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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How a Trilogy Becomes More

Author’s Note: I’m sending out my very first newsletter this week and it has exciting NEWS in it, so if you’re interested, sign up here

At the end of last month (where is time going?), my second manuscript was sent to my editor. I wrote about it (briefly). When I sent it, it was 131,000 words, which is loooong. But I ran out of places to cut words and time to do it in so sent it with fingers crossed.

Meanwhile, I was in the middle of a serious argument with the third book in my trilogy. My characters did not want to cooperate with my plan. At all.

All of this, combined with a lot of other things going on in my life, including frustrating book sales, led me to overwhelm which led me to stasis. Something to know about me: When I get overwhelmed, I freeze. I didn’t want to abandon my series, because this is my dream, but I also felt the familiar sensation of losing my way creeping in.

Fortunately, I have a good editor who wasted no time in pulling me off the cliff. Although, I’ll be honest, I was a bit nervous when I received the email from her enclosing her critique. Katie and I have a great relationship, and I trust her, but something about seeing, “You’ll see that I do make a big recommendation that could change a few things” in an email from your editor can really make your heart rate spike.

Of course, my brain started to go into overdrive as I ran through worst case scenarios such as: she hates my new protagonist (who is a character I’ve been developing for approximately… forever); there’s a gaping plot hole I’m not going to know how to fix; the prose is terrible; the whole thing needs rewritten. All fixable, yes, but not pleasant. I should clarify, none of these were the case, either.

What I wasn’t expecting was a suggestion to expand the trilogy because well… the book is too long but parts need a bit more development and there’s nowhere to find 30,000 extra words. As Katie put it, “The story and characters have begged you to.”

My first thought was: Why didn’t I think of that? Why did that not ever seem like an option?

It’s funny how strict you can be with yourself, how solid an idea can be before it’s even formed. In my head, my series was always a trilogy. That’s just how it was. Period. As I’ve said before, I’m not a plotter, so how that one idea became so solid, I’m not 100% sure, but it was. Three books. No more, no less.

I called an emergency “meeting” with a couple of my most trusted beta readers. Frantically, I spelled out to them via Facebook messenger what my editor was proposing. Then I sat back, wincing as I waited.

Here’s something else you should know: My betas are the best people I know, but they can be a tough audience. That’s what makes them good (and my friends). I expected some kind of resistance from them especially because expanding a series is done frequently in fantasy and sometimes it’s not done all that well. They know that. I know that. I expected them to remind me of that.

Surprisingly, they didn’t. “I like it,” said one.

Hm… I thought, then winced again and decided to poke the sleeping bear. “This would help me fix the problems with book three that were making me want to throw the book out the window. I guess I was just dead set on a trilogy.”

The three dots on the message screen blinked, and my stomach flipped somersaults as I tried my best not to grind my teeth down to nothing. “Trilogies are so passe. Ten million books plus ten novellas are so hip right now.”

I burst out laughing. Just when you think you know what to expect, people throw you a curve ball. Which is, of course, exactly what my characters did to me too, sneaky bastards (and I mean that term literally in at least one case if you’ve read book one).

With my betas on board, I decided it was possible to discuss this thing with my editor. So after taking a night to sleep on her critique to digest what her suggestions would look like, I sent her a sprawling, long-winded email that concluded by addressing the elephant in the room: fantasy series that are expanded poorly.

Everyone who reads this blog knows my policy on not tearing down any specific works by any specific author, and I’m not about to break that now. Instead, I’ll say that sometimes authors expand series because they’re popular, and their readers want them to, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they should. This shows in the writing. The books start to drag or get redundant or the characters no longer seem to be on an arc but more of a flat line path. No one is developing. In short, the writing loses its spark.

This is sort of my biggest fear when it comes to a series. I want my series to reflect the arc in my own writing. Book two should be (and in my extremely biased opinion, is) better than book one. Book three should be better than book two, etc. You’re growing as a writer, and your characters should grow with you. That’s organic. That’s (dare I say it) art.

Don’t get me wrong, plenty of fantasy series have more than three books and are absolutely lovely. Obviously, the most famous fantasy series in the history of the world consists of seven books, and they’re all stellar.

