On Reviews

I had a weird interaction the other day.

Someone reached out to me asking for a review copy of my book. To be honest, their initial email confused me and I almost wondered if they were a scammer. But I decided to give them the benefit of the doubt and gave them a review copy. They emailed back asking if I wanted to read their review because they had suggestions for how I should edit my book.

Listen…I want to be charitable and say that I guess they have no experience with reviewing or the book community.

But the bottom line is, their email made me very uncomfortable.

Reviews are for readers, not for authors.

Usually, this is said in the context of authors who are bad actors and who attack reviewers who give them low ratings.

Some people are even against authors reading their own reviews at all. I’m not, just because from the indie perspective, it’s important to know how your book is being received, and you don’t get trade review opportunities. But I do agree that if you are an author who reads your own reviews, you shouldn’t engage with them. Vent to your friends and family offline, but don’t engage with your reviews. I’ve been on the flip side (the reader side), and it can feel extremely uncomfortable when authors interact with your reviews.

But. This also applies to readers who want to present their reviews as constructive criticism to authors: Reviews are for readers, not for authors.

If I read reviews and I decide to take away some constructive criticism from them, that’s my choice. But by the time the book is published, e.g. I’ve already been through the editing process to prepare it for publication, I don’t really want people presenting constructive criticism to me anymore.

For one, the book is already published. I can’t edit it anymore, obviously. People telling me “This is how you should edit your already published book” is simply going to make me feel bad.

Also, there’s a very different mindset between the questions “Hey, can you review my book because reviews help my career?” vs. “Hey, can you tell me what is/isn’t working in my book?”

I’m hugely against unsolicited advice in general, but I think a lot of people share my views in the writing context. Writing can be deeply personal, and although feedback and revision are, of course, part of the job, you really want to provide feedback to someone who’s receptive to it. In other words, there’s a specific time and place for feedback.

Most people who are familiar with writing reviews know this, and even if you’re not super familiar with community conventions, I would still think it’s uncomfortable to directly contact an author and tell them “this is how you should make your book better”?

(Not to say editors or agents are infallible (in fact, I disagreed with a lot of agent feedback for my novel I’m currently querying), but given the subjectivity of reader reactions to books, I’m probably more likely to believe feedback from a publishing professional than from…a random person on the internet.)

So…anyway, reviews are for readers, not authors.

Please don’t contact an author asking if they want to know how you think they could make their book better. Even if you have the best of intentions (e.g. you think you’re being helpful), it can feel intrusive and puts the author in a very awkward position.

Ableism in the publishing industry

I have a story to tell.

At the beginning of this year, I drafted a novel that’s probably the most autobiographical one I’ve ever written. It drew from my experiences struggling in law school and struggling to find employment (and later, non-exploitative employment) for several years in order to capture the feeling of being an over-educated, under-employed millennial who did everything “right” but somehow still failed as an adult.

Because it was so closely intertwined with my own experiences, I decided to make the protagonist autistic, even though that wasn’t my intention when I started writing. Because I am autistic and I process the world through those eyes, so I don’t know how to separate out which of my experiences are “due to” my being autistic and which aren’t.

But, at the same time, I knew this wasn’t a story about being autistic. In other words, the protagonist is autistic and that informs his experiences, but his struggles in the book aren’t related to whether people can accept his autism, finding accommodations, or anything like that. So, I portrayed him as autistic and explicitly mentioned that he’s autistic briefly near the end, but didn’t spend much time on it.

Mostly, this was a story about being Chinese American and having mental illnesses, so I tried to focus on those aspects when querying the book.

One of the agents I queried was herself Asian. I placed too much faith in that fact and felt hopeful when she requested the full manuscript.

She rejected my novel—and the main reason was that she didn’t like the autism representation.

She said it was “unrealistic” that the protagonist concluded he was autistic from internet research and didn’t follow up with an official diagnosis.

She also said it was “too much” for the protagonist to be autistic “on top of” also having depression and anxiety.

Rejections always hurt, but this one hurt more than most because (1) I had trusted the agent since people said she championed marginalized authors, and (2) every single aspect of the protagonist’s autism came from my own experiences.

Which, I guess, really highlights how little allistic people understand about autism, even though they think they understand.

1. “Unrealistic” self-dx without official dx: The thing that really bothers me here is that I actually explained in the text why the protagonist didn’t seek an official diagnosis, which was that he couldn’t afford it.

Like wow, I’m sorry you believe getting an autism diagnosis as an adult is free and that a poor person would choose to spend money on that over paying rent? Do you even understand the medical/health insurance situation in America?

Also, intersectionality matters here. I know a bunch of Asian Americans who are autistic, and none of them received childhood diagnoses. My strong suspicion is that Asian Americans are probably underdiagnosed because no one thinks it’s weird for us to be quiet and socially awkward.

