I originally shared this post on my old blog inSeptember 2013.
I talk a lot about writing and stories, for obvious reasons, and you might not always know the terms I use. So today I’m sharing a little dictionary of the language of bookish fandoms to help you better understand and interact with this wonderful weird world! I’m not going to define basic English class terms (“plot” and “metaphor” and such), but if you have a question about a particular term at any point, just let me know!
Advance: The money that a traditional publishing company gives an author upfront in exchange for the right to publish their manuscript. The advance must be “earned back” from sales before the author receives any royalties.
Advanced Reader’s Copy (ARC): An early copy of a novel given to reviewers before publication. This edition is also used for final proofreading and is therefore sometimes referred to as a “proof.” It may also be called a “galley.”
Alpha Readers: Trusted people who read a writer’s story while they write it, generally chapter by chapter, to give critique.
Alternate Universe (AU): An alteration of an existing fictional world, often seen in fanfiction, fanart, or other non-canonical creative works.
Audience: The readers of a piece of writing. Every piece of writing has a specific intended audience, but not all its readers or fans will be in that audience.
Beta Readers: Trusted people who read a writer’s story after they are finished writing it to give critique.
Blog: A useful online platform where people write about their lives and/or businesses. You’re on one right now, funnily enough!
BroTP: A non-romantic ship–in other words, you love the friendship between these two characters.
Canon: Something that is an official part of a fictional world/story/character as approved by the creator. This is usually limited to what is in the actual story itself, but creators may have other headcanons that become a part of the fanon.
Category: The age group of a book’s intended audience.
Children’s Publishing: The world around the publication of books ranging from picture books to YA novels, though YA novels are not always included when this term is used informally.
Comp Titles: Other stories that are compared to a writer’s manuscript, generally for pitch or publicity purposes.
Contract: A magical legal piece of paper that means you are now in an official business relationship with either an agent or a publisher. These are usually very complicated and jargony and need to be looked over carefully before being signed.
Critique: Comments given about how a writer can improve a piece of writing. In the ideal case, critique is offered directly to the writer when requested (reviews shared online after a book is published are for readers, not writers–don’t tag writers in negative reviews!) and is neither blandly complimentary nor viciously cruel, but instead helpfully constructive.
Critique Partners: Two writers, usually of similar styles or genres, who swap stories with each other in order to give critique.
Did Not Finish (DNF): When a reader decides not to finish reading a book.
Draft: Different versions of a piece, progressing in number the more the writing is edited. You want a good few of these before you do anything in the way of publishing.
Editing: The process by which a writer changes their manuscript after writing their first draft to make it actually good. This must be done to the brink of perfection. It is not optional and is sometimes known as “the e-word.”
Editor: A professional who edits for profit. A traditional book editor is usually a high-ranking member of a publisher’s staff. Many of them will not look at a writer’s work unless the writer is represented by a literary agent. When a writer says they’ve been accepted by an editor, it generally means they are on track for publication.
Elevator Pitch: A pitch that can be given within the space of an elevator ride, about 20 – 30 seconds. It is a very important tool for writers going to writing conferences.
Fanart: A piece of artwork focused on a fictional world/story/characters that was not created by the artist. Fanfiction is technically one kind of fanart, although the term “fanart” is usually used in reference to visual forms of art.
Fandom: The space filled by a group of people (“fans”) who enthuse about a story to the point of being almost more insane than the actual creator. They like to hang out together, create related art, and discuss their particular fictional obsession. It is important for creators to give fandoms and fans the respectful space they deserve.
Fanfiction: A fictional piece written about someone else’s fictional world/story/characters. Fanfiction is not canon, but may gain many fans of its own, thus becoming accepted fanon, and is often rather amusing or extremely inappropriate.
Fanon: Something that is not actually canon for a story, but that is widely accepted by the fandom anyway.
Formatting: The “right” style of punctuation, spacing, margins, and more as defined by a specific publication that you are submitting to or being published by. Chicago style is usually preferred by traditional book publishers.
Full Manuscript Request: When an editor or agent, after receiving a pitch, asks to be given the entire manuscript to read. This is also known as a “full request,” “FM,” or “FMR.”
Genre: A classification system for books defined by the subject and content of the story, including areas like “fantasy,” “science fiction,” and “realistic,” as seen with my list of recommended books.
Headcanon: Something that a person imagines to be true of a fictional world/story/characters.
Internet: A place where fandoms and creators often hang out.
Literary Agent: A professional who represents an author in the publishing world. They send manuscripts and queries to publishers, giving the author a better chance of traditional publication, and negotiate contracts.
Logline: A dramatic, one-sentence summary of a novel. It is very annoying to write.
Manuscript: The full text of an unpublished book.
Middle Grade (MG): A category of books written for preteens, ages 9 – 13ish.
NaNoWriMo: National Novel Writing Month, officially in November, although there are spinoffs every month at this point. It is a very useful tool for getting a novel written, as it sets a specific word goal (50,000) and gives you a structured, social environment in which to reach it.
New Adult (NA): A somewhat controversial category of books written for college-age adults.
Novel: A lengthy fictional story that is published in book form. It is usually 45,000 to 100,000 words in length, but this varies by category and genre.
Novella: A fictional piece of writing somewhere between 25 pages and 45,000 words in length.
One True Pair (OTP): Two (or more) fictional characters that you ship very intensely.
Pantser: A writer who doesn’t plan the plot before writing a piece and just jumps into it, writing “by the seat of their pants.”
Partial Manuscript Request: When an editor or agent, after receiving a pitch, asks to be given a specific portion of a manuscript to read. This is also known as a “partial request,” “PM,” or “PMR.”
Pitch: What you say to get an agent or editor interested in working with your book. Pitches come in many different forms and sizes, both written and verbal, including the elevator pitch, query, and proposal.
Plotter: A writer who plans most of their story before writing the actual piece.
Point of View (POV): The perspective from which a story is told. Various types of POVs exist, as taught in English classes.
Proposal: Like a query, but for non-fiction. I don’t know much about this because I write fiction.
Publicist: A professional whose job is to promote and market books to get them sold.
Publisher: A business that makes money by publishing and selling books. They may also be referred to as a “publishing company.”
Publishing: The act of taking a manuscript and converting it into a sellable book.
Query Letter: A one-page formatted business letter requesting that an agent or editor consider a novel for representation or publication.
Reader: A very cool person who allows writers to make use of their craziness. Valuable and desired.
Revise and Resubmit (R&R): When an agent, after reading a full manuscript, asks for it to be revised in a number of ways and then resubmitted to be considered for representation.
Royalty: The percentage of money an author receives for each sale of a traditionally published book.
Scam: An “editor” or “agent” that’s really just taking advantage of you. There are lots of different kinds of scams, but most involve you paying the editor or agent in advance. This can ruin your reputation as an author and is really just awful to go through. Be wary!
Self-Publishing: When an author publishes their book by paying upfront for the services of a self-publishing company and other freelance professionals. The author ultimately manages all of the formatting, artwork, editing, publicity, etc.
Shipping: Being a fan of a fictional romantic relationship. When you “ship” two characters, you want them to end up together, and they therefore become your “ship” (or possibly even your OTP). Non-romantic shipping also happens, to a lesser degree.
Short Story: A fictional piece of writing that is shorter than a novella.
Spelling and Grammar: Something one can be creative with, but only if they know how.
Synopsis: A document of varied length, either 1 – 2 pages or 8 – 12 pages, that summarizes the entire plot of a novel.
Traditional Publishing: When an author publishes their book through a traditional publishing company without upfront payment, with and with the help of employed professionals. This requires lots of jumping through hoops/pitching of your manuscript.
To Be Read (TBR): When a reader intends to read, but has not yet read, a book.
Trunking: When a writer decides to permanently stop working on and/or trying to publish their book. (Sometimes writers change their mind after trunking books, though.)
Work in Progress (WIP): A novel that is currently being written, edited, or sent out to agents/editors.
Worldbuilding: Creating a fictional world for a story, usually most applicable in the fantasy and science fiction genres. This process is very complicated and the bane of many writers’ existences.
Writer: A person who is a bit mentally unstable and likes to express it by telling stories through the written word. They are also known as an “author,” although that term is a little more formal. I generally use “author” in reference to published writers only.
Writing Conference: Where a bunch of writers get together, often with agents and editors, to attempt to get their crazy out in public and also to improve upon it somewhat. These are very enjoyable and highly recommended.
Writing Group: A group of writers who work with each other on their insanity. Often they are all critique partners with each other.
Young Adult (YA): A category of books written for teens ages 14 – 18ish.
With this post, I’ve shared all the content from my previous blog that I wanted to include on this website, so I don’t know when I’ll next be posting a long-form essay! However, for briefer posts, please feel free to follow me on my social media accounts. 😀
I originally shared this on my old blog in October 2014, though some updates have been made.
I have enough years of experience now to have quite a bit of knowledge about novel-writing. The most important advice I can offer is that you should do whatever works best for you! In case you want a little more guidance, though, I decided to put together this post with some brief A – Z thoughts on different aspects of being a novelist. Keep in mind that I am coming towards this as someone seeking traditional publication, not self-publication.
Though experimental short stories can sometimes avoid having a conflict, every novel needs to include at least one reason why the main character can’t get what they want or need. This means that every novel has an antagonist! Antagonists can come in the form of characters who cause trouble for the main character, but they can also be more abstract. The main character may be their own antagonist at times (which I love to explore), while other common antagonistic forces include nature and time. Make sure that you know what your conflict(s) and antagonist(s) are and that you make full use of them in your story.
B: Beta Readers
Every writer should have people who read and critique their work prior to publication: friends, family, and fellow writers. These people are often known as “beta readers,” although “critique partners” is the term used when it’s a mutual set-up. They offer early reactions, guide you in perfecting your book, and encourage you on your path to success. Finding a good balance of readers who have different skill sets and perspectives is important. Considering your own personal weaknesses and seeking out people who can compensate for them is also recommended.
Even though it’s important to stand out, you also have to fit in enough that librarians and bookstore owners can shelf and market your book appropriately. That’s why you need to know your book’s age category and genre and keep to them as you write, edit, and promote the book. Query letters and other pitch material also often include “comp titles,” a couple of other similar stories (books, movies, TV, etc.) that give the reader a sense of what your book is like. This can improve the categorization.
The most important quality you can have as a writer is determination (aka stubbornness, although that word is generally seen as more negative). You need it to get a novel written and edited, and you need even more of it to get through the many rejections, critiques, and failures that successful novelists encounter. You can take breaks and reassess what’s best for you as needed, but if you know this is what you want, then don’t let anyone take that away from you! Never give up on your dream.
Practice of all sorts is key to becoming a skilled novelist. That means you should experiment with something new and different in every piece you write! You can change up your writing routine, your writing tools, and your writing style in a million different ways. Each challenge you set for yourself will teach you more. This eventually will also support you in creating something truly unique that is worth sharing with the world.
It may take you some time to discover what exactly your story is about. For example, I’ve been working on #SnowQueenStory since 2019, and I only just this last month felt the emotional core click into place. Once you do know, though, you need to hold onto that knowledge. Your story exists to communicate something. Keeping your focus directed towards that “something” can prevent you from becoming so entangled in yourself that you fail to connect with your intended audience.
Before you send pitches for your book to agents or editors, you need to do your research and find out which materials to send to whom and in what way. This is not the time to exercise your boldness or creativity; follow the stated guidelines exactly. That includes formatting. Your prospective publishing team needs to know that you can be professional and cooperative.
To be a good artist, you need to be as honest as you are determined. You need to be able to face reality when something isn’t working, and you also need to be able to open your heart so you can create a story that rings with truth, instead of hiding behind some false idea of yourself. Honest emotion is what makes art meaningful. Let yourself be vulnerable, and trust your instincts. If you find this kind of honesty to be a struggle, seeking out professional help may be a good idea. Past trauma can cause all sorts of denial that is difficult to work through alone. Your honest truth may also, at some points in your life, be that you are not in the right space to be writing. Prioritize yourself first!
