep reading YA. Because we want to read something. And no, we can’t all just get a BookTok and a Kindle and read self-published authors, nor do we all want to. Plus, many people simply don’t know about BookTok or Kindle Unlimited, because they’re regular people not plugged into the online book communities. They get their books from what’s trending on Amazon, or what they see on the end cap at Barnes & Noble, or what’s recommended by a friend or local bookseller or librarian, and all that marketing force is still dominated primarily by traditional publishing.

So, because publishing is a business that operates on the good old fashioned principles of supply and demand and the facts are that 35 year old women have more buying power than 14 year old boys, publishing keeps feeding the demand. They also keep pushing “YA” further and further up in age. I read a YA book not too long ago that featured characters who were in their early twenties, one of whom was happily married and contentedly pregnant. Listen, I know fantasy is not contemporary, but please point me in the direction of a teen who can relate to the experience of being happily married and contentedly pregnant. I mean I’m sure they exist, there’s an exception to every “rule” of life, but that’s certainly not the teenage norm. Teen pregnancy is absolutely a subject to be covered in YA, but that was not the take I was expecting. Because it’s an adult take gussied up as YA, because YA authors know their real readership is 35 year old ladies who probably are (or perhaps want to be) happily married and contentedly pregnant. (Not this reader, but that’s personal preference).

Basically, for YA Fantasy to be able to grow beyond its current state and embrace even more voices and bring in even more readers, Adult Fantasy has to do the same thing. Which makes sense. Not really sure why it didn’t happen 10 years ago when Millennials were all aging into adult but who am I?

Adult Fairytale Retellings – The Millennial Net

Back to Adult Fairytale Retellings (aka back to me). So, we’ve now learned that my target market is into a Type. The type is short, whimsical, fast-paced, character driven, diverse, with light worldbuilding, and yes, romance (not to be confused with Romance—the genre—which has a set of conventions not at play here, also not to be confused with Fantasy Romance, a subgenre of the Romance genre also not at play).

Adult Fairytale Retellings are perfectly suited for this kind of story for all the reasons I loved them as a child. They’re ordered, meaning there’s something to be reordered. Deconstructed. Genderbent. Twisted. Fractured. Examined from a new perspective. BUT they’re still familiar (if you’re writing from a western lens to a western audience, this can be different if you’re writing from a different mythos, but I would argue that’s still appealing to the target market) so the worldbuilding required isn’t from the ground up. They often don’t require as much exposition or info dumping, which helps the author jump right into the action and the characters’ heads. This quickens pacing and increases interiority (as well as reduces length). Check, check, check. And, they’re very well-suited to romance. But because we’re retelling them, we can make the romance better.

In short, the Adult Fairytale Retelling is the perfect ramp for adults who want to move from YA to Adult Fantasy. BONUS, there are loads of points of views in even western fairytales not yet explored because they are “older” characters not suitable to YA. Which gives fun, fresh, and relevant to the Millennial life stories to tell.

Photo of a blue cake with a glass slipper on top, a bookmark reading "You're never too old for faerytales" and a pink rose in a glass case all sitting atop a white fuzzy blanket.
Millennials: Please tell me you’re not interested in stories about magic folks hating their jobs, juggling kids and their work as a dragon tamer, getting divorced and having to split the castle, figuring out if they’re too old to go back to sorcery school, and other modern day Millennial tales. I’ll wait. Copyright mine.

Romantasy – Yes, it is Fantasy

Similar to Adult Fairytale Retellings (and sometimes one in the same), Romantasy (Romantic Fantasy) is another fantastic way to ensnare the target market and lure them away from YA Fantasy and into Adult Fantasy.

To clarify, Fantasy Romance is different. It’s a subgenre of Romance. The central plot of a Fantasy Romance is the romance. A Fantasy Romance follows the genre conventions of Romance (from the meet cute to the dark moment to the happily ever after). I’m not talking about Fantasy Romance. Not because it doesn’t matter or isn’t great or I don’t have Thoughts (because DO I EVER DON’T GET ME STARTED ON THE POLITICS BEHIND EMOTIONAL WOUNDS), but because it isn’t the same natural pathway from YA Fantasy to Adult Fantasy because it is, again, shelved under Romance not Fantasy.

Romantasy or Romantic Fantasy is what most people mean when they say “there’s a ton of romance in YA Fantasy these days” (or some less polite variation). The primary plot is the external fantasy conflict (curse, heist, palace intrigue, revenge, overthrow the government, save the world, whatever), and the secondary (but often very similarly weighted) plot is the romance. You can extract the romance from a Romantasy and still have a story structure. It might be less meaty with less conflict and not as interesting, but a story would still exist. You cannot extract the romance from a Fantasy Romance and still have a story structure (in theory, I’m sure there are some who would love to argue that with me).

OMG are you still talking? If yes, please tell me why people can’t just read Fantasy Romance and leave Adult Fantasy alone?

The devil is in the details, I suppose. First of all, Fantasy Romance is also sorely lacking in material in traditional publishing. Most of what is available is digital only through indie presses and self-published authors. Not that these aren’t viable options, they’re just not always the easiest to find for the reasons I mentioned above. Or screen. Especially where self-publishing is concerned. There is some… problematic stuff out there and going back to that target market I’m harping on, problematic content isn’t going to hit right with many marginalized groups for somewhat obvious reasons. Does that mean traditional publishing doesn’t also publish problematic content? Nope. But you sure as shit hear about it if you’re plugged in. Versus self-published works there’s so much of it, flagging problematic content is much more challenging. As a person with multiple marginalizations who self-published NA Romantic Fantasy and is hugely supportive of self-published authors and has read a lot of Fantasy Romance, I can assure you I have been burned enough times now I read only trusted self-published recommendations or traditionally published works. It’s just too much to be hit with otherwise.

