Agency

When we talk about “agency” in literature, we are usually talking about the protagonist of the story: (1) having the ability to act in his/her/their environment, then; (2) acting.

Simple, right?

Well, as it turns out, not for me.

Agency is something I always have to write into my manuscripts after multiple drafts. My critique partners and beta readers always come back to me telling me my characters don’t have enough (or any) agency. The character is supposed to move the plot, not the other way around. It’s a concept taught in every 101 creative writing class.

Yet… it always eludes me.

Struggling with agency is a common problem for a lot of writers, but recently, I’ve been thinking about why it’s such a reoccurring problem for me. You see, it’s not one character or one book or one series that lacks agency for me. It’s all of them. Even though I should know better. Even though I write thinking this time I’m not going to have to edit agency into my character. Thinking this time I’m going to get it right. But I never do, and I have to wonder why.

I think the answer comes from another definition.

Complex Post Traumatic Stress Disorder is a condition that results from chronic or long-term exposure to trauma over which a victim has little or no control and from which there is little or no hope of escape

[Emphasis added]. Source.

I’ve written about my C-PTSD and how it relates to my reading and writing experiences before, but though I’ve previously connected the two things, I never made this particular connection.

It’s hard for me to write agency, because my mind is wired to believe I have none.

My C-PTSD stems from childhood abuse. That’s all I’m really willing to share about that out here, exposed on the internet, but for purposes of this post, I think it’s important that it’s understood this trauma occurred when I was very young and went on for a long, long time. It shaped the way my brain behaves. Seriously. Physical changes in my brain happened and those things impact my worldview. Deeply.

Though I’m older now, and I have agency, and I go to therapy to unravel and unpack all this trauma, I still struggle. I have an extremely difficult time making decisions. I get overwhelmed easily. When I’m in a dangerous or even mildly upsetting situation, I freeze. I have the ability to control my environment, but I struggle to do so. It’s uncomfortable, and it makes me nauseous and anxious.

Because deep down, I don’t understand agency. Agency is, at its root, having some kind of control or influence over your life situation. Something I never had. And if I’m honest with myself, it scares me.

My reactions to the world taking hold of the reins for me are much better. When someone dies, for instance, I’m the most level-headed person in the room. Not being in control is something I’m intimately familiar with and have learned to navigate beautifully. Which is… different.

I started to write unhealthy there, then changed it. Because maybe it’s not unhealthy. Maybe it’s simply different. Maybe it’s how I operate. And maybe that’s okay.

And maybe this is all to say that while I believe agency is important (and I do write it into my manuscripts where it’s needed), lack of agency might be just as important with some characters, and is something I would love to see explored further.

Can you tell a compelling story if your character has no agency? And how should we even define agency? Can’t agency be taking actions to survive, even if they’re not active actions? What if agency, for some characters, is not acting but freezing? What if agency is not striking back, but appeasing? What if agency is looking at a hopeless situation from which there is no escape, but hoping for one anyway?

What if agency could be rewritten?

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Even Rapunzel, locked in her tower, had the agency to let down her hair. But her prince had to find her first. What if he never came? Would her story still be worth telling? Photo courtesy: https://pixabay.com/en/users/Emily_WillsPhotography-8096214/

Next Week on the Blog: Dreams, Failure, and the What Could Be Wish

❤ Always,

Aimee

There is Time

Authoring is hard. And those seventeen hour days finally caught up to me.

Here’s some truth: Being an author doesn’t only involve writing and editing. It involves answering emails and posting on social media and writing blogs and marketing. It involves updating your website and keeping track of trends in the market and thinking of innovative ways to sell your work. It involves reading and reading and reading some more, inside and outside of your genre.

And if you work a full time job (like so many of us), that means a lot of late nights and weekend hours. The reality of being an author is much less illustrious than the movies make it out to be. Over 77% of self-published authors make less than $1,000 a year from their writing. For traditional authors, that number is still 53.9% making less than $1,000 a year.

I don’t know about you, but $1,000 a year really isn’t going to pay my bills. Especially considering my rent is $1,200 a month, and I’m single. So I work a full-time job. A vast majority of authors work part-time or full-time or have another income to help out. And at the end of the day, the full-time job has to come before writing. Because I have to eat. And not live on the street.

