Author: Finn Longman

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

The Story So Far

In my last post, I shared the news that I signed with an agent, Jessica Hare, for my novel Butterfly of Night (and hopefully many more). I had enough interest in that news to make it feel worthwhile to write a follow-up post giving a bit more information about the whole process and how it worked for me. This is not exactly a “how I got my agent” post, because it’s less about the mechanics and more just a summary of the substantial journey that led up to this point. I don’t intend to suggest that the steps involved are replicable or that they should be replicated (there are… definitely faster and more efficient ways of starting a writing career than the circuitous route I took).

Since this is a journey that has taken six or eleven or sixteen years to bring me to this point, it’s hard to know exactly where to start. You could start in December, when I began querying this book, or you could start in 2004, when I wrote a play and made my friends act it out for me — a play I later turned into a story that might have been a novel if I hadn’t abandoned it partway through. The story was extremely violent and sad. I have not changed.

2004 seems a little early, though. Maybe 2009 is a better place to start — the year I joined the writing website Protagonize, where I met some of my oldest writing friends. I wrote my first novel in November 2009. It was completely terrible, but I was fine with that. I’d written it mostly to prove that I could, starting NaNoWriMo on Day 7 with no plot, no characters, and no idea how to write a book, so I’d had no expectations that it would be readable. Perhaps going into it with that very careless, light-hearted approach is why I was able to finish it in the first place. Everything’s easier when you don’t take it too seriously.

From there I wrote a dozen other novels, and they gradually got less terrible as I went along. I edited some of them; I queried one of them briefly. In 2012 I created a character called Isabel Ryans, intended as a major but secondary character in a crime novel. Despite at least two attempts at writing that book, I never got very far with it, and eventually abandoned both it and its cast. In 2014, I looked again at this character Isabel, realised that her backstory was the most interesting thing about her, and began to ponder how I might tell that story.

The result, eventually, was Butterfly of Night, my fifteenth novel.

It remains one of the only books I’ve outlined before I started, which is partly because I had always intended it to be a prequel to that crime novel I’d started. I wrote an outline that I thought would get me roughly to that point, and I sent it to a friend to read over — Cathryn, whom I’d met on Protagonize in 2009 (see, I told you the story really started there). Cathryn pointed out quite clearly that what I had was an outline for two books, not one: there was a substantial gap in the middle, a new set of stakes, and several new characters. So I abandoned the prequel idea, and began to consider the whole thing as a trilogy.

I was in the middle of my A-Levels while I was doing the planning, and with uncharacteristic restraint, I didn’t dive in right away, instead taking a bit of time to figure out the characters. My A-Level revision didn’t only delay me, though — it also helped. While learning a very large amount of French vocab in a short space of time (hundreds of words — thanks Memrise, you saved me), I used to look for patterns and stories in the odd combinations of words that would come up. I also occasionally found inspiration in the words themselves…

Screenshot of a Timehop post. The banner at the top says
Timehop post from 26th May 2020

I posted the above on Facebook six years ago yesterday – the 26th May 2014. Papillon de nuit, I thought, was such a dramatic way of saying moth. I wanted to see if I could use it somewhere.

It actually ended up becoming a major motif in the book. I shared my initial premise and blurb on this blog in May 2014, noting that I had two guilds of assassins called “Comma” and “Hummingbird”, but that these were placeholder names which would probably change. A reader said that they enjoyed the bird/butterfly theme, which is… how I found out that Comma was a type of butterfly. It slotted very nicely into place with the butterfly of night idea, and of course, that ended up being the title. I never did change the names of the guilds.

Anyway, I wrote the first draft of Butterfly of Night in July 2014, for Camp NaNoWriMo, finishing it while on holiday in Guernsey with my parents. My writing style is always to complete a draft very quickly and then abandon it for weeks or months before coming back to edit it — I recently returned to a book for the first time in five years — and that’s more or less what I did with BoN, too. I’ve written a new draft of it every year since 2014 (except this year, so far…). The second draft in 2015, the third in 2016… it was my Camp NaNo project multiple times, and I was never quite happy with it. Some of the rewrites were extremely drastic, changing entire plotlines; others were smaller, but still made substantial changes.

There’s also one draft I have absolutely no memory of writing whatsoever, but given that my memory is pretty spotty in general (thanks, chronic pain and mental illness), I try not to dwell too much on the fact that I’m missing that period entirely…

In 2016 I tried entering the book into Pitch Wars, but it didn’t go anywhere. I continued to edit. In early 2018 I sent out a few queries, but without much conviction: I still wasn’t totally happy with the book. I just didn’t know what to do next — I felt I’d done as much as I could do alone. So later in 2018 I tried entering it into Pitch Wars again. This time I got a couple of full requests from mentors, but ultimately wasn’t chosen.

I wasn’t sure what to do after that — should I query again? Work on something else? I spent late 2018 pretty busy with other projects — the second draft of Bard, the first draft of To Run With The Hound (one of the most challenging first drafts I’ve written because of the research involved). I had a Christmas job in a bookshop, which kept me busy, and distracted me from thinking much about querying. Then, in early 2019, I saw some tweets about Author Mentor Match, the submission window for which was due to be opening in a couple of days.

The idea of Author Mentor Match was to pair up unpublished writers like myself with a more experienced writer — someone further along the journey, even if their debut hadn’t come out yet. It was a mentorship programme similar to Pitch Wars, but a little less intense, as it didn’t have a deadline or an agent showcase. On a whim, I entered Butterfly of Night — I’d felt like I needed external support to make it better, and it couldn’t do any harm, after all.

Then I forgot about it entirely, until I got the email that I’d been picked. I was at the bus stop on my way home from dance at the time, and I had to read the email multiple times before I actually took in what it was saying. I’d been chosen as a mentee by Rory Power, author of Wilder Girls. It wasn’t until I saw her tweet about it that the excitement really hit:

Rory’s edit letter did what I hadn’t been able to do over the last few years: it asked the difficult questions I hadn’t been asking, and pointed out the fundamental structural problems. Being me, I looked at it, I looked at the book, and I went, “Welp. Time to burn this down and start over.” But like, in a good way.

