On Rejection

For those who don’t know, I have been querying The King’s Blade since it was rejected (twice) from Pitch Wars. The querying has been off and on while I struggle with working more hours than my mental health can handle, reviving this blog and my Instagram, working on my new WIP, keeping up with an ever-growing TBR, and trying to function as a human. But over the course of the months, fading into years, that I’ve been querying this manuscript, I’ve racked up 20 rejections. All of them have been form rejections. I have had no requests for additional pages.

The agents who have rejected me have been from large and small agencies. They’ve been agents I would label “dream agents,” and agents I thought would love my book based on their wish lists. They’ve been agents I’ve admired from afar based solely on who they are and how they present themselves, and others who have clients I aspire to be. In short, it feels like the whole of publishing has rejected me. Without a single request for more pages.

To be clear, this has nothing to do with the agents who have rejected me my book. I know it’s dangerous to write about rejection when you’re querying, but I have always tried to be honest here and honestly, writing is my only outlet right now. I don’t feel like I’m part of the writing community. I don’t know how to be relevant and as such, I don’t feel like I have anyone to turn to. I just have this blog, and my journal, and my silent screams lobbed against the bathroom wall.

The twentieth rejection came on my 31st birthday, which just so happened to be last Friday. Even if I wanted to tell you who it was from (which I don’t), I couldn’t. At some point, form rejections seem to feel like little blurs against your heart. They blend into each other, a watercolor of despair. I used to have a policy that to stave off the pain of rejection, as soon as I got one, I’d stop whatever I was doing and hop to sending another query letter to someone else on my list.

At form rejection twenty, I didn’t hop to do anything. In fact, I didn’t move. I couldn’t. I lost all sense of time and feeling.

Happy Birthday to me.

It took a few days for the self-degradation to kick in. I was on my way to work Monday morning when it started to creep. Thirty-one-years old, it said, with nothing to show for it. Nothing that society says you should have: no husband, no house, no baby. And nothing that you want: no agent, no book deal, no way into the space you long to occupy. Just two, failed, self-published books in a series you can’t even finish and are likely going to pull, that you went into debt for and which brought you nothing. You have no social media following, you are not welcome in the writing community, no one talks to you on Facebook or Twitter or Instagram. You’re not relevant and no one is interested in you or what you’re doing. You’re screaming into an abyss saying, “See me!” It’s pathetic. No one sees you. You’re nothing and no one and that’s what you’ll always be. Nothing and no one. As mediocre now as you always were.

And this is all your fault, because instead of taking what little talent you possessed and running after your dreams, you disappeared into the bottom of a rum bottle. While your peers from UNC pursued PhD’s in English literature and composition and MFA’s at Iowa and found themselves with publishing deals from the Big 5, you perused the liquor aisle, the only question on your mind being, “What will get me the drunkest, the fastest?” What will bring me to oblivion?

Your fault. Your fault. Your fault.

So it’s no surprise that no one cares when you curl into a ball in the women’s bathroom and sob against the drywall. It’s no surprise when tears drip onto the federal brief you’re working on, splashing your green edits into globs across the page as tiny little whimpers slip from your throat. Somewhere on the outside, you realize you sound like a wounded animal, and you wonder if this is the sound a dream makes when it dies.

No one cares because even though there’s no way they could know, you’re sure they do know this is your fault. That those twenty form rejections were a thing you earned. A thing you deserved. Because you deserve nothing and no one. That is your brand. Nothing and no one.

This is what rejection feels like for me. It is lonely. It is primal. It is ugly. It does not feel like character building, or something I should be grateful for. It does not feel like a story I want to tell, yet here I am, telling it, because it is the only story I currently have to tell. Somewhere, the insidious whispers that could belong to my various mental illnesses, or my upbringing, or the despair that’s curled around rejection, tell me to shut up. They tell me to give up. They tell me that because I am nothing and no one, no one wants to hear me, let alone read me. They tell me that my words make people uncomfortable. They tell me my concept is bad, my pages are bad, my query is bad. It’s time to stop this madness, they say. It’s time to shut up and close up. Time to shelve this dream.

But I can’t shut up. I am a storyteller. I always have been. I probably always will be. And maybe it is my fault that I lost so much time, but building a life on blame is no way to build a life. And quitting… well, that would be my fault, too.

So I guess I won’t. At least not today.

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#OwnVoices & Self-Publishing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

If I self-published.

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

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

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

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

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

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

❤ Always,

Aimee

Both books together

Dear College Writing Professors

Dear College Writing Professors,

It’s been almost a decade since I sat in your classrooms, bright-eyed and full of hope and naivete. A decade. Wow. Hard to believe how time flies.