So I work my 9-5:30 (or later), Monday through Friday, and I write/edit/market/blog/Twitter/Instagram/Facebook during the evenings/into the wee hours of the morning and on the weekends. But that kind of schedule catches up to you.

In my world, things started to pile up. My apartment was a mess. I was ordering out too much because I felt like I had too much to do to go to the grocery store or cook (which increased my expenses). My diet suffered. I drank too much caffeine. My dog got antsy and bored. My social life suffered. I hardly left my apartment. Sleep was something I daydreamed about.

So I promised myself that after I submitted to Pitch Wars I would take a break. Not just from writing, but from everything. From social media, from blogging, even from reading. I needed to recharge my batteries.

At first, the author anxiety almost destroyed my much needed authoring hiatus. For the first few days of said break, I found myself in the presence of my friends without engaging. Instead, I sat in a literal corner silently obsessing over what I had to do. I have a third book in a series to finish revising. I have continuing edits to The King’s Blade to hammer out, because regardless of how it does in Pitch Wars, I’ll be querying soon. I have an idea for a women’s fiction novel that’s itching at me. I have emails to answer. I have reading to do. I have to post on social media to keep my presence up. I have to write a blog. I have to do, do, do.

The “break” didn’t come easy. I had to force myself to take it. But after three or four days, I started to slide into it. There is time became my mantra. It’s okay not to write every day. It’s okay not to read two books a week. It’s okay to leave my phone on the charger. It’s okay to take a day or two to respond to an email. It’s okay to take some time to clean my apartment and go to the grocery store and catch up on Game of Thrones and sit outside with my friends for hours doing nothing but shooting the shit.

We only get one life. Writing is my passion. It’s what I love to do. But when it becomes a chore, I’ve lost something. And that something is the fire, and I need the fire to write.

So writers, as hard as it can be, go ahead and give yourself that break. You don’t need to write every day. There is time.

❤ Always,

Aimee

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#PitchWars #PimpMyBio

*Waves shyly* Hi #PitchWars peeps and regular readers. Regular readers, I interrupt your regularly scheduled blog post to bring you a #PitchWars special! For those who don’t know what #PitchWars is go ahead and read this. And for those who are interested in what this whole #PimpMyBio thing is all about I offer this.

So I guess the cat is out of the bag… I’m doing #PitchWars y’all! And I’m here to talk about my favorite thing (my current WIP) and my least favorite thing (myself) because this hybrid author hopeful is all about blending these days! Without further ado, let’s cut to it.

THE KING’S BLADE (aka the #DeepSeaWIP)

Anyone who follows me on Twitter or has been around this blog for a little knows I’ve been hinting at this top secret #DeepSeaWIP. Well, today’s the day I’m finally going to reveal it all.

THE KING’S BLADE, a dark and twisted retelling of The Little Mermaid, is (shocker) a young adult, high fantasy.

Thyra Skovgaard, First Assassin to the Deep Sea, has never met a mark she can’t handle. That is, until Valdemar Sørensen, her king and mate, assigns his First Assassin the task of taking the life of the Farrish prince. To do so, Thyra will have to relinquish her beloved tail to assume human form and go ashore. What she finds there will change her, and the Deep Sea, forever.

THE KING’S BLADE started as a sort of a joke between one of my most trusted betas and me. We were discussing the trends of our favorite genre (YA fantasy) and retellings in general. I mentioned that retellings looked to be falling out and lamented they would do so, yet again, without a gritty, twisted Little Mermaid retelling. During this conversation, we also discussed the assassin trend in YA fantasy, and one of us (I honestly don’t remember who) might have made a flippant comment about how the two (the retelling and assassins) should be blended. My beta, an oceanographer, loved this idea, as did I, but I brushed it off. I had other books to work on and I thought people might think an assassin mermaid was a bit… well… silly.

The idea, as these little buggers tend to do, wouldn’t leave me alone, though. I started to put my feelers out to other readers in my circle. Assassin mermaid, anyone? To my surprise, the response was positive. The idea dug its heels in. A few weeks later, I sent my beta a message: “I may have started the assassin mermaid book.” She was delighted.

But if I was going to do this, I wanted to make sure I did it right. The sea is not a kind place, mermaids are not people, and assassins aren’t warm and fuzzy. If I did this, I wanted it to be accurate. For it to be accurate, I would need to do a ton of research. So, for the next several months, I immersed myself in sea science. Fortunately, I know an oceanographer. Before I knew it, we were having long talks about swim bladders, how heavy metal dumping impacts apex predators, bizarre shark mating rituals, red tides, and the mysterious deep sea. My scientifically accurate and brutal Deep Sea folk were born.

