There’s no “Just” in Just Self-Publish

Author’s Note: This isn’t a subtweet blog or in response to any discourse, in fact I started drafting it over a month ago, long before the current *state of affairs*. And I might deeply regret dipping my toes back into this water, but with rising difficulties in trad publishing and more and more new writers being inundated with the “Just Self-Publish” advice, I feel it’s time for me to take that on in full.

Please specifically note this blog is not intended for people who are happy self-publishing, have found great success self-publishing, or have otherwise made up their mind about self-publishing. This is for people who are exploring multiple possibilities, are feeling like “just self-publish” might be the answer to querying challenges, or are otherwise interested in different perspectives regarding self-publishing. It is not intended to be an attack on self-publishing as a method of publishing or to pit self-publishing against traditional publishing. They are both legitimate paths forward with different pros and cons. This post is simply an accounting of my self-publishing journey (which was not a Cinderella story), the potential pitfalls I have noticed with the self-publishing narrative, and why it was not a good fit for me.

Content/Trigger Warnings: Alcoholism, rehab, struggles with RSD, financial difficulty, brief discussion of poverty, some brief discussion of writing community gaslighting.

My Self-Publishing Story

It would be disingenuous to talk about this topic from any lens besides my own. As always, I caveat that I am not giving one size all fits advice for anyone. Your story, your journey, your decisions on your path are your own. What I provide here is only information regarding mine. Where and how it went wrong. Why I did what I did. What I wish I’d known. My hope is only that this information can help someone make better informed decisions than the ones I made.

The Decision

In January of 2016, I went to rehab when my struggle with alcoholism nearly took my life. During the early days of my recovery, after not setting eyes on a book for about six years, I’d started to read again, then write. Soon, I finished a book. A book that, for the first time in over a decade, I felt ready to try to publish.

I assumed I’d query this book. That’s what I’d done many years before. What I’d been instructed to do during my creative writing courses in college. “Never pay for something in publishing” was the age old advice. But as I researched agents, query letters, synopses, I stumbled upon blogs about self-publishing. Things had changed. There was a new, legitimate option for writers that didn’t involve agents and publishing houses and years of rejection and waiting.

Control over my own story, the articles told me. No querying rejection. Immediate results. The ability to make all the decisions. And, if I followed the formulas, success. No agents taking 15%, publishers taking even more. I would get 70% of my earnings. I didn’t have to sell nearly as many books to see a return with percentages like that. And getting a return wasn’t so hard, anyway. Good cover, good editor, good mailing list, some great content, and the book would damn near sell itself. Follow the “steps” (to a neurodivergent individual, read: follow the rules), and I’d be all set.

I fell hard for this pitch. Fragile in the early days of recovery, terrified of rejection, and desperate to control my own story after so many years of… not doing that, it seemed perfect. Plus, there were rules. I was great at following rules. I’d been doing that my entire life. Don’t speak. Don’t cry. Tiptoe. Be quiet. Keep your elbows off the table. Chew with your mouth shut. Get only As. 4.0 GPA. Join the proper academic teams. Get a 1450 or higher SAT score. Go to work. Mind your manners. Your voice. Your tone. Not too loud. Or too soft. Don’t mumble. Or stutter. Don’t squirm. Hold your shoulders just so. Maintain your weight. Keep your eyes down. Not like that. Go to the right college. Get the job I tell you. Admit you have a problem. Don’t do drugs. Actually, do the drugs we tell you. Don’t drink. A power greater than you can fix you. That power might just be rules. Follow them at all costs.

Oh yes. Rules I could do.

The decision to self-publish came pretty quickly from there. No querying. All the control. Plus rules to lead me to success. Great.

The Flaw

At the time, there wasn’t much information available about self-publishing failures. Or at least it wasn’t popping up when I searched for self-publishing. Was I explicitly looking for it? Not really. But I wouldn’t say I did zero research, either. I read blogs and articles, followed indie authors on Twitter and signed up for their newsletters, read everything the big self-publishing names were putting out there and none of these folks were saying you’re more likely to fail* at self-publishing than succeed.

*Okay, before anyone jumps at me, let me go ahead and define what I see as “failure.” This is purely economic for me. I see a failure as not making back what you put in (at the very least). If your goal is to simply put a book into the world, and you don’t care about the economic reality of it, you can absolutely succeed and lose money. And if you go into it with your eyes wide about that and have money to burn, I wish you so much success! What I hate seeing is people who, like me, thought they would see a return on their investment instead lose huge amounts of money without realizing this is the more common story than the one of financial success (much like traditional publishing, truth be told but in traditional publishing the author isn’t out the money personally). However, despite my personal definition of failure, it’s also true that a vast majority of self-published authors will never sell more than 100 copies of their book (when I self-published this statistic was 90%. I don’t know what the current number is, however I expect it’s still high, so this is another thing to consider if you’re looking for readership if not economic success).

Certainly, I could have looked harder for information related to self-publishing “failures.” But the overwhelming mass of information out there was so positive it seemed almost impossible to go wrong if you stuck to the self-publishing script: Good book, good editor, good cover design, good website, good marketing plan, good mailing list, ARCs, bloggers, next book on the way. Bingo, bango, you were almost ready to quit your day job.

Spoiler: I was not on my way to quitting my day job. Nor was I alone, though I would spend the next many years feeling very alone and being persecuted for trying to speak this truth.

Black and white image of a neon sign reading "The Journey Is On" 
Source: Unsplash
Buckle up, y’all, we are about to get all kinds of statistical. And transparent. And as per usual, long as fuck. Like really please go get a coffee or bookmark this or find a comfy reading place. I do not know how to write less than a million word blogs I’m sorry.

Book One, Creation and Cost

The Wheel Mages

In November, 2016, I published my first book, The Wheel Mages. But before publication there was development. For this book, I had an alpha reader followed by four beta readers. After five rounds of editing amongst betas, I sent it for professional developmental edits. It went through two rounds of developmental work with an editor (a RevPit Editor actually in case anyone wants to know the credentials). First round developmental edit cost: $700. Second round developmental cost: $250. Total developmental edits: $950. Then, it was professionally line and copyedited. Cost: $1725. My developmental editor helped me create the tagline, back cover material, and written promotional information for online retailers as well. Cost: $150. I had a professional graphic designer create the cover and some graphics for marketing. Cost: $175.

For the first book, I beat my head against a wall repeatedly doing the formatting for the print copy myself. I used Vellum for eBook formatting, which I believe the subscription was somewhere around $100 for unlimited use at that time but don’t quote me (it’s $200 now for ebooks only, and they have a new version that does print and ebook formatting for $250). I launched a website (Cost: $99 a year for WordPress and $19 a year for the domain), Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram in advance of the release and pushed for preorders of the book. I signed up for Goodreads as a Goodreads author. I bought ISBNs from Bowker, 10 of them which at the time I believe cost about $200 (the more you buy the less they cost per ISBN, but you can only buy in increasingly large multiples). I tried to do a pre-sale campaign (which failed, miserably, but I wasn’t horribly deterred, it was my first book, I had things to learn, naturally).

In addition to those fixed costs I can reasonably track, I also spent hundreds on Facebook ads, Instagram ads, buying personal copies to hand sell from CreateSpace (and waaaaaaay more to give away to book bloggers, bookstagrammers, etc. all in the hopes someone would review and promote). I paid I don’t know how much in shipping to places as far as Indonesia. I did giveaways, took days off work to attend events no one showed up to, drove (and a couple times flew) hundreds of miles to hustle wherever I could, go to workshops, industry events, network, etc.

Total fixed costs: $3,418

Total Estimated Costs with Auxiliaries: ~$5,000 (or more)

*Note: I have repeatedly said on Twitter I was in a “strong” financial place and was privileged to be able to set off on this self-publishing endeavor. In preparing this blog, I was reviewing all my financials to get the exact costs because somewhere along the way I lost my spreadsheets, and while I was certainly much better off than many, I was not actually doing as well as I thought. I’m in no way discounting anything I’ve previously said about that, but do note my relative privilege from where I started (I grew up below the American poverty line for reference) tinged my view of where I was in 2016. In an effort to be completely transparent about the financial reality of this journey for me, in 2016, when I started down this path my entire life savings consisted of $5,458. By February 2017, it had dwindled to $776.78. My credit card debt went from $0 to around $5,000.

Pile of books of The Wheel Mages (black cover with white woman in white dress surrounded by water) with decorative silver and blue ornaments. One book is open on the table with a pen nearby.
Copyright: Aimee Davis
Source: Instagram @writingwaimee
First book I ever autographed. To my dad. The inscription reads: Dad, Remember the little girl who always said she’d be a writer? She made it. Love you always and forever, Aim. I am still super proud I was able to do this, but honestly it’s good I didn’t sell more copies because this signature would have REALLY been difficult to do in mass.

Book One, Sales

In 2016 when I published The Wheel Mages, things were a bit different in the self-publishing space, so I originally launched on Amazon Kindle, CreateSpace (for paperback), iTunes, and Smashwords which distributed to multiple other online retailors, the most notable being Barnes & Noble. In the first month (November 29, 2016 – December 29, 2016) I sold 58 copies: 27 on Kindle, 23 CreateSpace, 7 hand sold by me, 1 on iTunes. I made a total of $136.81 and €2.18. My goal had been to sell 100 copies in the first month (sweet summer child I was).

The second month (December 30, 2016 – January 29, 2017) I sold only 12 copies: 4 on Kindle, 4 on CreateSpace, 4 hand sold by me. I made a total of $33.50 and £1.85. Bonus fact about European sales and Amazon (at least from 2016): They won’t send you any money until you make more than 100 of whatever currency. I never saw any foreign currency from my years of self-publishing.

The sales declined from there. In months three and four combined I sold only 13 books. I stopped keeping track. In June 2017, I pivoted from the multi-platform model, pulled my book from iTunes and Smashwords, and relaunched on Amazon’s KDP Select Program.

Self-Publishing Side Quest: Amazon’s Murky KDP Select Program

For those unfamiliar with self-publishing, Amazon is the uncontested leader of the self-publishing world. As such, it offers its KDP Select Program for authors who opt to publish exclusively with Amazon and put their books in Amazon’s Kindle Unlimited (“KU”) database. For $9.99 a month, readers can access unlimited downloads of any and all of the 3 million or more books in the KU selection. These are primarily self-published works.

Because the books are offered for free to readers, authors are paid in a somewhat unconventional way. The $9.99 per month paid by each member (minus Amazon’s cut, of course) is put into a total “pool” each month, the transparency of which is murky at best (or was when I was part of the program). That pool is divided up by pages read not books downloaded. So if someone downloads your book and never reads it, tough luck. If someone downloads your book and just flips through the pages without reading a work but it’s logged, cool! You get paid! If you stuff your book with blank pages and random things that make it longer, you uh… also get paid. Amazon has made efforts to crack down on this latter practice which was getting exploited and was hurting the program because readers were unenrolling due to frustration about blank and incomplete pages.

