Decision Time: Traditional, Self, or Independent Publication

decision

Author’s Note: I am not an expert. I did my research and also interviewed indie, Self-Pub, and Traditional authors. Do your own research before you make a decision. Also, keep in mind that every article I read on the subject contained clear bias toward their own particular publishing method. This post is no different. I am pursuing the Traditional Publishing route, and though I tried to be neutral, it’s likely my writing will be colored by my preference as well.

 

2nd Author’s Note: This is a loooong post, so buckle up! I wanted to cover all my bases on this one. Also, I capitalized Traditional, Indie, and Self-Publication to highlight the terms I am talking about. In most cases these would not be capitalized.

There are as many paths to publications as there are authors. Everyone has an opinion about what is the best way to go, and that is usually reflective of which path worked for them. But it takes a fair amount of research, experimentation, and assessing goals to find the path that works for you.

Before you start your research—and this blog post should only be the tip of the iceberg when it comes to learning about publishing—you need to understand some basic terms. Most of these are well-known in the industry, and many of you reading may already know them, but in case you don’t these will give you tools to start your search.

Remember though, terms are fluid. And we select for ourselves what fits our style in the industry. Sometimes Indie and Self-Publication are used interchangeably. Sometimes going with a small press can be done without the literary agent usually required with Traditional Publication, but it’s still not Self-Publication and might be considered Indie or Traditional. These are just starting points to help you understand some basic jargon.

Traditional Publication – Publication through a publishing house that involves leasing the rights to your work. This is usually—but not always—done through the “traditional” path of writing the manuscript, querying and securing an agent, then seeking publication through that agent to a publishing house. The author is not responsible for any money up front, but receives an advance, or a pre-payment against what their book will earn. When the book begins to sell and if they earn out that advance, they will then begin to receive royalties of 8-25%. Don’t forget the agent gets a cut of 10-20% depending on the agent and what rights are being sold. (Examples of Traditional Publishing houses: Harper Collins, Macmillan, Penguin Random House)

Self-Publication – Publication through a publishing house in which the author is financially responsible for everything and pays up front. Editing, cover art, format, printing, marketing, distribution may or may not be provided, but it all comes at a cost and this can be in the thousands of dollars. Authors then earn royalties on their sold books. I read so many disparaging assessments on those royalty percentage rates that I hesitate to give a solid figure, but it appears to be a higher percentage rate than Traditional Publishing. (Examples of Self-Publishing houses: AuthorHouse, Frieman Press, Trafford)

Independent Publication – While very similar to Self-Publication, the definitions I’m finding for Indie Publication deal with the amount of control an Indie author has over their book. Indie Publication seems to retain a much larger amount of involvement for the author. They select everything from editing, formatting, marketing, distribution, etc. The author chooses whether they want to pay for these services and who they want to pay. Some work within the barter system, trading manuscripts for editing, trading cover art and illustration services for help with marketing. It’s all up to the individual author, and as far as I can tell, there is no upfront money required beyond what you choose to do. You can pay an editor or a cover artist or a marketer, but to upload your manuscript doesn’t cost the author. The Independent Publisher makes its money as the book sells, and the author receives a higher royalty percentage, some examples claiming as much as 70%. (Examples of Indie Publishing houses: CreateSpace, Smashwords, IngramSpark)

Small Press – A publishing house that operates much like a major publisher, but is smaller in size. They don’t always have the clout or reach of a major publisher, but they will often take submissions without an agent (major publishers rarely do) and though small, many have excellent reputations with some spectacular books. (Example of small presses: Book Fish Books, Entangled, Melville House)

POD – (Print on Demand) This is a service offered by some Indie and Self-Pub houses that allows physical books to be printed when they are ordered. In this way, authors can print the number of books they want to sell, or a reader can order them, and the author isn’t stuck with large quantities of stock they can’t sell. I have heard mixed reviews on this system, so do your research.

Traditional Publication

Now that that’s clear as mud, let’s talk about pros and cons.

Traditional Publishing Pros:

  • No money needed up front
  • More exposure through marketing/networking
  • Physical placement in bookstores
  • Potential to sell larger number of books
  • Advances belong to the author; not required to pay back if the book does not earn out
  • Offers perceived legitimacy within the industry
  • Traditionally published books may be considered for literary awards
  • Team of professionals (agent, editor, artist, marketer, etc.) to assist you in making your book the best it can be
  • YA, MG, and picture books have better success through Traditional

Traditional Publishing Cons:

  • Almost always requires the assistance of a professional agent (this is also a pro, because agents are awesome, but if you don’t want/can’t secure an agent it is almost impossible to get a contract with a large publisher)
  • Royalty rates are a lower percentage
  • Agent’s cut (10-20%) reduces profit further
  • Less control over final product, marketing, and book placement in stores
  • Marketing is not always included and even Traditionally Published authors will sometimes have to create and pay for their own marketing
  • Time frame from writing the book to publication is slower: two years from idea to publication is the supposed rule of thumb, but I’ve seen much, much longer
  • Harder to attract an agent and a publishing contract when you are a marginalized individual, especially when writing stories about marginalized characters
  • Mental and emotional stress of rejections, wait times, and disappointment can be difficult

Working with a Traditional Publisher offers many advantages. As Martha Brockenbrough, (author of Alexander Hamilton:Revolutionary) said:

“I like being surrounded by a team of people who are really good at their jobs: editing, marketing and publicity, design, and more. This means I don’t have to find people with these skills, and it means that my work will be as good as it can possibly be.”

It also means exposure that Self-Pub and Indie generally don’t have: physical placement in stores, national marketing campaigns, connections with authors on the same imprint. This can make a huge difference in how the book sells. Though you are getting a smaller percentage of the profits, if you sell a greater number of books you have the potential to make a larger profit than if you sold your books in other ways with less exposure. And you didn’t risk any of your own money up front.

