All the Rules We Break

Author’s Note: I know I promised this blog yesterday, but it’s been hectic! But! Here it is, alive and well! It’s not edited well because I just flung it up in a rush, but I did the thing, which is great because this post is about YOU doing the thing!


For a good chunk of my writing career, I thought when people said, “Kill your darlings,” they meant that writers should kill their favorite characters. So I took that “advice” and ran with it. Now, it’s sort of my brand. See, my debut novel The Wheel Mages.

I was younger then, and like a bright-eyed student thirsty for the knowledge of those older and therefore (I assumed) wiser than me, I took every bit of writing advice I could glean. When I had it, these gems, these treasures, these bits of knowledge that would surely make me J.K. Rowling famous, I attempted to use them all.

As you might suspect (since I am not J.K. Rowling famous), a lot of that advice has many interpretations and is quite subjective. A lot of it simply didn’t work for me. And if I’m honest, some if it made me really hate writing.

“Write what you know.” This is the oldest one in the book. Every writing student and aspiring author knows this one. “Write what you know” and “Show don’t tell” might be tattooed on the inside of my eyelids for how often they float through my mind.

I am not going to recreate what has already been done (both poorly and well) here. Google “Write what you know is wrong” and take everything you read with a grain of salt. Be especially careful about white dudes defending cultural appropriation for the sake of “art.” (Read: their Very Important (TM) writing). Not all of it is wrong, though. But “write what you know” can mean a lot of things. It doesn’t have to mean you can only write your memoir (although, if you have the urge to do that, do that, I need more memoirs to read!) “Write what you know” in the young adult spectrum might be more akin to, “Stay in your own lane” which I wrote about a few weeks ago. “Write what you know” could also mean that the most powerful writing you’ll do is when you’re writing about an experience that is intimately familiar to you. We all have unique experiences that only we can bring our perspective and voice to. But you also don’t have to do it all at once. “Write what you know” doesn’t have to be “Well, I’ve put every important thing on the page in this very first book and now I’m all dry and whatever will I do? I know nothing else!” Because I mean, that’s silly. We’re always experiencing and learning new things.

For example, my second book, The Blood Mage, (sequel to The Wheel Mages) features a main character who experiences PTSD. It’s a little chunk of who I am. A little chunk of what I know. My shelved manuscript, The King’s Blade, is about assassin mermaids, which (as you might be able to guess) I’m not intimately familiar with. But the main character is passive and stoic and it takes her a long, long time to find her strength and her voice. Another part of my story. In my current WIP, a 1920’s inspired fantasy, my main character is touch averse. Again, a little piece of me. It’s all about the interpretation, here.

And now you’re probably wondering … wasn’t this post supposed to be about rule breaking? Why did you just spend 500 words defending The Rule? Well, partly it’s because when I was looking for a quote about writing what you know being flexible, I found all these articles about write what you know is wrong, and they espoused a lot of “cultural appropriation is okay for art,” and I got mad and had to come to The Rule’s defense. But it’s also partly because I wanted to make the point that all these “rules” are subjective. They can be used, and tossed aside, and bent, and broken, and rocketed into the sun strapped to a Tesla. As long as you have a book you’re proud of at the end, however long it takes you to get to that end, then you’ve done the thing!

Speaking of however long it takes, let me talk about one of the rules that isn’t that subjective and which I think is garbage (for me). Please keep in mind I mean in all of this for me. I always hesitate to give writing advice to anyone because everyone is so different. This advice is probably really helpful for some people. I have friends and professors and mentors who swear by it. But it doesn’t work for me, and I want to assure people here that if it doesn’t work for you, that is okay. You can still be a writer/author/creator without some a lot of this.

The advice goes thusly: “The art of writing is the art of applying the seat of the pants to the seat of the chair.” This quote is attributed to writer and activist Mary Heaton Vorse, but it has taken various forms across the years. Most of my writing professors used to advise taking at least one hour per day to write. To put your ass in the chair and get it done. To ground out words even if they sucked.