Some positives about the program are that people can’t return your book which actually costs you money in publishing because of complicated weirdness I won’t get into right now. The program also unlocks some great promotional tools on Amazon like the ability to run free promotional campaigns. I found this to be helpful when my second book was coming out (offering the first book for free to get people to preorder the second one is a time-honored marketing technique for series’ writers. Out of 397 free copies given away I gleaned a whole FOUR EXTRA preorders! When you’re hustling though, every sale counts). Also, I actually made more money with the KDP program.

Photo of The Wheel Mages surrounded by fake white and blue flowers and blue butterflies along with a blue bookmark that says Reading is Halfway Between Living and Dreaming. 
Copyright: Aimee Davis
Source: Instagram @writingwaimee
It’s honestly weird to be posting this many pictures of these books I’ve been trying to avoid talking about for so long, but were they pretty or what?

Bottom Line: The Wheel Mages

Fortunately, despite the fact I stopped keeping track, Amazon has a dashboard! Which I can still access. Which is mildly horrifying, but see how much I love you all! I even went there of all places.

I took The Wheel Mages and its sequel The Blood Mage off the market in May 2020 for a few reasons. I wanted to focus entirely on my traditional publishing career and put the self-publishing path behind me, and I was afraid my self-publishing history was hindering my ability to get an agent (I think it wasn’t, but sometimes you need to close doors to prove to yourself the book you’re querying is just not the right book). Prior to that time, I had dabbled with the idea of maybe figuring out a way to finish the series, but I realized I had no desire to return to self-publishing and leaving an incomplete series out there for people to consume and be disappointed by its perpetual incompleteness was pretty rude. Finally, though I’m proud of the work I put into those books, and I think they taught me a lot about working with editors, and being professional, and how a book is put together, and all that goes into the business and marketing and failing at marketing, there’s a few things about the books I’d do differently now. I’m a different person, a better writer, I like to think a better human. I love those books but closing the door on them was the right thing for me.

Drawing of characters. From the left to right: Catalina, a brown woman with brown hair in a yellow dress; Felipe, a light-skinned brown man with black hair in a blue vest with a red tie; Alena, a white woman with blond hair wearing a blue dress; Nikolai, a light-skinned brown man with dark brown hair wearing a black suit with a green crevette; Genevieve, a white girl with long, curly black hair wearing a dark blue dress. 
Copyright: Emily Moberg
Plus! I got the thing every author wants, FANART! I mean basically my author goals were achieved so there was no more work here to be done.

Anyway, numbers. For The Wheel Mages from it’s launch in November, 2016 through May 2020, it sold 891 total units through Amazon, 822 on Kindle and 69 in print (not including those I sold originally through iTunes and CreateSpace and the hand selling I did at events and my family members, bless them, did). There were 13,114 pages of this book read. All of that super impressive seeming information amounts to… $253.35 in royalties.

Cost: ~ $5,000.00 (or more)

Sales: $253.35

Loss: $4,746.65 (or more)

Book One, The Emotional Cost

Two and a half years of work. Drafting. Editing. Marketing plans. Ten hour work days that turned into eighteen hours when I put my second writing job on top of it. Trips to the post office to send out ARCS to everywhere and anywhere. Reading blogs for submission information on how to get bloggers to review my books. Querying them. Hundreds of emails. To bloggers. To Bookstagrammers. To influencers. Launching a Twitter. An Instagram. A Facebook. A website. A blog. Creating content for the blog. Spending money on Instagram ads. Facebook ads. Amazon ads. Creating a newsletter and newsletter content. Learning MailChimp. Creating free content to entice people to sign up for the newsletter. Joanna Penn. All the indie authors telling me just do more, just spend more, just try harder. Just market better. Just push harder. Write more. Faster. Learn the algorithms. Do the formulas. You’ll win if you follow the rules. There wasn’t a win. There never would be. But I didn’t know that yet. I kept going.

Going to local events at libraries where not a single person showed up. Staring at empty chairs with a PowerPoint I’d spent hours on and a box of books to sign and sell while five minutes went by, ten, fifteen, thirty. The librarian awkwardly asking if I needed gas money at the least, she could really only spare $15 though. Never mentioning these things because that would be faux pas and wrong and unprofessional. Certainly never getting the benefit of going viral for them. I didn’t need it. I had formulas and orders to keep going.

Going to other events where people did show up but awkwardly shuffled past the weird girl with the fantasy book to talk to the nice lady with the memoir or the elderly gent with the WWII nonfiction. Where people asked me how long I’d queried before I got my agent and I proudly proclaimed, “None!” and they scoffed at me and chalked me up as a hack. Going weekends without rest as I traveled to local bookstores trying to hand sell to kind bookstore owners who smiled sadly and shook their heads. Soliciting librarians who said they had no idea how to shelve self-published books even when I said I had ISBNs from Bowker just like everyone else. Miles on my car. On my heart. Learning how to create this website even though I hate website development. Learning how to format a print book. Talking to designers, reading sample pages of editors, interviewing developmental editors. Going to workshops, being laughed out of industry conferences or simply refused admittance in the first place, told I wasn’t welcome in professional spaces because I wasn’t a real author. Winning awards at RWA only to be told that didn’t matter. I wasn’t a romance author. I wasn’t a fantasy author. I wasn’t a young adult author. I wasn’t an author.

And that was only book one. Because I am persistent and there were rules, I signed up for a second round!

Box of books of The Wheel Mages. 
Copyright: Aimee Davis
Source: Instagram @writingwaimee
Unboxing videos just aren’t the same when you’ve bought the copies yourself. Still, I did have a real book with real author copies that arrived just like a real author. Because I was and still am a real author with my name on a real book I worked very hard to get there, thank you very much! And other self-published authors should be treated with the same respect.

Book Two, Creation and Cost

The Blood Mage

While I was running around trying to sell The Wheel Mages I was also editing the already drafted and beta read sequel, The Blood Mage. This hulking beast of a 130,000 word round two went for developmental edits in January of 2017. The first round edits cost about $900. The big takeaway: The book was too long and the entire third act needed to be cut off and put into another book. The planned trilogy had to become a quartet. The good news for me (at the time) was that meant more books to sell. Also, because editing costs are calculated by the word by most editors, the costs for the rest of that book would be less when I cut 30k off the ass end of it. It also made the book a lot stronger, obviously! And was a ton of unexpected work, but hey, so was this whole self-publishing thing.

I got back to work on editing, on marketing book one, on my day job when I could remember to think about it. During this time I was also exploring more marketing techniques, trying to get my newsletter presence established (fail), attempting to establish myself in the self-publishing community more, and learning a lot about preorders and ARCs. I had a plan for book two! I would do the things. I’d learned from book one’s mistakes. Book two would be better.

My second-round developmental edits cost about $330. Total developmental costs: $1230. Copy and line edits for this book were about $1840. My graphic design package was a bit more as well as costs increase so the cover and marketing materials were about $250. This time I decided not to beat my head repeatedly against the wall and paid for a professional formatter for the print book (which, if you can spring it and you too find this process completely fucking miserable, worth it, the product is just so much better). Cost: $150. Good news, I already paid for Vellum, the website, Bowker, all that. So no new fees there.

Bad news, marketing is still marketing. And this time I was convinced I had a Real Plan, so I put more upfront money into print ARCs and ad campaigns (although by the time I launched my second book in July 2017 I had signed up for KDP Select, so I had access to Amazon’s free promo campaigns). However, I’d also learned a lesson this time around about international shipping (sorry international peeps) and did eARCs only for international folks.

Total Fixed Costs: $3,470

Total Estimated Costs with Marketing Included: ~$4,000 (or more)

Proof copy of The Blood Mage with many pink tabs/sticky notes on the side.
Fun stats from the past: This book took 3 months to draft, 7 months of editing, 11 total drafts, cutting 30,000 words, and rewriting the ending twice before it was published. Sounds uh… like my Pitch Wars book. At least I am consistent in my chaos drafting and extreme editing I suppose.

Book Two, Sales and the Bottom Line: The Blood Mage

I launched The Blood Mage in July 2017 (approximately 7 months after the launch of the first book). Some brief notes about this: That’s slow for self-publishing. Part of the issue was the unexpected redevelopment of the entire end of the book. Part of it was trying to rework my marketing plan when I pivoted to KDP. Part of it was ignorance and poor planning. I did try to do a preorder campaign in advance on Amazon as mentioned (where I gave The Wheel Mages away for free to drive preorders of The Blood Mage but that resulted in only 4 additional preorders). My ARC campaign failed miserably. No one reviewed the book in time or in coordination. There wasn’t enough driven hype at all. Basically, everything I thought I had carefully planned was a total failure.

As a result, The Blood Mage did as many second books do, and underperformed its predecessor by a significant margin. Between its release in July 2017 and when I removed it from print in May 2020 it sold 170 total units. 145 on Kindle, 25 in print (not including author purchased copies for hand selling, ARCs, etc.). There were only 3,935 pages of this book read. In its lifetime, total royalties amounted to a stunning $151.24.

Cost: ~$4,000 (or more)

Sales: $151.24

Loss: $3,848.76 (or more)

Image of The Blood Mage book, a white girl in a white dress coming out of a river of flames. Book surrounded by red, orange, and yellow fake flowers. 
Copyright: Aimee Davis
Source: Instagram @writingwaimee
I love these covers. I do wish I had used the tagline on the front though… Hindsight, what’re you going to do?

Book Two, The Emotional Cost

I’m not sure when exactly I ran out of steam for self-publishing, but I’m pretty sure it coincided with running out money. As I mentioned, I grew up below the poverty line. When I started this journey it was because I was fresh out of rehab, seeking control over something. There was control, absolutely. None of that is a lie. Honestly, there’s maybe too much control for someone like me who prefers to focus on what I do best while letting others do what they do best, so I don’t have to worry about those other things.

What isn’t talked about quite as much is the loss of control that can and does happen much more frequently than we think: The loss of control of your finances.

After my first book didn’t do as well as I’d hoped, the self-publishing community rallied to reassure me there was plenty I could do to “fix” what I’d done “wrong” the first time around. Better mailing list. BookBub (which I could never get into). Better planned preorder campaign. KDP and free giveaways. Cutting editing costs (which, admittedly, I refused to do because I loved my editors, and the product they helped me create was one I was proud of). But the primary refrain I heard from the community was: (1) More paid advertising; and (2) More books. There were various tactics that went into this, backmatter, campaign strategies, cutting the cost of the first book in the series and heavily promoting it to get people to pay to read the others, but the overall concept came back to: More investment.

This was a business. I understood that. My day job was to work with businesses. I knew you often had to lose money for awhile before you could make money. But this business had a formula for success if I just got better at following it. I buckled down. Planned. Invested. Kept going. Cut where I could without hurting my product, invested more where I thought it would help most. Put in more time. Learned more. Invested in a business and marketing education. Hustled. Sure, it wasn’t as easy as I’d originally thought, but the best things never are. It would be fine. I was a good writer with loads of passion and persistence who was reasonably intelligent, and I had all these great formulas and information. There was nothing to worry about.