Of course this is not a hard and fast truth. Your book has to sell, you can’t always rely on a publisher to provide marketing, or even if they do, the budget and scope might be small. You may want to invest your own money into promoting your book, which is what  Self-Pub and Indie authors have to do anyway. And there’s no way to know as you query agents whether you will end up with a contract that offers these services. For that matter, there’s no way to know if you’ll ever receive a contract at all. Authors (in all forms of publication) are banking on themselves and their talent. It’s a risk, but as an author you are going to have to take risks. It’s up to you to decided which ones are appropriate for you.

One of the drawbacks of Traditional Publishing is the lack of control. An author who wished to remain anonymous but has experienced both Traditional and Self-Publication told me her least favorite things about Traditional Publication:

“Being forced into covers and back-cover copy I don’t love. No control over pricing and sales. Losing a huge percentage of my royalties.”

And Kaelan Rhywiol (author of Ilavani: Volume 1) stated:

“The number of times I’ve talked newbie authors out of a tree because they hate their covers and have no recourse is astounding. So, knowing what they are willing to give up and letting it go the second you sign a contract has to be important.”

Conceivably, working with a Traditional Publisher should offer a higher level of quality. There are experts at every point in the process: agents decide which books they want to represent, editors select the manuscripts they want to pursue for publication, copyeditor, designer, marketing manager, sales reps, and publicists all create a long list of eyes and minds to make the book better and better with every pass, develop the best marketing strategy, find the right market, etc. But I still see Traditionally Published books with typos. I still find books I wish I hadn’t wasted my money on because they are poorly written or trite or sometimes even harmful. Traditional Publication can act as a filter through which a reader can generally be assured they aren’t buying garbage, but they are not infallible!

Another benefit of Traditional Publication is the perceived legitimacy and the potential to be nominated for awards. I say perceived because of the paragraph above, and also because they are being compared to Self-Pub and Indie books which are often give an unfair taint of being vanity published because they didn’t go through the Traditional route. If a Traditional Publisher selects your book to publish, you won’t have to fight to convince people of your legitimacy because you’re a “chosen one” more or less. After your book is published your status may change according to how your book is received, but that’s a trial and tribulation of all writers in the end.

Though I listed securing an agent as a Con, I personally don’t see it that way. Yes, it is a long and arduous process. And even after all the hard work of querying you may still not find an agent who is interested in representing you. But if you do, they are an invaluable resource (and hopefully a friend!) who is looking out for your career at every stage. Ave Jae (author of Beyond the Red series) told me this when speaking of her agent:

“Knowing I always have someone to turn to who understands the business side of things, who wants to help me grow my career, and who can facilitate making all my career goals a reality is so incredibly motivating and relieving. I know my agent has my back as I try to navigate this unpredictable writing career, and that really means a lot to me.”

I also want to talk about wait times and emotional stress. Just to give you an idea I began to write They Chose the Stars in February of 2015. I secured an agent with that manuscript in May of 2016. It is currently on submission. If you count research time which I started in December of 2014, it has been almost three years that I’ve worked on that book. And the wait isn’t over. Traditional Publishing can be very, very slow.

And the emotional stress is not for everyone. You have to get thick skin in this business. Rejections will come, over and over again: from your beta readers, from your sensitivity readers, from agents, from editors, and eventually from readers. It’s part of the process and you can’t escape that in publishing, no matter how you decide to publish. But Traditional—having more gate keepers (agents, editors, etc.)—will offer many more times to be told your work isn’t good enough. It’s always polite (in my experience) and not intentionally soul-crushing (though somehow achieves it anyway), but it’s rejection all the same. And the personal nature of the job means that though they are rejecting this particular material you have offered them, it feels more like a rejection of you. You put your heart and soul into this, and they don’t want it. They don’t want your heart and soul. It can be devastating and takes work to create the mental space to deal with that in a constructive way. It can be done, but it is another part of the job.

The last thing I want to mention in this section—and this applies no matter which publication path you choose—few writers make a living wage at writing. Most of the writers I know have day jobs. Sometimes they keep the day job because they love it, but most keep it also because they need it. Whether it’s the money or insurance and benefits, most writers find it a necessity.

Indie/Self Publication

Since the pros and cons of Indie and Self-Pub are almost identical, I’m going to talk about both in this section, but will highlight when there is a difference between the two. And I won’t reiterate information included above. For example, I talked about royalties above, so I won’t go over it again in this section.

Indie/Self-Pub Pros

  • Higher royalty percentages
  • Some control (Self-Pub)/complete control (Indie)
    • Editing
    • Cover Art
    • Release Date
    • Sale Price
    • Marketing
  • Faster timeline that is under the author’s control
  • Romance and Romance-centric SFF stories have higher success rate in Indie/Self-Pub compared to YA, MG in Indie/Self-Pub

Indie/Self-Pub Cons

  • Investing the author’s own money
  • Less exposure than Traditionally Published books with marketing plans
  • Difficult to get physical copies placed in stores
  • Often fewer books sold than Trad Pub
  • Investing time: Author responsible for most (Self-Pub) or everything (Indie)
    • Editing
    • Cover Art
    • Marketing
  • Learning curve because author is responsible for most (Self-Pub) or everything (Indie)
    • Editing
    • Cover Art
    • Marketing
  • Mostly e-book sales as hardcovers and paperbacks can be expensive to produce
  • Stigma of illegitimacy
  • Not eligible for most literary awards

I knew a lot less about Indie/Self-Pub when I started writing this post, so everything I’ve listed here is through research and talking to other authors. It is by no means comprehensive, so as I said before DO YOUR RESEARCH! Do not rely on this one article (or any one article) to make such an important decision.

The biggest thing I keep hearing from Indie/Self-Pub authors is that they relish the control they get with this path. An anonymous author of both Trad and Self-Pub said this about her favorite part of Indie/Self-Pub:

“Control. I dictate my cover, my blurb, my final edits. I can put my book on sale and choose my release date. The final book reflects my vision for the project.”