Further, many people who grew up reading YA Fantasy in the Second Golden Age of YA, while they might want romance, don’t necessarily want only romance. They still love fantasy. They want Katniss to overthrow the Capitol (and fall in love with Peeta), and Kaz Brekker and company to pull off that impossible heist (while falling all over each other along the way), and Laia to save her brother from the clutches of the Empire (while Elias tries to save her from the Commandant). It seems a silly distinction, perhaps, but it is an important one that Fantasy Romance does not often meet.

A Love Story has a right to exist in Fantasy – and in fact makes a statement by doing so

I’ve touched on this before and this post is already massive, so I won’t do it again. The TL;DR version is that despite what it might seem, there’s not actually a lot of Romantasy on Adult Fantasy shelves in Barnes & Noble right now, and excluding a book from the fantasy shelf because it has romance in it is elitist at best, misogynistic at worst.

Fantasy is a genre about imagination being pushed to its fullest potential. Why wouldn’t its arms be opened to the full gambit of potential human experience? Why would anything be excluded?

Opening the shelf to these books not only gives room BACK to YA Fantasy to create more readers while also satisfying a known market demand in Adult Fantasy (so is therefore good business), but it makes a statement about Adult Fantasy and where it wants to go. Which is hopefully forward.



Photo of a white woman (me) in a white sweater bending over to kiss a German shepherd's nose.
I’m just a modern day Millennial making out with my dog. Because I am childfree by choice. Another GREAT topic to talk about in Adult Fantasy!

Not the Darling: A Tale of Two Manuscripts

Note from Aimee: So much about hosting this series has been humbling. I use that word in almost every email I send to an author of one of these posts. Every single story submitted to me has moved me, spoken to me, humbled me. Many of them because I related. Glenda’s story humbled me because I did not. If I could ask one thing it would be for every American reading this post to share it, to think on it, to appreciate what is being said. Because there is so much conversation to be had packed into so few words…

A Tale of Two Manuscripts

By: Glenda Warburton

I have to confess that I have not pitched for many months because I didn’t believe that I could become inured to the effects of another rejection letter.

My son is an actor and his practical advice whenever I bemoan my agent and publisher-less state is: Grow a skin, Mum! Well, the skin is a little raw and sensitive and I am not sure how to toughen it.

My first manuscript I eventually self-published on Kindle, and printed 400 copies, of which over the years I have managed to sell about 350. All those who have read the book say they have enjoyed it, and a number have asked when they can expect a sequel. It is a Middle Grade book, which may be my first mistake, set in the Kruger National Park. It is part fact, part fantasy.

Kindle is not an option for those of us living in this part of the world, Southern Africa, because they do not recognise our banking system, so we cannot get paid. Agents and publishers are the only way to go. Locally, publishers are directly approached, and seem more focused on biographies of politicians and sportsmen, although this is changing now that the COVID years are waning.

My best rejection letter was also my worst. The agent, fascinated by the title: Tell it to the Wind – the Story of an African Lion, said she read the whole manuscript, enjoyed it, but did not love it enough to publish it. I have no doubt she thought she was letting me down easily, but anger and the inability to put word to keyboard for close to a year followed. How dare she admit to enjoying my labours, and yet not want to take it further?

My second manuscript is historical fiction, set in World War I. I have a collection of letters from my grandfather, the holder of an OBE, from the trenches where he not only fought, but was responsible for a small group of 57 Swazis whose task it was to assist in the offloading of ordnance. There is not much available in the archives, but the thought of these rural African men, most of whom had never worn shoes, giving of their best in a war so removed from them and the realities of their lives fired my imagination. Again, well received by a number of people who have read it for me, but little response from international agents, favourable comments from local publishers while politely declining publication. I had thought with the centenary of that war this would be a tale with a difference, but, alas, no.

One comment I had was the difficulty with pronouncing the names. Really? I struggle with many European names, but that doesn’t stop me reading the book! I did include a glossary of pronunciations and meanings. I have another manuscript, and two works in progress and often wonder what the point of it all is. I live on the hope of ‘one day’ and pray it will not be a case of ‘one day never comes.’

Black and white photograph of a lion's head in profile with a yellow eye.
Image added by Aimee, not author. Image by Randy Rodriguez from Pixabay

Bio: Glenda Warburton was born and raised in a small, African country, formerly a British Protectorate called Swaziland, now Eswatini, sandwiched between South Africa and Mozambique. She began her professional life as a journalist in 1973 and worked in various aspects of media until 1987. In 2012, she returned to writing full-time, heeding the voices in her head that needed to get onto paper. Or a laptop! She first pitched the manuscripts described in this post: TELL IT TO THE WIND, in 2013; and SIPHO’S WAR, in 2017. You can read more about her and her writing at her website:

Picking an Agent

Author’s Note: This was originally part of my Pitch Wars reflection blog but it got WAY too unwieldly and off-topic, so I split it into a separate post that was more targeted. Hopefully.

Content warning: This post discusses offer calls and how to prepare for them, as well as some (non-confidential things) related to my offer.

Disclaimer: Any links or recommendations made by me are my opinion and are not paid endorsements.

There is so much about querying I wish I’d known before I was in the thick of it. Particularly about agents and how to choose one. You know, the whole point of querying. I mean, I queried for FIVE years, and I had no idea what I was doing until Pitch Wars. Maybe not even then, honestly. I thought I knew what I was doing. Until I watched a whole bunch of other people do it and realized nope, I did not have this right.