So I did. I pulled the book apart and I rebuilt it from the ground up. It was the only way I was going to make those structural changes work — if I tried to fiddle about with the existing book, I’d only end up ruining what I already had. I spent a bunch of time digging deep into worldbuilding and character backstory, writing 15k of notes of all the stuff that would never make it onto the page, and I let that help me reshape the story. Having Rory there to bounce ideas off was invaluable — although many of the things she’d picked up on were issues I sort of secretly knew were there all along, I wouldn’t have had the courage to do so drastic a rewrite without someone to reassure me that it was genuinely worth the effort.

At times it felt like I wasn’t editing Butterfly of Night, I was writing a brand new book with a few similarities to the old one. But in the end, what emerged did feel like the same book — but refined and recut and made into something new. And better. So much better. I cut scenes that had been there since the first draft, and writing it in 2019 was always going to be a different experience to writing it in 2014 (I’m a different person, with a very different worldview), but the heart of it still felt the same.

And, you know, there are still little details in there that date back not just to the first draft of BoN, but to that terrible crime novel I abandoned in 2012. The fact that Isabel’s organisation is called Comma. The fact that she speaks Esperanto. The fact that she owns a green coat very like the one my sister owned at the time, which is now mine. They’re tiny details, now long dislocated from their original explanations and given new ones and integrated into the worldbuilding in different ways. But they’re a reminder that nothing is ever lost and no draft was ever a waste of time. They’re all part of the foundations on which this version of the book was built.

Photo of an open notebook and pen with joined-up writing
Worldbuilding on a bus

After that, Rory read the new draft, pointed out a couple of scenes I really didn’t need, and generally reassured me that I hadn’t broken the book completely. I did another quick redraft (I think it literally took about two weeks), cutting out those scenes, smoothing things over, and making the book 10k shorter overall, bringing it down to 90k instead of 100k in length.

And then I started my job and neglected it for a few more months. But one of the best things about Author Mentor Match wasn’t just Rory’s feedback — it was the community that formed among my fellow mentees. We were the sixth group of mentees for the programme — Round 6 — and although not everyone in R6 joined in with the obsessive and worryingly active Twitter group chats, there were enough of us in there to form a close-knit group of writing friends, ready to cheer each other on through drafting, edits, and the dreaded querying. We called ourselves Write Club.

Without Write Club, maybe BoN would have continued to lurk on my computer for months more, but as others embarked on querying, I began to get something like FOMO. No matter how torturously slow the process seemed, or how many rejections everyone was getting, I felt like I should be putting myself out there. I’d been working towards this for so long, but it was just so easy to send five queries and then chicken out and never send anymore.

So, in December, I started querying. It was all fairly conventional: I used Query Tracker to find agents, I read their MSWLs, I followed them on Twitter, I sent a few queries at a time and personalised them as best I could… I got a full request and a partial very early on, and another full request straight after the partial had been rejected, which was encouraging… and then nothing. Three months of straight rejections. Actually, mostly it was three months of silence, and then there was that one afternoon I got three rejections in a row, which was a rough day, I won’t lie.

I was beginning to give up, though. I hadn’t sent that many queries, especially compared to some of my Write Club friends, but I was still running out of people I thought might like my book, especially as I was predominantly focusing on UK-based agents. Once I spread my net further afield and sent to some US agents, I opened up a whole new set of possibilities, but my feeling was that a UK agent would be a better fit — and there didn’t seem to be that many of them who repped YA. In mid April I got one more full request, but I was still feeling fairly discouraged, and beginning to think about what I might do next. Maybe I’d work on my Bisclavret novel, and query that in the autumn…

Then #DVPit happened. #DVPit is a Twitter pitch event for authors from marginalised or under-represented backgrounds, a group I consider myself to belong to by virtue of being queer, trans and disabled.

Tried to find a picture of me that would represent that. Here I am looking tiny and gay last year.

I’d participated in #PitMad, another pitch event, a month earlier, but had had little interest from agents, so I wasn’t convinced that #DVPit would be any different, but since it was a smaller and more focused event I thought it might work out better. Aaaaand… it did. Maybe my pitches were just better, but I found I got a surprising amount of interest, enough to send half a dozen more queries, this time knowing that the people I was sending to were actually somewhat interested in my premise.

And that’s how I found Jessica! Within an hour of sending her my query she requested the full, and a few days after that emailed me asking if we could have a video call to ‘discuss editorial thoughts and next steps’. I thought it might be an R&R (revise & resubmit), so I tried not to get too excited about it, but in fact she offered representation. At that point, I had to email all the other agents who still had my query or full, asking if they were still interested and so on; a few more asked for fulls, I finally got closure on my older fulls, and I settled down to wait for the two-week deadline to be up in order to make my decision. I had sent 45 queries in total.

It was a tense couple of weeks. I was waiting on emails about next year and scholarships and so on at the same time as waiting for agents to get back to me, so essentially I jumped every time I got an email.

In the end, I didn’t end up with competing offers, so I was spared having to make a decision. A few agents stepped aside, some because they weren’t able to read the book in time, and I had a couple of near-misses — one got back to me on deadline day because she’d been going back and forth on it: she loved the book, but didn’t know how to approach submissions on it, and didn’t have a clear vision for that side of things.

Honestly, I was relieved not to be put in a position to have to decide between multiple people. I hate decisions, and there are always pros and cons on both sides. For example, if one of the bigger, well-established US agents had offered… would their experience supercede the fact they were in the US, for me? What about an agent with a lot of high-profile clients — would their extensive contacts make up for the fact they’d probably have less time to focus on me and would take longer to get back to me about things? Jessica is a very new agent, so I knew she’d be able to give me more attention than someone with a larger list, but since a lot of the advice I’d been given about looking for agents included things like “talk to current clients” and “check their sales history”, I was also a tiny bit nervous.