Kaelan Rhywiol, who has had experience with both Trad and Indie/Self-Pub shared this:

“I’ve always loved [Self-Pub] because it relies on me, and me alone to decide everything from cover art to price point to when/if I will have a sale, I have trust issues, so it’s hard for me to entrust my brain baby (any of my books) to someone else. On the flip side of that, it IS on me to get it all done well. If the cover is shite, it’s on me, if I goof up the editing, also on me. So there’s a feeling of relief to signing a contract and giving up control of those things to the publisher. It’s all about knowing what you want to do.”

Imani Josey (author of The Blazing Star) had this to say:

“My favorite part about the Indie route is having the freedom to produce my book exactly how I wanted. The Blazing Star took two years to write, one year to edit, one to query agents Traditionally, and then one year of production with Wise Ink to go Independently. The decision to go Indie wasn’t a quick or easy decision to make, but I went with my gut and stepped out on faith. I had a lot of agent interest in the book that didn’t materialize, but I still believed in the story. It wasn’t (and still isn’t!) easy, but I’m proud of what we’ve created (my family, team, and myself). I love being involved in every step. Going Indie is amazing because it allows a direct-to-consumer advantage, providing an avenue for unique stories to find their audience.”

Imani chose to try Traditional Publication first, which is often a good way to approach the issue. If Trad Pub doesn’t work out, Indie/Self-Pub is always available. But starting with Trad Pub will increase the timeline to publication. If you remove the year she spent seeking Trad Publication, it took Imani essentially 3 years from idea to publication. Everyone’s timeline will be different of course. Some people can have a finished book to publish in a matter of months and then move through the Indie/Self-Pub process in a few months as well, especially once you’ve learned the process. It all depends on your personal schedule, the book you’re writing, and what method you choose to pursue.

Marketing is a challenge in all forms of publishing. If you are lucky enough to get a Traditional contract with marketing included, you are ten steps ahead. But for many Trad Pub—and all Indie/Self-Pub—marketing is a huge consideration. Swag materials, spreading the word through advertising, book signings and travel, cons, vlog and blog tours are all effective parts of a good marketing campaign, but they take time, money, and planning. Some authors are exceptional at this sort of thing, but some loathe it. So consider what you’ll need to do to promote your book—and what you’re willing to do and pay for—when you decide on your publication method.

You can also rely on friends to help spread the word about your book, but be careful. Most authors have a wide network of friends, whether on-line or in the real world, and through this network we share information, learn, critique, and laugh a lot too. We are friends and colleagues first, marketing fodder last. If an author follows me on Twitter and I can see from their profile that they only tweet advertisements for their books, that’s an easy no for me. At the same time, I gush over and share news about the books of my friends I have made along the way. Social media is a marketing tool, yes, but for me it’s a way to connect with other writers, not a way to sell them my book.

Determining what method you would like to pursue also depends on the type of book you are producing. I have been told by a number of people that Children’s Literature generally does better through Trad Publication, while Romance and Romance-Centric SFF has a better chance than Children’s through Indie/Self-Pub. I don’t have any statistics to share on that, it’s just a word of mouth opinion from people in the industry. It doesn’t mean you can’t publish Children’s Lit through Indie/Self-Pub or Romance through Trad. Both have had successes through each method.

Another consideration for Indie/Self-Publication is the subject matter of your book. Agents and publishers will be looking at the marketability of your story. If they determine it can’t reach a wider market (though this assumption is being challenged by the success of books like T.H.U.G. and other Own Voices stories) they will pass on it for something they believe will sell better. Indie/Self-Pub creates a way for authors with unique or unconventional stories to still get their work before an audience that needs their books.

One of the biggest obstacles for Indie/Self-Pub is money. In Self-Pub you’re going to have to have capital upfront to pay the publisher to produce your book. This may include money for editing, marketing, and cover design, though if it’s an optional system you may just front the cash to publish the book while figuring out the rest on your own. In Indie Publication, there is no money up front to publish the book (you upload it for e-book sales through the Indie Publication house), but you are still responsible for all the rest. Cover art, marketing, editing and more. This can be done through a barter system as I talked about before, or you may pay professionals to do the work for you. Either way, it’s all up to you. And no matter what publishing method you choose, it’s going to cost you in time, tears, stress, and dollar signs. As Imani Josey told me:

“I sold my car to help finance The Blazing Star.”

Another obstacle for Indie/Self-Pub authors is book distribution. Books from Trad Publishers are placed on a list from which booksellers can choose to stock in their stores. Often times Indie/Self-Pub are not placed on those lists. And even if they are, booksellers are going to stock that which they have more confidence in selling: Trad Pub books, especially those with buzz around them. Imani Josey on choosing Indie Publication:

“My least favorite part of the Indie route is that I don’t have access to large scale distribution of my book. Reviewers request ARCs, but outside of Netgalley, I don’t have them. Every physical copy of The Blazing Star that winds up in reader’s hands, I’ve purchased. It puts extra pressure on me and my bank account, but I’m still so proud of this project. I’ve also felt like being taken seriously by outlets that tend to only support Traditional authors has been a challenge. There’s a stigma attached to producing a book independently that I’m challenging.”

We talked about that stigma before: Trad Pubbed authors have an aura of “legitimacy” around them, while Indie/Self-Pubbed authors are sometimes derided as having published for vanity’s sake. Of course, there are people out there who publish a book before it is ready to be published through Indie/Self-Pub, either because they don’t want to do the work, don’t know how to do the work, don’t recognize that it needs work, and/or just want to see their name in print. This gives the legitimately hardworking Indie/Self-Pub authors a bad name.

It is on the author to go through the process to create the best book they can. Traditionally Published authors will have some of this ‘built-in’ to the system of publication, while Indie/Self-Pub must ensure that they do it themselves. Beta readers, sensitivity readers, critique partners, professional editing are all part of a process that ensures a book is good enough to be put on the shelf. And most Indie/Self-Pub authors do this. Unfortunately they still receive the scorn of some for not being Trad Published.