So, I wrote this post for anyone who, like me, thinks they know what they’re doing but perhaps could stand to learn a bit more. Or for anyone who has questions they’re too afraid to ask (also me, yeah). This isn’t intended to answer every question about publishing and agents that ever was, because wow, that would be even longer than I imagine this will end up being, but I will try to answer the questions I had in hopes they might help someone else. Also, there will be no querying advice AT ALL because as I’ve mentioned repeatedly my query stats are shit. Please head on over to literally anywhere besides here for tips on writing query letters, synopses, pitches, etc.

Step One: Building Your List

Okay, so you wrote a book! Congratulations! Take time to celebrate, it’s a big achievement! You edited it! Celebrate again! You wrote a query letter! Do a dance! You rewrote your query letter for the 982nd time? That is totally normal and fine, please point yourself in the direction of the nearest piece of cake. You earned it. Now, you’re ready to query. Meaning it’s time to build your list of potential agents.

Photo of a white woman in a black jacket, back to the camera, standing in front of a stone wall with a long list of names inscribed on it.
I once described finding agents as finding rare gems in a forest. Ooh, look, a shiny! Oh, look, another I missed! Because it can really feel like picking truffles at some point. Photo by Milena Trifonova on Unsplash

Assembling Agents

Man, when I did this the first time… well, we aren’t talking about that. First thing’s first. Sign up for Querytracker. It’s free. There’s a premium version too that’s $25 a year and offers some really cool features, but if you can’t swing it, that’s totally fine. The free version is also super helpful. You might also want to start an Excel spreadsheet that tracks information similar to what you’ll find on Querytracker (adding additional columns for more information that might be important to you). Because also, fun fact, there are agents who aren’t on Querytracker (not many, but they do exist).

Querytracker will help you narrow agents down by the genre you write in. That isn’t 100% accurate, but it’s a good start and does a huge lift for you, so it’s where I would start if you’re starting from zero. You’ll probably get a ton of results. Take a breath. Hydrate. Stretch. You’re going to be here awhile. Building a list is kind of a bitch.


Agent Research

Are you neurodiverse? Cool, me, too. This could swing probably one of two ways for you in particular. You’ll either find it super fun and fall down the rabbit hole forever, or you’re going to get super fucking frustrated really fast. It might switch with the day. Brains, right? Self-care. Medicate if you do that. Chunk out your time but also remember you do not have to attack this all at one time. Just one agent at a time.

Here’s the part where I got irritated as a neurodiverse author who does NOT like agent research. The next step of this process on a lot of blogs/writing advice platforms/Twitter feeds what have you skip right from Querytracker list to: What’s on their manuscript wishlist? What’s on their anti-manuscript wishlist? What do their sales look like? Do they sell to imprints/editors you want your book sold to? Are they from a reputable agency? How long have they been doing this? If not long, who is their mentor? Is there anything about them or their agency that’s a “red flag?”

At this point my brain started to look something like this:

Image of an open book on fire.
I mean, who needs to publish, anyway? I can just like… crawl back into my bed and make a blanket fort until someone brings me a snack, right? Because there’s absolutely no fucking way I am figuring all that out on my own. Image by StockSnap from Pixabay

Where to Find Things About Agents

For my overwhelmed querying friends, neurodiverse or otherwise, I am here to tell you WHERE to find all this mystery information. Sort of. Sadly, the information is not uniform so there isn’t a real cut and dry answer, but I’m going to try:

  • Manuscript Wishlists (“MSWLs”) and Anti-Manuscript Wishlists (“Anti-MSWLs”) can be found most often on either (a) the agency’s website under the agent’s biography; (b) the agent’s personal website (often linked to on their agent page on their agency’s website); or (c) The Official Manuscript Wishlist SPECIAL NOTE: Sometimes, additional information about what the agent is currently accepting can be found on the agent’s Query Manager site if they use one, so it’s not a terrible idea to try checking that before you go down a rabbit hole of research. I have heard many a querying author bemoan doing loads of research only to go to Query Manager to upload their query and find a note at the top from the agent that says *NOT CURRENTLY ACCEPTING [YOUR GENRE]* despite everything else the agent’s MSWL’s elsewhere say. Also make sure to check the drop down menu to see if your genre and age group is listed! So, consider yourself duly forewarned.
  • Sales Information (Agent and Agency) can be found on Publisher’s Marketplace. This includes the agent’s sales and the agency’s sales, and it will show you who the agent/agency are selling to (editors and imprints). PROBLEM. This information, while really helpful, is self-reported, so not always up-to-date or entirely accurate, AND it can only be accessed with a paid subscription to Publisher’s Marketplace (PM) which is quite expensive (I believe it’s about $25 a month). The good news is you can pay monthly and cancel at any time.
  • Reputation and Red Flag Information is harder because this is usually accessed via the “Whisper Network” or by doing some serious sleuthing into the deep dark places on Twitter. You can, however, find some very good information on Writer Beware and its companion Writer Beware Blog (which can at least help you avoid vanity presses and scams). Unfortunately, these resources don’t usually have the latest industry “tea” regarding literary agencies. Comments on Querytracker can often lead you in the right direction on this front and many authors on Twitter are very willing to talk privately as long as you maintain that privacy (going back to my earlier post on community).