I wanted to let you all know that I’m still here doing that thing y’all taught me how to do–write. I’m doing something else these days, too. Publishing.

My first book debuted last year. It’s young adult. And genre fiction. And self-published. I might have broken some rules in the last decade. But there are no teen girls crying in bathtubs! So there’s that.

First, I want to thank you. Joking aside, so many of your lessons can be found between the pages of my debut novel. You were right when you said I wasn’t ready to publish at twenty. I had so much growing up to do, still do, really. My second book (which will be released in July) is better than my first, and I hope they continue to improve until the last.

Much of who I am today is thanks to you. You taught me how to pay attention and the fundamentals of craft. I recently read through the notes y’all left on some of my short stories, and I’m amazed how you managed to see through the clumsy mess of the young writer I was to the writer I could be. Seeing the potential of someone is hard, and I sometimes wonder if anyone ever recognizes that quiet but important skill. So, thank you. So much.

There are a few things I wish I’d known before this trial by fire that is the publishing world, though. Self-publishing wasn’t a thing a decade ago (I distinctly remember laughing with peers over the absurdity of “vanity publishing”), so I’m not here to talk about the method of publication, but the industry as the giant, problematic beast it is and has, apparently, always been.

See, the thing is, we never talked about publishing. We all thought about it, constantly. Sometimes we even discussed it in hushed whispers, but it wasn’t really a part of our college writing lives. It seemed a little like repressed sexuality–that thing a lot of us think about but don’t feel comfortable discussing for whatever read-between-the-lines reason. But the thing is, like repressed sexuality, not talking about it makes us think about it more, then when we’re confronted with it we don’t really know what to do.

Manuscript. Query letter. Agent. Publishing house. Check. I did gather that. I didn’t do that and that’s on me for better or worse, but we all know there is a lot more that goes into this business than those things. A lot I wish I’d had a better handle on before I jumped in with both feet.

For example, genre fiction is a thing that happens. And of course craft is craft across genres, but there are conventions at play in genre fiction that aren’t at play in literary fiction. It seems basic, but knowing that would have helped.

On a larger scale, though, some rules of decorum when approaching the industry would have really come in handy, because I’m honestly still a little lost. How are we supposed to act? What are we supposed to say to agents, to editors, to other authors, to readers? A simple list of dos and don’ts for approaching this book-making machine to tape above my computer would have been nice.

Granted, I think some of my confusion has been caused by how rapidly technology and social media has advanced in the last ten years, and I imagine not all of my concerns could’ve been addressed in your classes. Still, professionalism basics would have been good to know. [As an aside to liberal arts professors in general, please teach or at least encourage your students to learn how to use a copier. Seriously, I’m really proud of the fact that I can quote Yeats, but that didn’t make me feel any smarter when I couldn’t figure out how to un-jam a copier.]

Also, publishing is confusing. I know that now, but because we didn’t talk about it much, I sort of thought it might be simpler than it is. It certainly seemed linear. Manuscript. Query letter. Agent. Publishing House. Barnes & Noble (Borders back then, too!). Got it. But that’s not really how it works. There are conferences and workshops and expos and networking and connections to be made. There are market trends and charts and fads and movements. There are now Twitter pitches (again, I know you probably didn’t see that one coming, I don’t think a lot of us did). There are small presses and large presses, vanity presses and self-publishing. None of which we ever seemed to talk about. There’s a whole vocabulary I never knew existed.

I don’t know if we didn’t talk about it because we weren’t ready and you knew that or if we didn’t talk about it because you wanted to create an environment in which we weren’t tainted by the business side of things. I understand both reasons, but honestly, the secrecy wasn’t very helpful.

Maybe I shouldn’t feel this way. I went to school to become a writer, not an author, and I did learn that. But I mean… we all wanted to be authors, right? At least for those of us who advanced through the program, you knew our endgame was author, correct? Would it have hurt us so much to hear a little bit about the business we were likely headed for?

Because at the end of the day, this is a business. Much more goes into it than art. It’s branding and marketing and readings and seminars. It’s continued education on craft but also on being a savvy businessperson. Honestly, I might not have taken advice to consider a business or marketing class. Knowing me, I probably wouldn’t have, but there are plenty of writing students out there smarter and savvier than I am who would benefit from that tidbit.

At the end of the day, I want you to know I’m proud to have been your student. I’m proud to have learned as much as I did, and I’m extremely grateful for the knowledge you gifted me. But I’ve also made some pretty big mistakes when it comes to this whole writer to author thing, and I was hoping that maybe in the future, you could address the elephant in the room, too. Although now you might just direct your students to Twitter.

