Author: Finn Longman

Writer, Irish dancer, and stay-at-home medievalist. I read a lot of books and yell about Cú Chulainn.

Two Months After

After sharing some reflections on the publishing journey one week before the publication of my debut novel, I intended to update you on how things were going one week after publication. The fact that it has taken me two months to have the time, headspace, and energy to do this probably says more about what it’s like to be a debut author than anything I might have written, but here we are. Two months after.

In fairness, this delay is not just due to publishing. June was an incredibly chaotic month for me, with a number of major Happenings, including one that resulted in having to move house in July — my fourth move since November. I can tell you one thing for sure: I’m getting really sick of moving house. There were also some positive events — my sister getting married being one of them — but it certainly felt like a month best described as ‘everything happens so much’.

I coped with all the stress in my usual way, which is to say, I accidentally wrote an entire novel that I was not supposed to be writing and which I had completely not intended to write. I call it the ‘unintentional vampire novel’, because I wasn’t even sure it was a novel when I started it, and a week later I had 88k that its earliest readers reassure me is not completely terrible. Now, however, I’m mired in edits for the sequel to The Butterfly Assassin, and so it seemed like a good time to procrastinate by telling you how things are going.

Let’s start with the highlights:

Publication day

I visited a number of bookshops in Central London with my lovely publicist Eve, and got to sign books and generally feel a bit special. Despite one bookshop losing the stack of books they assured us they had, this was a good way to make the day feel a bit special, and avoid the sense of anticlimax that I know some writers feel on the day itself.

Finn Longman wearing a grey tank top and a black sparkly sunhat, leaning on a very large stack of copies of The Butterfly Assassin, grinning at the camera.
Signed books at Easons on O’Connell St, Dublin

Dublin International Literature Festival

Literally the next day I flew out to Dublin, again with Eve, for my first literary festival. Although we had some struggles with the hotel booking on arrival, and then I had an absolutely nightmarish journey home via Dublin Airport and its newsworthy queues, we had a great day in Dublin on the Saturday visiting bookshops, signing a few books (or many books, in the case of Easons on O’Connell Street), and then heading over to the festival for my panel in the late afternoon. The audience was small, but that was probably a good thing for my first event, and at least I got to talk to some readers at more length afterwards than I would have been able to with a larger audience!

Book launch

I had my book launch a few days after publication, at Housman’s — a wonderful radical non-profit independent bookshop with strong pacifist connections and a really interesting selection of books. Despite being a very stabby book about murder, The Butterfly Assassin is considerably influenced by my own pacifism, and this felt like the perfect venue to get up on a chair and yell about how the arms trade is immoral and why we shouldn’t be recruiting sixteen-year-olds into the military. It was all fairly last-minute and I was terrified that nobody would come, but they did! I signed books! We had a cake with my book cover on it! It was hardly a huge glamorous party such as people tend to think of book launches as being, but it was just right for this book, and Housman’s was the perfect venue. They still have some signed copies, if you’re interested in ordering one.

Finn Longman sitting at a table holding up a copy of The Butterfly Assassin.
Signing books at my book launch in Housman’s, being photobombed by Eve, my publicist.

Visiting bookshops

Speaking of signed books, whenever I pass a bookshop that carries The Butterfly Assassin, I offer to sign it. So far nobody’s turned me down, though one did ask for ID (I suggested they checked the author photo in the back of the book). Occasionally, it’s turned into a quest in which we search for the copies the Waterstones website claims they have — I’ve found TBA in Adult, but also in 9-12, where it definitely doesn’t belong. So at this point, I think it’s my moral duty to check it’s correctly shelved wherever it might be ;) It’s always exciting to find my book in a shop, especially when it’s on a table or a face-out. I’ve also loved having people send me pictures of it in their local bookshops.

Reviews and nice messages

I’m trying to learn to stay off Goodreads — it’s not a healthy place for an author to be spending a lot of time, especially while trying to focus on a sequel, because you end up with too many voices in your head telling you to add more of this, have less of that, and all the while you’re hyper-analysing a review that’s 100% positive and yet only gave you four stars. (What does it take, book reviewers?! What does it take?!) But I have loved seeing some positive reviews, and reflections from people who totally got the book and everything I was trying to do with it. I’ve had some amazing messages from readers and friends, and I’ve been particularly touched by the messages from friends I’d fallen out of touch with, who’ve nevertheless picked up the book and told me how much they enjoyed it.

I was also featured in The Guardian as one of their best YA books of the month, and received a lovely review in the Irish Times, too, which is more than I could have expected from mainstream media!

My first real school visit

Some authors find school visits and assemblies terrifying. Personally, I love to have a captive audience to talk at — I get to talk, they can’t leave, it’s my dream communication scenario. I did my first ‘official’ school visit recently and, while it’s still a little anxiety-inducing to get up in front of a bunch of fifteen-year-olds and talk to them about your book, I think it went well. It was great to sign books afterwards, too, including a pile for the school’s LGBTQ soc. I appreciated how supportive their teachers seemed to be, giving me the chosen names of trans and nonbinary students to write in the books, although it was an all-girls’ school. A lot’s changed since I was at school (we didn’t even have an LGBTQ club of any sort), and it’s nice to see, when the world around us feels increasingly focused on weaponising a culture war against trans people.

YALC

My biggest event! I went to the Young Adult Literature Convention in 2016 as a reader, but this was my first time there as an author. It’s a pretty different experience: hanging out in the Green Room rather than queuing for signings (although I did a little of the latter); speaking on a panel instead of watching it from the audience (though I did that too). I loved having the chance to talk to readers in person, especially some that I’d encountered online before, and signed a fair few books. I also got the chance to tell Jonathan Stroud how much his books meant to me, which was, to be honest, as much of a highlight.

Finn Longman wearing a grey tank top, dark trousers and a black sunhat, as well as a white FFP3 mask, standing with their arms outstretched in front of oversized letters reading YALC. In the background is a wall made of huge book spines.
At the Young Adult Literature Convention 2022

So those are some of the highlights — I’m sure there are more that I’ve forgotten, or which have happened behind-the-scenes and therefore aren’t public knowledge yet — and it can often feel, on social media, like that’s all there is to it. Like every author in their debut month is having a whirlwind of events and reviews and sales, and they must be having a good time, so there’s everything to be jealous of and if you’re not having a great time, you must be doing something wrong.

Well, there’s more to it than that, and I’m not going to dwell on it, but I will say: there are days when the comparisonitis is hard. Where all I can think about is how other people’s books seem to be in more bookshops than mine. When all I can focus on is how few people are talking about my book on Twitter, or posting pictures of it on Instagram; how books that aren’t even out yet have more reviews and more adds on Goodreads; how I fall between the cracks of awards and lists because of being upper YA — too old for the teen-focused awards, too young for the adult ones.

Everyone feels this, I think. Authors with small publishers look enviously at authors with big publishers. Authors with small deals at big publishers look enviously at authors with big deals at any publishers. Comparison is the thief of joy — I’ve always known it, but I’ve felt it more in the last two months, and I’m trying to remember that I’ve achieved something I worked towards for thirteen years, and I owe it to my younger self to appreciate that for a moment instead of always wanting more.

But it’s hard! Especially when publishing is frequently opaque: authors know a lot less about what’s going on behind the scenes than people generally assume we do. Well-meaning friends ask me how the book is doing, and the truth is, I have absolutely no idea, because I won’t get sales figures for a while yet. All I can do is guess based on a mixture of social media, Goodreads, Amazon rankings, Gardners stock figures, and pulling numbers completely out of nowhere, the last of which is probably at least as accurate a figure as the first four combined. As somebody who likes to be in control and to have all the information about everything, this is a challenge, and not one I can do anything to change.

In the absence of hard figures and explicit statements like, ‘Yes, you are selling exactly as expected,’ or, ‘Your book is a failure and we regret ever publishing it,’ it’s easy to fixate on the information I do have, like how many people are posting about it, and that way madness lies. Trust me.

And then there are my book two edits.

Ugh. The dreaded book two.

Look, I had mostly avoided the book two angst, by virtue of having written the book back in 2014 when I wrote book one. This meant that completing a draft and sending it to my editor was wayyyyy easier than it seemed to be for a lot of my friends, because, well, it wasn’t a first draft, it was a fourth draft, and that’s easy enough, right?

Unfortunately, the editing process has proved… challenging, in part because this is still, fundamentally, a book that I wrote in 2014, despite some plot changes. The changes were superficial and the foundations were weak, a problem I’d had with book one and solved by rewriting the book from the ground up — before I got the book deal. It turns out, fixing those kinds of issues within a six-week structural edit deadline is a whole lot harder, and I have shed a number of tears and had a number of breakdowns as I attempt to work out how best to do that.

I should add: most of these problems were ones that I identified, rather than my editor ripping the book apart. I think a lot of people see editors as these fierce beings who can instantly spot every flaw and will eviscerate an author’s work, making them feel like failures. What actually happens is a lot gentler at her end than that: she’ll say, “I’m not really following X’s motivation for doing Y. Can we make this clearer?” And then I look at X’s motivation for doing Y, realise it makes absolutely no sense because Z, spend three days trying to save it, and eventually realise I need to rip out that entire plot thread and rework it. Unfortunately, that thread will then turn out to be fundamental to an entire section of the book, and thus I have now pulled out its guts and it’s going to need major surgery to fix it.

In other words, she believed I knew what I was doing; I’m the one who eviscerated my own work and made myself feel like a failure. Lmao. So that’s fun.

Two consecutive comments on a Word document reading "I HATE YOU SO MUCH YOU DON'T EVEN KNOW" and "I'm so done"
One of my earliest beta readers commenting on a book I wrote in 2014, or me about my past self’s decisions? Who can say.

And then, on top of that, there is the fact that it is much harder to write a sequel when people are telling you what you think of book one. Listen, it is impossible to write for every reader, especially when they wildly contradict each other — one review will compliment the worldbuilding and description, the next will say that there’s not nearly enough of either; one review will say they love every character and found the friendships emotive and engaging, the next will say they didn’t care about any of them because the relationships were too shallow. You can’t win!

But more than that: you can’t even try to win. Writing is a collaborative process, but that doesn’t mean it’s done by committee, or to please everybody who might encounter it. I am trying, at all times, to push the voices out of my head that demand something from the story I’m not intending to give. It’s not their book. It’s mine.

It’s just a lot easier to feel that about The Butterfly Assassin — a book that I am proud of, a book I’m currently listening to on audio again and feeling quietly pleased with — than it is to feel it about the sequel, which is currently a mess, and which I don’t totally know how to fix right now.

I will fix it. This is an inevitable stage of editing, and I’ve been through it enough times to know that the “hating every word on the page” phase is both real and temporary. Doesn’t mean I enjoy it while it’s happening, and having to live up to book one puts a level of pressure on that I haven’t experienced before. Listening to the audiobook is helping me keep the rhythms of book two’s prose consistent with book one’s, but it’s also reminding me of all the ways that the first book is polished and good, making the contrast… stark.

Mostly, however, I would like to extend a massive apology to every author I secretly judged for years when they talked about their deadlines. Six weeks is not long enough. I agree. I get it now. I had, like, six months to draft this book, and it took me less than one month, but man do I need longer for the editing stage, because it turns out I do all of my thinking after the story is on the page, and not before. Next time, I’m hoping I can wrangle things so that I get less drafting time and more editing time, because I’m in hell.

And with that in mind, I should get back to my edits.

But first: to everyone who has already bought The Butterfly Assassin, thank you so much. Thank you to those who’ve read and reviewed it (reviews on Waterstones and Amazon are super helpful, if you have a minute to leave them!). If you’ve taken a nice picture of it for social media, thank you; if you’ve messaged me to say you enjoyed it, thank you for that too. The small notes of encouragement in my Tumblr inbox have been keeping me going through my edits, and I am very grateful for them.

And if you haven’t picked it up yet, please consider it! Debut authors need all the help we can get.

One Week Before

It’s now only a week until The Butterfly Assassin is out in the world, which is a bizarre and surreal experience at the same time as feeling utterly generic. I’m not experiencing anything that hundreds and thousands of other debut authors haven’t already expeirenced before me, and still I find myself reaching for the words to try and articulate the oddities and emotions of the lead up to publication.