That said, there are plenty of series that could have stopped at book two or even book one and been fine. And I couldn’t quite get my professors at UNC out of my head as I started to contemplate a possible expansion. The famous “six-word novel” hung heavy on my heart. For those who don’t know it, it is as follows:

For sale: baby shoes, never worn.

It’s often mistakenly attributed to Hemingway, but there were stories like this before Hemingway. It’s true author appears to be unknown.

The point remains the same, however. Less is more. This was always an extremely difficult concept for me to grasp, and though I believe I’ve gotten much better at it, I probably won’t be writing any six-word stories any time soon.

Still, those extra words nagged at me. I could see the possibility on the horizon. I wanted those words. The strength with which I wanted them made me shove through the fear and the self-doubt and dare to imagine what this series could look like if I had the room to really open up and let my characters do what they want instead of constantly fighting me.

Ultimately, the decision to expand was born through a combination of that desire and my editor’s sage advice: “Overall, listen to the characters and the story, and don’t worry about trying to fit it in a certain number of books.”

Now, I might not be able to write a six-word novel, but that is something I can do.

Here we go y’all.

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A Bit of News

Short and sweet – there are a few things I want to keep you updated on regarding what’s going on in the world of the Sanctum, because right now, that world seems to be less dysfunctional than our own. Who would have seen that coming, right?

Author Interview: I did an author interview with Becca over at Shihtzu Book Reviews which you can check out here. We discuss my writing process (unhealthy), my characters, and some things to look out for in the future.

The Wheel MagesIf anyone is interested in receiving a signed copy of The Wheel Mages, I’m now offering those in limited supply. If you’re interested in receiving one, contact me through the website or send me an email at aimee@aimee-davis.com.

The Blood Mage update: I sent The Blood Mage to the editor yesterday for its first review. Word count – 131,592 (uhhh…). I’ll be receiving critiques on that sometime in mid-February, so things are moving along, and I’m still shooting for a summer release!

Workshop: Some fun and exciting news! I’ll be doing a writing workshop in Reading, Pennsylvania in mid-February (the date looks like it’s going to be February 15th, but I’m waiting on final confirmation). Details about the workshop will be available soon.

Two-Month Sales: I’ll be posting those within the next couple of days. I’ve been swamped with work trying to get The Blood Mage ready for Katie, so I’m behind, but never fear, I’m still committed to remaining transparent with my sales.

It’s rough out there. Please everyone remember to be kind to yourselves and each other.

❤ Aimee

 

 

Writers as Researchers

If you’ve ever watched Jeopardy! for any period of time, you might have noticed writers tend to do very well (along with lawyers, but that’s a different post). I don’t think that’s accidental. Writers tend to have a little bit of knowledge about a lot of things. They’re fantastic generalists.

Writers, in addition to being readers, must also be excellent researchers. Even in fantasy writing, research is crucial to world building. At the end of the day, we live in this world, in this reality, so to create a new world people can engage with, the world needs to be somewhat grounded in the reality that exists for us all.

Recently, I had a fascinating and somewhat mind bending conversation with my dad about the concept of time in the fantasy novel. To be fair, what he was describing lent itself more to the realm of science fiction than fantasy, but it was interesting all the same. Basically, he was saying that an interesting idea would be to write a novel with an entirely different conception of time. Time, he argued, is a human convention based on astronomy. It could therefore be changed. At this point, my eyes got that kind of glazed over look as I tried to wrap my mind around something I couldn’t quite perceive.

It’s akin to the idea that birds have four cone cells in their retinas, whereas we humans only have three. Birds can therefore see UV light. The most complex color vision system in the animal kingdom is found in stomatopods (for example, the mantis shrimp). These animals have 12 spectral receptor types, which means they see different colors than we do. Colors we aren’t even aware exist. Mind. Blown.