So, after all this, what you should end up with is a list of agents (or the start of one, it doesn’t have to be every single one you’re going to query, just some to get your feet wet maybe), that meet some basic criteria. The criteria will differ based on every author and their goals but in general, your group of shiny gem agents should all have some things in common:

  1. They accept submissions for your age group and genre
  2. Your book sounds like something sort of close to something on their manuscript wishlist
  3. It doesn’t sound like something on their anti-manuscript wishlist (if they have one)
  4. Their sales are in line with your goals as an author (i.e. they’re selling the kinds of books you write to the kinds of editors/imprints you’d like to publish your books)
  5. If they’re a new agent and don’t have sales yet, their agency is doing number 4
  6. SUBJECTIVE: Either the (a) agency has been around awhile with a good history of sales or (b) the agent has been around awhile with a good history of sales (this doesn’t HAVE to be the case for you, new agencies with new agents are a thing, they’re just a riskier than I’m willing to do thing, but that’s a personal preference)
  7. SUBJECTIVE: There’s nothing about them or their agency you’ve heard or learned that makes you uncomfy or makes you feel they wouldn’t be a good potential lifelong business partner FOR YOU (totally different for different people)

But what about my Dream Agent, i.e. the One Who Says Yes?

But Aimee, you haven’t addressed the most important criteria: will they say yes to me?

“My dream agent is the one who says yes.” I see this so frequently on Twitter these days it actually makes me wince a little to put it here. Because I get it. Truly. And I know, querying writers, you’re like no, Aimee, you don’t. You have an agent. You have your yes. You can fuck right off into the sunset with your I get it. And I get that, too. I was there for five years with like exactly five requests to my name in that entire time. At one point I told a friend of mine that I would make my main character a two-headed dolphin if it meant getting into Pitch Wars. But getting into Pitch Wars actually taught me how wrong I was. The yes isn’t the dream. Sharing a vision is.

So, sorry to have to be the bearer of bad news, but no. Your dream agent is absolutely not the one who says yes. I mean, listen, your dream agent COULD in fact be the one who says yes. But not BECAUSE they say yes. Because they share your vision and meet all your objective criteria which you laid out while building your list.

Photo of a mountain lion against a black backdrop bursting a bubble with its teeth.
Oh, look, it’s me. The asshole cat bursting your bubble. WITH MY TEETH. Sorry. Truly. It sucks in every way. But you know what would suck more? Having to do this shit multiple times because you just went with whatever yes. Image by Willgard Krause from Pixabay

While much of the old query advice can be thrown out, the adage that a bad agent is worse than no agent remains true. “Bad” agent is also an agent who is “bad” for you. There are tons of agents out there who hit all the right “boxes.” Who have great sales, come from a reputable agency that’s well known, who have impressive client lists, and great references, who represent your heroes, who might even give you a yes and can still be a bad fit for you.

Huh? But you just said… and the list… and… I KNOW! THIS IS WHY IT IS ANNOYING AND CONFUSING. Onward!

Step 2: Preparing for The Call™

You got an email to set up a call! Hooray! BUY YOURSELF A WHOLE DAMN CAKE! I’ll wait.

Photo of a blue cake with gold decorations on top of which is a glass slipper, all set upon a white cloth.
I did, in fact, buy myself a whole damn cake. Five years, I think I deserved it, thanks. Copyright mine. Cake made by these lovely people:

It’s time to prepare for The Call™. Okay, first, a disclaimer. Hopefully, the purpose of the call was laid out for you in the email scheduling it, but if it wasn’t, I will forewarn you that not all calls with agents lead to offers. This is something I learned during Pitch Wars that SHOCKED me. So if you, like me, wandered around in the querying darkness for many years before now, please know that sometimes agents call to… reject you. Which is weird. They also sometimes call to explain to you a R&R. More rare still, they intend to offer then something goes sideways on the call and an offer doesn’t actually happen.

BUT, before too much panic happens, please know that most calls are in fact THOSE calls.

The Standard Lists

Now, there are loads of resources, blogs, lists, etc. circulating about what questions you should ask on The Call. The most popular one is probably Jim McCarthy’s which you can find here. From what I’ve heard from my friends’ calls, of which I’ve been fortunate enough to hear about many (and in my personal experience), most agents will answer like 95% of these questions without you having to ask, because they know these lists exist. That’s a green flag if they just start answering them, as an FYI.

To be clear, I am 100% supportive of having these lists prepared. I used one myself. That’s a great base, I just am not going to spend time recreating the wheel when others have done it better. What I want to talk about is the shit not on these lists. The things that might help you better suss out not what makes an agent a schmagent or a bad agent but a bad fit FOR YOU.

Photo of white hands backlit trying to put two puzzle pieces together.
Do we go together? The Call is basically your best chance to find out. Photo by Vardan Papikyan on Unsplash

The Nonstandard List

Okay, this is where it starts getting a little dicey, because all of this is immensely personal. So, take everything I’m about to say with like 1,000 grains of salt. I don’t want anyone to come back to me like, “Aimee, I gave up my yes because of something you wrote on your blog.” This is simply what worked for me when I really wanted to evaluate what mattered to me about my writing and my potential relationship with an agent.

Consider critically dissecting the most important elements of your story. Really think about genre and genre conventions. Where does your book fit on the shelf? Do you care if it lands elsewhere? Why? Would you be willing to change the point of view? Add another character? Change the gender of your character? Something critical to who they are or their identity? Rip the structure out and put a new one in? Age the characters up or down to put it into a different age group? List out what’s important to you and really think about what your hard lines are. Knowing this will be incredibly important because it’ll tell you more about your book, yourself, and your future agent.

Identify what’s most important to you about your writing and your career. This will be really different depending on the author, but to get to the bottom of the “will you be a good career partner for me” question, you need something particular to you.