But I asked her lots of questions, she answered them, and ultimately I got the vibe that she really loved Butterfly of Night. What really clinched it, though, was the fact that she wasn’t expecting me to stay in one genre and only ever write dark, stabby YA books. I also write adult fiction, and I’ve never understood genre (I’m not good at fitting in a box), so I was very keen to find someone who would support my career in whatever direction it ended up going, even if it didn’t seem like a straight line on from BoN. I signed with her on the 15th May, and it’s hard to say which of us seemed more excited about it!

So that’s how it happened. This is a long post, about 3,000 words — but this was a long journey. From eight-year-old me deciding I wanted to be an author to eleven-year-old me setting myself wordcount goals to thirteen-year-old me’s first novel to eighteen-year-old me’s first draft of Butterfly of Night. I’m twenty-four now, far from the ‘teen writer’ I once was, and I’ll never be an overnight sensation — I look in astonishment at friends who are querying their first or second novel, because BoN was my fifteenth and I really needed to write all those bad books before I was able to write this one.

But these things take as long as they take, and Butterfly of Night was the kind of book that needed to spend a long time in its cocoon before it took flight. Now all that’s left to do is wait and see where the journey takes me next — and write more books, of course.

Photo of a person with short dark hair wearing a stripy t-shirt and jeans, standing proudly in front of a statue of Victor Hugo.
Me at eighteen, the week I finished the first draft of Butterfly of Night.

Agents, Avoiding Reality, and The Future™

This isn’t really a blog post, as such — I seem to have lost the knack of that. I thought when the lockdown started I might start blogging regularly (to track the passing of days, if nothing else; to leave some record of all this that’s more comprehensible than my scribbled journal), but the fact that I’ve not posted since February shows you how well that went. Looking in my drafts, I found half a post from March about some of the books I was reading. Totally forgot I’d even started that.

Instead this is just a handful of pieces of news, because although they’re few and far between these days, I suspect I still have a few readers on this blog who don’t follow me on other social media. That is, if I still have any readers after letting this blog fade so completely into obscurity. My stats have officially flatlined for the past few months, and by flatlined I don’t mean “held steady”, I mean they’re at 0 views. Oops. Turns out, if you want people to read your blog, you actually have to write it. Astonishing, that.

Anyway, news:

I’m now agented! As of Friday, I’m represented by Jessica Hare of The Agency (London) Limited. She signed me for Butterfly of Night, a YA novel about a screwed-up teenage assassin and her poor life choices, but I think it’s safe to say we’re both in this for the long haul, so fingers crossed it’s the start of a long and productive partnership! I’ll talk about this whole journey in a future post, if you’d like me to — depending on where you start the story, it dates back to 2014, or 2012, or 2009, or 2004, so it hasn’t been a speedy process. I have a lot of thoughts about it all, so let me know if you want to hear them.

I (re)wrote a book. Two books, actually. In April and early May I rewrote Bard, my SF Arthurian novel from 2016. I wrote a second draft of this book in 2018 that brought it closer to what I wanted it to be, but I wanted to make some major changes this time around, mostly relating to worldbuilding (which I’ve got substantially better at). Unfortunately, in fixing these aspects, I managed to screw everything else up, and the book is now 134k of disappointment. RIP. At some point I’ll rewrite it again, but at the moment I don’t want to look at it at all, so it might be another two years before I can bear to do that… Once I was done with that, I leapt straight into another project, mostly as an attempt to avoid reality, and wrote 102k in 9.5 days. So, yes, that did bring my total up to 236k in six and a half weeks. I haven’t pulled something like that since 2013.

But reality really is terrible, isn’t it? I just… can’t read the news. Can’t watch the news. I’m coping by avoidance, and it seems to be working okay, until the news intrudes on my own life and then it all becomes unbearable. On Monday I learned that somebody I knew at university had died because of Covid. Although we weren’t close, I still have a lot of fond memories of him, and this totally knocked my feet out from under me. I averaged about 12k a day for the rest of the week through sheer determination Not To Think About It, which… is one way of dealing, I guess.

I’m due to start an MA in the autumn. I have no idea what form that’s going to take, right now — whether I’ll be doing online classes, whether the start of term will be delayed, what exactly it’s going to look like. I haven’t yet confirmed where I’ll be studying, as I’m waiting to hear about scholarships and funding, but it’ll most likely be either University College Cork or Maynooth University. The MA’s in Medieval Irish, so you can see exactly how well my ‘I’m not staying in academia’ thing went. Terribly. It went terribly. I appear to be the kind of person that academia just happens to. But planning for the future is hard when nobody knows what the future is going to look like, and I’ll readily confess to being considerably anxious about the whole thing.

I shaved my head. It’s the quarantine mood. Didn’t make that much of a difference for me, since I had very short hair anyway, but now I’m fuzzier than ever. That’ll be fun, when I eventually manage to get my passport updated with my new name — something that’s been put on hold by the current situation. Yes, it is making me somewhat anxious not to know whether I’ll have an up-to-date passport by the autumn or whether I’ll be carrying my deed poll around everywhere trying to make sure I get registered in the correct name. I also made some bread, but gluten-free bread is hard, so I’d say it was only a limited success. Getting good at making naan-type flatbreads tho. My dry yeast’s a year past its date so all bread is flatbread at the moment.

I think that’s all the news I’ve really got to share with you at the moment, but with luck I’ll be back in the not-too-distant future with real posts. If you’d like me to talk about writing/agent stuff, let me know in the comments and I will do that.

Truth, Names, and Choice

I don’t really make New Year’s Resolutions anymore. They’re too much pressure, and the emphasis on success or failure to achieve some arbitrary change no longer seems like a particularly helpful way of approaching things. But it’s still nice to see a new year as an opportunity to begin some new project, or set oneself on a new path.

Last year, I wrote a post (now consigned to oblivion along with the rest of the blog archive) about how I wanted my focus for 2019 to be on peace — making peace with myself, but also choosing more peaceful paths in life general, and thinking about my commitment to the idea. I don’t know how well I succeeded at that; possibly I’d have done better had I remembered that particular declaration more frequently. But I did find myself pondering it now and again, and I certainly thought a lot about violence and pacifism in my writing, and what stories I wanted to tell.