Now, months later, I’m hoping to bring them from the depths and find them a home in the traditional publishing world. Here we go!

ABOUT ME

For those new here, I’m Aimee! I’m a 29-year-old Pisces who lives in the Philadelphia suburbs with my German shepherd service dog, Gabriela (“Gabi”) and two cats, Apollo and Maia. I’m a self-published author of two books, The Wheel Mages, which debuted last November, and The Blood Mage which comes out on July 18th! I went to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill where I majored in English literature and minored in creative writing and dreamed of going to the University of Iowa for an MFA but got sidetracked by some mental health complications.

Speaking of which… I have complex post traumatic stress disorder, generalized anxiety disorder, and am severely touch averse. Though I don’t like to be defined by my mental illness, it is something that affects my writing, and if you stick around for any length of time, you’ll see I talk about it a lot. It’s part of the reason I chose to self-publish my other series, the second book of which is very much a self-insert piece exploring the complications that come with post traumatic stress disorder.

That said, I’m looking forward to starting a new journey with THE KING’S BLADE and am hopeful to make some new friends along the way! I can’t wait to meet you!

❤ Aimee

Always his blade never his queen

 

 

 

My Characters Aren’t Pretty

Note: This post is a little jumbled because my thoughts are a little jumbled. This is one of those topics I’d like to revisit when I have a better handle on what’s going on inside my head, but I figured it might be worth sharing as a discussion topic.

Fiction is the lie through which we tell the truth

~ Albert Camus

When I was in college learning how to be a better writer, I was also a teenager struggling to learn how to be a better person. Both are struggles that continue to this day and will hopefully continue for the rest of my life.

I’ve made my fair share of mistakes along the way but that’s one of the things that intrigues me about writing fiction. Humanity is messy and that messiness lends itself to literature as a mirror for life. The quote I started with is a reflection of that idea not only because of what it says but also because of whom it was said by. Albert Camus was an absurdist, a philosophy centering the individual and his/her/their inability to find value or meaning in life.

Authors are also interested in exploring both the individual and the Truth and that exploration can be found in spades in young adult literature. Maybe it’s because young adults have so much to explore, as they’re trying to find their own way, or maybe it’s simply because young adult readers see through a different lens. Whatever the reason, it’s something I’ve been thinking about a lot recently.

Often, in discussions of the differences between young adult and adult fantasy, in addition to the age of the main character, characterization versus world building is addressed. Young adult fantasies tend to be character-driven stories whereas adult fantasies tend to be world-driven stories. Obviously there are exceptions, as there always are, but this difference fascinates me.

Absurdism, as Camus saw it, was a rejection of nihilism, a philosophy centering the thought that life is meaningless. Camus, although he believed the individual would never be able to grasp the meaning of life, believed he/she/they should still seek it. The difference between the two philosophies is interesting in that nihilism seems to take a more world-driven approach. Life (as a big, abstract concept) is meaningless. Whereas absurdism seems to take a more character-driven approach. We humans cannot understand the meaning of life.

I don’t think either approach to writing (or life) is wrong. I don’t think there really is such a thing as “wrong” when it comes to writing. Art is art and expression is expression. There are no hard and fast rules and exceptions are abundant. But I do prefer to read and write character-driven stories.

My characters aren’t pretty, though. And I don’t mean that in a physical beauty sort of way, I mean it in a they are morally gray kind of way. Their flaws are what make them interesting and, quite honestly, what make them human.

One of the reasons my Sanctum series is written in first person is because I like the idea of a one-sided story. I like getting into the head of a character and putting her on display, warts and all. In some ways, when you write from the first person POV, you’re always dealing with an unreliable narrator of sorts. A reader can never reach the Truth of your world, because he/she/they only ever see it through one set of eyes. It’s absurd and it’s exploratory and I think it’s part of the reason why first person POV is so prevalent in YA.

The world we live in is increasingly divisive, however. Sides are chosen and swords are drawn. The vehemence of our individual beliefs is put on full display via social media. It’s fascinating and, if I’m honest, a little bit frightening.

