Agency

When we talk about “agency” in literature, we are usually talking about the protagonist of the story: (1) having the ability to act in his/her/their environment, then; (2) acting.

Simple, right?

Well, as it turns out, not for me.

Agency is something I always have to write into my manuscripts after multiple drafts. My critique partners and beta readers always come back to me telling me my characters don’t have enough (or any) agency. The character is supposed to move the plot, not the other way around. It’s a concept taught in every 101 creative writing class.

Yet… it always eludes me.

Struggling with agency is a common problem for a lot of writers, but recently, I’ve been thinking about why it’s such a reoccurring problem for me. You see, it’s not one character or one book or one series that lacks agency for me. It’s all of them. Even though I should know better. Even though I write thinking this time I’m not going to have to edit agency into my character. Thinking this time I’m going to get it right. But I never do, and I have to wonder why.

I think the answer comes from another definition.

Complex Post Traumatic Stress Disorder is a condition that results from chronic or long-term exposure to trauma over which a victim has little or no control and from which there is little or no hope of escape

[Emphasis added]. Source.

I’ve written about my C-PTSD and how it relates to my reading and writing experiences before, but though I’ve previously connected the two things, I never made this particular connection.

It’s hard for me to write agency, because my mind is wired to believe I have none.

My C-PTSD stems from childhood abuse. That’s all I’m really willing to share about that out here, exposed on the internet, but for purposes of this post, I think it’s important that it’s understood this trauma occurred when I was very young and went on for a long, long time. It shaped the way my brain behaves. Seriously. Physical changes in my brain happened and those things impact my worldview. Deeply.

Though I’m older now, and I have agency, and I go to therapy to unravel and unpack all this trauma, I still struggle. I have an extremely difficult time making decisions. I get overwhelmed easily. When I’m in a dangerous or even mildly upsetting situation, I freeze. I have the ability to control my environment, but I struggle to do so. It’s uncomfortable, and it makes me nauseous and anxious.

Because deep down, I don’t understand agency. Agency is, at its root, having some kind of control or influence over your life situation. Something I never had. And if I’m honest with myself, it scares me.

My reactions to the world taking hold of the reins for me are much better. When someone dies, for instance, I’m the most level-headed person in the room. Not being in control is something I’m intimately familiar with and have learned to navigate beautifully. Which is… different.

I started to write unhealthy there, then changed it. Because maybe it’s not unhealthy. Maybe it’s simply different. Maybe it’s how I operate. And maybe that’s okay.

And maybe this is all to say that while I believe agency is important (and I do write it into my manuscripts where it’s needed), lack of agency might be just as important with some characters, and is something I would love to see explored further.

Can you tell a compelling story if your character has no agency? And how should we even define agency? Can’t agency be taking actions to survive, even if they’re not active actions? What if agency, for some characters, is not acting but freezing? What if agency is not striking back, but appeasing? What if agency is looking at a hopeless situation from which there is no escape, but hoping for one anyway?

What if agency could be rewritten?

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Even Rapunzel, locked in her tower, had the agency to let down her hair. But her prince had to find her first. What if he never came? Would her story still be worth telling? Photo courtesy: https://pixabay.com/en/users/Emily_WillsPhotography-8096214/

Next Week on the Blog: Dreams, Failure, and the What Could Be Wish

❤ Always,

Aimee

Slumps

So in case you hadn’t noticed, I’m in a bit of a writing AND reading AND marketing slump.

Right now, what I wish I could do is give you some great advice about how I conquered it. But I’m failing to conquer it. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve edited a chapter of my third book in the Changing Tides series here and there. I’ve gotten words on the page in short story format for an adult audience. But I haven’t done any real work on marketing, and I’ve been lackluster when it comes to working on my TBR. Usually, I can read a YA fantasy in a sitting. Recently, I’ve been lucky to get a chapter in here or there.

Which leads me to a point. Writing and reading are inseparable. Writers are readers first, and if you’re not reading, it’s very likely you’re not writing. Reading is how, at least for me and many in my writing circles, we replenish our creative wells. The first thing I say to any aspiring writer or author is: “Read. Read diversely and frequently. Read everything you can get your hands on. In your genre and out of it.”

