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.

Not the Darling: An Almost-Darling

Note from Aimee: The author of the following post had me weeping by the end of this poignant, perfectly timed piece. Another #PitchWars alum, the story is one that obviously strikes close to home for me personally but in today’s climate speaks loudly for us all and is a perspective I have yet to host here: a return to the trenches. That said, I do want to note (with the author’s permission) that the agency and agent discussed are not those being discussed at present.

Content/Trigger Warnings: Signing with an agent, agent ghosting, long-term querying (no stats specifically discussed)

An Almost-Darling

By: Anonymous

The beginning was thrilling enough that I thought I might be a darling.

I got into Pitch Wars with the book that was supposed to be my second attempt at querying. Thanks to a whirlwind showcase, I had an offer of rep before I’d sent a single cold query. The agent was a perfect fit—personable and enthusiastic, with a history of sales at a reputable agency. I had no doubts when I signed. Crank up the Hilary Duff, baby, because this is what dreams are made of.

We worked through revisions, made the book shine, and had one close call with an editor. But ultimately, sub went how it goes for most authors: a slow death for a desperately loved story.

Fortunately, my agent and I had picked my next project early, and I’d already sent them the revised draft. I received no response for a couple months. Worry pricked the back of my mind. Were they as enthusiastic about the idea as they’d been before? We had an encouraging check-in, followed by a few more months of silence.

I realized I was decidedly Not The Darling when I received a form letter from the agency, letting me know I’d been dropped. I had moved earlier that year, and because they didn’t confirm my address, the letter took over a month to reach me. My agent hadn’t even signed it.

I don’t know what publishing has in store for me, but I do know, without a doubt, nothing will be more shocking or humiliating than emailing to ask if it had been a clerical error, or if that was really how the only professional in my corner had chosen to part ways.

It wasn’t an error. The agent had decided not to represent my genre anymore, and I never would have gotten an explanation if I hadn’t requested one.

Several agent-siblings and I were dumped back into the querying trenches with nothing to show for our years of professional partnership. Just one little line at the end of the query. I was represented, but we parted ways amicably. Because you had to say it was amicable, or people might think you were the problem.

Months turned to years as I tried to recover emotionally and creatively from what happened. I queried another book. And another. And another.

I used to think even if publishing wasn’t a meritocracy, there was an element of forward motion. That one day, if I took my writing seriously, I could look back at the starting line, and it would be just a pinpoint in the distance. I don’t believe that anymore.

Sometimes I wonder why I keep trying to get published, and I haven’t been able to come up with a good answer, really. Most of the time, I have no idea if I’ll ever get a book deal. The vast majority of people don’t.

But I think somewhere deep, deep down I’m cupping my hands around a flickering candle of hope that after all this, I could still be the exception. I could be the one who gets the deal, and everything else she’s ever dreamed of. A decades-in-the-making darling.

Black and white image of a hand holding a candle.
Image source: Pixabay.
Image added by Aimee, not author.

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: Haven’t I always been giving up?

Note from Aimee: This next author is a friend of mine I think many of you will know well. Before we were friends, she was a sort of inspiration for me, someone I actually thought was perhaps too big of a name in the writing community to even approach. Lucky me, she’s a normal person and doesn’t think that of herself and a friendship bloomed out of my first early awkward star struck days. Her querying journey has been long, her pain clear but professional. When she told me she was brainstorming a piece for this blog, I was honored beyond words. That I get to share it with you all now brings me joy and sadness. I love this series so much because I am so glad to know what it’s brought people, but seeing friends and peers here makes my heart ache because because as much as hosting this blogs makes me happy, what would make me happier would be to close it because every talented person hosted here (or reading here) got their happily ever after. And that sentiment rings harder than ever for the following author.

Content/Trigger Warnings: Brief mention of panic/anxiety.

Haven’t I always been giving up?

By: Kyra Nelson (Follow Kyra on Twitter @KyraMNelson)

I had a panic attack on Halloween. 

I had gone to a party, telling myself that I’d leave early enough to get a jump start on my NaNoWriMo novel, but like Cinderella, I was having too much fun to be home by the stroke of midnight. By that point, I was rounding out ten years of being stuck at the querying stage, with the past several years being a special kind of hell. 

The only way out of query hell was by writing through it, as I was constantly reminded by the onslaught of agent and book announcements that allowed me to watch author after author race past me. And I was (am) so desperate to escape this querying purgatory that I struggled to allow myself to do anything that wasn’t in service of that goal, even if it was celebrating my favorite holiday.

It is very hard to let yourself slow down when you only ever feel like you’re falling behind.

For a little context, the book that spurred my Halloween panic attack was the 19th I’d written. I’ve finished another since then for a nice even 20 completed manuscripts. Five of those I have queried. On paper, I have done everything right. I got beta readers, excellent ones. I went to conferences. I read craft books. I read hundreds of books in the genre I was writing. I networked. I wrote and wrote and wrote and wrote and wrote.