Image of The Wheel Mages next to The Blood Mage on a bookshelf surrounded by blue flowers to the left side and orange flowers to the right side. 
Copyright: Aimee Davis
Source: Instagram @writingwaimee
Plus I had these badass books! If anyone is super frustrated by the fact I haven’t told you what they’re about, it’s because you can’t buy them except occasionally by third parties on Amazon for 3x more than I ever sold them for because they’re “rare first edition out of print” things now. Lmao. Anyway, you can still read the blurbs on Amazon if you’re interested.

When book two did worse, I talked about it the same way I’d talked about book one (with transparency, my constant brand). But the self-publishing community response… shifted. Besides being told to write more books faster and market them better, people started getting aggressive with their unprompted and unsolicited advice. They began attacking my choice in editors. They were too expensive. I was stupid to pay. My mailing list was bad. My free content wasn’t worth signing up. My genre was wrong. My covers were wrong. My pitch was wrong. What exactly was my marketing plan, in detail? Did I understand this was a business and marketing was the biggest part of it? Did I think I’d get a better deal in traditional publishing? Didn’t I know they’d just steal all my control (and royalties) then do nothing to market my work? I’d be right back here. And really, how dare I talk about self-publishing like it wasn’t working? Or that it was difficult? Didn’t I care about the stigmas? Didn’t I know I was pulling the community down when they were trying so hard to look legitimate? Who did I think I was, complaining about going quietly bankrupt? Questioning the legitimacy of this process when there were gatekeepers out here gatekeeping everything? I should have known better.

It became very clear very quickly that because I’d not been successful and was being open about that I wasn’t welcome. And the only one to blame for my lack of success was myself. I’d done it all wrong then tried to give self-publishing a bad name.

I could honestly write an entire blog just about this experience alone. About the sleepless nights. The tears. The questioning. The sheer panic. I was deeply in debt, my life savings drained, with an incomplete series I knew I couldn’t finish, and a community that had turned on me. There was no one to help me. As it turned out, the control I’d been promised came at a cost: Help.

Spiraling happened here. I lost track of whatever was left of my marketing plan. I threw everything at the wall. I spent money I didn’t have. I begged everyone for a shot. I said things I deeply regret to people I admire to “prove” I was part of this community that didn’t even want me.

But the truth is, I did know what it felt like to be labeled less than. To be told my books didn’t “count.” To have people laugh at me, roll their eyes, dismiss me, tell me I had no business calling myself a real author, refuse to even consider reading my book or allow me to sit on a panel of local authors because “well, you aren’t one, really.” To be denied the ability to enter competitions or be treated like a peer by my fellow traditionally published authors, to listen with rapt attention while they talked about submission processes and editing and try to contribute to the conversation with my experience with real (!) live (!) editors (!) and cover designers and formatters only to be brushed off and told “different world, not the same” when it sounded really similar in a lot of cases. To be told by these same people that they had no interest in learning about self-publishing despite my interest in their careers and their struggles and traditional publishing’s latest Twitter tea because “self-publishing isn’t really serious publishing.”

I absolutely knew what the struggle was like. But I also knew it was unfair to say because of that we should give a false sense of reality about this path. That because it’s hard to be stigmatized we should therefore act like everything is perfect and when people try to point out things that are not perfect, we’ll make sure they know they are the issue, not the falsities about the method.

I knew I couldn’t allow myself to fall victim to that. I had to be better. Even if it meant abandoning the series I’d worked so hard to develop. Even if it meant disappointing the few faithful readers I had.

I decided to get my finances back in line and turn to traditional publishing. In 2018, I began querying a totally new project. In 2020, despite being no closer to an agent and preparing to shelve my second book from querying, I removed my self-published books from print and closed the door on self-publishing forever.

German shepherd leans her head on a printed document with red edits on it. 
Copyright: Aimee Davis
Source: Instagram @writingwaimee
Gabbo helping me edit The Blood Mage. Look how smol she was then!


In total I lost about $8,600 or more self-publishing. Honestly, by the end, it was most likely closer to $10,000 but who knows. Probably if I’d been a better business person I would know, exactly, to the dime. Probably there are self-publishing people out there doing well self-publishing ready to throw flames at me and shoot 87 holes in my process and plans. But that’s the thing: There is no guaranteed success method, and we have to stop promising it. Business is unpredictable and unknowable. People make mistakes. Plans fall apart. We run out of time and money and capacity. You can set yourself up for better success, but it isn’t something that can be promised. That’s why entrepreneurs so often fail and fail and fail before they succeed. And that’s okay if you’re prepared to do that both financially and emotionally. It’s not okay if you have false expectations of what you’re getting into. There is no “just” in “just self-publish.” Self-publishing is hard. It’s expensive. It’s time-consuming. There are stigmas attached to it that make it more challenging. It’s not something to enter into flippantly or without thought. It’s also not something to enter into without all the information including the potentially bad things.

People often ask me if I could do it again what I’d do differently. My primary, tongue-in-cheek response tends to be: I wouldn’t do it at all. But that’s because self-publishing wasn’t the path for me. Why? Well, it was a lot of work I don’t love doing myself so I had to farm out or figure out which I hated. I also didn’t like losing that much money or bearing that much personal risk. And after years of being silenced, I really didn’t like feeling like I couldn’t speak about the shitty things I was going through or the misinformation I felt I was facing.

For example, you hear a lot in self-publishing circles that “You don’t get marketing help in traditional publishing, either.” And that can be true to some extent in some situations depending on what press you end up with and a myriad of other factors. What they don’t mention is there are marketing components you do get with most traditional presses that you have to do yourself self-publishing. Cover control is not always a positive. Covers are a huge reason why people buy books. It’s not just about what you think looks good. It’s about what sells. Nice to have a professional know something about that. Taglines, same thing. Back of your book blurb. Promo material. Getting your book on NetGalley ($499 per book to be listed for a self-published author, by the way). Access to the publisher’s mailing list of influencers and book bloggers all in one fell swoop without having to independently solicit them. There is a lot besides flashy book tours, big posters at Y’all Fest, Kirkus Reviews, pallets of printed ARCS, and an endcap at Barnes & Noble.

But in all seriousness, if I was giving legitimate advice about self-publishing from my (obviously) jaded perspective it would be this: Set real expectations and budgets. Define in advance what you’re going to consider success and really evaluate if it’s feasible to meet it. Also define what you see as failure. Draw a hard line around that and be prepared to walk away no matter what. How much risk can you tolerate? How much debt? How much until it’s too much? Know that in advance and when you get there, pull the plug and exit. Do not look back. Close your ears to anyone who says otherwise or tries to push you deeper forward into your abyss. You know your own life better than anyone else. Never regret protecting yourself.

If you’re publishing a series, budget for the entire thing in advance and have it ready to go (or mostly ready to go) before you hit publish on anything. That way you can rapid release and capitalize on the power of the series. Use backmatter to link to the next book and keep readers hooked. If you’re looking for financial success, publish in a genre you can do that in – romance is a great one and probably the biggest but there are others. Write short books. Do not rely on only the experiences of the successful but also those who haven’t been so you have a centered perspective. And always take all advice (even this advice) with about 1,000 grains of salt.

And as in all business, be ready at any moment to pivot.

Final request: If you’re going to be mean to me without having read this entire thing (and yeah, I know, it’s super long) please don’t. I’m really only trying to help people not end up in debt, depressed, and potentially multiple years behind in their writing career because someone made self-publishing sound like an easy solution to traditional publishing’s problems. If you’re doing great self-publishing, this blog isn’t for you. If you’ve already made up your mind, it also isn’t for you. If you know exactly what you want and you’re not me or even remotely like me and you love all the things I hate, this blog is not for you. And that’s okay! You’re doing great work and I support it! There are many paths forward, and we’re all beautifully unique in getting to choose them. I only ask we be allowed to provide information without fear of reprisal so those people may actually choose.

Photo of The Wheel Mages lying flat with white and blue flowers around it and blue sparkly candles along with a bookmark that says reading is halfway between living and dreaming. 
Copyright: Aimee Davis
Source: Instagram @writingwaimee
Final Fun Fact of the blog because I think the universe sometimes just neatly ties things together or maybe my brain does without me knowing. But the tagline for my first self-published book The Wheel Mages is actually: There is always a choice.



Ohhhh y’all didn’t know I had a Serious Author Photo did you? Yeah, I do. Because I was a real author and had a dust jacket which needed a photo.

Contracts and Caveats

Author’s Note: This is not meant to be commentary on any particularly literary agency or its contract (including my own), nor any press or its publishing contract. It’s not one-size fits all advice and doesn’t include everything any contract can include because one of the beautiful things about contracts is they’re not one-size fits all documents. I should also mention my background is in commercial and enterprise contracts, not publishing contracts, but there are some tips and tricks about contracts that span the landscape, and I’ve seen a bunch of literary agency contracts and some publishing contracts at this point. For context on my background, I spent 11 years working as a senior litigation paralegal at a law firm that represents only employers primarily in employment, employee benefits, and labor law matters, but also handled a lot of contract work in commercial construction and manufacturing. Currently, I’m employed as a Vice President of Compliance at a medical software company and one of my primary responsibilities is drafting, reviewing, and negotiating all our client, vendor, and employment contracts. In my career, I’ve reviewed hundreds of contracts, from several paragraph letter agreements to hundreds of pages master service agreements and everything in between.

Disclaimer: Despite the above, I am not a lawyer and nothing in this blog should be construed to constitute legal advice or be depended upon as legal advice. I am also not a literary agent. If you have questions about your literary agency or publishing contract, you should consult legal counsel of your own choosing and/or discuss it with your agent (or contract an agent for the purpose of helping you negotiate a contract directly with a publishing house). Further, it should be noted that contract laws and principles can (and do) vary state to state (in the USA and certainly even more so internationally).

Contracts 101

Building Blocks of a Contract: Fancy Legal Language Incoming

Contracts (also called agreements) are basically just written documents that outline the terms two (or more) parties have agreed to in exchange for the parties providing one another with something the other wants. They can be verbal but uh… the TL;DR of this entire blog is they absolutely shouldn’t be in publishing. Ever. Like huge red flag if that’s happening to you. Don’t even go a step further. An offer is (often) verbal. It should be solidified by a written agreement that you read (the whole thing) and sign.

Contracts are built using certain “building blocks” aka legal structures that form the provisions of the agreement. They are usually:

Representations, Warranties, and Indemnification: The representation is an assertion one party makes to another to induce them to enter into a contract in the first place. The warranty is the promise the representation is true. Usually, a warranty is also accompanied by a promise of indemnification if the warranty proves false. This means that if the warranty doesn’t hold up (or someone alleges it doesn’t, don’t forget people can sue for bogus reasons and real reasons alike), the person who made the representation will take responsibility (financial and legal) if the other party gets sued. (Hypothetical Example: Representation: This book that you’re offering on was written by me. Warranty: My promise to my agent and agency no one else wrote this book and it isn’t stolen. Indemnification: The book sells in a preempt (under the same representations and warranties now passed on to the publishing house) and halfway through edits, my editor finds out Chat GPT wrote my book. The publishing house sues me and my agency. I lied, indemnification kicks in. It’s my responsibility to cover my defense and my agency’s defense and likely any settlement or judgment). Pro tip: Don’t steal, write your own books, and this representation and warranty is not a difficult one to meet.