That kind of concept, however fascinating, would be difficult to world build with. It’s hard to create a picture in the reader’s head of something human beings literally cannot fathom. Therefore, most of the fantasy world building I do is grounded in reality, though tweaked. This, of course, requires a lot of research. Research into things I wouldn’t generally be interested in. For example, in the second book of the Changing Tides series, there are two scenes requiring lock picking. When I wrote the draft, I had no idea how to pick a lock. Now, I do. I also know about sable brushes for artists (the third book of the installation features a couple different artists and their mediums). I also know more about Victorian fashion than I ever thought I would. Catalina’s hats required over an hour of research. I know the skin of frogs is water permeable. I know arsenic isn’t the right poison for dermal absorption. I know how glass is made. I know the various kinds of medieval hunt and the basic principles of falconry. I know enough about architecture to make my high school humanities teacher proud. The list goes on and on and though most of this research will never appear full out in my novels, its presence lingers in them.

Most of my research happens via Google search. I search for a general concept, find something inspiring, then make it my own. The masks for the ball in The Wheel Mages, for example, came from Mardi Gras masks and were then reinvented by me. I even sketched them, though I’m a pretty terrible artist. Seeing these ideas outside of my own head is really important to me, because if I can’t pull them out, I know readers probably can’t, either.

I research as needed. I’ll be in the middle of writing a scene and think, “I really can’t see this, I should look it up” or, “I don’t know how this would even work, I better Google it.” Researching while in the middle of writing helps me organize my thoughts better and keeps me out of the rabbit hole that is the internet. I still fall down it, on occasion but if I have writing to return to, I pull myself back up easier.

While researching for The Wheel Mages, if I found something particularly interesting, I’d save it on my hard drive to refer back to later. Recently, however, I realized this was a pretty shoddy way of conducting business, especially when my manuscripts go through extensive redrafting months later. That dress I liked but not enough to save and now it’s six months later and I want to put it in the book but don’t remember the exact hue of blue on it? Lost to the rabbit hole. Hours could disappear while I tried to re-find it.

Why I didn’t remember there’s an application developed for this exact situation, I’m not sure. But last week, I remembered Pinterest.

Pinterest has revolutionized my research process. Now, I can “pin” images and websites for easy access later. Added bonus, for anyone who is curious about what comes next in the series or who might be interested to see what I’m working on, Pinterest leaves little clues in the form of pins. Want to know where The Blood Mage takes Alena? Pinterest has some insight. Want to know what I might be working on next? I have a whole board devoted to the first book of my new series (working title: Fire’s Princess). I have no idea why it took me so long to get on “board” (see what I did there?), but I’m so happy I have!

So… for those of you who are writing and therefore researching, my tip is to grab a Pinterest and maybe try out for Jeopardy!

Anyone else have any researching tips he/she would like to share? Add ’em to the comments!

❤ Aimee

Editing: 5 Words to Purge

The first draft of anything is shit.

~Ernest Hemingway

There’s no rest for the weary when it comes to writing. Yesterday, in between tweets, Facebook posts, nervous jitters, and somewhat obsessive checking of Kindle Direct Publishing and iBooks (side note: not recommended), I worked on finishing the third round of edits for my second book in the Changing Tides series. That book, working title of The Blood Mage, is set to head to the content editor on January 20th.

If this process has taught me anything, it’s that precision in language is an oft talked about but highly underrated concept. Every author has words he or she uses too frequently. These are your “crutch” words. Some are common to almost all writers (and people in general). For example, one of my crutch words is “so”. When I got The Wheel Mages back from the copy editor, I was informed there had been 495 instances of the word “so” in the manuscript. The final word count for the version that went to the copy editor was 104,117 words, meaning I used the word “so” about once every 210 words. It doesn’t seem like a ton but it is. In the final version, there were approximately 300 instances of the word (or once every 350 words or SO).

“So” wasn’t my only problem, though—not by a long shot. The following is a short compilation of my most commonly overused crutch words. I hope it helps!

1. Just:

An interesting note about “just”: I know we think we know what it means but it’s used incorrectly all the time.

“Just” as an adjective means: “based on or behaving according to what is morally right and fair.” This is the form of the word used correctly (mostly).

“Just” as an adverb is the form I often use incorrectly. It means: “exactly” or “very recently; in the immediate past.” Often, I use “just” to mean “simply” or “only”. Think of the phrase: “I just don’t want to do [x or y thing]”. We don’t mean, “I exactly don’t want to do” or, “I very recently don’t want to do” we tend to mean, “I simply don’t want to.”