This year, I decided that my theme would be honesty.

(I’m not intentionally working my way through all the Quaker testimonies — peace, equality, simplicity, truth, sustainability — but now that I’ve started, I can see the value in carrying on this way… I could certainly use to tackle ‘simplicity’ before my book-hoarding tendencies become entirely overwhelming.)

Honesty is a tricky one. Honesty is as much about being truthful with myself as it is about telling the truth to others. I am great at lying to myself, justifying unhealthy behaviours or excusing away negative thought patterns. I’m also good at letting indecisiveness prevent me from ever living a truly honest existence, and I’m so afraid of being impolite that I’ll tell a dozen white lies and half-truths just to avoid saying something that might be construed as rude.

Anxiety. It can really get in the way of the best intentions.

This year, then, is about being honest. About admitting what I want and doing what I need to do to achieve that. About telling people how I feel, and living with the temporary discomfort of those conversations rather than the longterm resentment of not having had them. About declaring who I am, and then having the courage to stand up for myself about that. Correcting people about pronouns, rather than letting it slide because it’s easier to live with the discomfort of untruth than the potential awkwardness of the correction. Balancing safety (never speaking up) with truth (being who I am).

As part of that, I changed my name.

Changing your name by deed poll in the UK is a remarkably undramatic affair. Despite the scary legalese of the document itself, that isn’t actually an essential part of the process (you can just as effectively write on the back of an envelope “hi my name is [x] now” and as long as it’s signed and witnessed, it’s theoretically valid). The fancy wording and posh paper can be helpful in persuading banks and other organisations that the deed poll itself is legit, though, which makes it sometimes worth doing.

I’ve been considering changing my name for a long time, but I’d concluded there was no real rush. Most people seemed happy to call me Finn if I asked them to, and since I’m almost always read as female, my name wasn’t exactly outing me — even if it did lead people to make assumptions about my gender that I didn’t want them to make. I figured I could wait until my passport was nearer to its expiry date, and then do the change, so as to minimise the cost of updating it.

But that wouldn’t be until 2026, and that wait had started to feel too long. I’m working on applications for MAs at the moment, which made me realise that when I get another degree, I want it to be in a name that feels like me. I want to write Finn Longman on academic articles, and have the weight of authority behind it. I’m querying at the moment, and when I hopefully sign with an agent, I want that to be a name that feels truthful, too. Not one that feels temporary and incomplete, missing a major part of my identity.

So, in the light of all that, Finn is now my middle name. I know quite a lot of people who go by their middle names — my boss, for one, and a close friend of mine. Now, I guess, I’m one of them, in most contexts.

I thought long and hard about the change, and whether or not I should commit fully and make Finn my first name, but in the end this seemed like the best option. I didn’t want to let go of my first name entirely — not only is it important to my parents, but it has significance to me, too. It’s a connection to part of my heritage that I’m not willing to leave behind at this stage. But if I made that my middle name, I ended up with slightly unfortunate initials, and it didn’t flow as well as this way around.

I thought about keeping my old middle name, too: Joy. But it didn’t seem to fit, and I couldn’t make it sound nice. Letting go of Joy was more difficult than I expected — nobody in my family has ever called me by it, but it was a part of my authorial identity for several years, and I guess I’m more attached to it than I thought. There’s something symbolic in it, though, to let go of the ‘joy’ that is expected of me and to find my own, instead, to seek it where I think it’s meant to be instead of having it imposed.

I guess keeping my first name just seems less risky. After all, there’s the plausible deniability of not having changed my first or last name that will make my life much easier if I forget to update my name on one account or another — a fair few accounts don’t even use the middle name. Maybe it’s cowardice, but I think it’s compromise — finding a truth that works for me. Yes, it seems like a lot of money to replace my passport (not due to expire until 2026) for the sake of a middle name, but on the plus side, that’s six fewer years of having blue hair and an undercut in my passport photo, which is probably a good thing.

It was a small change, really, swapping three letters for four, but it was a difficult one nonetheless. That’s why I did it this weekend, when I had friends in town for a conference who could act as my witnesses and encourage me to go through with it.

And so, in the end, I signed my deed poll in the pub.

Photo of a short-haired person with glasses (me) holding a signed sheet of paper (my deed poll) and smiling widely.

Here’s to making 2020 the year I’m honest, with myself and with the world. We all have our truths to live, and this is a small part of mine.

Dancer In Recovery

I am trying to remember how my body works.

No, that’s not quite right. I know how it works. I know the stiffness of my knees in the morning, the strain of that early cycle into work. I know the clicks and clunks of my spine as I shift in an uncomfortable chair, the way my head feels too heavy for my spine, the threat of a headache that will linger for weeks.

But ballet… ballet feels like pouring myself back into an old mould, trying to inhabit the shape of it again. Tracing familiar paths, looking for the routes I remember. It’s familiar; I haven’t been gone so long. It’s unknowable; it is a thousand years since I have spoken this language and the words of it are lost to me.

Pliés are fine, though soundtracked by clicking joints, with the occasional throb of the left foot where I might have a stress fracture. (More likely, it’s a tendon problem. I’m to have an x-ray on Wednesday, just to be sure.) And I am remembering the rhythm of tendus, feeling the stretch of every fondu in calves strung tight by Irish dance, drawing up into a developpé supported by muscles honed more often by cycling than by dance.

It is attitude that poses the problem. Not mine — the step. Raised leg, bent at the knee, body making spirals from the floor on up and up. The hip injury that kept me from Irish dance all of last term makes itself known, reminding me that while I may have redirected some of my focus for the moment, these two disciplines are not so different that ballet is a place where I can escape from my injuries.

Of course I can’t escape from them; letting go of pain has always been my body’s problem. It insists on clinging to it, sounding alarms long after the fire has been put out. More than a quarter of my life has been soundtracked by those alarms, the ache in my hands still a barrier, if a smaller one than it was six and a half years ago.