Respectfully,

Aimee

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Self v. Traditional Publishing: It’s Not a Rivalry

cPvREea

I saw this ^^ meme making the rounds on Twitter recently. It was being shared mostly by writers who are querying for traditional publishing deals or are working toward one.

The comments that went along with it were worse. And in the interest of honesty, because that’s what I do here, I’ll go ahead and tell y’all I cried.

I’m not usually a crier. It’s fine if you are, but I’m not. I was a bit surprised at my reaction, but I was having a particularly difficult day. My sales have been almost zero (I’ll be posting them in early April for those who may have wondered), I’d just returned from a workshop I was supposed to be leading that no one showed up to after putting in my fifth day in a row of working 17+ hours, and I was emotionally exhausted. So I cried. Then I wrote a blog post on failure (well into hour 21 of working) and put the puffin and Twitter out of my mind to get a few hours sleep and start again.

I really didn’t think I was going to come back to the puffin, but… well, here I am.

I know I talk about this sometimes ad nauseum, but I have a traditional publishing education. If you were to look at my Twitter feed, you’d probably think I was a traditionally published author (or aspiring to be one). Most of the books I read are written by traditional authors as are most of the people I follow. The seminar I just attended in Tennessee was full of those on the traditional track (I actually think I was the only self-published author there). And yes, there were a few hurtful jokes made that I chuckled off because at the end of the day I get it.

In some ways, I used to be right there with the people sharing tongue-in-cheek jabs at self-published authors on Twitter. I came into this with bias, and I still have it (hence my TBR pile). But sharing memes like the one above on social media does literally nothing except hurt people who are chasing a dream exactly the same as yours.

Let me repeat that. Writers looking for traditional publishing deals want the same thing as writers considering self-publishing: to have their words read.

Some of us want to be able to make enough money to write full-time (I fall into this category), some of us want a movie deal, some of us want to see our books on the shelves at Barnes & Noble, some of us just want to throw our heart onto the page and maybe have some friends and family read it. What we want changes in shade but not color because all of these things share the same base–people reading our books.

And just like in every career, there are multiple ways to achieve the same goal. 

Now, I don’t know of any self-published authors who have big movie deals (if you do, please do share!), so if the shade of your desire is Hollywood, yeah, you should probably query and get an agent and go the traditional route. But if you just want to throw a book out there to say you’ve done this thing, then there’s no reason you need to query for years and sit around waiting to see if a Big Five Press will take your book. And guess what? There are variations of all kinds in between. Maybe you want an indie press because you’re not interested in New York. Maybe you want to be one of the successful big name self-published authors. Maybe you want to be a hybrid author who does a little bit of Big Five and a little bit of self-publishing. Cool. Every single one of these is a legitimate path. But there is absolutely no reason to trash a path you chose against. That. Shit. Is. Personal.

There is garbage in the self-publishing world. I’ve read it. There is garbage in traditional publishing. I’ve read that too. There are gems in self-publishing (I happen to think I’ve created one, but judge for yourself). And there are gems in traditional. And there’s stuff that’s “meh” in both too. There’s stuff for me and stuff for you. There’s four stars and two.

Okay, now that I sound a little bit like Dr. Seuss, moving along.

This industry is hard. Traditional publishing has challenges self-publishing does not and vice versa. We all fail. I’m failing right now. The uncertainty is scary, and sometimes, when we’re uncertain, it helps us bolster our own decisions by tearing others down. It’s easy, I think, to say, “Well at least my work isn’t so bad that no publishing house would have me!” Ahahaha.

Fact: I did not query. Not one single time. I chose this. My decision to self-publish has literally nothing to do with the quality of my work and has everything to do with my desire to have complete creative control because I was sick of having mental illness and addiction and trauma take my voice away. I wasn’t about to hand it over to a Big Five press after I’d struggled to regain it. The fact that my book doesn’t have Penguin Random House on the inside cover doesn’t mean that Penguin Random House “wouldn’t have me” and to say so is to show your own ignorance about what goes on in the self-publishing world.

Don’t be ignorant. It’s okay to listen. It’s okay to come to a conclusion that traditional publishing has its flaws and self-publishing has its flaws and there are reasons to do or not to do either without having to de-legitimize the other. I know we live in a very “this side or that side” kind of time, but how someone chooses to go about getting his/her/their books into the hands of readers really doesn’t have to be that kind of issue. I promise.

So please, don’t let your fears trample my dream.