When I’m not reading, I’m almost always not writing either. When I’m not writing, it’s hard to market, because some of the enthusiasm I have for my own work is lost. I forget what it’s like to be an author. Maybe it’s the hum-drum of the 9-5, maybe it’s the trying to reestablish a social life, maybe it’s being caught up in emotionally exhausting friend and relationship drama, maybe it’s because of the slight worry I have about money right now, but whatever it is that’s preventing me from reading has to be stamped out.

With reading, will come the writing. I’m sure of it.

Anyone have any advice for reading and writing slumps? I’d love to hear it!

❤ Always,

Aimee

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Work-Life Balance

I haven’t posted in 16 days even though 16 days ago I said I was back from my hiatus. As it turns out, I wasn’t.

Work-life balance is a new thing for me to struggle with. Mainly the “balance” part. I’m one of those people who tends to be all in or all out. Right now, as you might have guessed, I’m all out on the work scene. Of course, I’m all in at my 9-5 (bills to pay and all that), but I’ve been neglecting my writing. Not just the blog and the social media presence but actually writing.

Originally, I thought my creative well was dry, but that’s not necessarily it. I’ve done a lot of writing, but it’s been of the journal variety mostly. My mental health hasn’t been good the last month or so (a guy may or may not be involved in some of this), but I’ve also been trying to create relationships with some new friends. For an introvert, that takes a lot of time and emotional energy. Time and energy I would usually devote to writing and/or revising.

I feel a bit lost on my journey. A bit listless. Unfortunately, The King’s Blade didn’t find its way into Pitch Wars and though I was hopeful that if it did, it might put some fire back under my ass, maybe it’s for the best. Maybe I needed a break more than I thought. Maybe I’m not ready to come back. Maybe I need to remember there’s more to life than pumping out books and hiding in my messy apartment and trying to live through my characters. Maybe I need to remember I have to live through myself first to truly breathe life into the characters I create.

Or maybe I’m just making excuses for my lack of get up and go.

Either way, one thing is for sure: This journey ain’t getting any easier.

Work-life balance anyone? Sound off in the comments.

❤ Always,

Aimee

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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!

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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The Great American Lie

My alarm goes off at 7:00 a.m. I don’t hit snooze. Fun fact about me, I’m not someone who hits the snooze button. I know. That’s super annoying, right? Morning people.

Here’s another fun fact: I’m not a morning person. I don’t hit the snooze button because I never have an opportunity to do so because every single morning I wake up with debilitating anxiety. As soon as that alarm sounds, my stomach begins to turn. My brain comes out of slumber like a racehorse out of the gate. Usually, I run to the bathroom to throw up. It’s all stomach acid and blood, and it’s incredibly painful.

My dog licks my face from around the edges of the toilet. I stand up, wipe away tears of pain, and start my day. I say to my Google Home, “Okay Google, play music,” like a real suburbanite. I listen to Christian rock mostly (weird, I know). I brush my teeth, get dressed, do my hair, put on layers of makeup to cover the bruising and redness from under my eyes. If you ever wondered what someone my age is doing still wearing so much eyeliner, it’s basically because I suck at makeup and figure eyeliner is better than bags. I feed my pets, make my coffee, do all the regular get ready for work things.

I take my dog out to play ball and go to the bathroom, bring her back in, get in my car. It takes me about 45 minutes to get to my 9-5:30. I don’t talk about my “real” job much here on the blog because this is a space for my writing career, but yes, I do have full-time employment other than writing. I have to pay the bills, after all, and only selling a few books a month isn’t going to make rent. So Monday through Friday, I work as a paralegal at a civil defense firm–labor and employment. I love my firm and my coworkers, but ask anyone who works in the legal field about it, and you’ll likely hear that it’s high-paced and stressful. Sometimes we have slow periods, but when it’s busy, you better buckle up because you’re in for a hell of a ride.