No shade to my professors, but as it turns out, academia makes a nice butt cushion. In my experience, 12-16 hour workdays don’t leave much time for the butt in chair exercise every day. My workdays start with household chores at 6:30 a.m. and don’t usually end until 8 p.m (on a good, 10 hours at work, workday). That doesn’t really leave much mental or physical energy for butt in chair time. I know people who get up even earlier to put their ass in a chair, and I admire that. But I have night terrors. If I go to bed at 11 p.m. and wake up at 6:30, with my nightmares, on a good night, I’ll be living on 5 hours of sleep. This is my life. Every day.

I’m not complaining, and I don’t want pity. It’s just my life, which is different than every other life. My life doesn’t have time for butt in chair exercises every day. That’s okay, though. As it turns out, I’ve been able to write 4 1/2 books in less than 4 years just writing when I can. Sneaking it in here and there when work is slow, taking days off solely to write, staying up late on days when I have the energy, putting a lot of time in on the weekends. But it’s not every day, and it isn’t consistent. Sometimes, I’ll go months without writing. I have to put food on my table and my primary job is what does that. No matter what though, I still get back to doing the thing.

And you can, too. You can do the thing. You don’t need every single “rule.” You can tell sometimes. Some stories need more telling than others. You don’t have to write every day. You can write stuff you don’t know (again, I mean like write about six-legged ponies, not cultural appropriation). You can write in tenses that aren’t active. You can throw jargon all over your damn page. You can write sentences so long even lawyers’ eyes will bug out at the sight of them. You can write how you want to write. It is your story and your voice and your art. There are really no “rules” to writing in the end. Only guidelines. Take what works for you and phooey on the rest.

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That said, what is your favorite writing “rule” (especially if it’s one you’ve come up with for yourself?)

< Always, Aimee

The Dreaded Bad Review

I’ve been thinking about this post for awhile and have hesitated to write it. The thing is, this is a sensitive topic. It’s sensitive because there’s a line that should exist between authors and reviewers. Reviewers should never feel intimidated or bullied or pressured into giving anything except their honest opinion of a book. As an author, when you ask for an honest review, you should understand that’s what you’re going to get. And it’s not always sunshine and rainbows. Some people aren’t going to like your book. It’s simply the way of things. Welcome to authorhood, you’ve arrived.

That said, I strive to speak openly here about the emotional experience of this whole writing journey, and I feel I would be remiss if I didn’t speak on the extremely emotional experience of receiving a bad review. Before we begin, however, I want to emphasize this isn’t a “sub-blog post” or something of the sort. This isn’t a direct response to any particular bad review I’ve received and “bad” is pretty subjective anyway. I think we can universally acknowledge that a one-star review is bad, but I’ve seen authors who also struggle with four-star reviews. Authors, as a breed, tend to be perfectionists, and anything less than perfect can sting.

Your Book Isn’t Going to be for Everyone

The best thing about art is that it’s completely subjective. The worst thing about art is that it’s completely subjective. Some people are going to be on the same wave length as you. They’re going to “get” your work and love it. Others aren’t. That’s okay. It just means humanity is diverse and beautiful and lovely and we all have different likes and dislikes. It’s what makes us interesting. And messy. And glorious. It’s important to try and keep that in mind when the inevitable bad review comes knocking.

It’s really interesting to me to see the responses I’ve received on The Wheel Mages. Some people think my world building is great, the best part about my writing. Others think it’s confusing. Some people think my style is unique and refreshing. Others think it’s stilted. Some think my characters are well-developed and believable. Some people think they’re one-dimensional and unnatural feeling. Some people think I defy conventions. Others think I play into tropes. If I take a step back and look at it all laid out before me, the differences can be a beautiful thing. They prove what I already knew: that humans are marvelously complex beings with diverse interests and tastes.

