A Ten-Year Trilogy

Ten years ago, in May 2014, I was revising vocabulary for my French A-Level exam and came across the phrase papillon de nuit, butterfly of night: the French name for a moth. “That’s so badass,” I posted on Facebook. “It sounds like an assassin’s nickname. And saying that, I’ve got an idea…”

It wasn’t a starting point: it was more like the missing link that pulled together a selection of disparate ideas I’d been toying with for a while already. I’d created a character, Isabel Ryans, in January 2012, but the original novel she’d been part of had failed, and while I knew I wanted to come back to her, I didn’t know what that would look like. I was starting to write in my journal about my ideas for some kind of “alternate universe assassin story”, though, playing around with nonspecific ideas and searching for the final spark that would help me find my way into the book.

Papillon de nuit. The idea took root. I began developing the idea into something like a blurb, which I posted on my blog; a reader pointed out that Comma, the name of Isabel’s guild since her inception, was a type of butterfly, and helped solidify the imagery. I wrote an outline, and asked another friend if she’d critique it for me, which she did, identifying (correctly) that it was actually two books, not one. I split the plot in half at the point she’d suggested, and realised I was writing a trilogy, not a prequel to my original planned standalone.

In July 2014, I wrote the first draft of a book that was subsequently titled Butterfly of Night. I finished it while on holiday in Guernsey with my parents, and gave myself a whole day off before I dived into book two, initially called Bloodied Wings, then Wings of Blood, once I decided that had a better rhythm to it.

Finn Longman at eighteen standing in front the Victor Hugo statue on Guensey. They're wearing a striped t-shirt and skinny jeans, standing with their legs slightly apart and their thumbs hooked in their jeans pockets. They have very short dark hair.
18-year-old me on Guernsey, the week I finished the first draft.

I had written books before. Fourteen of them, actually; I wrote sixteen books in the five years between my first novel in November 2009, aged thirteen, and the second of these two, completed in autumn 2014, aged eighteen. Most of them were terrible. This was partially a consequence of my age, partially a consequence of writing an average of three and a bit brand new novels per year, and partially because none of them progressed beyond the stage of ‘rapidly written first draft’. It is possible for teenagers to write good books, and for professional authors to churn out three solid novels per year, and for first drafts to be good, but the combination of all of those factors created novels whose value lay only in the writing of them, and which would never, probably, be worth reading.

The writing of them was valuable. It gave me a chance to try out different genres, styles and voices, so that I could figure out what I liked and what I was good at. It taught me a lot about how not to write. It helped me understand my own weaknesses as a writer, so that I could improve. It gave me the unshakeable confidence that I could, in fact, start and finish a novel, which is something you only learn from doing it, and which has carried me through every first draft crisis point since then. It was, crucially, fun; there’s no way I’d have done it if it wasn’t, and thus it gave me an outlet and a way to enjoy myself. By late 2013 it was, frankly, the one thing keeping me even a little bit mentally stable, even if my rapid and obsessive typing had also been partially responsible for the development of debilitating chronic wrist pain that lost me the use of my hands.

Nevertheless, whatever teenage me might have hoped, I was not producing work on which you could build a career as a writer.

And then I wrote what I called assassin!novel, before titling it Butterfly of Night. I knew it was different. I knew there was something special about it: something more original and interesting than the books I’d already written, and at the same time, something more marketable, despite its unusual characteristics. I’d been told before that YA with no romance would never be published, but I was willing to bet that wasn’t actually true. This book, I thought, had something going for it. The first draft was bad, but it had potential. It could be something.

It took me several years to get that book anywhere near reaching its potential, and that involved writing at least one new draft of it every year. I edited the book alone, and then I applied to Pitch Wars in 2016 and got nowhere with it. I applied again in 2018 with a heavily revised version of the book, with similar results. In 2019, I applied to Author Mentor Match, and was chosen as a mentee by Rory Power. Her edit notes didn’t tell me I needed to burn it and start over, but they gave me the courage to realise that was what I needed to do: an intense restructuring, some large plot changes, combining some characters, and a lot more on-page worldbuilding (much of which I’d known for a while, but hadn’t figured out how to put in the book). You can read more about the actual development of the book in the readalong posts I did last year.

In May 2020, I signed with my agent, Jessica Hare.

In January 2021, we sold Butterfly of Night and its sequel to Simon & Schuster Children’s UK. They wanted to change the title. After some negotiation, it became The Butterfly Assassin.