Covenants: Covenants are basically promises from one party to the other to take action or refrain from taking action. Covenants and warranties are often mixed up and sometimes used interchangeably. They are not technically the same thing, however, as warranties are usually promising something about the state of affairs before the contract begins, while covenants are promising action or non-action during or after the term of the contract. (Hypothetical Example: In a literary agency contract, a covenant could be the promise your agency or agent makes to you to make a good faith effort to sell your book.)

Rights: Rights are what the party who has agreed to a covenant gets in exchange for agreeing to the covenant. (In the example I provided earlier, it’s the right of the agent to take a commission for actually selling the book).

Conditions: A condition is something that must be met in order for rights under the agreement to be triggered. There are different ways conditions are applied in contracts (and they can be applied in several different ways in the same contract). (Hypothetical Example: In an agency contract, a set of conditions might be that an agent must not only sell your book to a publisher but they must also have a signed contract in hand and money be paid out before they get their commission).

Mutual Statement of Fact: These are clarifying statements that limit or clarify the above things. You’ll often find them at the beginning and end of a contract. They consist of standard contract provisions like jurisdiction, choice of law provisions, definitions, arbitration or mediation clauses, and the like.

A white claymation figure sits on a multi-colored Legos. 

Source; Pixabay.
Oh hey! It’s me, building a contract at my day job!

What to Consider When You’re Considering Contracts

In theory, there’s almost nothing in a contract that can’t be changed. You probably can’t make the jurisdiction of your contract Manitoba if your literary agency is based in North Carolina and you live in Pennsylvania, but many other things can legally be changed. Whether they will be is a whole separate thing. Contract negotiation is really a lot more about choosing what hills you want to die on, how much risk you can tolerate, and where your negotiating position is than law, truth be told.

That said, here are some things to consider when you’re thinking about the contract negotiation process:

  • The relationship between the parties and their negotiating leverage: The fact of the matter is that in negotiating a contract there is always a party who has more power. In the case of an author signing with a literary agent/agency, it is usually the agent/agency who has more negotiating leverage/power, but not always. If you’re one of those lucky authors who had multiple offers, you might have more leverage than you think. Even if you’re not, you should never underestimate the power of the word “no.” That said, that’s a risky strategy, which is where that hill to die on and risk v. reward concept comes in.
  • The scope of the contract: Are you contracting with the agent as an independent contractor or the agency? For this book only or a whole career? These are things to consider when you’re negotiating a contract (and to ask about on your call as well).
  • The reputation of the agent/agency including which party might be more likely to breach the agreement: For reasons we have seen play out in the public spotlight a bit too much recently, this has to be considered to the extent possible. Is this agency going to hold up their end of this contract? Are you going to be able to? Because let’s be real, litigation is expensive, out of reach for most individuals, and no one really wants to be on the other side of a lawsuit.
  • Each party’s risk tolerance: What can you tolerate? What do you think the other party can tolerate? This can be tricky and is super individualized. What matters to you might be different to me. What I trust might be different from what you trust. I have negotiated hundreds of contracts and am often surprised what some companies hang onto with fervor while others shrug at (I expect this has to do with where they’ve been burned in the past). As an individual, I’m risk averse as a rule (anyone who has spent a decade plus watching people get sued tends to be), but I also know myself pretty well. I know what I’m capable of promising and what I’m not. I know contracts. I understand what I’m agreeing to and what happens if The Worst Possible Thing happens. I have contingency plans. If The Worst Possible Thing happens, I can tolerate it. This is what you should sort of evaluate for in yourself and in your contracts.
  • The potential interplay of this agreement with others: For literary agency agreements, it’s important to think about how this agreement will work with your future publishing contracts. Try to think about the good and the bad. Contracts are there to prevent confusion, but no one can ever think of every situation. Still try. How do the commission payments for your agent work? Foreign rights? Film options? Audio? Multi-book deals? What if you want to write something not covered by the agreement like short stories or poems? What if you want to self-publish later? What happens if the publishing company pulls your deal through no fault of your own? What if you can’t complete the work? Who gets paid? Who doesn’t? What has to be refunded? To who? And more importantly by who? These questions don’t necessarily have to be answered in your agency contract, but if there are provisions in your contract that might play off questions like these in a potential future publishing contract, you can certainly discuss them with your agent and see how the agency negotiates publishing contracts around them (shocking no one, I did! And hey! I didn’t get immediately thrown back in the trenches 🤪)
Two white claymation figures stand, one has a gold tie and holds a contract, the other has a pen about to sign.

Source: Pixabay.
STOP! Don’t sign on that dotted line just yet! There are things to consider! And also, it bears repeating, please at the very least make sure you read the whole dang agreement before you sign it! (It should not be blank like this guy’s!)

Particular Provisions to Keep on Your Radar

When you’re dealing with an agency agreement, there are some particular provisions to pay attention to. Again, this is not one-size fits all advice and some people might care more about one thing versus another depending on their individual risk tolerance, general negotiating prowess, desire to just get going already, etc. However, these are some of the provisions making the rounds in literary circles lately, which I think deserve a little dissection.

Scope of Representation: This provision might be called different things in different contracts but in general, this should be the paragraph(s) that explain what is being represented (and what isn’t). What isn’t being represented is called a “carve-out.” Common carve-outs include previously published works, certain genres, or lengths of work like short stories, essays, poems, etc. If you’re a hybrid author or want to be, pay attention, this is likely where you’ll want to have some language about what your agency is representing and what you’ll self-publish. Or if the agency gets right of first refusal (i.e. the ability to determine/discuss/offer on trying to sell the work before you self-publish).

Agency’s Representations, Warranties, and Indemnification: These are the promises the agency is making to you and the warranties they’re true plus the promise they’ll defend you if things go south. Note: Many contracts will use terms like “gross negligence” and “willful misconduct.” These terms are: (1) defined differently state to state; and (2) highly fact-specific. However, they are generally associated with conduct that departs from the ordinary standard of care commonly accepted as usual in that industry. It’s also important to note that despite sounding scary AF they are pretty standard contract terms.

Author’s Representations, Warranties, and Indemnification: These are the promises you’re making to the agency and the warranties plus the promise you’ll defend the agency if things go south. You should definitely make sure that whatever you’re agreeing to you’re confident you can agree to and stand by! Pro tip: Don’t lie. It really does catch up to you.

Payment Terms: This explains who is paid, how, and when. Industry standard is 15% commission to agents on an author’s US literary rights. Do not be surprised to see different commission amounts or structures for things like foreign rights, audio rights, and film rights. 15% is the standard for US literary rights (i.e. selling your book for publication and distribution in the US). There’s a lot of information right now that is just “15% is standard.” True. But not the whole truth. The entirety of the commission structure should be laid out in the payment terms, including when payments are paid and to whom (many agencies request/require payment be made from the publishing house to the agency, and the agency pays you after). This is also where you should keep an eye on contract terms that may or may not exist around what happens if your publishing contract gets pulled, or you’re unable to fulfill it for whatever reason. If there are no terms about that, you can still ask – how does your agent negotiate the contract? Can that kind of thing be worked through? We never want that to happen, but being a savvy contract negotiator is all about planning for the scenario no one saw coming. If it’s not in the agency contract, that doesn’t mean it’s a red flag, it very well might be something they negotiate in the ultimate publishing contract, but asking the question can teach you something about the agency’s negotiation habits in general. Don’t forget, the contract negotiation might end for you after you sign on your agency agreement’s dotted line, but a big part of your agent’s job is striking the best deal for you (including negotiating your publishing contract(s)!)

Term of the Agreement: This provision will tell you how long you’re entering into the agreement. Is it fixed? Or evergreen? I’ve seen some really bad information about the latter, so I’m going to take a minute to parse these out.

Fixed Term Agreement. A fixed term agreement is an agreement that lasts a specific amount of time, then ends. The agent or agency has agreed to represent you for a year or two or three or five and then the agreement is renewed or ends. If you have an agreement like that, it should also have an accompanying renewal provision explaining how the agreement can be renewed. Pay attention to that! Is it contingent upon a sale? Upon both parties wanting to continue on with the arrangement? How many days before the end of the term do you have to start the renewal process? Fixed term agreements are more common in commercial contracts than in literary agency contracts (I’ve never personally seen one in the literary space, but I’ve heard of their existence. This is the kind of agreement I negotiate most commonly in my day job, however, hence why I know a bit about them).

Evergreen Agreement. The more common type of agency agreement is an “evergreen” agreement. This kind of agreement might have a stated term, twelve months or so, but its term auto-renews unless one party terminates the agreement. This type of agreement is basically good forever until someone says otherwise. This type of agreement should be accompanied by a corresponding termination provision which explains how you make the evergreen clause stop. All contracts, however, should have a way to get out of them regardless of term, which leads me to…

Termination Clause: This is the provision of the agreement (also called an “out”) that explains how the parties end the agreement and what happens after. Termination clauses in general usually come in two forms, both of which can be present in a contract but aren’t always: (1) Termination for cause – this is what happens when one party terminates the agreement because the other party has breached it and failed to cure that breach; and (2) Termination for convenience – this is what happens when the agreement is terminated for any reason that isn’t a breach. While not mandatory, termination for cause clauses do often offer a “cure” period where the party who is alleged of breaching is notified of their infraction and given a certain period of time (say 15-30 days) to “cure” the breach. If they don’t, the party who alleged the breach, can terminate. Termination for convenience provisions usually also require notice, often 30-60 days or so. During this period, the “notice period,” the contract is still in full effect. This notice period appears to be getting confused with another set of provisions in many agency contracts that come after the termination is effectuated and which apply only to certain works.

Post-Termination Provisions: Many agency contracts also outline a period of time after the contract has been terminated. This is not the notice period described above, and what (if anything) these provisions contain varies from agency to agency. Some agencies have provisions regarding this period of time, some do not. However, in general, things discussed in these provisions seem to include: manuscripts actively out on submission with editors, how long the agency of record (aka the terminated agency) gets to continue soliciting these manuscripts, who gets the commission if they sell, what happens if they don’t sell within the period of time described, and how long a terminated author has to wait to query that project after it is released. I am unsure if these provisions might also sometimes contain a blanket prohibition from querying at all for a period of time after termination of the contract (I have never personally seen this in an agency contract) or if this is being confused with the notice period referenced above where you are still under contract (usually an exclusive contract) and thus cannot query.