After the 9-5:30 is over (if it’s over at 5:30, sometimes it’s not), I travel 45 minutes home. I feed my pets, take my dog out to play ball again. While I’m throwing the ball for her, I’m trying my best to answer/send emails. A self-published author has no marketing team, so I have to find people to blurb my books, I have to find book bloggers to read and review the book, I have to run my own website, I have to try and find new and interesting ways to self-promote. A large chunk of this is done with a tennis ball in my hand. In case you ever wondered.

When I go back in the house, I turn on CNN. I allow myself approximately 1 hour of TV time per day, and it’s always to watch the news. Depending on the day and if I have any after work appointments, it’s the end of Wolf Blitzer and beginning of Erin Burnett or the end of Erin Burnett and beginning of Anderson Cooper. While I’m catching up on the news, I’m trying to throw something together for dinner.

Let’s be real, here: most of my meals come from a box. Frozen pizza, pasta with some Alfredo sauce (bought, not made). Hell, even my salad comes out of a bag. Why? Because I don’t have time or money to spare. Don’t talk to me about crock pot meals or Pinterest ideas or planning my meals in advance. They all sound perfectly lovely, but I’m not going to do them, so don’t waste your breath. I’m overwhelmed by my daily existence as it is without having to try to figure out cooking or planning or any of it. And yes, I know it’s healthier, and cheaper, and would save me time, and why-don’t-I-just-go-vegan-if-I-love-animals-so-much? But it’s new and trying new things is a constant source of anxiety for me, and there’s only so much of that I can take. My anxiety quota is spent mostly on my full-time job and my fledgling writing career, not meal planning.

As I eat and listen to whatever CNN is talking about (something loud and orange, usually), I’m continuing to answer emails and update social media, maybe working on a blog. Very, very rarely am I doing only one thing at once. I’m high strung and hyper focused. Slowing down is the enemy because slowing down leaves me exposed.

Whenever my hour of TV time is over, I get back to work. I write or edit or work on yet more lists of reviewers to query and people to solicit. Whenever I run out of steam for whatever I’m working on, I move to something else. If I get stuck on what I’m writing, I work on editing another book. I’m currently developing three books, all in various stages of the process. I ALWAYS have something to do. And if I’m not feeling creative, I’m sending out requests to reviewers, or I’m working on a blog, or I’m trying to schedule social media posts, or I’m simply running through Twitter to take stock of what the market looks like, what’s happening, what people are enjoying, and what they aren’t. I’m constantly watching and listening and learning.

This goes on until somewhere between 1 and 2 a.m. Then I try to go to sleep. I put on something narrated by David Attenborough. His voice is soothing. I fall asleep to the sounds of science.

But I don’t stay asleep. Somewhere between 2:45 and 3:15, my dog paws my face. She does this because she’s a service dog trained to wake me up when I’m self-harming in my sleep, which happens when I have night terrors. When I start to scratch myself bloody, or grind my teeth into nothing, or scream, Gabi will whine. If I don’t wake up at the sound of her whining, she’ll smack me right across the face.

Rinse and repeat. Sometimes, she only has to wake me up once. Sometimes, she has to wake me up half a dozen times. Depends on the night. Either way, there is very little sleep. Then, at 7:00 a.m., I get up and do it again.

Why am I telling you all this? Well, I’m telling it to you because I want to expose a lie that we’ve been told all our lives and that is this: If you simply work hard at the thing you love, success will come to you.

I’m sorry to burst your bubble friends, but this. is. a. lie. Not only is it a lie, it is a harmful lie. It’s not a little white lie. It’s not telling a friend she looks great in that dress that’s the wrong color for her complexion. It is a problematic, harmful lie that can lead people to burnout and early graves. I know because I’m headed toward one, and even though I’m aware of it, I’m unable to stop.