I made writing my whole life.

It wasn’t enough.

People assure me it will be worth it, but the longer I am here the less I can imagine anything would be worth all this.

People also tell me I should be proud because I haven’t given up, but the truth is I have given up. I have given up so much.

Because my time is finite, spending it on writing always means I’m giving up something else. For instance, giving up a Halloween party. Even if I wasn’t giving up the time to be there physically, I certainly was giving up my joy in it.

There are so many things I have given up in the pursuit of publication. That party. Other parties. Sleep. Time with friends. Non-writing hobbies. Peace of mind.

While I knew I was making sacrifices, I don’t think I realized the extent of it until the past couple months. In February, I finished the draft of my twentieth manuscript and began what I thought would be a routine short break.

I haven’t written since. I haven’t wanted to.

For someone who has become accustomed to churning out multiple books a year, a two-month hiatus is pretty drastic. I have done so much with that time though. I’ve been spending more time with friends and family. I actually feel like I have time to pursue a romantic relationship. I’m spending my evenings actually unwinding by playing video games and watching the shows everyone is talking about. I’m more on top of chores and errands than I ever have been. I’ve picked up some new hobbies, like watching baseball and venting creative energy through a TTRPG. 

I wasn’t doing any of this stuff, or at least not doing it regularly, when I was giving all my time to writing.

Mostly, I like feeling like my time is mine and not something I owe the fickle gods of publishing. I like ending my work day and not feeling like I have to start another shift.

I don’t know when, or frankly if, I’ll get back to writing regularly. Sometimes I’m haunted by the idea that I have already given so much up for nothing. But I think I’m more afraid of giving up my future with no promises anything will come of it. 

While I don’t think I’m quitting writing permanently, it’s nice realizing that whatever writing I do give up will be replaced with another little piece of life for me to enjoy. 

The truth is, I have always given up. 

I’m finally reclaiming my ability to choose what I give up.

Bio: Kyra is a writer, editor, and recovering academic. During her linguistics graduate program, she studied children’s literature, query letters, and narrative nonfiction. Follow Kyra on Twitter @KyraMNelson or learn more about her at her website:

Not the Darling: “But since something of my soul is in the thing…”

Note from Aimee: This next Not the Darling submission comes from an author with a heartbreaking and poignant tale of not only querying but what it’s like to pour your soul into your art when darkness is coming for you. In the age of the pandemic, so many of us were burned out, and it affected the querying landscape like nothing else I can ever remember. It affected a different population in other ways, deeper ways, I would argue. This author is among that population: the COVID first line responders. I hope you’ll appreciate their story, the emotion behind it, and the bravery in telling it as much as I did.

Trigger/Content Warnings: COVID pandemic descriptions (including in a hospital setting), actual death on page, discussion of suicide and suicidal ideation, query statistics.

“But since something of my soul is in the thing…”

By: Anonymous

I write this on the day my hospital has made masking completely optional for staff, for patients, for visitors, for everyone. Why is this a meaningful day for me? Because I’ve worked as a provider for the entirety of the COVID pandemic to date. I say to date because I do not see it as over. Perhaps, in a way, for me it never will be. Perhaps to me the removal of masks within the hospitals is symbolic of how little what I and my coworkers did mattered to society, to my country, to anyone but our patients. 

Why do I bring this up on a blog post about querying? To answer that question we must go back to the beginning of the Delta wave of COVID in late 2021. I had transitioned out of the Emergency Department (“ED”) to work inpatient medicine, and found myself immersed in the dead and dying. The ED was a place that wore its COVID exposure like a badge of honor, but few people died of COVID there. They came to the floor and lingered, and suffered, and finally succumbed to the virus, and I cared for them until the end, along with a host of over-worked, incredible, forgotten healthcare providers. 

For me writing often seems to come from a place of darkness. When the world is hideous and unbearable, writing is my refuge. So I wrote. From my dresser drawer I took a book whose first draft I had written originally in similar dark times, years before, dusted it off, and rewrote it. My nights were filled with the sobs of family members through the phone when I woke them to say that despite everything we had done, their family member was actively dying. There were always two options: we could escalate things and send their loved one to the ICU, so that they could endure a more prolonged and torturous death; or we could change course, let them stop fighting, and keep them comfortable in their final hours or days. More often hours than days by the time we were having this conversation. Sometimes minutes.