Plus, neurodivergence is heavily stigmatized in East Asian culture in general, which is another reason my protagonist was dissuaded from seeking a paper diagnosis.

2. “Too much” for a character to be autistic and have depression and anxiety at the same time: My reaction to this is bitter, hysterical laughter.

Anyone who is autistic can tell you we have high levels of comorbidity with depression and anxiety because of the ableism we face from childhood on.

I just…don’t even know what to say about this, really. It’s fundamental ignorance about autism to not understand how autism and anxiety/depression usually exist in a symbiotic, self-reinforcing relationship. Feeling different and isolated from other people usually results in anxiety/depression. Getting blamed for your difficulties usually results in anxiety/depression. Being mistreated because you’re autistic usually results in anxiety/depression.

Another facet of the agent’s criticism is that it felt like she was treating my protagonist’s disabilities as conflicts within the story that needed to be resolved—hence, her criticism seemed to center around how his autism “wasn’t resolved.”

Except…that wasn’t what I was trying to do? At all? Disabilities by and large don’t get “cured.” They’re simply things we learn how to cope with. My protagonist’s autism wasn’t “resolved” because it doesn’t need to be “resolved.” It’s just a part of his life.

(And, I mean…yes, the protagonist is happier at the end than he was at the beginning, but he also makes it clear to his love interest that his depression is never going to be “cured,” so I really don’t get how the agent assumed I was treating his mental illness as something that gets “resolved” at the end.)

3. Maybe the agent’s response would’ve been different if I’d said in my query letter that the autism representation was ownvoices.

But.

See, this is the part that I’m afraid of with respect to the ownvoices movement, which is otherwise a very important and necessary movement: The idea that it becomes necessary for authors to “out” themselves, or else a story is assumed not to be ownvoices.

Look, ownvoices means something different for race than for sexual orientation, gender, or disability. My identity as a person of color is obvious to anyone who sees my name. My other marginalized identities are invisible if I don’t tell people explicitly about them.

However, asking people to “out” themselves in a query letter is…not good allyship.

of course get the necessity of seeking ownvoices rep.

But let’s not ignore that marginalized identities can still be deeply personal to an individual.

I’ve spent my entire life hiding my being autistic, even before I knew I was autistic. Starting to write openly autistic characters has been a huge milestone for me. I’m still not comfortable writing a query letter to a stranger that says “I am autistic” when it’s something I hide from everyone who isn’t family or my closest friend.

It’s both intensely personal to me…and it also feels weirdly like I’m trying to commoditize my own identity, since I have to use it as a selling point.

There was an undertone in that agent’s comments that made it feel like she thought I added in my protagonist’s autism to grab “diversity points.”

I can’t begin to tell you how much that hurt me, an actually autistic person.

4. The agent loved every marginalized rep except the autism rep.

This is just…something I keep coming back to.

She loved the Chinese American rep. Okay, since I am Chinese American.

But she also praised the queer rep, and that’s, in a way, the weird part.

The queer rep in my book is NOT ownvoices.

I am asexual (and probably demiromantic). My characters are gay and bi/pansexual.

I spent quite a while thinking about the queer rep in my story because it’s not ownvoices. I knew I didn’t want to write any coming-out narratives and I didn’t want to write about homophobia or biphobia, because none of that is in my lane.

I even skirted the topic of the intersection of being gay or bi/pan and Asian American, because my experiences as an asexual Asian American are categorically different from that of a gay or bi/pansexual Asian American. In the past, I’ve abandoned writing stories that discussed the experiences of being gay or bi/pan and Asian American since I didn’t feel like that was my story to tell.

So it’s really pretty weird to me that the agent would praise the queer rep, which is not ownvoices…while slamming the autism rep, which is ownvoices.

(Especially since my legal name is a female-sounding name, so the agent would have no reason to even think the queer representation in my book is ownvoices, since the characters are all queer men.)

5. TL;DR

Publishing is still a hard place if you’re marginalized, especially when you’re multiply marginalized.

I doubt any literary agents would read this post, but hypothetically, if I could tell literary agents what I wish they would do differently, it would be the following:

1. Don’t expect authors to “out” themselves in a query letter, or assume that if an author doesn’t say they have an identity, it’s not ownvoices.

Seeking ownvoices representation is great and good and necessary.

But authors are also real people who live in the prejudiced world, identities can be deeply personal and private, and some people have incentives not to loudly proclaim all of our marginalized identities in our Twitter bios.

2. If you don’t have a particular identity…you really don’t have any business saying the portrayal of that identity is “unrealistic” or “too much.”