Ex: “A knock on the door made me jump but she just sighed.” This can be revised to say: “A knock on the door made me jump but she simply sighed.”

“Simply” is actually what I mean. That’s not to say “just” can’t be used in an incorrect or colloquial way it JUST means if it can be avoided for more precise language, it should be.

2. That:

This is a filler too often used. Most of the time, “that” isn’t necessary at all and can simply be removed. My most common use of the word “that” precedes a verb.

Ex: “…the odor of mold that seeped from the walls.” This can be revised to say: “…the odor of mold seeping from the walls.”

Less words are always better. It strengthens your writing and your wallet (many editors charge by the word).

3. And:

This might be unique to me but I have a tendency to enjoy conjunctions. I like compound sentences. There’s something about them that flows better in my mind when I’m writing. By the time I get to editing, however, it’s time to cut the shit as Hemingway so eloquently put it. Oftentimes, an “and” can be eliminated by a simple period.

Ex: “They were narrowed with suspicion, and I couldn’t blame her.” This can be revised to say: “They were narrowed with suspicion. I couldn’t blame her.”

I think I use the “and” to join the two thoughts in my head but it isn’t necessary. The second thought comes directly after the first without a paragraph break in between so they are joined without the need of the unnecessary word.

4. Then:

“Then” was a killer with me with my copy edit as well. It was my second most overused word. I think this probably relates back to my love of long sentences. For some reason, short sentences sound jarring in my mind the first time I read them. Therefore, I tend to avoid them. Interestingly, “then” can be replaced with “and” in many instances (at least in my writing) so if you’re overusing “and” replace it with a period and use some of those extra ands you’re gaining to replace thens!

Ex: “I threw a ball of water into the air, then pulled my hands apart to break it into rain.” This can be revised to say: “I threw a ball of water into the air and pulled my hands apart to break it into rain.” 

Neither the word count nor the meaning of the sentence changed much but if “then” has been overused in your manuscript (as it was in mine) this is a handy trick.

5. Very:

I don’t think this one requires VERY much discussion. It’s almost always on these lists. It’s unnecessary fluff in almost all instances. Treat “very” like an exclamation mark. It will have a greater impact when it’s used sparingly.

Bonus Word(s):

Was + Verb(ing) This is common in my writing and I’ve seen it used a ton. A much stronger action combination is the simple past tense of the verb.

Ex: “His anger was eating away at him.” This can be revised to say: “His anger ate away at him.” 

Think of “was” as the flimsy word propping up another flimsy word. Instead of two weak words, combine them to create one strong word!

Double Bonus:

Could + Verb is something I use frequently as well and the advice is the same as my advice for was + verb. “Could feel” is my most common error and can be replaced by “felt”.

Happy writing!

Aimee

Process: First Draft

Remember: Plot is no more than footprints left in the snow after your characters have run by on their way to incredible destinations.

~ Ray Bradbury

I’m going to admit something right now that is somewhat controversial in the writing world. I am not a plotter. I don’t make storyboards or webs or charts or graphs or timelines. I just don’t. I never have (but I won’t say I never will). This little quirk of mine drove my writing professors crazy. They would assign plotting work, and I’d return with a completed story. When asked why I didn’t have an outline or the skeleton of a story, I’d shrug and say it isn’t how I write.

I’ll admit something else, too. As I write this, I’m wincing. I know plotting is super important to a majority of writers. I know I sound inexperienced and ridiculous and some in the writing world want to jump out of their chairs and strangle me through their computer screens. I know.

I also know not plotting causes major problems. I know it creates huge headaches when it comes to filling plot holes and can create stories that go on and on ad nauseam. I’ve thrown away my fair share of short stories and full-fledged manuscripts because of my lack of plotting. Hundreds of thousands of wasted words. You’d think I’d have learned my lesson by now and gotten down to plotting.

But (as I scrunch up my nose) I haven’t. I’m not sure why I’m so averse to it, but I am. Every time I’ve tried to sit down and plot, I’ve ended up with a prologue instead of a story line. Part of it may be impatience. I just want to write, damn it. Part of it may be the way my ideas come to me—in dreams and sudden revelations. My ideas tend to be very fragile, and if I don’t write them down in short order, I lose them. My stories proceed through my mind like movies. A scene comes to me and when I’m finished writing it, the next waltzes through the front door, demanding attention.