See, my core belief system is hinged on the concepts of compromise and understanding. I don’t like confrontation and my opinions are constantly in flux. I’m a listener, a watcher, a mediator. I like the middle because so much of my life has been chaotic. I find humanity to be violent and messy and glorious and caring and beautiful. I’m a dark, serious person but I’m also endlessly optimistic about humanity. I think at our core, humans want to be “good.” But “good” is such a loaded term, especially these days. What is “good” and what is “bad?” The meanings of these words shift depending on your side, on your belief system, on your experience. This is that heavy stuff the absurdists were talking about, the meaning of life that we should strive for but will never be able to fully grasp. The Truth that the lie of fiction tries to bring to the surface.

When I was in college, my work was often critiqued for being “too preachy.” People are smart and readers are some of the smartest people there are so I was taught to let them come to their own conclusions, not try to impose my belief system through my writing. “You’re not writing fables, Aimee,” was a familiar refrain. “You can guide but don’t shove. It’s sloppy writing, too heavy handed. The author’s touch should be so light it is unnoticeable. Create characters that someone can imagine leaping off the page and you’ll create discussion.” Discussion is the beating heart of a free society. It is a sacred thing and as a writer, I take it very seriously.

One of these same writing professors was obsessed with Anton Chekhov. I despised him (Chekhov, not my professor, I loved her). Anton Chekhov has written some of the most despicable characters I’ve ever read. They are misogynistic, sex-crazed, unfaithful, wife-batterers and I don’t like them. I don’t feel sympathy for them. I don’t want them to win (in fact, I’m happy that they usually don’t). I have never in my life cheered for a Chekhov character. His women are vapid and flippant and ridiculous. His men are arrogant narcissists. Cheating is rampant. Domestic abuse is thrown onto the page without a care. It bothered me. And as I’m writing this, I realize it still bothers me.

Here’s the thing though–his characters make me feel. His characters make me yell. For those who don’t know me in real life, yelling is not a thing I do often. As I mentioned earlier in this post, I don’t like conflict. If I’m pushed to yelling, something has gone terribly wrong. I like to see both (or all ten) sides before making a decision. I like to evaluate and weigh and usually, I come out somewhere in the middle. With Chekhov, I am never in the middle. His writing forced me, someone who rarely chooses “sides,” to take one and it stimulated discussion. Discussion I had to bolster with lines in the text. Discussion that made me a more analytical reader and, I will grudgingly admit, a better writer.

Chekhov is not preachy. His characters are morally gray (bending toward bad) and they spark a response in me most characters don’t. In college, I didn’t entirely understand that concept but now that I’m a published author myself, I read Chekhov with a different lens and a deeper appreciation. Please don’t mistake appreciation for “enjoyment.” Reading Chekhov still feels like a hate read and I still want to punch all of his characters in the face. But feeling is a writing win, even if the feeling stimulated isn’t always pleasant.

A reader recently told me she wanted to “strangle Alena sometimes,” and I had to chuckle. “Why?” I asked innocently. She rolled her eyes. “Because she makes stupid decisions.” I smiled softly and nodded. “Don’t we all, though?”

Something to think about.

Now accepting discussion but not argument in the comments.

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Next week on the blog: Unveiling the #DeepSeaWIP and my participation in this year’s #PitchWars. Don’t want to miss it? Don’t forget to follow!

Impromptu Blog: The Blood Mage

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

❤ Aimee

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Coming July 18, 2017

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

On Beta Readers

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

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

What is a Beta Reader?

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

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

When should you send your manuscript for beta reads? 

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

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

How do you pick beta readers?

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

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

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

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

How many beta readers do you need?

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

If you could do it again…

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

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

Final thoughts

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

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

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

Have things to add? Pop them in the comments.

❤ Aimee

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The Great American Lie

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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As always, take care of yourselves. ❤ Aimee

Why I Write YA

Youth is wasted on the young.

~ George Bernard Shaw (maybe)

If you Google: “What would you tell your younger self” you’ll find literally hundreds of articles written by people of all ages and professions. You’ll see articles written by 65-year-old astrophysicists and articles by 26-year-old postdoctoral students all wishing to speak to some version of their past selves. You’ll see photographers, and writers, and presidents all with a message to send to a version of themselves they wish they could go back and nurture.