Just as important as practicing your own writing is engaging with the writing of others. You should read as widely as you can–other formats like movies and TV are also recommended–but make sure you’re especially familiar with the age category and genre in which you write. This way, you’ll not only know the market you need to categorize yourself into, but you’ll also develop a stronger sense of story. Pay particular attention to the writers you idolize most. Whatever it is about their stories that speaks to you, it might prove to be something you can incorporate beautifully into your own unique style.
No matter how serious and intense your story is, you need to give your reader (and yourself) a break every once in a while. The same goes for lighthearted and humorous stories: they still need a deeper emotional core. So create contrast by juxtaposing dark moments with lighter ones! This emphasizes the emotions on either side, ensuring that they are truly felt for what they are. Without that variety, there won’t be enough strength left for people to make it to the end.
K: Kill Your Darlings
A common piece of editing advice is to “kill your darlings.” This means, essentially, to delete anything in your story that doesn’t serve your focus, even when you hate to get rid of it. There will be lines, paragraphs, and sometimes whole scenes or characters that you love but that just don’t fit into your story. Even individual word choice can be an important matter when you’re editing a book–you probably have some “darling” words that you personally overuse. You have to cut them. You can save these cut bits in another document if you need to, bu don’t keep them in a novel where they just don’t belong.
L: Literary Agent
Literary agents are the gatekeepers of the traditional publishing industry, and they are important business partners for career novelists. Once you sign a contract with an agent, they will do vital work in critiquing your writing, pitching you to the right editors, negotiating contracts, collaborating with the rest of your publishing team, and guiding your career. Most traditional publishers won’t even consider submissions unless they’re from a literary agent they trust! Remember, though, that your relationship with your agent should be one between equals. You are not their boss, and they are not your boss. If things feel unbalanced, that might be a sign you need to renegotiate the partnership.
M: Main Character
Stories are all about connecting with humanity through the eyes of fictional people. This means that characters are what readers tend to care about the most! Your main character is your novel’s heart. To write a good one, you must know, first, what the character wants or needs and what must change within them so they can have those things. Your next task is to build understanding between the character and your readers. Likability and intrigue are both good, so don’t be afraid to add fun quirks and details, but the most important quality for a main character is relatability. Explore their thoughts and emotions in a way that readers connect with, and you’ll have your audience hooked.
N: Not Just Art
While much of writing is an art, once you’re seeking publication, it becomes a business too. This is a hard dichotomy to balance. To have a successful career, you must find and channel your professional/practical self without sacrificing too much of story’s artistic core. This requires guidance from other professionals in the field, a strong sense of your own novel, and years of research about the publishing industry. I’ve personally learned the most from following publishing professionals–authors, agents, editors–on Twitter!
O: Other Characters
I find human relationships to be the most interesting topic to explore in storytelling: They’re diverse, intense, beautiful, and horrible all at once. We’ve talked about antagonists, but you also need other people like friends and family to better reveal the nature of your main character and to deepen the overall story. Remember that each character is their own person with their own motivations, whether those are directly relevant to this story or not. Those motivations are worth developing at some point during your writing/editing process. Doing some research into psychology and sociology can be helpful here. Just observing the people around you can also enrich your character writing.
I’ve heard it said that different authors have their own “standard casts of characters” that reappear in various ways across their writing. If you know anything about character tropes, this is a sort of individualized version of that. I love this idea, personally, and perhaps at some point, I’ll explore it in more detail on my blog!
P: Publishing Team
Whether you choose to make a career through traditional publishing, self-publishing, or a mix of the two, your success depends upon your ability to find and work with a team of specialized professionals. In traditional publishing, a literary agent is a core team member, but every publishing team should include editors, designers, and marketers. (In self-publishing, you pay for their work upfront, while traditional publishing takes a percentage of the later profits.) Storytelling is a community endeavor, ultimately, and you need to be open to learning from those who have skills and knowledge you don’t.
Q: Query Letter
To obtain a literary agent, you need a query letter, which is basically a cross between a one-page business cover letter and an exciting story pitch like you see on book flaps. It takes a lot of practice and feedback to become skilled at writing query letters, just like anything else. I talk a little about this in my publishing process post. Other elements from this A – Z guide that are important for your query include Main Character, Antagonist, Focus, Categorization, and Guidelines. Most of all, you need Uniqueness, which comes later down this page!
An important part of writing is having a solid routine that works well for you. You may find that this routine changes depending on your life phase or the novel you’re writing. I recommend taking time every so often to consider your routine. Make sure you know what in that routine is helping you and what may need to be changed. Then experiment! Some novelists work best in short bursts, while others need to write a little every day. Some novelists create a detailed plan before writing, while others jump straight in. Some novelists are guided best by personal intuition, while others make use of organized and logical craft techniques. Whatever time of day, whatever location, whatever writing tool, just make sure you have whatever you need.
When it comes to the story itself, there are two key arcs that form a novel. One is the plot arc, which focuses on the external events occurring to and being performed by the main character. The other is the emotional arc, which focuses on the internal experience where the main character develops personally for better or for worse. Both arcs are necessary to support each other. The exact frame of these arcs, however, depends. There are standard ones seen commonly in Western fiction (e.g., Save the Cat), but there are other types too. The more you read and write, the better a sense you’ll have of how to create effective story arcs. That will allow you also to build subplots that weave in and enrich the main arcs.
“Timbre” is a musical term used to describe the integral difference in sound between various instruments and voices. Each story and each writer also has their own sound that needs to be utilized in the most appropriate way to add beauty and strength to the larger artistic symphony. Character and author voice and tone are important pieces of this. Experimenting with perspective can thus help you gain a better sense of timbre.
While marketing your story requires you to know where you fit in (see Categorization), you also need to know where you stand out. Developing something unique enough to sell has been the challenge that has haunted my career ever since I started writing as a child. It wasn’t until I was hit with one of the most difficult times of my life that I realized I wasn’t writing in a way that suited me as an individual. Your individuality is what makes you as an artist. So if you’re struggling to find what makes your story special, consider first what you like most about your story. See if you can emphasize that more. You may find that it’s not enough to carry the novel, but you can write a new novel that takes that special piece and combines it with other special pieces. If this is a consistent struggle for you, however, that means you’re likely having a difficult time being as honest with and about yourself as you need to be.
V: Very Slow
One important thing to know about the publishing industry is that everything moves at a really slow pace. It takes years to write and edit a novel, often years to get a contract, and definitely years before your book is published. You’ve got to keep your expectations realistic–but also be prepared for the stress of deadlines, which can make it feel like the whole process has sped up rather dramatically!
Building a complex and appropriate setting that engages readers and supports your story’s focus is, in my opinion, one of the hardest parts of writing. Worldbuilding is key in historical fiction and in science fiction and fantasy, but it forms a needed foundation in any novel. So if you struggle with setting the way I do, my recommendation is to develop your world by considering what matters to the main character and what matters to you.
Readers want to experience the setting through your character. For that reason, writers should focus on describing aspects of the world that affect and interest the main character (or the viewpoint character, if that isn’t the main character). Everything should be filtered through their perspective. For your own sake, though, exploring parts of the world that match your interests and experience is also a good idea. You may need to cut some of those darlings later, but you’ll have an easier time doing the necessary research if you actually want to.
Here’s a hard truth: Much of having a career as a novelist is beyond your control. Luck is the x-factor that determines whether you hit the right notes at the right time with the right people to have success. Keeping this in mind will help you be more patient and persevering. Focus your energy on what you can control and learn how to recognize and let go of the rest.
As I’ve noted multiple times now, the most important piece of writing advice is for you to be true to yourself. This is not an easy task. It takes a lot of experimentation to discover what routines work for you. It takes a lot of open, raw emotion to make a story powerful. It takes a lot of brutal honesty to see past what sells well and past what you want to be to the uniqueness of who you actually are. Those are the things, though, that lead to great art.
I have spent most my life trying to be someone I’m not–trying not to be an autistic person–and that blocked my ability to write stories worth selling in so many ways. As I discuss in detail here, not being honest about my strengths and weaknesses had me rushing thoughtlessly through derivative plots that tried to mimic the epic wars and politics of Harry Potter and The Hunger Games , when what I was truly meant for was more slowly considered stories focused on emotional interiority and other themes that I personally like and know about. I needed to know myself honestly, in ways I feared, before I could write to my individuality.
The one thing I always have had, at least, is the open-heartedness to incorporate emotional arcs into all my stories related to the personal issues I have faced. I’ve rarely done so intentionally, but the need to process my struggles is what has kept me writing through years of rejection. I have become a better person through my novels, and my novels have become better through my personhood. When I finally achieve some success, it will be because of the ways I have opened my heart. It will be because I have learned to adapt every aspect of this process to myself.
Writing is full of resurrecting the old to create the new. You can create zombies out of your past experiences, out of other people’s artwork, or out of tropes and archetypes that have existed for centuries. You can move a darling that needed killing in one piece to a new piece where it can thrive. Everything and anything is worth reinventing! So keep watching for any seemingly dead idea that might have enough fuel for your mind to set it alight again.
Image via pxhere.com, VideoPlasty and unknown artist on Wikipedia, and OpenClipart on freesvg.org.
Readers sometimes wonder what they can do to better support their favorite authors. Book authorship is a difficult career, not one where it’s easy to succeed! So based on various things I’ve seen professionals say online over the years, here are some tips for readers who want to make an author’s life a little easier.
Preorder or buy their book on the day it comes out.
Sales are the major determiner of whether or not an author get to publish another book in the future, and the sales on the first week and especially the first day are the most important. Publishers are already making decisions for the future based off of those sales, and those first-day sales also determine whether or not that book makes the bestsellers lists.
However, since they’re sent to you the day of the book release, preorders are also counted as being “bought” the first day. So those are fantastic! If you want to preorder a book from Amazon or Barnes and Noble or your local bookstore, please go right ahead!
Don’t buy their book before the day it comes out.
Physical books are not supposed to be on shelves prior to their release. If a copy is bought before release day–unless the book is a legitimate preorder that ships later–it will not be counted as a first-week sale. Additionally, some people try to sell ARCs, which are not for sale. Those are special unfinished copies given away for free in the hopes that readers will create early hype. If you see someone selling ARCs or books prior to their release date, please let the publisher know.
Don’t pirate their book.
This should be pretty obvious, but I’ve seen a lot of arguments about it online. Again, sales determine the future career of the author. If an author doesn’t get enough sales, their next book will not be published. Additionally, writers put so much work into their books–like, multiple years’ worth. Many other people at the agency and publisher also work very hard to prepare the book. That labor is worth something. Those stories are worth something. So act like it! Don’t steal a hard copy of a book, and don’t download a pirated copy from the Internet either. (Research shows that the average Internet book pirate is wealthier than the average author, which is worth knowing.)
If you can’t afford to buy a book, there are still appropriate options for accessing it. One great one, where available, is your public library. If they don’t already have the book, ask them if they can buy it. Then it will be a legitimate sale! Yes, that book will be read by many people for free, but libraries track those reads, and the numbers make a difference in what books end up on the shelves. Libraries also help promote books and authors, and in some countries, libraries even pay additional fees based off of how many people have read a book. Many people who read a book from a library later decide to buy it, which doesn’t happen if they already have their own stolen copy. So libraries = good. Pirating = bad.
If you see a link for a pirated book, please notify the author or the publisher. Also, please do not try that TikTok hack where you return an e-book to Amazon after you’ve read it for a refund. Y’all are literally putting writers in debt doing that.
Buy the hardcover version of their book if you can.
