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

On Rejection

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

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

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

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

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

Happy Birthday to me.

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

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

Your fault. Your fault. Your fault.

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

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

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

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

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

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Why I No Longer Write About Bosnia

Author’s Note: This post should really have a subtitle. Its full title should be “Why I No Longer Write About Bosnia: A Lesson on Staying in Your Own Lane.”

Based on recent events in the YA community, I have replaced the regularly scheduled Thursday blog (which is about rejection), with this one. It only seems appropriate that I push back my own pain to highlight the pain I once caused.

Content/Trigger Warning: Minor description and discussion of ethnic cleansing/genocide. Cultural appropriation.


In the summer of 2008, I was 19 years old. It was July 11th, and I was at the Jersey shore drinking wine and hanging out with a couple of my friends when I overheard a strikingly handsome man speaking a language that made my heart flutter. At first, I mistook it for Russian, but I quickly realized it was not nearly as harsh. It flowed. It was soft and didn’t have the anger behind it I often associate with Russian.

In the summer of 2008, I was also a braver creature than I am now. I approached the man and asked him what language he was speaking. He said it was Bosnian. I smiled. I knew about Bosnia. A little, anyway. When I was 10, my father bought me my very first CD, an album titled “Dead Winter Dead” by a band called Savatage. The album was a series of songs that when listened to in order told a story. The story took place during the siege of Sarajevo, the capital of Bosnia. It was a love story about two sides uniting over a man playing cello on Christmas Eve in the center of a shelled-out city. It was Romeo and Juliet without the tragic ending.

As I would come to learn, what happened in Bosnia was in no way romantic and was in every way tragic. But at that moment, all I wanted was to impress this handsome stranger with my knowledge. “Are you from Sarajevo?”

He said something in Bosnian to his group of friends, who chuckled, then turned back to me and said, “No. I’m from Srebrenica.”

Despite my ignorance, the man befriended me. We started dating. We fell in love. He was Muslim (in culture more than practice), making him a Bosniak (which can be different from Bosnian, a fact I would soon learn). He was the second youngest of five brothers, all of whom had managed to survive the genocide at Srebrenica. They were there on July 11, 1995 when the Serbs drove their tanks into the town, and the UN stepped aside. It was why I’d met him on July 11th, 13 years later. He was trying to escape his memories.

I won’t tell more of their story than this background for the reasons I’m about to explain. What I will tell you is the story of my ignorance, and how that ignorance led to a selfishness that destroyed what might have been my greatest love. Because I did not only love this man, I loved his culture. I loved his country, though I’d never been there. I loved his brothers and his sisters-in-law and their young children. I loved his language, which I picked up in college and which he helped teach me (because my professor made me sound Russian, he said). I loved pita and cevapi smothered with kajmak. I loved the techno music that at first I could not understand then began to realize was all about violence and love and the intermingling of the two. I loved his history. I loved how much the Bosniaks I got to know felt like they belonged to a place, that even though they now lived in the United States, they had these roots that spanned back generations in Bosnia. They would always belong to Bosnia. I myself had never belonged anywhere. I had no roots. So theirs were painfully beautiful to me.

My boyfriend hung the Bosnian flag on his bedroom wall, and draped next to it was a scarf, blue and yellow like the flag. There were words on it that read “Krv svoju za bosnu moju.” Roughly translated, “My blood for my Bosnia.” He believed that. All the Bosniaks I knew did. I, meanwhile, had never felt that strongly about anything.

That would be the title of my book, I thought every time I saw the scarf. My Blood for My Bosnia. I don’t remember who first came up with the book idea–me or him. What I do remember is how he would beg me to tell his story. How he would sling his arms around my shoulders and proudly show me off to his friends and family, declaring that I was the girl who would tell their story. I was the one who would finally make Americans listen.

When the summer ended, and I went back to college, we would spend hours on the phone every night, him telling me stories about his past. I would write down everything he said, then pry for every extra detail I felt I might need. I wanted to know what the hills looked like, what the grass smelled like, how much it snowed. I wanted to know how the Eurocrem tasted when he stole it from his mother’s cupboards before the war began. I wanted to know how many sheep they had and how slaughtering a lamb worked. In the beginning, he wanted to tell me. He wanted me to tell his story, because no one in America knew about Bosnia. No one had ever told their story. Eight thousand men and boys were slaughtered in Srebrenica, and most Americans had no idea. As I was in school for creative writing and deeply in love with not only him but everything about him, I seemed the obvious choice. One of his sisters-in-law even joked I was “more Bosnian” than most of the Bosnian girls she knew.

I was proud of that. And I was honored that he wanted to give me this precious gift. But I understood it to be a weighty responsibility, too. I wanted to make sure I did it right. So in addition to our nightly discussions about his life, I spent hours and hours and hours at the library reading everything I could about Bosnia, and Yugoslavia before it. I pulled videos from archive files I didn’t even know our library had until then. I watched what happened in Srebrenica and elsewhere. I saw the Serbs line the men up in graves the victims had dug  for themselves, then pull the triggers of SKS’, then smile for the camera.