It feels bizarre in part because this is a book that I first wrote in 2014, a book that I have rewritten at least once every year of my adult life — except this year, and now never again. Sometimes that experience has felt like co-writing a book with a younger version of me. It’s a book by 2021!me, but it’s also a book by 2014!me, and those two versions of me were not only at substantially different stages in their lives, but also had different ideas about what they valued in a story and what they wanted to achieve. Now, as I let it go out into the hands of readers, I wonder which version of me they’ll find on the page, or if they’ll only see my characters, and nothing of me at all.

It feels bizarre, too, because publishing is fundamentally a bizarre experience, full of confusion and surprises. Everybody’s journey is slightly different, even when they’re at the same publisher, and it can be impossible to predict what’s going to happen for you and when by looking at what other people experience. In some ways, publication has snuck up on me, unmarked by any major pre-pub buzz. I have never had a viral tweet. Social media isn’t clamouring for my book. I feel like an unknown, shouting into the void…

… but at the same time, I know that isn’t true. Friends and reviewers have read the book, and some have said lovely things about it. Fellow debuts yell at me to stop obsessing over a minor critical remark in a Goodreads review, telling me that my book is good, that the reviewer is wrong, that I should stay away from reviews in the first place.

(This isn’t going to happen. I know it’s the accepted wisdom, but for me personally, not knowing what people think is currently much worse than knowing, even when I spiral slightly over passing criticisms. That may change, and then I’ll re-evaluate, but right now, I don’t find it particularly useful to avoid the whole thing entirely.)

I worry about how the book will be received. I worry that a YA book with no romance won’t sell, because people want to ship the main characters. I worry that it won’t be queer enough, that those who picked it up hoping for explicit ace representation will think me a fraud. I worry that it’s too dark — too stabby, too much about trauma, too unwilling to let violence be sanitised and sexy. I worry, too, that people will think it is glamourising violence, rather than being a story about somebody trapped in a destructive cycle with no other options.

I worry because that’s what I do. And at the same time, I go through periods of calm: knowing, in my mind, that I’m proud of the book, which gives me the confidence to feel like if readers don’t enjoy it, that’s their problem, because I know I did what I set out to do, and it’s simply a case of whether that’s compatible with what they’re looking for. I flip-flop between these two states of being on a daily basis: serenity and anxiety, acceptance and desperation. I know what I wrote and why, and if people don’t like it, so what. But also, if it’s not universally adored, I will perish. I exist on a continuous rollercoaster from one end of the spectrum to the other.

I am at all times desperate for information that I have no real way of interpreting. How many copies are bookshops stocking? Oh, is that good? Bad? Normal? Is this a good marketing plan? I have no idea. I’ve never seen another marketing plan to compare it to. How much should I be taking charge of my own promotion and attempting to get the word out about the book? Will going into bookshops and talking to them myself help at all? It seems to, but I can’t visit every bookshop in the world, or even in the city. Should I target the chains or the indies? Local bookshops or large bookshops? What’s my best plan?

I don’t know. I send a lot of emails asking questions. I bombard the debut group chat with my anxieties and insecurities and they, very patiently, try to reassure me. I order business cards, even though scrawling my details on the back of a receipt was working for me up until now, because they feel like a tangible excuse to approach booksellers. I fail to blog. I feel guilty about that, even though I know that from a publicity point of view, this blog is never going to be the thing that shifts the needle, and from a readership point of view… well, you guys have known me to fall silent for much longer than this.

I think about writing another book, to squeeze a first draft out between now and the arrival of my edits for book two. This would be unwise but I try anyway, attempting to muddle through an opening chapter. It fizzles out. I know the characters but they aren’t talking to me yet; I don’t have a handle on the voice, don’t know how to tell the story. The book is an egg that isn’t ready to hatch, and I need to give it time.

I read a book instead. I read ten books instead, ten full manuscripts from hopeful mentees who applied to Rogue Mentor, my editorial hat firmly on. I discover I enjoy trying to see what a story needs to get closer to its heart, and how to shift the moving pieces around to better achieve the author’s vision. This feels like a useful thing to know about myself, though perhaps none of these authors will vibe with my ideas, in which case, my editorial recommendations may be less useful than I thought. I struggle to narrow down which book I want to mentor, because I have something to say about all of them. The other 78 queries, the books I didn’t request fulls of, haunt me, in case I missed something that would have been a perfect fit. But I had to choose, and no matter how desperate I am to avoid the inside of my head, even I can’t read 88 books in the time I had available.

I try to go back to dance. It helps, having something physical to channel my jitters into, but soon enough my knee gives out on me again and I’m forced to admit that recovery does not mean “deciding I’m better because I’m bored of being injured”. I get out my harp, hoping that can be my offline hobby instead. A string snaps. I replace it. I feel just as full of tension, sagging when the weather changes, waiting to snap under the right pressure.

I try not to make everything into a metaphor, but it’s hard not to.

Pass pages arrive for an academic article being published this summer, and I force my mind back to medieval literature. It protests, the dense prose of my own analysis defeating my anxiety-shortened attention span. That, in turn, makes me feel like a fraud. I judge my academic writing by the standards of my fiction prose, and find it lacking. I judge my fiction by my academic standards for detail, and worry I’ve been unambitious in my worldbuilding. I wonder how many people my book will disappoint, and feel relieved that at least with my article, the number will be smaller, because my field is tiny and because nobody is expecting much of me.

This feels like an unhelpful train of thought, so I attempt to derail it. I don’t succeed.

I go for walks in the woods, when my knee lets me, and that’s something. I learn to identify the trees and flowers around me — hornbeams and oaks and hawthorns, bluebells and wood anenomes. I begin to understand why knights in medieval Arthurian tales tend to run away to the woods when they’re having a rough time of it. It’s a big mood. I resist the temptation to become a woodland hermit, mostly because I’m very allergic to nature and I don’t think I would last very long. I play Pokémon Go instead, and then go home.

I count the days, and they are endless and flying by so fast I can’t catch my breath.

I think: I’m not ready.

I think: I’ve been ready for months, let’s get this over with.

I post another link to pre-order the book, in case people missed it the first hundred times, and try not to feel embarrassed, like I’m begging for their attention. For your attention. For anybody’s attention.

I’m not ready at all, and I’ve been ready forever. One week to go. Perhaps by the time those seven days have passed, I’ll know how to feel about all of it.

Mentor, Master, and Medievalist

A few wee disconnected bits of news for you today, because a lot’s been happening lately. I’ve mentioned most of this on Twitter already, but it can be hard to keep track of that kind of thing, so here it is, in convenient blog post format. (I miss the internet of the 2010s, when everything was in convenient blog post format…)

The first is that I’m mentoring with Rogue Mentor! I’ve wanted to mentor for a while — I credit my experiences as a mentee in Author Mentor Match with having taken The Butterfly Assassin from “okay” to “publishable”, and I’ve been wanting to give back to the writing community. Rogue Mentor is a chilled out, low-key programme with no time limits or high-pressure showcases, and I’m really looking forward to getting to work with an author to take their book to the next level.

I’m looking for someone who has reached the point where they don’t think they can take their book any further on their own, and they just need another perspective / pair of eyes to make it click so that it’s ready for querying. I’ll be there for my mentee through as much of that process as they want me to be, and honestly, I see this as a chance to make a new writing friend, too, Mentorship can create a sense of hierarchy, but we’re all just people, some of us slightly further ahead in our writing journeys.

So, if you have a book that you know isn’t quite ready but you don’t know how to get it there by yourself, maybe consider submitting to me, and we can figure it out together. Even if you’ve never considered a mentorship programme before, why not think about it? Sometimes all you need is somebody to ask the right questions, so that you have to come up with the answers. Everyone needs a “But why?” reader, and when it comes to character motivations and worldbuilding, I like to think I’m pretty good at that. Plus, it’s invaluable to have someone who has been through the querying / submission process before you, to help you gauge what’s “normal” and keep calm during the process, so if that’s a direction you’re interested in, you might benefit from submitting.

My MSWL is here, but I wouldn’t say it’s an exhaustive list of the only types of books I’m interested in. If I haven’t mentioned something, and it’s not on my anti-MSWL either, that doesn’t necessarily mean I’m not interested in it. Just means I don’t know, yet, that I’m interested in it. Checking out my last blog post, where I shared my recent reading habits and preferences, might help give you an idea how likely I am to enjoy something. If I don’t seem like a great fit, do try one of the other Rogue Mentors! There are people looking for all sorts of genres and books, and they might be someone who’ll love yours.

You can submit to me during the April 22-25 submission window, and we’ll start working together in early June. (Mentee announcements are 26th May, which is my publication day, so I’ll probably be slightly busy that first week.)

Please do consider submitting! I’d be particularly excited to have a UK/Ireland-based mentee, but I’m open to anyone who has a book that I might click with.


The second piece of news is that at the end of May, I will be at the International Literature Festival in Dublin for my first panel as a newly-hatched baby author! Timed perfectly for two days after The Butterfly Assassin comes out, it’ll be a brand new experience for me, and I’m… slightly terrified.

I’ll be on a panel with Maura McHugh, who writes comics with folkloric/mythological influences. We’ll be talking about dark stories, monstrosity (of both the human and the beastie variety; The Butterfly Assassin has no actual monsters, but it certainly has monstrous humans), and all manner of things like that; I’ll probably end up talking about medieval Irish lit, too, so it promises to be an entertaining one.

Full details of the event are here. It’s on the 28th May, which is a Saturday. If you’re in Dublin, or close enough to get there, it would be wonderful to see you there! I’ll also be visiting some bookshops on the Sunday, so that’s definitely the weekend to catch me if you’re Ireland-based.


Speaking of Ireland, I was in Cork last week for my MA graduation ceremony, and I’m now officially a Master of Early and Medieval Irish. It was lovely to be back there; I took the opportunity to go to a friend’s talk about medieval Irish literature, as well as to see some parts of the area I never got the chance to see as a student. It was strange being back in the city now that everything has opened up so much, because there were Covid restrictions throughout my time living there. The spectre of Covid still lingers — my supervisor couldn’t be at graduation due to testing positive — but all in all, it was a very different Cork from the quiet, closed-up city I mainly experienced.

A selfie of me wearing a black mortarboard and a black graduation grown with a blue and green hood over an orange jumper and a white shirt. I am a white person with a buzz cut and orange-tinted glasses. I'm smiling at the camera. In the background are shelves of antique books in grill-fronted cupboards.

Many people wanted to know what’s next for me, and whether I’m going to do a PhD. As I’ve said before, I only want to do a PhD if I have a thesis topic in mind that excites me — not just for the sake of it. Since I don’t yet, I’m taking a little break from academia. But, I’m working on adapting some of my MA work into articles and papers, and there are a few research projects I’d like to explore as an independent scholar, so that doesn’t mean it’s going to be all quiet from me on the medievalist front. First steps will be to figure out how to become a Reader at the British Library, so that I can actually access materials… friends with library benefits are all very well, but a nerd cannot work from scanned PDFs alone.

As that suggests, I’m going to be staying in London for at least the next year, and probably longer. I’m about to move house again, for the third time in six months, and this time, I’m hoping to be there for a good while. Maybe not long enough to make it worth shifting all of my books over… but long enough to bring more than a shelf’s worth. I hope. It’ll be a new corner of London for me, and I’m looking forward to exploring, and trying to put down some roots and be part of a community.

So that’s what’s coming up for me: a house move, a gradual process of getting my life in order in a new location, and a slow ramp up in book events as publication (now only six weeks away!) draws ever closer. And, hopefully, amidst all that: a mentee, and the chance to be part of the writing community from a new direction, too. Join me! It’s going to be an interesting few months.