Even if you have a relative with a particular identity, if it’s not youyou don’t have the expertise to evaluate whether a portrayal of that identity is “realistic” or not.

You’d think this much is obvious, really.

And yet, somehow, it’s not.

Still more publishing anxiety

I’ve been having eyesight problems lately. I suspect they’re due in large part to the fact that I spend 8 hours every work day staring at a computer screen, and outside of work, I’ve been trying to revise my novel.

The solution (maybe?) seems to be to ban myself from novel writing on the weekdays. I’d probably be too tired anyway to make much progress.

And yet. Not working on my novel increases my anxiety.

It’s a horrible feeling, having all these thoughts crowding my head all the time. Thoughts like:

“I need to get this done ASAP.”

“I’m so close to getting an agent; I just need the final push.”

“Revising has been so difficult. How much longer is this going to take?”

“What if I’m not doing what the agent wants and, after all this work, I get rejected again?”

“I just need to finish, and then I can take a break. And get my health and social life in order.”

It’s just…not been productive.

In law school, when I wrote my first novel, I remember feeling tired and unproductive when writing on the weekdays. But even if I wasn’t getting much done, sitting in front of my computer and staring at my manuscript made me feel like I was accomplishing something.

Whereas now, even if I have great reasons for not writing on the weekdays—I need to protect my health, I’m too tired to get much done—I still feel anxious and dissatisfied.

And I don’t have good coping mechanisms for this situation. Even as I recognize my anxieties are not totally rational, there’s still a grain of truth to them I find hard to ignore.

haven’t been able to have a full-time job, time to write, and a social life, and it’s so tempting to get writing “out of the way” so I can resolve that problem.

Sigh.

Writing from Emotion

I’m someone who writes stories that are heavily driven by my own emotions.

Is it good? Bad? I don’t know. All I know is that, right now, at this stage of my writing career, my own emotions are the only thing that can sustain me through the long and painful process of writing a book and trying to get it published. Not cool premises, not interesting worlds, not even fascinating characters–only my emotions.

But the obvious downside to this is that I live in constant fear of dropping projects because my emotions change.

It’s inevitable. My life situation has changed significantly from year to year over the past five or so years. Recently, I thought about trying to rewrite my first published novel for fun (…don’t look at me, yes, I have weird definitions of “fun”), but…the fact is, I’m not the same person as I was when I wrote that novel.

I wrote that novel when I was reflecting on my recent severe depression, regretting my choices, and feeling very lonely. I was hurt and angry, and that’s why I produced a book full of pain and anger.

Now, though, I’m several years removed from depression. I’m not driven by pain and anger to the same degree as I was then. And so my connection to that story isn’t as strong anymore…which means that when I look at it now, I have a very different perspective than I did three years ago.

But I fear that will happen again. My third novel–the one that I drafted at the beginning of this year, the one that I queried, the one that I’m still trying to revise since I got so close to agents offering representation–was driven by my situation at the beginning of the year: approaching thirty, feeling melancholy because I didn’t have a romantic relationship or much of a social life in general, and I was still working a low-paid job in what seemed like a possible dead-end career path. I was living with my parents, which was fine, but I didn’t see any way out of that situation.

And things have changed significantly even since then. Now I’m living alone, finally making a salary I can be proud of.

So I keep wondering: Will my enthusiasm for this book flag, too, before I get an agent or a book deal?

I don’t know, but that idea scares me.

(And, FYI, I’d really like to be able to get to the point in my writing career at which I am driven by more than my own feelings anymore.)

The “ditzy genius” stereotype & autism

When it comes to writing, I think one trap many writers fall into is that they’ll write about a character in a situation that, because the writer has no real-life experience with, they don’t fully think out the problems and difficulties with that situation, so it comes off as a shallow, unrealistic, and possibly even voyeuristic depiction of that situation.

In other words, sometimes a writer can only envision a certain character’s situation from an outsider’s point of view, not from the point of view as someone who has lived that reality.

Here’s an example to show what I mean: A few weeks back on Twitter, I saw an author saying they loved characters who are geniuses at one thing but incapable of handling practical daily matters. Like a military strategy prodigy who doesn’t know how to tie his shoelaces.

Look…that tweet is in good fun and all, and I don’t think it’s meant to be condescending.

However, I’m someone for whom that is my life, and it irks me when people don’t realize that in real life, people don’t view you as a cute “ditzy genius.”

I’m no genius, but the fact that I’ve excelled at school my entire life and I’m generally quick at figuring things out have led everyone around me to believe I’m “smart.”

I’m also autistic with serious executive dysfunction, namely in the realm of having extremely poor short-term memory and being unable to multi-task. These are things that I’ve been able to work around as a student, but not as an adult who has to live by themself, especially when compounded by low spoons due to having a full-time job and a part-time writing career.