With my nights embalmed in this horror, I wrote during the day, pouring my soul into those pages, finding an escape from the real-life darkness in the make-believe darkness of my characters. It was not that I had not known tragedy before, I had. As an EMT and then a paramedic for ten years I had worked in some of the most poverty-stricken places in the US, Guatemala, and Mexico. I had struggled to save men, women, and children injured by the most heinous mechanisms. But this was different. This was a more helpless feeling than in all those other horrors I had witnessed. The world was coming alive outside the hospital, insistent on going to sports events, reopening the clubs, getting back to their friends, and parties, without a thought to the thousands that were still dying every day in hospitals around the country. It was a loneliness that felt like madness. Here I was within the dying halls, while out there the world ignored the toll exacted by their merriment. COVID was already over for those not embroiled in it. On the radio on my way to work I listened to men and women of every political persuasion whining about the hardship of their long pandemic confinements, and rejoicing as they were set free at last to wreak havoc and mortality upon the vulnerable.  

They say in writing and pursuing traditional publishing that you shouldn’t take it personally. But writers don’t write from a vacuum. Like every other artist, we create our work from our hearts, our passions, our souls, our suffering, and our aching love for life, even with all its pain. How can it not be personal? 

John Kennedy Toole was an author who wrote because he had to, because it was an escape from the darkness within, the darkness that was consuming him. He was rejected, repeatedly. Once he wrote of why he had to keep looking for a publisher: “I haven’t been able to look at the manuscript since I got it back, but since something of my soul is in the thing, I can’t let it rot without trying.” Eventually Toole committed suicide at the age of 31, in part due to the rejections he experienced, in part because his darkness at last engulfed him. His mother managed to find a publisher for his work and he was posthumously awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 1981. 

Like Toole, something of my soul is in my work, and the reviews from the beta readers were glowing and wildly enthusiastic. So I could not let it rot, and, after extensive editing, I queried it. I queried more than a hundred agents. Why so many? Because I struggled in determining what my genre was which made it difficult to pin down who to submit to. It had a historical setting, some fantastical–though non-magical–elements, some thriller elements, and some action-adventure elements. I had eleven full requests, a wildly diverse set of agents in terms of what they represent, including some who specialize in romance, some who specialize in thriller, some who specialize in action-adventure, and some who specialize in fantasy. 

Not a single full or partial rejection mentioned the writing quality. A couple felt they couldn’t connect with one of the main characters, which, to be honest, I would have been deeply concerned if they could. Most mentioned marketing concerns. One felt it was too long for a thriller. One felt that because they were busy and were, at times, able to set the book down to do the many other things competing for their attention that meant they probably did not have the deep, overwhelming passion that they needed to represent the book. I’m not kidding. That last one was a real rejection that came in a wild, frantic, unprofessional email, a wall of stream-of-consciousness, inane, and chaotic text. Interestingly, this last rejecting agent represents an almost entirely white male list and my name is clearly Latina. That name is literally all that agent knew about me. It is neither here nor there, but I mention this only because it struck me. I had previously not put much credence in the notion that racism factored into agent rejections. Call me blind, but at least in the US agents seemed obsessed with finding writers of particular niche ethnicities and identities to virtue-signal their magnanimity and the holiness of their white-saviorhood. As if people of color were exotic butterflies they could catch and pin to their corkboard collection.  

The world of querying podcasts, workshops, twitter, discords, writing critique groups, reddit, all echoed the same toxic positivity at me as I kept querying. They said: “it only takes one yes,” “onward and upward,” “you just haven’t found the right agent yet,” “I was in your shoes exactly 3 years ago and now I’ve got an agent,” “just keep going,” “that’s just one agent closer to the one who’s going to love your book,” “just write the next thing and query that,” “that’s not what the market wants right now, just write something marketable.” All of these and thousands more quips encourage damaged people to keep playing a game in which their odds of success are truly abysmal and based more on luck than any other single factor. 

The positivity eventually burned me out. It came at me from all sides, but it didn’t ring true. The  lottery-like odds of publishing success had been laid bare to all the world by the PRH/Simon & Schuster trial. This was not an industry based on any sure science. The market was a fickle creature that even publishing executives didn’t understand. Their method, more often than not, seemed to be to pick a number of books based on what they thought people might be into, throw them at the wall, and see what stuck. 

The constant, draining affirmations I was reading were the same kind of false sunshine that was blown up my ass working at a family-owned McDonald’s franchise as a youngster. Working at McDonald’s sucks, no matter how much you try to pretend it doesn’t. You can put all the powdered sugar in the world on a turd, it’s still going to be shit underneath when you bite into it. Similarly, you can query and query and query and query and never get that mythical ‘yes’. You can write and edit the next book (and I did) and query that one, but it’s also “not what the market is looking for.”

After hearing how people slog on sub when they are accepted by an agent, and after witnessing endless bizarre and sometimes toxic interactions on the internet, I’m not sure that literary agents or publishers know what “the market” wants. And that’s ok. But I would appreciate it if everyone in the publishing industry quit pretending and admitted that they have no idea what people want to read. I would appreciate it if just one agent came out and said that something that might have tempted them yesterday at 10 AM when they had a full night’s rest and got good news about Fido’s biopsy, just didn’t hit their sweet spot today at 4 PM because they didn’t have their usual 8:17AM bowel movement and they just got some bad news about their Aunt Lithadora’s mammogram. 

