This post is going to be hard for me to write. I’m not happy about any of it, and I’m having a harder time admitting to myself that this is a thing that actually happened. However, I feel like I need to, not only for my own sake, but in case this is happening to anyone else.
You are not alone.
I know what it’s like to have something like this happen. You sort of spin out. You end up trying to block it from your mind, until some later point when you realize what changed everything and why.
I also know that sometimes people who claim to be your friend, aren’t.
Seraphina’s Lament was really a book that had a lot of trials in its path. It got burned early on on the traditional marketplace due to a bad professional industry hand and some very poor decisions on that person’s part. Then, after a year of telling myself I was going to just let the story die, I realized it refused to do just that, so I dug the book up again, rewrote it stem to stern, and made it better. That’s the book all of you read.
I had a few early readers who said, for example, Vadden wasn’t a good character because he cries when he says goodbye to Amiti and real men don’t cry (ask me why all the men in my books cry now). And then someone told me the book was “too diverse” and basically had too much homosexuality in it. If I was Chuck Wendig I could get away with it, but I’m not so it’s going to push readers away.
This last one, in particular, dropped a few weeks before I was going to publish the book and it freaked me out so much I almost pulled publication until I had a friend talk me off the ledge.
So, yeah. This book has been through some stuff.
Anyway, this is all coming up because I’ve had a recent flood of people asking about my Bloodlands series, and I realized that I really want to continue writing it, but something was holding me back. In a stunning flash of insight the other night, I realized exactly what that was, and I will tell you my plans for the book going forward, at the end of this post (which will be long. I’m sorry.).
A few months after Seraphina’s Lament dropped, I was about halfway through writing An Elegy for Hope. This was my first book, though, and I was still pretty uncertain not only of my voice and my abilities, but my place in the published author world. So keep that in mind.
Vulnerability, in this particular story, matters.
Anyway, a few months after Seraphina’s Lament dropped, I was keeping my head down and trying my best to just move forward, when an author with (self) published books befriended me. This person was nice, supportive, and caring, and always there with advice and insights. Then, this person said they were reading my book and I got that kind of nervous excitement you get when someone you know reads something you put a lot of yourself in.
They told me they’d write a review, and reviews are great, so I said that’s fantastic.
After some time–my book dropped in February of 2019, and I was halfway through writing An Elegy for Hope at this time so it was late November/December 2019 when this happened–they informed me they posted a 5 star review of my book online. I was *thrilled*. I mean, I was over the moon. I was so happy. A 5 star review! Wow! That’s great. That’s what every new author really, really wants to see. It means even more when someone who is your FRIEND genuinely puts a review like that out there.
So, understand the setup here. First book. Insecurity. Vulnerability. Friends made. Public five star review dropped. That’s where we are.
And then it happened.
Not too long after the five-star review drops, this person sends me a private letter in a word document that was about 1.5 pages long, single spaced, absolutely harpooning every single thing about my book. This character was written wrong. The naming conventions were bad. Where are the armies? The story is too big and you’re writing it too small. Did someone “fuck you” on length making you gloss over all this other stuff which, if added, would make your entire book not only better but actually make sense? You need to take out this arc entirely. Why did you have these characters feel these things here. This character is “ultimately useless”. Why doesn’t Lyall just teleport everyone where they need to be? It doesn’t make sense that Seraphina fights “Becoming” so hard. Where are the other lands? There’s not enough history. Vadden and Eyad’s relationship makes absolutely no sense.
On and on and on.
I mean, THE. ENTIRE. LETTER. Which I ABSOLUTELY NEVER ASKED FOR. I never once, NEVER ONCE said, “Please read my book, give me a public five-star review, and then send me a letter that drags this entire labor of love of mine through every muddy surface you can find and then please bang it on a few rocks while you’re at it. Just destroy this, and do it in the rudest possible way you can. I’m open for it. Skewer me.”
I *never* said that. I never asked for editorial notes. I never asked for a critique. I never once said, “You, my friend, have the right to undermine every storytelling decision I made.”