This is less important than the other tips here, but hardcover copies are a bit more expensive, which means more money comes to the author. Hardcovers are also what you’ll see being released first, with paperbacks coming later, so the hardcover sales are what affect those initial, most important numbers.
Rate and review their book on Amazon, Barnes and Noble, etc.
On most websites, and on Amazon especially, the number of ratings and reviews determines which books show up most often The more attention a book is given, the easier it will be to find and the more attention it will continue to gather in the future. Amazon is a huge retailer, so if you like a book–or even if you just like the author–go rate and review it on their website! Even bad reviews with low ratings help get the book more attention, so don’t worry if you’re not giving it a full 5 stars and talking about how perfect it is. (Although you certainly can if you’re inclined to.)
The websites for Barnes and Noble and other booksellers are also good places to publish reviews. Libraries sometimes ask for book reviews on their websites or during reading programs. Finally, you can always share reviews and recommendations on your social media (but if your review is negative, please don’t tag the author or otherwise directly send it to them–not only is that rude, but reviews are ultimately for other readers, and authors should be left to solicit critiques themselves only when they need them).
Tell your friends about their book.
This is probably the easiest action you can take! Word-of-mouth is a major ways that things are sold, especially entertainment. If you like a book, tell your friends about it. If you like an author, make sure everyone knows! Post about your favorite stories online with jokes and fanart and photos and whatever other content you feel inspired to create. Your enthusiasm will intrigue others who may find a new favorite themselves.
Even if it’s been a while, share their book with other people.
What if you find and fall in love with a book long after it’s been published? Is it still a good idea to write reviews and give ratings and tell your friends about it? Absolutely. As an author’s career progresses, sales of their “backlist,” or their old books, allow them to devote more time to working on their newer books. These sales also determine whether or not a book stays in print after the initial publication, and they contribute to overall sales numbers. So if you’re late to the party, don’t worry. Your support can still have a huge impact!
Hey, friends! As noted previously, I realized this last year that I’m on the autism spectrum. This has revealed a lot of unexpected but important truths about the various mental and physical illnesses that I’ve developed throughout my lifetime. I think it’s important that other people understand those truths too. Thus, I’m sharing today the story of how the heavy stigma around autism led to me entering a downward spiral of burnout where my disabilities multiplied and my quality of life plummeted.
Please note that my disability story as presented below contains discussion of ableism, anxiety, obsessive-compulsive disorder, religious trauma, dissociation, extreme chronic pain, self-harm, and suicidal thoughts.
Episode I: Bee Phobia
I don’t remember ever not knowing I was weird.
When I was little, my Grandma Thurgood expressed concern because I didn’t fit in with my cousins. My first ballet teacher said I was “the only three-year-old she knew who PMSed.” My mom struggled with the screaming meltdowns I would have over loud noises, doctor visits, and hair brushes. Adults constantly called me “moody,” “sensitive,” “bossy,” and “high-strung.” (The term “high-strung” makes me wince to this day.) People were confused by the way I moved, the way I thought, the way I felt.
But I was also known for being “precocious” and “talkative.” I’ve always been driven to devour all the knowledge I possibly can, especially about other people. As a child, The Little Mermaid was my favorite story in the world–how could I not connect to an idealistic, musical young woman who longed more than anything to be a part of the messy human world? That’s what I wanted too. It’s always seemed like people understood each other more easily than they did me, and I was determined to get through somehow. Already, too, it was so noisy inside of me, and I needed a way to move some of the noise into the outside world so I could better process and cope.
As long as the adults in my life were impressed with my intelligence, I could ignore their other confused comments–and I cared more about their opinions than about the opinions of my own peers, who mostly avoided (and sometimes bullied) me. Other children’s behavior made no sense to me, and they rarely appreciated me trying to girlboss them into being logical. Meanwhile, the adults could teach me all sorts of new things about the world. So in my early childhood, I wasn’t bothered by my own weirdness.
The one concession I made was to stop talking so much because the adults found it annoying. When I learned to read and write, I thankfully found new ways to learn and communicate. Everything changed in one night in kindergarten when I was at home paging through a copy of Clifford’s ABCs, and the words just clicked in my brain. The next day, when I demonstrated to my teachers my skills, they were stunned. I, of course, was quite proud of myself. But my handwriting was so atrocious that one of my teachers had me type my spelling tests on the classroom computer, trusting me not to use spell-check. (My rule-following nature wouldn’t have allowed me to cheat anyway.)
At the end of third grade, my family moved from Albuquerque to a much smaller New Mexican town. My feelings about this were tumultuous. I had no friends to miss in Albuquerque, and in the new town, I almost immediately found a small group of misfit girls I actually got along with. Those friendships have made such a difference in my life.
However, moving is an overwhelming experience full of change, one made worse by the fact that I had previously attended a experimental mixed-grade, part-homeschool classroom and now had to adjust to regular public school. So when I went camping for the first time that summer and was forced to contend with spider-infested outhouses and a swarm of stinging bees (who did not sting me, but did hurt the people around me), something inside me just snapped.
I developed such a hysterical fear of bees that Mom had to drive me home from camp early. For months afterwards, my life was defined by that terror. I could think of almost nothing but bees, day and night, and I came up with a set of well-researched rules to avoid them. I couldn’t always escape the outdoors, though, so I had repeated panic attacks while both kids and adults looked on. At one point, in the middle of outdoor PE, I saw a bee on the grass nearby. I ran screaming and crying for my classroom, and my favorite teacher opened the door. A powerful wave of relief washed over me–someone was saving me, finally!–but then I saw the expression on her face. I felt like a terrified, overwhelmed little girl who had no idea what was happening to me, but my teacher was looking at me like I was a monster.
No one seemed to know what to do about my phobia; no one even told me the word for what I was experiencing. The school principal and the school counselor treated me like some kind of troublesome puzzle. But I was abruptly broken out of the nightmarish haze that had taken over my life when a bee flew past and grazed me with its stinger–an accidental exposure to my worst fear that revealed how minor bee stings actually were. That moment gave me the clarity to start regaining control of myself.
I was deeply shaken. I spent most of fifth grade worn down and uncertain, trying to make sense of what had just happened to me. I developed chronic headaches eased only by ice cream binges, and I began experiencing extreme chest pain when running that my doctor couldn’t explain.
Up until now, I’d thought that other kids didn’t like me because I was smart, physically inept, and a Mormon. Now I was confronted by a much darker reality, one where my own abnormal mind could create horrors worse than anything I’d experienced in the real world. I devoted myself more than ever to writing stories as I tried to untangle the pain inside me, and myfascination with humans solidified as I struggled to understand the differences between myself and other people. Thanks to a school counselor, I soon realized that I was hyperempathetic, prone to being overwhelmed by outside emotions, though I thought of it as a mind-reading superpower set off by bee-related trauma.
Around this time, we realized that my youngest brother was having speech difficulties and hyperfixations on things like pipes and drains. Because I already had three cousins diagnosed with autism, our attention turned to related conditions. My doctor and my mom thought that both my brother and I had sensory processing disorder (SPD), which is now often considered part of the autism spectrum. For a while, I was thrilled to have that explanation for my experiences! But the tentative diagnosis didn’t come with much support, and I was desperate to avoid another phobic episode. Slowly, I connected the way the adults discussed SPD and the ways I’d been treated my entire life–and that was when I started feeling truly, deeply broken.
Episode II: Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder
As the shame sank in, I decided to reject my SPD. I set out on a quest to “act more normal,” which is also known as “autism masking.” The concept of “normalcy” would go on to define my life for over a decade. I started by forcing myself to wear more uncomfortable clothes and by teaching myself to walk the way other people did, instead of on my toes. I had already shown signs of fearful obsessive-compulsive behavior, mostly focused on the idea of sexual assault. Now, I developed full-fledged OCD that revolved around three particular points: three different kinds of OCD.
First, I began to believe that if I was morally “good enough,” God would reward me by “fixing” my SID. This falls into the category of religious or moral OCD. Second, I came to believe that being “good enough” included a grand romantic destiny where I would save a guy and thus “earn” my normalcy. This falls into the category of relationship OCD. Third, I started thinking that if I could look perfect enough on the outside, it would provide other people some compensation for having to deal with the rest of me. This became body dysmorphic disorder, a crossover mental illness somewhere between a body image disorder and an obsessive-compulsive disorder.
Seventh grade was the beginning of middle school for me, and the sudden exposure to teenager pop culture felt like hitting a brick wall. Before this, I’d only ever listened to Enya and classical music, I had almost no Internet access, and I also almost never watched TV or movies. To compound how overwhelming it was, my brother’s behavior was becoming more unusual and concerning, with increasingly violent meltdowns. All our family’s attention turned to his journey along a diagnostic track from SPD to ADHD to PDD-NOS to autism. As for me, I was busy running in the opposite direction from my oddities.
During seventh grade, I also developed strong feelings for a boy who seemed like my opposite: a brash, sports-loving bully hated by most our grade. (I hated him too, at first.) I grew to love him for many reasons, but in retrospect, I think I especially connected with him because he was neurodivergent himself, probably undiagnosed ADHD. Though he had some maladaptive behaviors, he seemed to like me a lot. He made me feel like it might be okay for me to be me. I needed that so badly. Unfortunately, though, our existence in very different social circles meant we faced an uphill battle to convince anyone else to support our relationship.
Because of that, my mission to become more “normal” increased tenfold. I now had a reason to care about what my peers thought for the first time. Trying to make myself likeable to as many of them as possible, while still living up to adult expectations, was a guaranteed failure that I couldn’t stop myself from trying anyway. I dove into pop culture. I became more intent on improving my outward looks. I studied the way my most-liked peers acted so I could follow suit, and I made list after list in my diaries: friends and acquaintances and goals and flaws and plans and songs.
When eighth grade arrived, I broke under the pressure. I now had a new class schedule that isolated me from my closest friends and from the boy I loved. I was desperate to hold onto the romance my OCD told me was sure to be my salvation, but my emotions had become so strong I couldn’t even speak when the boy was around. My self-hatred skyrocketed.
My spiral down into a hellscape of suicidal thoughts hit its peak in midwinter, when I was reminded of the fact that Mormons aren’t supposed to date before they turn sixteen. To me, there was no grey zone in what was “right.” With my relationship OCD and my religious OCD now turned against each other, I lost all control of my thoughts. On the one side, I couldn’t stop thinking about how badly I needed to be with the boy I loved so he would save me from myself. On the other side, I couldn’t stop thinking about all the rules I needed to follow to be good enough for my peers and my family and my church–for God Himself, who was also supposed to save me from myself. The internal argument was violent and nonstop. I described it to my best friend as “God and the devil fighting inside my head”–and I was balancing on the very edge of choosing to take my own life just to escape the battle zone. I’m not sure any words can fully describe my anguish.
My best friend was the only one I told about my suicidal thoughts because I trusted her the most not to judge me for them. I hated that I was so broken over a boy who multiple people said liked me. I’m glad I did tell her, though, because her support was a key part of turning me back from the edge. As winter turned to spring and a teacher also helped me in a more minor way, I did finally stop having suicidal thoughts.
I had made it through the worst OCD episode I would ever have.
In the aftermath, though, I was more burnt out than ever. I spent ninth grade exhausted and isolated, sleeping in classes for the first time, too impatient to interact with most people. I retreated into hyperfixations on Harry Potter and on my own novels. To add injury to insult, as if periods aren’t already enough of a sensory nightmare, I started having excruciating menstrual cramps that had me on the floor screaming and vomiting. The OCD also continued to wear on me in a less dramatic way with its self-hating perfectionism. By now, I had achieved such complete denial about my “shameful” SPD diagnosis that I no longer remembered how I had begun feeling so broken inside–all I knew was that something was deeply wrong with me, something I had to hide.