I’d like to leave you with the advice my interviewed authors gave for authors contemplating Traditional Publication or Indie/Self-Publication:

“For a new author I think attempting Traditional Publishing is smart—unless you have a huge platform. Otherwise, you are taking on a whole lot of additional work, and this will impede your ability to become a better writer. But it really depends on what your goals are. If you love writing books and love publishing quickly, and love finding readers and thrive on quick turnaround, then by all means—publish Independently. This is a great choice.” —Martha Brockenbrough

 

“You do gain a lot by signing with an agent/publisher, but we are no longer in the same place we were even ten years ago when it comes to publishing. The first time I tried the query trenches was before the advent of Createspace and Ingram Spark, so the ONLY way you got published was through Traditional paths. I’m so grateful, for myself and others who write ‘different stories’ that Self-Pub exists. We’re no longer bound by the dictates of Trad.” —Kaelan Rhywiol

 

“Research. Know yourself. Indie is a lot of work. Also understand that Traditional Publishing will need to evolve to keep up with the market where artists can directly connect with consumers, and many editors and graphic designers that would once be in-house can freelance at very cost-effective pricing. Wide-scale distribution and printing costs are still two of the largest challenges that Indie authors face.” —Imani Josey

 

I always tell writers to figure out what they want out of publication. Do they want a lot of control over the process and to work independently? Do they just want their work to be read, regardless of the medium? Then Self-Publishing may be a good choice for them. Do they want a team to work on their book with them? Do they want career guidance? Do they want their book on the shelves of brick-and-mortar bookstores? Then Traditional Publishing may be the way to go. It really just comes down to being honest with yourself about what exactly you want to get out of publishing.” —Ava Jae

For further reading, check out my Pinterest board Traditional vs Indie Publication.

Check out books by my interviewed authors!

Martha Brokenbrough on Amazon and on Squarespace

Hamilton

Ava Jae on Amazon and on Blogspot

Into the black

Imani Josey on Amazon and on ImaniJosey.com

Blazing Star

Kaelan Rhywiol on Amazon and on KaelanRhywiol.com

Ilavani

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Problematic YA Tropes: Lazy Foils

yin yang 2

Author’s Note: I started writing a post about YA Tropes that I found problematic, but the list grew so long I decided to dedicate a short post to each topic. Also, I am a YA author and I love reading and writing this age group. But because I love it so much, I think we writers can do better by our readers. Hence why I’m calling out a few of these problematic tropes. Here goes:

Tropes in YA novels are commonplace, and calling them a trope doesn’t necessarily mean they are inherently bad. Sometimes they serve a purpose and are accompanied by nuanced and in-depth writing that nullifies potential harm. But when you read as many YA books as I do (120+ last year) you really begin to see those repeated tropes as an endless parade of boring. Even worse, there are many that do actual harm to readers.

Lazy Foils

From Merriam-Webster.com:

foil: (noun) someone or something that serves as a contrast to another

Technically, foils aren’t a trope; they’re a writing tool. One that I think too many authors use poorly. This is the trope (yup, I’m still going to call it a trope) that Stereotypes and Not Like Other Girls and Perfect LI’s were leading into. It’s using the stereotypical characteristics of Character X to create the characteristics of Character Y (and/or make Character Y look better in contrast), but not actually doing anything in your writing to build Character Y. (Or relying too heavily on Character X to define Character Y.) This is going to be repetitious from my other posts, but bear with me. Here are a few examples:

  • Ex is catty/mean/shallow to make MC/LI look sweeter (Sweet Special Snowflake and Not Like Other Girls)
  • Ex is possessive/abusive/jerk to make MC/LI look nicer (Perfect LI)
  • All females besides MC or LI are catty, slutty, & bitchy (Stereotypes)
  • All males except MC or LI are jerks, sexual predators, or Neanderthals (Stereotypes)
  • Super cruel one-dimensional villain who serves to make our hero look better
  • Spunky best friend to make MC look like an introvert
  • Sexy, experienced best friend to highlight MC’s naiveté and innocence

There are arguments in favor of these characters, so lets get them out of the way now. Yes, those types of people do exist in real life. Yes, opposites attract and introverts become friends with extroverts. Yes, people are prone to think their love interests’ ex’s are catty/slutty/bitchy/abusive/possessive/jerks because we are human and we want to believe that we are superior in every way to that ex. And yes, the bad guy is usually cruel and awful, because that’s what makes them the bad guy. But if we use them over and over and over again in very stereotypical ways, does that make for good writing?

Many times when I see the characterizations listed above they are a shallow, under-developed stereotype written to help define the MC or LI. And it’s not a bad thing to create characters meant to develop your main characters: that’s what foils are for. But if the foil is a shadow of an actual character with wants and needs of their own, then you’ve left out some important story development.

‘But this is a writing tool’, you say. Well, yes, it is. And it’s been used by countless writers before you. And it can be done well. Nothing in writing is unequivocal. There is always a use of a trope or tool or unconventional method that works well and becomes profound writing. But there are also many ways to use them poorly and make the writing fall flat.

Let’s talk about the super cruel one-dimensional villain: of course they are awful! Who wants to read about a hero stopping a ‘villain’ from delivering free ice cream? But think about the villains who made you keep turning the page. Were they one-dimensional? Was everything about them ever completely and totally evil and they had no reason for being evil other than to just be evil? J.K. Rowling humanized Voldemort, inspiring us to give him sympathy, yet in the end I still wanted Harry to end him. I didn’t even feel bad about it. And Victoria Schwab made me love Holland in the Shades of Magic series so much that I really, really needed him to get a happy ending despite all the horrible things he had done. (But I also wanted him defeated.) Voldie and Holland were far from one-dimensional. And the reader didn’t need their bad deeds to make Harry and Kell look better. Harry and Kell showed the reader through their own actions, often unrelated to Voldemort or Holland, that they were worth rooting for.

The catty ex is a huge trope in YA, and though it has its place it’s kind of (as in super, super) over done. In A.G. Howard’s Splintered series she does use the ‘Not Like Other Girls’ trope and the Catty Ex trope, which is not my favorite, but she mixed it up. Taelor (the catty ex) fits all the stereotypes, but Howard broaden that definition by showing the reader through small glimpses that Taelor’s Oh-So-Perfect-Life was maybe not so perfect after all. Could Howard have done more? Definitely yes. She still used some stereotypes and tropes, but she gave us something more than the basic every day and she definitely developed Alyssa’s character without needing Taelor to constantly define her.

