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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What is Character Agency?

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

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

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

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

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

What is Psychological Agency?

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

C-PTSD and the Loss of Agency

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

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

What is an Active Protagonist?

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

Where the Active Protagonist Fails and Falls

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Trauma Narratives and Seeking Agency as the Arc

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

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

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

Let’s try again.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tell the Story but Remember the Audience

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

That would have been a lie.

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

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

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

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

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

And run.



Let’s Talk: Trigger Warnings

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

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

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

Trigger; Triggering; To be Triggered

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Who determines what is “triggering?”

The person who experiences triggers determines what they are.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Content Warnings

What is a Content Warning?

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

Difference between Content and Trigger Warnings

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

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

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

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

Use of Content and Trigger Warnings

Step One: Use Them

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

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

Step Two: Respect Requests to Include Them

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Step Four: There is no step four

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

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

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



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

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

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

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

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

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

Always, though, she had her books.

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

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

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

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

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

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

She stopped believing in fairytales.

Sort of.

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

But First! An Announcement!

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

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

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

I Write Adult Fantasy for Millennials

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Adult Fantasy, here we…


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

Adult Fantasy v. Young Adult Fantasy

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why This Matters

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

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

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

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

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

Adult Fairytale Retellings – The Millennial Net

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

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

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

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

Romantasy – Yes, it is Fantasy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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

Picking an Agent

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

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

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

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

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

Step One: Building Your List

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

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

Assembling Agents

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

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


Agent Research

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

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

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

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

Where to Find Things About Agents

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Step 2: Preparing for The Call™

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

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

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

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

The Standard Lists

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

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

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

The Nonstandard List

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Step 3: Post Call

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

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


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

Now comes the part I really never understood.

How People End up with Multiple Offers

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

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

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

In Conclusion

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



Reflections: One Year Post-Pitch Wars

Author’s Note: For those who are not aware, Pitch Wars was a well-known, all volunteer-run mentorship program that paired unagented authors with published/agented authors, editors, or industry interns. One mentor (or mentor pair) to one mentee. Over the course of several months, the mentor(s) and mentee pair worked together to prepare the mentee’s manuscript, query letter, and synopsis for querying. At the end of the “revision period” was the infamous agent showcase, a one-week period where the mentee could post a short pitch plus the first page (about) of their book on the Pitch Wars website for agents to review and (hopefully) request. For the entirety of the revision period and the week of the showcase, no mentee was allowed to query the work. During the showcase, no one but Pitch Wars volunteers involved with running the website could see what agents requested whose work. Limited information about requests was conveyed to the mentors, who conveyed it to their mentees. At the end of the showcase, it all went live for everyone to see. Read more here.

One year ago today, me and about 114 other of my peers were officially thrown into the query trenches. The same day, the Pitch Wars Committee announced that after 10 years of mentorship, the program would be shuttering.

I think it goes without saying that was one hell of a day.

As I’ve mentioned, the agent showcase did not go well for me. Still, I grit my teeth and buckled down. Maybe my book was not a one-line pitch type book. Didn’t make a lot of sense considering the amount of people who told me how “high-concept” it was and oh so “hooky” but you know, who knows what those things are, anyway? I would win the agents with my query.

If you’ve read my How I Got My Agent post, you’ll know I didn’t really win the agentS with my query. I did, however, win one. Well, maybe. I’m not sure it was the query that did it. I never asked. Nor do I want to know.

Truly, I never thought I would be writing a one-year reflection blog. If anything, I thought I might be writing a one-year reflection thread on Twitter about how pissed I still am about the showcase and how SO MANY querying authors think the showcase is the real loss of Pitch Wars and how fucked that is because agent exposure is not the reason to seek mentorship, mentorship is the reason seek mentorship thus mentorship is the real loss. And those feelings are all true and real and still very, very raw even one year later.

But since Pitch Wars is gone railing about the showcase seems less applicable. What is applicable is how much I learned from one year of watching 115 separate writers start one place and 365 days later be in so many different places. The following observations are things I hope will help all writers but especially those still querying.