With only six weeks to go until The Butterfly Assassin is released, now is a great time to pre-order. We have a subtly-altered cover (check out the Books page for that) and I’m excited to see the finished copies which will also have a very funky spine… 👀

March Reading Roundup & Recs

Being the kind of person who is both somewhat underemployed and also not a big watcher of TV (mostly due to my eyeballs being temperamental and full of demons), I read quite a lot. I try to talk about some of the books I’m reading on Instagram, particularly the ones I really like, or where I had an ARC, but since I stopped using Goodreads as a reader, I’ve pulled back from reviewing more broadly. I’m happy with that decision — there’s a weird power balance when you’re also an author which means your opinion is never just another reader’s opinion — but I do think it’s a shame that I’ve read seventy books already this year and not really talked about them that much, so here’s a roundup of some of those I’ve been reading recently. (I’ll probably make this a semi-regular type of post.)

All links in this post are Bookshop.org (UK) affiliate links, so if any of these books take your fancy, ordering from there will support both me and independent bookshops, which feels like a win-win situation. If a book isn’t available from Bookshop, I’ve linked Amazon — again, an affiliate link — for want of a better option.

I won’t be discussing / linking any books I actively disliked, because I’m not about that negativity — if I describe a book here as ‘horrible’, it’s meant as a compliment, because in those cases, I’m fairly sure that’s what the author was aiming for. But there were a few recurring themes this month that characterised all the books that won’t be discussed in this post…

This month, one of my goals was to read more thrillers. My debut is a YA thriller, so I figured I should better acquaint myself with the genre, having largely avoided it during the editing process in order to (a) give my brain a break and (b) avoid comparison. So far, this has been… honestly kind of a mixed bag. I’ve read some brilliant books, but I’ve also been struck by how many thrillers use sexual relationships as a major source of conflict. At best, these are toxic, unhealthy relationships between consenting adults, which can be interesting to read about, even if unpleasant. At worst, though, I’ve read two thrillers featuring sexual abuse of a minor, which was really not what I signed up for. Being a genre that prides itself on dark content, none of the books I’ve picked up in the past month have had any kind of content warnings, and I would probably have preferred if they did — at least I would know in advance what I was getting into, and whether I was in the right headspace for it.

Having said that, I did enjoy being utterly bamboozled by a few books where I could never quite figure out where it was taking me next. Mandy Byatt’s Just Another Liar really caught me out — initially, I’d been thinking maybe I was too young for the book in the sense of the “relatable” problems the characters faced not actually being relatable to me (because I’m young, queer, and single), but then it twisted on me and I lay awake that night thinking about it, putting all the pieces back together, because I realised I’d had them the wrong way around the whole time.

Sarah Bonner’s Her Perfect Twin also left me thinking about it after I’d finished — the way it switches narrator periodically to misdirect the reader and lead you to draw all sorts of conclusions about what, exactly, is going on is very clever, and means every time you think you’ve got to grips with where it’s going, it swerves and goes somewhere else.

I didn’t read any YA thrillers this month that I really loved, but in February I read Tess Sharpe’s The Girls I’ve Been, and really enjoyed that. It’s very twisty and clever, but it never sacrifices character and emotion, which I valued — I was able to get invested, and stay invested, in the characters. There’s some overlap with The Butterfly Assassin, which makes sense (my editor was the UK acquiring editor for this one, which is why I put off reading it so long, because I knew I’d end up comparing them), but the overall vibe is pretty different. Actually, it kind of reminded me of a real-world/contemporary White Cat by Holly Black, although maybe that’s a sign that I haven’t read many books about characters with con artist parents.

One thing I rediscovered while on my Read More Thrillers quest was that there is a difference between books that are good and books that I’ll enjoy reading at that particular moment. Girl A by Abigail Dean is brilliantly well-written — it’s compelling throughout. But it’s also bleak, and dark, and had me crying in a horrified (rather than cathartic) kind of way at one particular revelation. There was a time in my life when I loved that in a book, and anything that managed to emotionally gut me rocketed up my list of favourites. But I’ve mellowed in my old age, and these days I look more for comfort from books, so this one proved a little more than I could handle at this point in time.

If you want a horrible book about horrible people, I also found The Girls Are All So Nice Here by Laurie Elizabeth Flynn was one of those: compelling, but in an unpleasant kind of way. Don’t get me wrong, I think it’s very good, but… again, it had some graphic content that I could have used a warning for (suicide/self harm imagery described at length), and left me rather unsettled.

So what have I been reading for comfort? Well, after I read Girl A I decided I needed a couple of days of reassuring books to help settle my brain, so I turned to KJ Charles, who is ever reliable in that regard, and I reread the Will Darling Adventures. It feels reductive to describe this trilogy as Romance, because while it absolutely is that, it’s also a pulp adventure story with spies, communists, secret societies, and all manner of other shenanigans, set in the 1920s. I love the way KJ Charles has these dual-genres going on. Some of her books will be romance novels… but also a fantasy book, or a murder mystery, or, in this case, an adventure story. I still mark them all in my spreadsheet as Romance, because I only have one genre box, but the vibe can vary considerably.

Anyway, I had a good time rereading the Will Darling books (beginning with Slippery Creatures), and I also reread another KJ Charles book, Spectred Isle. This one’s fantasy, as well as romance, with an archaeologist protagonist reluctantly going along with his employer’s superstitious interest in certain locations… only to find they are, actually significant, and that he’s getting all tangled up in a supernatural world he knew nothing about. It’s delightful. It has some dark moments and some tension, but the reassuring thing about a fantasy novel that’s actually a romance novel is that you know it’ll end up okay, because that’s what the genre requires. Perfect comfort-reading.

Speaking of fantasy, I was lucky enough to get an ARC of Rory Power’s adult fantasy novel, In A Garden Burning Gold, which comes out next week. Rory was my mentor during Author Mentor Match, and helped me turn The Butterfly Assassin from a mess into something that would actually be potentially publishable, so I am obviously biased towards her as an author. But Garden is genuinely great. I particularly loved the worldbuilding, and the magic system. It features peculiar, time-consuming, impractical magic — sewing the constellations each and every night, painting the shadows throughout the day — which is both bizarre and firmly integrated into the world it’s creating. I love that. I think more magic should be odd. The ending left me with some unanswered questions, but there’s to be a sequel, so that’s all right. The trouble with an ARC, though, is that it means waiting even longer for the next book…

On the romance front, I also enjoyed The Start of Something by Miranda Dickinson. One character is struggling with chronic pain and limited mobility following an injury, while the other is a Welsh single mum trying to keep her head above water after her ex-husband left her with a pile of debt. Although I don’t love misunderstandings/miscommunication as a main point of conflict, they made sense in this one, where both characters were extremely focused on how they would be perceived by the other, and wont to leap to the wrong conclusions. I also found the chronic pain narrative extremely relatable: what if this doesn’t get better? what if this is just how it is now? are questions I’ve asked myself repeatedly over the last few years, and I really felt that.

I took a detour into sci-fi via a Kindle deal and read A Memory Called Empire by Arkady Martine, which I really enjoyed. I wasn’t expecting to, because I don’t often have the brainpower to manage lots of worldbuilding, but it was great. It reminded me a little of The Goblin Emperor: an outsider with a partial but incomplete understanding of cultural/social norms adapts to a complex political situation quickly and unexpectedly while dealing with their predecessor’s murder, and also there’s interesting linguistic worldbuilding. (In this case, the use of poetry as an essential part of a society’s transmission of information.)

Finally, a few YA reads, hopping back to February. I read Morgan Owen’s The Girl With No Soul, which came out this month, and fortunately, enjoyed it a lot. I say fortunately, because Morgan was incredibly nice about The Butterfly Assassin and I was terrified I wouldn’t like hers in return 😅 But I did, so we’re safe. It contains a great many things that fascinate me, and which I’ve written about or am writing about: souls, beasties made of shadows, guys with a white streak in their hair… (There were a few details where I had to message Morgan a passage from something I’d written and go, “Do we have the same brain?!”) If you want interesting worldbuilding in a YA fantasy that feels both classic and original, this is one for you.

I also read Hell Followed With Us by Andrew Joseph White, which comes out in a few months. This one is… a lot, in the best possible way. It’s a trans post-apocalyptic horror novel where religious extremists have wiped out most of the population. The protagonist is an escapee from the religious community; he’s also undergoing a horrific transformation and turning into a monster. It’s all about bodies, and power over yourself and your identity, and finding strength in community. It’s also, in places, extremely gross, and I had to take a break from reading for a few days because body horror and post-surgical nausea turned out to be a terrible combination. But if you’re not squeamish like me, you’ll probably find the body horror quite fun, and the rest of the book is full of feelings and it’s just… yeah, it’s a lot.

Then, this month, I reread Matt Killeen’s Orphan, Monster, Spy, because a while back I bought the sequel but didn’t remember enough of book one to read it. I’d forgotten how dark it is. It’s about a Jewish girl going undercover to spy on the Nazis, so it was never going to be a walk in the park, but it really doesn’t flinch from the horrors she witnesses. The violence is never gratuitous, I thought, but nor is it sanitised at all. Book two, Devil, Darling, Spy, is similar in that regard, grappling with the evils of colonialism and medical experimentation, among other topics. Both are powerful, dark, and concerned with the issue of whose stories gets told and who gets protected in times of warfare.

I had a couple of lighter reads in February, too. Rachael Lippincott’s She Gets The Girl is a college-set YA with your classic “I’ll help you win her over! Oh, crap, but now I’ve fallen for you” kind of plotline (I say classic not because it’s been overdone, because it hasn’t, but because it’s a solid and delightful trope). The emotional beats of the romance felt earned in a way that a lot of books don’t quite manage, and I believed in the emotions of it. Sophie Gonzales’ Perfect on Paper has a Sex Education vibe, and grapples with the question of whether it’s ethical for a teenager to be giving paid relationship advice; it has an important narrative about grappling with internalised biphobia, and I liked that the character’s sister is casually trans, too.

Finally, this month I reread CG Drews’ The Boy Who Steals Houses, in order to dive into her serialised-on-Patreon sequel, The Kings of Nowhere. I am loving the sequel so far, and having a great many feelings about it; I’m looking forward to the final chapters being posted tomorrow. While I’m late to the serialisation party, I’m glad I waited, because I’m far too impatient to read only a couple of chapters per week! So if you want stories about codependent brothers, found family, autism, and healing after trauma, I recommend checking those out.

Not a lot of nonfiction in this post, mostly because I’ve been cheating on the two nonfiction books I’m currently reading with all of this fiction. I’m hoping to talk more about Fierce Appetites by Elizabeth Boyle (my current read) once I’ve finished it — it might even get its own post, but we’ll have to wait and see.

Anyway, that’s what I’ve been reading lately. How about you? Any recommendations for me?


With less than two months to go until The Butterfly Assassin comes out, now is a great time to preorder!

Control And Recovery

You would think, after eight years in a perpetual yo-yo of decline and recovery, that I would know how to write about recovery. I don’t. On this occasion, recovering from top surgery and a knee injury and pandemic-induced inactivity simultaneously, there’s plenty of material. But some of it’s gross, and some of it’s boring. Some of it is a story of anxiety (“Is this healing correctly? Should it look like that?”), and some of it is a story of determination (daily walks getting slowly longer as I test my ability to walk without a cane). Sometimes, it’s staring into a mirror wondering whether I’ve always been this wonky, or whether I need to go back to the osteopath because my spine’s gone twisty again. None of it makes for a tidy narrative or an inspirational story.

Here’s the part that’s a story: three years on the NHS gender clinic waiting list and no sign of a first appointment, so I went private for top surgery, because selling The Butterfly Assassin gave me the money to do it. And that’s narratively significant and tidy, because The Butterfly Assassin is a story about struggling for control over your body and your life, and this was a form of taking back some of that control. It’s also a book I first wrote during the summer of 2014, around the same time I was having my initial gender crisis. These facts are probably not a coincidence.

The rest is messier. The rest is about balancing my squeamishness, my fear of being visibly trans in an increasingly hostile world, and the fact that surgery cost two-thirds of my yearly income with the fact that I needed to feel at home in my own skin, in an urgent way that wasn’t compatible with the absurd NHS waiting lists. The rest is private: my choices, my anxiety, my body. No matter how the media likes to pretend that trans lives must be endlessly subjected to public debate and examination.