The nightmares got worse. I have always had nightmares, but they shifted. They started to be about a conflict I’d never lived through. They revolved around fears that weren’t exactly mine. In my short story classes, every story I wrote was about Bosnia. My writing professor looked at the non-fiction manuscript I was working on and told me it lacked any sense of me.

I started to digest my boyfriend’s pain in a way even he did not. I didn’t realize what was happening at the time, but I was stealing his pain from him. I would get drunk and cry and demand to know why the Serbs had done that to him and his people. Why anyone would hurt anyone that way. I railed about his pain and expected him to console me. I thought what I felt was good. I thought it meant I loved him so much it hurt me to know he’d been hurt. And in some ways, it was that. Mostly though, it was theft of the most terrible kind. It was the most selfish thing I’ve ever done.

He stopped wanting to tell me stories about the war. I begged him. We started to fight, something we’d never done before. Constantly, about everything. I think he picked fights with me to avoid telling me the stories I’d sickly come to depend on. To thirst for. I was hungry for this story that did not belong to me. I wanted to buy my way in to a community I could never truly belong to, and he sensed it if not outright knew it. But I didn’t know it. I was too deep in my own selfishness.

I was a sieve for pain; I always had been. Years later, one of my therapists would call this relationship a “trauma bond,” not in the sense that our relationship with one another was abusive but that our pasts were abusive. Trauma was a thing I knew more intimately than anything else. It was a thing my boyfriend and everyone around him knew. Instead of sharing similar hobbies or core values, we shared trauma. It was the source of my sense of belonging. I clung to it because it was familiar. I had not yet learned to want to be free of it. He had.

The thing is, the reason for telling the story often matters as much as the actual telling of the story. Our reasons separated. His was authentic and genuine. Mine was toxic.

Eventually, his best friend, a survivor of one of the many internment camps set up in Bosnia, called me to tell me my boyfriend was cheating on me. Now that I look back, I don’t even know that he was. Maybe. But maybe he just wanted an easy way out.

We broke up.

I still didn’t stop writing about Bosnia, though. By then, I’d made other friends who were Bosniaks, though I never fed on their pain the way I had my boyfriend’s. But by having those friends, I still felt like part of the community. I still felt like it was okay to write about Bosnia even though it was a community I did not belong to, and never would because, somewhat obviously, I am not Bosnian. Like I said, I’d never had a community. Dating that man, and having those friends, was the closest I’d ever come to feeling like I belonged somewhere.

Short stories became my new outlet. My new sick fix. I thought maybe I would even publish a whole compilation of them, with the same title. My Blood for My Bosnia. It would be a best seller. When it was, we’d run into each other at a book signing. I would fix things. He would love me again. I would belong somewhere. It was a ridiculous fever dream I held for far, far too long.

Then, in 2017, not longer after I published my first novel (thankfully, not about Bosnia), I attended a writers retreat focused on writing more sensitively and staying in one’s own lane. MadCap changed my perspective on a lot. It also made me reflect on the damage I’d done to this relationship that, though I’d cherished, I’d let fester and rot.

I stopped writing about Bosnia after that. Because the thing is, it doesn’t matter how much history I know, or that I’ve listened to or read all the transcripts of the Bosnian War Tribunals, or that I’ve loved and continue to love Bosniaks, or that I adore the food, or that I speak the language (badly, these days). None of that matters, because I am not Bosnian. I will never know what it’s truly like. I should not be the one to make Americans listen. A Bosnian should do that. That genocide is not my pain. It never will be. And for me to capitalize off it?

It’s wrong. Plain and simple.

But Bosnian voices? You had me at “ljubav.”

❤ Always, Aimee

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Book Review: King of Scars

Author’s Note: For those who are new here, and because I’ve never said it explicitly before, all my five-star-only reviews are non-spoiler reviews. I list the official blurb, then I talk about maybe the prose, maybe a brief overview of the content, but mostly how the book made me feel, and who I’d recommend it for. That said, I know this book is brand spanking new (less new by the time this auto posts but still), and I don’t want to spoil anything (even just feelings), so please feel free to pass over this one. It will not hurt my feelings at all. Seriously. I avoided Twitter and Instagram for a week while I finished reading this. I get it.

King of ScarsOfficial Blurb: Face your demons…or feed them.

Nikolai Lantsov has always had a gift for the impossible. No one knows what he endured in his country’s bloody civil war―and he intends to keep it that way. Now, as enemies gather at his weakened borders, the young king must find a way to refill Ravka’s coffers, forge new alliances, and stop a rising threat to the once-great Grisha Army.

Yet with every day a dark magic within him grows stronger, threatening to destroy all he has built. With the help of a young monk and a legendary Grisha Squaller, Nikolai will journey to the places in Ravka where the deepest magic survives to vanquish the terrible legacy inside him. He will risk everything to save his country and himself. But some secrets aren’t meant to stay buried―and some wounds aren’t meant to heal.