My hips are tight, that’s the trouble with these attitudes. I am not currently capable of keeping my hips turned out the way they need to be, because after months of not being allowed to stretch, not being able to push too far, not being able to use them, the muscles around my hips are like a tight cage, trying to protect the fragile area.

I have been reading a book about pain, about how to tame it, because this is something I need to learn how to do. The book told me that a dancer who suffers from a foot injury will feel pain more intensely than an office worker with the exact same injury. For the dancer, this injury is a risk to their livelihood, their career, their passion — and so their brain processes the threat as much larger than the officeworker’s brain. And because the brain recognises a threat, it rings the alarm bells louder.

Brains are only trying to protect us, but sometimes, they are so bad at it.

My hip throbs. Except that’s not really what it feels like. It’s more of an… itching, underneath the skin. A scratchy kind of pain, like a low-level electrical current, or steel wool where there should be soft cotton. And with it comes a predictable cycle of thoughts.

You’ve injured your hip again, my brain tells me. You shouldn’t have gone back to dance. You should have waited longer. Now you’re going to have to take more time out. You should drop out of the show. How can you tell them that you have to drop out? You have a soloist role, you’re going to screw everything up for everyone. This isn’t going to go away. You could take the whole term out and as soon as you dance again it will come back. It’s never going to heal fully. You’re going to lose dance the way you lost music. You’re going to have go through all of it again.

Those last two thoughts worm their way beneath my skin, itchy as tendon damage. You’re going to lose dance. It’s a vicious whisper. You’re going to have to go through it all again.

Our brains know our worst fears. How best to frighten us into compliance. My brain remembers 2013, the overwhelming despair of losing the use of my hands, the profound depression when I didn’t know if I would ever write again. My brain remembers feeling like I barely weathered that storm.

My brain knows I’m afraid that if that happened again, I would not survive it.

The book I am reading about pain is very keen on stopping these spirals before they get to that point. It is, after all, very hard to deal with them once they already have, especially when they have such potent fuel as ‘past trauma’ and ‘legitimate anecdotal evidence’ to fan the flames. My brain processes the sensation of pain in my hip, draws its own conclusions based on several months unable to dance last year, compares that to the older injury and subsequent chronic pain and everything that I lost because of it, and concludes that this is the threat level it needs to process.

It says: you are going to lose dance.

The pain intensifies.

In an ideal world, or as ideal a world as one could find where I would still be experiencing the pain in the first place, I would stop my thoughts in their tracks almost immediately.

There is a pain in my hip, says my brain, in this not-quite-ideal world.

I can feel that, I would say in return. That doesn’t mean another injury. I must have overworked it a little today. I need to rest it. Perhaps a heat pack or a hot bath will soothe the muscles, and I can take some painkillers and go to bed. In the morning, it will have eased off. I’ll have to remember that pushing my turnout like that can trigger the pain, and take it slower in the future.

And my brain would say, Okay. I just wanted to make sure you knew about it, and I wouldn’t have an anxiety attack while cycling home, and the pain would lessen.

The things brains do to protect us are sometimes not as helpful as they should be, especially when they learned how to ‘help’ from a traumatic experience that has left them with a skewed understanding of the body. I am learning to acknowledge that. I am learning not to berate my brain for it, but to gently remind it that maybe it is reacting based on instinct, not evidence, and that perhaps this is closer to a PTSD episode than an objective assessment. Not all pain is life-changing, life-ruining, neverending.

But it is hard, when those are the tracks I have walked for so long. More than a quarter of my life. It feels unfathomable. If my seventeen-year-old self had known what my twenty-four-year-old self would be living with, what effect would that have on me? It is better, I’m certain, that I didn’t know. Hope is the only thing that kept me going.

I am not going to lose dance. These days it is less about hope and more about stubbornness. Even if my participation doesn’t always look like this, I have to believe that I will not lose dance. I refuse to consider the possibility of losing it. I have already lost too much, and the grief of that is feeding my fear now. I cannot give it any more fuel.

As I stand at the barre and assess my posture, perhaps it’s not that I need to remember how my body works. It is that I need to teach it all over again. I need to relearn the muscles and the joints, remapping my brain’s understanding until it no longer automatically associates my right hip with pain even in my imagination. I need to start again, from the beginning.

One hand on the barre, first position. Demi-plié. And rise.

Christ’s College Chapel, 20th December 2019

The pain management book I’m reading is A Practical Guide to Chronic Pain Management by David Walton. [NB: This is an affiliate link.]

To support me as a dancer (and, potentially, in getting therapy to deal with all the pain stuff), please consider dropping a couple of quid into my tip jar.

Dear Younger Me, from the Future

I thought about writing a regular post summing up the past year and the decade before it, but that seemed like a cliché, so I decided instead to write a letter to my younger self — the person I was as the year turned from 2009 to 2010.

Dear younger me,

It’s hard to know how to start a letter like this. You’ll hate me if I gush about how young you are, because you’ve always hated being patronised. I don’t mean it like that. I just mean… well, you’re not me yet, are you? You’re hardly even you. You’re a half-formed thing, much as you like to think otherwise.

A selfie of me wearing an elaborate Venetian mask with feathers at the top.
Venice, Summer 2009.

But the groundwork’s there. The skeleton of who I’d end up being. Actually, as I stare down my twenty-fourth birthday I look a lot more like you, almost fourteen, than some of the selves I’ve been in between. I do Irish dance again, for a start, just like you do. I compete in preliminary championships and I’ve taken masterclasses with Ciara Sexton. I can practically see you freaking out from here, and you don’t know the half of it.

I quit, though, for a long time. That seems absurd to you — you’re still in love with it, still in the honeymoon period. In about a year and a quarter, you’re going to walk away from it. You’re going to do ballet instead — another thing you can’t imagine right now. You won’t go back to Irish dance until you’re 21. It’s what you need, or at least, it felt like it was at the time, but that doesn’t mean it’s going to be an easy decision when it happens.