The knee injury, though, I can talk about that. I hurt it in October, and since then my walking has been limited to what I can manage with a cane. My reliance on it has gradually reduced — initially I could hardly walk at all — but I was still using the cane when I travelled for surgery, and my inability to lean on it without aggravating my chest afterwards forced me to focus on rehabilitating the knee. There’s a lot of that, when you have hypermobile joints that perpetually injure themselves. Decline and recovery, decline and recovery, a constant process of rebuilding and relearning and reshaping.

So I’ve been going for walks, because they’re the only exercise I can manage. The unseasonably warm spring weather has helped, making it easier to motivate myself to leave the house, although there are still days where I’m tempted to stay in bed all day. But I force myself out. Sometimes, the walks are short: up the park, a quick circuit of the Pokéstops, taking over the gyms again if somebody’s kicked me out, and then home to recover. Sometimes they’re longer, not always intentionally, as I go a street or two beyond my usual circuit and then drawn further afield by curiosity to see what I’ll find.

Two things have made these walks bearable, even at the beginning when they were brief and slow and required frequent rest-breaks. The first is that I’m living in a new area, and so even a circuit of the streets will bring me sights I’ve never seen before, rather than the dreary familiarity of an area where I’ve lived for years. Novelty creates excitement, even when the novelty is just a different block of flats and row of shops. Since I’m due to move again next month (I’ve begun to feel like I will never not be moving house), there won’t be time for this area to become drearily familiar, and instead I have a sense of urgency, like I need to make the most of it while I’m here.

The other is Pokémon Go. I know: it’s 2022, not 2016. But in 2016, downloading Pokémon Go did wonders for my fitness, prompting me to take that extra digression on the way home just to loop in a couple of extra Pokéstops, rather than always taking the shortest route. It helped me build my stamina and strength, something that’s essential to managing my hypermobility. I stopped playing a while back, but last year downloaded it again to try and motivate myself to leave the house more often. It didn’t work very well then — it helped a little, but then I hurt my knee, so I couldn’t go out — but now it’s coming into its own.

Walking slowly, pausing often, and sticking only to familiar routes where I won’t accidentally find myself too far from home are boring limitations on an ordinary walk. But Pokémon Go makes them easier to bear. I walk slowly, so that gives me time to catch the Pokémon I pass. I’ll pause at a gym to reclaim control of it, giving myself a chance to rest and lower my heartrate before I continue. And I’m always looking at a map of the area, so it’s easier to find my way back when I stray off course.

It has become — in a strange kind of way — an accessibility aid. This game, which was not designed for me, and which favours those who can walk significant distances and regularly, is helping me to manage my disabilities and rehabilitate an injury that has plagued me for months. It makes it worth putting my shoes on just to manage a 15-minute walk, because at least that’ll help maintain my streak of visiting Pokéstops. It has, unexpectedly, gamified recovery.

The game has its challenges and problems. The repetitive movements aren’t great for my hands, and staring down at my phone probably isn’t doing great things for my neck either. But my knee is improving. The other day, I managed to walk for ninety minutes, which I haven’t done in months. My mind feels clearer for it, too: an hour each day away from Twitter and the endless news cycle of doom and despair, the rising cost of living and the spread of virulent transphobia and the war in Ukraine and the perpetually growing COVID figures…

It’s frustrating, when people turn out to be right that fresh air and exercise help. Partly because I’m a creature of the indoors at the best of times, and partly because I don’t always have a choice about my ability to experience those things. For months my knee has kept me trapped, unable to walk further than 10 minutes from home in case I can’t get back again, and no matter how much I wanted to go out and exercise, I couldn’t. Anxiety quickly begins to close in when you feel you’ve lost all sense of control over how you manage it.

But now the winter is coming to an end. The days are getting longer, and the air is getting warmer, and I, like the flowers, am slowly coming back to life again. Slowly getting some colour back, and raising my head to the sun. One gentle walk at a time.

I’m beginning to feel hopeful now that when I’m allowed to dance again, once the post-surgery restriction on cardio has been lifted, I might actually be able to. I’m beginning to look forward to choreographing, to having space to dance in a way that I haven’t since the start of the pandemic. Getting my rhythm back. Expressing myself in a way that doesn’t need words. This time, without having to strap myself into a painful, over-tight sports bra before I start.

With every day that passes, as I get stronger and as my chest heals, I begin to feel that little bit more at home in my own skin. And it’s not body positivity per se. My body and I will always have our wars, particularly over its inability to digest anything I might actually want to eat. But it’s body neutrality. It’s recognition of the self. It’s glancing in the mirror and going, “Oh, yeah, that’s me.” Flaws and all. Rather than feeling caught in a trap, caged in by something I don’t have control over and can’t relate to.

The Butterfly Assassin is a book about struggling for control over your body and your life. About wanting autonomy when you’re losing even the ability to function on a day-to-day basis. About trying to find a balance between surrender and stubbornness: when to ask for help, and when to go it alone. In the eight years since I first drafted it, I’ve lived that over and over, through different periods of decline and their subsequent eras of recovery, and I know that recovery will never be ‘final’, but always an ongoing process. That’s what chronic means. It’s never just one injury, one surgery: it’s a dozen small things and all their effects.

Still, I feel hopeful now that when the book comes out, in two months, it’ll be a much stronger version of me who is there to greet it. Not the hermit-like winter me, kept trapped by pain, but the version of me that takes a slightly longer walk every day, and feels my body remembering what it feels like to do what I want it to do.

Maybe I’ve learned to write about recovery after all. Or maybe it’s the kind of thing you relearn every time, the way I relearn how to walk, the way I regain my strength. An endless cycle. A perpetual process of becoming myself, and claiming my own body.


The Butterfly Assassin will be released on the 26th of May. You can pre-order it now.

Generic Observations

I’ve been thinking a lot about genre recently.

One of my aims this year is to read a more varied mix of genres and categories than last year. In particularly, I’m aiming to read more nonfiction, although I keep screwing myself over on that front by choosing Extremely Large History Books as my nonfiction choices, which then take me months to get through and require a great deal of concentration. Devil-Land looks like a fascinating take on 17th century England, for example, a period I’ve been hoping to learn more about… but it’s also more than 700 pages of tiny print, and, well, I’m very tired, all the time. I can see it taking me a while.

(By comparison: I raced through Did Ye Hear Mammy Died by Séamas O’Reilly in an evening, and had a great time. It’s a memoir that, as the marketing info says, is a lot funnier than the title makes it sounded. That doesn’t mean it doesn’t have some pretty poignant observations about grief — but it also made me cackle aloud repeatedly. I need more nonfiction like that in my life.)

Even on the fiction front, which is always going to dominate for me, I wanted to aim for more variety. Last year was very dominated by fantasy and romance, and I was hoping I could shake things up a bit. I’m aiming to read more thrillers now that I’m not so deeply mired in edits for The Butterfly Assassin, and I’ve got a few on my Kindle waiting for me, including a couple by my fellow 2022 debuts. I already read a lot of SFF, and I know from past experience that I don’t do well with creepy books, which largely rules out Horror, so I’m not sure how much I can branch out there. But as I read for comfort rather than heart-pumping excitement most of the time, I’m wondering if I should try and get into cozy mysteries or something. (Recs and genre suggestions welcome!)

Anyway, January was a strong month for reading, mainly because I’m under-employed and still recovering from the absolute wall of fatigue that hit me in December after finishing my MA, moving back to the UK, adjusting to no longer living alone, and dealing with Christmas etc. One of the things about spending large portions of every day in bed and being the kind of person who finds TV gives them photosensitive migraines is that you end up reading a lot.

On the face of it, though, the twenty-eight books I read in January look like they’re not too far off conforming to last year’s pattern. I did reread the entire Alex Rider series for various reasons, and since those are classified as “Action/Adventure”, that threw the genre balance off somewhat, but the rest were predominantly Adult Romance, YA SFF, and one or two Contemporary YAs thrown in for good luck.

But the thing about my reading statistics is that they’re based solely on how I input a book into my spreadsheet. If I’m not sure how it’s classified, I’ll google it to double check, but if it gives me a range of genres, I have to pick one, and I’ll go for whichever seems like a better catch-all term. I decided early on I wasn’t going to go for giving things mixed genres because it would make things too confusing, nor was I going to get into the nitty-gritty of subgenres (not even easy things like distinguishing between “historical” romance and “contemporary” romance), because it would complicate the process of collecting stats.

And that means that the simple one-genre answers can conceal a lot about what a book is actually like. I know that sounds obvious: “not all books within a genre are the same or even similar”. Well, duh. But I read a bunch of KJ Charles books this month, as I often do when I need comfort reading, and I was really struck by how, although they’re primarily historical romance novels and they’re listed in my spreadsheet as Romance, they have other, completely different genres going on in the background.

For example, Think of England and Proper English exist in the same universe, and have overlapping characters. But Proper English is partially a murder mystery novel, with all the tropes that entails: an isolated country house, a body, a houseful of suspects who can’t be allowed to leave, and a heroine intent on solving the murder before the police arrive (in part, to conceal the non-murdery secrets of those in the house). Think of England, on the other hand, isn’t a murder mystery, but it does have espionage and blackmail, giving it a tinge of a thriller’s tension alongside the romance.

And then I read A Marvellous Light by Freya Marske, which is listed in my spreadsheet as Fantasy. I had a great time with it — but what it reminded me most strongly of was KJ Charles’ Charm of Magpies series, which would show up in my spreadsheet as Romance. Both contain magic, gay romance, curses, and perhaps most noticeably, a magical bureaucrat dealing with a nonmagical aristocrat who is nevertheless unwillingly connected to the world of magic, set against a backdrop of historical England. So what’s the difference between them? Why is one listed as Romance and one as Fantasy?

Romance is a particular genre with its own conventions, a fact a lot of people seem to overlook when they’re classifying anything and everything with a love story as Romance. (For the last time, The Song of Achilles is not a romance novel, it’s a novel with romance.) I read another fantasy novel this month with a queer romance in it, and despite its happy ending, I wouldn’t have said that one felt like a romance novel. It didn’t have the same rhythm; I didn’t find myself anticipating the beats in the same way that I do when I’ve been reading a lot of historical romances in close succession.

When I say I anticipate the beats, I don’t mean that the books become predictable or that I know what’s going to happen, but there are certain emotional rises and falls that you begin to get used to, and if a book misses one of them — as can be done effectively when the author is deliberately trying to subvert your expectations — it can feel like you’ve missed a step going up the stairs. There are patterns, and there are tropes they have in common. (Queer historical romance novels, for example, will very often have a scene early on where one character recognises that the other one is also interested in their gender, something that has to be ascertained subtly in most time periods if nobody’s going to end up arrested. Later, there’s often a misunderstanding or mistake that leads to a temporary rupture in the relationship which feels irreparable (but won’t be). I could go on, but you get the idea: there’s a particular vibe that you start to recognise over time, if you read a lot of books in the genre in close succession.)

And those tropes and story beats, those narrative rhythms… A Marvellous Light has them, including the happy ending. Maybe they’re not foregrounded in the story the way they would be in one of KJ Charles’ fantasy romance novels, but A Charm of Magpies is still the closest comp I’ve got for it, and it’s what I’d recommend to someone who told me they’d read A Marvellous Light and wanted something else with a similar dynamic. Honestly, I think insofar as there’s a difference of genre at all, it’s simply a matter of marketing.

Again, I know, I’m coming up with all sorts of profound observations here: “genre/category is a marketing tactic, not an intrinsic fact of storytelling”. Wow, Finn, can you bottle this stuff and sell it? It’s not like everybody’s known that since, I don’t know, forever. But there are times when it’s a lot more noticeable than others — such as when you read two books back-to-back in the same genre and realise they have an entirely different vibe, or read two that are supposedly a different genre, and find they’re not so different after all.

Another thing that got me thinking about genre was that I participated in a panel discussion about YA thrillers over on the UK YA Instagram. I’m lucky that there seems to be a big appetite for thrillers and the like in YA at the moment — probably much more than there was in 2014 when I wrote The Butterfly Assassin, since we were still in more of a fantasy boom at that point. But I’m also profoundly ignorant of the genre, not least because there was a lot less of it around when I was a teen (my teenage years were dominated in publishing by post-Twilight paranormal romance, then post-Hunger Games dystopia, then edging into Big Fantasy again towards the end). Add to that the fact that I read almost no thrillers last year because I didn’t feel I could read them while working on The Butterfly Assassin without finding it either distracting or dispiriting — as I said, I hope to change that this year — and I find that currently, when asked for recommendations in my own genre, I have no idea what to suggest.