Episode III: Fibromyalgia
In tenth grade, I started coming back to life again. This was complicated, however, by the arrival of the 2009 H1N1 pandemic. On Halloween that year, I woke up with serious achiness all over, especially in my hips. I knew I had caught the swine flu, but in my ongoing quest to “act more normal,” I decided to attend my friend’s Halloween party anyway, “like a normal, irresponsible teenager.” I ended up having to go home early with a high fever and a severe cough.
H1N1 knocked me down for about a month, with me developing bronchitis and then strep throat. Though I did recover, the burning hip pain never went away. As spring approached, it actually began to worsen. My doctor performed a series of tests trying to figure out what was happening. The truth wouldn’t come to light, however, until eleventh grade.
The first week of school is another difficult transition, and this particular first week included a series of extra stressors that would be upsetting even for non-autistic people. I was already in a precarious position: just recovered from autistic burnout and still dealing with post-viral symptoms. It’s no surprise, then, that I dipped right back into the burnout zone again. The hip pain steadily spread across my body that week until I hurt everywhere, all the time, in so many different ways. I became exhausted and confused, and my sensory sensitivities, especially to the cold, increased.
It took only a couple of months for my doctor to diagnose me as having fibromyalgia, a chronic pain and fatigue disorder with uncertain origins and no cure. I laughed when I was diagnosed because I was so relieved to have an answer, but I also cried from terror and heartbreak. For the first time, I had no choice but to confront my own limitations. I could not be normal, and I never would be. My grief over lost possibilities was made more difficult because I didn’t know how to let myself grieve. I had spent my entire life having my powerful emotions and my sensory sensitivities invalidated by other people, and I had become an expert at invalidating them myself. I was used to pushing through and doing whatever it took to meet expectations. I mirrored people’s physical and emotional energy constantly because humans usually find that likeable, which made even me confused about what I felt sometimes. (The hyperempathy didn’t help.)
People had become used to seeing me quietly duck out of class in tears at least once a week. They’d never paid it much mind–I guess because I was still getting straight As and not causing actual disruptions. However, the fibromyalgia diagnosis seemed to garner me a little more support. So while this grieving period after I was diagnosed with fibromyalgia was difficult, there were people around me giving me permission this time to feel my sorrow and fear and loss. That made a difference.
Episode IV: Chronic Illness Crisis
Twelfth grade saw me in a better place than I’d been in for a long time, not in the least because I had started low-dose antidepressants for my fibromyalgia, which also caused a slight improvement in my body dysmorphic disorder. I had spent years now seeing a distorted, acne-riddled face in the mirror that wasn’t real to anyone but me. At times, I had become so desperate to destroy the flaws that I would take a needle to my skin. The antidepressants allowed me to start breaking through the delusion caused by my body image disorder for the first time.
Yet the same desperation that had been pushing me since fourth grade still drove me onward. I was trying to be someone I wasn’t, living a life that wasn’t mine. At home, multiple autistic people were struggling to survive without external support, leading to all sorts of turmoil. The pressure kept growing for me to be the functional one, to support my family emotionally, and to not cause trouble.
As I started college at Adams State University, I was faced with another set of challenges trying to make friends in a new place. Halfway through my freshman year, minor chaos at school and home caused some of my unaddressed mental issues to surge forward. A friend I was fortunate to have found there convinced me to start seeing one of the free counselors, and with her help, I realized I needed to be somewhere else. I transferred to BYU – Idaho, where I hoped I’d fit better.
In some ways, I did. At the beginning of 2014, thanks to a therapist at their counseling center, I was finally diagnosed with OCD. I was so relieved to have an explanation for why I felt broken, and I devoted myself to treating my anxiety. Little by little, with counseling and an increased antidepressant dose, I found my way into the light. I began seeing my self-worth in a way I wasn’t sure I ever had before, and as I stabilized emotionally, I realized how much unnecessary self-hatred I’d been living with.
Though having my OCD controlled was truly transformative, all was still not well. I continued to struggle with building an adult life. My roommates often disliked or even hated me for being “weird,” “boring,” and “antisocial.” The ways I was used to living made no sense to them. They refused to accommodate my fibromyalgia, let alone my undiagnosed conditions, and so I pushed myself straight through my own limits trying to fit in again. I soon became too exhausted to attend anything except classes. Meanwhile, I experienced the worst moment of ableism I’ve ever been through, thanks to one professor. The mayhem when I was at home also just built and built and built.
Even as my body screamed more loudly every day for me to stop and listen, I became more skilled at ignoring its warnings. I started having brief episodes of bladder pain that I wrote off as being weird menstrual cramps. My generalized pain and fatigue grew. Little by little, I was driving myself straight into my worst autistic burnout yet.
But it took me a long time to accept that something was wrong. I’m an idealist dreamer by nature, and I don’t like being limited. I was being crushed under the weight of everyone’s expectations. I’d spent my whole life ignoring my feelings to make others happy. I’d never learned how to actually recognize and care for my own needs. So I kept pushing through, as it became harder to stay focused on even my greatest passions. I kept pushing through, as my mental confusion grew and I started skipping chores and assignments and words and memories. I kept pushing through, as my pain grew to a level of extremity that sometimes kept me from walking and required nightly heating pad use. I kept pushing through, as my fatigue became so severe I spent every second I was awake thinking about when I could next sleep.
I pushed through a gallbladder infection and a subsequent allergic reaction to an antibiotic. I pushed through a hospitalization for an infected cat bite and a temporary bowel obstruction. I pushed through multiple bladder episodes that doctors kept misdiagnosing. I had no one to stop me and everyone to urge me on. When I finally recognized that there was something wrong, it was the one semester where I had a friend there who saw I was suffering. She was autistic too, and unlike all my other roommates, she understood. With her support, I quit orchestra so I could finish my degree. I finally crawled across the finish line in mid-2016 with my B.A. in English.
And then my body gave out. I had intended to earn a Master’s in Library and Information Science online next, but I was so profoundly exhausted that I was sleeping 16+ hours a day. My thoughts were so muddled it was like swimming through Jello trying to get to them. I started having full-body tremors and spasms, and I turned to a cane for support as my balance failed. I couldn’t even stand without my vision going white and my chest feeling like an implosion. My bladder pain also escalated into a nightmare unlike anything I could have imagined.
The bladder symptoms, at least, were soon diagnosed as interstitial cystitis (IC) by an excellent urologist. Even with extensive treatment, though, I had developed so much inflammation that I had crisis moments of excruciating pain throughout 2016 and 2017. The trauma erased most of my long-term memories and caused repeated dissociation, but I am still haunted by the experience of my own body torturing me. If I had known how long it would last, I would not have been able to survive it. I still feel its threat like the distant footsteps of some awful monster, so dark and enormous and powerful that if it decided to turn its full attention on me again I would instantly shatter.
Yet I was used to pain, so much so that I often failed to realize how awful my suffering was until it eased. What made me suicidal this time, more than the physical agony, was the fact that I could accomplish almost nothing in my day-to-day life. I slept. I watched Netflix. I went to medical appointments. I cried. After years of trying to escape it, I no longer had any way to disguise the fact that I was broken.
I felt more unworthy of continued existence than ever. I felt like my life was a cost-benefit sheet that now added up to a burden for my family. I couldn’t see any way for my greatest, eternal desire for learning and growth to be fulfilled anymore with me in this state. At least if I died, I would be moving somewhere. The first time I had considered suicide, I had imagined something painless and quiet, but this time, I wanted to punish my body for what it was doing to me. I wanted to tear it apart.
Thankfully, I had a counselor at home whom I trusted with my honest thoughts. He taught me to see my value beyond what I could contribute and to set much-needed personal boundaries. My family finally found a better way of being, where we no longer sought normalcy and traditional success, as our various disabilities and human limits became unavoidable. (We were much helped by a fantastic group of autism professionals who started working with my youngest brother.) I found solace in a broad group of disabled and story-loving people online, with social media being a much more accessible way for me to connect with others. I held onto a few little joys that kept me alive.
Eventually, I started to see hope again. My bladder pain began to improve. My antidepressant was switched, at which point we discovered it had been contributing to my mental confusion. I realized that I had continued to grow as a person, even while living in bed without obvious markers of achievement. In the summer of 2017, I went to the Minnesota Mayo Clinic, where I was diagnosed with postural orthostatic tachycardia syndrome (POTS) and chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS). I also attended a special fibromyalgia/CFS clinic, which focused on the idea that sufferers need to find and stay just within our limits. That point was underscored by the fact that I had stopped having tremors and balance problems as soon as I didn’t have my exercise bike with me to use. (Why had I still been using it up until now? Don’t ask me! I am the queen of pushing myself too hard.)
I set to work finding my actual limits and taking better care of my body. As months and then years passed, my symptoms improved. Many treatments worked together to make that possible–Cymbalta, gabapentin, Heparin bladder instillations, medical compression socks, etc.–but solitude and rest were the most radically important. I began emerging from the wreckage of what came before, and I tried to figure out who I could be now. I accepted that I was not going to get a Master’s degree after all, and I obtained some part-time online work as an academic editor. I entered a new, improved phase of my writing career.
When the COVID-19 pandemic hit in 2020, it presented quite a challenge. I was finally well enough to start coming out of isolation, and I was finally feeling the need to–the need to connect with others more so I could work with them towards a future where I could actually thrive. The pandemic also triggered two major traumas I had not yet processed: the trauma of the extreme bladder pain I had experienced, which contributed to a hatred of my own illness-vulnerable body, and the ongoing trauma of my lack of a supportive community as a young disabled person. My fear and frustration transferred into a binge-eating disorder that peaked in late 2021.
While trying to understand my trauma-disrupted memories , I set to work reviewing my old diaries, which now spanned over 7,000 pages. (I know; it’s wild.) Through that, I regained a more cohesive sense of self, and my perspective on many things shifted. After a lifetime of struggle and recent education from disabled voices online, I looked back and saw the unifying thread of my existence: the thread of neurodivergence.
My isolation had allowed me to start unmasking my true self. I now avoided sensory stimuli that increased my pain while seeking stimulation in other sensory areas, including through rocking, humming, and eating. I was having hyperfocus episodes multiple times a week without the structure of school, and I was no longer exhausting and contorting and suppressing myself trying to manage other people’s reactions to me. My strong “special interest” in human beings supported mutual conversations, but I began to see the oddities in my lack of small talk and my extremely expressive openness.
I thus came to accept a truth I had been running from for most of my life: I don’t just have autistic family members. This entire time, I have been an autistic person struggling under the weight of a heavy societal stigma that forced me to betray my own body.
I’m not meant to be normal. I never was.
And the fault isn’t in me for having an unusual brain. The fault is in our society for demonizing those who are different and only providing support to those whom it deems acceptable. I am incredibly privileged to have been finally given the time, resources, and support I needed to heal–and I will never stop fighting for everyone else to be given that too. So many autistic people are driven to suicide. That could have been me. For all I know, it could be me in the future.
I don’t know exactly how to be in the world as myself. I’ve spent so long trying to follow a path that was wrong for me. But the realization that I’m autistic is sure to be a turning point in my life. I doubt the damage done my body will ever be healed. But my chronic illnesses don’t have to be the worst they’ve ever been, and I don’t have to develop any more new ones, either. I can put the work in now to figure out how to avoid burning out again.
I’m currently working with a few professionals who believe in my self-diagnosis and who are trying to help me obtain a formal diagnosis. (Editor’s Note: As of April 7, 2022, at the age of 28, I have been given the official autism spectrum disorder diagnosis!) The self-recognition, though, is the most important step for me. You can’t fight for acceptance and support if you don’t know you deserve them.