Sometimes, there are gaps in between scenes. For example (without spoilers), the prologue to the second book in the Changing Tides series came to me before the epilogue to The Wheel Mages. I wrote the prologue to the second book, then went back and tried to figure out how to end The Wheel Mages. I didn’t know what the end was at the time, but I knew it had one because the second book had a beginning.

My lack of plotting extends to this blog post too, for the record. I started it over a week ago and am just now getting back to finishing it. Fortunately, it’s easier to check for plot holes in a 900 word blog post than a 105,000 word manuscript.

Lack of plotting aside, the process for my first draft is relatively simple. I write all my manuscripts by hand, usually in the bathtub listening to Pandora. I find writing by hand to be more soothing than typing. It’s quieter, more romantic, and it forces me to slow down and examine my thoughts and my words in a more meaningful way.

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Here’s the entirety of The Wheel Mages in handwritten, first-draft form.

I usually write in terms of scenes, not chapters (as discussed above, see how I connected that?). I transcribe onto the computer by chapters, usually at intervals throughout the process when I’m having difficulty finding the next scene. Typing (and self-editing along the way) helps me reinvigorate my brain and get my mojo flowing again (most of the time).

As cliche as it may sound, when it comes to the story line, I let my characters guide me. I have full on fights with my characters sometimes. They really do take on a life of their own in my mind, and occasionally they refuse to do what I want or expect them to do. I’ve actually said to friends before, “Alena is being stubborn and won’t get with it.” No joke. Don’t believe me? Here’s a screenshot:

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Please don’t mind my language!

Annoying as it may be, allowing this to happen helps me avoid snags of disingenuity. The plot I expected may not be where the story goes, and I’m okay with that. I don’t want my characters to fit into pegs I’ve created for them. Real people don’t fit into pegs or molds or categories as much as we sometimes want to force them into those places. I want my characters to be real to me, because if they aren’t real to me, they aren’t going to be real to the reader.

At the end of the day, writing is intrinsically personal. Everyone does it differently. That’s what makes it art. It also evolves. We’re always learning. As Hemingway said:

We are all apprentices in a craft where no one ever becomes a master.

I try to live by that and allow myself to learn and observe and grow. I experiment. And I encourage everyone to do the same.

 

The Magic of Self-Editing

Since I’m in the middle of an editing extravaganza (T-minus 13 days until the second book is due to the editor), I thought maybe now would be the time to publish this article that was half written regarding my editing process. The title is tongue in cheek, by the way, there is absolutely no magic to be found in editing, just hard work and practice that can sometimes seem like magic.

For clarity, this post will focus on self-editing, but that isn’t the only kind of editing I do. I will discuss how I choose beta readers, content editors and copy editors in other posts down the line. These folks are a crucial part of the process, and I wouldn’t want to undervalue them because I’m worried about word count.

Now… because I like lists, Ima make one!

1. Writing

As I’ve said, a large majority of my writing/editing happens in the bathtub, with coffee. I write everything by hand before I type it. I do this for a few reasons, 2/3 of which are silly. First, I write in the bathtub and that’s not an awesome place for a computer. Second, I think it’s romantic. Third, and this is the only one that really matters, it slows me down and helps me cut words, which is a big deal for me. Before I adopted this method, I was writing ridiculous 150,000 word monstrosities (not good). Note: Word count is not everything, and of course there are tons of books with high word counts that everyone loves, but it is a good indication you might have some unnecessary fluff going on in your work.

While writing, I let my bad habits run rampant. I used to try to perfect my work in draft form but that level of care led to burn out. Advice: Fill the page. Be creative and have fun, leave the perfectionist at home and get words down. You can go back and give yourself a hard time later.

Writing is the fun part. It’s why I keep doing this. I love creating. If I could make a living off sitting in the bathtub, drinking coffee and throwing words onto a page, I would totally do it. But I can’t. I don’t even think J.K. Rowling can. It’s simply not how it works. Part of being an author (a bigger part than writing, IMHO) is editing.