From what I can tell, the period of time an agency has to attempt to finish up soliciting a manuscript actively on submission (different from the notice period) ranges anywhere from 90 days (seems to be pretty standard(ish)) to perpetuity (not standard, I don’t think I would sign up for this myself, but I’m not you). The work covered also seems to vary widely from only projects that are actively on submission (pretty standard) to anything you ever pitched to your agent ever (not standard). If the project sells, the agent who sold the project gets the commission (standard) and will continue to do so for that book, pretty much (also pretty standard). If the project doesn’t sell, some contracts seem to allow you to go solicit that book to whatever agent you want while others seem to say you can’t. Some say you have to wait certain periods of time, others don’t mention this at all. This is really where it seems to get quite muddy and where you really have to decide for yourself what you’re willing to accept in terms of risk, reputation, and where you might find yourself in the worst case scenario.

*Note: I haven’t read every agency contract in existence. Honestly, I’ve read probably a paltry sampling of them. Some of the information I gleaned for the above two paragraphs came from Twitter threads and allegations and might be misinterpretations of contracts, which is why understanding your contract is so important! Understanding your outs (and what happens after) is very important.

A black and white drawing of an evergreen tree.

Source: Pixabay.
My agency agreement is the only evergreen agreement I ever liked, truth be told.

Shorter is not always Better

Contracts are all about clarity (which is why I love them). When they’re unclear, things can get needlessly messy. The best contracts plan for every scenario (or at the very least the ones most common to that industry) and describe the procedures for those scenarios. Doing that takes up word count. Real talk: ambiguity very rarely works in the favor of the party in the shitty situation. If something goes wrong, you want to be able to confidently point to your contract and say, “I know what happens now.” Even if what happens now means you have to ask for certain provisions to be waived.

So while it’s more footwork to read and negotiate a longer contract, they’re often a good indicator the agency is taking its business (and you) seriously. It’s also a good sign your agency knows how to predict common industry scenarios and negotiate a clean contract, a skill you’re going to be interested in when you’re ready to work with your agent on your next contract – your publishing contract!

Contracting an Agent for a Contract

Finally, if you receive an offer of publication from a press without an agent, please know there are agents (and lawyers) who will contract with you for the sole purpose of helping you negotiate that contract. There are fees for this, but they’re not 15% of the contract like a standard agent commission, and it’s definitely worth it, because if you think what I just wrote is complicated, it’s nothing compared to a publishing contract.

Power Dynamics

The hardest part of negotiating any contract is being (or feeling like) the “little man.” It would be irresponsible of me not to mention the power dynamics at play here. After years in the querying trenches, despite how kind and candid and honest and lovely my agent is, I was terrified to say the “wrong” thing or do the wrong thing or seem like I was being in any way entitled or difficult or less than humble. I was overcome with gratitude to even have an agent offer. So when I was sent the contract and my compliance brain kicked on, and I immediately set to red-lining and asking questions and having lawyers review the thing, I started to stress.

Maybe I should just sign it and accept the risk. Maybe it didn’t matter. Maybe I was worrying over nothing. What if I was thrown right back into the querying trenches where I came from? I should just shut up and sit down and say nothing.

Lines with two green check marks followed by a line with a red X.

Source: Pixabay.
Tell them there brain worms to shush themselves. You have every right to be here. Words of affirmation: Your book is good. Great. You are smart. Strong. Brave. Deserving. Worthy.

Incorrect. Valid. But incorrect. This person is truly going to be your business partner. Right now, they’re representing their agency, but as soon as you sign on that line, they represent you. We all put “rep” in our bios, right? Believe it or not, you representing you is a professional look. You’re showing your new business partner that you, too, take business seriously. That you’re taking them and their offer and their agency seriously. If they view this any other way, they’re belittling you as a true equal in business.

Now, this also means you have to be professional in business. You should do your level best to understand your negotiating position, and the agency’s explanations. You should be courteous and choose your hills and be prepared to meet halfway. Negotiation is about both parties walking away feeling like they got a good deal (or if you see things from the glass half empty perspective feeling like they both got just a little bit shafted). You won’t get everything you want. Might not get nearly as much as you’d hope, but you’ll have set a good tone for your future, and you’ll have learned quite a bit about the negotiation skills of your new partner in the process.

Take care of yourselves out there.



Not the Darling: Corporate America Edition

Author’s Note: I am actually out of #NottheDarling posts so if you’re interested in submitting to this series (which is not usually about Corporate America but is usually about querying) please read more about it here.

As writers, sometimes we have to channel our pain into weird places, and mine found this vehicle this time. I guess there might also be a reason I write fairytale retellings about women with job issues… I hope no one minds me grabbing the title for a brief moment. I won’t do it again, I Promise.

Trigger/Content Warnings: Job rejection, feelings of mediocrity, discussion of RSD, minor body horror.

Disclaimer: The views expressed in this piece are my own and not those of my current or past employers.

Mediocrity: The Millennial Manifest Destiny

By: Aimee Davis

Mediocre: me-di-o-cre – adjective – of only moderate quality; not very good.

I don’t usually talk about my IRL day job On Main™ for the same reason a lot of people don’t talk about querying On Main. The general wisdom is it makes you look bad to the very people you’re trying to court, be that employers or agents. Never mind that in America you have Section 7 rights*.

*For those who don’t know, Section 7 rights are those guaranteed to you by the National Labor Relations Act (whether you’re in a union or not) to engage in “concerted activity” which is activity with two or more employees to improve hours, pay, working conditions, or other aspects of your job. Section 7 rights extend to an employee’s posts on social media in certain instances. (This is not legal advice, I am not a lawyer).

But in this the age of technology where everyone decides whether to take a gamble on you based on your profile, it’s not worth the risk. Employers can swipe right or left on someone with the flick of a button. I know, I’m in HR. And legal. And compliance. Yet pain has called, and I am a writer, so here I am. And I suppose this is less a critique of my employer and more a critique of myself. Or perhaps the system in which we exist. A system not made for me.

I know labor law, and employee benefits law, and employment law. I can recite sections of ERISA and the Tax Code, of HIPAA and Title VII. My acronym vocabulary is strong. I can redesign benefit plans as simple as single employer and as complicated as Taft-Hartley. Hell, I know what a Taft-Harley Plan is. When I’m done designing them, I can explain them back in meaningful ways to employees of every level to help them make decisions that will improve their lives within the system I built. I’ve been in board rooms and at union negotiating tables. In judge’s chambers and on manufacturing floors. I’ve interviewed prisoners and CEOs. I’ve stared down men running Fortune 500 companies and told them to pay up. I’ve argued with teams of lawyers from multi-billion dollar health insurance companies and walked away with contracts more favorable for my company. I’ve soothed crying administrative assistants and disciplined executives. I’ve coached C-Suites and junior paralegals. I’ve moved up and down the chain of command, working with empathy and honesty. Transparency and ethics. Using the law as my principles, my business acumen as my guide, I’ve fought for employees and companies at every stage of my career. Every company I’ve interacted with has walked away safer, stronger, with some kind of better result for themselves and their employees. Because I toe the hardest line: employee and management.

Yet for myself there’s nothing more. I can’t get any further than where I am. For me, there is no advocate and never has been. Besides myself, I suppose. But I am a poor advocate for myself. I’m told it’s a “trauma thing.” Or maybe I simply don’t deserve the things I think I do. Maybe I aim too high.

For years, I’ve struggled against every machine, racking up rejections like tallies on the wall of life’s life sentence. In dating, swipe left on relationship after relationship. Not pretty enough. Not skinny enough. Not charming enough. Not sexy enough. Not funny enough. Not athletic enough. Not outgoing enough. Not adventurous enough. Doesn’t drink. Doesn’t backpack. Doesn’t go to the gym 4 times a week. Doesn’t want to have kids. Too weird. Too quiet. Too shy. Too blunt. Too strange. Too nerdy. Too opinionated. In querying, swipe left on failed book after failed book. Weak protagonists. Not active enough. Not interesting enough. Not different enough. Too different. Not enough oomf. Not enough voice. Too wordy. Too prosey. Not enough motivation. Too dark. Hell, even trying to find a house was an app where you swipe left or right and everything is not enough. Not enough budget. Not enough time. Not enough cash.

Not sure why I expected my professional life to be any different. Not enough education. Not enough experience. Too assertive. Too aggressive. Too blunt. Too honest. Too pushy. Too involved. Not trendy enough. Too much generalized experienced, not enough niche. Not the right certification. No masters degree. No law degree. The wrong kind of undergraduate education. The wrong kind of experience.

Not enough, not enough, not enough. Too much, too much, too much.

Corporate America. Where if you dream it you can be it. Except if you’re anything other than a straight, white, cis, able-bodied dude with a great education and a great background who knows another guy just like him to get in the back door.

For the rest of us? Corporate America. Where you’re doomed to throw yourself against the walls of being too much or wanting too much while being eight forms of not enough until you accept your own destiny. Mediocrity. The manifest destiny of Millennials everywhere.

Or maybe it’s not Millennials. Maybe it’s just me. Maybe I’m Icarus flying too close to the sun with my wax wings, thinking I’m worth more than I am. Maybe I should listen to all the people who have come before me telling me to sit down and shut up and take notes. Literally, in most cases. Take notes. I’m good at it. Write reports. I’m good at it. Push paper. I’m good at it. Your decisions? Your thoughts? Your strategies? Your redesigns? Restructures? Planning? Assertiveness? Leadership? You can have that back. High priced secretary, sit. Good girl.

Girl. The times I’ve heard that. It burns under my skin like a thousand ants on the march. I want to rip my flesh open and bleed onto the pavement. Red. My blood is red like yours. I can do what you can do. But that would be emotional. And I’d be punished for being an emotional girl in the workplace. I can’t cry out of frustration. I can’t show weakness. But they can yell and scream and slam their fists and stomp their feet and make decisions on the dime out of emotion and call it gut. They can call it anything they want. Passion. Anger. Rage. Hunger. Ambition. Vision. It’s all fantastic.

In a man.

When I want? It’s manipulative. Condescending. Shady. Sneaky. Demanding. Reaching too far. Overstepping.

I’ve worked sixty, seventy, eighty hour weeks for so many years I don’t know what the free time of a forty hour week would look like. I see politicians rallying for a 32 hour week and I laugh. Part time work for the same pay. Adorable. I haven’t been on a vacation in seven? eight? nine? years. That time I went to Germany to chase a boy after another one broke my heart. I think I was in my mid twenties. I’m 35 now. I never had kids because I was always trying to get ahead, in publishing, in my career, in something. I never got married because I wanted to be something more than some man’s wife.

So I fought with teeth and claws and every bit of intelligence I was gifted. I completed every task assigned to me, learned everything asked. I took on the jobs no one else wanted, and asked for more. “A lawyer without a law degree.” They joked. Instincts. Acumen. Ambition. Drive. Desire. Intelligence. Things in a man that would have gotten me to the top by now. Things in me that fester and rot until I can barely stand to live in my own skin.