Then at the end, it was basically, “This is not a critique, I hope you know that.” (har har) and “I have a bunch of ideas if you ever want to sit down and talk. I can help you.” The subtext here was, if I ever decide to rewrite my book, talk to him and he can save me from myself.
First of all: DO NOT SEND CRITIQUES OR EDITORIAL INSIGHTS TO AUTHORS UNLESS THEY SPECIFICALLY ASK FOR IT. Secondly, I have showed this letter to a few people I absolutely trust. One of them said, “This is abusive. Manipulative, and dangerous.” And the other said, “Even if he’s trying to ‘coach’ you, this isn’t how you talk to anybody, ever, much less creatives.”
When I’m telling you this letter was a thing to behold, I am not exaggerating.
At the time, I was… lambasted. I mean, I was a brand new author and this person said they were my friend. Furthermore, I never asked for this kind of editorial insight. I’d had THREE people edit my book. THREE. And every last thing that was in it was there because I WANTED IT TO BE THAT WAY. Now, I’m not saying the book is perfect. No. The book is *not* perfect. The book is far from perfect. It’s my first book. No one’s first book is amazing. I’m also not saying I’m above a good critique. What I am saying was at that time, I was a new author just finding her feet and someone who said they were my friend both cultivated that friendship, then set me up with a public and glowing five-star review before sending me a private letter that skewered every single aspect of my book that made it what it was. While I told myself this did not effect me, I think I lied to myself about that.
I didn’t realize it at the time. At the time, I told myself that everyone has opinions and it’s fine if he just didn’t like it/didn’t get it for whatever reason. I think the damage was done and I didn’t even think about what I was doing.
For a few months after that, I contemplated (very seriously) giving up writing. I stopped any progress I had on any of my WIPs. I tried, a thousand times, to pick it all back up but nothing took. Every time I’d start writing, I’d remember that letter and I’d think, “Obviously you’ve got the prose down, but you suck at telling a story so why bother?” I got so viscerally ashamed of the fact that Seraphina’s Lament was even a thing that existed in the world, I stopped looking at my Goodreads reviews because seeing the book on my author page made me feel horrible things, and sometimes, I’d just sit there and cry.
“Well, Sarah, you got one book out. Too bad you didn’t realize how bad you are at this writing thing before you did it, but at least you lived your dream once.”
So I stopped writing, and I stopped looking at reviews (which I still don’t do but for very different reasons now). I completely gave up on The Bloodlands series because this single spaced ~2 page letter told me, in no uncertain terms, the book was terrible and every single decision I made in the telling of this story was wrong. The prose is great, but by damn, I can’t tell a story worth anything.
I put it all away. I was giving up on writing. I had been absolutely destroyed. I just did not have the skills to tell stories. Especially not big ones.
It was over.
Then, a few months later, I got this idea for Of Honey and Wildfires. Now, I do not, in any way, shape, or form, regret the Sefate Series. I love it. I will always love it. I am beyond glad I wrote it. But, that series came out of the ashes of all this. I didn’t realize it until recently, but Sefate is the exact opposite of everything Seraphina’s Lament was. It’s close, personal, small scale, intimate. I’m glad I did it, but now I look back, and I think Sefate was probably very reactionary. I was terrible at telling big stories, so I went small. I felt very uncertain in my own world of The Bloodlands, which is very different from were I live, so I told a story based on where I live. I couldn’t handle big scope, so I narrowed my focus to a macro level.
Every part of this series is a reaction to all the things that letter told me I was terrible at.
And again, I LOVE Sefate, but when I realized how much of this series came from a reaction to everything that letter skewered me about, it really floored me.
So anyway, I thought all that was over. I thought I’d moved on.
Of Honey and Wildfires dropped in April of 2020. A few months ago, this same person contacts me almost out of the blue to tell me they are reading my book. I immediately went to a friend I trust and told him what happened with Seraphina’s Lament (Let me be clear: I was so completely ashamed of not only the fact I wrote Seraphina’s Lament, but this entire experience, I never mentioned it to anyone until this point).