Developing a Thick Skin is a Real Thing

So if you’re involved in the writing community at all you’re going to hear that you need a thick skin. I’m sure I’ve said it about a billion times. It’s true. Very, very, very true. This industry is not necessarily the kindest one that ever was. But then again, life doesn’t happen to be particularly kind, at least not 100% of the time. Developing a thick skin is important, but so is simply being able to build yourself boundaries.

For example, some authors don’t read reviews at all. I don’t have enough self control for this, but I’m a new author. Maybe after I’ve been through this half a dozen times I’ll be able to ignore reviews too. For now, I can’t. If you can, awesome. If you can’t (like me), be prepared. Remember to build yourself boundaries. It’s okay to not check every day for new reviews. It’s okay to know you’re in a bad place and couldn’t handle it if you got a bad one. Heck, it’s okay to have someone pre-screen them for you (if you have someone that generous). Taking care of yourself is important. You’re important, and you are more than your words. Just because someone didn’t like your book doesn’t mean they don’t like you (they don’t know you, likely). Even if your main character is a self-insert character and people say they hate her, it’s still not personal. <– This may have been for myself. Regardless, you are more than your words.

Let it Sting

This is the hardest part for me, and it’s the hardest advice to give. Because it does hurt. The first time I received a bad review of my published work (which is infinitely worse than receiving criticism of something you can fix, so unpublished writers, sorry to tell you, it doesn’t get better), I crawled into bed and didn’t emerge for 29 hours. I didn’t cry because that’s not a thing I do much, but I did run my failings as an author over and over in my mind. I felt terrible about so many things: about inflicting this scourge of a book on the rest of humanity; about being insulted on the internet; about potentially hurting someone’s feelings or at the very least wasting their time; about how angry I was and how ungrateful and selfish and stupid and unworthy. I felt like I should never write again. I felt like my voice didn’t matter and then felt selfish and vain for ever thinking it should matter in the first place. What a narcissist I am, thinking someone should care what I have to say. What an arrogant, egocentric asshole I was for then being angry when someone didn’t “get me.” Every nasty thing I could say to myself was said. I didn’t eat, I didn’t sleep, I didn’t move, I just played this grotesque game with myself. It. was. awful. So telling you to accept that is hard, because I know what it feels like and it’s not pleasant.

What I really wish I could say is for you to just brush it off, mutter to yourself that person doesn’t know what the hell he/she/they is talking about and move on with your life. But I can’t tell you that for several reasons.

First, the reviewer probably does know what he/she/they is talking about. They are reading tons and tons of books, and they know what they like and don’t like. They also probably know a little bit about what a book should have. They know what world building is and pacing and plot and such. A lot of reviewers are writers themselves. That’s part of the reason it hurts so much to receive a bad review. I think for me, most of the sting of a bad review comes from being able to recognize that something in that review was true, at least for that individual, and that hurts because I feel like I’ve failed as a writer. Failure sucks.

Second, reviews can actually help your writing if you’re open to them. Don’t get me wrong, you’re probably not going to be open to them right away. But after the initial sting has worn off, a bad review can help you improve future books, so simply brushing it off isn’t always the wisest approach. This is especially true if the reviewer is in your target audience.

Third, if you’ve been hurt by a review, you’re probably not going to be able to simply move on. Period. You might be able to mask some of the pain (guilty), and if you have to do that for a little, do that. But eventually, you should confront it. Storing pain isn’t a great decision (trust me, I’ve got years of it I’m dealing with).

It’s okay to let it sting, to take a few days off, to recenter yourself. But get back up. It’s like falling off a bicycle (or horse, in my case). Confront the pain, but don’t let fear of falling stop you from doing something you love. You’re going to fall. Again and again and again. Learn to tuck and roll and protect yourself as best you can. When you fall hard, heal, then go right back out. Life is too short to let the voices in your head control you. And at the end of the day, those voices are yours. The review or the reviewer didn’t put them there. You did. Your experience, your self-doubt, your insecurities, those are what did that. Battle them. Valiantly. You deserve no less.