Or maybe it’s not because I’m a woman. Maybe it’s because I’m me. Because I’m neurodiverse. Because I say the wrong thing at the wrong time never mind how careful I always try to be. Because I don’t pander or play politics. Because I don’t actually have ulterior motives, despite what might be said. I lay them all right out on the table. For others? I want to help. To motivate. To encourage. To push to their full potential. To teach. To train. For companies? To fix. To make better. To keep safe. To scale. To grow. To make more money. To employ more people. To be bigger. Faster. For myself? I want to matter. To be seen and heard. To have a voice. A seat at the table. I want to climb the ladder all the way to the top. To be more than what I am.

That’s cute. Please take notes. I’m busy.

So here I am. Bleeding my red blood onto the carpet, while ants crawl from beneath my skin. Curled in a ball. Weeping where they can’t see. Always weeping.

I will never be more than mediocre. And I don’t know how to accept it.

GMC if you have C-PTSD

Author’s Note: This post is a more practical, craft-based post that relates to my recent post on character agency and trauma. After writing that post, I realized I had some practical application things I wanted to add that might be better as a separate post, so here it is!

Disclaimer: As with my previous post, please note that this is about writing for traditional publishing and any discussion regarding trauma is written from my lens as a white, cis, American writing within that storytelling framework. Please also note this post is about GMC as an author with C-PTSD/trauma not necessarily always about writing characters who have trauma.

During Pitch Wars, while most of my peers were reading Save the Cat! Writes a Novel and Story Genius and working on beat sheets, my mentor had me read a 26 year old craft book by Debra Dixon called GMC: Goal, Motivation, and Conflict: The Building Blocks of Good Fiction.

I loved it. It felt like finally there was a book explaining to me in simple terms the things other people intrinsically seemed to understand about character. For years, I’d tried to revise to advice about goals and agency and active protagonists that was either too complicated or too simple. Now, here was someone to explain what I was doing wrong. The trick is that having an active protagonist with agency isn’t just about having a character with a goal who does stuff. It’s having a character with a goal who does stuff to drive the plot forward. Having a goal of “Get home to eat some soup”* while it’s a goal the character might take action on doesn’t drive the plot forward.

*Actual example from the draft of my Pitch Wars book my mentor saw, by the way. Listen, someone told me the cure to a passive protagonist was to give them goals even if they were small. Turns out, this is not to be literally interpreted. The goal can be small but only if it moves the plot forward.

What I loved most about Debra Dixon’s book was it gave me easy GMC charts for stories I knew well. Particularly the ones for Wizard of Oz, one of my favorite movies of all time. I’m pretty sure it would be copyright infringement to share that chart in its entirety here, but the structure is simple:

Simplest form of a GMC chart. These can be wildly more complicated if you want to go there. I do not.

The very first thing my Pitch Wars mentor requested I do before I revised a single word of my book was to create GMC charts for my main character (the protagonist), the second point of view (the villain love interest), the main character’s best friend, the antagonist, and the secondary (tertiary?) villain (listen, unclear, this book has a lot of villains). Why? Because my arcs weren’t clear. Why? Well, I suspect because even after fifteen years of trauma therapy I still don’t really understand how agency works. Which is how I came to write this blog. But first! An announcement!

Write What You Know, Except…

Here’s where this whole write what you know thing gets a little off the tracks. “Write what you know” was another piece of writing advice that made absolutely no sense to me for most of my adult life. Again, because I interpreted it way too literally. All through my college classes I heard write what you know and bobbed my head while internally I screamed what the ever loving fuck does that mean?

If people only write what they know how do they write about dragons? Or even simpler, how do they write about people they aren’t? Not every character is a self-insert, or should be. Wow that would be… something. Clearly, we are constantly writing what we don’t know. This is terrible advice and yet here it is. Everywhere. All the time.

As I got older and started really writing novels and more specifically, focusing on craft for novels, I realized write what you know doesn’t mean that quite so literally. This might be obvious to some, most even, but it wasn’t to me. It took me years to figure out. Write what you know doesn’t apply to the external, surface level stuff. To plot. To dragons. To if your character likes tomato soup when you like broccoli cheddar (yeah, here I am with the soup again). It applies to the deeper seated things. Write about the human experience unique to you. Your pain. Your joy. Your identities. I also learned (something they did not teach in my writing classes, by the way) it means you shouldn’t write from those deep places you don’t know. The ones that belong to someone else. The stories that are not yours.

This started to make the most sense to me when my internal stories started to bleed onto the page without me realizing. Whole novels I thought were about magic and worldbuilding and friendship and questing. Whoop. Trauma. Whoop. Addiction. Whoop. Secret bisexual. Whoop. ADHD.

That secret bleeding is authentic to the unique experience of the writer. It’s writing what you know. But sometimes, it becomes necessary to trick the system a bit. NOT to usurp someone else’s identity, but to attempt to reclaim your own. And that’s when, in my opinion, the intellectual exercise of a GMC chart can really come in handy for someone with trauma. Because sometimes, you don’t actually know what you know well enough to write it, or to write it with intention and consistency. Or, through no fault of your own, you haven’t learned it. Such is the way with the loss of agency and the first two points of that chart: Goal and Motivation. So, you have to trick your own system (your brain) and write a bit of what you do not know to get to what you do (Conflict).


External Goal

For brevity (ha!) I know right? I’m going to focus on the main character in this post. But as I noted above, most of your major players should have GMC. Definitely your POV characters and your villain at minimum.

In its simplest form, the goal is the thing the main character wants. In fantasy, what I write, the external goal is usually the thing driving the plot forward. Steal the thing (heist), overthrow the government (coup), save the world (hero’s journey), become the next queen (palace intrigue).

For my Pitch Wars book, the external goal for my main character was “Save her best friend.”

External goals for me have always been a bit easier to figure out, because as I mentioned in my earlier post, having C-PTSD doesn’t stop someone from wanting things. For this one, I would say the advice given is pretty standard. Read widely and see what’s popular. Then give it your own spin. Fantasy stakes are often epic, as I cited, but there’s been a recent demand in the market for character-focused stories. Character-focused stories require character-focused goals. I don’t love saying anything is “overdone” or “dead” (especially as someone who writes fairytale retellings), but I will say a character trying to save the world isn’t always as easy to relate to as a character trying to save their best friend. Or their mom. Or their dog. Now, if their best friend just so happens to be the person most likely to fix the future of the world, well… I mean… you do you.

Internal Goal

The internal goal is what drives the character arc. The character is not always immediately aware of this goal, but you as the author should be. Usually, it’s related to the character’s emotional wound and is the thing that will be healed by the end of the book.

Oop, I used the word healed and hackles across the traumaverse raised. To be clear, your internal goal in a trauma narrative does not have to be (nor would I recommend it be) “heal their trauma.” Nor are character’s emotional wounds limited to one. Indeed, we all have scars aplenty, traumatized or not. When we’re talking about The Emotional Wound and The Internal Goal, we’re talking about the one driving the character arc forward for this one book. Good news for writers is that people are pretty fucked up and have many emotional wounds so loads of internal goals to work toward (meaning more books for that character which for us fantasy authors is key).

On a more serious note, for those of us with trauma, especially C-PTSD, you’ll know “healing” is not a linear journey made up of one thing but a patchwork of unraveling one thing only to realize you’ve unspooled seven others. Followed by fifty more. Which is why I say it’s probably not a great goal for a single book even if we wanted to convey the message that trauma can be healed (which is another post entirely, perhaps for my therapist to address). Regardless of whether you think trauma of that magnitude can ever be healed or should ever be healed, it’s simply too big to do in one book.

For my Pitch Wars book, the internal goal for my main character was to “find self acceptance.” This was related to her emotional wound: abandonment.

Here’s where things start to get a little bit trickier for someone with trauma, in my experience. Internal goals are where character arcs come into play. In theory, if you were plotting the points of your character’s emotional progression over the course of your book, it should look something like this:

Needless to say, the character arc for my Pitch Wars book did NOT look like this at first

First, I’m not a plotter, so part of my issue with *gestures vaguely* some of this, is that. However, some of my issues around internal character arcs are, I’ve discovered, related to trauma. My character arcs never look like arcs. They always look like EKGs. You know, this thing:

Image of a red line of an EKG machine. Image sourced from Pixabay.
Bless my Pitch Wars mentor for her fortitude, patience, and wisdom to put up with all this. WHICH! If you love a high heat contemporary romance with a cool ass setting, no toxic masculinity, a grumpy/sunshine trope and “Oh no, we’re snowed in” vibes, plus an arc that doesn’t look like an EKG, please check out her newest book, Abbeydon Attraction available NOW!

This has to do with the difficulty I have as a writer with trauma in understanding a smooth progression of emotion in any situation. The act of healing for me is never linear. It’s always this two steps forward, one step back tango of unraveled mess that doesn’t turn into a nice arc and is also apparently quite frustrating to read to anyone not me. Why? Well, because for most readers it reads as repetitive. “We’ve already done this with this character. Let’s move on.”

Pause. I know this is going to be a long blog. They always are, but it’s because I want to try to address the thousand thousand caveats which I know I can’t do but I can try, damn it.

Is it frustrating to you as a writer with trauma to hear that your authentic story reads as frustrating and repetitive to readers? Absolutely. Does it remain true? Also yes. I again repeat you can ignore every single thing I say in this blog as bogus and do it your own way. You can write the book of your heart about survival with no GMC and an arc that looks like that EKG machine. You can break every single rule in the rulebook. There is no such thing as advice that will lead you to success, nor is there advice you must follow to find it. All that exists is kind of in general information about the current ways stories are told in the United States. There’s information about why some things appear to work and others don’t. There are also examples of people saying fuck off with that, breaking the rules, and everyone loving it. However, for every one of those stories there are ten thousand more who tried the same thing and weren’t lucky. There are also loads of people who follow all the rules and get nowhere. So, I have no magic solutions here, only information.

How does the GMC chart help with the EKG machine effect, then? Well, if you know where you’re headed and what you’re working through, it can be easier to chart a smoother course. Or help you smooth things out in edits, depending on what type of writer you are. Each scene can be approached with an eye for how the emotion is moving forward (and if it could be moving back). Keeping in mind that there are some stutters and one big one (at the Dark Moment) you should have where that emotional wound comes and rears its ugly head, but overall it should be a mostly smooth line toward Aha!

Other craft book recommendations: The Emotional Wound Thesaurus


External Motivation

Motivation is all about the why behind the want. Why does your character want the thing? Often, you’ll hear this advice about forming GMC which I quite like: My character wants X [Goal] because Y [motivation] except Z gets in the way [conflict]. Or some variation on this.

Figuring out why your character wants something sounds easy enough, and I guess it can be, but there’s another part of this we don’t talk about often enough and everything about it has to do with agency. If you’re writing a character who’s experienced trauma, the why behind the want has to be stronger than their trauma responses.

The why is what pushes the character forward. In the case of a character with trauma, that means pushing forward through their own trauma, which if you’ve got trauma, you might now be understanding why this is harder for us than other writers, perhaps. Primarily because if you asked me this question, what motivation do you hold now that can make you fight through your own trauma responses? The list is… quite small. And there’s a part of me that is still sitting here saying, “If it’s even possible to do, honestly.” Because some things are just y’know, biological. Burned into my brain and all. I might want to fight through some shit for certain goals, but there are things in my brain that are now wired to not fight. So, it can get murky.