I had a birthday recently, and I realized there was only one gift I wanted to give myself. I wanted to stop querying. I wanted to stop putting this work out there to agents and getting their thoughtless form rejections. I owed it to myself to stop making myself hurt. I’ve been through enough in the last few years and life is short. But I do still believe that my work is marketable, based on the feedback of beta readers, strangers on the internet who owed me nothing but still adored the world I created and my realistically irrational characters. 

I am writing this to encourage you to consider quitting as well. Has this querying journey been ugly and bleak for you? Has it made you ponder suicide like John Kennedy Toole? Don’t do it. Your life, and your work matter. You don’t have to keep going. You don’t have to keep putting yourself through this. You don’t have to play this lottery. There are other options. You could self-publish, you could just give the book to friends and family that express interest, or publish to Wattpad or Royal Road to find readers that will love your work. You can even write fanfiction if you like. There are many lovely fanfic readers out there who will enjoy your work and celebrate your prose, your story, and your delightful characters. I’m here to tell you that what you wrote is incredible, and I’m glad you did it, and I’m proud of you, and you should be proud of yourself too. 

Gratitude. That has been the saving grace for me, the rope I used to climb out of a bitter, cynical hole. During the Delta wave, I chose to be grateful that I had that brief chance to know and care for so many people in the last days of their lives. I am grateful that I had the opportunity to meet them before they passed, and to care for their families in their passing. I looked upon my patients in those final moments and saw that they were people, that they existed, and that they mattered. Everyone of them mattered, whether or not they had written a great manuscript that got an agent and a publishing deal. They mattered because they were human, and they had lived, and it was beautiful, and I, though I didn’t deserve it, got that chance to meet them, in all their humanity, their beautiful humanity. 

If there’s one thing I’ve learned in the years working in the hospital, it’s that my writing matters to me, but no one lives or dies if it isn’t published by some suit in an office in New York that doesn’t care what inspired it. I’ve learned not to take my writing seriously, in a good way. I’ve learned that this is a delightful hobby, that produces work that some people will enjoy, and some won’t, like any art. But no one lives or dies because this book was or wasn’t published. It’s at my job where people’s lives are at stake, and my writing will never matter as much as those lives and those families. My book will never matter as much as all the ghosts that haunt me now as I walk the halls of the hospital and see the maskless faces of nescient people peering from those same rooms where I bore witness to so many deaths. Will I keep writing? Of course. Though I said no lives are at stake, I think sometimes that mine is if I don’t keep telling these stories. But my acceptance by some random literary agent is not what gives my life or even my writing value and meaning. 

Whether or not you quit querying too, I would encourage you to choose gratitude. Gratitude that you were able to write your work, gratitude for your skill, your knowledge, even gratitude for the ugliness and suffering you may have endured that led you to write what you did. Gratitude that you didn’t die alone on the tenth floor of a hospital during the pandemic and you get to keep writing. Choose gratitude. But don’t choose to torture yourself, and if querying is torture, choose to free yourself from it. Reread the glowing praise you got from that beta reader. Laminate it. Make a bookmark out of it. Put it in a locket and carry it around your neck. Know that your work resonated with someone out there and that is a beautiful thing. Marinate in their validation of your art. You deserve it.

Not the Darling: Why Not Me?

Note from Aimee: Today’s post struck me right from the title. Why not me? I don’t know how many times I asked that question through my querying journey. Every time I read a published book, every time I saw an announcement, every time there was a full request announced. Happy for them. But why not me? This next post addresses that very question I believe so many of us have grappled with, and I’m so honored to have it here.

Content/Trigger Warnings: Minor mention of querying stats; mention of C-PTSD and related trauma (religious); mention of parental homophobia; RSD

Why Not Me?

By: Anonymous

I’ve been in the query trenches for three years.

To some, that’s nothing. A drop in the bucket. To others, it’s an unimaginable eternity.

My first book (YA urban fantasy) was sent to 101 agents. I received 3 requests and 100 rejections. Technically, I still have a full pending an answer.

The overwhelming feedback?


I entered every contest I could toss my hat into the ring for. On more than one occasion, they requested additional material.

The feedback?


The only personalized feedback I received (from two agents independently, and I adore them for taking the time) was that the writing was great, query was strong, but the concept wasn’t new enough.

And here’s a secret for you…

I don’t write new concepts.

I am a traumatized, C-PTSD-having, ADHD-fueled, mentally ill, perfectionist, queer mess.

And all I want in the world is to write stories for people like me. Even the familiar ones. Especially the familiar ones.

So, with my next book, I changed tactics. I laid out my marginalizations so my ‘new take on an old trope’ would be more marketable.