There are so many things that go into success that we don’t have control over. There is no secret formula to “making it”. You can do everything “right” and still struggle. You can have talent and persistence and grit and still fail. It’s horribly frightening, not having control, but that doesn’t mean we can or should lie our way out of reality. And reality is this: there are forces at work in our lives we cannot control. We cannot always work away our socioeconomic status. We cannot lie away racism or homophobia or the way society looks on “the different”. We can’t say, “If you just worked harder, then…” and wipe our hands of the very real outside forces at play in our lives, one of which is simple luck. Another of which is privilege, in all it’s varying forms, which I’m very aware has helped me get as far as I am today.

Now, I’m not saying you shouldn’t work hard and do your best, because obviously, you should. It’s like the saying about the lottery, “You can’t win if you don’t play.” The work is the “play” part, but just because you play doesn’t mean you’ll win, either. Work is not everything. Hard work and persistence and grit are only a few of many, many factors at play in overall success. Reaching the “American Dream” is not a one-two punch, “Work hard. Get rich.” Sorry, but it’s just not. If it were, I would be working full-time as a writer, as would many others.

What I am saying is that we need to be more careful about our vocabulary. I had no idea how deeply the “work hard” mentality was ingrained in my psyche until I started seeing a therapist, and she pointed out that I was slowly killing myself. Not a metaphor, that’s meant in a very real way. “Work hard” is a mantra I’ve heard my whole life. It’s one of the foundations of my belief system, one of the hardest things to root out of a person, and though it seems benign, maybe even positive, when it’s taken to the extreme, it can be damaging.

I’m one of the people quickest to advocate for self-care and one of the last to practice what I preach on that front. I hold myself to a higher standard than those around me. I’m less empathetic with myself than I am with others. And that’s not actually a compliment, it’s a very real character flaw. One that’s premised upon the “work hard” mentality. Even now, sitting here writing this post, knowing without a shadow of a doubt that what I say about other outside factors influencing my life, my career, my ambitions, is true, I’m hesitant to publish this because I must be wrong, I must not be working hard enough.

That’s why I explained to you what my day looks like. Because this is how insidious this mentality can be. I have myself convinced that the reason I haven’t “made it” as a writer is because I’m not working hard enough. There are a lot of reasons I might not have made it: time; luck; talent; ingenuity in marketing; the market in general; other people’s tastes; biases toward self-published authors; bad SEO on the website; shitty Amazon keywords; a product people don’t like. I mean, there are a bazillion things that could be affecting my sales figures but probably the least likely is how hard I work, yet here I am, convinced that if I just work harder I can turn everything around.

This is a really unsafe mentality to foster in young writers specifically, but I think it’s pervasive in all career paths. Be persistent, and gritty, and work hard, yes, but hard work is not a magic cure to all the ills we face in our lives, and we need to stop acting like it is. We need to stop telling the Great American Lie.

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As always, take care of yourselves. ❤ Aimee

On Internalized Sexism and Writing

…Odeth, the only woman person I’d ever known to smile as infrequently as me, returned it…

~ Revisions, The Blood Mage

#ThingsOnlyWomenWritersHear was trending on Twitter today, and it made me angry–so here’s a blog post.

As I scrolled through the above hashtag, a few things occurred to me–I’m not alone (bittersweet), and many of these things have not only been said to me, but have been said by me. To/about other women writers and to myself.

Internalized sexism is a thing, y’all.

Just last week, I was having a conversation with another writer about friends of his who write romance but are working on something different. My immediate, knee jerk reaction, was to say, “They plan to publish under a different name, I hope.”

Yeah, I’m an asshole. That is sexist AF. Women can be sexist. I have a lot of sexist tendencies. They show up in my work (see the above). That revision didn’t come until my seventh draft of The Blood Mage. It took me SEVEN revisions to realize I’d quietly pinned the expectation of smiling onto female characters only.

Why is that? Short answer: society.

I was fortunate unfortunate enough to somehow be part of a conversation between two nineteen year old boys last night as they tried to convince me, “It used to be a man’s world.”

No. It is still a man’s world. And though we try to fight it, we must still live in it, so women have learned to adapt. We have bills to pay and families to support and dreams to nurture. So we learn to survive in a world that isn’t for us. In small ways and large. We smile and bat our eyes and try to change things, but some of the “way things are” trickles in. We internalize the words fed to us by our oppressors.