Do Not Engage the Reviewer

Seriously. Don’t do this. It’s an extremely bad look. Especially if you asked for the review. In my view, there is little more distasteful than an author coming for a reviewer. And if your reviewer is a teenager because you write YA or MG or what have you, please remember you are the adult in this situation and act accordingly. You’re a professional. Be professional. No matter how hurt you are.

I know it’s hard. Trust me, there have been reviews I’ve received where I’ve wanted to ask questions. To try and explain myself. To tell the reviewer if they’d just read a little bit more they’d see I was about to twist that trope or that wasn’t quite the way they thought it was or or or… Don’t do it. You had the words to make your point and for that person, you didn’t. There is nothing to discuss and it’s only going to turn out badly for you. There will be other reviewers and other reviews. Some of them will likely laud the very things that particular reviewer didn’t like. It will be confusing and annoying and frustrating. But it’s not your place to make a case or state a claim. And it’s not the place of your friends or fans, either. Of course you can’t control the actions of others, but if someone approaches you asking if they should/could come to your defense, the most professional response is to tell them you’re okay, thank them for their support, but explain it’s unnecessary. It’s part of being an author. This isn’t a courtroom. This is Goodreads.

Build Your Community

This is another biggie you’ll see on refrain in the writing community, and it’s also extremely true. Having a community of other writers to vent to is crucial in this business. Because it’s a hard business and when you do receive the dreaded bad review, you’re going to want to have someone (or several someones) to talk/scream/weep to. Fellow writers are great for this because they understand the sting in the way perhaps even your friends and family don’t. They understand it on a visceral, personal level, and good writing friends will be able to act as a crutch or talk you off the ledge or commiserate with you on the level you need. Having these people around will help you get what you need off your chest without doing anything rash (like… uh… coming at the reviewer). Writing pals are a Godsend. Make lots of them.

You’re not a Failure

You might feel like one. But you’re not. If you need it, take a few days off from whatever you’re working on to absorb the hurt, and then expel it however you do. I know that when I receive a bad review, then try to work on something immediately thereafter, it affects everything. I received, for example (again, not calling anyone out, just an observation), a review about my style once. Specifically, that it was stilted and this reviewer didn’t like that. I went to edit the same day, thinking my armor was well enough intact to get what I needed to get done, done. But nope. Everything I read that day felt fake and awkward and didn’t flow and was terrible and gross. My brain was doing a weird brain thing where it was absorbing my insecurities and bringing them to life.

Good news is I was able to recognize what was happening and put the pen down before I destroyed everything I’d written by trying to be a writer I wasn’t. It’s true that certain aspects of my style are stilted. I was trained to write postmodern literary fiction. It’s not necessarily a flowing style (as much as postmodernism can be defined as anything), and it does sometimes find itself out of place in the YA/NA fantasy world. Some people find this refreshing, some people find it off-putting. But it’s how I write. It’s what makes me unique. Was the reviewer who critiqued my style correct? Yep, absolutely. Does that mean I should change? Not today, it doesn’t.

Who knows, though, what tomorrow will bring. The only thing to do is to make sure there is tomorrow.

Keep writing.

❤ Always,

Aimee

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Next week on the blog: I’m going to the RWA Day of YA in Orlando! And I’ll hopefully talk about it! The Wheel Mages is up for an award, too, so I’ll be revealing the results of that 😛 Don’t want to miss it? Don’t forget to follow!

My Characters Aren’t Pretty

Note: This post is a little jumbled because my thoughts are a little jumbled. This is one of those topics I’d like to revisit when I have a better handle on what’s going on inside my head, but I figured it might be worth sharing as a discussion topic.