Yes, it’s a concept you’ve seen before, but it’s sapphic. Why does this story matter? Well, you see, I’m functioning from a base of 18 years of religious trauma. Would you like to know what my preacher was arrested for (unrelated to me and my C-PTSD, thank the spaghetti monster in the sky)? Shall I list my dead relatives? My abuses and traumas? My journey of self-discovery that resulted in a very mellow coming out at 27?

The sixteen page Facebook message from a family member the day after describing exactly how I’ll burn in hell? My father’s awkward silence and refusal to acknowledge my identity? My mother’s gentle, ‘Okay, that’s fine, but you can’t tell anyone’?

Would you like me to tally my scars, mental and physical, so you can weigh them against my content and see if my story (and therefore I) am ‘different’ enough? Unique enough?

 If I describe myself as ‘neurodivergent,’ is that enough? Will you assume I’m autistic? Will you assume I’m mentally damaged and can’t handle the pressure? Will you show compassion? Or will you reject me out of hand assuming I’m difficult?

If I claim that my work is sapphic, is that enough? It isn’t a romance. Not a traditional one. Should I tell you why? Show you my deep mental and emotional scars that have led to writing emotional intimacy without the physical?

Or is that ‘desexualizing WLW’ and unacceptable?

In the span of two weeks, I witnessed two literary agents talk about rejecting a YA fantasy because ‘we’ve seen this concept before.’

Like me, they were rejecting authors that weren’t writing something different enough.

The feedback on this latest manuscript (again, YA fantasy)? Great writing. Fantastic worldbuilding. *Chef’s kiss* voice.

And a concept we’ve seen before.

I received my first full request so fast it made my head spin. I dared to hope that flaying myself alive was finally getting me in the door. Making an agent take notice of something the same, but different.

And since that request, nothing but form rejection… after form rejection… after form rejection.

Agents are busy. Their time is valuable. They owe me nothing as a querying author. I know and accept all of this.

But the form I receive for ‘too queer’ is the same form I receive for ‘not queer enough’ is the same form I receive for ‘terrible writing’ is the same form I receive for ‘great writing, but a concept we’ve seen before.

What’s wrong with a twist on a concept we’ve seen before?

Why isn’t there space for an urban fantasy starring an ambitious-as-hell girl who can’t connect to other people? Her journey discovering that she can open up without losing herself is valuable. Her choice to turn away from ambition for the sake of people who finally gave her a home is valuable.

Why isn’t there space for a fantasy set in a world where ancient religions are the norm, with all their humor and all their horror? That run-of-the-mill teen’s story is important. Her friends who are devout and questioning and set against the gods and kind and cruel in every combination are important. Her discovery that a system can be horrible to the point of evil and still contain good people, that destroying that system may destroy some of those good people, matters. Her quiet questioning matters. She matters.

The next story I write? That will matter, too.

Duty versus love. The trauma-driven need to protect oneself versus protecting a person who is open and honest and kind. Fighting like hell for something as a neurodivergent person, achieving the same and better than competing neurotypical people, and being betrayed by those people. The choice to burn that world down. Whimsy and humor and boredom and trauma and dissociation and self-discovery.

They matter.

And when I have to reveal intimate aspects of myself with every query to answer the question ‘Why are you the person to write this story?’ when I constantly have to lay myself bare to get a foot in the door, the old advice rings hollow.

‘They aren’t rejecting you; they’re rejecting the story.’

Not anymore. Not when every story’s theme must have roots in my trauma, my marginalization, my life.

I don’t have an answer.

I’m not angry with agents, or even with the system. A form rejection is certainly better than no response. I’m grateful there’s an emphasis on marginalized voices, even if the implementation is sometimes dicey. There are thousands of wonderful writers with millions of beautiful stories all trying desperately to gain representation.

I’m proud of the stories I’ve written. Whether or not they’re important to publishing, they’re important to me.

So I’ll keep writing. I’ll cut myself open to carefully display the traumas that ‘allow’ me to write my stories in the hope that some agent will see and decide that I am enough.

That my queerness is enough. My neurodivergence is enough. My trauma and mental health issues are enough.

That my stories matter.

That my voice matters.

That I matter.

And until then, I guess I’ll just keep bleeding.

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.



Not the Darling: The Long Dark Night of Pitch Wars

Note from Aimee: My fellow 2021 Pitch Wars alum brings this heavy-hitting post on so many topics that could have been penned by me it aches. Nothing is a guarantee in this business, but damn if there aren’t so many clever ways into making us believe there are ways to be the exception to that rule. Thank you to Astra for shining a light on dark nights…

Content/Trigger Warnings: Mention of death in the family; RSD; query statistics

The Long Dark Night of Pitch Wars

By: Astra Crompton (Follow Astra on Twitter @ulzaorith)

I was a Pitch Wars 2021/2022 mentee. When I was accepted, my hope soared. I thought: This is it; I’ve finally gotten my chance! Little did I know that my class was to be the last Pitch Wars class ever and that, through spectacularly bad timing, my book (and my writing) would be dead in the water for over a year.  