So, I’m basically the “ditzy genius” character people claim to love.

Except “ditzy genius” people are not actually loved in real life.

This is what it’s actually like to be a “ditzy genius”:

People constantly question why you are a terrible adult when you are so intellectually “smart.”

They don’t believe you have executive dysfunction. They think you must be “lazy.” They constantly blame you for being “lazy” and “not spending enough time” on things.

If you forget something or make a mistake, the reaction from people isn’t “Oh well, everyone makes mistakes” but rather “How could you?!”

You internalize these criticisms. You, too, begin to feel like there’s something wrong with you. “How did I forget when I’m ‘so smart’? They must be right. I must be lazy and incompetent.”

You end up with low self-esteem and many negative thoughts about yourself.

That’s why I feel uncomfortable when people talk about how they love the “ditzy genius” character stereotype. It feels paternalistic.

You may like the fantasy of the “ditzy genius” character, but in fact, you don’t understand the real-life difficulties neurodivergent people in that situation face. In real life, you wouldn’t think we’re cute or adorable. You, like everyone else, would wonder what the hell is wrong with us.

Sigh.

(This also reminds me that I don’t think I’ve talked here about a devastating experience I had querying my book with an autistic protagonist, so I’ll try to remember to do that soon.)

Publishing anxiety

I thought, after I graduated law school, that I wouldn’t have to deal with the kind of long-lasting, constant anxiety that plagued me back then, but I was wrong.

Thanks to traditional publishing, anxiety has reared its head in my life again.

Social anxiety related to being autistic is the worst, because you can’t convince yourself that your fears are irrational. I really don’t know how to interact with people if I don’t have a script for the situation and I’ve never been in that situation before. And I have accidentally ruined relationships because of this–because my response wasn’t exactly what people expected, or I didn’t know the right balance of transparency vs. tact for the situation.

My latest fear is that I’ve screwed up a relationship with an agent who hasn’t signed me, but who asked for an R&R (revise and resubmit), due to the fact that they emailed me, I responded to their email, and they never replied to my response.

Emails are freaking hard to interpret, given that many people will be silent instead of replying, and it’s impossible to tell whether they’re ghosting you or essentially saying “OK” by silence.

Plus, is it possible to be ghosted by an agent? I know many agents won’t respond to queries if they’re not interested, but if you are in the weird gray space where they’re interested but haven’t signed you yet (which is admittedly a rare space to be in, hence all of my difficulties), is it possible for them to change their minds and ghost you?

And so much of publishing etiquette is difficult to decipher, as an autistic person. Should I err on the side of transparent honesty, or should I hide my difficulties and complications until a contract is signed and formal relationship established? Which gives off a worse impression? I don’t know. The most anxiety-inducing thing for me is when my every word and sentence are examined for a secret meaning I’m implying or a personality characteristic I’m unconsciously giving off.

What I’ve learned from publishing is that it sucks most when you pin your hopes on one agent or one opportunity and then it crumbles. Yet it’s also hard not to hope, because there’s a different kind of stress in constantly expecting you’re going to fail.

So much of this stress has become counterproductive to my productivity, though, that I feel like I have to find a way to cope. So, this is my tentative plan:

  • Assume the agent is no longer interested. It sucks to make this assumption because I really liked her, and I hate the idea that I screwed up the relationship by saying the wrong thing in an email. But then again, I’ve been through situations before when agents whom I thought would be really great end up disappointing me. I have to tell myself that, like those other situations, I’ll survive.
  • If I complete the R&R: email the agent and see what happens (but brace for the worst outcome).
  • If I’m still having trouble completing the R&R (and I have been for the past several months): Participate in Pitch Wars to revise my book and present it to other agents.

Pitch Wars begins in September, so that gives me about a month to see if I can get the R&R done/three months if I count the time it takes for Pitch Wars to announce who gets selected as a mentee. The problem is that I also have a lot of stressful real-life issues going on this year (namely, I’ve been living with roommates who have disrupted by writing schedule for the past few months, and I’m going to move soon), so unless I get a stroke of inspiration, I’m struggling to see how I’ll make that deadline.

Revising this book has put a weird strain on me because I never intended to spend this much time on it. I know that sounds horrible to say, but I’ve been under a lot of emotional turmoil from continuing to be a part of the adult queer romance community, and I wanted to get out. I wanted to write YA fantasy/sci-fi instead, in order to have something more “mainstream” and be part of an author community that didn’t give me mental health problems. And I wanted to move on quickly (for reasons that are probably somewhat artificial, but that’s a topic for another post).

But I have to keep telling myself: revising a book is less work than drafting one from scratch, and if I’ve come so far already, I will lose out by giving up.