Then there’s the music. I’m trying to remember exactly where you’re at right now. 2009… oh! Of course. You just joined the wind band. They were playing the title piece from Riverdance and you being an Irish dance nerd, you wanted to be a part of it. It was a great concert, wasn’t it? I remember the high of it. You took up the piccolo this year as well, I think, but I don’t exactly remember where you were at with the violin.

You’re going to lose that.

Sorry. It sounds blunt when I put it like that. It was blunt when it happened. You’ve got about three more years, and then you’re going to injure your wrists, and develop debilitating chronic pain. They’ll tell you you’ll be playing again in a few months and then six years down the line you still won’t be able to hold a fiddle for more than about fifteen minutes before the pain kicks in. You’ll lose your entire social life — this is what happens when you put all your eggs in the orchestra basket. It’s going to suck.

A photo of me with long dark hair, playing the flute in a mostly-empty band room.
September 2011.

It’s going to shape most of the rest of the decade, too. Your entire identity is going to end up moulded by this, which is what I mean when I say that you’re not me yet. You’re still able to trust your own body, trust that you’ll be able to do whatever you like without triggering pain that will leave you unable to write for days on end, or too fatigued to move. You don’t even have any real food intolerances yet, though you’re going to lose the ability to eat fruit some time in the next year or two (trust me, that’s the tip of the iceberg…).

You’re going to lose so much, and it’s going to be so hard, for so long, and there’s nothing I can do to protect you, no warnings I can give that will prevent it. Your body is a time bomb. You could spend your whole life being careful and eventually it would still go off.

You have no idea what’s coming. And for that, I’m sorry. I wish I could tell you now to make the most of it — especially music, which you’ll lose more completely than anything else. I also wish I could tell you to install and get used to voice recognition software before you lose the use of your hands entirely for a few months, because that would really help me down the line, but… I can’t.

Let’s talk about writing instead. Another thing you’ll almost lose — but don’t worry, at least you get that one back. You’re only just beginning to realise how important it is to you. You’ve got two short, crappy novels under your belt (I hope you don’t mind me calling them crappy. I’m pretty sure you’d describe at least one of them that way, and … just trust me on the other one, please), but you’re going to write, like, seventeen more before this decade’s out. Some of them you’ll rewrite half a dozen times. Some of them will be bad, some of them will be good, some of them have potential but they’re not there yet.

You’ll self-publish three poetry collections. Have your poetry appear in a couple of small magazines. Write literally hundreds of thousands of words in blog posts (and then delete all of them). You and Charley (yes, you’re going to stay friends) will help co-write a boarding school mystery. You’ll write YA and adult and fantasy and contemporary and everything in between. Most of it’s going to be at least a little bit gay.

(Oh yeah, spoiler alert: you’re not straight. You’re not even a girl. You have a lot of identity crises coming, younger me, and none of them are going to be easy, and I’m closing off this decade still not having the answers to a lot of seemingly simple questions. Good luck with that.)

A photo of me sitting on a milecastle at Hadrian's Wall, with short fluffy hair and a plaid shirt.
Hadrian’s Wall, August 2014.

It’s going to feel like everything’s taking forever, and you’re going to be struggling to find direction or the courage to take the plunge and just send your work out into the world. Eventually, you’re going to enter something called Author Mentor Match, and you’ll get in. You’ll team up with a more experienced writer (if I tell you it’s Rory Power, author of Wilder Girls, it’ll mean nothing to you, but I promise you it’ll mean something a decade down the line), and she’ll give you the support you need to tear your book apart and rebuild it from the ground up. You’ll make friends, too, with the other mentees — a writing community you haven’t had since Protagonize shut down, and which you desperately needed.

Oh, yeah, right. Protagonize shut down. It’s okay, though. You had a good few years of it, made some lasting friends, caught that writing bug for life, and really, in the long run, it’s probably a good thing that all of your writing from 2009 and 2010 isn’t still floating around online. I know you’ll be annoyed at me for saying that, but I don’t mean it to put you down. If anything, it’s an encouragement. You’re going to get so much better at this.

I guess while we’re on the subject of Protagonize, we should talk about right now. New Year’s Eve 2009/10. You’re about to lie to a moderator who caught you making a sock puppet account to boost your own ratings because you’re way more insecure than you’ll ever admit to being, and you’re going to get banned from the site for a month. I don’t think you’ve had that conversation yet (I think it’ll happen tonight), but… it’s coming.

You’re an idiot, younger me. An idiot for making the fake account in the first place, and even more of one for lying to a moderator about it and then arguing with them when they (rightfully) made you face some consequences for it. I’m pleased to report that you’re going to grow out of that, at least; ten years down the line I’m not as honest a person as I’d like to be, but I’m working on it, and I never did anything like that again.

So. You’re going to start this decade banned from the site. Unable to access or continue any of your existing stories, you’re going to start something new. Write the first few chapters of it and then abandon it until, oh, around April, when you’ll rediscover it and keep going.

That book’s going to go through nine drafts and then you’re going to shelve it. You thought it was a standalone at first, then the first book in a trilogy. In a few years you’ll realise it’s actually a much later installment in a larger series. Then, eventually, you’ll realise that virtually nothing of that original book will survive, but for some version of a few of the characters.

But those first wisps of characters that you began to develop during that month of creative isolation are still going to live in your head in ten years time. Alex Kian Robson? He’s right here. I call the series Death and Fairies, which was a joke that stuck. Alex isn’t the main character any more (he got demoted), but he’s very much there. So is Jennie. You didn’t know what kind of story you were trying to tell yet, but you laid the first stones of it anyway.

So it’s not a waste of a month. It just feels like one. It’s your own fault, but cheer up — things can only improve from here.

A selfie of me holding a pencil, with short hair and glasses.
Cambridge, October 2016.

And they will, in writing terms. I cannot understate how much you’re going to improve in ten years. And finally, right at the end of the decade, you’re going to keep your promises to yourself and you’re going to start querying — properly, this time. It’s a book you haven’t even thought about starting yet, though you’re only a couple of years away from creating the bare bones of its protagonist, Isabel. I think you’d like it. It’s sad and violent and there’s no kissing at all.