How did I Get Here? 

I’ve had, like many writers, a meandering journey towards traditional publishing. I started self-publishing ashcans (hand-drawn picture books and graphic novels that my parents helped me print off at a local print shop) as a tween. By the time I was fifteen, I had written my first overly ambitious epic fantasy novel (we’ll come back to that), which I printed and mailed in SASEs (self-addressed stamped envelopes) to agents in New York. This was before things like Query Tracker existed and everything was still, mostly, done in hard copy. I got nothing but rejections to my first batch of ten queries, but I figured, I was young yet.  

Being brash, and with the advent of print-on-demand self-publishing, I leapt at the chance for creative control and spent a decade self-publishing a series of “unmarketable” dream projects. Some of which I’m still very proud of—even if I’d do things differently now.  

By 2018, I decided to return to traditional publishing. A vast array of tools had cropped up since the old SASE days: the Twitter writing community, pitching events, Query Tracker, and mentorships like Pitch Wars. I learned hard and fast all the things I’d done wrong in the past. At first, I thought: “That’s why I failed! My querying skills, my knowledge of the market, and—yes—my storytelling skills were all lacking. But the idea!—surely my ideas weren’t the problem.”  

Character art provided (and created) by Astra. © Astra Crompton.

After a brief (but statistically decent) stint trying to query my old epic fantasy, I pulled it from the trenches. I had already written all three books in its trilogy, and I’d spent a Tolkeinesque amount of time in that world: creating maps, conlangs, thousands of years of history, different original species, flora and fauna, recipes, myths, and even a home-grown tabletop RPG . . . It wasn’t right for the TradPub world. I would be too precious about it. To have any hope of getting picked up by an agent, I needed to write something more flexible, relevant, and marketable. But the other advice I saw everywhere was: write what you know.  

Not ready to abandon my epic fantasy world, I zoomed into a specific corner of that map, to a more humanoid population and a more accessible culture. I shrank the scope of the story down to something more digestible, too: a genderqueer love story following a soft protagonist who struggles against gendered expectations, societal pressures, and an overbearing mother to come to terms with her own bisexuality and stand up for the love of her life—risking jail and ostracism in the process. It had a lot of me in it. It was the book teenaged me needed and never found. It felt relevant and accessible and meaningful. It was the book of my heart; I believed in it. I queried that book for almost two years. I entered it into mentorships: Pitch Wars and Author Mentor Match.  

Guess what? No one loved that book aside from me. Readers didn’t get what I was trying to say. Some of them loved the front half but didn’t like the turning point. Others found the front half stifling but loved the more magical second half. Everyone loved the love interest, but no one loved my protagonist—the one based on myself.  

The truth was, writing a “book of my heart” exposed me to rejection in ways I hadn’t previously considered. This wasn’t just a rejection of everything that was important to me, but every comment of “not relatable,” “couldn’t root for her relationship,” and “unrealistic portrayal of sapphic love” felt like a personal attack. How I loved wasn’t valid. wasn’t relatable. It was around this time that I was diagnosed with ADHD. Add that to being genderqueer and asexual, and I fully felt that there was no space for a voice like mine in this industry. I was too weird, too niche, too other to have a market.  

So, for my next book, I decided to break pattern with everything I loved . . . or, nearly everything. I wrote a book entirely trying to be “marketable.” I wouldn’t abandon my principles at the door, so my protagonist was still asexual, but she was also aromantic. There would be no romance subplot. It would still have magic, but rather than my big, beautiful fantasy setting, it would be set in my Canadian backyard: Surrey, Vancouver. It was the first (and thus far, only) book I’ve written set on Earth. The plot would center around hungry ghosts and a witchy woman who could step back and forth across the Veil, solving dead problems for the living and living problems for the dead. It was, in essence, a paranormal murder mystery. Thus was born my Pitch Wars book, GRIGORI BLUES. 

How Did It All Fizzle to Nothing?

The writing of GRIOGRI BLUES was far less fun than anything I’ve written before (or since). Writing an urban fantasy “grounded” in a real place was tedious and required a different sort of research into things I didn’t love: bus routes and police department policies and blooming seasons for certain poisonous garden plants. When I got to slide into the Veil, though, that’s when the book came alive for me. Bit by bit, I began to feel like this book had legs. The story was good, the challenges dire but accessible, the characters clever and memorable. I submitted it to Pitch Wars with no real hopes and went back to working on a more fantastic book. “Wouldn’t it be ironic,” I thought, “if the one book that makes it is the one least in line with the second world fantasies I love to write?” 