In May 2022, The Butterfly Assassin was published. Its sequel, originally drafted in summer-autumn 2014 right after the first book, was published in May 2023 under the title The Hummingbird Killer. The third and final book, planned in 2014-15 with a few scenes drafted and then re-planned and drafted properly for the first time in 2020, was published two weeks ago, in May 2024.

Two days ago, I was passing through Guernsey en route from an academic conference in France, and I took a copy of the French translation of The Butterfly Assassin to the same spot where the photo above was taken.

Finn Longman at 28, standing in front of the Victor Hugo statue on Guernsey. They're doing a dramatic pose with a copy of the French edition of The Butterfly Assassin, holding it up towards the statue. They're holding a cane in their other hand, though only using it lightly for balance. They're wearing skinny grey trousers and a white t-shirt with birds flying over rooftops, as well as a green baseball cap and orange-tinted glasses.
28-year-old me on Guernsey, shortly after the final book in the trilogy was published.

I am twenty-eight years old, and I have been writing Isabel’s story for the entirety of my adult life. I have written at least one draft of one of the books in this trilogy every year since I was eighteen. And now her story is told, and I will never be writing it again.

I thought I’d emotionally processed this when I handed in my last round of edits, but the thing about copyedits and proofreading is that I absolutely hate them, and thus by the time they’re over, I’m at the point where I never want to see the book again and am absolutely not sorry to see the back of it. The real emotions hit on publication day, which fell ten years to the week after my first Facebook post about the term “papillon de nuit”. Ten years. Longer than I’ve spent at any school or university, longer than I’ve known most of my friends. Longer, in fact, than I’ve had my name.

When I took that second picture with the Victor Hugo statue on Guernsey, I’d forgotten that it was the third of June, and thus my ‘fake birthday’: the anniversary of the day I chose the name Finn, before I’d really understood where my complicated feelings about gender and names were leading me. I chose that name on the third of June 2014, a week after I had my revelation about papillon de nuit, less than a month before I started actually writing the first draft of the first book of this trilogy.

I don’t think anybody is the same person at twenty-eight that they were at eighteen, and that’s probably a good thing. It’s a period of great change and growth, of becoming yourself now that you’re freer of the influences of parents and school and other people’s rules. If you went back in time and met your eighteen-year-old self, would they recognise you? Would they be proud of you?

I think eighteen-year-old me would recognise me. (On the most basic level, my face has not changed that much.) I think they would be proud of me, too. I’ve taken the book they had secret, furtive hopes for, and I’ve brought it all the way through to publication, to translation into French, to a full trilogy out on the shelves. I’ve pursued their interest in medieval Irish literature through two degrees and into a handful of academic publications and the first year of a PhD under my belt. I’m not fluent in Irish, but I’m conversational, more or less (it does depend what the conversation is about).

I’m also trans and disabled.

Neither of these would be a huge shock, but both were things that 18-year-old me rather hoped would pass. I was beginning to regain the use of my hands by summer 2014 — Butterfly of Night was typed, not dictated, unlike almost everything earlier that year — and was hoping this trend would continue, and that I might return to playing the violin and the flute. This never really happened, although I would like to reassure my younger self that I did stay involved in music. I took up the bodhrán this year. I’m in the ceilidh band. I wear my wrist supports and I take breaks and I find other ways to be part of it.

But I also walk with a cane, and sometimes I use a wheelchair. I think the wheelchair would scare eighteen-year-old me a lot. It’s only recently it’s stopped scaring me. The wheelchair is symbolic of everything I can’t do these days, yes: it’s a reminder that I can’t dance at the moment, that I might never be able to dance again, even if I hope otherwise. But the wheels are not actually the reason I can’t dance. The pain is. The wheels are what get me to the venue so I can play in the band. The pain is a bad thing, and while the wheelchair may make that pain more visible, it’s not causing it, it’s helping.

Younger me wouldn’t have been ready to hear that, because they would be too focused on that news: that I couldn’t dance. That I lost dance the way I once lost music.

It is a very peculiar grief, this one. The perpetual hope of improvement, the possibility of future change, keeps you from ever really accepting it and moving on. You remain trapped in the crystallised grief of the moment of losing, and you lose over and over again, with every bad day or every new discovery of something you can no longer do. Eighteen-year-old me was crawling out of a dark hole of the most profound version of that grief they had so far known, and what they needed to hear was it will get better and you will be fine, and this news would have devastated them.

