Here it is! The first post in our readalong of The Butterfly Assassin. All of the posts in this series are, naturally, going to involve spoilers. If that doesn’t bother you, you’re welcome to read them anyway, even if you haven’t read the book, but I highly recommend reading the book, and then you can join us in the comments to discuss it 😊
These early posts will probably be the longest of the series, because there’s a lot of backstory to the opening. Today, we’ve got some alternate versions of the opening paragraphs, we’ve got some Vital Context – lots to get our teeth into. The rest, I hope, will be shorter. But before we start, I feel I should provide some vital context to my ability to pin chapters to dates in the first place.
You see, worldbuilding, in my experience, tends to be a retrospective escalation of small details into larger ones. Take the Esperan education system, for example, which developed like this:
- During edits, my editor encouraged me to keep track of the days of the week and the date that events were occurring, to make sure they were consistent.
- In order to ensure that events happened on the correct days, and that Isabel was attending the correct lessons, I needed to know Isabel’s school timetable, so that she was always in the right class.
- In order to design Isabel’s school timetable, I needed to know how many subjects she was taking, and how many lessons per week she would have for each one.
- In order to figure that out, I needed to know what was required for a student of her age within the Esperan education system, beyond my previously vaguely defined “Level Two” and “Level Three” exams.
- In order to do that, I needed to understand how university and vocational training worked in Espera, what the difference was between civilian schools and guild-sponsored schools in terms of subjects and qualifications, and how borough and wealth affected these things.
- In order to do that, I needed to know which jobs would be done by guild members and which by civilians, what training was needed for each of them, what was required of tangential guild employees in terms of training, how guild boroughs were structured, how secret the identity of guild members actually was, relationships between guilds and civilians in neutral areas…
You can see where this is going.
By the time I actually drew up a timetable, and therefore a calendar of the events of the book, I had several pages of notes about the education system and not only knew what subjects Isabel was taking, but also what subjects Emma and Nick were taking, and what kind of careers or further training they might be looking to pursue. The fraction of this information that made it onto the page is… small.
My calendar for the book lives in the same document as the timetable I drew up, but these notes I made are handwritten, and live only in the notebook where they originated, along with a lot of other worldbuilding material that never made it into the book(s). Hopefully, I’ll get to share some of that with you during this readalong, and then the hours of my life spent figuring out the structure of Espera’s local government will feel more worthwhile 😉
Another crucial piece of information is that this book takes place in 2029, so a few years from now. There is no special significance to this year; I just wanted it to be a near-future date, and this was the first year that matched up with most of the established days of the week in the book as I had written it at the time, so required the fewest edits to firm up. It does mean that Isabel was born in 2012, which is faintly horrifying to me. She would currently be eleven years old.
With that in mind:
Today is the 17th September. On this day in 2029, Ian Crampton breaks into Isabel’s flat, and Isabel kills him.
Technically, this happens at 3am on the 18th, but I’m saving tomorrow’s post for the other half of chapter 1, so it’s the 17th. And technically, one could argue the book begins earlier than this. That first night in her tiny flat – that first night was the 31st August. Two and a half weeks of a normal life, before it all goes wrong, and it goes wrong with a bang. A burglar, a murder, a body to be dealt with.
Opening a YA book with your protagonist murdering somebody can be a risky prospect. A certain degree of sympathy for the character tends to be a staple of the genre, and you don’t want to alienate people too early. But I also knew that I needed to establish quickly what sort of a book we were dealing with. One that contained a lot of violence, yes; one where the protagonist wasn’t a good person, yes; and, crucially, one where the assassin character actually killed people, and wasn’t non-specifically badass in a morally uncomplicated manner.
This has always been the point I’m trying to make. That “assassin” isn’t a neutral character type – death means something, and murder has consequences beyond simple plot points. That if we want to ask difficult moral questions, we have to have characters who actually do bad things, otherwise our questions will lack teeth. The opening chapter is aiming to make that clear right from the start.