If I’m honest, I feel guilty about that ignorance! How dare I write a genre I rarely read? I’ll be honest with you: I didn’t know I was writing a thriller when I started. If anything, I thought it was going to be a dystopian novel, and I guess there’s some overlap with that genre when it comes to the worldbuilding, but it wasn’t until I was trying to query and so on that I really had to figure out exactly how to classify it. I found myself particularly looking at people who said they were interested in genre-bending stories, because I wasn’t convinced I was doing a good job of sticking within the bounds of any specific category. It’s far from the only book where I’ve had that problem: I’m a “story first, genre later” kind of writer, and I think that’s probably the way it has to be, unless you’re the very commercially-focused type who can think in terms of marketing from day one. Because that’s what genre is. Marketing.

That marketing shapes titles, cover designs, graphics, advertisements, so to some extent, it must impact on a reader’s perspective of a book. But my book’s being pretty firmly marketed as a thriller, with that dystopian angle coming in from the visual similarities to some of the covers for The Hunger Games, and there are still people shelving it as “fantasy” on Goodreads. At this point, I don’t know what I can say to convince them otherwise. It has the word “assassin” in the title and it’s slightly speculative, and that seems to be enough. They’re going to be disappointed, though, if they’re expecting magic.

(No, I have not yet learned to stay off Goodreads. Yes, I have been haunting the page that tells me what shelves people have added the book to, because it’s currently more or less the only metric by which I can measure how people are responding to the book. I’m also concerned that those adding it to shelves labelled “sapphic” and “wlw” are going to be profoundly disappointed by the total lack of romance — while the central relationship is two girls, it’s definitely presented as a platonic one. But I’ve made no secret of the lack of romance, either, so what else can I do? Absolutely nothing.)

I think the majority of readers think a lot less about genre than writers do. They know the kinds of books they like to read, but they wouldn’t necessarily slot them into a specific box. They’d recognise them unconsciously by those very same marketing decisions — the cover design, the title, the way the blurb is worded. Which works great, until you get a book where genre-dissonant cover choices were made, and suddenly all the reviews are people saying, “This wasn’t what I was expecting…”

I see that happening a lot too: readers judging a book on how closely it matches what they expected of it, rather than by how well it succeeded at doing whatever it was actually doing. I’ve done it myself, I’m sure. If I wanted a comforting low-stress romance novel, I won’t be thrilled if what I get is a dark, gritty story where I have to wade through a character grappling with transphobia and bigotry. That doesn’t mean it’s a bad book, or that I wouldn’t enjoy it at another time, if that’s what I was looking for — but when I pick something up expecting it to feel like a hug, it can be jarring when instead I get punched in the face.

And those darker themes don’t mean the book stops being a romance novel, which is an important point to note. A book can be the genre it’s marketed as, and still not be in the least bit what you’re expecting when you pick it up. Genre only goes so far to telling you what you’re holding in your hands, because as I oh-so-profoundly observed above, it’s almost like not every book in the same genre is the same and a book can fulfil the conventions without following the same template. Radical.

All of this to say: my spreadsheet tells me I read a bunch of romance novels last month, both historical and contemporary. I did. But one of them was also a murder mystery novel. One of them was about grappling with anxiety and depression. And one of them was marketed and classified as fantasy. Because genre’s… well, I was about to say it’s only half the story, but it’s a lot less than that. It’s only a fragment. Only the door we walk through to get to the book inside. And sometimes there’s more than one door leading to the same story, and sometimes we get lost on the way because we were actually looking for a totally different door, or they’ve re-labelled the floor plan without telling us.

Still. I hope this year my spreadsheet will have a wider variety of doors. But I’m not going to let myself be embarrassed about any of the ones that are already on there, because for the most part, they led me to places I very much wanted to go.


If you enjoyed this post, please consider pre-ordering The Butterfly Assassin, which is definitely not a fantasy novel, or support my book-buying habit by tipping me on Ko-Fi.

From Cocoon To Butterfly…

For those who somehow missed it, yesterday saw the cover reveal for The Butterfly Assassin. I say “somehow” not because it was a vast worldwide event, but because I’ve been being insufferable on social media about it, and if you follow me here, there’s a strong chance you follow me elsewhere too.

(Brief digression while I nostalgically reflect on the days when blogs were a completely separate social platform with their own community and I would regularly have conversations in the comments here with people I had absolutely no contact with outside of blog comments. Ah, the old internet. A place I find myself increasingly missing, since every website now seems designed to make me click on ads rather than to actually give me Content.)

Anyway, for those who didn’t see it, here she is:

The cover of The Butterfly Assassin, superimposed on a colourfully painted wall. The cover is mainly black, with a butterfly in the centre with one bright yellow wing and one blue wing. The yellow wing is surrounded by paint splatters, evoking graffiti. The tagline reads "Innocent by day, killer by night".

The colourful background is, obviously, not a part of the cover; it’s a brightly painted wall in Cork City that I photographed one time when I was out taking pictures of the street art around me. I used it for my graphics because I think the colours in it really make the cover pop, and to bring out the vibrant aesthetic that I hope comes through in the writing. I love street art and anything that brightens up cities with a bit of unexpected colour, so there’s a lot of it in the book itself — something I was really keen for the cover to evoke.

The cover reveal signals that everything is now proceeding apace with The Butterfly Assassin — while for some people, their covers are finalised at an early stage, for me, this means that my proof copies are printed and about to go out to other authors and to reviewers so that we can start to hear what people think of the book. Last week, I received a parcel with ten proof copies for myself, and I got to hold the book for myself for the first time.

I don’t think anything quite compares to that, to be honest: having in my hands a physical copy of a book that has for so long been a document on my computer. It’s not the first time I’ve seen my work in print, because I did dabble in self-publishing as a teenager (mainly poetry; all now out of print), but there’s something different about a novel like this, that I’ve been working on for so long… And having not been involved in the process of typesetting and formatting and designing the finished book makes it all the more magical to have that in front of me, because it still has the capacity to surprise me.

How is it, that after almost eight years, I’m still surprised by this book? By the fact that it’s real? By the idea that people will be reading it?

And although it’s exciting, it’s also terrifying. My book is going out into the world, and soon I’ll have to face up to the mortifying ordeal of being reviewed. After writing for so long, and making so many author friends online, I feel a kind of pressure not to disappoint them. I mean, I’ve been bigging it up for all these years — what if they hate it? Will they ever buy one of my books again? Will I be allowed to grow from my debut, or will this be the yardstick by which my skill as a writer is forever measured?

More than the fear of disappointing friends, there’s the even more absurd idea that complete strangers will be picking up this book. At first, it’ll be others in the industry — my publisher will be sending copies to authors they think might enjoy or even endorse it. They know what this process is like, the terror of it, and maybe that’ll soften their responses. But soon enough it’ll be in bookshops (time continues to progress, unfair as that seems), and readers will find it, and that’s a whole new step in the journey.

I’ve been writing a long time, and I’ve called myself a writer since I was thirteen, because a writer to me is somebody who writes. But to be an author — to face up to that scrutiny of reviews and reactions, to be read by those who have never heard of me before — is new, and as daunting as it is exciting. Of course I want to be read: I thrive on reactions from my beta readers. But that doesn’t mean I’m not scared of it.

And maybe a big part of why it scares me is that this is a book I wrote for the first time when I was eighteen, and now I’m about to turn twenty-six, so the process of writing it has gone hand-in-hand with growing from an adolescent into an adult. It’s been part of my life for such a long time, and it’s grown as I have. I’ve learned more about craft, I’ve reworked the whole thing so fundamentally that it’s almost unrecognisable from its first draft, and it is as much the product of twenty-five-year-old me than of eighteen-year-old me.

… but is it? Is this a story I would tell now? Or is this a fragment of an earlier version of me, still half-formed, still figuring out who I was? Maybe both. It feels personal because any book feels personal: there are years of my life embedded in it, and pieces of my heart along with them. Objectively, I know that criticism of my work isn’t criticism of me, but that doesn’t mean it won’t feel like it, if somebody cuts straight to the heart of what makes it my book rather than anybody else’s and decides they don’t like it. But partly the fear is that what they’ll find is a version of me who is no longer here to defend themselves.

Not in the “if anything I’ve said is problematic, it’s because I was young and didn’t know better” sense (if I have made any mistakes, despite my best intentions, I hope I’d be mature enough to own up to them and try and do better in future), but in the sense that it is, on some level, a book born of a particular time in my life, and my narrative choices were shaped by that.

I’m currently rewriting a book that I wrote for the first time in 2013, with characters I created in 2010. Having dismantled the worldbuilding and reconfigured the plot, there’s little left to make this the same book rather than a new one with some of the same characters — and even the characters have grown and changed as I’ve grown and changed. I want different things from my protagonist than I did when I made him; I have different plans for my secondary characters. I’m well aware that I can no longer get inside the head of the seventeen-year-old writer I was when I first wrote the book, nor do I want to: I’m telling a different story now.

It’s an interesting experience: taking an old concept and writing a new book with it. I’ve been writing small, disconnected scenes for these characters for years; I’ve known them longer than many of my friends. But I’m rediscovering them all over again as I write this new book that is also an old book, a first draft that is also a fourth draft.

This is a project I’m currently writing just for me, rather than with plans to seek publication for it — I’m between deadlines, and it’s always been my “background” project, the one I go back to when I have nothing else to work on. (For those who’ve been here a while: it’s part of my Death and Fairies series, if you remember that.) That in itself makes it a fundamentally different experience to the past year of working on The Butterfly Assassin and other books intended for the publishing pipeline.

But what’s really different is that it has become a new book, and The Butterfly Assassin hasn’t. It may have changed beyond recognition since its first draft, but when I go back and reread that earliest version, there’s some intangible vibe that remains the same, even when every plot point has shifted and there probably isn’t a single line that survived intact in the entire book. It’s a Ship of Theseus situation: how much of the book can I rewrite before it stops being the same book? The answer with The Butterfly Assassin is: all of it. Because at its heart, on some indefinable level, it still feels like the same book. I’m still telling the same story, just very differently from how I first attempted it.

And, let’s be honest: much more effectively. I know, objectively, that the version of this book which will be hitting shelves in May is a fundamentally better book than the one I first wrote. It has been burned down and rebuilt more times than I can count. But the foundations are the foundations that eighteen-year-old me built, on the site that life had given me.

And so, when I find myself nervous about people’s reactions, I’ve realised it’s not simply because I’m defensive of myself as a creator now. No matter how challenging I find criticism and disagreement sometimes, I know it’s not inherently a bad thing, and I also hope that this will be the worst book I ever publish, because I would hate to peak with book one. No, it’s because I’m protective of me then. Of the younger Finn who is at the heart of the story.

But I don’t think they need me to protect them. Isabel was a kind of armour they built: a character who was all sharp edges, at a time when they felt ill-defined and vulnerable. And now Isabel’s her own person, and they’ve grown into me, and we’re not the same at all.

So the book is the book, and the bones it’s built on are its foundation, and nothing more. And whether people love it or hate it, I know that I used the rubble of a mediocre book I wrote as a teenager to build one that was far, far stronger than that, and I can be proud of it. I can be proud of the work I put in and I can be proud of the me I grew into it throughout the process and I can be proud of the words on the page, no matter what anyone else thinks of them.

My butterfly is going out into the world, and yes, I’m terrified. But I think it’s going to be okay.

Just as long as I stick to my promise to stay a long, long way away from Goodreads.


If you enjoyed this post, you can pre-order The Butterfly Assassin now, or buy me a coffee to help pay for the therapy I’m inevitably going to need once it’s out in the world ;)

Letters From The Past

The first email I got this year was from myself.

I’d written it in July 2012, addressed to the Me of 2022, and scheduled it to arrive in the future. It didn’t come as a complete surprise: I knew I’d written the letter, because I’d been wondering, recently, where I’d saved it. There were a few of them in total, written between 2012 and 2015, all to be read in 2022 (because it was ten years after the first, not because the year was special). But I wasn’t expecting the email, and I suppose on that front, my past self is lucky that I never deactivated my old email addresses despite changing my name.