2. Draft One

Once I have smoothed out all the wrinkled legal pad pages and transcribed them onto a computer, I have a draft, a manuscript, if you will. At this point in my process, my manuscript doesn’t look anything like a finished book. It’s basically a bunch of characters sighing and rolling their eyes while I vomit adverbs all over the page. Here’s a 430 word sample (so less than 2 book pages at 250 words industry standard). I know I’m taking a risk in publishing this bare bones format, but hey, if I can publish my sales to the world I can publish this, too. Please note, however, the following excerpts are NOT representative of a finished product, they’re simply stepping stones. Bonus, this is from the new book! It doesn’t give anything big away, so no spoiler alerts necessary (I hope), but it does involve an interaction between two new characters (Lukas and Odeth) oh and check it, Celine is back y’all!

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I do perform some minor self-editing when I’m going from the handwritten version to the typed version, another plus about handwriting first, a free editing opportunity (yay).

3. Editing Draft One (By Hand)

Okay, so now I have this manuscript. What next? Well, I turn it back into paper (sorry, trees). I print out what I have, double-sided and smaller margins, so I can at least try to be less of a jerk to the forest, and I take that back with me to the bathtub. After I’ve made some coffee.

On this first edit, I’m not looking for perfection. I’m looking for glaring errors (including glaring grammar errors), anything that doesn’t make sense and elimination of my personal writing vices (I see you, adverbs and gerunds). I read dialogue aloud to see if it sounds right. I rewrite awkward sentences. I tell my characters to STFU and stop sighing. They might be trying to prevent chaos, but at least they’re not editing.

Eventually, I end up with this:

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4. Editing Draft One (Typed)

I edit about five chapters before I make changes in Word. Any more than that is too much for me. I also take breaks between editing sprees. During these breaks, I work on something new to recharge my emotional batteries and to remind myself I really do like writing.

I make changes in red-line. A lot of people don’t like red-line, but for me, red-line makes me feel accomplished. I like to go through a manuscript and see it all marked up. Every time I see red, I see an improvement. This attitude took time to craft, but it’s served me well.

Below is the same excerpt in red-line. I’ve added comments outlining the reasoning behind each edit. These comments are not reflective of a long thought process. At this point, most of my first draft editing is instinctual, but that’s only made possible through practice. It was a really fun exercise to ask myself why I do what I do and go back to basics. I think this little piece about editing will make me a better writer, so that’s cool!  As a side note, there are 73 edits in this 430 word excerpt.

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5. Rinse and Repeat

What you see above is only the first round of edits for the first draft of this one scene. Right now, I’m on my fourth draft. For me, the biggest edits happen after the manuscript comes back from the beta readers and then again when it comes back from the content editor (for the first time). For this one 430 word scene (which looks totally different now), there have been 148 edits before it’s even been to the editor. There will be more, so many more the amount of edits will probably at some point exceed the word count. And when it’s finally published, I’ll probably wish I’d had more time and made more edits.

Advice: Edit until you’re proud of your work, then edit again. Edit until you want to rip your hair out, then keep going. Edit until you want to burn the damn thing. Edit until you think you’re making it worse. Take breaks, but don’t let the breaks last too long. Keep pushing. Reward yourself. Remind yourself that this is hard, but it’s okay. Allow yourself to feel frustrated and angry, but don’t allow those feelings to overwhelm you into giving up. Journal. Eat Panera broccoli cheddar soup, but get back to work. Creating is painful. It’s okay, we’ve all been there, and you’ll get through it.

But also be conscious of a stopping point, because it’s never going to be perfect. When you start flipping words back and forth, or you are no longer connected to your characters, it’s time for a new set of eyes. I gauge my need for a new set of eyes based on the excitement I feel for my characters. When I was writing The Wheel Mages, I sent the manuscript out to beta readers too soon. I was still super pumped on my characters and wanted to share them with the world, but they weren’t ready to be shared.

After my manuscript came back from the beta readers, I realized my mistake, and I edited until I was sick of my characters. I hated everyone, especially Alena. But it made my book stronger, because by the time my content editor received it, I had taken it to its limits (at that point). A good editor will re-energize you. Take advantage of that and edit until you’re just about to lose interest in your work, then send it.

Take a deep breath. Let it out. It’s going to be okay. Now, go edit.

❤ Aimee