Sometimes it still devastates me. Mostly, I’ve learned to hold that grief without letting it consume me. I have rainbow wheels on my chair and friends who will push me up hills and did you know that the big advantage of a wheelchair is that no matter where you are, you’re guaranteed a comfy seat? Does that help? Is that enough? Of course it’s not enough. It’s something, though.

As for being trans, well, in that first week of June 2014 I had written in my journal: does this mean I’m some flavour of nonbinary? Ugh, I don’t have time for this. And ain’t that a mood, baby me. Truly, who among us does have time for this? The admin, the logistics, the constant educating, the battles you have to pick regarding the wrong name being on somebody’s system and whether you care enough to get it updated, the moment of anxious indecision when faced with binary gendered toilets and the certainty that you’ll be challenged or at least side-eyed whichever one you choose — and that’s not even touching on the issue of healthcare and transition.

But eighteen-year-old me wasn’t fully present in their skin. They didn’t know how to be. They’d had a year of their entire sense of self being taken apart by pain, of losing all the certainties of their physical reality: who were they if they weren’t a musician? If they couldn’t hold a pen? If they were in pain every day? If they were too anaemic to have the energy to really be alive anymore? Perhaps being broken down in that way was what helped crack the shell of denial that allowed me to explore my gender, or perhaps if I wasn’t disabled I wouldn’t have been trans, either. I can’t know that. A version of me who isn’t disabled is not me: we are all made of all of our parts, and they can’t be separated out from each other.

Twenty-eight-year-old me exists in a perpetual state of negotiation with my own body. Most of the time it’s a long way from love, but I think that’s okay. Sometimes all we can aim for is neutrality, understanding: my body is trying its best to protect me, and it isn’t very good at it, and a lot of its efforts to protect me actually cause substantially more harm than good. But it doesn’t hate me. And while I have often hated it, I’m settling into something mellower.

I am ten years older, and I am still in pain. I’ve had top surgery, which did wonders for helping me feel less alienated from myself, but I will probably never be free of certain kinds of dysphoria (I would love to be just a little bit taller…). I am an adult, and while I absolutely don’t have it all together, I have a better sense of who I am and what I want and what it means to exist in this world.

I have spent this decade growing into myself, and Isabel Ryans has been alongside me as I did it. I was working on this book when I was denying and then, eventually, accepting that I’d lost my childhood faith. When I found Quakers and began to hope there might be something else out there for me, spiritually. When I intermitted from university. When I returned. When I was figuring out my sexuality and my gender. When I finally quit self harm successfully. When my vague leanings towards pacifism became a stronger conviction. When I had my first job, and my second, and my third, and my fourth. When I lived alone for the best part of eighteen months during lockdowns. When I moved house five times in ten months. When I left the country, and when I came back. When I witnessed far too many unprecedented times, and some precedented ones. When I watched the news with horror, and when I watched it with hope.

It’s not just that the trilogy’s done. It’s that I will never again be in my early 20s, figuring out who I am, developing my moral values and my philosophical understandings of the world, trying to make sense of what it means to be a person who makes their own choices and defines their own identity. I will never again be walking that complicated, unsteady path from adolescence to adulthood.

There are many paths ahead of me, and no doubt some of them will be just as winding and dramatic as this one — but this one is done. And Moth to a Flame is published, and Isabel’s story is told, and that seems a little like waving goodbye to a friend at the train station knowing that you will never see them again.

So, no, I haven’t emotionally processed that. I don’t know as that’s something you do emotionally process all at the time that it’s happening. Maybe you just have to keep growing up and carry that knowledge with you as you go, and eventually you realise it’s been another decade, and another character is living in your head now and accompanying you on your journeys of self-discovery.

But I do know this: whatever eighteen-year-old me would think about my current self, I am so bloody proud of them. They wrote this book. They chose this name. I might have done a hell of a lot of work to get us from there to here, but they laid the foundations. They’d just survived the hardest year of their life and the whole time they were doing it, they were placing stepping stones to everything that came next, and picking their way through the water to survival. And they did it. And we’re here.

Happy tenth fake-birthday, baby Finn. And happy ten years to The Butterfly Assassin, and Isabel Ryans, and everything that made these books what they are and made me the person who wrote them.

Finn Longman sitting in their wheelchair, looking at/talking to their agent Jessica Hare, who is sitting next to them.
At the launch party for Moth to a Flame, May 2024.

The Butterfly Assassin, The Hummingbird Killer, and Moth to a Flame are all available to buy now. The Wolf and His King, coming 2025, is available to pre-order.

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