Smile. Be grateful. Be humble. Don’t be so negative. God, that’s dark. Your female characters are too weak, too emotional, write more like a man. Too autobiographical. Oversharing. It’s a good thing your boyfriend doesn’t read. Your character is unlikable. She’s too soft, now too hard. How can she have never thought about marriage? Maybe women just aren’t good writers. A sexually aggressive female lead? Disgusting. Don’t cry. Why don’t you ever cry?

These and a million others are constantly circling in my head, and at the end of the day, we write what we know. When what we know includes all this garbage, it’s no surprise we find internalized sexism in our work and in our lives. It’s no surprise I turn my nose down at romance writers or find myself debating the likability of female characters with my female friends. It’s no surprise I don’t balk at Chekhov’s description of female characters as “young and silly” but wonder if I should publish a short story describing men as lovers of things beautiful and broken.

Just because it isn’t surprising, however, doesn’t make it right. As writers, it’s our responsibility to ask hard questions, not only of those around us, but of ourselves as well. We need to read from the perspective of craft, and ask ourselves why we’re feeling some kind of way about that leading lady. Is she poorly written or has society made us feel that women like her are off-putting? Do we not like that romance novel because it falls into a problematic trope or because our own sexuality makes us uncomfortable?

And, above all, we need to educate. Ourselves and those around us, especially girls. Tune out society. Do you. Be fearless. Be brave. Be strong. Fuck, be weak. Be kind. Be smart. Be you. Don’t let anyone tell you who to be. We need to tell our girls that their bodies are theirs and their voices are theirs and their stories are theirs. We need to stop policing how women “should be” and just let them be.

And to all the men who thought that we of course needed a counter-hashtag #ThingsOnlyMaleWritersHear, go ahead and take a seat for a minute, we’re having a serious conversation.

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Broken Girl Cured by Love: On Tropes and the Lies They Tell

Author’s Note: For the past few days I’ve been in Tennessee at a workshop hosted by Madcap Retreats about writing cross culturally. It was an incredible, eye-opening experience, and I’m only sharing a snippet of what I learned there, so I highly recommend you participate in one of their workshops if you ever get the chance to. 


There are ways to create narratives of hope that don’t feel like a lie.

~ Leigh Bardugo

To fully understand this post, you’ll need to watch this video (there’s also a transcript, but if you can watch I recommend doing that).

The idea of a single story is (obviously), not mine, but over the weekend, it was one of the concepts that hit nearest my heart. There are single stories for every marginalized group of people. In the video, you’ll hear some of them. During my workshop, I heard others. I’m not going to talk about the stories of others, because you should listen to their voices for that. What I am going to talk about is what the single story for me has been, why it’s hurtful, and why that matters to your writing (and mine).

For those who might not follow this blog regularly, I’ll start by telling you that I’m a self-published author. My debut novel, The Wheel Mages, is a young adult high fantasy. I’m a twenty-nine year old, cisgender, heterosexual, female. I was raised outside of Philadelphia. I’m privileged. Most people would not think of me as part of a marginalized group. Mostly, I don’t think of myself that way.

I do, however, suffer from complex post traumatic stress disorder, generalized anxiety disorder, and agoraphobia. I have an invisible marginalization which I can usually hide, but it affects every aspect of my life.

Complex Post Traumatic Stress Disorder is defined as a condition that results from chronic or long-term exposure to emotional or physical trauma over which a victim has little or no control and from which there is little or no hope of escape. (Source). PTSD and CPTSD are slightly different in that PTSD can result from single events, or short-term exposure to extreme stress or trauma whereas CPTSD is generally associated with long-term trauma. That said, most people don’t know what CPTSD is, so I typically tell people I have PTSD.

When I do “out” myself, the most typical question that follows is, “What war?”

This is the single story in action. (If you haven’t watched the Chimamanda Adichie video or read the transcript yet, go ahead and do it now. Here’s another link. Seriously, it’s that important.)

