Meet author and Pitch Wars mentor Aimee L. Salter. Aimee started as a self-published author, but her debut novel was acquired and re-released as Every Ugly Word by Alloy Entertainment in 2014. Her second book, Dark Touch, came out out February 2016, also from Alloy Entertainment.
Your latest book is DARK TOUCH. In it your main character wants out of her small Oregon town. Is any of it based on your own experiences living in Oregon?
It’s not my experience of Oregon, specifically. But I did grow up in a small town in New Zealand and suffered terribly bullying there for several years. While I adored the lifestyle of that town (I had my own horses, we were bordered by the beach, a river, and mountains) I couldn’t wait to get out of there, and was ecstatic when my parents moved us back to Oregon just before I turned seventeen. I know what it’s like to feel trapped—and to get free of that.
You were born in Oregon, raised in New Zealand, and now live in Oregon. What are the biggest differences between living in Oregon and New Zealand? Do you think Oregon will show up again in a future book or maybe New Zealand?
The biggest difference I’ve observed between New Zealand and America in general (but Oregon, specifically) is the way people think. New Zealanders are far more laid back and understated than Americans, in a way that feels familiar to me because we moved there when I was five. It has its downsides, of course. No place is perfect. But I traveled back and forth enough throughout my life that both places feel like home, and feel alien at the same time. Anyone who’s grown up in two different cultures will tell you, you never fully fit in either place—but you end up loving both. It’s a strange, but wonderful way to grow up.
As far as their influence on my books, a lot of the more personal settings I write (schools, homes, etc) are based on places I was familiar with growing up in New Zealand. But so far I haven’t had a story that needed to be set in that culture. Oregon is more familiar to my reader base here in the States, so I set my books here—mainly so it feels accessible. I’m definitely not against writing about New Zealand. I just haven’t had a story yet that needed it.
As a YA writer, what’s your favorite thing about the YA genre?
Discovery, deliverance, and being able to tell the truth about a very exciting, and very difficult time in all our lives. I want my books to encourage readers to believe life doesn’t have to bury us. I felt buried, trapped, and terrified for my teen years. I want to give young people (or women who, like me, want to relive those years with a healthier ending) a chance to believe that things will get better, and we can find healing in this world.
Our teen years are the biggest transition of our lives—the time we’re shifting from childhood to adulthood. That comes with a lot of discovery, and a lot of confusion.
My goal in every book I write is to tell the truth about life—about the challenges we face physically and emotionally, and about the solutions and real victories we can discover through that process.
My books will always end in hope, because I have hope for life. But in order to really appreciate hope, you have to walk through some really dark places. That’s the deliverance part. I believe everyone is redeemable—even my villains (though you might not get the opportunity to see that in the book). But most especially for protagonists and their friends, deliverance is such an important message.
Deep enough for you? Ha!
You got your writing start as a self-published author. Then Alloy Entertainment picked up your book EVERY UGLY WORD and re-released it. Care to share the story of how you got picked up by them?
Traditional was always my goal. In fact, I’d been running a blog about working towards that for years before my agent became an international bestselling author herself and had to stop agenting. At that point I’d had two agents (the first left the industry in 2010) and I was just done with this roller coaster of giving up control then having things fall apart for reasons that had nothing to do with me or my talent. So I did the thing I never thought I’d do, and self-published that book (it was called BREAKABLE at that point).
About six months later I got an email from my editor, Lanie Davis, a senior editor at Alloy. They were creating a new traditional imprint that was going to focus on finding self-published authors to edit, re-design, and re-release. BREAKABLE was one of three books they chose as the flagship publications for that imprint. When she first contacted me, I almost deleted the email. I thought it was a scam because the subject line said something like “Senior Editor at Alloy Entertainment interested in acquiring BREAKABLE” or something like that. I’d had scammers and vanity publishers contact me many times, and was just over it. So I almost deleted it without reading it. I’m so glad the name of the publisher rang a bell, so I didn’t.