Fiction is the lie through which we tell the truth

~ Albert Camus

When I was in college learning how to be a better writer, I was also a teenager struggling to learn how to be a better person. Both are struggles that continue to this day and will hopefully continue for the rest of my life.

I’ve made my fair share of mistakes along the way but that’s one of the things that intrigues me about writing fiction. Humanity is messy and that messiness lends itself to literature as a mirror for life. The quote I started with is a reflection of that idea not only because of what it says but also because of whom it was said by. Albert Camus was an absurdist, a philosophy centering the individual and his/her/their inability to find value or meaning in life.

Authors are also interested in exploring both the individual and the Truth and that exploration can be found in spades in young adult literature. Maybe it’s because young adults have so much to explore, as they’re trying to find their own way, or maybe it’s simply because young adult readers see through a different lens. Whatever the reason, it’s something I’ve been thinking about a lot recently.

Often, in discussions of the differences between young adult and adult fantasy, in addition to the age of the main character, characterization versus world building is addressed. Young adult fantasies tend to be character-driven stories whereas adult fantasies tend to be world-driven stories. Obviously there are exceptions, as there always are, but this difference fascinates me.

Absurdism, as Camus saw it, was a rejection of nihilism, a philosophy centering the thought that life is meaningless. Camus, although he believed the individual would never be able to grasp the meaning of life, believed he/she/they should still seek it. The difference between the two philosophies is interesting in that nihilism seems to take a more world-driven approach. Life (as a big, abstract concept) is meaningless. Whereas absurdism seems to take a more character-driven approach. We humans cannot understand the meaning of life.

I don’t think either approach to writing (or life) is wrong. I don’t think there really is such a thing as “wrong” when it comes to writing. Art is art and expression is expression. There are no hard and fast rules and exceptions are abundant. But I do prefer to read and write character-driven stories.

My characters aren’t pretty, though. And I don’t mean that in a physical beauty sort of way, I mean it in a they are morally gray kind of way. Their flaws are what make them interesting and, quite honestly, what make them human.

One of the reasons my Sanctum series is written in first person is because I like the idea of a one-sided story. I like getting into the head of a character and putting her on display, warts and all. In some ways, when you write from the first person POV, you’re always dealing with an unreliable narrator of sorts. A reader can never reach the Truth of your world, because he/she/they only ever see it through one set of eyes. It’s absurd and it’s exploratory and I think it’s part of the reason why first person POV is so prevalent in YA.

The world we live in is increasingly divisive, however. Sides are chosen and swords are drawn. The vehemence of our individual beliefs is put on full display via social media. It’s fascinating and, if I’m honest, a little bit frightening.

See, my core belief system is hinged on the concepts of compromise and understanding. I don’t like confrontation and my opinions are constantly in flux. I’m a listener, a watcher, a mediator. I like the middle because so much of my life has been chaotic. I find humanity to be violent and messy and glorious and caring and beautiful. I’m a dark, serious person but I’m also endlessly optimistic about humanity. I think at our core, humans want to be “good.” But “good” is such a loaded term, especially these days. What is “good” and what is “bad?” The meanings of these words shift depending on your side, on your belief system, on your experience. This is that heavy stuff the absurdists were talking about, the meaning of life that we should strive for but will never be able to fully grasp. The Truth that the lie of fiction tries to bring to the surface.

When I was in college, my work was often critiqued for being “too preachy.” People are smart and readers are some of the smartest people there are so I was taught to let them come to their own conclusions, not try to impose my belief system through my writing. “You’re not writing fables, Aimee,” was a familiar refrain. “You can guide but don’t shove. It’s sloppy writing, too heavy handed. The author’s touch should be so light it is unnoticeable. Create characters that someone can imagine leaping off the page and you’ll create discussion.” Discussion is the beating heart of a free society. It is a sacred thing and as a writer, I take it very seriously.