It would take too long to tell you everything that happened in the past decade. Some things I think you’re going to have to find out for yourself. You’re going to face… pretty much everything for the first time, I think. You haven’t really experienced much yet. You’re going to lose your grandparents, and that’s going to suck, and your brother’s going to move to Canada (you’ll miss him more than you’ll admit). You’re going to have some pretty dark moments and sometimes it’s going to feel like you’ll never drag yourself out of the hole that you’re in.

But there’ll be brighter days too. You’ll go to Ireland, just as you’ve been dreaming of doing for years already. Multiple times, in fact! You’ll meet Kate Thompson. Maggie Stiefvater, too. You’ll do a degree in Anglo-Saxon, Norse and Celtic, and get really, weirdly into medieval Irish literature. You’ll start learning Irish, properly this time. You’ll get a job as a trainee librarian and move to Cambridge. You’ll go to conferences, turn your dissertation into an academic article, and start thinking about doing a master’s. You’ll become a Quaker (you don’t even know what a Quaker is yet), after years of struggling with and losing your faith. You’ll love and be loved and there will be people who understand you, eventually.

Right now, you can’t see any of that coming. But I promise that it is.

A photo of me looking back over my shoulder, wearing a gown and hood, with King's College Chapel in the background.
Graduation. Cambridge, June 2018.

And no, you won’t be published before you’re eighteen, or even before the end of the decade. And a lot of what you thought might happen won’t happen. In fact, the vast majority of what went down in the past ten years isn’t what you might be expecting. (Did I mention the fact that you’re queer? You’re… super queer.)

Will you have regrets? Absolutely. Will you mourn missed turnings, abandoned paths, lost opportunities? Of course. Will you find yourself wishing you could turn back time and go back to who you were at the start of the decade?

No.

You’re not me yet. You’re not even you yet. And I’m not sure I’m me now, but I’m a lot closer to it than when I was standing where you are. These ten years haven’t always been kind, but we’ve grown up, younger me, and we’re almost ourselves now. I don’t know who we’ll be in ten years time, but at least nowadays I’m confident I want to stick around to find out.

So hang in there, younger me. You’ve got a long decade ahead of you, but the only way out is through.

With love and in friendship,

Finn*

A selfie of me with a gleeful expression, accompanied by a very fluffy black and white cat.
Boxing Day 2019, with my sister’s cat, Tyler.

*Oh yeah, you’re going to change your name. It’s a short form of delorfinde, so really, it’s not so strange to you; you’ve yet to start using your legal name online. Anyway hi. This is me. You. Us. <3 Wait ’til you find out about pronouns…

Fear and the Future

In the aftermath of the election, it’s hard to know what to say.

Maybe it’s easier to say nothing, to let it pass unremarked as so many things do on this blog these days, but that feels dishonest. I have so much I want to say; it’s articulating it that’s the hard part. I’ve started writing this post three times already. Everything I say sounds either melodramatic or untrue, and I can’t get past that.

How about this:

I didn’t think I had been allowing myself to hope for a different result, until the exit poll was announced and I found myself sobbing.

Or what about:

Ever since I started hanging out with Quakers, I’ve heard a lot of people talking about ‘God’ as meaning ‘the innate goodness of people’, but sometimes it feels like that’s as hard to believe in as a childhood conception of God as a bearded man in the sky.

Maybe just:

I’m scared.

I’m scared about what this means for the future. I’m scared of the country I live in, where I cannot trust people to look out for their vulnerable neighbours, where xenophobia and racism are on the rise, where racist rhetoric wins hearts and votes. I’m scared of the inevitable fallout when Brexit happens — a fear I’ve been living for three years already and will continue to live with until the worst happens and there is nothing left to be afraid of because it has already happened.

A blue IKEA shark propped up in a chair holds a Labour Party election pamphlet. It is wearing two red badges. One reads, "Kick out the Tories". The other has a heart with the EU flag and Union flag on it, and says "Better Together".
Láeg mac Blåhaj may be blue but his heart is not. He couldn’t drag himself out of bed yesterday to face reality, but today his expression says it all…

I’m young. I’m trans. I’m disabled. This government doesn’t care about me. It has already killed disabled people with cuts to benefits and the NHS, and it will kill more of us. If the NHS goes under, I have friends who will die. You see what I mean about the melodrama? I try and state it like the bald fact that it is, try not to let the emotions creep in, but it still sounds dramatic: this is a matter of life and death.

But it is. I don’t know how else to say it.

I wouldn’t think of myself as a single issue voter — I care about so many things. I care about the environment, I care about peace, I care about equality, I care about creating a system that doesn’t work people into the ground just so that they can survive. I care about education and the arts and the idea that everyone should have the chance to thrive, not merely to keep breathing. There are dozens of things that matter to me.

If there were to be a single issue, though, it would be the NHS.

I’m lucky, so far, in that none of my lifelong health conditions are the variety that have to be continuously medicated or they become fatal. I rely on the NHS for those frequent blood tests, the B12 injections, the extra vaccinations to support my immunocompromised system. Without them I would suffer. Without low-cost access to medication I would struggle. But others? Others would die.

Others have already died, abandoned by a benefits system that will leave them with an unplugged fridge and no insulin, or declared fit to work while terminally ill.

And yes, I have complained about NHS waiting lists and I will probably complain again. I’m currently on three, the longest of which is approximately two years, the shortest of which was a minimum of three months and I’ve yet to hear from them. But I know that those waiting lists are the result of cuts and deficits and strain imposed by the quiet privatisation of different services. By the lack of proper governmental support for mental health services. By this country’s rampant and growing transphobia, and the lack of funding for healthcare to support trans people.

(The rise in vocal, vicious transphobia in this country is another fear I live with constantly, but there’s nothing I can do about it. I suspect it will get worse. I can’t do anything about that, either.)