It took almost a month to negotiate the contract, and learn the difference between Alloy and other New York publishers (their focus is very much on books they believe can become the inspiration for television shows or movies and they actively work to sell their intellectual property into Hollywood). They work faster than mid-tier and larger publishers, which was a relief—I wasn’t excited about the idea of sitting around for 18 months as I knew I’d probably have to do if it was acquired by the Big Six. But because it was a new venture for them, it was all very secret squirrel, which was hard. I literally couldn’t tell anyone what was going on for four months.
But the book got so much better with the help of my editor and their design team. And their promotion and support definitely got my book(s) into the hands of a lot more readers than I’d been able to reach myself.
After EVERY UGLY WORD released with moderate, midlist success, Lanie invited me to do a second book with her (DARK TOUCH). Again, it was such fun and a relief to have a team behind me—people who understood the industry to give advice and help mold my stories. All-in-all, a very positive experience.
What made you decide to give the traditional route a try after self-publishing?
As I mentioned before, traditional was always my end-goal. I’d kind of given up on it for BREAKABLE before I heard from Alloy. But still planned to find a new agent and try again with a new book.
I’m definitely a “two heads are better than one” kind of writer. Having the support of editors, marketing, promotion, and design teams gives me peace of mind. With their help I’m unlikely to miss crucial details—and I can learn because the people around me have a lot more experience and a lot to offer. I love it.
Don’t get me wrong, self-publishing has its perks too. But traditional is definitely my jam.
What have you found to be the biggest difference between self-publishing and the traditional route?
Control, timeliness, and promotion:
Control: Hands down, the best part of self-publishing. It’s fun to be the last word in what your cover looks like, what direction your story takes, and whether you character gets named Stacy or Ashley. It’s a wonderful sense of achievement to build a book from the ground up and know that it’s all yours. However, that also means all the mistakes belonged to me, and if I didn’t know it needed doing, it didn’t get done. Or if I didn’t know how to do it well, it was done poorly. So control has a flipside. But there’s definitely a great sense of achievement, and it’s wonderful to set your own timelines too. I’m a fast writer, so not having to wait for an entire machine to grind into motion was fun.
Timeliness: Publishing, even with a fast and nimble publisher like Alloy, takes a lot more time than self-publishing. The people you’re working with are working with dozens of other authors at the same time. They have a business to run. Your book is only one spoke in a very big wheel. So as an author had I virtually no control over deadlines or publication dates (though I have to commend Alloy on being flexible when life creates challenges, and on keeping in touch with me throughout the process).
Promotion: No matter how readers have taken to self-published authors, the reality is that the quality of the books that come out of the independent publishing industry vary wildly. The big blogs, entertainment sites, and promotional avenues know this. It takes a lot longer for them to identify the diamonds in the rough of self-publishing than it does to just accept books from the bigger publishers with long-established reputations. There are many, many doors still closed to self-published authors (until they’ve already achieved success…in which case, they no longer need them). It was incredibly frustrating to have doors slammed in my face (or radio silence) just because my book wasn’t with a publisher. It was also great in the traditional realm to get emails saying “We’re promoting EVERY UGLY WORD this way, on these dates.” To know readers were finding my book and I didn’t have to pay for it, or pursue it.
You wrote a post about the dangers of writers comparing themselves to others and how there’s nothing to be gained from doing so. Have any advice for writers who have a habit of comparing themselves to others?
Yes, I do: That mentality of comparison will, literally, do nothing but create misery in your life.
Here’s a secret: If you set your own milestones and work to achieve them without paying attention to what’s going on in someone else’s career, you can enjoy each step along the way. Every time you reach a goal (big or small) you can celebrate.
If you’re comparing, you’re going to either never feel like your success is enough no matter what, which sucks your joy; or your going to turn into a smug, self-righteous person that no one wants to hang out with (believe me, those writers exist too, though they’re rarer).