Which means no one can design it for you, unfortunately. But what I can do is give you an example. Genre is really important to me, for the reasons I talked about in this post. For my call, I had several questions tailored around this concept, from revision visions, to submission strategy, to general thoughts about my conception of the market versus Keir’s. Was it awkward to get all hot and bothered over my opinions on the call I’d been waiting to have for the past two decades? Yes. Was I nervous as hell Keir would think I was a messy, scattered human word vomiting slightly disjointed thoughts in faer direction? Yes. Did I still need to say this to figure out if we were on the same page about something I’ll likely come up against for the entirety of my career as a woman writing adult SFF? Also yes.

In short, it’s not a bad idea to have a couple questions prepared to see if you and your agent are on the same page about your career, and where you want your books (and yourself) to land. This should be an honest conversation. Your agent is your future business partner. Transparency is important. And if you don’t share the same vision, there will for sure be problems. If you write MG and your agent wants you to age everything up to YA and that’s a hard no for you, but you say yes anyway, then your edit letter comes and you have to write in an age group you know jack shit about, you’re going to be pissed. And your agent might be less than thrilled with the result. Similarly, if you write fantasy you dream of seeing in hardback on the shelves at Barnes & Noble next to Neil Gaiman, and your agent wants you to turn everything into fantasy romance to be sold digital only, so you can churn out three books a year to compete in the romance space, you’ll run into a problem or two, I’m pretty sure. Trying to figure this out now instead of later is better. Even if the answer is less than ideal.

Photo of a rowboat next to a dock in front of which is a castle across a lake.
Everyone trying to get on that boat and paddle to that castle. It’s a mood. Photo by Artem Sapegin on Unsplash

There should not be a power imbalance. Your relationship with your agent should really feel like it’s mutually respectful. I will caveat this by saying this is a really hard thing to vet on The Call or even in the early stages of the relationship for most new authors, especially those who’ve been querying a long time. I’ve discussed this at length with many of my newly agented friends, including many who already have book deals and they still struggle with fear. This isn’t the fault of most agents, it’s simply a side effect of querying for so long. We’re all afraid of doing something “wrong” and getting “sent back.” Sadly, we also have reason to be in some cases.

Always be ready to say no. I had only one request. One call. Some would say I had one shot. Maybe that’s true. I had at that point essentially given up writing. But the lessons I learned during Pitch Wars about what was important to me about my book combined with what I’d learned in “quitting” (i.e. there was a whole career for me I was very good at and other potential passions I could pursue and still find meaning in) gave me the courage to approach my call with Keir ready to walk away. Obviously, I desperately hoped I wouldn’t have to. But I had a couple questions on my list especially formulated to try and discern whether Keir and I would be a good match not only for this book but for future ones. And they were mostly designed around those things that had gone from “I’ll make Isabelle a two-headed dolphin if someone will just say yes” into “I won’t change this because it really matters to me from a career perspective.” If we couldn’t see eye to eye on what mattered to me, I wasn’t sure how we’d continue.

Of course, this all has to be approached reasonably. It kind of reminds me of when my partner and I were first shopping for our home. We picked out the area and set the budget and had a list of “must haves” and a list of “nice to haves.” The more and more we looked, the more things moved from the “must have” list to the “nice to have” list. However, there were a few things that never left: two toilets, a garage, a fenced in yard, a dishwasher. That was basically it. When you’re researching agents, you can find yourself doing a similar analysis, but it’s important to never end up in a position where your “must have” category becomes only “an agent.”

Step 3: Post Call

I’m going to skip the actual call because I think there’s a ton of information out there on that whirlwind. It’s basically an interview.

So you got an offer, for real! Hooray!!! Time to eat cake! And nudge.


I actually didn’t have to do this because, well, whatever. Anyway, after you get the official verbal offer (industry standard is for the offering agent to give you two weeks to notify other agents), you can nudge any agent who has your query. The old advice used to be you nudge only agents who have your full or partial. Throw that advice AWAY. Immediately. Any agent who has your query who you’re still interested in potentially representing you, nudge. As a professional courtesy, do not nudge agents who you really don’t want to represent you now that you have this one on the line. You should withdraw your materials from them.

Now comes the part I really never understood.

How People End up with Multiple Offers

For four years I queried mostly alone, no community to speak of, no friends with agents, very much an outsider trying to find a way in. Authors on Twitter declared they had eight offers. It seemed impossible. The timing. Honestly, how did that work when it took agents 187 days to respond to my queries? How did they get eight all at once to read a whole book? Clearly, I was doing something very, very wrong.

Maybe I’m the only fool out there. There are pros and cons to that, I suppose. But in the event I’m not, the way people get eight offers is by getting ONE single offer then nudging everyone who has their query.

What happens after that is a two-week medley of agents requesting materials in a rush, passing quickly (called a “step aside”), and, if you’re lucky, more calls. When you’re in the trenches, this all sounds super exciting, but from what I’ve seen watching a bunch of people go through it, I think it sort of sucks, honestly. I might just be trying to cheer myself up about not having 37 agents clambering to represent me, but I’ve not seen this be particularly pleasant for anyone who’s done it. I think it’s probably pretty jarring to go from a stream of rejections to… frenzy. But because I haven’t done it myself I’m not really qualified to say much more other than that’s how it works! Oh, and at the end, you have to uh… decide. On one. Or none. Walking away is still always an option!