If any of this seems familiar to you, whether you’re trying to hide a weird brain or another weird way of being, I want you to know that you do deserve a good life. You deserve to be yourself. Different things are right for different people, and you shouldn’t have to burn yourself to ashes to please people who can’t see that. When you’re ready, a community is here to accept all the beauty of your weirdness. 💜
If you aren‘t someone who knows that pain, you can still be someone who joins in to lift the burden of the sky from the backs that it crushes most. Learn about the experiences of marginalized people of all kinds. Listen when we tell you about the paths that are right for us, even when you don’t understand them. Support us when we’re breaking, and support us so that we never have to be shattered in the first place.
If you want to support autistic people, I recommend autistic-led organizations like the Autistic Self-Advocacy Network and the Autistic Women and Nonbinary Network. There are also many other autistic voices on social media, including people who don’t speak aloud and therefore are heard less, that deserve to be listened to. Another blog post explaining the basics of the autism spectrum can be found here. Thank you for hearing us.
When I realized this last year that I’m autistic, it completely shifted my perspective on my life thus far. In my next post, I’m going to share the new-and-improved combined version of my disability story. There’s so much misinformation about autism, though, that I first wanted to discuss the basics of this complex and diverse neurodevelopmental condition.
People on the autism spectrum are born with fundamental differences in our nervous systems that mean we think, feel, and behave differently. We spend our lives struggling in a world full of stigma and mistreatment. Though the vast majority of us, including most nonspeaking autistic people, consider this condition to be a key part of who we are and not something negative that needs a cure, many societies are hostile to people who are different. Even relatively accepting societies are not built in a way that supports autistic people. Social support is necessary for everyone to survive and thrive, but non-autistic people often don’t realize how much they are being enabled while autistic people are being disabled.
The way an autistic person is treated varies depending on the obviousness of our differences. We are often categorized as either “high-functioning” or “low-functioning,” but this is inaccurate. Functioning differently is not the same as functioning badly, and autism affects so many areas of functioning that it makes no sense to categorize any one person as “low-functioning” across the board. Additionally, an individual’s functioning changes throughout their life as they face different circumstances. It makes more sense to think of autism as a color wheel than as a line, and each one of us is a combination of colors all our own. Ultimately, calling us “high-functioning” is often an excuse not to offer us support, while calling us “low-functioning” is often an excuse not to respect our autonomy.
Science has only recently started to understand how diverse a spectrum autism is, though, partly because researchers have a habit of focusing on the external signs displayed by white men and not on the internal autistic experience or on the cultural and social realities that cause other autistic people to behave differently. What started as two conditions–autism and Asperger’s syndrome–has now been combined into something far more complicated. As autistic people are enabled to interact with each other and share knowledge, our understanding of this condition continues to grow.
The exact signs of autism are difficult to specify. Many of the traditional signs are external actions strongly associated with trauma, which is something autistic people experience constantly. More research is also starting to explore the idea of “autism masking,” where an autistic person alters their behavior to fit in more so they won’t be mistreated by others. Masking is more common among women and people of color, and it has long prevented diagnosis for many people. However, the more an autistic person masks, the more likely they are to develop a horrific form of burnout where their mental and physical health collapses. Our nervous systems are fundamentally different. We can only pretend otherwise for so long. Because of autistic burnout and societal stigma, most autistic people consider suicide multiple times in our lives. We also often have co-occuring disabilities that complicate diagnosis still further, such as seizure disorders, chronic pain, and intellectual disabilities.
Despite how complex this is, there are various working models that express what links everyone on the autism spectrum. As I’ve learned more, I’ve developed a theory of my own. I believe autism is characterized by differences in seven areas: sensory processing, communication, pattern recognition, emotional processing, empathy, focus, and directness/genuineness. What counts as “different” does depend strongly on the society in which a person lives. The exact differences each individual has in these areas also varies, and they overlap in many ways.
First, because humans have a bunch of different sensory systems that define how we experience the world around us, even a single autistic person will react to different kinds of stimuli in different ways. In some areas, a person may be hypersensitive, and in some areas, they may be hyposensitive. Most autistic people are easily overwhelmed by at least one kind of sensory input: loud noises, bright lights, clothing textures. Autistic people regulate our sensory systems through repetitive behaviors called “stimming.” Everyone stims sometimes, but autistic people need to do it more than usual because our nervous systems are more prone to becoming unbalanced.
Second, communication differences can present as someone being exceptional with language, being nonspeaking, or having a more complex mix of traits. Many autistic people are nonspeaking when under stress but can speak at other times. Some autistic people communicate best through echoing what they’ve heard others say, or they thrive using sign language, writing, or other forms of alternative communication. Speaking autistic people often rehearse what we’re going to say beforehand, partly because we have to if we’re going to mask our autism. Our body language and vocal tone also tend to differ from the norm: some autistic people have more of a flat affect, while others are highly expressive.
Third, autistic people tend to differ from the typical human pattern recognition, with some of us excelling at global thinking and others being incredibly detail-focused. There are patterns and details in most things in life, so whatever a person’s individual interest areas may be, they can find a way to make use of these skills. Autistic people are often good at making predictions because of this, but we don’t always consciously know where the connections are coming from, which means this skill can be is a bit eerie and “prophetic” at times. When something falls out of pattern, autistic people often find it very confusing and upsetting, and some people have difficulties executing tasks because they become so stuck on details.
Fourth, autistic people often struggle with managing our emotions. Sometimes, it’s because an autistic person has a hard time even recognizing their own emotions, which is related to sensory issues that make things feel different internally. Many other autistic people are just overwhelmed by how powerful our emotions are. This is further complicated by trauma, which often causes an increase in emotional sensitivity. It’s important to reiterate, however, that communication differences may mean autistic people do not express their emotions the way people expect.
Fifth, autistic people have empathetic differences. The stereotype is that autistic people have less empathy than normal, but many of us are actually hyperempathetic. This can add to our excess sensitivity and frequent overwhelm. Hyperempathetic people also often struggle to stand up for ourselves because we empathize so strongly even with people who are harming us. At times, young autistic people believe themselves to have “psychic powers” because of all the information their empathy picks up. Notably, we may avoid eye contact because the combined social and sensory input is like getting punched in the face with ~feelings~.
Sixth, a trait that autism shares with its “sister condition” of ADHD is focus differences. Autistic people tend to have hyperfixations and episodes of hyperfocus. Hyperfixations are intense, long-term “special interests” that the person constantly wants to talk or think about. Hyperfocus presents as a shorter episode where a person becomes so focused on one particular task that they forget to do other important tasks, including eating and showering. Being broken from a hyperfocus state is very jarring. Autistic people also tend to be impatient with subjects or tasks that don’t interest us and have trouble focusing on them. This connects to the executive functioning issues that can already be caused by pattern recognition differences.
Seventh and finally, autistic people tend to be more direct and genuine than non-autistic people. It is important to remember here that many autistic people learn, both consciously and subconsciously, to contort ourselves to fit non-autistic communication patterns so others will like and respect us. However, our natural selves have a directness and genuineness that, depending on the individual, may cause difficulties understanding and engaging in secrets, lies, small talk, figurative language, sarcasm, and other subtext. Autistic genuineness also means we’re more likely to talk at length about things we find interesting and to live our beliefs more consistently. (Multiple studies indicate autistic people are truer to our values and morals than non-autistic people are, which makes me worried for all y’all. Are you okay? Do you need help being more moral? 🤔)
I would like to conclude by noting again that autistic people do not want cures for these aspects of ourselves–to cure our autism would be to erase us as individuals. Neurodiversity, like all forms of diversity, adds beauty and value to humanity. We as a species are stronger together because of our differences. Unfortunately, because our societies are not already built to fit the ways autistic people thrive, we need extra accommodation. Yet the only currently recognized therapy for autistic people is applied behavioral analysis, which not only is based in the same dehumanizing roots as gay conversion therapy, but also is often designed to suppress autism. In other words, it increases masking, leading to more burnout, health issues, and suicide. That’s why autism rights is a notable ongoing movement. We deserve better.
So! If you read all of this, I congratulate you on having probably learned more about autism. As always, I encourage you to be radically kind and to remember that every person has their own right path in life worth supporting. The best way to offer that support is to honor the authority that marginalized people hold when speaking about their own experiences. Per the famous disability rights slogan: “Nothing about us without us.”
Images via MissLunaRose12 on Wikipedia and hertzen on Flickr.
I originally published this in September 2012 on my old blog.
Today’s post provides an overview of the traditional novel publishing process for anyone who wants to brush up on the basics! Authors may deviate from this path in a variety of ways, but this is the standard journey.
Write a novel.
Contrary to popular belief, you do have to have a completed book before you try to publish it, haha. Nonfiction operates on proposals and is a whole other kind of process, but for fiction, you want to have the manuscript ready first.
Edit your novel.
Most of writing is, in fact, editing. You want your work to be as polished and awesome as possible before you start putting it out there. You are selling this to the industry, and they want as great of a piece as they can get. Yes, they’re going to do a lot of editing themselves. No, that does not mean you can let it slide. Make the best product you can on your own.
Start by stepping away from your work once you’ve finished your first draft. It’s important to get some space to improve your perspective. You won’t be able to see your mistakes until you’ve had some time away from them. Come back later to get the job done.
One important part of the editing process is getting readers who can offer even more perspective. Be sure to seek out varied views from people with different skill areas, some of whom tend to be harsher and some of whom tend to be more complimentary. Then look over the responses, consider what you want from your story, and figure out what you need to change.
It’s a good idea to start with the bigger storyline stuff before you get down to editing the exact wording. Over time, as you write and edit new manuscripts, you’ll also find your own special writerly weaknesses and learn how to counter them. For example, I am a plot-rusher. I’m so excited about the big picture and seeing what happens that I tend to leave out important filler. So in edits, I get to go back and fill it in! When it comes to words that are overused or that weaken the prose, like those listed in The Elements of Style, my personal weaknesses are passive voice and iterations of the words “look” and “eyes.” There are lots of tools online that can help you find yours, including word cloud apps!
Once you run out of notable issues to edit, it’s time to move to the next step.
Finalize the pitch material.
You may actually find it helpful to draft these documents while you’re in the midst of the previous two steps, but whether or not you do that, you need to polish them afterwards. These documents are key. They’re what you send to literary agents in order to obtain their interest in representing you. Because pitch material is all about summarizing, organizing, and marketing your ideas, it has the side effect of clarifying your ideas. Getting it right is so important.
Here’s what you need:
a query letter
a plot synopsis
a finished manuscript
This step is where you fully switch from artist to business thinking, which means being smart, professional, and exact. It’s similar to what’s required when applying for a regular job. A query letter is a mix between a cover letter and a project proposal. A plot synopsis is like a more detailed project proposal. Samples are often requested, which is why you need that book ready! You also may be asked for an author bio or a marketing plan, and if you attend special writerly events, you’ll have to condense your query letter down even further: 140 characters for a Twitter pitch online or a minute-long verbal “elevator pitch.”
The query letter is the central piece here. It begins with a pitch of your manuscript (make it exciting, specific, but professional, like on the inside flap of a published book), either followed or preceded by a paragraph stating the title, category/genre, word count, and a couple of comparable titles. You don’t want comps that are so blockbuster-popular that you’ll sound egotistical, but you want some well-written, recent titles that have a similar theme, style, and/or genre as your manuscript. Then include a paragraph with any writing credits you may have, followed by a closing where you offer the manuscript to the agent and thank them. You may also want to share your reason for choosing that particular agent to send to. Make sure that your final query is one page only!
There are all sorts of resources online to help you write a top-notch query, but I recommend seeking out other writers who are familiar with the process, at places like WriteOnCon, to specifically critique yours.
Choose who to send your materials out to.
This step involves a lot of research. There’s no point in marketing your novel if you’re marketing it to the wrong people. It’s important, first, to know that it is very rare to get a publishing deal without a literary agent as an intermediary. The agents select the clients whose work they most love, prepare them more, and then send them to editors at publishing companies, who know that these novels are higher quality because the agent chose them. Agents also assist with the entire rest of the process, including contract negotiations, which makes them indispensable.