Writing young adult fiction is a bit like that. I’d like to sound romantic and say my writing is a love letter to my younger self, but if you’ve read my writing, you’ll understand why that’s not actually very romantic (or true). What my writing really is, or what I strive to make it, is a quiet narrative of reality. From the fantasy author, yes, I know.

I was recently asked by an interviewer if I had things I wanted to say with my writing. My answer to this is emphatically yes. I think every writer does, whether he/she/they knows it or not (arguably, not knowing it is much more dangerous than embracing it). And because what I want to say with my writing has so much to do with things I believed as a teenager, it only seems to make sense I would write young adult fiction.

This is also probably why I have such a fascination with trope bending. Tropes, to me, feel a lot like stories that aren’t fully fleshed out. A little like me as a teenager. As a teenager, I was a plot-driven story. Lots of things happened to me, but I didn’t have much agency. I wasn’t driving my own story. As a consequence, I fell into a lot of tropes (and I’m not talking about the fluff tropes like love triangles and enemies-to-lovers, I’m talking about the big, problematic tropes).

Rejecting tropes flat-out, however, seems like avoidance. I’m kind of tired of avoidance. I’m driving my own story now. I have agency. I want to confront the beasts I had to battle during adolescence, and I’m encouraged to see so many young adults in the community rattling sabers as well. Tropes may never be a part of their stories, and that’s an amazing thing to witness.

But for me, there are still things I need to address. There are things about myself I’d like to go back and change but can’t. Truths I wish I’d realized sooner. These ugly realities, while not romantic, are what you’ll find in my writing. My writing is not a love story to my younger self, nor is it a pep talk to young adults. My writing is ugly and scarred. It’s about battling the beast inside of you. It’s taking an incomplete story and filling it out, then turning it upside down.

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On Failure

I learned how to fail at this gig a long time ago.

When I was eighteen, the University of North Carolina sent me a letter encouraging me to apply for its coveted Thomas Wolfe Scholarship. They’d seen my accomplishments in some writing competition or other and thought I’d be an ideal candidate. The application process was (in my opinion) more rigorous than applying for admission to the University. It required a fifty page prose packet and additional letters of recommendation. I agonized over my submission. UNC was my dream school. It was the only university I applied to; it was the only-thing-I-ever-wanted. Worse, I’d convinced myself that because they specifically asked me to apply, this scholarship was all but in the bag.

It wasn’t.

The rejection letter came in an envelope with the University’s famous Old Well logo on the front. I ripped it open, sure of my imminent success (in those days, I was still a big fish in a little pond, and I was always successful). As my eyes scanned the paper, my heart fell into my stomach. My chest tightened. My hands trembled. They didn’t want me.

I was inconsolable. I screamed and raged like a toddler. I threw fists and spat hurtful words. My father and I got into a terrible argument. I didn’t want to go to college. I didn’t want to do anything. I wanted to curl up and die, and I was sure I would, the rejection hurt that badly. I was a terrible writer. He didn’t understand. Look, there was a letter here to prove how awful I was at this thing-I-wanted-more-than-anything. I was nothing. My dream was dead. I would never write another word.

Little did I know, but that would be the first of many kicks Carolina would deliver to me over my three years as a student in their creative writing program.

If life has taught me anything, it’s that when you get kicked, you get back up, with a snarl and bleeding fingers if you have to. But you keep fighting.

Writing this, I’m torn between a chuckle and a wince. It sounds melodramatic, and truly, it was, but it hurt too. It tore at my foundation, shredded my already fragile self-worth. For someone who has been through as much trauma as I have, you’d think I’d have been tougher. But I wasn’t. Not about this. I lost a lot of innocence too young, but this was the one thing I’d managed to keep pure. This was the one Truth I thought I knew. I was the best writer. It was the only thing I was sure about. When it turned out to be just another lie, it felt like the last of what I thought I was had been stripped away.

One of my ex boyfriends used to call me his “tiger.” He said I was a fighter. He was too. It was the thing that held us together. We were both good at getting back up. Call it stubbornness or stupidity or maybe both. Whatever it is, it’s ingrained deep.

That day was no exception. I got up. I kept writing. I was accepted to Carolina. And when I got in, I realized you weren’t allowed to enter the writing program until your sophomore year. One of my roommates managed to find a way into the screenwriting track early, however–second semester freshman year. That felt like a kick, too. But it hurt less than the one before. And I got up and entered the fiction track my sophomore year.