I showed my trusted friend the letter I was sent, and I told him how it made me feel. The very fact this person was reading my second book sent me into these panic attacks the likes of which I’ve never experienced with writerly things. I said, “What if he sends me another letter like the one he sent with Seraphina’s Lament?” And my friend, in no uncertain terms, said, “You know who you are now. You have confidence in your voice. You know people love your stories. If this person comes at you again with this abusive, gaslighting bullshit, you tell him to go fuck himself. You are Sarah Chorn, and this asshole doesn’t get to walk all over you. He’s not trying to help you. He’s jealous.”
And yeah, my friend had to tell me this no fewer than six times.
But, you know what? It happened again. Different, this time. The tone was completely different. Very… timid… almost apologetic, where it had been very aggressive and hard before. But the first message was about how he didn’t like how Annie and Cassandra meet. The end of that was a comment made in passing. Basically, I wish you’d let me read your books before you publish them because I can catch all this stuff that no one else seems to be able to catch.
Read: Only I can save you from yourself.
(This theme is important, so hold on to that for later.)
This first comment, I kept my response short and sweet. “Okay, thanks.”
Then he writes a few days later about how he was disappointed that there were no natives out where the territory was. That there was, essentially, no genocide. At this point, I girded my loins, remembered what my friend said, and kind of unleashed on him. Look, I said, I live here. I live EXACTLY where this story is based. I KNOW what it’s like out here, because I LIVE HERE. I know that “frontier” does not always mean “clash of cultures and genocide.” There are VAST SWATHS of Utah that are still completely uninhabited. “Frontier” means people moving into a place where they haven’t been before, and furthermore, if YOU want to write a Wild West genocide fantasy story, by all means, go ahead and do it, but I don’t want to write a story like that. And I don’t feel right piggybacking Native culture.
“Can’t you ask them permission?” he asked. And I honestly didn’t even know how to respond to that one so I let it sit.
And you know what? He fucked off.
Until it happened again. He didn’t like some character names.
“I’m not changing their names,” I said.
“Okay, sorry.” he said.
And then I told him. This is the third time you’ve talked to me about things you think I’m doing wrong in this book when I didn’t ask. This is the fourth time overall, counting Seraphina’s Lament, and it’s getting old really fast. Unless someone SPECIFICALLY ASKS YOU for a critique or editorial insight, DO NOT GIVE IT.
He apologized, said he wouldn’t do it again, but in this apology he said something that really put literally everything that happened into sharp, clear, focus. “I’m doing this because I care, and if I did not care, I wouldn’t tell you any of these things.” It hit me, as soon as he said those words, that just a little bit of twisting turns them into, “I’m telling you how much you suck because I care.”
The gaslighter’s credo.
I’m telling you you are a lack talent wonder because you mean so much to me, and if you didn’t mean so much to me, I wouldn’t try to help you by pointing out all your numerous flaws. I am setting myself in the perfect place to be the one to not only break you, but also help save you and build you back up in my image.
Then, all these people started asking about The Bloodlands series, and in this stunning stroke of insight, I realized, I really, really want to return to that series. I really do, but something is keeping me from doing so, and it all goes back to that very first letter. It all goes back to that one letter about Seraphina’s Lament, where I was being set up with friendship, and then a public five-star review, only to fall so far when all of my numerous flaws are laid out for me in a ~2 page single spaced letter. When I was told, basically (not point blank but the insinuation is absolutely there), that the entire book needed to be rewritten and he is always available to help me because he has all these ideas.
This letter nearly got me to stop writing. It pushed me away from writing that series at all, because obviously I’m not good enough of an author to handle stories like that. This letter made me so terribly anxious and ashamed that Seraphina’s Lament even existed in the world, I would get these huge panic attacks. I would *literally* cry every time I saw the cover of my book anywhere, so I stopped looking at reviews, and stopped really trying to promote the book. I wanted it to fade away entirely. I came about ten minutes away from pulling the book entirely, but what stayed my hand was the realization that the book was already out there in the world, so pulling it won’t really change anything. Best to just pretend it doesn’t exist and let time bury it.
I came so close to giving it all up.
