#OwnVoices & Self-Publishing

First, I would like to say I use this hashtag (even in this blog) with incredible caution because I’m aware of my privilege. I’m white, straight, cisgender, heterosexual, and able-bodied (ish). I have a huge amount of privilege, which I acknowledge. I don’t want to undercut other marginalized voices by speaking over them. To avoid doing so, in this post, I will be as specific as possible. I’ll discuss my mental illness and how it impacted my publishing decisions, especially in relation to my upcoming novel, The Blood Mage. I’ll talk about #OwnVoices as it relates to me, my marginalization, my work. But please be aware this is not the only opinion in this discussion, so seek out others and listen. Always, always listen.

K, so if you don’t know what #OwnVoices is, read this. Also, check out We Need Diverse Books. That’s all I’m going to say on that. From here on out, I’m going to assume you know what I mean when I say #OwnVoices.

The Blood Mage is #OwnVoices. Without spoilers, it’s a book centering a character who has post traumatic stress disorder. It largely deals with her struggle with the darkness that often accompanies mental illness. This book was extremely difficult for me to write, but it was also one of the great joys of my life.

The Wheel Mages will always have a special place in my heart because it was the first book I published, just as In the Light of Dawn will occupy a similar place because it was the first manuscript I ever completed. But The Blood Mage is me spilled onto the page. Alena’s struggle is very much my struggle. That makes this launch both the most exhilarating and most terrifying experience of my life.

I knew what this series was going to be before I started it. I knew The Wheel Mages was in some way the vessel to get to The Blood Mage. I am not a plotter, but I did have a general sense of direction when I sat down to write this series. PTSD can’t be unlinked from the trauma that produced it. That’s sort of the whole of it. And, when I set out to write the Changing Tides series, I knew that, because I’ve lived (and continue to live) that reality.

When I contemplated this series, I thought about what bothered me in the fantasy I’d grown up with. I loved stories about magic and romance and heroic, epic battles. But something that rang intrinsically false to me was this idea that epic battles have no consequences. Frequently, battle scenes proceed like so: A hero or heroine kills someone (or lots of someones), throws up, a fellow warrior pats him/her on the back and says it’s normal and that’s the long and short of it.

Part of the problem is that epic battles tend to be the climax of fantasy novels and denouements in young adult and adult literature are notoriously fast-paced. In young adult literature, there’s also an emphasis on happily ever afters so things need to be wrapped up with a nice bow quite quickly. That doesn’t leave much room for exploration of trauma and what it does to the psyche.

I wanted to make some room. But to get there, I needed a series. One book to lead to the trauma and at least two more to flesh it out. I needed space, and space isn’t something that’s always guaranteed in the traditional publishing world. Of course, people sell series all the time. But if book one flops, there’s no guarantee you’re going to get book two. For me, book two was critical. Without The Blood MageThe Wheel Mages is a rather traditional young adult fantasy (albeit with a somewhat nontraditional ending).

Now, anyone involved in publishing knows there are not many things you can guarantee, especially when it comes to sales. But this wasn’t about sales–not really. This was about putting this series out there. It was about knowing it existed. And that was something I could, in fact, guarantee.

If I self-published.

For someone like me, someone who was trained to traditionally publish, who was constantly fed the lie that only rejects self-publish, making a decision to walk this road was not easy. Several times, I contemplated giving up and querying. I know, it might be funny to some to hear it said this way, because usually it’s the other way around: giving up querying to self-publish, but for me, this was how it worked.

The main reason I didn’t give up though, was because I wanted this series out there. I grew up reading stories of epic battles, but what I saw was different than what others might see. I didn’t see stories of valor; I saw stories of trauma with no consequences. I saw characters doing and living through horrible things and coming out on the other side with their psyches intact. Epic battles in fantasy novels didn’t make me feel strong. They made me feel weak. Because I hadn’t come out of my own trauma with my psyche intact.

If I went traditional, and The Wheel Mages didn’t do well, and the publisher decided not to continue the series, I would have written a traditional fantasy novel with an epic battle at the end and no consequences, essentially perpetuating the lie I was trying to fight against. I couldn’t have that, not on my watch.

So why didn’t I simply write The Blood Mage first, then? Well, because trauma is a tricky thing. Like I said above, the effects of trauma can’t be separated from the trauma itself. Could I have created a character who was #OwnVoices from the beginning? Surely. But in my personal experience, the trauma is as important as the post traumatic stress, so I wanted the reader to get the whole picture in real time, not through flashback or compression.

There are a lot of factors that go into making this critical decision, and everyone has to choose his/her/their own path, but for me, this was the right one, at least for this story.

In short, don’t let anyone tell you your story isn’t important, or that it’s not worthy, or that no one is interested in reading it. Because somewhere out there, there’s someone who has been reading the same story over and over again, desperate for something new, something that speaks to their experience, and you might be the one to finally tell it.