In Conclusion

There are no guarantees. Not in publishing. Not in life. This isn’t a set of rules any more than anything else I ramble on about. There are exceptions and scenarios I haven’t covered. Anomalies and twists of fate. I am pretty sure I know of at least one story about someone who got an agent without having to query at all, for example (maybe rumors, who knows). But for the most part, we all have to do the same things, and at the end, we have to make decisions that aren’t always easy using the best information we have at the time. Here’s to making some of that a little less nebulous.



Not the Darling: Confronting the Publishing Paradox

Note from Aimee: First, I hope you love this post as much as I did. I read it in line waiting to get TSA Pre-check and couldn’t wait to get home to email Amara back to say how much I loved it so had to email twice, once with gibberish and once with a posting schedule. Second, if you are someone who likes query stats, Amara has kindly provided a Twitter thread I’ve linked to at the end for those (which you can also avoid by not clicking if you don’t want to do query stats). Now, without further ado, the post!

Confronting the Publishing Paradox

By: Amara Cavahlo (Follow Amara @nerdnothuman on Twitter)

There’s this maddening paradox at the core of the traditional publishing process: writers must invest so much time and effort into their work—work which will always have a place in society—and yet writers are rarely invested into in return.

That paradox manifests itself in many ways:


As a writer, you can spend thousands of hours on perfecting your craft, and yet never become a “professional” within the publishing industry—or, at the very least, one that can make a living off their work.


Publishers claim to be making record profits, and yet they can’t pay the employees making them those profits a livable wage.


On a more personal note, stories have always been everything to me: movies an addiction; books an obsession; the act of filling a page with words a necessity for my psychological wellbeing. I knew I wanted to be a full-time fiction writer as a small child and became invested in the idea of becoming an editor as a teenager. But when it came time to enroll in university, choosing between studying editing and creative writing or something else felt like choosing between uncertainty or stability. I worried about affording my basic needs if I chose publishing, because I’d already seen what it could do to its own.

I don’t deal well with uncertainty. So I chose not to study writing.


During the three-year undergraduate design degree I did choose to do, I wrote three books outside of class—the word count equivalent to three PhD dissertations. While I can proudly present a diploma for my university work and get a job for it, all I’ll likely receive for my writing efforts is the assumption that I can’t be a very good writer, or else I’d have gotten those books published.


Don’t get me wrong; I’m not claiming that those who choose creative professions are always going to struggle (or that choosing something else guarantees success), or that my books are masterpieces that deserve to be published, or that writing a novel is perfectly equivalent to writing a PhD dissertation. None of those things are true. The point is that it’s incredibly disheartening to know that in some areas of my life, what I receive will be proportional to how much I invest, whilst in others—the ones I happen to care about most—I might as well be tossing keys into the ocean out of the hope that they’ll unlock Atlantis.

Accepting the paradox

Image of a green checkmark.
Image added by Aimee, not author. Image by Krzysztof Jaracz from Pixabay

There was a time when I noticed this paradox and felt so frustrated by it that I refused to accept it. Instead, I hoped I’d be the exception—the lucky one. That hope was enough to keep me going for a while: I would think, “My work will get published eventually, and that will make everything worth it. I’ll be content and happy then.”

Over time, though, I started seeing how dangerous that mindset and the writing advice that advocates for it can be. Common advice like “It only takes one yes,” “Just write the next book,” and “You’ll achieve success eventually” sound great on the surface, because they claim that anyone can succeed if only they work hard enough.

I haven’t been querying for that long—only since 2021—so I don’t claim to be a veteran of the process. But even within the short time I’ve been querying, this querying advice hasn’t had quite the positive effect it’s meant to have on me, and I’ve watched how it affects my friends. Now when the rejections keep rolling in, when your every project is unsuccessful, that advice starts sounding like an accusation: “Everyone is good enough to get that one yes, and write that next book, and be successful eventually… except for you.”

Then we can’t avoid the paradox anymore: we gave everything to publishing, and maybe in the past that would’ve been enough to succeed, but now there is a very real possibility that publishing will never give us anything back. In the current publishing climate, perfecting your craft is the bare minimum for getting noticed, but beyond that, luck is the main determinant of your success. Writers have basically no control over their publishing journeys, and there’s nothing we can do to change that.

At this point, it might seem like we should cut our losses and just stop. I’ve seen people stop writing completely, and I get it—if no one else will invest in our writing, why should we? If writing doesn’t spark joy for us anymore, why should we continue doing it? Sometimes choosing to stop writing is the best thing a person can do for themselves, especially if they no longer enjoy the process of writing itself. (Here’s a great article about stopping from this blog!)

But we don’t all want to stop. don’t want to stop—the characters trapped in my head would drive me insane if I did!

So then the question for us who want to continue becomes: having accepted the rather hopeless paradox of traditional publishing, how can we keep going without hurting ourselves with it?

My proposal: punch the paradox in the face

Comic style graphic reading KAPOW in red letters against a blue and yellow background.
Image added by Aimee, not author. Image by Andrew Martin from Pixabay

Now, at the risk of sounding like an enormously inflated smart aleck, I’d like to share how I’ve so far gotten through querying mostly unscathed. It’s a bit of a strange mindset, and one that might not help you, but I share it in hopes that it will help someone (especially considering that everything I’ve said before this is high-key depressing).

Before continuing, though, I want to make one thing clear: while becoming a full-time writer is a dream of mine, writing is currently something I only do as a hobby, meaning I don’t depend on it financially. If I spent the rest of my life being unpublished, or publishing books that make very little money, materially I’d manage just fine. This is how I can (literally) afford to think like I do.

