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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Inspiration

Trigger/Content Warning: Discussion of physical and emotional violence against humans and animals in dreams, as well as discussion of rape in dreams.

Anyone who has written well, just about anything, will have heard this question before: Where do you get all your ideas from?

It’s one of the most basic writing questions of all time, and it remains so because it varies for every single person. Some people get their inspiration from life events, from people they know, from observing what happens in the world around them. Some people get their inspiration from their travels, from their neighbors, from the kids on their block. Some people get their inspiration from politics, from social situations they want to change, or history that fascinates them. Some people get their inspiration from other writers, from poets, from songwriters, from artists of all kinds.

I get my inspiration mainly from nightmares.

My very first memory is of a nightmare. I still remember it as viscerally and vividly now as I did when I was small. In it, I am young–maybe four. My hair is as white as the lace nightgown I wear and hangs just to my shoulders. My pink blanket trails behind me as I walk, barefooted, to the base of a mighty black volcano.

I want to shove my thumb in my mouth for comfort but even there, in my haunted sleep, I think of how my mother says big girls mustn’t suck their thumbs. So, because I’m a big girl (and have always been expected to be), I fold the satin edge of my blanket into a sharp point. Holding the fold together with my thumb and middle finger, I run my pointer finger over the once-soft, now-sharp satin again and again, allowing the pain to ground me.

For reasons only the nightmare knows, I start my ascent to the craggy, gurgling summit.

By the time I reach the top, the volcano is erupting, spewing red-hot lava in all directions. There’s no smoke, and it’s warm (not hot), probably because my young mind still doesn’t know anything about volcanoes other than what it’s seen in books or on TV, but I am afraid nonetheless.

Afraid and not alone. Because awaiting me at that summit is the character I fear most, a horror figure I still–at thirty years old–cannot stomach seeing: Chucky.

His hair is as red as the lava, his demented, painted on smile focused entirely on me. My heart hammers in my chest, but the sound of it is drowned out by the toy’s hysterical laughter.

He’s smaller than me, and he moves like a dead thing–stiff and disjointed. Yet, in this nightmare with its strange, uncontrollable dream logic, I don’t think to run, or fight, or even scream as his short, chubby arms reach for me.

Instead, I do what I’ve always done–what I’ll continue to do for decades more–I freeze.

He lifts me up and chucks me into the angry, open mouth of the volcano. As I fall, tumbling into blackness and certain death, my pink blanket floats down with me, followed by the sounds of Chucky’s maniacal cackle.

Never once do I utter a sound.

This is only the first of many. Over the next twenty-six years (from four to thirty), I will have dreams where I am the villain — bashing in the skulls of girls who tease me. I will have dreams where I am already a ghost, staring at my dead, white body hanging from a noose that hangs from a tree. I will have dreams where people I love are cut up and fed to me. I will have dreams where my dog is shot repeatedly at my feet. I will have dreams where random strangers have their limbs sawed off, and I stand there and watch as they are funneled down a bloody conveyor belt into a large vat. I will have dreams where I am being tortured and brutalized. I’ll have dreams about being raped, a lot.

They will all be different, but they will all be vivid and horrible and full of rage and fear and panic. I will wake from them screaming words like, “Get me down!” or “Don’t touch me!” Sometimes, the screaming will be completely incoherent. I will wake from them ripping my hair out of my head in chunks. I will wake from them with blood and flesh under my fingernails from where I’ve gouged my chest or face. I will wake from them sweating, or crying, or whimpering, or shaking, or some combination of all four. I will wake from them and run to the bathroom to wretch and vomit. Sometimes, I won’t wake from them at all, either because I’m too drugged from the latest cocktail the psychiatrist has cooked up for me, or because the emotion wasn’t quite intense enough to wake me, and there I’ll reside, trapped in the dream until dawn. It will go on and on and on until I wake up naturally, my teeth loose and my jaw aching from the constant gnashing and grinding.

Very few of these nightmares will give me anything except bile and panic and exhaustion. But some–some will give me inspiration. Some will provide me with a vivid picture, a snippet of something that could be. It might only be a character, some sparkle of good in these terrible dreamscapes, or it might be one scene that brought me joy in a night full of horror. But sometimes, an entire plot unveils itself.

And when I wake, I write.

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What about you? Where does your inspiration come from?

❤ Aimee

On Beta Readers

I think I promised to write a post about beta readers back in November when my first book came out and then… didn’t. Until now!

Let’s start with basics and branch out, shall we? I’m going to try another FAQ format, because I think that worked last time I used one.

What is a Beta Reader?

Beta readers are non-professional readers (read: not editors or sensitivity readers who are being paid by you or your agent, publishing house, etc.) who read your manuscript (your unpublished book) at varying stages in the process. Some people also use the term “alpha reader” which is basically the beta reader who reads your manuscript first. I don’t differentiate, so for purposes of this post, any non-professional reader will be referred to as a beta reader.