In this first letter, my sixteen-year-old self speculated about what I might have done in the past ten years, and also tried to give me some advice. This had the weird effect of feeling like I was being patronised by myself, although at least younger me was self-aware enough to know that there was no way I’d be taking any advice from a teenage version of myself. Still, it was a snapshot of my expectations for my future, and one that managed to surprise me despite thinking I knew my past self quite well.

It was funny to see the kind of things I wasn’t sure if I’d remember. I made a reference to Brave New World, then wondered if I’d get it, and supposed that if I did, it was either because I hadn’t read many more books, or because I’d reread it recently. Well, I’ve probably read well over a thousand books since I wrote that letter, and I absolutely couldn’t tell you when I last read Brave New World, but I still remember the helicopters, so sixteen-year-old me needn’t have worried on that front.

Some of my teenage self’s expectations were predictable. “Published? I really hope so. If not, I wonder what happened. Did you stop writing? Give up on your dreams?” I want to say: not yet, give me a few months, come back to me in June and I’ll have a different answer for you, I never stopped, I didn’t give up. I want to tell my younger self that sometimes things take much, much longer than you were expecting. I had high expectations for myself as a teen writer; I was convinced I’d be published before I was twenty, or at least not long afterwards. (You can imagine the crisis I had on my twentieth birthday when I realised that definitely wasn’t going to happen.)

Then my younger self gives me some advice that reminds me exactly how young sixteen really is. “You know, scrapping teenage fantasy doesn’t mean giving up on everything you ever wanted to do, it just means being realistic about it. If you’re still writing, but you have a day job and you’re struggling to find the time, remember – if you really want something, really really, then you’ll get it. Eventually.”

If only the world actually worked like that. If only wanting was all you needed to ensure success. I know what I meant: I know I was trying to encourage myself not to give up, even if things didn’t take the path I was hoping they would. But I was writing this from the point of view of a mostly able-bodied, mentally stable teenager. Becoming disabled and grappling with my mental health has left me with a very different perspective — that sometimes it doesn’t matter how much you want something or how hard you work, because it will be taken from you. The hardest lesson I ever learned as a teenager was that determination and willpower aren’t enough and you can’t actually overcome every barrier in life just by trying hard enough.

The same naivety is visible later in the letter: “I hope you’re still writing. And dancing. Whether or not you’re a dancer or a dance teacher – and if you’re not, DON’T think of that as failure! – I hope you’re still using that gift somehow.” It’s funny: my sixteen-year-old self had such high expectations for me as a dancer, despite the fact that I’d only recently returned to classes. I really thought I might be able to do vocational training one day, or become a teacher. These days, I’m trying to gradually rebuild enough strength to even do a barre, after being kept out of the studio for the best part of two years by the pandemic and a cascading series of injuries.

And hey, I’m not supposed to think of it as a failure that I didn’t achieve my dreams in that regard. Which, well, I wasn’t, but I appreciate the reassurance anyway — and maybe my younger self would have been proud of some of the performances I’ve done in the intervening years, even if they wouldn’t quite be able to fathom how it feels to have a left knee determined to stop me dancing. I know they can’t imagine that, because of the way sixteen-year-old me went on to tell me I couldn’t give it up now, and should start classes again if I’d quit. Again with the assumption that all anything requires is determination.

It’s strange, to be reminded that once upon a time I trusted my body to still be able to do what I wanted it to in the future. It never even occurred to me in 2012 that it might be my health, not my choices, that changed my plans.

At least there’s one regard in which I wouldn’t have disappointed my past self: “I wonder what you did at uni. Was it ASNaC? Or did you go a bit more normal and do, like, English or something? Please don’t say you did something normal. I’m disappointed in you if you did.” With a BA in Anglo-Saxon, Norse and Celtic and an MA in Early and Medieval Irish, I can definitely promise my younger self that I didn’t do something normal at university.

This anxiety about abandoning my teenage weirdness pervades these letters. Letters plural, because although I did go looking for the file containing the others, I didn’t need to: the 2013 letter showed up in my inbox this morning.

The 2013 letter is an interesting one, written maybe two weeks before I injured my wrists and temporarily lost the use of my hands, developing chronic pain that still plagues me to this day. I’m much harder on myself in that one: rather than simply wondering whether I’d managed to get anything published yet, I told myself, “I’m disappointed if you haven’t made it to successful author status yet. You better have published a few novels though. I mean, I’m seventeen and I’ve completed 12 first drafts and written Watching nine times, so you legitimately have no excuse for not doing anything. You can just dig them out and edit them, right?”

Harsh. But I get it, I really do. Seventeen-year-old me had spent the year writing intensively, averaging about 90k a month. I never stopped. Every time I finished a book I’d start another one, barely resting in between, and I had half a dozen more lined up in my head to work on. It was like I couldn’t stop, until the moment my hands went caput and I was forced to. Of course I wanted to know it was worth something, that it went somewhere, that I wasn’t wasting my time. I was sacrificing my time — and my health — at the altar of writing, and I wanted an answer.

This letter, written two weeks before my injury, shows again that hubris of able-bodied youth: “you legitimately have no excuse”. Would I have said the same if I knew I was going to spend the next year using voice recognition because I couldn’t type? That I would be having to reconstruct my entire sense of self because I lost a huge chunk of my personality, social life, and dreams when I lost the ability to play music?

No excuse. What a letter to leave for your future self. Again, I leap to defensiveness: come back to me in a few months, I’m trying, I didn’t give up. But I know it isn’t this me that past me is talking to, really. It’s that me. It’s the version of me that I was pushing and pushing until the moment I snapped.

Throughout the letter, there are references to fandom and nerdiness (I was really into Hannibal at the time, apparently), bookended by speculation about whether I’d get the references, whether I’d know what I was talking about. It’s like I thought nine years would be long enough to forget everything about my adolescence. And that’s what I mean about the anxiety about losing my weirdness. I think the fact that most of the adults I knew weren’t interested in these things made me think that as an adult, I wouldn’t be either.

I was seventeen, and at seventeen you’re in this weird, nebulous, liminal state where nobody can decide whether to treat you like a child or an adult. You’re an adult when they want you to make choices and take responsibility; a child when they don’t want to have to listen to you. In this letter, I can see those pressures weighing on me, this fear that if I wanted to be ‘grown up’ I would have to let go of all the things that made me, well, me. The bizarre hopes and dreams, the niche interests, the nonconformity… I was even worried whether future me would still be queer, or whether that would genuinely have turned out to be a phase.

(It has not.)

“Please tell me you followed through with SOMETHING you wanted to do as a teenager,” I begged my future self, because apparently nothing scared me like the idea of becoming a “straight, married, normal person with an office job”. And while in hindsight it is hilarious that both of these letters, 2012 and 2013, wonder if 2022!me is married, I can’t help but feel sad for my younger self, who didn’t have a roadmap for their future. I didn’t know how to imagine me as an Adult Who Stayed Weird, because I didn’t know anyone like me. Just as I didn’t really know what a queer future would look like, because I didn’t know any older queer people who might offer me alternative paths to follow.

Both of these emails were scheduled on the same day, in early July 2013, which means I don’t think my 2014 and 2015 letters will be showing up in my inbox over the next couple of days. But I dug them out anyway, and the mood there is very different.

The 2014 letter was written in January of that year, so it’s only a few months later. Still, that version of me feels much older. Much sadder, too: midway through one of the hardest years of my life, grappling with pain and new limitations on my body and my hopes for the future. Maybe that’s what made my eighteen-year-old self so much kinder than their younger counterpart. Eighteen-year-old me had learned that the pressure to live up to your younger self’s expectations could be crushing, and they didn’t want that for me.

They wrote, “I think what I want really though is for you to be you. I’ve spent a lot of time clinging on to dreams that were broken and worthless instead of finding new ones and I don’t want you to do the same thing so, if you can, just be you. Write books if that’s what you do (and I hope it is), but don’t feel like you have to because your eighteen-year-old self would be disappointed if you didn’t.”

Eighteen-year-old me had learned that you can’t keep clinging to something that’s no longer what you want, just because you wanted it for a very long time in the past. They’d learned that sometimes plans change, and it’s not within your control, but if you keep trying to stick to the original map once the road has been redirected, you’re going to end up stuck in a bog somewhere.

Eighteen-year-old me was also less focused only on what I might personally have achieved. They were thinking about the world: “I hope the world is a better place for you. I hope there’s a better Minister for Education than Gove, and not everything is about straight white dudebros, and that the world isn’t so cissexist and heteronormative…” It’s interesting to see these glimpses of my political concerns from early 2014, but it’s tough to imagine writing back to my younger self and telling them how much worse so many things have got.

Not everything is about straight white dudebros, at least: books especially are far, far more diverse than they were in 2014, particularly in YA, and my current self has access to stories than 2014!me couldn’t even imagine picking up from a mainstream bookshop. But the world is a darker place, overshadowed by the pandemic and the government’s perpetual mixture of incompetence and corruption, dogged by climate change, and punctuated by widespread mainstream transphobia in the media. How can I tell my eighteen-year-old self that? How can I take away their hope that the future would be a better place?

I can’t, of course, but it’s a sobering thought.

And finally, we come to my last letter. 2015. “I’m Finn, sometimes, you know,” it begins, because nineteen-year-old me wasn’t sure how to address the letter or how to sign it off, caught in the grips of an ongoing identity crisis. It goes on to wonder why I’m writing, when I have enough journal entries and poems to give my future self a pretty good picture of who I used to be, but then says, “I still kind of want to write these letters. I always think about who I’m going to be. I think it’s because I’m not so sure about who I am now.”

I can understand that. I know myself better in 2022 than I did in 2015, and certainly better than in 2012, but I still perpetually wonder about my future self. If I sat down to write a similar letter to me in 2032, what would I say? I can’t fathom a version of me who is in their mid-30s. It seems impossible. Absurd, even, and any letter I write now would surely feel as childish and far removed from myself in 2032 as the letter from 2012 does now. I know people who have 3-year, 5-year, 10-year plans for their futures, but I don’t have a strong enough sense of what I want to do that: I can’t work towards a goal I can’t visualise.

That’s something I have in common with my nineteen-year-old self, I suppose, but not with my seventeen-year-old self, who thought the biggest risk to my dreams was me abandoning them, and not life getting in the way.

When I wrote this letter in 2015, I had just been told I might have coeliac disease, and was grappling with the idea of yet another health issue to work around. I hoped future me would “beat” my disabilities, but I said I’d understand if I didn’t. If it all got too much, and I took to my bed. Well, I haven’t given up on anything much. But I do spend a lot of time in my bed, and I guess at nineteen I understood that. The fatigue was beginning to close in already.

There’s one thing, however, that really stands out from that letter: “I’m working on the Moth Trilogy at the moment. Book one is proving more difficult than ever, but I drew a new map of Espera today, and I’m pretty proud of it. I hope you’ve done something with these books, because they are taking up a lot of my thought power and energy. If you haven’t, though, I can only hope it’s because you’ve found something else worthwhile to work on.”

The Moth Trilogy became The Butterfly Assassin. The professionally-designed map that will be in the final book is based on the one I drew the day I wrote this letter. Book one may have been “proving more difficult than ever”, and it may have taken another six years to wrangle it into shape, but I got there.

I got there, I want to write back, it was worth the thought power and energy, it was worth the time, it was worth all the other books I wrote and abandoned, you were right.

2015 is the last of these letters, and the one most open to the possibility of changing. I was a self in flux, and I knew I would continue to change. I asked myself whether I’d ever followed through on some of my plans. If I hadn’t, was it because I was too scared, or because I’d found a different path that made me happier? It echoed the post I wrote a few weeks ago, about trying to make my choices based on love, not fear. It seems I’ve understood this tension for longer than I realised — and that I knew sometimes I need a reminder to consider why I’m actually doing or avoiding something.

From my sixteen-year-old self, who couldn’t really imagine giving up on any of my current writing projects, to my nineteen-year-old self, who had accepted that I might move on but really hoped they’d go somewhere, I can see a shift in how my teenage selves perceived future me, and what that says about how they perceived themselves.