The first day of class, my professor told the room full of eager students that if anyone would be happy doing something other than writing, they should do that, and there was the door. Four people walked out of that class. I didn’t. This was still my dream, and if I wasn’t the best, I would break myself and rebuild until I was. Fighter’s instincts.

My first piece was a fantasy short. My professor liked it but advised me that writing fantasy wouldn’t help me move forward in the program (when I was at Carolina, you had to apply for a spot at every level of the program, and the spots were limited). Another kick. I gritted my teeth and adapted. I started to write literary fiction. This was still my dream.

I applied for the second level of the program and was accepted. I met the Wolfe Scholar. She was both kind and talented, and somehow, that felt like another kick. I got up. Because this was still my dream.

Every critique I received from my peers and my professors felt like a kick, too. We were clumsy and competitive. We knew there were limited spots available, and we coveted them. We fought for them. Me more than some, maybe more than most. I was eager to fight, to prove myself tough enough. Every time I was kicked, I got back up, heart bleeding. I pushed through it, honing my armor as I honed my craft. And I failed and fell and stumbled and sometimes succeeded. And every kick hurt less and less, until getting up became easier and easier.

I made mistakes (most notably getting into a political argument with Stuart Dybek at a bar. For the record, I had no idea what I was talking about). Sometimes, my competitive edge got the best of me, and I fought those who only wanted friendship. Sometimes, I was more tiger than human, and my teeth were sharp. It’s a knife’s edge that’s hard for me to walk. Sometimes, I don’t know when to stop fighting.

Still, through that program, I learned perhaps the most important lesson you can teach an aspiring writer–how to fail.

So last night, when I arrived at a library where I was supposed to be giving a writing workshop to teens on how to craft a story, and no one showed up, I was pleased to find the armor I’d crafted years ago was still in place.

Don’t get me wrong. It still hurts. Armor only serves you until you take it off, and years of therapy have taught me that I do have to take it off eventually. But at least in public, I was able to maintain my composure, and the armor blunted the worst of the blow, so when I did later remove it, I was able to keep some semblance of control.

Failing is part of this life. It’s probably the reason that professor in my first writing class offered the door. She was trying to present a kindness to those who saw a different way. We all fail. Traditional and self-published both. In big ways and small. We are rejected from writing programs and literary agencies. Our writing is torn up by editors and reviewers. Our books flop. Our series are cancelled. We face walls of silence and empty rooms.

But we don’t talk about it much. And when we do, it’s after we’re already safe. It’s when we’ve already attained a measure of success. We don’t discuss the empty rooms when we’re facing one, but only when we’re standing before a packed house. We remember our failure fondly, with a different eye. We talk about our happily ever afters, and our hero’s journey arcs, and that’s okay, but it’s not the only Truth.

Someday, I hope to tell that triumphant story, but right now, I can only tell the story I know, and that is the one of an uncertain ending and an empty room. It’s a story about learning to fail, about getting kicked, and feeling lost and helpless and worst of all–silenced. But it’s a story of triumph too, even if it doesn’t have a happily ever after tied to the end.

Because in this story, I still get up.

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Broken Girl Cured by Love: On Tropes and the Lies They Tell

Author’s Note: For the past few days I’ve been in Tennessee at a workshop hosted by Madcap Retreats about writing cross culturally. It was an incredible, eye-opening experience, and I’m only sharing a snippet of what I learned there, so I highly recommend you participate in one of their workshops if you ever get the chance to. 


There are ways to create narratives of hope that don’t feel like a lie.

~ Leigh Bardugo

To fully understand this post, you’ll need to watch this video (there’s also a transcript, but if you can watch I recommend doing that).

The idea of a single story is (obviously), not mine, but over the weekend, it was one of the concepts that hit nearest my heart. There are single stories for every marginalized group of people. In the video, you’ll hear some of them. During my workshop, I heard others. I’m not going to talk about the stories of others, because you should listen to their voices for that. What I am going to talk about is what the single story for me has been, why it’s hurtful, and why that matters to your writing (and mine).

For those who might not follow this blog regularly, I’ll start by telling you that I’m a self-published author. My debut novel, The Wheel Mages, is a young adult high fantasy. I’m a twenty-nine year old, cisgender, heterosexual, female. I was raised outside of Philadelphia. I’m privileged. Most people would not think of me as part of a marginalized group. Mostly, I don’t think of myself that way.