PTSD is most often associated with veterans. That’s the single story literature, television, and film have created for us. And because of that single story, my experience somehow seems less valid. When I don’t play into people’s perceptions or expectations, my experience is diminished. Surely, I must be faking it. Surely, I must be overly sensitive. Surely, nothing can be as traumatizing as war. Surely, my experience doesn’t matter.

For years, I resisted fighting against this narrative because it felt like fighting against veterans who have PTSD. The single story of PTSD made me feel like I had no right to voice my own experience because by telling my story I was challenging their story. This is not, however, the case. I’m not challenging the narrative at all. There are veterans who have PTSD. But there are people who are not veterans who have PTSD as well, and their stories deserve to be told too. We can tell multiple stories without threatening others. We, as people, deserve more than a single story. We deserve more than two or three or ten stories. Every story gives us a fuller life experience.

The above example is contemporary, but the single story concept extends beyond as well. It permeates every facet of literature. In fantasy, especially young adult fantasy, there is another single story narrative pertinent to PTSD that’s repeated over and over, and it is this: Broken Girl meets The One and is fixed through the curative power of Love.

This narrative hurts me. It is a dangerous lie.

Growing up, I often escaped to fantasy worlds to help me cope with what was unraveling around me. I still do. But especially as a young reader, I internalized much of what I read. And this narrative, the “Broken Girl Cured by Love” narrative, buried itself deep. So deep I didn’t realize how much it had shaped my behavior until this weekend, and to be honest, I’m still trying to untangle a lot of it.

What I have realized, however, is that I truly believed I could be cured by love. In fact, up until recently, one of my primary criterion for a partner was that I could spend a night with him and not suffer nightmares. I was sure that somewhere out there someone existed who would save me from my nightmares. This internalized narrative that I picked up from fantasy books is harmful to me in real, tangible ways.

One of the ways my PTSD manifests itself is through touch aversion. When I’m touched (especially by a stranger), I experience physical symptoms. My heart rate rises, my breathing shallows, I become dizzy, I grind my teeth, I sweat, my pulse hammers in my ears so I can’t hear properly. Often, I freeze, completely debilitated by terror. Sometimes, I lash out, verbally or physically. This is not a comfortable feeling.

Yet, because of the Broken Girl Cured by Love narrative, I’ve put myself in this position time and time again. I’ve retraumatized myself  while I search for The One To Defeat The Nightmares. I’ve spent nights with men I was revolted by hoping that this time I’ll find him. This time, the Magical Cure Love will save me from my PTSD. I’ve numbed myself with drugs and alcohol while I try to find The One Who Wields the Cure Love, hoping that when I do I’ll be able to be touched without the need for chemical alteration.

It has not and will not ever happen. Love is not a cure for PTSD. That doesn’t mean there isn’t hope; it simply means this narrative is not the “hope” people like me need. The lie of this single story has damaged me, and I don’t think it takes much extrapolation to understand it could damage other people, or to see the damage done could be more extreme than it has been in my case.

One of the main takeaways from my weekend workshop is that words are powerful, more powerful than we might realize. As writers, we have a responsibility to our readers and that is to tell the Truth as best we can. It’s not easy, and it’s not always pretty, but it is our duty to try, to put in the work, and to hopefully do no harm.

There is no such thing as a single story of the human experience, and it’s far past time we stopped trying to tell one. As Daniel Older told me over the weekend, “It doesn’t have to be sexy.” I suppose the Truth hardly ever is.

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On Professional Headshots

Y’all might have noticed I don’t have photographs of myself anywhere on my website. If you check out my author Facebook page, my Twitter, my Instagram, you won’t find them either. I hate photographs of myself. I always have. I imagine I probably always will.

But conventional wisdom says professional head shots are a part of this industry, so I finally caved to said wisdom and had head shots done. I figured I can no longer hide behind anonymity, especially with my second book coming out. I guess I’m really doing this.