❤ Always,

Aimee

Both books together

International Women’s Day and the Gender Gap in Literature

Author’s Note: Today is International Women’s Day and here in the States it’s also A Day Without A Woman. That means today I’ve decided to both wear red and tackle a subject I’ve been thinking about a lot recently—gender inequality in literature. As a side note, I’ve been thinking about inequality in literature in all forms recently, but this post will focus only on gender. That said, if you were to break the data I’m about to use down to non-gender minorities, things become even more bleak in terms of diversity (or lack thereof). Okay, here we go.


Gender Inequality in Literary Fiction

The Pulitzer Prize is arguably the highest honor a writer can achieve in his/her lifetime. The Pulitzer is the award we all salivate over. It’s the award that when you hear someone has won it, makes you sit a little straighter and take notice. It’s the biggest of big deals in the writing world.

Want to know something interesting about the Pulitzer?

Between 2000 and 2014, not a single book written by a woman about women was awarded the Pulitzer. Zero. In the same time period, books written by a man about men were awarded 8 Pulitzers. EIGHT. More than half for those of you keeping track. Three more were awarded to women authors who wrote about men. The other four were awarded to women who wrote about both women and men and the last described as “unsure.” You can see the data here.

In a world where women read more fiction than men, and women are writing bestselling novels with the same regularity as men (15 of the 2016 New York Times bestselling fiction authors were men, 13 were women), there appears to be a problem. Now, let me go ahead and nip this argument in the bud before it even begins.

If you’re sitting there saying, “But Aimee, it’s not about gender, it’s about the best book winning,” then I would challenge you to take a deep breath and contemplate the data. Now, do I think we should have some system where we say, “Okay, a woman won this year, next year it will be a man.”? No. Absolutely the best book should win, and I understand literature is subjective. Boy, do I understand that. However, I think it’s more than a coincidence that in 15 years not a single book written by a woman about women was considered “the best book.” I’m just not buying it. Things would be different if there were simply more men publishing (that would be and in some opinions, is, a separate problem), but that isn’t what’s going on here.

The Pulitzer problem isn’t even precisely a female author problem. It’s a female story problem. Six Pulitzers in the time period described above were, in fact, awarded to women. But NONE of the Pulitzer prize winning stories were stories about women.

What is it about our stories that seems less worthy of a prize?

My first thought was, “Okay, I know literary fiction is this way. I have always known it. It’s shocking to see it all laid out like that, but my genre is dominated by women and women’s stories.” Right about there is when I fell down the rabbit hole and started to do some research of my own.

Gender Inequality in Fantasy

I’m going to bring the powerhouses of my genre in now, because those are the stories I’m most familiar with. When I type “epic fantasy” into Goodreads, I get the following list of authors:

  1. J.R.R. Tolkien
  2. George R.R. Martin
  3. Diana Gabaldon
  4. Patrick Rothfuss
  5. Stephen King
  6. Brandon Sanderson
  7. Robert Jordan
  8. Phillip Pullman
  9. Christopher Paolini
  10. Susanna Clarke

Are we seeing some issues with this list? Besides the fact that it’s 80% male I’ll also point out it’s 90% white (rep it, Diana Gabaldon).

As Exhibit B, I’d like to present to you the list as it looks when I search “Popular Young Adult Fantasy” (“young adult epic fantasy” yields no results, interesting all by itself).

  1. J.K. Rowling
  2. Sarah J. Maas
  3. Cassandra Clare
  4. Kristin Cashore
  5. Leigh Bardugo
  6. Laini Taylor
  7. Stephanie Meyer
  8. Christopher Paolini
  9. Rick Riordan
  10. Suzanne Collins

This list is a complete reversal in terms of gender (80% female)  but even more dismal in terms of diversity at 100% white (seriously, we need to be better, YA fantasy). This brings to light two points I have regarding the stories we tell and who writes them.

Women write YA stories and those stories aren’t seen as “serious”

For those of you familiar with fantasy, take a moment to breathe these lists in. Think about how you view the authors on each and the books they write. Because before I even compiled these lists, I made similar ones in my head. When I thought: “Who writes fantasy that would be considered literature” I came up with:

  1. Tolkien
  2. Martin
  3. Jordan
  4. Pullman
  5. C.S. Lewis
  6. Neil Gaiman

When I thought: “Who writes popular fantasy” I came up with:

  1. Rowling
  2. Maas
  3. Clare
  4. Meyer
  5. Bardugo
  6. Victoria Aveyard

My OWN list was biased against not only my own gender, but the people I admire most. That’s not to say I don’t admire the people on both lists, because I do, but the stories that have been the most important to me are the ones on the second list (with the exception of Phillip Pullman). Those are also the stories I’m quickest to discredit as being less than serious or “fluff” pieces. Why is that? Why do I consider these stories about young adults as being somehow less important than stories about adults? And if Pullman and Paolini and C.S. Lewis can write for a young adult audience or even children and be considered “epic” and “serious” why can’t Rowling or Bardugo or Maas? Does my bias have something to do with the way I feel about my own self-worth? Do I assume these young adult stories written by women about women can’t be as “important” as the adult stories written by men about men because I don’t feel like my own story is as important as a man’s?