And then I got those comments about Of Honey and Wildfires. That last contact in particular, the one where he said, “I’m telling you this because I care” really did it for me. Really showed me exactly what happened. I’d been manipulated.
Then, the delight of all delights, someone contacts me. “I hear (so and so) really did a number to you. He did that to me too.” In fact, friends, I’ve been contacted by no fewer than five female fantasy authors with similar stories. It always happens with their first book. Always a few months after it drops. Always a letter harpooning the book because this person “cares” and always with friendship in place first. In certain circles, this person’s name has turned into a verb. “I hear you’ve been (name)’d” and we all know what it means.
Think about it. You’ve just released your first book. You’re still finding your feet. You’re still feeling your way through things, and here’s this friend, this person who has publishing experience already, come along to support you. You get public support… And then… this.
So I guess what I’m saying is a few fold. First, I do not feel comfortable naming people online. I’ve had a few people say I should, and I just don’t feel like that’s the right thing to do. Though, I do have the letter and the screenshots of our back and forth to prove all of this, and I have shown them all to trusted people who can verify everything I say here is true.
Secondly, if you are a new female author, and something like this happens to you, YOU ARE NOT ALONE. You are also not a horrible author, and you should not give up on writing. These people are not your friends. They are piranhas and they are taking advantage of you when you are at a vulnerable place. They are sharks, but instead of sensing blood, they sense insecurities and go after them. It’s always in the name of friendship. It’s always because they care. Talk to people you trust, because it was talking to a friend that really broke through my haze and started making the pieces of what transpired fall into place.
And the fact that I am ASHAMED that I fell prey to any of this is bone deep. I am ashamed this happened, and I am ashamed of myself for falling for it.
Then, people started asking about The Bloodlands and I realized how desperately I wanted to get back to that story but how terrified of it I really was. I had a chat with my beta readers over the weekend where I laid out ALL of this to them. I showed them the letter I got. I showed them the screenshots of our back and forth over Of Honey and Wildfires. I showed them EVERYTHING and they really, really, really clarified what happened. I spent the weekend deciding to reclaim my series FOR MYSELF. I decided to finish telling the story I started with Seraphina’s Lament.
My first task is to re-familiarize myself with Seraphina’s Lament and honestly, I need to get myself to the point where I’m okay looking at my book again. I also need to re-familiarize myself with my character voices and storyline so I can pick up An Elegy for Hope where I left off. I think, with all I’ve got written, I should be able to release An Elegy for Hope in early 2022. I have to keep it as a bit of a back burner project right now because I have Glass Rhapsody and some other stuff in the foreground, but I’m not worried.
So, in an effort to re-familiarize myself with the book I’ve been too ashamed to acknowledge for over a year now, I am re-reading Seraphina’s Lament, and doing a little editing pass over it as I do so. Sometime soon(ish) I will update the book with the newly edited version, AND a map of the Bloodlines as well (which you can currently see if you click on the “Seraphina’s Lament” link at the top of my page.)
I will keep you all updated as to when that will transpire.
But, this weekend, everything that happened really hit me, and how dramatically it all changed when I got that letter. I have to reclaim my series for ME. I have to finish telling Seraphina’s story. Not because I need to check any boxes off, but because I have a burning desire to finish this series. I love it. I still love it. I’m just ashamed that I lost so much time over it.
And you, dear readers, please understand, there are people in this world that claim to be your friends, but they aren’t. If someone makes you feel like absolute shit, especially in the name of “friendship” please remember the problem is THEM not YOU. They are piranhas.
Swim in a different river.
If anyone has ever had anything like this happen to them, please reach out to someone you trust, or even reach out to me. It’s hard. It’s one of those things that happens and you tell yourself it won’t effect you, but it does. The damage, at least to me, was done, and I didn’t even realize it.
I’ve dreamed of being a writer since Kindergarten. THIS letter sent by a “friend” almost got me to give up on that.
And look out for some Bloodlands stuff coming soon. I’ll keep you updated on the Seraphina’s Lament stuff. It might be a while but I will keep you appraised.