I do, however, suffer from complex post traumatic stress disorder, generalized anxiety disorder, and agoraphobia. I have an invisible marginalization which I can usually hide, but it affects every aspect of my life.

Complex Post Traumatic Stress Disorder is defined as a condition that results from chronic or long-term exposure to emotional or physical trauma over which a victim has little or no control and from which there is little or no hope of escape. (Source). PTSD and CPTSD are slightly different in that PTSD can result from single events, or short-term exposure to extreme stress or trauma whereas CPTSD is generally associated with long-term trauma. That said, most people don’t know what CPTSD is, so I typically tell people I have PTSD.

When I do “out” myself, the most typical question that follows is, “What war?”

This is the single story in action. (If you haven’t watched the Chimamanda Adichie video or read the transcript yet, go ahead and do it now. Here’s another link. Seriously, it’s that important.)

PTSD is most often associated with veterans. That’s the single story literature, television, and film have created for us. And because of that single story, my experience somehow seems less valid. When I don’t play into people’s perceptions or expectations, my experience is diminished. Surely, I must be faking it. Surely, I must be overly sensitive. Surely, nothing can be as traumatizing as war. Surely, my experience doesn’t matter.

For years, I resisted fighting against this narrative because it felt like fighting against veterans who have PTSD. The single story of PTSD made me feel like I had no right to voice my own experience because by telling my story I was challenging their story. This is not, however, the case. I’m not challenging the narrative at all. There are veterans who have PTSD. But there are people who are not veterans who have PTSD as well, and their stories deserve to be told too. We can tell multiple stories without threatening others. We, as people, deserve more than a single story. We deserve more than two or three or ten stories. Every story gives us a fuller life experience.

The above example is contemporary, but the single story concept extends beyond as well. It permeates every facet of literature. In fantasy, especially young adult fantasy, there is another single story narrative pertinent to PTSD that’s repeated over and over, and it is this: Broken Girl meets The One and is fixed through the curative power of Love.

This narrative hurts me. It is a dangerous lie.

Growing up, I often escaped to fantasy worlds to help me cope with what was unraveling around me. I still do. But especially as a young reader, I internalized much of what I read. And this narrative, the “Broken Girl Cured by Love” narrative, buried itself deep. So deep I didn’t realize how much it had shaped my behavior until this weekend, and to be honest, I’m still trying to untangle a lot of it.

What I have realized, however, is that I truly believed I could be cured by love. In fact, up until recently, one of my primary criterion for a partner was that I could spend a night with him and not suffer nightmares. I was sure that somewhere out there someone existed who would save me from my nightmares. This internalized narrative that I picked up from fantasy books is harmful to me in real, tangible ways.

One of the ways my PTSD manifests itself is through touch aversion. When I’m touched (especially by a stranger), I experience physical symptoms. My heart rate rises, my breathing shallows, I become dizzy, I grind my teeth, I sweat, my pulse hammers in my ears so I can’t hear properly. Often, I freeze, completely debilitated by terror. Sometimes, I lash out, verbally or physically. This is not a comfortable feeling.

Yet, because of the Broken Girl Cured by Love narrative, I’ve put myself in this position time and time again. I’ve retraumatized myself  while I search for The One To Defeat The Nightmares. I’ve spent nights with men I was revolted by hoping that this time I’ll find him. This time, the Magical Cure Love will save me from my PTSD. I’ve numbed myself with drugs and alcohol while I try to find The One Who Wields the Cure Love, hoping that when I do I’ll be able to be touched without the need for chemical alteration.

It has not and will not ever happen. Love is not a cure for PTSD. That doesn’t mean there isn’t hope; it simply means this narrative is not the “hope” people like me need. The lie of this single story has damaged me, and I don’t think it takes much extrapolation to understand it could damage other people, or to see the damage done could be more extreme than it has been in my case.

One of the main takeaways from my weekend workshop is that words are powerful, more powerful than we might realize. As writers, we have a responsibility to our readers and that is to tell the Truth as best we can. It’s not easy, and it’s not always pretty, but it is our duty to try, to put in the work, and to hopefully do no harm.

There is no such thing as a single story of the human experience, and it’s far past time we stopped trying to tell one. As Daniel Older told me over the weekend, “It doesn’t have to be sexy.” I suppose the Truth hardly ever is.

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