This wasn’t always how the book opened. That first night in her tiny flat, she cuts off her hair and her name. Not to toot my own horn, but I think it’s a pretty good opening line… and it didn’t show up until the fifth draft.
Openings are hard. Early drafts had a much slower opening, establishing Isabel’s “normal life” long before anything went wrong, and the murder of Ian Crampton was entirely absent from the first draft:
Isabel lets the door of her flat fall closed behind her and locks the first two locks. Both of them are still shiny with newness, and the key slides into them like a knife into soft flesh. She glances around, but there’s nobody nearby to see her retrieve the third key from her bra and lock the third lock, concealed within the wood.
Comma-proof, they said that one was, but she picked it herself when she forgot her keys on her second day here, so she doesn’t put too much faith in the locksmith’s claims. Still, she knows it’s there, and she was trained to do that since she was barely old enough to walk, unlike most of Comma’s people. The only ones she’s got to worry about are, for the most part, her relatives, and if they decide she’s better off dead, she’ll have bigger problems than whether they can get into her flat.
But that opening chapter was slow, boring, so in the second draft, there it is: There’s somebody in her flat. Straight in with the break-in, the scene following almost the same beats as it does now, though with variation in the wording used. That remained the opening line for another three drafts.
Maybe it was then, or maybe later on, when I decided I needed to study openings. I knew something wasn’t quite working about what I’d got so far, but I didn’t know how to fix it, and none of the books I reread for ideas were helping. So I tried watching the first episode of several TV shows, instead. I don’t remember all of them, but I remember it included Buffy, Orphan Black, and Sense8, among others. I made notes on how the shows introduced characters, how they established ‘normal’ while also hinting at the drama to come, and how they situated us within the characters’ worlds.
It was a useful exercise, so useful that I wish those notes were among the illegible handwritten plot notes I still have in a folder, but they don’t seem to be. I knew I needed context – a normal life for Ian Crampton’s death to disrupt, because it was too bald and abrupt if it happened straight away, before we had any reason to care about Isabel. But I didn’t want as much context as I’d had in that first draft, where we had several pages of normality before we got into anything resembling plot. So, in 2018 I sat down and started trying to rework that opening into something that walked the line between drama and necessary backstory.
It was around then that I realised there was no way Isabel would be living under her real name (as she had been in the earliest drafts), so I gave her a false name to live under: Bella Nicholls. It took me several years to realise that I’d given her my sister’s name; somehow my brain never made that connection until the real Bella pointed it out. They live in entirely separate boxes in my head, even if I did borrow the surname from one of my sister’s friends, the one who seemed the least like Isabel of all of them.
This name became a focus for my attempts at reworking the opening, but it took a lot of attempts before I got one I liked. I have a document from May 2018 in which I go through a bunch of different approaches, trying to find one that clicks.
It’s impossible that they haven’t noticed she’s gone.
For sixteen years, they’ve made the decisions, controlled her options – and none of those allowed for a scenario where Isabel Ryans could pack herself a bag and walk away.
And it’s impossible that they don’t know where she is. She cut her hair, bought new clothes, and the name on her lease and bank account isn’t her own, but that would never be enough.
Comma can find anyone. It’s why they’re so good at what they do.
Which means they’re just biding their time.
There are a lot of recognisable lines further down the page in this one, but it’s… slow. Lacking in immediacy, in drama.
Isabel Ryans is studying survival.
It looks a lot like school. Like a fake name on her exercise books and on the labels of her new civilian borough uniform. Like not making a fuss when they told her she couldn’t move on to level threes before taking the level two exams; like dropping down a year without trying to explain her past absences. Like agreeing to whatever electives they could offer her when her previous options didn’t work out. Like getting a medical exemption from PE so that no one sees her scars.
It looks like this tiny flat with its shitty locks that she checks and triple checks every evening before wedging a chair under the handle so that at least she’ll have prior warning if someone bypassed them. Like the lease signed with the same fake name as her school registration: Bella Nicholls. Like the bank account filled with stolen money, siphoned over weeks and months so that nobody even noticed it was going.