A beta reader is different from a critique partner. A critique partner is another writer with whom you exchange chapters and/or whole works. You scratch my back, I scratch yours, kind of thing. A beta reader does not necessarily have to be a writer nor does the relationship extend both ways. So a critique partner is always a beta reader but a beta reader is not always a critique partner.

When should you send your manuscript for beta reads? 

Every writer is different and the timing of when to send your manuscript for beta reads might vary based on the way your process works and the time your beta readers can devote to the project. For me, I’ve come to a point in my writing career where I don’t send my manuscript out for beta reads until it’s finished and I’ve been through it at least twice. I take beta reads seriously (if you hadn’t noticed, I’m a pretty serious person). My beta readers are reading my manuscripts for free, meaning they’re spending their valuable time on my work pro bono. I don’t want to waste that time by sending them something I know isn’t as good as it could be. Also, if your beta reader is too caught up in gaping plot holes, or confusing description, he/she/they might be unable to really hunker down and get to the meat of your work. Basically, my thought is to treat a beta reader exactly as I’d treat an agent or an editor. I make the manuscript shine, then send it out, then I have the room to really grow and level up my work.

That’s how I do it. Others do it differently (obviously). I’ve been the beta reader for scenes, excerpts, unfinished works, etc. and that’s fine as long as I know what I’m getting myself into. Sometimes bouncing ideas off people and getting a new perspective before the work is complete can help you breathe new life into your ideas or help you get unstuck. I do send small scenes to my beta readers on occasion, mostly to share excitement and get out of my own head, but when it’s time to send the final thing, I want to try and respect the time of my betas by sending them a self-edited product.

How do you pick beta readers?

There are some great resources online about where to find beta readers. I just googled it and briefly perused. This looked like a good start. But that’s not how I found my beta readers.

I’m fortunate enough to have a lot of talented, bright people in my social network who read in my genre, so I put a post out on Facebook seeking beta readers. I had a bunch of responses. It worked well, and I’m extremely grateful for all the help I received on that first manuscript.

Now, though, I’ve narrowed my beta readers down to three. These three all bring something different to the table, but they share some commonality I think is important to have in a good beta reader:

  1. Knowledge of the genre. Meaning they’re widely read and are up to date on the latest works. They might not be market experts, but they know what they like and they’ve read the big names of the genre. They know what a book in your genre is supposed to look like. Bonus points if they’re aware of popular tropes and themes and are willing to discuss their likes and dislikes and why they have those views.
  2. Analytical readers. My beta readers don’t stop at “this is good” or “this is bad”. They all tell me why they like what they like in my work and why they dislike what they dislike. They know what world building is, they know some common pitfalls, and they have a good understanding of what good writing looks like, even if they don’t know the technicalities. Bonus points if they do know the technicalities.
  3. Constructive Criticism. This one seems like a no brainer in a beta reader, but I’ve found that it’s not. I see a lot of writers default to beta readers who are “safe” for the writer. And by safe I mean they’ll serve as an ego booster to the writer. “My beta reader said it was great!” Is something I see a lot. My first thought when I see this is: “You don’t have a good beta reader.” I know, it sounds shitty, but in my experience, it’s true. “This is great,” is the least helpful “critique” you can receive. Nothing is ever perfect, not published works, and certainly not manuscripts. Having someone there to cheer you on is excellent and important for writers who tend to be a down on themselves lot, but a cheerleader is not a good beta reader. A beta reader is someone who will be willing to tell you the hard truths behind your work. The opposite end of the spectrum is a beta reader who only sends negative feedback through the line. Negative feedback is arguably more important than positive, but you need to know what is working, too. I like to have beta readers who understand how to provide both.
  4. Enthusiasm. Not to be confused with “cheerleader” as discussed above. A beta reader should be enthusiastic about your work, but not to the point where he/she/they is blinded by said enthusiasm and defaults to “everything you write is divine.” True enthusiasm, as I see it, is a beta reader who enjoys your work so much she’s excited to help you make it better. One of my beta readers, for example, consistently kicks my ass on her critiques, but she was the first person to buy my book when it came out, and she was the first person to get my book into a real library. A good beta reader has some skin in the game, and is emotionally invested in your work because they helped make it what it is.
  5. Growth. A great beta reader will become a better reader as you become a better writer, and you’ll grow together. When I learn something at a conference or workshop or read an article that sparks me or something happens on Twitter that makes me reflect on my own work, I share it with my betas. We all learn and grow together. It’s definitely a collaborative process.

How many beta readers do you need?

I think this is subjective. I currently have three, as I said. These three give super detailed feedback. I’m confident in their opinions, and I’ve created a close working relationship with them. I might seek more readers for the standalone fantasy I’m working on right now, but for my series, I’m content. I tend to prefer a smaller number of readers who will give me more detailed feedback than lots of readers who will give me small amounts of feedback, but there’s a lot to be said about many different eyes and points of view as well.

If you could do it again…

I definitely made some mistakes with my beta readers in the beginning, and my process is constantly changing as my knowledge of craft grows. The good news is that if you’re planning on doing this writing thing for a living, you have more books in you, so you can make some mistakes and still keep moving forward. I’ve been able to correct my beta reading process in subsequent manuscripts, but if you’re looking to maybe save time and do this a tad more efficiently than I did, here are some things you might want to consider.