One of these same writing professors was obsessed with Anton Chekhov. I despised him (Chekhov, not my professor, I loved her). Anton Chekhov has written some of the most despicable characters I’ve ever read. They are misogynistic, sex-crazed, unfaithful, wife-batterers and I don’t like them. I don’t feel sympathy for them. I don’t want them to win (in fact, I’m happy that they usually don’t). I have never in my life cheered for a Chekhov character. His women are vapid and flippant and ridiculous. His men are arrogant narcissists. Cheating is rampant. Domestic abuse is thrown onto the page without a care. It bothered me. And as I’m writing this, I realize it still bothers me.

Here’s the thing though–his characters make me feel. His characters make me yell. For those who don’t know me in real life, yelling is not a thing I do often. As I mentioned earlier in this post, I don’t like conflict. If I’m pushed to yelling, something has gone terribly wrong. I like to see both (or all ten) sides before making a decision. I like to evaluate and weigh and usually, I come out somewhere in the middle. With Chekhov, I am never in the middle. His writing forced me, someone who rarely chooses “sides,” to take one and it stimulated discussion. Discussion I had to bolster with lines in the text. Discussion that made me a more analytical reader and, I will grudgingly admit, a better writer.

Chekhov is not preachy. His characters are morally gray (bending toward bad) and they spark a response in me most characters don’t. In college, I didn’t entirely understand that concept but now that I’m a published author myself, I read Chekhov with a different lens and a deeper appreciation. Please don’t mistake appreciation for “enjoyment.” Reading Chekhov still feels like a hate read and I still want to punch all of his characters in the face. But feeling is a writing win, even if the feeling stimulated isn’t always pleasant.

A reader recently told me she wanted to “strangle Alena sometimes,” and I had to chuckle. “Why?” I asked innocently. She rolled her eyes. “Because she makes stupid decisions.” I smiled softly and nodded. “Don’t we all, though?”

Something to think about.

Now accepting discussion but not argument in the comments.

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Next week on the blog: Unveiling the #DeepSeaWIP and my participation in this year’s #PitchWars. Don’t want to miss it? Don’t forget to follow!

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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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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On Failure

I learned how to fail at this gig a long time ago.

When I was eighteen, the University of North Carolina sent me a letter encouraging me to apply for its coveted Thomas Wolfe Scholarship. They’d seen my accomplishments in some writing competition or other and thought I’d be an ideal candidate. The application process was (in my opinion) more rigorous than applying for admission to the University. It required a fifty page prose packet and additional letters of recommendation. I agonized over my submission. UNC was my dream school. It was the only university I applied to; it was the only-thing-I-ever-wanted. Worse, I’d convinced myself that because they specifically asked me to apply, this scholarship was all but in the bag.

It wasn’t.

The rejection letter came in an envelope with the University’s famous Old Well logo on the front. I ripped it open, sure of my imminent success (in those days, I was still a big fish in a little pond, and I was always successful). As my eyes scanned the paper, my heart fell into my stomach. My chest tightened. My hands trembled. They didn’t want me.

I was inconsolable. I screamed and raged like a toddler. I threw fists and spat hurtful words. My father and I got into a terrible argument. I didn’t want to go to college. I didn’t want to do anything. I wanted to curl up and die, and I was sure I would, the rejection hurt that badly. I was a terrible writer. He didn’t understand. Look, there was a letter here to prove how awful I was at this thing-I-wanted-more-than-anything. I was nothing. My dream was dead. I would never write another word.

Little did I know, but that would be the first of many kicks Carolina would deliver to me over my three years as a student in their creative writing program.

If life has taught me anything, it’s that when you get kicked, you get back up, with a snarl and bleeding fingers if you have to. But you keep fighting.

Writing this, I’m torn between a chuckle and a wince. It sounds melodramatic, and truly, it was, but it hurt too. It tore at my foundation, shredded my already fragile self-worth. For someone who has been through as much trauma as I have, you’d think I’d have been tougher. But I wasn’t. Not about this. I lost a lot of innocence too young, but this was the one thing I’d managed to keep pure. This was the one Truth I thought I knew. I was the best writer. It was the only thing I was sure about. When it turned out to be just another lie, it felt like the last of what I thought I was had been stripped away.