So. As I stated earlier, I made the decision to separate writing from my livelihood very consciously. I made that decision because I noticed that damn paradox and knew I didn’t have the temperament to stake my rent or my sense of success on an industry that runs on luck instead of merit. I also did it because, based on some of my experiences being a musician, I knew that in some ways choosing not to go all-in on writing would be very freeing in publishing’s current trash fire climate.

Let’s go back to that idea of ‘success’, shall we?

There’s this common view about art, which is that it has no worth if it has no financial worth. If someone likes baking, we tell them they should start a bakery. If someone likes knitting, we suggest they sell their creations on Etsy. And if someone likes writing, the assumption is that their writing isn’t very good unless it’s published.

Remember how my past self would say that getting published would make me content and happy? I wish I could go back in time and ask her: why do you need to base your entire sense of success and self-worth, of happiness, on the moving goalposts of an industry that doesn’t care about you?

Why should we wait for the publishing industry’s permission to feel successful?

Because the thing is, sure, getting published would be awesome—I would probably ascend into a celestial plane through sheer excitement if I became a bestselling author, and got fan art, and a movie deal, and… well, you get the idea. But a lot of us didn’t start writing because we wanted to get published (or become a bestseller, or get fan art, or…). We started writing because we had to. In my experience, it feels like the stories picked me to tell them, and they’re not going to leave me alone until I do.

And, while there are many aspects about the traditional publishing process that we can’t control—getting an agent being the first one we encounter—there are still lots we can control: we can choose what stories we want to write. We can choose when to write them. We can choose to take a break. We can choose to read books about craft, or ignore craft completely. We can choose who we share our books with, and what sort of feedback we’d like those people to give—as well as how much of that feedback we take to heart.

I used to worry about whether I could sell a project before I started writing it. But now, I choose to write things because I want to write them, and literally for no other reason. Book two in that weird sci-fi series I haven’t even sold the first book of yet about a girl getting mixed up with an extremist group that thinks demons are real? Epic. That five-season Voltron sequel TV series? That’s insane, I’ll never finish it, it’ll certainly never get made (like, ever), but I’m doing it anyway because it’s fun as hell.

After all, until my writing matters to the industry, why should the industry matter to me?

And here’s the best part of making my art for the sake of making it: I’m still very serious about getting my books published, but the rejections don’t sting as much because the books already fulfilled their purpose of making me happy by writing them. This isn’t to say that the rejections don’t sting, and that I don’t mind shelving projects (if you ever need a shoulder to cry on for those things, hit me up). But I love that if I ever do get an agent or make it even farther into the publishing process, each of those advancements will feel like the most fantastic bonus to an already-fulfilling journey, rather than the bare minimum.

The system of traditional publishing wants us to believe that all our dreams and chances for happiness are wrapped in its cold, money-greased machinery. It wants to control our creative output and, more distressingly for our wellbeing, to define what ‘success’ is for us. But I say screw that. We make our own.

Image of a chalkboard with graffiti style lettering reading SUCCESS - go get it -
Image added by Aimee, not author. Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay.

Bio: Amara Cavahlo is a UX and graphic designer who, confusingly, is an Australian citizen with an American accent who also happens to be a native Spanish speaker (and subject of feline overlords). If you wish to summon her to your location, an offering of one (1) chaotic science fiction or fantasy book will do. You can follow her on Twitter @nerdnothuman or learn more about her on her website:

Querying Stats for the last book queried: Click on this link to learn more about that book pitched as:

Miska of Serifos presents:


✅ Pay the ship fare

❌ Make sure warriors don’t abduct bf

✅ Negotiate with gods for him back

✅ Get dragged into a centuries-long war instead

🔳 Survive

First Reflections on the Not the Darling Series

Hi, this post is being written by me, Aimee, your host for the Not the Darling Series. If you’re new to the blog, you can read about the premise of the series here and can find the blogs by typing “Not the Darling” into the search bar to the right of this post. So, as we wrap up our first month (!) of submissions in this series, I wanted to take some time to reflect on some of the amazing things I’ve learned from the incredible authors who have let me get to know them and their journeys.

Authors at all stages of their career should be reading these.

Let me be clear. This space is and always will be for un-agented, querying (or quitting querying) authors. That is the premise and the purpose and remains my passion behind this project. Accordingly, I thought the main (majority) target audience for these stories would be other querying authors. I’ve since learned that not only do authors at all stages of their career want to read these stories, authors at all stages of their career should read these stories. They’re humbling. And raw. They’re full of passion and pain. They remind us that querying authors are our peers, a fact too often forgotten.

For those of us who queried forever, these stories are a bittersweet reminder of the parts of the journey colored rose when we finally got that yes. They remind us to stay humble and that we are no different than any of the authors writing these posts (which again, is why they’re our peers). For those who did not query long, they teach a lesson thankfully never learned via personal experience but which these authors have been kind enough to do the emotional labor to teach via THEIR personal experiences. To keep you humble.

Humble, I know. It’s a loaded word in an industry where we have so few wins. Where so many of us are crawling and bleeding, scraping our way tooth and nail to be seen, screaming into an empty void for recognition. Where marginalized authors fight every day against stereotypes saying we’re too loud, too angry, too aggressive, too whatever. And I ask for humility. I know. But I don’t ask for humility toward the titans of publishing or Barnes & Noble, toward Amazon or the C-Suites of Big Five imprints. Where they are concerned, I say lift your chin as high as you can and own the fucking room.

I ask for humility toward your peers, who are struggling. Who are just like you, in so many ways. I ask you to check in on them if you can and when you’re able. Because they’re screaming into the void. They’re fighting the industry, throwing ribbons of their hearts into the wheels of the machine that is publishing hoping one might trip over a piece so they might be fed a scrap. For them, yes, I ask you to be humble. We were there once. All of us. And we could be again at any moment, the tables turned. This industry is small, so very, very small. We are stronger together.