Second, Writer’s Market and the website QueryTracker are two great reference tools that can help you find agents. Each agent has different genres they specialize in. Narrow down the field to the agents that work with your novel type and look at their websites. Be sure you’re considering not just the overall agency, but the individual agents to find which one fits you best. You will be expected to address that person directly in your letter, and it’s to your advantage to know a good bit about them. Check places like Writer Beware and Absolute Write online to make sure they aren’t scamming you. Find with whom the agents have worked and what books they’ve sold. You can also look at their social media to see how they interact publicly with others.
Third, once you have a list of agents you’d like to work with, find what their submission requirements are. Each one will have slightly different rules about which materials they want sent where, and they’ll have different response times. (Many of them are so busy they don’t respond at all unless they want to read more.) Get that information and follow it to the letter. Again, professionalism! Be the person others want to work with.
Send out your work.
Once you’re ready, I recommend sending out to a handful of agents at a time. You want to query multiple agents because you’re very unlikely to get a yes the first few times, but not too many agents because it can get confusing and you need time to correct your materials based on the responses. Keep track in a spreadsheet so you know if they’ve exceeded their response time and if it’s time to a) check in or b) move on, depending on what their website says.
Remember that you will be rejected. It happens to all of us. For example, I’ve been rejected 111 times so far! If I’m not your prime example, you can look up any author and see what their experience was like. Rejection happens. It’s part of the process. Be strong, never give up on becoming a published author, but be ready to move on to another manuscript if the time comes.
If they haven’t asked for the full manuscript up front, which is rare, agents who are interested will ask for that once they read your query. Based on where in the process you’re getting rejected most often–whether it’s with the query, the first few chapters, or the full manuscript–you can figure out where you need to focus your edits. Reconsider your materials. Get more opinions from people you trust. A lot does depend on the current market and individual taste. Agents may also ask for a revise and resubmit (R&R), where you edit your manuscript based on their critiques and they check whether it’s right for them afterwards. You don’t have to make those edits if they don’t feel right for you–just move on to somebody else.
If it’s really just not happening, you might reach a point where you have to “trunk” that novel. If you’ve been writing another book while you’re been querying (which you should do!), you can move on to that one. Sometimes a manuscript you write ends up just being for you. That’s valuable in so many ways, so don’t feel bad that it wasn’t meant for more. Move forward until you get to the book that does work.
Continue your work with the professionals.
Hopefully, you’ll reach a point where one or more agents decide they want to represent you. At this point, you need to notify the others who have not yet responded. There will be a phone call so you and the agent can discuss your visions for the manuscript and your future career. That’ll help you figure out if you’re the right fit for each other. Your agent is your business partner, so you need to be able to communicate with and trust them. Once you and an agent officially decide to work together, with a signed contract and all, take a moment to celebrate! This is such an important step forward. (One I haven’t yet reached myself!)
Done celebrating? Okay. This is a business relationship, and like all relationships, it takes mutual work. You might do some editing together. Then your agent will start sending out to editors at publishing houses who the agent sees as a good fit–and you’ll get more rejections in the process. With luck, you’ll find the right editor, but things can go wrong. You might still have to move on to a different manuscript. It’s also possible that someone might end up breaking the writer/agent contract, and you’ll have to start over. This is a difficult, messy industry, but if you’re really here for this, it’s worth it.
Once you’ve negotiated and signed a contract with a publisher (which requires the okay from multiple editors, usually), there are still more ways it can go wrong. It often takes a year or two for the book to actually hit the market because there are multiple levels of editing that you have to undergo along with designing and formatting and marketing. Your agent will help you through it all. Together, you and your publishing team will hopefully be able to kick off your authorly career!
Then you can look at how far you’ve come. You made it to publication. YOU WIN! (I mean, you still have a whole career to manage, and there are a million more ways it can go wrong. Your book sales will determine how likely you are to get published again, and you don’t have much power over that! The best determiner is actually how much marketing the publisher chooses to do for your book. There’s also all sorts of complications with payment schedules and advances and taxes and a sad lack of health insurance. But that’s life! This moment is still monumental and deserves congratulations.)
I originally shared this on my old blog in March 2019.
When I first started writing as a child, I didn’t believe that writer’s block was real. Since then, I’ve had many years to learn otherwise! Of the many books I’ve written, the most difficult has been the now-trunked book I wrote just before my chronic illness crisis, which challenged me on multiple levels and led to multiple kinds of writer’s block. I have never struggled so much with a novel. This challenge led to me developing a new mental model of writer’s block where there are four main causes. Today, I’d like to talk about those causes and what my recommended solutions are for each of them.
Problem: Lack of motivation/connection This is probably the most common cause of writer’s block. People tend to believe that writing is something that happens when you feel “the Muse” speaking to you. But “the Muse” often doesn’t cooperate, and writing is in fact work. It doesn’t always come easily. So what do you do if you’re lacking in motivation or in connection to your story?
Solution: Put your butt in your chair and your fingers on your keyboard If you want to actually finish your project and achieve publication, in all truth, you need to write even when you’re not feeling like it. As I discovered with the previously mentioned book, sometimes, your motivation doesn’t make its appearance until you’re in the middle of writing. Your connection to your story, too, often requires you to be working consistently so that you don’t lose sight of the beginning. (For me as a person who writes more by experienced intuition than by well-organized craft, this is especially true. You can see more about the importance of writing in a way that fits your style in this post.)
The refrain many authors repeat is thus “butt in chair, fingers on keyboard.” Sit down and start writing! If doing that for a while doesn’t help, you should consider whether you’re being affected by another type of writer’s block, like the next one.
Problem: Writer’s doubt A second common cause of writer’s block is “writer’s doubt,” where your anxious lack of confidence gets the better of you. Writer’s doubt makes it impossible for you to work on your writing without having a wave of a million worries bowl you over.
Solution: Give yourself a pep talk If this is the problem you’re running into, give yourself a pep talk! Your writing isn’t meant to be perfect, especially in the first draft. The beauty of being a novelist is that you can develop and build the story over time, with multiple rounds of editing, and see it slowly become what you envisioned. It’s a process. So give yourself permission to make mistakes–lots of mistakes. You can ask your writing partners and loved ones to give you pep talks, too. Then go back to solution #1 and put your butt in that chair.
This problem haunted me with the previously mentioned book. From the beginning, I was terrified that it would prove to be just too much for me. I’ve always liked to challenge myself, but the unique point-of-view, the creative internalization, and the complex and deeply personal themes were more than I’d ever taken on before. Every time I thought about opening that document, I was terrified that I would discover an irreparable mess. Still, I am a writer, so I always did face that fear eventually–and every time, I was relieved to find that it better than I thought. When the day did come for me to let go of that story, I did so knowing it had fully fulfilled its purpose in my life, though that purpose had not turned out to be publication. I benefited personally and authorially from putting all that work in, and I consider it a victory.
Problem: A personal life issue If you can’t seem to push through your writer’s doubt, that may be a sign that there is a larger problem at play. When something important is wrong in your personal life, it can destroy your ability to write. You might be facing a mental or physical illness, a broken relationship, a triggered past trauma, or another stressful situation.
Solution: Take care of yourself Consider the issues in your life that could be throwing off your creative flow. The previously mentioned book was not only a challenging project that triggered past traumas for me, but when I wrote it, I was unknowingly at the forefront of a horrific health crisis. My inability to focus and my growing anxiety as I stumbled through my first and second drafts were early warning signs. By the time I realized that my body was failing me, it was too late to prevent the years-long nightmare that would alter my reality forever. While I’m very proud of the work I did, that book will always be associated, for me, with suffering.
So take my advice: Stay in tune with yourself emotionally, mentally, physically, and spiritually. If you start to sense that something is wrong, make changes in your life to prioritize your health. You may need to seek help from loved ones or professionals. You may even need to take a good, long break from writing. In my case, while I was at my sickest, I was unable to work on original fiction, but I found much-needed solace in slowly creating my first-ever fanfiction. (I truly might not be alive today if I hadn’t had that to lift my spirits.)
Problem: Being too stubborn Stubbornness is a key trait for creative people who want to make a career from their art. You have to be stubborn to face rejection and critique and keep going. Sometimes, though, that stubbornness prevents you from recognizing an issue in your story (or in your life) that has you stuck. If you’ve tried all the solutions above and your story still just isn’t working, it’s time to humble yourself.
Solution: Stop and listen to the truth I’ve learned from working with other writers that some people thrive with an extensive practical understanding of the technical craft. For them, organizing their pages and plots and characters into something they can break down into diagrams and charts is what reveals problems. I am not like that. I find craft to be helpful at times, but writing for me is a beautiful kind of chaos that I create by feel. It’s where I’ve always been able to let go of the tight control society taught me I needed to have over myself. (See also: growing up with autism.) After years of voracious reading and writing, I do have a strong instinct for when something is wrong and for what would better create the “soul” that’s lacking there.
I run into trouble when I get too stubborn to listen to that instinct. Sometimes, I want a story or a character to be something they’re not. Sometimes, I have a plan that I don’t want to let go of. Over time, I’ve developed the skill of recognizing and humbling myself to that little twinge of wrongness in my heart. I’ve learned to trust my creative instinct. I find that I avoid a lot of writer’s block by doing so. Thus, even when it’s difficult, I recommend that you pay attention to whatever it is that guides your storytelling. The same goes for life issues. Be willing to open yourself to possibilities you might not like, and you may find that you’ve known the answer all along.
Hello! Last year for Pride Month, I posted about how, after years of research and thought, I’d figured out that I’m not straight: I’m actually demibisexual. For Pride Month this year, I’m sharing that again here on this new website.
If you’re unfamiliar with the terminology used for different kinds of attraction, “demibisexual” might sound like a confusing collection of random syllables. Human attraction is complicated, like most things related to humanity. The fact that we have the language now to better explore and understand it is amazing! So thank you for taking the time to learn.
My journey in discovering my own sexual and romantic orientations began early on in writing a novel that has now been trunked. I knew that I wanted one of the side characters to be asexual because it’s important that stories appropriately represent people with different orientations. Not only is it unrealistic to exclude them, it’s also hurtful and can leave them feeling unmoored and rejected. I chose asexuality in particular because it was the marginalized orientation that I’d always found myself most interested in.
Asexuality is a sexual orientation where a person does not feel sexual attraction to people of any gender. Asexual people do not have a medical or psychological problem, and they are not just choosing to be celibate. Asexual people don’t feel physical desire the way allosexual people do when they are around an attractive person of their gender(s) of interest. Some asexual people are sex-repulsed, meaning even the idea of engaging in sex is repulsive to them; some are sex-favorable, meaning that they’re interested in engaging in sex despite not specifically being attracted to anyone;and some are sex-neutral.
What many people don’t realize is that sexual attraction and romantic attraction are two different things. Most people’s romantic orientations align with their sexual orientations, but that’s not always the case. The asexual community is where this divergence is most obvious. The split attraction model (which also includes other kinds of attraction like platonic and aesthetic) is a common topic of discussion among asexual people, many of whom experience romantic attraction without the sexual aspect. However, romantic attraction can be difficult to describe.
When I wrote the first draft of the novel in late 2014, I didn’t understand what made romance different from friendship other than sexual attraction. Because of that, I left the character’s romantic orientation undetermined. I revisited the idea a few times in editing, but I could never make enough sense of my own romantic orientation to feel comfortable writing about hers. I’ve always been someone who adores the intimate, affectionate commitment seen in romance stories (though I was not nearly that comfortable with sex), but I still couldn’t explain what romantic attraction felt like.