Probably the worst use of this (to me) is making all (or most of) your female characters catty/slutty/bitchy, or making all (or most of) your male characters jerks/sexual predators/Neanderthals in order to make your MC or LI look better. For one, it’s such a narrow world view if your characters reside in a story where the MC and LI are so pristine (Sweet Special Snowflake) that everyone else is demonized in comparison. And it’s lazy to surround your characters with stereotypes to create their personality. If you want your guy to be a feminist, show that he’s a feminist in some way that doesn’t involve him fending off a sexual predator from your girl. If you want your girl to be nice and down-to-earth show that in some way instead of having the catty girls act as a foil. If she’s only sweet and special when other girls are bitchy, then she’s probably not that sweet and special to begin with.

I guess the moral of this story is do more character development of all your characters. Even though this story may be about your Sweet Special Snowflake, the villain and the side characters are stars of their own show. Maybe they don’t feature prominently, but give them a life off the page. And at least some glimpses of that life on the page. And develop your MC and LI fully without always relying on another character.

And of course there’s more reading!

Literary Foils: Definition and Examples by Liz Bureman on thewritepractice.com (A good basic explanation of foils, keeping in mind that they are a tool of literature and not bad unless they’re lazy and stereotypical)

5 Steps to Writing Good Foil Characters by Joseph Blake Parker on Deviant Art (I like this one because it talks about giving foils a part of the story beyond just being the foil.)

Creating the Perfect Foil by Julie on Pub(lishing) Crawl (“An effective foil is often a strong and fascinating character in his or her own right.”)

Other Posts in this Series:

Problematic YA Tropes: Stereotypes

Problematic YA Tropes: ‘Not Like Other Girls’ and Perfect LI’s

Problematic YA Tropes: ‘Not Like Other Girls’ and Perfect LI’s

Author’s Note: I started writing a post about YA Tropes that I found problematic, but the list grew so long I decided to dedicate a short post to each topic. Also, I am a YA author and I love reading and writing this age group. But because I love it so much, I think we writers can do better by our readers. Hence why I’m calling out a few of these problematic tropes. Here goes:

Tropes in YA novels are commonplace, and calling them a trope doesn’t necessarily mean they are inherently bad. Sometimes they serve a purpose and are accompanied by nuanced and in-depth writing that nullifies potential harm. But when you read as many YA books as I do (120+ last year) you really begin to see those repeated tropes as an endless parade of boring. Even worse, there are many that do actual harm to readers.

‘Not Like Other Girls’ and Perfect LI’s

There are a list of tropes that can be encompassed in or are related to the heading above. Examples:

  • Hot Mary Sue’s who do no wrong
  • She doesn’t know she’s gorgeous but she is; also One Good Makeover Will Change Your Life
  • Never saw a guy/girl so beautiful
  • Sweet Special Snowflake attracts the player who gives up their loose ways for SSS
  • Guy dumps his catty/slutty/bitchy girlfriend for SSS
  • Girl dumps her jerk/sexual predator/Neanderthal boyfriend for SSS
  • ‘Strong and powerful’ LI’s who always tell the girl she’s gorgeous
  • ‘Not Like Other Girls’

Let’s start with the ‘Not Like Other Girls’: Why is this so problematic? It’s a way to describe a character as not having traditional feminine characteristics (especially when those characteristics are possessive, mean and catty). But it also implies not so subtly that in order to be deemed worthy a female must reject traditionally feminine characteristics and be more like a man. It’s sexist. And it’s damaging to females (and males) in many ways.

The idea that to in order be more worthy, a female must be more like a man, is a concept that’s been around for a while. A long while. Even though woman throughout history have been placed in a delicate box of femininity (especially that delicate flower of white femininity) there has always been that insidious idea that to be worthy you must be more like a man (intelligent, rough, methodical, less emotional) yet women were also thought to be less if they exhibited those characteristics. It was an endless cycle that you couldn’t be worthy if you weren’t like a man, but if you were a woman who acted like a man you weren’t worthy either. There was no winning.

The NLOG narrative pits females against each other. It’s usually accompanied by catty/slutty/bitchy antagonists or ex-girlfriends (see Problematic YA Tropes: Stereotypes). It teaches females to want to deviate from traditional female roles (which is okay) but not under the auspice that they need to change in order to be accepted, that only girls who don’t like to shop, hate pink, and play sports are worthy of respect. But it also implies that ‘other girls’, as in girls who do like traditional female pursuits, are catty/slutty/bitchy. So don’t like make-up or you might be like ‘those girls’.

And as far as beautiful people and Sweet Special Snowflakes, let’s be real. Some of this is wish-fulfillment on the part of the author. No love interest is without flaws. In fact, no main character should be without flaws. Make things messy, make things real, make the conflict feel like it could happen to your reader. Wish-fulfillment and fantasy are great, especially since reading is an escape, but I personally could do with a little less of LI’s who always, every date, remember to tell you how pretty you are, take your hand, tuck the hair behind your ear. Every experience is different of course, but I can say for certain that I never dated a guy like this in high school.

I guess what I’m saying here is that while many of these tropes aren’t inherently harmful, especially if we see them once in awhile, they can become boring and potentially harmful if seen too much. Plus, it’s more of that lazy writing I talked about in my Stereotypes post. Make your characters less stereotypical, hold back on that authorial wish-fulfillment just a tad, and think about what message you’re sending to your readers.

More reading because I know you want it:

Not Like Other Girls on tvtropes.org

The “Not Like Other Girls” Trope on Women’s Comedy (I think her post was better than mine, so be sure to read it!)

3 Signs Your Story’s Characters Are Too Perfect by Suzannah Windsor Freeman on Write It Sideways

Should the “Special Snowflake” Trope be Retired and Left 20,000 Leagues Underground or Is It Still Fun? by Cait on Paper Fury (Read this one for sure! If only for the laughs and good times!)