I tried to get into Pitch Wars for 5 years. It wasn’t until 2021 I actually opened up and started engaging with the online community a bit more. Invaluable. I’ve said this before, I will say it again, some of my closest friends and CPs are the ones I met during the waiting period. The ones who didn’t get in and the ones who did. They’re the ones who will understand you best, who will get the highs and the lows, who will never accuse you of being too dramatic or too much to handle. They will be the ones who understand all the random and weird publishing things your family still can’t seem to grasp no matter how many times you’ve tried to explain it to them. And that you don’t have to explain it or yourself will ease some of the exhaustion. Of which there is so much.

Community you need to boost you, but also to check you, to be honest with you, to encourage and support you, to be there in your mopes and your hopes, to be your void to shout into when it’s not appropriate to do it on Twitter. You need them always and should start finding them as soon as you can.

Image of a rainbow bucket with yellow roses, a congrats balloon and a sweet smiles jar of cookies.
Signing day gift from some of the CPs in question. Do you know who didn’t send me a gift? Anyone else. Not family, friends, partner. No one except them. Because they get it.


Contrary to popular belief, you do not need a mentor. In fact, some might say trying to achieve one is just adding another gatekeeper in an endless stream of them. Considering the odds of being chosen by my Pitch Wars mentor were something like less than 3% and I spent five years trying to get into Pitch Wars and a couple trying to get into RevPit and at least one trying to get into AMM, I can’t entirely disagree.

They’re cool to have IF you do end up with one, though.

I was really fortunate to end up with the world’s greatest mentor. Not everyone is so lucky. There are arguments about this topic for both sides I could go on about for days, but that isn’t the point of this post.

What was really interesting about Pitch Wars was seeing all the different mentees with their mentors and how they all communicated and what worked and what didn’t and how totally different that could be. And how hard it could be to summarize on a blog, too, which is what the mentors attempted to do, and which I think many of the mentees did not read, because they cared more about getting in with ANYONE than getting in with the RIGHT someone. Sound familiar? Yeah, it happens with agents, too. A thing I will talk about in a future blog already mostly written.

So for me, I really wanted a close relationship with my mentor. I had spent a LONG time being rejected not only in publishing but in, well, life. I desperately needed someone to believe in me. Not only in my stories, but in me, as a human. I needed someone to believe I was capable of doing this. Even if it meant rolling her eyes and smiling through my dramatics while I raged that I could not, in fact, do this. Then waiting until I was finished, asking politely if I was actually finished before telling me that I could do this for the following reasons.

I also really needed someone who understood my neurodiversity and my trauma. That I process things differently. Who understood I’m not going to do Save the Cat or beat sheets and that would have to be okay. Who knew I needed some semblance of rules in the chaos that is publishing, even if the rule was there are no rules. Who would be able to be flexible where I was not. Rochelle was all these things and more. I was very lucky. Did I mention that?

But not everyone needs all this hand holding and cheerleading and ya ya. Some of my peers did very well with a much more business-like, professional relationship with their mentors that did not involve frantic 1 a.m. text messages about doom spiraling. Some fit right in the middle somewhere. Others had communication breakdowns because they could not find a meeting of the minds at all.

This is when you refer back to your community.

Cartoon image of various characters working on cell phones, tablets, digital displays, etc.

Where You Are is Not Who You Are

Let me tell you about how Pitch Wars teaches this lesson to the Not Darlings really fucking fast. This exact time last year I was essentially equal in credentials to my Pitch Wars peers. Of course some of us had heftier resumes than others. Some had won other mentorship contests. Some had been published with indie presses or in short story anthologies. Some (like me) had creative writing degrees, or MFAs. Some (not like me) had a list with 50 requests on it ready to go. But we all had shiny manuscripts polished over a period of the most intense revision months of our lives, a submission packet to make any querying author drool, and we had “2021 Pitch Wars novel/mentee” to tag onto our books (and our names). Out of thousands, we were the 115.