The conversation that sparked that original post was with an author who is an international bestseller. She’s regularly flitted off around the country (and the world!) to meet readers and sign books. She has achieved what outwardly looks like The Dream. Yet, she could say to me “I’m not happy with this,” or “I didn’t do this as well as such-and-such,” or “I wish I was doing this-and-that instead.”
The original conversation actually happened years ago. I was flabbergasted, because she sounded exactly like the thoughts in my head when I got stuck in that cycle. Yet, at the time, I wasn’t published at all. Here she was doing something I envied, and she felt just like me. It was a huge wake-up call.
Last year she and I were at dinner and we had the opportunity to discuss similar issues with another, very big author, who’s still stuck in that place. It just highlighted to me that this sense of inadequacy isn’t about achievement, it’s about being human.
So my advice, which I acknowledge is easier said than done, is to change your mind. When you catch yourself thinking that way, force yourself to stop. If that means getting off social media so you don’t have to watch a friend throw confetti GIFs around because she’s just got the big agent, or the big contract, or hit the big list, then so be it. Protect your heart. Focus your mind.
We all have a job to do, and it’s not the same job as our friends or other writers. We have to accept that we might spend a lot longer pursuing success, or even, never reaching the heights we hope for. But if we can let go of comparing ourselves and just work for the next milestone, we will always be able to enjoy what’s happening as it happens. Which makes life a heckuva lot more fun. No matter where you are in your career.
Personally you’ve also dealt with self-rejection. I think many of us writers are guilty of self-rejecting our writing at one point or another. What would you tell authors who are guilty of self-rejecting their writing?
I’ve so been there. It took a long time to learn to see the patterns in my own thinking and recognize them for the lies they were. And again, I know unequivocally this happens to writers at every level in this industry. So here’s what I do:
While I’m writing (especially in the first draft) any time I catch myself thinking my book sucks, no one’s ever going to want to read it, and I can’t write, I also tell myself the only way to solve that is to write a crappy book, then get help with making it better. I push my energy into writing, then being critiqued, then revising.
Because here’s the truth: Negative thoughts suck everything down a dark hole—your emotions, your creativity, your energy, everything. And if you let them take you there, you really will write a crappy book and probably never finish it, or never finish it well.
If, instead, you eat a piece of humble pie and say “Well, that’s okay. This is the best I can do. So I’ll do what I can, then I’ll get others to help me make it better.” And you put your energy into studying the craft and getting brutal critique notes, and making the changes no matter how long it takes, in the end you’ll reach a day when you go, “Hey . . . that’s not so bad.” And regardless of how successful the book is, you’ll feel good about yourself for the work you’ve put in and growth you’ve achieved through those efforts.
Again, it’s all about finding satisfaction where you’re at, not comparing, or letting yourself fall into the trap of being your own worst enemy. In fiction, problems can be fixed. Techniques can be learned. Structures can be restructured. What can’t change is that there will never book your book with your messages unless you keep writing, and keep improving.
What’s your favorite thing about Pitch Wars?
Omigosh, hands down, it’s the community. There’s so much encouragement and support, and just plain fun. GIF wars, joke memes, teasers—and writers helping writers. You’ll hear a lot of people say that even if you don’t “win” Pitch Wars, you’ll make real friends and your book will get better because of help through the writing community that surrounds it. It sounds like a platitude, but it isn’t.
Being behind the scenes as a mentor I can tell you, it’s all real. The mentors adore their mentees, and can’t wait to engage in the community again, year after year. They stay in touch and help them query if they don’t get picked up, they offer advice and friendship ongoing with mentees and others that they grow close to through the summer . . . The Pitch Wars community is a really supportive place for writers. That’s not to say it’s flawless (none of us are, so our communities can’t be either). But we do our best.
And in the end, It’s just plain fun. As well as satisfying. I can’t recommend it enough.
How do you plan to sort through your Pitch Wars submissions this year? Do you have any sort of specific organizational system you use?
Yes. I was an administrator and Executive Assistant in a former life. I’m All About The Process. But here’s a hint that will help everyone: Your query is the single most important piece of material you’ll develop for Pitch Wars. Don’t phone it in.