Now, as I have mentioned before, I have PTSD. One of the symptoms of my particular brand of PTSD is that I have difficulty being touched, especially by strangers. Because of this, I haven’t had a haircut in three years. So last weekend, I bit the bullet and started with this small step.

Three hours of being touched even by a stranger with the best intentions (making me look like I actually care about myself), was emotionally exhausting, but I felt better having done it. Look at me! I declared to the world. I’m doing a thing! My therapist will be so proud.

Still, I knew better than to try and rush it, so I scheduled the hair appointment a full week before the photo shoot, that way I didn’t have to do everything in one shot. Turns out, this was a great strategy for my sometimes fragile nerves.

The morning of the shoot, I had my hair blown out (forty-five minutes of touching) and my makeup done by a professional (another hour of unwanted but necessary stranger touching and this was especially anxiety inducing because it was close up). By the time I arrived at the studio, I was already exhausted.

Here’s the good thing about photographers, however: they’re artists too and a lot of them choose the side of the camera they’re on for a reason. I was happy to have a sympathetic ear to the plight that is, “Why is this a thing for authors?” Seriously though, can someone answer this for me? Why is this a thing for authors? Does what I look like truly matter?

Buuut, a sympathetic ear couldn’t save me from the studio or the camera. In addition to a tactile issue, I also have difficulty making eye contact. As it turns out, this difficulty extends to looking into a camera. Bless Krista’s soul for patiently repeating 7,000 times to look at the camera (honestly, I had no idea I wasn’t, it’s just a thing I do!).

Another fun fact about doing a professional photo shoot for those who might not have been through it yet: it’s not as easy as it may seem. I used to think the models who did this were just naturally pretty (and they are) but there’s more to it than just looking pretty. A lot of the body positioning is subtle and somewhat awkward feeling. It involves muscles many of us don’t frequently activate, which confuses the body (or at least it did mine). In addition, most of the poses are counter intuitive. You want me to turn my chin down to avoid making it look like I have a double chin? I’m supposed to angle my shoulder in an awkward way to make it look natural? Huh? For a clumsy, awkward, shy girl who is already emotionally exhausted, a lot of things that seemed basic enough felt massively complicated. In short, I will never make comment on how modeling must be so easy ever again.

Which leads me to my point… for me, it was totally worth it to have a professional do these photos. Krista (website here) was sympathetic, kind, easy to work with, patient, knowledgeable and most importantly, talented. When she sent me the proofs later that evening (how about that for turnaround time, right?) it was like receiving my cover art for The Wheel Mages all over again. I got that tingly feeling and a stupid grin on my face. Not because I am enamored with myself (I still am not my own biggest fan), but because these photos said “Author” in the same way seeing my name on the front of a book cover for the first time did. Plus, we artists all need to support each other, right?

Okay, so without further ado… tada! A real life picture of me.

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Have a great weekend everyone!

❤ Aimee

 

 

How a Trilogy Becomes More

Author’s Note: I’m sending out my very first newsletter this week and it has exciting NEWS in it, so if you’re interested, sign up here

At the end of last month (where is time going?), my second manuscript was sent to my editor. I wrote about it (briefly). When I sent it, it was 131,000 words, which is loooong. But I ran out of places to cut words and time to do it in so sent it with fingers crossed.

Meanwhile, I was in the middle of a serious argument with the third book in my trilogy. My characters did not want to cooperate with my plan. At all.

All of this, combined with a lot of other things going on in my life, including frustrating book sales, led me to overwhelm which led me to stasis. Something to know about me: When I get overwhelmed, I freeze. I didn’t want to abandon my series, because this is my dream, but I also felt the familiar sensation of losing my way creeping in.

Fortunately, I have a good editor who wasted no time in pulling me off the cliff. Although, I’ll be honest, I was a bit nervous when I received the email from her enclosing her critique. Katie and I have a great relationship, and I trust her, but something about seeing, “You’ll see that I do make a big recommendation that could change a few things” in an email from your editor can really make your heart rate spike.