Image of a wooden door with intricate metal carvings surrounded by steampunk brass cogs, wheels, clocks, gears, etc.
I am a fantasy author so might be me, but if publishing had a door, I imagine this would be what it would look like. The gate that the gatekeepers keep, held shut by cogs and clocks that make absolutely no damn sense. Seems right, yeah. Image by Amy from Pixabay

It really is luck.

I will be Brutally Honest because that is my brand. When I opened this space and said the only editing I’d do would be to make sure (to the best of my ability) nothing was harmful to the author writing the post or anyone on the other side of the screen, plus minor grammar stuff, I fully expected some objectively bad writing. For those who don’t know my background, it’s a bit… stuffy. I have an undergraduate degree in creative writing from a school whose sole purpose was to groom its students for an MFA at Iowa which is The US’ Best Writing Program for Serious Writers. Everyone thought I was headed to Iowa. I thought I was headed to Iowa. Why I didn’t go to Iowa is a whole separate thing. However, that education never entirely left me. Combine that with a decade plus working in legal, writing Very Serious Legal Stuff, and you get someone who can be… snobbish. I know. I hate it and work hard to battle it every day.

Why am I admitting this ugly truth to all of you lovely people on the internet? Well, because I want you to believe me when I say not a single thing submitted me to thus far has been edited by me at all (except for minor grammar things), nor have I found any piece of writing published on this blog to be “objectively” bad writing. In fact, I’ve loved everything submitted for entirely different reasons. But objectively, it’s all been well-constructed, with a nice voice, good pacing, varied sentence structure, and excellent continuity. I’ll stop reading something I find objectively bad. Not only have I read everything here straight through (a few times), I’ve actually been late to a couple meetings just to finish reading several of these pieces.

So for me, a bona fide snob, who went into this project fully prepared to accept what I consider objectively bad writing (I’m literally wincing typing this, I’m sorry to be such an asshole, truly), to come to you and report zero bad writing is Saying Something. To take it one step further and say all the writing is in fact very good, is Saying Something Bigger. And the TL;DR something is this: When agents get up on Twitter and say there’s so much good stuff in their inbox it’s impossible to decide, or the quality of the writing has gone up so much recently, or mentors from mentorship programs say this is horribly stressful because they want to choose 20 things, I used to roll my eyes. Because I, a snob, didn’t believe it possible for that many people to be consistently submitting objectively good writing. Selfishly, I also didn’t want there to be that much competition. I have, however, learned through personal experience, this is not the case.

The writing is good. Objectively good. The agents aren’t lying. Neither are mentors. Those aren’t platitudes they’re feeding you. The inboxes are brimming with good stuff. This is all really coming down to subjectivity and luck. Which sucks because you can control neither. This is a shitty consolation. Sorry. I didn’t say this was a positivity post, just a reflection.

Cartoon figure of a white man with a bear and a top hat in a vest and coat holding a pipe, glaring with narrowed eyes.
Oh, hey, look! It’s one of my writing professors come to talk about Faulkner’s brilliance some more because you know… the decline of the southern aristocracy and uh… incest or something. The Next Great American Novel coming to my agent’s inbox T-minus… NEVER. Image by OpenClipart-Vectors from Pixabay

The Conversations are Important and are Happening.

Since the Not the Darling series started, five (5) posts have debuted on the blog. They have been viewed over 700 times in more than a dozen countries. They’ve been shared on Twitter, reblogged on other blogs, shared on Facebook, and appeared in at least one Discord of mine, but others I’ve been told about.

The conversations they’re spurring are as varied and important as the stories themselves. Conversations about mental health and the toll rejection can take, on the taboo topic of giving yourself the okay to quit if you need it. Questions about how to find community in this new era where mentorship programs aren’t as widespread as they used to be, and Twitter pitch contests which were once as much about building community as finding an agent, are fraught and oversaturated. Frustrations and confusion about marketability and publishing trends, about whether you should write to the market or write what you love. The evergreen and always relevant topic of “being too old to debut” by publishing standards. The list goes on and every day it grows, taking on a life of its own I’m so awed and inspired to watch.

When I first started this series, I was a little afraid of these conversations. I was unsure if facilitating them would make me a target if they got out of hand or if I would be held responsible if I couldn’t “control” them. Over the past month, I’ve been so humbled to find that was a shitty and cynical take (I’m really winning on this episode, I know). The dialogue so far has been respectful and nuanced, smart and kind. And for that, I’m so grateful to everyone contributing not only to the blog series, but to the conversations as well. It’s important we have them, and that we have them in this way.

Cartoon image of four people in shades of red, orange, green, blue, with text bubbles above their heads. One reads: "Aimee, did you really think people would be messy On Main?" Another answers "What? Me? No. Never. I was not worried at all. Once." The third says "Funny how that doesn't sound convincing." And the last contains only a question mark.
In case anyone ever wondered what it’s like to sit through a workplace training with me as your host – it involves loads of graphics like these. Edited to include the same kind of bad humor. Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

Thank You. Keep ’em Coming.

Finally, to the authors who have already contributed: Thank you. Each and every one of you is courageous and I’m honored to know you, to host your stories, to be a small part of your journey, wherever it brings you. Reading your words has been a joy and a privilege.

To those thinking of submitting: Please do! Submissions are still open, and there are still so many amazing conversations to be had! Submission criteria can be found here.

Can’t wait to see what the next month brings!