My Take: 5/5 Stars

“If men were ashamed when they should be, they’d have no time for anything else.” ~ Leigh Bardugo

KING OF SCARS was my most anticipated read of 2019, and it did not disappoint. For those who haven’t yet been introduced to the Grishaverse, get acquainted (start with the Shadow and Bone trilogy, then move on to the Six of Crows duology), then find your way back here. Also, know that I’m jealous you get to read these fabulous books with fresh eyes.

For those who don’t know, Leigh Bardugo is one of my favorite authors of all time. I literally took the day off work to start in on King of Scars. When it arrived, I ran to the door, grabbed the package from off the floor (while the astounded Amazon deliveryman stared at me with wide, blinking eyes) and started to scream. I mean, little kid on Christmas scream. Between these giggles and high pitched shrieks, I thanked the man, dashed inside, and continued to dance around my living room and kitchen, clutching the package and hopping up and down like a little bird trying to take flight. I was that excited.

I was this excited because Leigh Bardugo, without fail, writes stories I want to read, stories I feel were made just for me. Her characters are rich and her world building beautiful. She explores things I’m interested in: different cultures and customs; different languages; different relationships; different loves. But most of all, she is honest. Her writing is honest, and so are her realities. Even in a fantasy realm, she doesn’t cop-out. She doesn’t engage in dishonest tropes and parlor tricks simply to appease the masses. She keeps it real. Oh, and she’s funny. Did I mention how funny her writing can be?

King of Scars was no different. Within the first chapter, I was transported. Whisked away, back to Ravka, back to Nikolai, back to the home of the Grisha. I loved King of Scars because it was familiar in a way that Leigh’s writing has become familiar to me. It’s not only the characters, but it’s the truth she speaks. It’s a familiarity that changes,  too evolving naturally, because Leigh is one of those writers who seems to always get better. With every story she spins, I see her evolution as a writer, and to me, that is more enchanting even than the Grishaverse. Leigh is the kind of author I aspire to be. And King of Scars is the kind of book I want to write. Let’s just hope that when I do, I can get a cover half as eye catching!

Buy Links:

Amazon

iTunes

Barnes & Noble (where you can get an exclusive edition)

How did everyone feel about Leigh’s new book? And tell me, what is your most anticipated read of the year?

❤ Aimee

2019 Writing Goals

Last year around this time, I wrote about my 2017 successes and my 2018 goals. You can read those here. This year, I thought I’d see which of my 2018 goals I hit and which I did not, as well as set down some new goals for 2019. So, without further ado, let’s break it down.

2018 Goals

According to past me, I had six goals for 2018. I completed four of them, which is a 67%, so not a great passing grade for the perfectionist in me, but a passing grade all the same. Of the six things I set out to accomplish in 2018, I managed to: pay off the editing fees for The Blood Mage; start querying The King’s Blade (at last count, I had queried 17 agents and been rejected by 15 of them); finish all of my promised beta reads; and catch up on my TBR (sort of, that’s always an ongoing process, but I read ten or so books). What I did not accomplish was to create a marketing strategy for the Changing Tides series, or finish the draft of my third book in that series.

Work Left Undone

Not to make excuses for myself, but part of the reason I didn’t work on my Changing Tides series is because I’m continuing to grapple with where I want it (and me) to land. I have fallen out of love with the idea of self-publishing. I’ve also run out of money. Furthermore, after chewing on the third book (and what I once thought would become parts of the fourth book), I’ve begun to suspect both are premised on topics I’m not equipped to write. Parts of these books are not my story to tell. Parts of them are very much my story to tell, but a part of my story I’m still too raw over to get on the page in any meaningful way.

I haven’t sworn off writing, however. I’m still working diligently on querying The King’s Blade, though it might be due to be shelved soon, too, in favor for something more marketable, and I’m working on something new as well, a 1920s inspired high fantasy about a girl who trades one set of secrets for another. And to be fair, it’s not really Alena or Lukas or the world of the Sanctum I’ve sworn off, either. It’s self-publishing. As it turns out, I’m far too structured and rigid of a person to enjoy (or be good at) self-publishing. I’m not a marketer, I’m not innovative in terms of getting my books into the right hands. I’m lost, confused, alone, overwhelmed, and fed up with the whole process, and to be perfectly honest, I want to deal with the gatekeepers, now. I want the validation that comes with someone telling me my book is good enough, as true or untrue as that may be.

None of this is set in stone yet, but I think the decision is coming, and I think it will not bode well for book three of this series, though it will hopefully mean bigger and better things for me.

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But while I chew on what is to come for the Changing Tides series and the world of the Sanctum, there is still other work to be done. So with that, I bring you my 2019 Goals, in list form, just how I like it.

  1. Finish the Flapper Girl WIP.
  2. Query said Flapper Girl WIP.
  3. Get an agent.
  4. Read 24 books (and read diversely!)
  5. Keep up with this blog
  6. Keep up with Instagram (someone recommended Planoly to me recently, which is a program that lets you pre-schedule IG posts and post pictures from your computer, and I’m loving it so far).

In non-writing news, my boyfriend and I are (attempting) to buy a house, so that’s a major goal of mine for this year as well. It’s going to be a big year!

And how about you guys, what are your goals (writing or not)?

❤ Aimee

 

 

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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