Of course, my brain started to go into overdrive as I ran through worst case scenarios such as: she hates my new protagonist (who is a character I’ve been developing for approximately… forever); there’s a gaping plot hole I’m not going to know how to fix; the prose is terrible; the whole thing needs rewritten. All fixable, yes, but not pleasant. I should clarify, none of these were the case, either.

What I wasn’t expecting was a suggestion to expand the trilogy because well… the book is too long but parts need a bit more development and there’s nowhere to find 30,000 extra words. As Katie put it, “The story and characters have begged you to.”

My first thought was: Why didn’t I think of that? Why did that not ever seem like an option?

It’s funny how strict you can be with yourself, how solid an idea can be before it’s even formed. In my head, my series was always a trilogy. That’s just how it was. Period. As I’ve said before, I’m not a plotter, so how that one idea became so solid, I’m not 100% sure, but it was. Three books. No more, no less.

I called an emergency “meeting” with a couple of my most trusted beta readers. Frantically, I spelled out to them via Facebook messenger what my editor was proposing. Then I sat back, wincing as I waited.

Here’s something else you should know: My betas are the best people I know, but they can be a tough audience. That’s what makes them good (and my friends). I expected some kind of resistance from them especially because expanding a series is done frequently in fantasy and sometimes it’s not done all that well. They know that. I know that. I expected them to remind me of that.

Surprisingly, they didn’t. “I like it,” said one.

Hm… I thought, then winced again and decided to poke the sleeping bear. “This would help me fix the problems with book three that were making me want to throw the book out the window. I guess I was just dead set on a trilogy.”

The three dots on the message screen blinked, and my stomach flipped somersaults as I tried my best not to grind my teeth down to nothing. “Trilogies are so passe. Ten million books plus ten novellas are so hip right now.”

I burst out laughing. Just when you think you know what to expect, people throw you a curve ball. Which is, of course, exactly what my characters did to me too, sneaky bastards (and I mean that term literally in at least one case if you’ve read book one).

With my betas on board, I decided it was possible to discuss this thing with my editor. So after taking a night to sleep on her critique to digest what her suggestions would look like, I sent her a sprawling, long-winded email that concluded by addressing the elephant in the room: fantasy series that are expanded poorly.

Everyone who reads this blog knows my policy on not tearing down any specific works by any specific author, and I’m not about to break that now. Instead, I’ll say that sometimes authors expand series because they’re popular, and their readers want them to, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they should. This shows in the writing. The books start to drag or get redundant or the characters no longer seem to be on an arc but more of a flat line path. No one is developing. In short, the writing loses its spark.

This is sort of my biggest fear when it comes to a series. I want my series to reflect the arc in my own writing. Book two should be (and in my extremely biased opinion, is) better than book one. Book three should be better than book two, etc. You’re growing as a writer, and your characters should grow with you. That’s organic. That’s (dare I say it) art.

Don’t get me wrong, plenty of fantasy series have more than three books and are absolutely lovely. Obviously, the most famous fantasy series in the history of the world consists of seven books, and they’re all stellar.

That said, there are plenty of series that could have stopped at book two or even book one and been fine. And I couldn’t quite get my professors at UNC out of my head as I started to contemplate a possible expansion. The famous “six-word novel” hung heavy on my heart. For those who don’t know it, it is as follows:

For sale: baby shoes, never worn.

It’s often mistakenly attributed to Hemingway, but there were stories like this before Hemingway. It’s true author appears to be unknown.

The point remains the same, however. Less is more. This was always an extremely difficult concept for me to grasp, and though I believe I’ve gotten much better at it, I probably won’t be writing any six-word stories any time soon.

Still, those extra words nagged at me. I could see the possibility on the horizon. I wanted those words. The strength with which I wanted them made me shove through the fear and the self-doubt and dare to imagine what this series could look like if I had the room to really open up and let my characters do what they want instead of constantly fighting me.

Ultimately, the decision to expand was born through a combination of that desire and my editor’s sage advice: “Overall, listen to the characters and the story, and don’t worry about trying to fit it in a certain number of books.”

Now, I might not be able to write a six-word novel, but that is something I can do.

Here we go y’all.

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