We thought that meant something. And maybe it’s the weirdness of this querying climate, or maybe it’s that Pitch Wars shut down the same day we entered the trenches, or maybe it did mean something but not enough for some of us. But on February 15th that starting gun fired and some of us shot forward and others of us stumbled, fell, startled, pressing our hands to our ears, shell shocked. Some of us barreled forward but quickly ran out of steam. Our paths started to diverge. Fast.

Within hours, LITERAL HOURS, calls were getting announced. From there, the deluge of distancing became frantic. Full requests poured in, some phones seemed to be ringing off the hooks. Question lists were assembled. Drama. Subtweeting. Agents with teeth. Mentees in the spotlight. We rallied for our peers because that’s what you do for your community, even when your own heart is bleeding. Even when your own inbox is empty. It was a good distraction.

Agent announcements. Talks of auctions. Editors with teeth. And still for so many of us, empty inboxes. Full requests from the showcase gone untended while the shinier mentees glowed. It was hard not to wonder what was different. Not to blame ourselves. We were all the same except… we weren’t. Not anymore.

Despair came fast, too. And in that despair sat uncomfortable feelings about our friends. Our peers. Our community. People we’d bonded with so tightly during this experience so few could relate to. Guilt. Blame. Shame. Resentment. Toward ourselves more than anything, really. Many of us started to turn away. And this is where things get a little tricky.

Because this is not uncommon in the entirety of the writing community, not just the Pitch Wars community. You will see if you hang out here enough there is this concept that there exists a hierarchy between authors. A chart is needed. Hold.

Chart: Title "Weird Publishing Hierarchy" which depicts levels. From bottom to top: Aspiring Writers; Querying Authors; Agented Authors; Contracted Authors; Published Authors. Subtext: Let's burn this chart down.
If this chart makes you uncomfortable, good. Me too. Let’s do something about it.

If you’ve been around long enough, you’ll have had the weird experience of watching your friends level up through this chart. You’ll have also likely seen some drama around people leveling up through this chart and leaving their friends behind. There is nowhere this phenomenon happens faster than in Pitch Wars. And if you’re on the inside of it, you get to watch this weird hierarchy play out in rapid fire fashion as some folks level up and others do not. Right now, at this very moment, my Pitch Wars peers are basically at all levels of this chart. The first book from my class comes out soon. Many book deals have been announced. Even more agent announcements. Still more of my classmates are querying new books, still looking for their agents. Some have veered off the traditional path all together, choosing indie presses or self-publishing. Some, like me almost, stepped back from writing all together.

But the thing I noticed while watching this all happen was that it’s not always as simple as “level up, leave behind.” There is so much more nuance behind it. I, for one, in my grief, tried to leave my core group of Pitch Wars friends… a couple of times. I felt like I was dragging them down, holding them back, being too depressing, dampening their joy. I felt like I was too lame for them with their fancy Big Five book deals and big shot agents. They, thankfully, dragged me back.

Now that I have an agent myself (weird), I also notice there’s a bit of a dynamic put on authors at perceived “higher” levels from those “beneath” that makes this all the stranger. My opinion seems to automatically matter more because I have an agent, which honestly, y’all it shouldn’t. It’s luck. You will never see me giving away a query critique because my query stats are objectively terrible. I still can’t write a synopsis. Don’t misunderstand, I learned a lot from Pitch Wars, and I continue to learn about my craft every day from writers everywhere on this pyramid. I will speak on what I believe I know enough about to speak on, but my advice is no more valuable than anyone else’s and in many cases, my un-agented CPs know just as much if not more than I do about loads of craft things.

All this long winded thing to say: We’re all writers. We all have valuable advice to bring to the table, and none of that is earned by any milestone along the way. It’s earned the way all knowledge is earned: by study. So don’t let where you are on this pyramid thing define who you are as a writer, and don’t let it change the way YOU act around other writers (you can’t change how they act around you, obviously, but one side of this can be controlled at least). If you feel your friends leaving you behind, ask yourself, truly, are they? Or are you?