I wasn’t even watching when the Pitch Wars 21/22 mentees were announced. My writing circle from AMM found out before I did. Their congratulations made me scramble to go check and make sure it wasn’t a dream. Sarah Remy had chosen GRIGORI BLUES (and me) to mentor! I’d applied to Sarah in previous mentorship programs because they seemed like a perfect fit in interests and skillset. I was over the moon—and still am; Sarah has been more generous and supportive than I could have wished for.  

Thus began a three-month hyperfixation. Like Douglas Adams was, I’m a “performance writer.” If I have an audience, I eat-sleep-breathe my book with total and utter abandon. Shout out to my queer platonic partner for putting up with my absolutely single-minded obsession during the Pitch Wars revision process. I was learning a lot about comp titles and query letters and logline pitching (all parts of the querying process I still abhor, but Sarah helped guide me through). We did two full-book revisions to deepen character connection, smooth out some plot hiccups, flesh out the second POV, and better establish the villain. I felt (and still do) that Sarah made a good book great. We even finished in plenty of time. Everything was as polished and ready as it could be to dive into the querying trenches—starting with the Pitch Wars showcase. 

Manuscript page of a grimoire in Grigori Blues illustrated by Astra. © Astra Crompton.

Now, Pitch Wars is not a sure thing. Everyone warned me: the organizers, my fellow mentees (including one mentee who had been through the Pitch Wars wringer a few years before). Their friendship and support have been invaluable. We were all feverishly crunching stats, looking at the percentage of mentees who typically got agents. I was in the Adult category, which typically fared around middle of the road. In previous classes, about 58% of mentees in my category had gotten an agent within a year of doing Pitch Wars. I thought my expectations were fairly tempered with hope.  

When the showcase opened, I got 7 requests from agents. Not as many as my mentor had hoped, but I was just relieved I’d gotten any. Some of them were even from my dream agents list. I felt very optimistic. I can’t speak to my fellow mentees’ experiences (both good and bad), but we had a sense that we were all in this together. Little did we know how much we’d need that support as a series of publishing disasters struck.  

First, the day after the showcase closed, Pitch Wars was disbanded. Personally, I was devastated. I felt unmoored, gutted. All of a sudden, this important program that had given fledgling authors a leg up for ten years was gone. Any pressure agents might have felt to treat Pitch Wars’ authors as important seemed to have died with the program. Of course, at the same time, TradPub seemed to enter freefall. It was mired in imprints closing, editors quitting, agents retiring, worker strikes, US Supreme Court cases, and a record influx of pandemic hopefuls pitching their books. It seemed that no one had time for us. All the old data and metrics to tell if your query package was working—such as querying in small batches, 3-month turnaround times, rejection feedback, 30% request rates—none of it held true. There were months where I asked myself “is it really that bad in TradPub . . . or is it me, again?”  

Thankfully my Pitch Wars alumni and the wonderful Sarah kept me from utterly despairing. It helped, of course, that this wasn’t a book of my heart. If people didn’t want it, liked some part but couldn’t sell it, or loved the writing but not the second POV, or enjoyed it but weren’t compelled to fight for it . . . well, it was just a perfect storm of bad timing. Everyone was struggling and squeezed too thin. It wasn’t personal. 

But what is luck if not “right time, right place”? That one thing I couldn’t control. As the months passed and the rejections rolled in, and the requests turned into rejections . . . I felt my hope oozing away. “That was my one chance. And it could never come again because Pitch Wars—and so many of the other mentorship programs and pitching events—were no more. I had done ‘everything right’ but it still hadn’t been enough.”  

In the end, we didn’t get enough data to find a common denominator. These days, authors are lucky to get a form rejection—if we hear back at all. Things are trickling through like molasses. I’ve received form rejections 15 months after submitting. I still haven’t heard back from some of my initial full requests. With the requirements to have your comps be no more than 2 years old, they could expire before you even hear back from the agents you’d queried! 

What was I supposed to do with this new reality? I tried writing something I was passionate about: too weird, too ambitious, too rigid for TradPub. I tried writing something personal and specific: too niche, not relatable enough, no market. I tried writing something specific to the market, something edgy but grounded, accessible but inclusive: it still wasn’t enough.  

For the first time since I was twelve, this lifeblood thing, writing—that had brought me joy and release and expression—went cold inside me. I felt like I’d let everyone down: my mentor, my father, my partner. My deceased librarian mother who had instilled in me my love of books and my oma (who died during querying) who had “always believed I’d make something of myself.” Maybe it was personal. I had never had writer’s block in twenty-six years, but I had it now. I had it something fierce. I wanted to write, but what was the point? I wanted to write . . . but what?  

Where Do I Go from Here?

Thankfully, I write for my day job and for my freelance work. The muscles didn’t get a chance to atrophy, and writing to a brief is far less scary. TradPub claims to know what it wants but “no, not like that!” In truth, it’s all luck: right idea, right style, right time, right agent. Throw enough darts at the board, you might get there, but there’s no guarantee. Accepting that those aspects are outside of my control has been enormously freeing for me.  