Why I Chose Indie

Before I started this journey, my publishing knowledge centered around traditional publishing (being published under the name of a publishing house). While I didn’t hear much about publishing during my studies at the University of North Carolina—Chapel Hill, what little I did hear was all about traditional publishing. “When you’re ready and your craft is honed, write a query letter, find an agent, and he or she will find you your publisher. But you’re not ready yet.”

When I decided it was time to get serious about The Wheel Mages, I assumed I would be traditionally published. To my knowledge, it was simply the way things were done. So I did what I’d been taught to do, I prepared a query letter and hunkered down for the long process of first finding an agent, then waiting, hoping, praying, stressing, and worrying about whether or not my agent would be able to find me a publisher.

As I researched ways to polish my query letter, articles popped out of the rabbit hole that is the internet—articles about a different form of publishing—self-publishing. To be honest, I wasn’t sold. A bias I didn’t know I had surfaced. Self-publishing must be for people who can’t get a publishing house to take their work, I thought. Not for me.

I silenced the nagging voice telling me to give self-publishing a deeper look. I wanted the gatekeepers in the traditional publishing world to hand me the key. I was desperate for them to tell me I had the right to call myself an author. I believed that being an author was so sacred I couldn’t bestow the title upon myself. It had to come from them. Anything else would be too arrogant, too much like Napoleon crowning himself.

But the articles continued to appear, and to silence the nagging, I read them. And the more I read, the more I started to think: Huh. You know, this is something people do and do successfully. Maybe the game is changing, maybe I shouldn’t dismiss this.

I started to open the door to the self-publishing voice’s cage. “Okay,” I said to it. “Prove it to me.”

I was sure I would defeat this defector, but after a lot of research, it won out. And, in list form, here are the top three reasons why:

1. Self-Publishing is faster

Self-publishing isn’t a quick process by any means, and I’m still leery of those who say it is. It’s taken me about a year to publish The Wheel Mages, from writing the first words to e-book launch. I imagine that as I get more accustomed to the process, it will speed up, but I don’t see myself ever being able to write, edit and launch a book in 60 days. Still, self-publishing is a lot faster than traditional publishing which takes closer to 2 years (when all the stars align). And while faster isn’t always better (I won’t sacrifice quality for speed when it comes to my writing), it is a great boon to the most important people in an author’s life—her readers.

All authors are readers first, and we empathize with the struggle that is waiting for a new book to come out. And while that may not be as much of an issue with a debut novel or a standalone, I was aware of what the struggle could be with a series, and I wanted to start down a path that would get my second book into my readers’ hands as quickly as possible.

2. Collaboration is Awesome

It’s not that authors who are published traditionally don’t collaborate, they certainly do, but one thing about self-publishing that really appealed to me was the ability to choose who I collaborated with. That was exciting (also nerve-wracking). I got to choose the designer of my cover art (Fiona Jayde Media) and the host for my website (WordPress) and my content editor (Katie McCoach Editorial) and my copy editor (Nikki with Katie McCoach). My hands are all over this book, every facet of it is sealed with some part of my blood, sweat and tears. But the marks of those who have touched it are there too, making it a unique creation.

3. Self-Publishing Pays Better

I write because I love writing. If no one read The Wheel Mages, I would still write. No one has read many of the manuscripts sitting on my hard drive, but that never stopped me from creating, and it never will. I am the best version of myself when I’m writing.

I publish to make money. It sounds harsh and unromantic, but it’s authentic. I have to pay my bills, the same as anyone else, and if I can do it with writing, that means I have more time to do what I love, which is writing and connecting with my readers.

In traditional publishing, writers can expect to see about 15% royalties (with a good deal). That means that if your publisher sells your book for $10.00, you’re only going to see $1.50 of that. In reality, a $10.00 book is probably a paperback and royalties on paperbacks are more like 10%, so the author is only going to see $1.00 of that. To make $50,000 a year (a round number for illustration), an author needs to sell 50,000 copies of his/her book.

The royalty rates in self-publishing are much higher. If an author uses Smashwords, for example, he/she gets 60% royalties (4 times more than a traditional publisher, for those keeping track). That means he/she can sell his/her books cheaper. (Bonus: This is also awesome for the reader). If the author price points his/her book at $5, he/she gets $3 of every book he/she sells. That means he/she can sell under 17,000 copies and still arrive at the same $50,000 per year.

The difference is huge.

Now, none of this means that I wouldn’t consider accepting a traditional publishing deal in the future. I don’t want to burn any bridges, or close any doors, but for right now, self-publishing is what works for me! And I hope it’s what works for you too!