Other Posts in this Series:

Problematic YA Tropes: Stereotypes

Problematic Tropes: Lazy Foils

Problematic YA Tropes: Stereotypes

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Author’s Note: I started writing a post about YA Tropes that I found problematic, but the list grew so long I decided to dedicate a short post to each topic. Also, I am a YA author and I love reading and writing this age group. But because I love it so much, I think we writers can do better by our readers. Hence why I’m calling out a few of these problematic tropes. Here goes:

Tropes in YA novels are commonplace, and calling them a trope doesn’t necessarily mean they are inherently bad. Sometimes they serve a purpose and are accompanied by nuanced and in-depth writing that nullifies potential harm. But when you read as many YA books as I do (120+ last year) you really begin to see those repeated tropes as an endless parade of boring. Even worse, there are many that do actual harm to readers.

Stereotypes

You might recognize a stereotype when it looks like this:

  • Mean cheerleader/jock/rich person who has it all
  • Sassy Black or Latina friend
  • Flamboyant & effeminate gay male
  • Butch & masculine lesbian
  • All females besides MC or LI are catty, slutty, & bitchy
  • All males except MC or LI are jerks, sexual predators, or Neanderthals
  • “Not like other girls”
  • Dark-skinned aggressor
  • White savior
  • Greedy Jewish person
  • Muslim terrorist
  • The long suffering but always sweet and thankful person with a disability (i.e. Inspiration Porn)

I could go on and on about stereotypes. This list is just a taster. There’s everything from blonde stereotypes to redheads, Jewish to Muslim, jock to geek, city to country, and on and on. My personal pet peeve is the mean cheerleader. This is probably because I was a cheerleader, and I was neither bitchy, catty, nor slutty. Yes, I know people like this do exist, but I see it so often in Contemporary YA the minute that bitchy blonde rears her oh-so-perfect head I roll my eyes and let out an audible sigh.

I think what annoys me most is that it’s lazy writing. The author wants to convey a character in as few words as possible with pre-built connotations (i.e. stereotypes). Because we all understand stereotypes. An author doesn’t have to show us a character if they can select from a predetermined set of options that we’re all programmed to get. Voila! One or two words and we know everything we ever need to know about this villain or side character. They aren’t important enough for the author to develop them beyond the stereotype, so they aren’t important enough for the reader to care. They can be humiliated, rejected, hurt, abandoned and they’re just a stereotype, so who cares?

Maybe when this is just the “mean cheerleader” trope it does little harm (besides irritating me) but when we’re talking about people with marginalized identities, then things get a little nastier. I was judged by complete strangers because I was a cheerleader, so these written stereotypes only reinforce those opinions before they know me. No problem, I only had to deal with that while in uniform (we’re talking 25 years ago btw). But what about a marginalized person who can’t take off their identity? How does that affect them now?

I’d like to think that as writers we already understand that racial, gender, religious, disability, and sexual orientation stereotypes (among others) are offensive and problematic. I’m not going to go over all of that in this post. Partly because as a white, straight, cis-gendered, able-bodied person it’s not my place to discuss. If you don’t understand what I’m talking about, I suggest you do more research. I’ll leave some links at the bottom. And don’t write characters unlike yourself until you’ve done so.

I think we can do better, though. I’m kind of over the cookie-cutter, two dimensional villains and side characters I see in some novels. Dig deeper. Not because cheerleaders will feel hurt that you’re giving them a bad name (I think we can take it), but because as writers it’s our job to work as hard as we can to do no harm and to give all our characters nuance and depth.

9 Ways YA Authors Can Stand Up to Stereotypes About Young Women by Meredith Turits on Bustle

Why Stereotypes are Bad Even When They’re ‘Good’ by Oliver Burkeman on The Guardian

Stereotypes & Tropes Navigation on Writing with Color: This is a veritable treasure trove of information on writing (or trying not to write) stereotypes relating to ethnicity and other factors

Other posts in this series:

Problematic YA Tropes: ‘Not Like Other Girls’ and Perfect LI’s

Problematic YA Tropes: Lazy Foils

What do you want to see from me?

Hey there. I know my blog has been predominantly political these days. I don’t plan on changing that FYI. I just don’t see how we can go about our daily lives and pretend that politically our country isn’t falling apart. Okay, it’s been falling part for a while, but we’ve reached critical level. Anyway, I digress. I will continue my Letters to My Representatives indefinitely.

But I’d also like to write about writing! That’s what this blog was supposed to be about. But to be honest, I don’t know what to write about. Maybe it’s because even after ten years of writing I still feel like an imposter.

Okay, there’s an idea: Imposter Syndrome

But what else? What would you like to hear about? If you’ve had a burning writing/publishing/reading question let me hear it. I’ll give you one writer’s not-so-expert opinion!

10 Things I Wish I Would Have Known As A Newbie Writer; But I Learned The Hard Way

I’ve dreamed of being a writer since the 4th grade. I think that would have been 1986, or there about. But I didn’t actually do anything besides jot down stories and ideas once in a while until 2006. That was the year I quit my job, became a stay-at-home mom, and moved two hours away from friends and family. Even then, I entered the pursuit of literary endeavors blindly. And I must say, pretty naively. There are a few things I would love to have known in 2006 that took me years to learn, so maybe this list will help any newbie writers, or not-so-newbie writers, who happen upon this post.

1 – Make Writing a Priority

I’ve talked about this several times, but most recently in a blog post here. You have to make writing a part of your life, your schedule, just like your family, your job, school, whatever it is that makes up life for you. If you want to be a writer you have to find room to write. And I’m not one of those “write every day” people either. There is not a day that goes by that I don’t do something related to my writing career, but I don’t write every day. Sometimes it’s as simple as connecting with other authors on Twitter, reading a blog post on writing advice, promoting someone else’s book, or reading a YA novel.