In April 2019, I realized that I needed to do some research. Leaving the character’s romantic orientation unexplored wasn’t right. So I embarked on an online adventure. For a while, the information I found only left me more frustrated. Most people who knew their romantic orientations couldn’t describe the experience clearly. Some of them listed specific nonsexual things they wanted to do only with romantic partners, none of which fit my experience. Some of them said romance was just “different” from friendship in a way they couldn’t explain, that it was “something extra.” I discovered that a segment of people call themselves things like quoiromantic or wtfromantic because they have no idea what romantic attraction even is.
Then something clicked. I remembered a roommate from late 2015. She and I had connected right away and became devoted to each other within days of meeting. Multiple people had commented on our unusual closeness, and for a while after that semester, I had questioned whether I might be bisexual. But I had never felt sexual attraction to her, and I hadn’t wanted to do anything with her that I didn’t want to do with my other friends. (I did often think that I would totally marry her if she had been a guy, though.)
Now, four years later, I understood. I had been romantically attracted to this girl. Like people said online, it was “different” and “extra” without being sexual. My feelings for her had been more vibrant and focused than friendship. And that meant I was biromantic. Like most bi people, I had a “preference,” leaning slightly more towards men, but here was one example of romantic attraction towards a woman. Later, I came to recognize more women I’d once been romantically attracted to. With that knowledge in hand, it felt right for Phoebe to mirror my own romantic orientation journey.
A few questions still lingered, but I didn’t pay much mind to them until May 2020. One night, I was lying in bed like usual, letting my thoughts whirl their way around my head however they pleased until they slowed into sleep. For whatever reason, I started thinking about asexuality. I thought about how I’d always been drawn to it as a concept, and most particularly, to demisexuality. Demisexuality is a sexual orientation halfway along the asexual “spectrum,” where a person feels sexual attraction only to rare people with whom they already feel a special emotional connection.
I thought about how multiple online quizzes I’d taken had put me somewhere in the asexual spectrum. I thought about how my counselor sometimes questioned why sexual attraction was an afterthought when I talked about my crushes. I thought about the time in AP Literature when the teacher asked us all to share one thing we found physically attractive and everyone thought I was so “pure” because I couldn’t answer.
Up until now, I had assumed that I was repressing my feelings out of an OCD-related fear of sex I’d had since childhood. Now that I had worked through and almost entirely moved beyond that fear, I started considering whether it might be the other way around: that I’d been afraid of sex partly because sexual attraction was so rare for me. I remembered the intense emotional connections I’d had with the only two guys I’d ever been physically attracted to enough to actually consider kissing. Though the romantic attraction had started earlier, the sexual attraction hadn’t appeared until I had known them already for months. Its strength grew like a dimmer switch directly in proportion to my emotional interest. The peak intensity in both cases startled and confused me because it challenged my existing experiences.
As I now recognized myself for the first time as demisexual, many other things that had once confused me started making sense: the existence of one-night stands, celebrity crushes, and “hall passes”; my discomfort with dating apps; my consistent failure to actually have any romantic relationships. I understood for the first time that when it came to sex and romance, I really wasn’t like other people, and they weren’t like me.
Some people might not understand the power in being able to identify myself as demibisexual because of my complete current lack of experience with romantic relationships. But knowing the subtleties helps me to better understand myself and others. I’m also thrilled whenever I find the words to better communicate and understand different concepts. That’s why I’m glad complex labels like these exist. Knowledge is power, and I hope this story increases your knowledge and power too!
Images via my own files, Hafuboti on Wikipedia, and Eugenex on TeePublic.
Today is my 27th birthday! 💃🏻 27 is a good strong number, so I’m pretty thrilled. (Although I basically still think of myself as ~21, so.) Anyway, two years ago, on my original blog, I posted a list of 25 lessons I had learned from my 25 years of life. I’m pretty proud of that post, so I thought I would bring it over here today! I’ll just add a couple more points to round it out to the modern day.
1) It’s okay to not be okay. This is the top thing that I would want to tell my younger self. I’ve spent so much of my life feeling guilty about my own emotions, but it’s okay to not be happy. It’s okay to struggle. It’s okay to seek out help, and it’s okay to keep having a difficult time even after that. (Toxic positivity is not The Way.)
2) Don’t be afraid of “wasted time” because you’re always learning something. When I was at my sickest, I was distraught at the thought that I wasn’t learning or growing or developing as a person. But afterwards I realized that I’d actually matured quite a bit, even though all I “did” was sit in bed and watch TV. You don’t have to always be accomplishing things in order to learn.
3) The world is both a horrible and a beautiful place. That’s what comes of imperfection. It’s important to see the beautiful, but ignoring the horrible is not the way to live either. Some people will try to do that anyway.
4) You don’t have to save the world by yourself. One of the beautiful things about humanity is that we live together. We are interdependent creatures who use the mechanism of society to protect each other. That means individuals don’t have to make up for all the horrible things in the world by themselves (and indeed, we can’t–the burden is too great, and everyone needs help at some time or another). It’s groups of people together who will make change.
5) You don’t have to “save” a man–or anyone else–to be worth loving. I believed there was something wrong with me for the longest time, something that I needed to fix in order to be a worthy human being like everyone else. I developed a form of relationship OCD focused on the idea that I could fix it by saving or fixing or otherwise supporting a guy. But girls don’t need guys to make them good people. I don’t have to support a “hero,” I can be the heroine of my own story.
6) Society disparages traditionally “feminine” things, but that doesn’t mean they’re bad. Being emotionally expressive in non-violent ways is not bad. Interdependence is not bad. Loving romance and family is not bad. Liking dresses and flowers and kittens is not bad. None of those things make you weak or stupid.
7) Don’t miss out on fun stuff on the merit of its popularity. In previous years, I had a habit of slipping into the “popularity sucks” complex, where I resisted popular things (or things that are recommended to me) out of stubbornness. But half of the things I tried to resist I ended up loving later!
8) The worth of a person, including yourself, cannot be measured in an empirical way. I’ve often diminished my own worth by trying to calculate it monetarily or through some kind of moral consequentialism. It’s just not that simple. We are living, breathing, thinking human beings with immortal souls, and that means we all have infinite worth just by nature. You would never think of someone you loved in this way.
9) Some things just don’t happen until they happen. So keep living your life and let things unfold naturally. My two major goals in life have been to have a strong marriage and to be a successful novelist. I’ve spent my whole life hoping those two things would be right around the corner, striving and struggling to make them happen. They still haven’t! But I’ve learned that big events happen in their own time. It’s worth putting effort into, but not worth agonizing over. Just keep doing what you love and being who you are.
10) Life rarely goes the way you plan. This is classic advice, always true. It doesn’t mean I’m ever gonna stop trying to plan things, haha, but it does demonstrate how all those anxiety-provoking “what ifs” are unhelpful. You just don’t know what’s going to happen, and you can’t prepare for everything. Learn to be flexible and adaptive.
11) Rules only have as much value as the principles behind them. Rules aren’t valuable in and of themselves. If the reason for a rule isn’t a good one, the rule won’t be good either. You still might have to deal with them, and that’s why it’s important to learn how to work around the system and jump through the hoops. But where there’s a bad rule, you should do what you can to change it. (See lesson #4 again.)
12) Your body does so many things every millisecond, which means there are so many ways that it can go wrong. Unfortunately, this means you will not realize the value of being able to eat tomatoes until it is too late. 🤷🏻♀️ So take care of yourself, okay? And don’t make assumptions about what other people’s bodies are or aren’t capable of doing.
13) Bullies almost never have a good reason for treating you the way they do. It’s not because there’s something wrong with you. It’s almost always because there’s something wrong with them. If you remember that, it’s a lot easier to keep it from getting to you. And ignoring your bullies will often lead to them stopping–though not always. That brings us to the next lesson…
14) Do the minimum that you have to in order to get someone out of another person’s space. You don’t have any irrevocable right to another person’s time or attention or anything else. If they don’t want you in their space, you get out of their space. Not only is that what’s moral, but it’s what’s necessary for a functional society. If someone is ignoring that and is harming or otherwise infringing on the space of another person, that is the only time it is okay to step into their space without permission. Do what it takes to get that person back where they need to be–but only as much as it takes. Violence should be a last resort. Don’t infringe any longer or any more than you have to.
15) Different people in similar situations react differently. This can be seen in mental illness, for, example: you can’t assume that because you know the stereotype or the textbook information or the experience of one person that you can tell whether someone has a certain illness. Some people with anxiety cry a lot (aka me). Some people get angry. Some people shut down. That’s how it is for just about everything in life. Every person has their own path, their own slightly unique way of being that is right for them. So never assume that your way is the best or only way.
16) Communication is an important and difficult skill that requires flexibility. Just as different people have different paths, they have different ways of communicating. We should all strive towards clearer communication that is neither too aggressive nor too passive. That takes work, especially if you didn’t learn it as a kid, but it’s worth it. At the same time, it’s vital to recognize people’s limitations. Just because someone can’t communicate to you in a way you understand doesn’t mean that they aren’t worth listening to. Keep working towards that place where the two of you can better connect.
17) Anyone canbe redeemed, but not everyone chooses to be. You can’t make that choice for anyone else. If someone is hurting other people, focus on protecting yourself and others, not on “changing” the perpetrator. (Some people might also choose to keep being harmed, and no matter how much you love them, you can’t make that choice for them, either. This is a fact that might be even harder to face.)
18) One of the most important things for you to be aware of is how little you know. There’s an infinity of knowledge out there, more than even humanity collectively could imagine. So never think that you know it all. Never think that someone else’s perspective doesn’t have value.
19) Learn your limits and then stay at the very edge of them. This advice originally came from my time at Mayo Clinic, but I think it applies to a lot of things in my life. It’s important that you challenge yourself so that you can learn and grow and expand your limits, but if you go over the edge, you will have a setback rather than the growth you wanted. Be careful with striking that balance! Remember that balance is something that shifts often. It’s a lifelong journey.
20) If you’re unhappy, don’t be afraid to make a change. I learned this the most during college, when I realized that I could resolve some of my unhappiness by making changes, such as changing classes, changing majors, or even changing schools. You don’t have to stay on the path you’re already on. Your choices aren’t a one-and-done. Now, with all that said…
21) There are some problems you can’t run away from. Sometimes, you can make a few changes, and your situation will improve. But when the problem is deeper, you can’t escape it by developing a new lifestyle or making new friends or moving to a new place. This is the case for things like mental illness, chronic illness, or past trauma. You need to face them head-on and work your way through them. Otherwise, you may escape for a short time, but they will come back around again.
22) Sometimes friendships end, and that’s okay. I’ve had many times in my life where I was terrified of losing my friends. In the end, I did lose many of them–but that’s okay. Friendships can end badly or prematurely, but often, they end naturally, when they are meant to. And the fact that something ends doesn’t diminish its value.
23) The human mind is more terrifying than anything else out there. I lost a lot of my innocence around fourth grade, when I had an intense, months-long episode of a true phobia. Afterwards, I was sobered by the fact that my mind could create such darkness. I’d never imagined that kind of twisted fearfulness could exist inside me. It took me a while to start trusting myself again. Mental illnesses like that are just one example of the awe-inspiring power of the human mind.
24) You can endure more than you could ever imagine. Whatever the darkness you find inside yourself, whatever the trials you face, know that human beings are capable of incredible resilience. Humans have endured unimaginable suffering all around the world, all throughout history. That fact isn’t a happy one, but it does offer some hope. When you hit your darkest moments, remember that you have more strength than you know. You have the power to make the best of your circumstances, whatever that may mean.
25) You deserve to be treated with respect. Everyone does. If someone is mistreating you, you don’t have to put up with it. It doesn’t matter if they’re “a good person” or really popular or well-liked. It doesn’t matter if you like them. You deserve better. Likewise, it’s not necessary to understand something or someone to respect them. Understanding is great, but create that foundation first with basic respect.