One of my ex boyfriends used to call me his “tiger.” He said I was a fighter. He was too. It was the thing that held us together. We were both good at getting back up. Call it stubbornness or stupidity or maybe both. Whatever it is, it’s ingrained deep.

That day was no exception. I got up. I kept writing. I was accepted to Carolina. And when I got in, I realized you weren’t allowed to enter the writing program until your sophomore year. One of my roommates managed to find a way into the screenwriting track early, however–second semester freshman year. That felt like a kick, too. But it hurt less than the one before. And I got up and entered the fiction track my sophomore year.

The first day of class, my professor told the room full of eager students that if anyone would be happy doing something other than writing, they should do that, and there was the door. Four people walked out of that class. I didn’t. This was still my dream, and if I wasn’t the best, I would break myself and rebuild until I was. Fighter’s instincts.

My first piece was a fantasy short. My professor liked it but advised me that writing fantasy wouldn’t help me move forward in the program (when I was at Carolina, you had to apply for a spot at every level of the program, and the spots were limited). Another kick. I gritted my teeth and adapted. I started to write literary fiction. This was still my dream.

I applied for the second level of the program and was accepted. I met the Wolfe Scholar. She was both kind and talented, and somehow, that felt like another kick. I got up. Because this was still my dream.

Every critique I received from my peers and my professors felt like a kick, too. We were clumsy and competitive. We knew there were limited spots available, and we coveted them. We fought for them. Me more than some, maybe more than most. I was eager to fight, to prove myself tough enough. Every time I was kicked, I got back up, heart bleeding. I pushed through it, honing my armor as I honed my craft. And I failed and fell and stumbled and sometimes succeeded. And every kick hurt less and less, until getting up became easier and easier.

I made mistakes (most notably getting into a political argument with Stuart Dybek at a bar. For the record, I had no idea what I was talking about). Sometimes, my competitive edge got the best of me, and I fought those who only wanted friendship. Sometimes, I was more tiger than human, and my teeth were sharp. It’s a knife’s edge that’s hard for me to walk. Sometimes, I don’t know when to stop fighting.

Still, through that program, I learned perhaps the most important lesson you can teach an aspiring writer–how to fail.

So last night, when I arrived at a library where I was supposed to be giving a writing workshop to teens on how to craft a story, and no one showed up, I was pleased to find the armor I’d crafted years ago was still in place.

Don’t get me wrong. It still hurts. Armor only serves you until you take it off, and years of therapy have taught me that I do have to take it off eventually. But at least in public, I was able to maintain my composure, and the armor blunted the worst of the blow, so when I did later remove it, I was able to keep some semblance of control.

Failing is part of this life. It’s probably the reason that professor in my first writing class offered the door. She was trying to present a kindness to those who saw a different way. We all fail. Traditional and self-published both. In big ways and small. We are rejected from writing programs and literary agencies. Our writing is torn up by editors and reviewers. Our books flop. Our series are cancelled. We face walls of silence and empty rooms.

But we don’t talk about it much. And when we do, it’s after we’re already safe. It’s when we’ve already attained a measure of success. We don’t discuss the empty rooms when we’re facing one, but only when we’re standing before a packed house. We remember our failure fondly, with a different eye. We talk about our happily ever afters, and our hero’s journey arcs, and that’s okay, but it’s not the only Truth.

Someday, I hope to tell that triumphant story, but right now, I can only tell the story I know, and that is the one of an uncertain ending and an empty room. It’s a story about learning to fail, about getting kicked, and feeling lost and helpless and worst of all–silenced. But it’s a story of triumph too, even if it doesn’t have a happily ever after tied to the end.

Because in this story, I still get up.

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