TL;DR Don’t push your friends away because you think you’re not worthy of them anymore because they got a Fancy Book Deal or a high profile agent. If they’re your real friends, they are not going to give a shit. They’re still going to crack jokes with you about opening pickle jars and ask you for cat pics. Because besides all being writers, you are first and foremost all friends.

Picture of a gray and white cat sitting in front of a bowl of pickles.
Apropos of absolutely nothing, I JUST SO HAPPEN to have a picture of my cat Hope with pickles.

So, to my Pitch Wars 2021 Class, happy one year post-showcase. I am so proud of each and every one of you. And I can’t wait to see what the next year brings.



Opening up the Shelf: Adult SFF

Author’s Note: Today, I am going to talk about my #PitchWars book ALL HER WISHES specifically, but only as a way to address some swirling thoughts I’ve had about adult fantasy in general. For those who don’t know, my 2021 #PitchWars book ALL HER WISHES is a dual-POV, adult fairytale retelling told from the POVs of a selfish fairy godmother who hates her job but is trying to be good at it in order to save her best friend’s Destiny, and the villain (who happens to be the MC’s ex) who is trying to sabotage all that for, well, vengeance, obviously. It is an enemies-to-lovers, second chance love story set within a fractured fairytale world.

When I submitted to Pitch Wars in 2021, I entered All Her Wishes as a Romance (with a capital R). At the time, I had no idea what it actually was. What I did know was I’d never read anything quite like it in Adult Fantasy, though plenty of things like it exist within Young Adult Fantasy. I figured it would never “make it” if I endeavored to set it on a Fantasy shelf beside Tolkien and George R.R. Martin and All the Characters Who Stab. There are no swords, no graphic violence, no wars, no epic quests. There’s no need for a map (I can’t read them and neither can my main character), no invented languages or species, no explanations of geography or the genealogy of my characters going back 700 generations.

I didn’t love the idea of submitting it as a Romance, because somehow, it felt like cheating. But I had sent a few queries prior to Pitch Wars and the only feedback I’d received was “Sounds adorable! I’ve checked with some people, and no one knows who or how to market it.” So, somehow it seemed like because Wishes didn’t have all the above things meant it was “lacking” and therefore not Fantasy and maybe? a? Romance? Which, also felt gross. Because Romance, for the record, is not lacking in shit. Seriously, stop saying, believing, perpetuating any stereotype that Romance is anything but the badass queen of the publishing castle. Facts: Romance is the highest grossing genre in publishing (at $1.44 billion in revenue last year, take that to the bank and suck it). Romance authors are kings and queens of their art, and they deserve so much credit for what they do. The fact they don’t get it is a whole other blog post for another day. Also, Wishes’ love story does not make it less of a Fantasy.

A white woman with auburn hair in a green gown leans back against a tree, pointing her wand downward while a white man with dark hair wearing a dark jacket leans toward her, holding his hand to her foot.
Am I going to take this opportunity to drop this beautiful artwork for the book despite the fact it is everywhere on this website? Absolutely. Image © Jaria Rambaran  

Good news, my mentor also didn’t love that I’d submitted it as a Romance. Primarily because it hit NONE of the Romance beats and to make it do so was going to be a Herculean task that might have destroyed the structure of the actual story. We spoke at great lengths about my feelings on whether it was primarily a Romance or a Fantasy, and though I said to her I didn’t have strong feelings either way and in private said to my friends I would make it whatever the hell she wanted if it got me into Pitch Wars, the more I started to think on it, the more I realized I did have strong feelings about where Wishes ended up on the shelf.

ALL HER WISHES is Fantasy, capital F. It’s a story about magic, about friendship, about villains and heroes and the mistakes they make and the prices they pay. There are princes and princesses, fairy godmothers and evil queens, multiverses, and magic systems. There is world building and palace intrigue, and yes, there’s a whole lot of kissing, and because it’s adult, sex too. There’s love, but when did Fantasy stop becoming Fantasy because there was love?