You have to decide this dream is worth something to you, and that’s not measured in books sold, dollar signs, or accolades. I haven’t made a penny or sold a single book yet. But the keyword there is “yet”. The dream doesn’t come true without the hard, hard, exhausting and never ending work. The idea that you have to pay your dues first is very, very true. And even once that dream is “real” the money and fame might not be. It’s going to have to be an important part of you to keep going.

2 – Own It

Do you write? If the answer is YES, then you’re a writer. Own it. You’re not an aspiring writer: you’re a writer! It doesn’t matter if you’re traditionally published, an Amazon ebook writer, fan fic or WattPad writer, or just a writer who puts words on the page but hasn’t found your avenue of publication yet. You write = you’re a writer. It doesn’t matter if you’re terrible or fabulous, fresh and new or cliched, traditional or groundbreaking. You’re a writer. Don’t let anyone take that from you.

And never be ashamed to declare it proudly. I spent years too embarrassed to tell people I was a writer. Mainly because I had mentally tied the idea of success and legitimacy to the idea of being an actual writer. It took me a while to accept that if my fingers flew across the keyboard placing black words on a white page, I was in fact a writer. And a hard working one at that. There was no need to be embarrassed because I had no outward signs of achievement yet. I write; therefore I am a writer.

3 – Accept That What You Write is Crap

Not very confidence inducing, am I? But you need to accept this. Especially in the beginning. Even the best writers produce some pretty awful first drafts. And second, and third . . . That’s why writing is a process. You may write a beautiful first draft, or maybe it’s simply word vomit with a little structure. Either way, it’s on the page, and that’s a start.

Most people aren’t born amazing writers. Even those that go through creative writing programs in college don’t always pop out a best seller on their first go. It takes practice. Critique. Swallowing your pride and working harder. Then more writing. More critique. Repeat. Repeat. Writing that first draft is often the fun part. Fingers flying, words flowing, ideas bursting from your head faster than you can tap letters on the page. But writing is also in the nitty-gritty hard work of revision and reading the same words again and again and again.

But don’t be embarrassed by that word vomit either. We all have it. Whether it’s an entire first draft or just a few chapters that stubbornly stick between the slats of our imagination and won’t slide through into words. DO revise your first draft before you seek out betas. DO continue to learn how to be a better writer and apply that to your work. But DON’T give up because that first go isn’t a shiny golden baby, but rather a wrinkly, pale, yet somehow lovable one. Ugly babies often grow into wonderous humans.

4 – Never Stop Learning

I don’t care if you have an MFA, you can always learn more about writing. And if you’re like me and have an associate’s degree in a field unrelated to writing, there’s a lot to learn. I always did well in my English and writing classes, so it’s not like that aspect was a challenge for me, but there were definitely things about grammar, punctuation, and writing that I never knew or had forgotten. (And probably still don’t know.)

But brushing up on the basics isn’t enough. There are as many different writing styles and approaches to craft as there are writers. Read the novels of writers you admire, check out blog posts and articles about how to write better, and read books on craft. There’s always something more to learn, and sometimes you just need a reminder of something you’ve heard a hundred times but can’t quite seem to apply to your own writing.

And yet, that’s still not enough. One of the most important parts of writing—and a part I feel is too often neglected—is learning as much as you can about the identity of the character you are writing. If you’re an Own Voices author, then you have a lifetime of experience to fall back on when writing a character that represents your identity. But if you’re not, you’ve got a steep learning curve to catch up and be moderately effective. If you’re not Own Voices, you will never be the best person to write that story, so it’s going to take you a lot of extra work to still be an acceptable person to write that story.

5 – Don’t Let Your Mom Read Your Work

Okay, I’m being a little facetious here, but seriously, don’t. In fact, don’t give it to your husband, brother, sister, dad, aunt, cousin, best friend or the post man either. I know how exciting it is to have that finished manuscript in hand and want to share it with someone, but people who know you are not the best ones to share it with. Like I said, I’m kidding—a little.

It is okay to let family and friends read if you just need a meaningless ego boost so you can brave the idea of actually letting another writer take a look at it. But if you think you’re going to get useful feedback from anyone who actually knows you in the flesh, it’s unlikely. Maybe, just maybe, you know another writer, or your sister has a writing degree, or Uncle Buck published a novel, but even then, they may not objectively be the best people to look at your work. They love you. They’re going to see you every holiday, birthdays, and lots of places in between. They have a vested interest in your happiness. You don’t want that in a critiquer.

True feedback comes from people who don’t care if they hurt your feelings. True critique comes from people who write. We know (hopefully) what goes into a good novel. We have read many great books, and written our own (quality subject to opinion) and can see where you’re telling vs showing, or using too many -ly adjectives, or know a Mary Sue when she skips across the page. We know craft. Your mom doesn’t. And even if she does, she may love you too much to crush your dreams. Get yourself a dream crusher CP. They will only make your writing better.

 6 – Find Yourself a Writing Crew

Writing is by nature a somewhat solitary endeavor. From my experience, a good majority of writers consider themselves introverts and reclusive. We’d much rather hold the company of our next manuscript or a favorite novel than hobnob with anyone anywhere anytime. But that can be detrimental to your development as a writer. And the good news for introverts? Most of the interaction you have with fellow writers is online! Yay for the internet!

I didn’t start using Absolute Write forums until 2010, almost 4 years after I started writing! Sometimes I look at that join date in my profile and think it must be wrong. It feels like some of those writers have been with me since the beginning. But that just shows the value of good writing friends: because I can’t actually imagine doing what I do without them, even though I did it for 4 years.

Twitter blipped on my radar in 2014, mainly because of a pitch contest. I came for the chance to pitch my book; stayed because it became one of the best ways to network with other writers. Even though AW made me feel less alone and I love my AW friends (they’re with me on Twitter, too), Twitter made me feel like I belonged! Sometimes it can feel like high school with cliques and drama and arguing, but I was in this big pool of thousands of writers who had opinions and ideas and talked about process and marketing and just everything! My knowledge grew by leaps and bounds just from exposure to people just like me (and many not at all like me) and the industry itself.