It looks like waking up every morning with a knife in her hand because today might be – should be – has to be the day that they find her.
What she’s learned is that survival and fear can be difficult to tell apart.
I like this one. It foregrounds the trauma that shapes all of Isabel’s choices in this book. It tells us she’s desperate, and will do whatever she has to do. But it’s a little passive. I hesitate over that word – Isabel is traumatised and frequently denied power and control over her own life, and her lack of agency is not passivity but a part of the abuse she’s suffering. Still, there’s something about this opening that didn’t quite get us where we needed to go, and didn’t provide an effective springboard for the rest of the chapter.
It’s a strange feeling, to know that you don’t exist.
Bella Nicholls exists. She has a bank account, rents a tiny flat, and goes to school. They call her name in registration and she answers to it. After two days she stopped hesitating. After a week it’s become second nature.
Isabel Ryans, though… Isabel Ryans is a ghost. The people who know her by that name are the reason she changed it. Her parents. The guild.
Yet inside her head, and when she looks in the mirror, that’s the name she wears. Isabel Ryans. Legally speaking more of a fiction than the lie on her student ID card, but a thousand times more real.
We see this sense of identity in the finished draft, Isabel looking in the mirror and seeing only herself. This version wasn’t sharp enough, though. She changed it is a choice. She cuts off her hair and her name is violent, a severing, forced by circumstance.
And that’s the opening line that shows up on the next page of this document, the first where I continued beyond a few paragraphs. I knew, almost immediately, that I’d hit on something that would work, and I chased it until it took me where I needed to go.
The main focus of this chapter is Isabel’s encounter with Ian Crampton, an unfortunate burglar who picks the wrong seventeen-year-old girl to rob. Beyond the fact that Isabel is capable of murder and willing to commit it, we learn several crucial things from this scene:
- Isabel speaks Esperanto.
- She has baggage relating to her parents, because she flinches at the thought of them.
- She’s on the run from the ‘guilds’, who rule the city, though we don’t exactly know who they are yet.
- The guilds don’t typically train children, so Isabel is unusual.
- She also has baggage relating to the name ‘Ian’; we don’t know why yet.
- The city has solar panels in the roads.
We’ll explore all of these in more depth as we go – the Esperanto, for example, becomes more of a focus point in chapter 6, which will be Friday’s post. But a quick note on the solar panels, because they are a small detail but one of the oldest in the book.
In 2014, I saw a Kickstarter for “solar roadways”: roads made of hexagonal interlocking solar panels, which could be programmed to light up to display road markings, traffic lights, speed limits, or heated to melt snow or evaporate puddles. They were, the video suggested, the clean energy solution – better roads and electricity in one go. They’d be perfect especially for long stretches of highway through the desert.
I was so excited by these, so enamoured by them, that when I started writing this book less than two months later, I put the solar roadways in the book. In the past nine years, they’ve not exactly flourished in the real world the way the Kickstarter suggested, but the book’s near-future setting means I can justify their efficacy (even in an urban context) and attribute it to technological advances. The guilds have plenty of weapons developers and scientists who could have refined the invention in a more peaceful moment.
When I describe Espera’s solar panelled roads, I’m thinking of this real invention. I put it in the book for no reason other than that I found it exciting; it has stayed there through many, many drafts, and through vast changes in worldbuilding. It’s a throwaway detail, in many ways (the solar panels are never plot-relevant!), but it’s essential to the Espera that lives inside my head, and it has important ramifications for the city in general.
Here, though, it’s a passing reference. The glittering solar panels of the main road send their coloured lights into the night. A signal: this world is not quite like our world. Priming the reader to anticipate further worldbuilding.
And further worldbuilding is what we will get. But that, my friends, is another day’s post.
So now, over to you:
What struck you about this opening chapter when you read it? How did you feel about Isabel committing murder when you’d only just met her? Is there anything about this scene’s backstory – its past versions, my reasoning for the choices I made – that surprised you?
You’re welcome to leave any comment you like – these are just a few prompts to get you started. I’d love to hear your thoughts on this chapter!