Would Neil Gaiman’s Stardust find itself on a Romance shelf because it’s primarily the story of a boy out to win the heart of a girl and in so doing falls in love with another? What about one of the most quintessential epic fantasies of all time, the Wheel of Time series where the main character, Rand Al’Thor, is involved in a polyamorous relationship with three women? Do we discount the romance in that series because there’s enough words around it to ignore it? What about a more recent example in Jay Kristoff’s Nevernight? Mia Corvere, that series’ main character is about as ensconced in romance as she is in blood. Or do these authors get a pass because they’re *AHEM* white men? It’s fine, y’all, they’re writing MANLY love stories. Which is totes fine. Manly man’s masculinity is not threatened as long as the love story is also written by a man, am I right? Okay, I should sit down before I refuse to get off this here soap box. WHOOPS.

Drawing of a white girl in a blue dress with a purple bow standing on a soap box washing on a wash board over a large basin of water.
Oh look, it’s me getting back into the time period I’m expected to be in. I kid, I kid.

As I worked on my revisions of Wishes throughout Pitch Wars, these thoughts continued to poke at my brain. Where did my book go on the shelf, and why was I so afraid to say with these others?


Yep. There it was. I was afraid. Because there exists in Adult SFF a sort of elitism not unlike what I remember from my undergraduate days at UNC spent arguing Chekhov and Hemingway and preparing for an MFA at Iowa. Because obviously you go to Iowa. That is the only option for a Serious Writer. In Adult SFF there is a similar feel to this lit fic like discourse that’s more akin to: Obviously you write epic fantasy of a political nature, heavy on the world building, light on the romance, or you are not a Serious Fantasy Writer.

It feels a little… Gamergate to me, truth be told. And after I got done being afraid, I got irritated. If you couldn’t tell.

The thing is, I believe all genres should be for everyone, which means we have to tell lots of different kinds of stories within our genres to welcome lots of different kinds of people into not only our genres, but reading in general. That’s how we cultivate growth, and learning, and a body of literature that expands our experiences beyond what we know which is literally one of the main points of all reading but especially freaking fantasy!

So it’s time to open up the shelf to new stories that go beyond the old elitist thoughts of what Adult Fantasy should look like. Stories that include subgenres like urban fantasy, and contemporary fantasy, and yes, fairytale retellings, and stories from non-western mythos, and romantasy. And stories written from different perspectives than we’re used to seeing. Stories from women, and POC, and LGBTQ folks, and ND people, and disabled people. I want to see stories about Black grandmas riding dragons, 20-somethings in wheelchairs shooting flames from their spokes and owning their sexuality, and stories about brown women trying to juggle being the badass court sorceress while being pregnant and having a baby. It’s time for a new canon of fantasy that is relevant to the readers who fell in love with fantasy during the YA fantasy boom brought on 20 years ago.

Because guess what? We aren’t teenagers anymore, but we still like fantasy. And sure, some of us do like politically epic fantasy with sprawling worlds and all that other stuff (although I can bet you based on my anecdotal research a fair few more of them are reading R.F. Kuang than they are Robert Jordan these days). But loads of us want a fresh array of new stuff. Short stuff. Different stuff. Weird and wacky stuff. Stuff that is relevant to our lives and our world and yes, that’s important even if it’s a fantasy.

Book cover: The Remarkable Retirement of Edna Fisher by E.M. Anderson. A red cover with a dragon flying over a city skyline.
I would be remiss not to mention my agent sib has just such a book coming out soon. Which you can preorder HERE.