Fortunately, we write fiction, and this is one of those moments where fibbing what you know might be in order. But you probably won’t do it naturally. You will not bleed that experience onto the page like some others. So you have to do it with intention. Via an intellectual exercise like the GMC chart. Why does your character want this thing? And make it big.

For my Pitch Wars book, the external goal of “Save her best friend” was accompanied by the motivation “Because the villain is trying to turn her evil.” Goal worth fighting for and a why big enough to aggressively fight forward.

Keeping that goal in your mind (and your character’s mind) is a good way to keep the plot moving forward. Each scene should be moving either the plot or the character arc (or both) forward. If it’s doing neither, well…

Let me just tell you there are not a lot of freely sourced images of the Grim Reaper on the internet. Dude is not getting a fair shake.

Internal Motivation

Internal motivation is also something I’ll argue is not always known, especially if you’re writing a character who has some trauma. But usually, it relates back to the wound. Why does the character want the internal goal? Well, usually because the wound has left them feeling Some Kind of Way and they’d like to uh… not.

But saying to a trauma survivor “Don’t feel like shit” about something is about as disingenuous as telling them to “Just let it go.” Don’t you hate it? So, once again, we as writers are confronted with the dilemma of needing a why that is strong enough to overcome the trauma to move forward toward the want. With internal motivation, this can all happen sort of under the character’s radar, by the way. They don’t have to seek therapy on the page, though cool if they do.

If you’re writing a romance, or something with a romance subplot, you will likely lean heavily on the love interest for this part, which is helpful. Why does the character want to get over their feel like shit feeling? Well, because it’s affecting this new relationship which could be great. The emotional wound should be something that can be healed with a supportive partner’s love. Another reason it should not be trauma. Because that’s a story no one needs in the world anymore. Trauma cannot be healed by love and if I see another fantasy novel written like… I will stop talking now.

Primarily, however, self-improvement happens inside the self, so your character has to be the one to do the work, with or without a love interest as motivation. Consciously or unconsciously. They might not know exactly what they’re seeking in the beginning, but along the way they should find a reason to keep pushing at the edges of their own capacities, and by the end, they should have found a new status quo.

If they’re fighting trauma, the path is harder. You will likely run into the EKG because creating that smooth arc requires some “letting go.” Sometimes, it might seem unnatural, or “too easy” and that’s because it sort of is. Regardless of whether you have diagnosed, clinical trauma or not, most of us don’t heal anything in a smooth line. Old habits die hard. Old suspicions which are born of old wounds, die harder. It’s almost more natural to write an up and down, back and forth dance than a forward-moving progression. No one ever said writing was easy.

Ultimately, for my Pitch Wars book, my main character’s internal motivation of “find self-acceptance” was accompanied by a motivation of “because she needs it to be free.”

Freedom. What a word.


Conflict both external and internal is the “But” that gets in the way. I’m not going to spend a ton of time on it because I think most people writing from a place of trauma are plenty familiar with conflict. In fantasy it’s the villain in the external plot, the things that go wrong, the challenges. In the internal arc it’s those old fears related to the emotional wound creeping back in.

When you’re dealing with trauma, it can often be the thing that stalls the forward motion. The conflict for internal progress of an arc of a traumatized character could actually be the underlying trauma itself. “I want to be more confident because that’s a trait that’s desired in leadership roles but I can’t trust myself because trauma has taught me not to.” That’s pretty much something you could say about me.

The problem with making trauma your conflict is again, that point I made earlier about your motivation needing to be strong enough to overcome it. Am I going to overcome my trauma for work? Doubtful. So two things can be done here. You can revise your goal and motivation to be bigger, or you can revise the conflict to be smaller.

Does that mean you’re writing the trauma out of your narrative? I think that’s a point to be argued. I would say no. Because we do exist in multitudes, and I think you can overcome some internal hurdles without leaping trauma to do so. In my Pitch Wars novel, my main character is not traumatized, at least not in the traditional sense (probably all my characters are traumatized in some way because I write what I know). My villain love interest, however, is.

I didn’t share his GMC chart because some of his goals and motivations are spoilers. But the conflict to his internal motivation is based partly in trauma. Trauma done to him and trauma he’s done to himself. I say partly because it’s only one thread in that spool of so many. By the end of the book, he’s found that one thing he’s been seeking without entirely knowing he was seeking it. What he isn’t is cured or healed of trauma. One piece may be unknotted, but in unknotting that, he’s unraveled more. Arguably, he’s more traumatized. As my therapist says, “With trauma, it gets worse before it gets better.”

Mood board with pictures of an amethyst crown, a black heel crashing down in the rain, a dark tower in the distance, a queen on a dark throne, a raven, and a blue flower against a black background.
Aesthetic for All Her Wishes from the villain’s POV. Is it a romantasy? Yes. Does it seem kinda cutesy with the fairy godmother who hates her job pitch? Yes. Does it have dark elements? I wrote it so obviously, yes.


When I was studying creative writing, one of my intermediate fiction writing professors put a list of “Rules” on our workshop door. There were 14 of them. Some I remember, some I don’t. Some were standard, some a little more bizarre. We were not to break them in our stories. One was: “Write what you know.” Another: “Use only said and asked.” Another limited us to one exclamation point per ten pages. Yet another said we couldn’t write teenage girls crying in the bathtub. Which never made sense to me, a teenage girl who often cried in the bathtub, trying to write what she knew.

For years, I framed my dorm room and apartment rooms with quotes on writing from the greats. “Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.” ~ Chekhov (who I have a lifelong feud with, doesn’t matter he’s dead). “Your intuition knows what to write, so get out of the way.” ~ Bradbury. “It’s not wise to violate the rules until you know how to observe them.” ~ T.S. Eliot. “Good novels are written by people who are not frightened.” ~ Orwell “Work like hell!” ~ Fitzgerald. “You can make anything by writing.” ~ C.S. Lewis. “A word after a word after a word is power.” ~ Atwood.

I thought these words would inspire me to keep going even when it got hard. What I didn’t realize was I’d surrounded myself with rules I didn’t understand urging me to do things that weren’t achievable for me. My external GMC was this: I want to be a novelist because my voice has been silenced all my life, but I’m too afraid to speak my truth. My internal GMC was this: I want to be courageous because to speak your truth you need to be, but I’m afraid to be punished. Around and around the trauma wheel I went. Wanting to speak to break the cycle. Too afraid to speak because of the damage done by the cycle.

The truth was, I could work like hell, did work like hell, but no amount of working could help me understand. I couldn’t understand the rules to do the things, let alone break them, which meant there were most certainly things I could not create with writing, like a traditional GMC for starters. I sure as shit did not have intuition that knew what it was doing, and as much as I craved power, I was too terrified to seize it were it handed to me on a golden platter which you know, it isn’t.

I’d surrounded myself with words that said I would never be enough. And I believed them.

But here’s the thing: the greats were wrong.

There’s no singular way to write. No rules that can’t be broken, or for that matter, shouldn’t be. Stories aren’t only for the brave or the powerful or the intuitively inclined or the hard workers. Stories are for everyone. But your story, it’s only for you. Which means only you know how best to tell it. If that means self-publishing or going with a small press or popping something up on a blog or never showing a word of your writing to anyone then do it (after the appropriate amount of research and making sure you can afford it and all that comes with it). If it means throwing your heart book about survival that doesn’t follow a single rule at the gates until someone lets you in, then do it (after knowing and accepting if no one lets you in, you are more than your writing). If it means trying a few things to find the right fit, well, you surely wouldn’t be the first of us to wander around for awhile.

The path I ultimately chose was this one. Traditional publishing. Learning the rules no matter how much they confused me so maybe one day I could break them with intention. Telling the greats to fuck off while also remembering they probably did know a thing or two so maybe some of their advice could apply, it just didn’t have to be crushing. Making compromises about how I tell the stories that matter so they’re heard. Hoping one day someone will be able to tell them the way I’d prefer, regardless if that person is me or not. Knowing maybe I’ll be someone who helps pave the way and that can be enough because in so doing, I found my own voice and power, which was the point. This is the path that fits my story and this exact point in my life. I expect it’ll change. I hope it does. Art requires change, in my opinion, and I want to keep producing it.

This post is not to say there’s only One True Way. Because there isn’t. There never was. There never will be. Your story demands your way. No one else’s. This is but a tool and like any other you can choose to use it or find something better or say to hell with all of them and do it your own way. Invent your own tools. Chart your own path.

Whatever you do, though, don’t let anyone tell you they know more about your story than you do.

You are a warrior. A survivor. And you are courageous.



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!



First Reflections on the Not the Darling Series

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It really is luck.

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

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

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

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

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

The Conversations are Important and are Happening.

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

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

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

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

Thank You. Keep ’em Coming.

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

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

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



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.



How to Write (and not Write) Bi Characters

Author’s Note: This blog might have some spicy takes in it but please note it is not a blog-sized subtweet of any particular book, genre, series, or author. I genuinely want to try and explain some things for my fellow writers so what I’m seeing so much of I can see less of, because it’s… not great. Also, remember this is not a be-all, end-all, that no marginalized person can speak for the whole, we are not a monolith, and every experience is different, especially where intersecting identities exist. Please don’t use this blog as anything more than a tool and one perspective. Please also don’t think to use it as a way to try to analyze anyone’s sexuality (i.e. you did one of the things so you must not be bi and are writing outside your lane). Don’t do this, because you don’t know. This is for writers to improve their own representations, not dissect others’ in a way to potentially hurt them. Many authors are not actively out for safety reasons, and they should not be forced out to “prove” anything.

Dear fellow authors,

Bisexual characters are not a quick and easy worldbuilding nod to the LGBTQ community at large. Please stop using them as such.

Yep. I just went there.

If you’re bisexual, you might be nodding. I hope you’re nodding. If you’re not, you might be wondering what the hell I’m talking about. Let me elaborate on this somewhat spicy take.

I have noticed recently what seems to be an uptick of what I assume are well-intentioned authors attempting to diversify their worlds by building in bisexual characters. It seems like they might think bisexual characters are easier to write than other LGBTQ characters, but they’re not. To be fair, I don’t actually know why they’re doing it. I can’t get in their heads anymore than they can get in mine, but the way I’ve seen these characters written that seems to be the most likely situation.

If you’re still lost, let me just dive in to what I’m seeing that makes my head swivel and my back tense and how to make it better, shall we?

Image of a blackboard with a chalk drawing of a boy in shorts and a tee-shirt carrying books at the bottom of a set of steps, each on reading a different word. Ascending order: Start, fair, good, very good, excellent success.
To offset some of the spicy I provide motivational images. Time to whip characters and your worldbuilding from surface level nods to allyship to an actual world that accepts bisexuals. Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

Bisexuals Don’t Forget They’re Bisexual


Character A (cis female presenting as hetero) says to Character B (cis male presenting as hetero and an obvious love interest) “If only I could find the prince I’m looking for.” Her eyes darted to the side, and after a beat she added, “Or princess.”