Your writing crew can teach you to be a better writer, teach you about the industry ins-and-outs, provide support for all those moments of what-the-hell-am-I-doing-anyway?! You need beta readers and critique partners, advice and moments of solidarity over just how hard this all is, and sometimes just someone to laugh with and relate to. Some people might think this is sad, but I barely talk to IRL friends anymore. Yet I talk to my online writing friends every day. It’s not sad to me, because I’ve found my crew.

7 – Be a Cheerleader

Being a writer is hard. I think many of us are prone to anxiety in the first place, but putting out something so personal into the world is double anxiety inducing. That novel, short story,  or poem is a piece of your heart, your soul. It’s your imagination and dreams come to life in black and white—and sometimes color if you’re a picture book or graphic novelist. It’s months and months of late nights, neglected housework, and missed social engagements. It’s not just words on paper.

And that’s why we need cheerleaders. This kind of goes along with the above about finding your writing crew, but it’s more about what you can do. Maybe you don’t need cheerleaders, which is fine, but I think many people would give up if they didn’t have others cheering them on. And seeing the success of others can spur us to believe that yes, this too can happen for me.

There are many ways to be someone’s cheerleader. As a beta reader or critique partner, think about what the MS has done right as well as where it has gone wrong. Once again, not everyone needs this. I can get along just fine with a critique that shows me all my flaws but doesn’t point out my triumphs. That doesn’t mean I don’t appreciate the compliments, but I don’t need them. Yet, in the beginning I think I did. Now I’m confident enough, but you might not always know the temperament of your fellow writer, so try offering positive feedback as well as negative.

Social media is another great way to offer encouragement. Like and/or share a blog post, leave a positive comment on a Tweet or Facebook post, and offer congratulations at agent signings, book deals, and signing events. Share in the excitement and happiness for your fellow authors, because they deserve the celebration now, and it makes you feel happy and excited too. Besides, they’ll be there for you when you have something to celebrate!

8 – Take Criticism (and rejection) Like a Champ

If you want to succeed in writing, you will have to learn to take criticism. And yes, no matter how experienced you become, criticism can still hurt. I’ve been writing with the idea of achieving publication for more than ten years now, and hearing that an editor “didn’t connect with my character” or that a beta felt a line in my book was sexist or that my critique partner thought a sub-plot was too unbelievable still stings pretty bad. You labor and love over every character, every plot, every paragraph, hell, every word! Criticism can feel downright personal.

But it’s not. So stop. Step back from the critique in whatever form it comes: beta or CP critique, agent or editor feedback, book reviews, or online comments. STEP. BACK. When you’re too close to your work, it is hard to think objectively. When you’re upset about a comment, it’s almost impossible to think objectively. STEP. BACK.

I’ve seen it many times. (I’ve done it a few times myself.) A critique hurts and you seek to defend yourself, or maybe strike back at the critiquer, or even find other voices that support yours so you can feel like you’ve done nothing wrong. But you’re not helping yourself. In fact, you’re actively harming yourself. I’m not saying that every critique and comment is valid, but I will tell you that every critique and comment is valid for the person who has given it. They’re not out to get you. Try to look through the lens that they are viewing your work; listen to what they have to say and weigh it as objectively as you can; do seek other opinions, but make sure they aren’t just people who will agree with you, but rather people who have a similar lens as the original critiquer.

Obviously I’m talking about a lot more than comma placement or “tell vs show” here. Sometimes critique can be as simple as that. And sometimes it can be about harmful representation for which you are not the best person to decide if it is or isn’t. But you have to learn to be objective, put aside your hurt, and evaluate the critique for what is best for your novel—and most importantly—best for your readers.

9 – Don’t Query Recklessly

Querying itself is as much an art form as writing. And jumping into it head first without learning the art can damage your chances. That doesn’t mean if you make a mistake or a query faux pas that you should pack up your lap top and throw in the towel. I’ve had some pretty egregious mishaps myself (like the time I used the wrong name for an agent) but I still managed to find an agent who loved my book.

Good news: there’s a plethora of querying advice on the internet. Google, as always, is your best friend, but to get you started, below you will find a few posts I wrote about querying that link to my favorite posts and articles about querying. Yes, it’s a lot of reading. Did you think this would be easy? It’s not. Not only do you need to read all that I wrote, and all that other writers and agents have written, but then you have to decipher what is best for you. Because everyone has different advice. And then figure out what’s best for the particular agent you’re querying. Because they each have their own likes and dislikes. Which means more research. Oh, and you’ll need to research which agents would be a best fit for you and your book. That’s more research.

You owe it to yourself and to that book you spent months, sometimes years, writing and polishing. Querying can take as much time as the actual writing. But you want to do it right, not quickly.

Queries! Queries! Queries! – Part One: Researching Agents

Agent Research: I forgot to tell you something!

Queries! Queries! Queries?? – Part Two: How to write a query letter

The Query Process: It’s Own Brand of Crazy

Newbie Post #12: 5 Silver Linings in Those Rejection Letters

10 – Give a Hand Up

As we move through our journey as writers—whether our goal is publication or just the joy of writing—be willing to give a hand up. That’s how our writing community grows and progresses. Chances are you’re going to be given beta reads and query critiques from other writers, especially in the early years, so you have to be willing to do the same in return. In the beginning, it’s a trade of scratching each others’ backs, and you get the added benefit of learning a lot about what will work for your own writing by reading and critiquing others. But as you become more experienced, you can offer a valuable helping hand to beginners.

And this goes for book promotion and book reviews as well. An author’s bread and butter can very well depend on how many reviews they have on Amazon or how their sales did that first week after release. We have to be willing to support our writing community in anyway we realistically can. It’s instinct to keep your eye on the prize ahead, but I also like to keep an eye and a hand out for those climbing behind.

So that’s about it. Truth is, you may have to learn these things firsthand for yourself. But at least if you read this, you know to be looking for those learning opportunities. And maybe you’ll catch on just a little faster than I did. Good luck!