Romance is a crucial element in women’s writing and that’s not “serious” either

Many of the authors on the second list have romance at the center of their narratives. How you feel about the way they handle romance is not the point of discussion here (they all handle it very differently). Most of these authors have a fandom that “ships” these romances (or even fanfiction offshoots of these relationships). These are the authors who hold the keys to the OTP (One True Pairing). Whether it’s Maas’ Rhys/Feyre, Clare’s Clary/Jace, Bardugo’s Kaz/Inej or Meyer’s “Team Jacob v. Team Edward” you have true “fangirling” happening with these authors.

If you’re picturing adoring, teenage fans screaming over Justin Bieber, you’re really not alone. It just doesn’t seem serious, right?

But here’s my question—why not? Romance is serious. Sex is serious. Marriage is serious. Childbearing is serious. And all of these things start with a crush. Humanity starts with a crush.

Furthermore, romance is a part of the stories of the authors on the first list as well. It’s a different kind of romance in most cases, but it’s still there. Rand al’Thor in Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series has three wives. Tolkien’s Arawen and Aragorn have a romance to conquer kingdoms and even get a happily ever after. Phillip Pullman’s Lyra and Will were the first fictional characters to make my heart skip a beat. So I ask again, why is a man’s depiction of romance more valuable than a woman’s?

In conclusion, I’m not arguing that any of these authors aren’t deserving of the laurels they’ve garnered. I’m not saying that a single one of these names should be replaced on any list. What I’m saying is the list should be longer. We don’t need to rearrange seats at the table, we need to add them.

Happy International Women’s Day everyone! Go read a female author!

P.s. If you want a suggestion for your reading that is by a female, about a female, and by a woman of color, I highly recommend picking up a copy of The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas. It deserves every bit of recognition and hype it’s receiving and then some.

15977367_1342486245812220_847873004101883427_n
This one just keeps being appropriate.

On HEAs (Happily Ever Afters)

Ah yes… the beloved trope. Trope, by the way, is one of those words you shall not speak of except in hushed whispers in serious creative writing programs. It is shoved in a box with other words like “cliches” and “allegory” and “fable”. If your work is ever tagged with one of these labels you have done something shameful and should pay penance to the muses immediately.

So, as you might imagine, after four years of being trained to write serious fiction, I was well out of the genre fiction loop by the time The Wheel Mages entered my head and was shocked to learn that a trope was considered by many authors as not only okay but necessary. Can you imagine? A TROPE.

I remember the exact moment I was listening to one of Joanna Penn’s interviews with romance writer J.A. Huss and Julie said, “In romance, you have to have an HEA, which is ‘happily ever after,’ and there is really no way around it.” I about fell out of my chair. I sputtered obscenities at the computer screen. “Real life does not work that way!” I screamed. Then I thought about it, and I realized the trope does make sense for romance. People read romance for… well… romance. And it’s not very romantic if the characters don’t end up together at the end. “Okay, fine.” I settled back in my chair and listened on. “Romance, you can have your HEAs.”

But I write fantasy. Fantasy is different. Good fantasy is a way to examine real world problems through a less intimidating lens. It’s a way to express frustrations with big picture ideas without screaming on YouTube. Also, there’s magic. I mean… who doesn’t love magic, right? Fantasy may be set in another world or some other plane of this world but it’s grounded in reality. Reality isn’t neat. Real issues can’t be tied up with a bow. Fantasy therefore doesn’t require an HEA.

Or does it?

As I pondered, I realized that a vast majority of the most popular fantasy I’ve read does in fact contain an HEA. Harry defeats the bad guy and marries his best friend’s sister. Alanna achieves her dream and settles down (as much as you can use that phrase with her character) with the man who’s been in love with her since book one. Katiniss survives the games and reunites the people. Clary saves the world and ends up with the love of her life. Bella… well you all know about Bella.

Even epic fantasy has its HEA. Bilbo defeats the dragon. Frodo destroys the ring. Rand… doesn’t die. Daenerys… oh wait. Well, if anyone is going to break the mold, George R.R. Martin will be the one to do it.

My point is, an HEA is not the exception in fantasy—it’s the rule. That got me to thinking… why? The best guess I have is that readers want HEAs. They’ve dedicated a lot of time and emotion to their favorite characters. They want them to beat the bad guy, and find themselves, and fall in love, and change the world. They want them to succeed. Because they want to succeed. They want all those things. want all those things. I think it’s a human response.

It’s not how real life works, though. It’s not precisely truth. And I know it might sound kind of odd to discuss truth when discussing fiction, even more so when discussing fantasy, but I believe it’s fundamental to creation. “Write what you know,” is the mantra of so many writers. But what we know often contains so much suffering. What we know also doesn’t hold an ending. Maybe that’s why the HEA has such a prevalent role in fiction, especially genre fiction which is written as a means of escape. We don’t know our own endings, so we can only hope, and we all hope for a happily ever after, too.

Does that take a work containing an HEA further from the truth writers strive to create? Does that make it somehow less? For that matter, does any kind of ending devalue the work in some way?

To be honest, I’m not sure. My ideas are still evolving, as they hopefully always will. What I do know, however, is that it’s something worth thinking about.

Sound off in the comments, I’m excited to hear what you think!

And as always, happy writing!

❤ Aimee