  1. Sending your manuscript too soon. See: When should you send your manuscript? I was so excited to share my first manuscript with the world that I sent it for beta reads before it was ready. As a consequence, I think some of my potential beta readers dropped out, and I might have lost some good readers. This was also a problem because for those beta readers who did stick around, a lot of time was spent discussing things I knew had to be fixed, which wasn’t especially helpful and was frustrating for both parties. Additionally, for the few beta readers who were willing to give the manuscript a second look after I’d made changes, some things became confused because they no longer had “virgin” eyes. They’d already read the work at that point and versions became confused, dampening the impact of some of my revisions.
  2. Being specific. I am one of those people who doesn’t like to feel like they’re infringing on someone or being too pushy or sounding ungrateful. Beta readers are doing me a huge favor in agreeing to read my work, so when I sent my first manuscript out I was basically just a ball of excitement, fervent gratitude, wishful thinking, and “here it is.” This was… not helpful. As the writer, it’s your job to explain to your betas what they’re getting into, especially if they’re not a writer. You need to be specific: “This is not finished. There are going to be grammar errors.” Your beta readers aren’t line or copy editors, but they might not know that, so you should tell them. Specific instructions can help. “Please tell me the exact location where you stopped reading or felt thrown from the story.” “Please tell me where you became bored.” “Please tell me where confusion happened and what you were confused about, specifically.”
  3. Thicken your skin. Seriously. This might sound callous, but I mean it. Criticism is hard, and it hurts, and thickening your skin is the only way you’re going to be able to protect yourself from it. If you want to be a writer, be prepared to take some hits. I joke that my beta readers are the toughest reviewers I have, but my betas are also people I know in real life who are aware they’re speaking to an actual human being on the other end of the keyboard, one they mostly like. The critique of your betas is nothing compared to hits your manuscript-turned-book will receive in the big, wide world, so consider this a test run.

Final thoughts

LISTEN. You don’t have to take every bit of advice your betas give you, but make sure you consider it and consider it hard. Think past the sting and the pain it might cause you and really chew on it, then digest, then edit.

WAIT. Always, always let your critique rest before you start making edits. Do not allow yourself to be blinded by whatever initial feelings you might have about your critique. Give yourself some time to get over yourself (and your feelings) before you make a determination about any critique point. Bonus, as you grow as a writer, and as your relationship with your betas grow, a lot of your knee-jerk reactions to their critique and advice will fade and you won’t have to wait as long.

THANK. Do not forget to thank your beta readers. They are awesome, amazing people who have done you a great service. Put them in your acknowledgements, talk about them on your blog, bake them cookies, give them free copies of your book, bring them presents, and mostly, when your book is out there in the wild, make sure to remind them that their hands are on this thing, too, and you love them for it.

Have things to add? Pop them in the comments.

❤ Aimee

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Words are my Resistance

We must take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.

~ Elie Wiesel

I should be working on edits to my next book, but the despondency I’m feeling right now is making it difficult.

Today is Holocaust Remembrance Day. On January 27, 1945, Auschwitz was liberated, and we said “Never Again.” But we didn’t mean it.

Today, January 27, 2017, Donald J. Trump, President of the United States of America, signed an executive order banning refugees from entering the country.

There are many political issues I care about, but this one is at the top of the list. One of the most influential relationships of my life was with a Muslim refugee. We said never again after his family was massacred, too. We didn’t mean it then, either.

I’ve spent the last few days being somewhat vocal on Twitter about my politics, but I’ve tried to limit it to Twitter, which is apparently the new political platform for the United States. That’s ending today.

I shared the following image on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and now, here. This is the dedication for The Blood Mage. The dedication was written before almost anything else. It was written when the manuscript simply said [Working Title], Changing Tides Book Two. It is perhaps the only thing about the book that hasn’t changed through its half a dozen edits. Today, as I reread it, I wept.

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We see you. I’m so sorry we failed you.

Many well-meaning people in my life have told me I shouldn’t voice my political opinion on social media because of my fledgling career. It’s okay for J.K. Rowling and Stephen King and Leigh Bardugo, I’m told, but not me. Those writers already have established careers. They’re not in jeopardy of losing readers based on politics, and if they do, it won’t destroy everything. But for me, I’m warned, it’s different. I don’t have a solid readership yet, and if I don’t keep my mouth shut, I might not ever have one.

To these people, I say the following: Thank you for loving me. Thank you for caring about my future and my career. Thank you for knowing how important being a successful author is to me. That means the world to me. But I will not be silent. My writing isn’t, so why should I be? The Wheel Mages is full of political themes, The Blood Mage even more so. Those themes weren’t created in a vacuum. They were created by me based on what I saw happening in the world around me.

We cannot continue in silence. Not anymore. Not a single one of us. Every single one of us has a voice and a talent and now, more than ever, we must use them.

I’m a writer. Words are my resistance.