As the months trickled by with no new writing for myself, I dug into other creative pursuits: sewing a 1780s French Pollonaise dress, learning to embroider, refurbishing worn-out corners of my home, doing fantasy illustrations. I wrote a short story and submitted it to a couple magazines (no luck). And I finally opened up that old epic fantasy trilogy and started editing it from the beginning. Here was a story that didn’t need to be for anyone else. I could see ways to improve it I hadn’t noticed before. I rewrote precious sections, I cut large swaths to improve the pacing, I honed my sentence craft until it sparkled. And it was a relief to see how much I had learned. Yes, I still wanted to write. I still had stories in me itching to get out.  

Character art provided (and created) by Astra. © Astra Crompton.

When it became clear that GRIGORI BLUES was dead in the trenches, my mentor asked me what I wanted to do next, and I was honest: I didn’t know, just write. I pitched them a few of my WIP concepts. After some discussion, they encouraged me to work on BLOOD MOONS & BINDING MAGIC. It’s another urban fantasy, but this time it’s second world, where I most love to play. I flailed about in the document for months, drafting random scenes and bouncing things off my lovely CP and my ever-patient partner. I still have no idea if this story has any legs where TradPub is concerned. It might be recognizable enough that an agent knows what to do with it; it might be not unique enough to break out in a crowded market. At this point, I don’t care. The important part is that I’m enjoying writing again. I have characters I love who make me laugh and choke up with tears. My characters matter, even if only to me.  

So, I may have lost my one chance with Pitch Wars, but I gained valuable temperance. I learned how to step back into writing for the right reasons. I gained so many creative, talented, supportive writer friends along the way. Whatever happens from here, writing will always nourish my soul.  

Bio: As an asexual biromantic author, Astra Crompton is passionate about diverse queer representation that showcases the foundational importance of found family. Her speculative fiction has been published in All Worlds Wayfarer magazine, Anthology for a Green Planet, and Blood Moon Rising anthology. They’ve also written for the Unity RPG and Vampire: The Requiem by White Wolf. By day, she’s an editing and illustrations coordinator who lives in Victoria, Canada with their queer platonic partner and two cats: the snuggly but drooly Abyssinian Deos and the affectionate but anxious tuxedo rescue Schrödinger. Follow Astra on Twitter @ulzaorith.

Not the Darling: I Can Buy Myself Flowers

I Can Buy Myself Flowers

By: Anonymous

I’m musing on things today—writing, me, art, validation.

I’m reminiscing on a period a few years ago when I made flowers my entire life. It was very special interest driven, much like writing, but I looked at my future and only saw flowers. I made an LLC, advertised, tried my damndest. I lived for peony season, finding perfect anemones, getting a floppy dusty miller to drape perfectly. I did two full weddings (okay, mine and my sister’s, but it was a lot of work) and felt just perfectly at peace when I tied a bouquet tight, wrapped a silk ribbon, and held it in place with pearl pins.

Image of a bouquet of pink and white flowers being held by white arms.
Image provided by the author of this post. Copyright belongs to the author, permission granted to use in this post.

It was art, *my* art, it was so raw and real, and I felt it in every inch of my body. The pine scent of wax flower was like a drug, the sting of eucalyptus was like a brand on my hands.

But it didn’t work out, you know, in the traditionally measured was of success. I couldn’t break in, I was spending a lot, and the market was saturated. The years I spent with my mind always on garden rose pricing theory or plugging in euphorbia perfectly is something I’ll always cherish.

And in a pinch, I’ll always be able to make a little magic with grocery store flowers.

Image of a bouquet of white and blue flowers on a gray-painted chair.
Image provided by the author of this post. Copyright belongs to the author, permission granted to use in this post.

And, it’s becoming clear that my writing is like that. And art that has meant so much to me—something so purely me—that will probably be something I remember fondly.

I’ve been lost in it for about two years, which for some is no time and maybe to some it’s a long time. The emotions are too much for me, and so it feels like a long time. Too long. It kind of hurts.

I’m at this precipice that I’ve felt before with other things. I feel it under me and in front of me. I’m digging my heels in the ground, but its slowly dawning on me that *oh, this is over.*

It’ll never be over, just like my flowers will never be over.

But I feel as if in trying so hard for publishing, maybe before I was ready, I made my writing into a little flower stand that’ll always be in my heart but needs to close up.

Little flower stand in front of a wine shop.

I smile now, remembering these stands, but I cried that day, because I went home with all the flowers.

And that’s maybe how I feel about writing—I’m coming home with all the flowers. But, maybe they were only supposed to ever be for me?

Image of a table covered with bouquets of flowers with green price tags.
Image provided by the author of this post. Copyright belongs to the author, permission granted to use in this post.

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.