So here’s my plea to not only publishing but the readers who love my genre as much as I do: Support new voices in Adult SFF. Writers and readers alike. Don’t push them out because they’re different or you think the books they write or the books they like aren’t “serious” or otherwise “enough” of something for you. If they haven’t read all of the Lord of the Rings books, they can still love Fantasy. If they don’t know with perfect precision the specs of every species from a series they say they love, they can still love that series. If they don’t know which superhero fits into DC or Marvel, they should still be welcome. There should be no criteria to liking fantasy books other than, well, liking fantasy books.

Welcome them! Open up the shelf! You never know, they could be the author who writes your next favorite book!



I Stand with the HarperCollins Union

Authors note: For those reading who might not be aware of what it is currently going on with the strike, please read HarperCollins Union’s press release and other info (including how to donate to the strike fund) at their LinkTree here. For purposes of this post, it should be understood that to “Stand in Solidarity with HarperCollins Union” as an agented author means that you have agreed to withhold submitting your book to any HarperCollins imprint until such a time as the bargaining unit employees have a new contract. For me, this means that if the union is still on strike by the time ALL HER WISHES is ready to go on submission, my agent and I have agreed we will not submit it to HarperCollins or any imprint of HarperCollins to honor our commitments to the strike (my agent has signed a similar pledge in relation to agenting, so we are 100% united in this commitment).

1/26/2023 Update: I started drafting this blog post a few days ago with the plan to publish it on day 56 (week 8) of the strike, which is today. Today, finally, HarperCollins management has agreed to mediation. THE UNION IS STILL ON STRIKE. HOLDING THE LINE IS MORE IMPORTANT THAN EVER.

Taken from HarperCollins Union’s Twitter. Text reads: HarperCollins has agreed to enter mediation with our union. We are hopeful the company will use this opportunity to settle fairly and reset our relationship.

In my home, #Unionstrong is not just a hashtag on Twitter. It is a lifestyle. My grandfather was a steelworker from western Pennsylvania. My grandmother was a charge nurse in a nurse’s union during a time when many women weren’t “supposed” to be working at all. Much of the rest of my family has union affiliations running through their blood as deep as the coal dust from the mines they find themselves in. My partner is a shop steward for a local Teamsters Union. I have spent many a night sitting with him at our kitchen table, pouring over their contract and proposals while he texts his crew about whatever is going on in negotiations.

Graphic of white hand holding white pencil with text: I SIGNED The Strike Solidarity Open Letter

Interestingly, as it relates to my union affiliation, I spent over a decade of my career on the other side of the table: the management side. Before you skewer me, let me explain. I was a paralegal and benefits specialist for a law firm that had a unique relationship with labor, because we served as co-counsel to a ton of Taft-Hartley funds (multi-employer benefit funds that must be overseen by an equal number of management and labor trustees). We were not union busters; we were there to cultivate genuine relationships between management and labor.

You know, like how it’s supposed to work.

I have updated this post because today, finally, HarperCollins has agreed to mediate. But that still means that they went 55 days without saying a word. It means that their employees are still on strike for day 56. That’s eight weeks. Eight weeks that these employees have been without pay. Two months. Think about that for a second. Think about what going two months without pay would mean for you and your family.

Taken from HarperCollins Union’s Twitter. Text reads: This means our pressure campaign is working. The strike will continue until we reach a fair contract agreement. Please continue to hold the line. Thank you!

Now, think about the fact that this is a bargaining unit consisting of 250+ employees across editorial, sales, marketing, publicity, design, and legal whose average salary is $55,000 a year in New York City. You know, the most expensive city to live in in the United States. The city whose median home price is $850,000 and median rent can be anywhere between $1,900 to $4,500 a month. Source and Source and Source. Doing a little rough math for taxes based on that tax bracket and factoring in New York City taxes, assuming standard deduction, you’re talking about a take home pay of about roughly $1,600 biweekly if you don’t have deductions for things like healthcare, 401(k), a health savings account, or a flexible savings account, etc. So, less than that, really. Or an inability to have insurance. Or save for retirement. Cool options.

Now, think about donating to the strike fund HERE.