This kind of thing seems to find its way into a lot of books these days. And I think it’s well-intentioned. I think the authors writing this are intending to say to the LGBTQ community, “I am an ally and I recognize you’re here. May I present you with this character?” But the problem is that this character is not bisexual. How do I know?

Well, I wrote Character A! Ha! Jokes aside, this type of character is really just a hetero girl the author added some extra words for one time and then forgot. This kind of dialogue reads to a bisexual (or at least to this bisexual) as an insert character for the author who has forgotten the character is supposed to be bisexual and quickly adds it in. As a bisexual woman, let me tell you about how I never forget I’m bisexual despite many people in my family wishing I would. The other part of my sexuality is not really an afterthought to be casually tossed in then not mentioned for the next 400 pages.

Could it be written to imply the character is embarrassed or nervous to admit her sexuality? Absolutely, but it almost is never done in a way that suggests that because it’s like a drag and drop. Whoop, I’m bisexual in this sentence and that’s that. If your intent is to indicate some kind of embarrassment, that really should be explored more for the representation to be more than surface level. I really would recommend you get a second read from a beta or CP or sensitivity reader on any exploration of that, because as someone who has spent most of my life closeted, that embarrassment and shame is real but it is… there’s a lot going on that you can do wrong. I don’t even write it (yet).

If it’s the more common thing I think it is, and the author is trying to indicate the character is bisexual then never talk about it again, I have some news. Don’t do that. Bisexuals don’t stop being bisexual when they meet the love interest (regardless of gender). They also aren’t going to forget it. You don’t have to bang the reader over the head with a bisexual mallet or anything, references can be subtle, something as simple as the character taking notice of something attractive in the opposite gender, maybe. An off-handed comment here or there. But please spare us from the casual, “Hey, remember on page 10 when I hinted I was maybe into girls then never looked twice at another girl for the entire book except to view them as competition between me and the boy?” I just… am not going to buy that as a real bisexual character.

Cartoon image of a blue elephant holding a blue picket sign that says "Don't forget"
Don’t forget that we don’t forget. Unless we have ADHD and forget everything. KIDDING, those of us who have ADHD still don’t forget our sexuality but fun side note I’m going to briefly touch on intersectional identities later. Stay tuned. Is this blog long? Ask yourself, did I write it? Then you should know the answer already. Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

We aren’t half hetero and half lesbian/gay. Bisexuality is a unique experience


Character A (cis girl explicitly stated to be bisexual and described as having a previous girlfriend) meets Character B (cis boy presenting as hetero who is the love interest). Character A, upon meeting Character B, never looks at another girl, or mentions, discusses, her bisexuality ever again.

This one is a little more spicy, I know. Especially framed this way, which is exactly why I put it this way. So let me first say that you as a human and your characters in fiction who are bisexual are always bisexual regardless of the relationship you and they are presently in. How you identify your sexuality is between you and whoever you want to know, and the same is true for your characters. In real life, I am a cisgender, bisexual woman in a monogamous relationship with a cishet man. This does not make me less bisexual.

However, if you are not a bisexual author and you are writing the narrative in the example above or something akin to it, you might not be digging deep enough. First of all, bisexuality is a spectrum. Second of all, as a bisexual woman, I am not part lesbian and part straight. When I’m with my male partner, I am not hetero, just like when I was with females I was not a lesbian. Being with one gender or the other doesn’t “turn off” some other switch in my brain. I am still attracted to women when I’m with a man, and I’m still attracted to men when I’m with a woman. I don’t ever stop noticing either.

Sometimes I think hetero authors might try to write bisexual characters as their “token” queer characters because they think “Well, I can empathize with half of this person, at least.” Which I appreciate the attempt at empathy, truly. But that isn’t how it works. It is pretty obvious to those who actually are bisexual that’s what you’re trying to do, though. Like you tried to reduce a person’s unique experience to a binary, sever it, cut out the portion you don’t understand (while paying cheap lip service to it), then focus on the portion you do.

Again, appreciate the effort to try and be inclusive, but… don’t do this. That’s not how this works. Bisexuality runs through the entirety of my life the same as everything else about me that makes me who I am. Loving my boyfriend and being devoted to him didn’t “cure” me of being attracted to women anymore than it “cured” me of my trauma or anxiety or anything else. And yes, I mean “cure” in a roll my eyes sort of way, not a real sort of way. Obviously I do not believe I or anyone else needs to be “cured” of their sexuality.

Cartoon images of many different faces on squares in the colors of the bisexual flag (Pink to purple to blue)
There are so many ways to be bisexual but none of them are by being gay or a lesbian. Image by wage212 from Pixabay

Bisexuality Isn’t Being “Open Minded”


Character A (cis male presenting as hetero) is forced into an arrangement whereby he must marry for political reasons. While there is no evidence in the text to indicate he is bisexual, he still welcomes male suitors into his court, but he never actually goes on dates with any of them, and they are hardly mentioned except to remind readers every once in awhile they’re there (and they’re men!)

This one. Oh man, this one. Okay, I know this might seem nice and logical in 2023 when we all want to be open-minded and inclusive and that’s great. And a political marriage has nothing to do with attraction or love anyway, right? So what does it matter? Well, it matters because this kind of worldbuilding implies that bisexuality is in some way a choice. Or that it can be. Which is really harmful because there are a lot of people (even in the queer community itself) who still don’t believe bisexuality is “real.” Who still are operating on the binary. One or the other. Anything else is a cry for attention or “edgy” or trying to be I dunno, “woke” or some shit. Like being bisexual is super cool and trendy, and we definitely never get persecuted by friends, family, coworkers for it. Like we definitely wanted to make a choice that makes people feel awkward around us sometimes and scares away potential partners and makes others think we’re into sexual shit we’re not. Like… oop, doing it again gonna stop.

So when we as writers world build what essentially constitutes a “choice” to be bisexual, it further solidifies the idea in people’s minds that this is some liberal nonsense that should be snuffed out and erased. And that’s… well, it’s hard.

Real talk, as someone who has experienced the shit end of this kind of harassment, who has repeatedly been told her sexuality isn’t real, or is a phase, or is “trauma-induced,” or that it’s some kind of attention-seeking behavior, I can tell you it really sucks. It makes you question yourself, your reality, your own experiences. I’ve spent a large chunk of my life closeted, feeling like I had no right to write bisexual characters, to call myself bisexual, to speak on subjects like this because of exactly this kind of thinking baked into books I love.

So here’s the thing, I can’t speak for the entirety of the queer community, but if you’re trying to world build inclusively, there are ways to do it without… this. I would rather have a hetero character courting exclusively women than a poorly crafted hetero man pretending to be open-minded enough to “choose” to be bi for political reasons. In my opinion, that’s just giving a weapon to some ignorant asshole to hurt the community you’re trying to be an ally to.

Photo of a red-painted sign against a large tree trunk. Sign reads "Eat, Drink and Be Married"
+ Be Authentically Queer (or not, no rep is better than bad rep, I said what I said). Photo by Ben Rosett on Unsplash

Avoid Common Bisexual Stereotypes

Final thing then I will stop, I swear. But, like all marginalizations, there are some common stereotypes that you should avoid if you’re trying to write an authentic bisexual character. This list isn’t exhaustive by any means, but it does contain the ones I personally see in fiction (and TV) most often:

  1. Bisexuals are cheaters. This is by far and away the most common stereotype about bisexuals you will hear bisexuals yell about. Rightfully so. The common thinking is something like because bisexual people are attracted to more genders they have more temptation. Or something. Do bisexual people cheat sometimes? Yes. Do they cheat because they’re bisexual? No. They cheat because people cheat and bisexual people are, in fact, people. Surprise! If you’re not bisexual, probably don’t write bisexual cheating, though. Like just leave that nuance to those who have had to deal with the bullshit. We got it.
  2. Bisexuals are promiscuous. Sort of related to the above, but there’s a stereotype that bisexuals will basically sleep with anyone or anything because I don’t know, they can? Which is wild, because if you’ve tried to date within the last 5-7 years you’ll know it is harder than it seems to find someone who will even swipe right on you. Subcategory, bisexuals don’t want to have auto-threesomes. Sorry. Many of us are just regular old homebody types who have enough trouble managing the one partner. There are definitely bisexual folks out there in healthy, loving polyamorous relationships, but I absolutely would not recommend tackling this unless that is your lived experience. There isn’t much in print, and it needs to be approached with nuance from several different angles that are not “sex sells.”
  3. The Evil Bisexual. For some reason I see a lot of bisexual villains. If you’re going to write a bisexual villain, please make sure you have some bisexual goodies to make up for the badies.
  4. The One Exception. Liking all women and one goofy dude who happens to be the love interest? Just… I mean does it happen? Sure. But it’s not the most common bisexual experience, and it seems overrepresented and sort of plays into that whole idea of bisexuality being a phase or a one-off weird thing on your way to hetero or lesbian. And that’s… not how it is.
  5. Not including intersectional experiences. This one is tricky, I know, but it’s absolutely crucial not to forget when crafting characters that there are intersections of identities at play everywhere. Not all bisexuals are white women. Trans and nonbinary people are not excluded from the bisexual experience. Know that there can be bisexual people who are ace or aro. I’m not going to speak to these experiences because they are not mine, but they exist and they should be recognized.
  6. Not using the word “Bisexual.” A lot of bisexuals like to see the word actually written and not used as some kind of dirty word or with shame or judgment. I… do not use the word bisexual in my fantasy writing; however, I do not use the word with intention. It’s part of my own worldbuilding which is queer normative and usually label free (and second world fantasy, not using the word bisexual would make absolutely no sense in a book set in Philadelphia in 2022).
  7. Bisexual Erasure. In case you’re thinking, “Wow, this all sounds like a lot, maybe I just won’t have bisexual characters in my book at all” I have news. Bisexual erasure is also really common (possibly because it IS difficult to accurately represent this sort of nuanced perspective), and is one of the things the bisexual community has really worked to bring awareness to in recent years. Good news is I think it’s working! People are starting to include bisexual characters in their works. Now, we just need a little more leveling up from the superficial to the fully rounded.

And here is perhaps my spiciest take of all. In my opinion, moderation is key. You don’t have to tackle it all at once. You don’t have to include in your novel a bisexual of every variation, or understand every nuanced identity intersection. That would be a lot for one book and your book should be about more than like… an encyclopedia of bis. Plus, there are other people and experiences to show and think of. The world is big and different and no one who is reasonable is expecting you to fit the entirety of the human experience into one novel. Pick and choose what you think you can write most authentically, and go for it. Don’t surface level that shit so you can check as many boxes as possible. There are a lot of us writing our own stories that deep dive into our identities. All we need from you is empathy when you write characters like us. Quality over quantity.


I really need to work on wordcount on these blogs. But if after ALL THAT you’re still curious about writing an authentic bisexual character, please feel free to email me at and I will do my best to try and get back to you with what information I can!

Happy writing!



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!