It’s a simple truth of this entire industry: The summary of your story sells your story, be it to Pitch Wars mentors, agents on query, editors on submission, or readers looking for their next love. If you don’t have a really solid, really engaging blurb with conflict, stakes, intrigue, and a hook, you won’t move forward in this industry. Plain and simple.
The kicker is that writing blurbs and summaries is a completely different skill to writing a book. If, like me, you aren’t naturally good at it, you need to study, study, study, and get experienced writers to read and critique your query (I did a whole series of query critiques last month that you can find here: http://www.aimeelsalter.com/search/label/Critiques%20-%20Queries? That will at least offer insight to help you self-edit.) You need to work and rework that sucker from now until application day. It needs to be pristine, proofread, and perfect. Because in the end, if your query bites, you won’t get past the first step.
For me personally, I have a very structured process for finding a mentee (and I know a lot of experienced mentees take a similar approach):
- Take all my applications and read the queries, sorting them into projects I can’t wait to read pages for, projects I might be interested in, and projects that don’t interest me (because the genre is wrong, or the writing seems too under-developed, which means the author needs more time before they’re ready to take this step).
- Read the first chapter on all the projects I couldn’t wait to read first. If there’s five or six that seem really good, I won’t even look at the others.
- Request the manuscripts on somewhere around half-a-dozen manuscripts that grabbed me with their first chapter, and start reading.
- I have a really strict internal editor. So if your book falls apart quickly on a technical level, I’ll move on to the next project.
- If your book grabs me from page one and the plot/characterization keep me compelled, even if the writing needs work, I’ll keep reading.
- If none of that first round of six manuscripts can keep me reading, I’ll go into the “Projects I might like” bunch and request some from there.
- Once I have a couple manuscripts that seem like real contenders, I’ll contact the authors and ask them some questions about their process, whether the changes I think the book needs are ones they’re prepared to make, and that sort of thing.
- Then, I’ll choose a mentee. And I’ll let Twitter know that I’ve chosen, so if you’re still waiting for a material request, you’ll know you aren’t going to be my mentee. (I don’t believe in torturing writers for any longer than necessary).
Once I have a mentee chosen (assuming I don’t have to battle for them), I’ll start working on what’s called a substantive edit: That’s a letter that outlines over-arching changes to structure, characterization, or plot. (Those notes tend to be along the lines of “This part isn’t working for you—your protagonist feels like they don’t know what they want. Choose a goal in Chapter A, communicate it to the reader, then develop that goal throughout the plot in X, Y, Z ways.”)
Once the mentee’s made the changes they’re prepared to make, I’ll re-read their manuscript, and do a line-edit. That’s where we get rid of excess words, change phrasings that are clunky, or sound too melodramatic, and make small changes on a line level. (That means, the plot and characters are in place, at that point we’re focusing on the actual delivery of the writing).
If there’s time, I’ll then do a last pass to proofread as much as I can. Purely for typos, grammar, etc. This is not my forte, but I’m far enough along in the writing process now that I can help with that stuff.
Then I’ll go to bat for my mentee. And if we don’t get an agent for him/her through Pitch Wars, I’ll do everything I can to help them query successfully afterwards.
I’ll be their cheerleader, coach, and shoulder to cry on. And one day I’ll celebrate with them when they win.
I hope that’s all helpful! Thanks for having me!
Want to know more about Aimee? Visit her author website.
Tully isn’t alone in her skin. Whenever she touches someone, they feel everything she feels. All her ugliness. All her darkness. All her pain.
The only thing she wants is to be left alone—and to finally get out of her small Oregon town.
But then she meets Chris. He’s everything she’s not. Light. Trusting. Innocent. And he wants Tully.
Tully knows she should spare him the heartache of being with her. But when he touches her, she’s not sure she’ll have the strength to push him away…
From the author of Every Ugly Word comes a poignant, emotionally raw story about the violence that plays out behind closed doors and the all-consuming passion of first love.
Want to read more? Here it is on Amazon.