That’s all based on that $55,000 average salary that HarperCollins Union talked about in their press release. But the wild thing is that isn’t even the point of contention! While there are a few things at issue*, when talking cold hard cash the thing the union is striking for here is to increase the starting salary from $45,000 a year to $50,000 a year. A measly little $5,000 a year. Listen, I know my day job is in software, so I’m obviously a gluttonous snowflake who doesn’t work and feeds on the wokeness of the masses or something, but I’m telling you $5,000 a year for new employees to a company that reported $487 million in revenue and $39 million in earnings in its last quarter (a BAD quarter) is not a lot of money. Source.

*Union security being one which when I tell you how hard I laughed, like omg please union security clauses are standard and a non-issue, in a decade plus of doing this kind of thing I have NEVER seen a union security clause disputed like what is even happening there? Please explain, HarperCollins.

Oh wow, so I went wandering a bit. Sorry, I fell down a capitalism rabbit hole and couldn’t seem to find my way out. Give me a moment to just reset here…

GIF of Alice from Disney’s Alice in Wonderland falling down the rabbit hole.

Right so that’s all well and good but probably if you’re here you know all that. Well, you might not have known that specific level of detail on the math because that was maybe a little intense, but you probably understood the basics of HarperCollins is a big company that makes a lot of money, New York City is very expensive, and these people are underpaid because LOLZ who isn’t. Thanks, America.

But back to me, because this is my blog, and I’m here to talk about why I personally stand in solidarity with the HarperCollins Union despite the fact that it is scary as shit as a baby author to be like hahahaha no, who needs you, Harper? And your… million imprints. I… definitely… do not. Heh.

Graphic showing all of HarperCollins imprints. Taken from the HarperCollins Twitter. Original tweet reads: We’ve been getting some asks about this, so we wanted to clarify: we’re requesting that submissions, reviews, & freelance work are withheld from all parts of HarperCollins US, regardless of imprint, until we get a fair contract to minimize union work performed without us.

Wow, they just keep going, huh?

Anyway, I would be lying to say it wasn’t terrifying to have those imprints just POOF off your submission list when you’re a baby author. Still, when I had The Call with my agent, high on my list of priorities was that Keir knew I was with faer in the commitment to not cross the picket line. I knew Keir had signed on to the open letter put out by agents late in 2022 declaring they would withhold submissions from Harper in solidarity, and I wanted faer to know this was also my desire even though it was scary.


Because I believe in unions, like I said. They are a deep part of my life. I believe in fair wages, even if I don’t believe $50,000 is even pushing it far enough, but hey, it’s a start. I believe in diversity, and I believe it is more than a trend or a marketing tool, but if we want to make it more than that, we will have to work harder and be better and do the right thing even when it is the hard thing. Lord do I know that. I also understand the complexities behind making a profession passion-based and how it disproportionately excludes marginalized groups. I myself almost had to leave my publishing dream behind because of my disabilities. I got to the point with writing and querying and writing and querying and working a high-paced, full-time job to pay the bills that I was so burned out I was throwing up blood. I had migraines so bad I couldn’t get up for days at a time. I almost had to be hospitalized. I found myself at a crossroads: Keep it up or die. Pay the bills or publishing.

Too many of these employees are facing similar choices and publishing is already their full-time job.

We are watching publishing professionals leave the business in droves. Agents, editors, publicists, marketing folks. They’re burned out. They’re working multiple jobs, eighty hour weeks, and they barely have two pennies to rub together in the most expensive city in the world. This trickles down to authors and querying writers. Less opportunities, less people to advocate for us, longer wait times, heavier lift on what kind of work we have to produce but yet smaller advances. The list goes on.

What hurts one of us, hurts us all. That’s the whole point of a union. Stronger together.

So yeah, looking at that list and knowing those are opportunities potentially missed is scary. But what’s scarier is knowing that if I don’t do something in whatever small way I can might mean that in the end, we all lose. And that’s a future I simply want no part of.



P.s. Have you donated to the Strike Fund yet?