Two weeks after writing 2013’s letter, I was forced to face the fact that we cannot predict our future. That sometimes our bodies let us down, and our plans become impossible, and it doesn’t matter how much we want it, that doesn’t mean we can have it. 2014 and 2015’s letters reflect that knowledge. They make fewer demands of my future, but they offer soft hopes: that I won’t have given up or abandoned my dreams, but found better ones. That I’ll have moved on, rather than walked away.

What I learned between sixteen and nineteen was that you don’t always get a choice about which of your dreams you’re able to keep pursuing. Sometimes, things fall by the wayside because of circumstances outside of your control. But sometimes, you move on because you’ve found something better. You set aside an old dream, and create a new one; you shelve a book, and write another. And that’s okay. Good, even. Because you can’t always be trying to live up to the expectations of your younger self, who didn’t know what you know now, who wasn’t who you are now.

But sometimes, your younger self really is the foundation on whom your adult self is built. And all of them, all these past selves, were hoping I would keep writing, and that I would be published by the time I read their letters. January 2022 still sees me in the pre-publication void, but I’m close. So close. By July, the ten-year anniversary of writing the first of these letters, I’ll be able to honestly say, Yes. I did it. I did what you wanted. I did what we wanted.

Even despite the year spent dictating because my hands didn’t work. Even despite abandoning all the novels my teenage self had high hopes for. Even despite not “beating” my health issues. Even despite the challenges of the publishing industry being greater than I ever imagined.

I did it. It’s my debut year. The Butterfly Assassin comes out in May.

I’m pretty proud of it, said nineteen-year-old me, and honestly? So am I.


Add The Butterfly Assassin on Goodreads, or pre-order it now.

2021 In Books

A few months ago, I wrote about my discomfort with the impulse to gamify everything in life, making hobbies like reading into a competitive sport that had to be done every day or risk losing a “reading streak”. This remains: I still mislike how much information my Kindle collects about my reading habits, and I’m trying to curb the impulse to make number-based goals and lists of what to read in 2022.

I did, however, take the time to transfer my typed list of what I’d read this year into Excel and fiddle around making graphs. Not to find out what the longest book I’d read was, or the most popular, nor to compete with anybody about the total number at the end, but to get a sense of the breakdown of age categories and genres, so that I’d have a better understanding of what I’ve been reading.

This proved to be a useful tool. Although I had some vague ideas about what the results would be, it wasn’t until I actually saw the percentages laid out in pie charts that I was able to judge whether or not I was right. Some of them, my impressions were accurate; others, not so much. Seeing what had changed over the past year compared to the years that went before it was particularly interesting: living abroad, the pandemic, the need for comfort in a stressful world, the general process of growing up, and spending a lot of time editing my debut novel were all factors in my reading choices.

So I figured I’d share a few of those trends and changes with you. I’m interested to know if others have seen similar shifts in their reading, or if your year was completely different. I’m not going to be sharing specific numbers, just percentages; this is partly because once you start making it about how many books you’ve read, competitiveness can easily seep in, but also because I think they’re more useful for identifying those broader patterns.

I’ll start with a guess that was completely wrong: I thought that I’d been rereading a lot this year — there were a couple of books I reread even within the year, and counted twice. But I’d failed to take into account that being separated from the majority of my physical book collection until late November seriously curtailed my rereading, and that for most of the year I’d instead been reading anything I could get cheaply as an ebook, so that the end result was that only 22% of my reads this year were rereads.

This is probably still more than most people, but I’ve always loved rereading, and my poor memory means I can get a lot out of it: having read a book doesn’t mean I’ll remember any of the plot, and even if I do, there are always details to notice. I’m very much a character-motivated reader (and writer), so coming back to a familiar book is like meeting up with old friends — the point is the people I’m with, not where we’re going. Sure, I’ll have more fun if we’re going somewhere I like, but it’s not the destination that makes the outing.

I’d suspected that I was reading more Adult than YA fiction, and that was true: my fiction reads were 56% Adult, 36% YA, 7% Children’s and 1% NA. That last 1% is another result of the dominance of ebooks, since NA is a rare category to find in trad publishing, and although I’m not sure, I’d suspect both of those books were self-published or by small presses. If NA were a properly established category, I think that YA percentage would be smaller: many of these were upper YA books, with 18-year-old protagonists, and there were a fair few that I felt belonged as much in Adult, their inclusion in YA solely a matter of marketing. It was also noticeable that a lot of my YA reads were rereads, though my Excel know-how is not sufficient to enable me to break down the charts by more than one category, so I can’t be exactly sure of how that compared.

There are a few reasons why my reading has skewed older this year. Partly, it’s that I’m fast approaching 26: I’m aware that YA is not written for me, and with every year that goes by, I find it harder to relate to. It’s a natural part of growing older, and while I can still enjoy great YA books and will continue to read them (I write them, after all), they’re not going to be as dominant anymore. It’s also a matter of practicalities — as I mentioned, I read a lot of ebooks, and many of my choices were the result of browsing sales and deals for discounts, because I wouldn’t be able to afford to keep up with my reading speed otherwise. I’ve noticed that YA books are often weirdly expensive on Kindle (the ebook market isn’t as strong for kidlit, so maybe that’s why?) and have fewer deals, which is partly why I’ve always been a library reader for YA. Pandemic restrictions have made that challenging, and that’s influenced my choices.

Finally, it’s a matter of genre. This is an area where the percentages really surprised me. Admittedly, these numbers are super approximate, because they’re based solely on what I inputted as the genre of a book when I put it into a spreadsheet, and for each book I only gave it one genre, and some of them were slightly nebulous. There were a fair few adult books that I would call “contemporary” if they were YA, but I’m not sure that’s a term that’s really used in Adult books; they’re not quite “literary”, but possibly they’re “uplit”, which is one of these terms I don’t really understand and am not convinced means anything concrete. Usually they get shelved simply in “Fiction”, which is fundamentally unhelpful.

Approximate or not, I was pretty sure I was reading less fantasy these days, but my pie charts inform me that 46% of this year’s fiction was fantasy, vastly outweighing any other genre. True, that includes everything from urban fantasy and paranormal to epic fantasy — and I read way more of the former than the latter — and true, a few years ago that percentage would have been way higher, but it still surprised me. I’ve been particularly struggling to vibe with YA fantasies recently, and I had begun to wonder if the category was no longer for me, but when I look at the stats, the proportion of YA fantasies is so skewed compared to other genres that I can’t help but feel I’ve probably just read more mediocre ones because I’ve read more overall.

The surprise runner-up is romance, at 25%. Okay, so this isn’t a surprise to me — I knew full well that I read or reread most of KJ Charles and Cat Sebastian’s entire backlist this year — but it’s a surprise to anyone who has seen my previous years’ reading habits. I’d dabbled in queer romance in the past, particularly when I used to review a lot of small press books, but it was during last year’s lockdowns that I really discovered the comforting nature of queer historical romance novels, and this year I reached for that comfort repeatedly. No wonder, then, that it makes up almost a quarter of my total reading. There were a few contemporary romances in there too, and even one or two books that weren’t queer (though I found that Relentlessly Heterosexual Romance Novels were not to my taste) but for the most part, queer historical romance stole the show.

(At one point, I even considered writing my own, but it quickly became apparent that the amount of research required to write any historical period other than “dubiously historical mythological Ireland” with any accuracy would be too much for me, since that is the only era I know anything much about. And while I think a tropey queer romance novel set in the Ireland of the Ulster Cycle would be a delight, I suspect the audience for that is about three people. Maybe one day…)

I won’t bore you with the full breakdown of genres — it’s the broader trends that I find interesting. I will note that I read very few thrillers (1%), which is possibly surprising considering I have one coming out in May. Partly, though, it’s because I have one coming out in May. I spent most of the year editing The Butterfly Assassin, and so I avoided anything too similar to it. I figured if a YA thriller was too good, it would put me off and make me paranoid about my own work; plus, after reading my own book at least once a month all year, the last thing I wanted was something that felt too similar. I gravitated instead towards books that were nothing like any of my current projects, as a way of giving my brain a break.

I’d like to change that in 2022: I have a few YA thrillers on my Kindle that I’ve been waiting for the right moment to read. But I still think I’ll be reading for comfort more than for excitement (the pandemic is not over, it’s my debut year, and I have a bunch of other life uncertainty and big decisions going on: I don’t need any more stress), so high-tension books probably aren’t going to be my first choice. There’s a reason I got so into romance novels, and it’s because there’s something immensely comforting about knowing that no matter what else happens, the characters will wind up together and safe and okay.

I’m imagining teen me reading that sentence. I think they’d be disgusted by how much I’ve mellowed. I’m not, though: I’m proud of it, because it means I’m actually trying to seek out things that make me happy instead of wallowing.

Probably, if I had more time and Excel skills, I could see how many different authors I’d read, and figure out how many of them were new to me. I suspect that’s an area where this year would be different, because of my ebook browsing and willingness to try new things so long as they don’t cost me more than 1.99. (My book budget was still my third-highest cost this year, after rent and food, which is exactly why those sales were so important, but hey, it’s not like I was going out or spending any money on anything else.)

But with the info I’ve got, I think I have a pretty good picture of my reading year, and as 2021 provided very few opportunities to enjoy my other hobbies, like dance (thanks, pandemic + injuries), that represents a fairly large chunk of how I spent my time this year when I wasn’t studying or editing. Granted, these stats don’t reflect how many times I read The Butterfly Assassin (probably at least 15, if I’m honest) or any of my other books. Nor do they say anything about my fanfic consumption, which still remains strongly skewed in favour of very long fics about Bucky Barnes slowly learning how to be a person again, sometimes with a detour to have feelings about Natasha Romanoff.

(My type is traumatised ex-assassins trying to learn how to be a normal person in a world that seems determined to make a monster of them, and I will not apologise for this. If this is also your type, may I humbly suggest adding The Butterfly Assassin to your TBR?)

I’ve enjoyed keeping the exact details of my reading to myself. I’ve enjoyed the freedom to read and reread whatever I like. I’ve enjoyed not needing to rate books on an arbitrary star scale that always had me overthinking the difference between “quality” and “enjoyment” (sometimes a book is good but I didn’t like it; how do I rate that?). No, I probably couldn’t tell you what my “favourite” book was, nor can I tell you what the “best” book was (not necessarily the same thing), but I’m okay with that. Life without Goodreads? Honestly, pretty chill. Yes, so I had to compile all my stats manually, but that meant I could focus it on information that was useful to me, not what Amazon decided I needed to know and compare with others.

2022 will be quite a different reading year in general. It’s my debut year, and I’ll be making an effort to read books by my fellow debuts. I can’t possibly read all of them, and some are in genres I don’t vibe with or about topics that stress me out: no matter how much I want to support somebody, it’s not worth making myself miserable. (I’ll focus on recommending them to others who might like them more, instead.) But that’ll mean buying more new books, rather than waiting for a convenient sale, and probably branching out in directions I might not have tried otherwise. Perhaps next year, my genre breakdown will be a lot more varied.

I also want to read more books by other marginalised authors, especially those whose experiences are similar to my own. Ocean @ Beyond The Binary compiled this great list of 2022 releases by trans and nonbinary authors: there are so many of us that it had to be split into two, one for each half of the year. Some of these are already on my radar, but I look forward to discovering more of them. It’s fantastic to see how many of us there are, especially in a very trans-hostile world… strength in numbers, right? And while not all of the books on the list have trans characters (The Butterfly Assassin is there, and doesn’t have canon trans rep in book 1), lots do.

Likewise, I want to read more books by disabled authors, though I haven’t yet identified a handy list (I’m sure there are many out there, I just haven’t gone looking). In both of these cases, there are probably any number of books that I won’t know about because those authors aren’t comfortable sharing these marginalised facets of their identities. And that’s fine, and I don’t think they should have to. By seeking out those experiences, I’m simply trying to find others who face some of the same systemic hurdles as me, to offer what little support I can as a reader. I can never find all of us, but I’m glad there are enough of us to make that true.