26) Trauma does a ton of damage to people. Per #24, you can survive much more than you might imagine, but trauma also leaves lasting scars. We have to protect each other, especially children, who are the most vulnerable when it comes to this. If you’ve been through trauma, while you may never fully heal, do know that you can find your way to a better life. Give yourself the time and seek out what resources you can access to guide you in that.
27) Everyone should be given the time, the space, and the resources they need to heal. From my experiences with illness and trauma, I’ve learned that we as individuals and a society need to act with greater kindness and not push each other (or ourselves) too much. Again, there’s not one single way to live, and there’s not one single timeline. Let healing happen the way it needs to, however long that takes.
I originally shared this on my old blog in November 2019.
Over the years, as I’ve developed as a writer, I’ve had many moments where I realized that everything I had written so far was just not original enough. I’d write a bunch of manuscripts, try to get an agent with one of them, fail repeatedly, and then realize, I still haven’t figured this out. My writing’s still too derivative. It’s still not marketable.
One of those realizations hit me this September, and it was crushing. Years of failure have sapped a lot of my hope and excitement about publication. That makes the hard moments even harder. I kept thinking, How can I be such a slow learner in my writing career when I’ve always been a fast learner in everything else? But then I realized something, something big. And now I understand that it’s not an issue of being a slow learner. I’ve likely been improving at a decent enough pace.
The problem was that I wasn’t writing in the way that works best for me.
When it comes to writing advice, the cardinal rule is that you need to do what works for you. Quite simply, not every piece of writing advice will be right for every writer. I knew this. What I hadn’t realized was that finding what works for you doesn’t always come naturally. It won’t always be the first method you try. You have to experiment. You have to apply those pieces of writing advice and see if they improve your work.
I tend to be stubborn, which I think is an important trait for writers, but it has downsides. Right from the start, I settled into one method of writing, and I never really considered the alternatives. I started out each of my books with an ending or a climax in mind and then blazed a path towards that. I never planned any other part of the story before I began to write. On top of that, I was a “plot-rusher,” someone who moves so quickly through the first draft that it ends up skeletal. Instead of needing to delete a lot of content the way most writers do in editing, I needed to add scenes and bulk it all up.
I was proud of and enjoyed my way of doing things! I was proud to be the person who wrote nineteen novels before turning twenty-one. I was proud to be a repeat NaNoWriMo winner who once managed 50,000 words in two weeks. I had settled into that identity, and I felt loyal to it.
It’s strange to think of my chronic illnesses as being positive. My chronic illness crisis was difficult and traumatizing, and it shifted my entire life in so many ways I consider negative. But it turns out that this crisis also did me an important favor: it forced me to slow down. It’s been a frustrating struggle, going from blazing to glacial, from Stephen King to George R.R. Martin. Nevertheless, a few months ago, as I realized it was time to trunk my pre-chronic-illness-crisis manuscripts because of their unoriginality, I also realized how important slowing down had been for me.
I am not really a creative thinker. I’m a rule follower, Lawful Good, not great at getting outside the box. This is exactly why I had been failing at originality over the years. Someone like me cannot thrive as a pantser and a plot-rusher. All my obsessive enthusiasm, along with my longtime distaste for outlines, has kept me from realizing that slowing down is exactly what I’ve needed, at every stage of the process.
I seem to get book ideas at the rate of about one per year. But when I became sick, I wasn’t able to write a new book for a handful of years. That means the ideas started piling up, and I had more time to consider them and add to them. Apparently, ideas for novels are kind of like Lego blocks: you have to take multiple pieces and snap them together before you get something special. So now, instead of having basic ideas with a couple of components, I have ideas that are taking on more pieces before I ever start writing.
My slowness once I get to the writing stage has also caused a number of important changes. When working at this rate, I have to write every day or I lose both momentum and perspective. I forget too much of what’s come before and have to go back to the start. Outline or no, I think every writer works off of instinct to some degree–you have to develop a “sense” for the story, and if I don’t write every day, I lose that. But writing every day is actually the first writing process advice I’ve ever tried out. It’s showed me how changing up my style might be good. It’s certainly improved my mental health.
Additionally, writing this slowly gives me time to consider my options. When I was racing through my stories with my basic, non-outlined ideas, it was very easy for my Lawful Good brain to default into overused tropes instead of thinking in more complex ways. I believe that I’ll be able to be more original and creative now that I’ve slowed down. The slowness further allows me to layer on more details and do more research during writing instead of doing it in editing.
The slower rate even helps during editing, because I have more time to consider and list all the changes that would improve the story before I send it to my beta readers and critique partners. They get a better product, one that I’ve already done a lot of work on, to critique. I’m also having them read it one at a time instead of all at once now, which I think will increase the potential for improvement.
Without my illnesses slowing me down, I don’t think I ever would have discovered what I needed. I don’t think I would’ve realized that I needed to test methods out in order to find what was right for me. But now I know that I need to experiment not just with what I write but with how I write it. Little by little, this will bring me to a place where I can write better–not just because I’m learning writing skills but because I’m discovering how to write in a way that maximizes my unique potential.
This epiphany also emphasized for me the importance of this piece of writing advice. In the linked Tumblr post, the writer discusses how J.R.R. Tolkien exemplified someone using what they know and are passionate about to write a story that’s both high-quality and uniquely personal. I was struck by that piece of advice from the moment I first read it. Now, I see that it aligns with this concept of finding what works best for you.
Initially, I didn’t know how to apply the advice because I see my passion as mainly being “stories.” That’s just too broad a topic. But as I’ve thought it over, I realized, first, I had to let go of what is typical for speculative fiction stories. I think most writers struggle with this; after all, there’s a reason we love the genre(s) we write! While it is important for us to examine what we love in our favorite authors/stories, it’s also important to consider what fits us.
As much as I love epic sci-fi/fantasy, I am not a strategist, and I don’t know much about war or political schemes. That kind of thinking doesn’t at all come naturally for me. So the stories that fit me aren’t big epics with worlds in need of salvation. The stories that fit my skills and interests are more personal and focused. These smaller-scale conflicts don’t have to be smaller intensity–what people usually connect to in stories are the characters. And that’s what I’m best suited to focus on, with my interest in human-related topics in general!
Writing small-scale stories does mean I’m less likely to become a Harry Potter- or Hunger Games-type phenomenon, but my vision of a dream career has changed anyway. I’ve realized the better goal isn’t to become a phenomenon, but rather to have a long and steady career with many published books. After all, you don’t have to touch millions to make a difference in the world. Even just one can be enough.
So instead of writing epics, it’s better for me to write about what I have more experience, knowledge, and interest in. I have experience in complex family relationships, in mental and chronic illness, in music, and in social media use. I have a slightly more-than-average amount of knowledge about psychology, sociology, religion, and medicine. I also know a lot about cats, should that ever become relevant, LOL. Though I wouldn’t say I’m knowledgeable about it, I am very interested in romance. Finally, what draws me to speculative fiction is its focus on all the potential in the future, the universe, and ourselves. Between that and the many tropes I enjoy, there’s a lot I can work with in my writing to make it more unique! And of course, experiences and interests can change over time, offering even more possibilities.
Throughout my small and unsuccessful writing career so far, I’ve had a few “most important pieces of writing advice” to offer: First, writers need to become stubborn enough to never give up on their dreams. Second, writers need to explore as many different stories from others as they can. Third, writers need to recognize the autonomy of their characters. Now, I’m adding this to the top of the list: Writers need to experiment with different writing methods so that they can find what works the best for them personally.
For me, this is a career-changer, and it might very well turn out to be a career-maker. Because of my chronic illness crisis, in multiple ways, my writing will never be the same.
Images via Kimchi.sg and Peter Milosevic on Wikipedia.
I originally shared this on my old blog in April 2020.
While most people’s bucket lists span a range of potential life experiences, most of what I want to do relates to authorship. There are a sorts of amazing accomplishments and moments a person could have as a novelist! So here is my authorly bucket list, with a few more general bonuses at the end:
1) Sign a contract with a literary agent. I have yet to achieve the very first step towards traditional publication despite many attempts. I look forward to making this professional connection and having another person on my team!
2) Publish a novel. This is the big one I’ve been looking forward to for years and years! It’s only the hoped-for beginning, of course, but it would be a huge step all by itself.
3) Run a book giveaway. Once I have a book to promote, I plan to run at least one giveaway. Since I’ve won many books from giveaways in the past, I’m excited to offer the same chance to others.
4) Hold a book release party. I’m not sure where I’d have one–the library is the only place in my little town that seems appropriate–but I’ve seen photos from the parties authors hold when they release a new book, and it looks delightful. There are cupcakes with book covers on them, y’all! Even if it was very small, I’d love having such a party.
5) See my book on a shelf in my local library. I’ve had this image in my head ever since I first realized I wanted to be a novelist, I love the library, and I’d be thrilled to see my book there among the others I’ve enjoyed! I’d also be excited to see it in “shelfies” of all kinds from all over.
6) Publish another novel. People say that the second book is the hardest, and a lot of writers do end up dropping out of the field after their first book comes out. I want to make a career of this, and that means getting past the second book hurdle.
7) Earn out an advance. In publishing, you receive an advance payment when you sign a book deal with a publisher. You then don’t see any more money from that book until the book has earned a larger amount than your advance was. This is called “earning out,” and a lot of writers never see it happen! I hope I do; I hope I get some royalties someday.
8) Receive a fan letter. Even just a single positive letter would buoy up my soul so much. To know that I’ve had an impact on a stranger’s life through my writing would be huge. 💜
9) See fanart made of one of my books. I adore fanart, and I know I’d be all over any fanart that was made of my creations. I’d save it on my computer and maybe even buy it for display in my house if it was for sale!
10) Hit a bestseller list. There are a few of these, of which the New York Times version is the most famous. I know from what others have said that the bestseller list is a bit of a crapshoot–it’s not the most accurate as to actual sales, and there are ways to game the system. I’d like to get on one anyway.
11) Get a starred review. I don’t know a whole lot about this, but I know that starred reviews from professional reviewers like Kirkus are a big deal! So yeah, I’d like one.
12) Get a book published outside the U.S. Some American books end up getting foreign rights deals, where a publisher from outside the U.S. will publish it, often in another language. I think it would be amazing to have that happen.
11) Have one of my books featured in a book box. I haven’t ever gotten one myself, but I love looking at pictures of subscription book boxes that feature newly released YA novels along with themed merch from various fandoms. I think it would be awesome to have one of my books be in one!
12) Participate in WriteOnCon as a published author. I’ve been a fan of WriteOnCon, a low-cost online kid lit writers conference, for years. It’s done a lot to improve my query game, if nothing else. I’d love to give back by being a part of the other side of the conference, whether through a panel, a blog post, a video, or official forum participation.
13) Attend an in-person conference or event as a published author. Because of my disabilities, I won’t be able to attend as many in-person events as most published authors. However, I loved the conferences I attended before I got so sick, and I love online conferences too, so I do want to go to at least one in-person event once I’m published.
14) Be in someone else’s book acknowledgements. I already have a few writing friends, but I hope to make more in the future, and I’d love to be an important enough part of their lives to earn a spot in the acknowledgements of one of their books!
15) Win a book award. I don’t know much about this either, but some books I adore have won big awards, including Challenger Deep by Neal Shusterman, which won the 2015 National Book Award for Young People’s Literature. I’d love to achieve something like that!
16) Have one of my books made into a movie or TV show. Since I joined Netflix and started watching TV show book adaptations there, I’ve realized that TV shows tend to do a better job at adapting books (or at least book series) than movies do. I think the extended time allows for a more direct interpretation. However, most of my writing is in the form of standalone novels, so I’m not against the idea of a movie either. This is a stretch goal, of course–most books do not get adapted–but it would be truly awesome.
BONUS BUCKET LIST: Fall in love and get married. Travel somewhere outside the United States. Have a library room in my house, preferably with a cool secret entrance!