Another thing I’d like to do differently in 2022 is the fiction vs nonfiction balance. My reading this year was 91% fiction, despite the fact that I was doing an MA and a number of academic books made it onto the list. That’s partly because I was spending a lot of time reading academic articles, which don’t feature on my list, and I didn’t have the brainpower left for degree-irrelevant nonfiction. I don’t have that excuse anymore, and I want to read more “fun” nonfiction (I feel I’ve been saying this for years), and to learn things that aren’t only about medieval Irish literature.

Mostly, though, I want to read books that I enjoy and that make me happy. I want to read for fun. I want to share the books I love, and keep quiet about the ones I don’t, because the world has enough negative energy in it without adding more. I want to read the kind of books that inspire me to be a better writer, and reread the ones that set me on this path in the first place. And maybe when I come to compile some stats for myself at the end of next year, they’ll look completely different from this year’s, or maybe they’ll look almost the same, but that’s something that only time will tell.

My parents gave me a jumper for Christmas that says READ MORE BOOKS. I don’t think I need the instruction, but I’m sure I’ll be following it anyway.

So, now it’s your turn. Any surprises in your reading this year, any dramatic shifts in genre preference or age category, or have you found what you liked and stuck to it? Where do you hope 2022 will take you, in terms of books? Let me know in the comments — I’m always down to hear about other people’s reading.

(And if you’ve found you’ve read very little: that’s totally fine too. I read for comfort and distraction, but not everyone does, and the ongoing state of the world has made it very hard for some people to focus on that kind of thing. No judgment here! This is a judgment-free reading zone.)


If you don’t know what to read in 2022, please consider pre-ordering The Butterfly Assassin. If you want to help fund my chronic book-buying problem, you can buy me a coffee instead :)

Fear or Love?

A couple of days ago, I watched tick, tick…BOOM! For those unfamiliar with the film, it’s an adaptation of the stage musical of the same name by Jonathan Larson, a semi-autobiographical story about an aspiring composer called Jon. About to hit his thirtieth birthday, Jon is panicking that he’s achieved nothing (“Sondheim had his first musical produced when he was twenty-seven!”), and worried that he’s spent eight years working on a musical that will never see the light of day. He’s haunted by the ever-present sense that time is running out, a ticking clock in the background. Around him, the AIDS crisis intensifies the sense that life is fleeting and that every moment has to count.

Jonathan Larson eventually wrote Rent, which proved to be a major success, winning awards and running on Broadway for years. But he never saw it happen: he died suddenly and unexpectedly the night before it opened. In the end, he was right that the clock was ticking and time was short, though he couldn’t have known how true it would be for him.

I thought it was an excellent film: unapologetic about being a musical, while still making the songs make sense in the real-world context. Some musicals go too far with explaining why people are singing, while others don’t bother at all, accepting it as a conceit of the genre; this one walks a middle ground. The music makes sense because we’re in Larson’s head, seeing the world his way, and he makes everything into music. It’s a film by and for people who love musicals, and it isn’t trying to be anything it’s not; I appreciated that.

I also thought Andrew Garfield was great as Larson — incredibly convincing. I’ve only ever seen him as Spiderman, and had no idea he could sing, but it definitely feels like a role he earns. I don’t think it’s the kind of film where you have to have seen Rent to enjoy it (or, if you have seen it, you don’t have to like it), but there are definitely added layers if you have: little details that echo the lyrics or dialogue.

So: it’s a good film. But it also felt incredibly targeted towards all my own fears and insecurities. I, too, am haunted by that ticking clock, that sense that time is passing around me and I’m stuck in a loop, never progressing, waiting to actually start living the life I’ve been working towards for years. By the time The Butterfly Assassin is released, it will have been eight years since I started working on it — the same length of time Jon spent on his musical — and while this one will see the light, there are more than a dozen other novels that won’t. And I’m haunted by the constant threat of loss, though my own anxiety about the mortality of loved ones is far less justified than that of somebody living through the AIDS crisis and going to funerals every other week; it’s very much just how my personal species of brainweasels manifests.

It was probably inevitable, then, that a few hours after watching the film, I got caught in an anxiety spiral about the future. What am I going to do? What am I going to do? Why aren’t I already doing it? I made the mistake of accidentally reading a friend’s post about the things they were learning in their current postgrad programme and was struck by the irrational sense of being left behind, the kind of instinct that has me second-guessing my decision not to apply for a PhD straight away. I’ve missed my chance for this year, I found myself thinking, and if I apply next year I won’t start until the year after that and they’ll all be so far ahead of me and I’m wasting time I’m wasting time I’m wasting time — all for a path I haven’t actually decided I’m going to go down.

I thought: I’ve got to start working on my Irish again. I thought: I have to write another book. I thought: I have to do something, why aren’t I doing anything, what am I waiting for? I could hear it myself: tick tick tick tick. Time trickling away, counting down to the inevitable explosion — implosion — destruction. No matter how much I tried to tell myself that I’m already on my way to making progress, it didn’t shake the crushing sense of urgency.

And then I remembered the question somebody asks Jon in tick, tick…BOOM!: fear or love?

Why stay? Why keep working towards a distant dream — because you love it, or because you’re too afraid to let go of something you formed your personality around? Are you being led forward by your passion and enthusiasm or are you being chased by your anxiety? What’s the real driving force here: is it fear, or is it love?

I decided not to apply for a PhD yet because I knew doing so would be driven by impostor syndrome instead of passion, and I was right about that. But it seems I’m going to have to keep reminding myself of that, because it’s too easy to let the fear talk me into urgency, to point me towards the ticking clock instead of the world of other possibilities. If I go back to academia, I want it to be because of love for my subject — not fear that I’m being left behind, that I’m not good enough, that I’m somehow inferior to the friends who have done / are doing PhDs already.

(That fear haunts me. Do I really believe that, deep down? Because sometimes it feels like I do — and does that mean I think I’m better than those who haven’t done an MA? My instinct is to say, “No, of course I don’t,” but is that because I know I shouldn’t feel that way? What unexamined elitism am I in denial about, that drives my own inferiority complex? Or is this another of those, “No, of course you’re fine, it’s only me I’m holding to impossible standards” situations?)

Fear or love? Once I asked myself this question about my PhD panic, I realised it was the kind of question I needed to be applying to the rest of my life. I’ve talked before about my impostor syndrome and frustration with a lack of progress in learning Irish, but were my language-learning efforts really being motivated by love of the language? Or was it fear, once again, of not being good enough, and of being an outsider?

The answer was obvious. Fear. Every time, it was fear. My anxiety about learning always increases whenever I see somebody else in my field criticised for their lack of modern Irish, or when somebody expects me to know more than I do, or when my lack of fluency is treated with surprise rather than understanding. And while that anxiety would temporarily motivate an increased effort at changing the situation, it never lasted. I’d have a week of working and then it would fizzle out, my hyper-awareness of all the ways I was failing to meet my goals outweighing any pride I might feel in the progress I was making.

The more I thought about it, and the more things I applied this question to, the more I realised how many of the things making me unhappy were because I’d allowed fear to motivate me, not love. Even silly things, like bookstagram — when I started posting elaborate book photos, it was because I loved books, but over time it became fear of losing my engagement, fear of being inadequate, fear of disappointing complete strangers on the internet. The effort began to outweigh the enjoyment, and I was constantly burned out. I started seeing books as props instead of stories, and where once I’d taken pride in creative photos and setups, I fixated instead on my dwindling likes, trying to figure out what the Instagram algorithm wanted of me, trying to work out what others were doing that I wasn’t.

And so I quit, a couple of years ago, and I don’t regret it at all, but there are other forms of social media where fear (especially fear of missing out) has kept me active on platforms that are otherwise making me miserable. It’s just been less obvious, so I haven’t noticed. Am I there because I love the communities I’m in and the connections I’m forming, or because I’m afraid to leave? Am I there in search of joy, or is it an anxious default setting, a pattern I don’t know how to break out of?

As I contemplate whether or not I have a future in academia, I’m being forced to realise that, all my life, learning has been driven by fear. And while allowing fear of doing badly in an exam to motivate me has historically resulted in good exam results, it hasn’t actually resulted in effective learning: I’m a master of learning exactly what I need to know for the time it takes me to sit the exam and then immediately forgetting it afterwards.

I was never fluent in French because I was learning in order to pass exams, get into university, and otherwise prove my academic worth according to arbitrary standards. And I’ll never be fluent in Irish unless I stop letting fear of inadequacy be my primary motivation.

If I did a PhD now it wouldn’t be because I actually want to. It’s because I’m afraid of not doing it. Afraid of what it means for my identity as a medievalist and an academic if I let my MA be the end of my formal studies. Afraid of feeling inadequate around my more academic friends. I can’t let that happen. Those brainweasels can’t be allowed to win. Because three years of fear-driven study will only result in misery. The reason I was happier during my MA than during my BA was because I was there for love of the subject, and I don’t want to ruin that by slipping straight back into the same patterns.

And while I do intend to intensify my efforts at learning modern Irish, I don’t want it to be because I’m afraid of never being good enough to belong in my field. I’m tired of the ticking clock. I’m tired of fear looking over my shoulder, whispering to me to run faster and faster and faster just to keep up.

I don’t know how to put the love back into language-learning, but I want to try. Maybe it’ll mean, each day, identifying which new word I liked best, and focusing on those small moments of delight. Maybe it’ll mean making a game of it, or finding new ways to apply what I learn to my hobbies. I don’t expect every second of the process to be fun, but I want to learn to love the process and recognise my progress, instead of being haunted by everything I don’t know. I want to stop constantly comparing myself to others, and start finding the joy in my own journey.

I want to apply this to other areas of life, beyond languages. I want to ask myself honestly: fear or love? And if it’s fear, can I stop? Can I put it aside? Or can I reframe it and come at it from a different angle?

I want to love more and fear less. I think, if I stop allowing fear of my own inadequacy to motivate me, it’ll be easier to look outwards. Easier to celebrate others’ success, because I’ll no longer be so afraid of being left behind. Easier to recognise when a closed door is inviting me to take another route instead of locking me in a cupboard. I want to go forwards with curiosity and hope and excitement, rather than because I’m desperately trying to outrun the negative emotions creeping up behind me.

I’m not gonna say that anxiety attack the other night was a good thing (it kept me up until 4am, that’s never great), but I do think I learned something from thinking about life in those terms. I sat there at two in the morning, writing out quotes and thoughts and questions in insular minuscule — I’ve found calligraphy a surprisingly good method for calming down, because it requires such steady, deliberate movements that you can’t rush — and by the time I stopped, I’d gone from spiralling about how to use the next few months “productively”, academically speaking, to realising I couldn’t let myself be chased down that path.

I guess I’m sharing this for three reasons. The first is that I think it’s always comforting, if you’re the kind of person who suffers from impostor syndrome and a sense of inadequacy, to know that you’re not alone. I can give off a totally unfounded sense of confidence in person simply because I’m talkative, but I’m actually a doubt-ridden gremlin, and I feel that’s always worth pointing out, because it might reassure somebody. The second is that people are often asking me about my plans for the future, and while I’ve already talked about my academic intentions, I still feel it’s worth reiterating that I currently have no idea whether or not I’m going to do a PhD and I am deliberately trying not to treat it as an expectation, because that’s how I get trapped in the hamster wheel of academic progress/obligation.

And the third reason is that I think a lot of us, actually, are driven by fear rather than love — especially in an increasingly hostile online world, and especially those of us with anxious creative brains. These days I spend a lot of time chatting to other debut authors, and I think those fearful brainweasels gain power from pre-publication stress. I should be doing this, I should be doing that, I’m running out of time, I’m behind, I’m going to fail. Not to mention all my academic friends trying to decide how much of themselves to give to their institutions, how much to sacrifice, what they’re willing to do. So I’m asking myself this question in public because I suspect there are others of youse who also need to be asking that question, and making choices about what to do about the answer.

Fear might be my default setting, but I’m picking love, and I’m going to keep picking it until eventually it sticks. And I don’t know what it’s going to look like or how I’m going to do it necessarily, but that’s part of the process.

I want to learn to love the process, and forget the ticking clock.


If you want to do your bit to combat my fear of failure, pre-ordering The Butterfly Assassin or buying me a coffee will do wonders for my ego.