A black satchel covered in pin badges. Slogans include "trans rights are human rights", "avenge Oscar Wilde", "kick out the Tories" and "Quakers oppose all wars".
Books and politics — and a little bit of Ogham. Perhaps this bag is meant to symbolise this blog.

I see my friends in the US crowdfunding to afford medication they need to live. I see people bankrupted by medical debt while dealing with the grief of losing family members. And I can’t fathom how anybody could look at that and think it was something to emulate, but I’m afraid that some of the politicians our country has just elected think exactly that.

I hope that my fear is unfounded. I hope that the people who say, “They’re not going to sell off the NHS,” are right, just as I hope their promises to fund it aren’t yet more lies spouted by spineless, heartless cowards who will say whatever they have to say to convince people.

I hope that I am wrong.

I can’t express how much I hope that.

I hope that Brexit doesn’t destroy this country. I hope that it doesn’t send food prices through the roof, make it impossible to obtain certain medications, or result in a huge deficit of medical professionals. I hope that it doesn’t destroy our relationship with Ireland. I hope that those who have made their home in Britain are allowed to stay, made welcome rather than treated with suspicion and bureaucracy.

I hope all of these things. That doesn’t mean I believe in them. Hope can be a ruinous thing. We cling to it until it shatters and the shards of it slice our hands to pieces. Hope isn’t enough; to thrive in the face of something like this takes work.

I wish I could promise to put that work in, to fight for all of us, to agitate for change, to be an activist and a pillar of the community and a support to those around me… but I’m so tired. Some days it takes all of my energy just to get out of bed. Fatigue is a full-time job, and that scares me, too: the knowledge that I don’t have the strength to stand up for myself and my friends. I admire those who have it in them to be an activist, but I know that I’m not one of them. Not at the moment. Not when I’m barely coping as it is.

My method instead is avoidance, and perhaps that’s cowardly, to pretend none of it is happening, but sometimes all you can do is distract yourself as a way of barricading your mind against the constant fear. Yesterday, I finally finished writing the gay werewolf novel I was working on for NaNoWriMo, because it was a distraction that I needed. I’m not sure what I will work on next, but I have a dozen small projects that I can lose myself in. Perhaps that’s the easy way out, to refuse to face up to reality until it forces itself on me, but I know that my powerlessness and anxiety will break me if I allow them to be my focus, so I have to look elsewhere.

I have to find peace where I can.

Yesterday, I spent half of my lunch hour in the college chapel, seeking silence, somewhere to hide from the world and the screaming headlines and the fear burning electric through the inside of my head. I found a kind of peace there that quieted my mind a little. Oh still small voice of calm. This world is so loud, especially at the moment. It seems harder and harder to seek that quietness, and part of me feels guilty for trying, when it feels like I should be out on the streets with a placard and a chant.

But all of us can only do what we can, and for me, at the moment, it feels as though existing is all the resistance I can offer. Continuing to be me, refusing to apologise for all the things that I am: queer, nonbinary, pacifist, creative, exhausted, loving, helpless, disabled. Continuing to exist in a world that only offers boxes I don’t fit in. Allowing myself the shocking luxury of unapologetic rest.

I am afraid of what the next five years will bring. I’m afraid of my own helplessness. I’m afraid of my country and I’m afraid for my country and I’m afraid for myself and I’m afraid for everyone more vulnerable than me, who don’t have the privilege of safety nets.

But I hope — desperately — that I’m wrong.

From Student to Trainee

So, as most of you are probably aware, in September I started a year-long post as a graduate trainee librarian at Christ’s College, Cambridge. The aim of the role is that I get to learn the ins and outs of academic librarianship, gain experience across all the varied requirements of the role, and work out if I want to go on to library school (and if so, what kind of a focus I’d like to take with that).

The trainees have a blog, CaTaLOG (Cambridge Trainee Librarian’s Online Group), and a couple of weeks ago I wrote a post about my experiences of returning to an institution I knew as a student. I thought now that it’s been up there a while, I’d cross-post it here, so that those of you who have been wondering what I’m up to can read it too.

(Although of course, feel free to go and follow the trainee blog too.)


From Student to Trainee

(originally posted on CaTaLOG on 13th November 2019)

I was a student at Cambridge before I was a trainee — I studied Anglo-Saxon, Norse and Celtic (ASNaC) at Newnham College (my focus was very much on the Celtic; I specialised in medieval Irish). It’s been an interesting experience to return to a university I already know well, and experience it from a different angle: a different role, a different college, an entirely different experience.

Now and again I find myself retracing my steps and visiting familiar haunts like the UL or Newnham, but as a trainee, I see an entirely different side of them. Part of that is the opportunity to go behind the scenes — the UL seems intimidatingly huge as a student, but through a door or up a different set of stairs it’s like an entirely different building contained within it, a labyrinth of staff-only corridors and rooms. Part of it, though, is realising how much is available to students that I didn’t take advantage of as an undergraduate, and with that realisation comes a pang of regret for all the opportunities I feel like I wasted.

Our first visit of the year was to the UL. Due to a prior commitment I was only able to come for half of the trip, so I missed the opportunity to see Rare Books and Digital Services. I did, however, manage to join the group for the visit to the Manuscripts Room.

Now, as a medievalist, I tend to get overly excited about manuscripts anyway, but to have them up close in front of me was… something else. There, in front of me, was a Book of Hours, liberally decorated with gold leaf. There, in front of me, was a little marginal drawing of the sort I might have retweeted on Twitter from one of the many medievalist accounts I follow. Right there. Not behind a glass case, not in an exhibition, but inches away from me.

Image of a medieval manuscript with a decorated initial and a marginal illustration of a half-man, half-bird figure.

And what really struck me was that it had never occurred to me, in my four years as a student, that I could have come to the Manuscripts Room at any time. I didn’t know that I was allowed. I didn’t know that I could request to see certain medieval texts simply for the joy of seeing them (and not because I was some high-flying researcher with a monograph to write).

I think, probably, that this is something a lot of undergraduates don’t realise — and of course, for those outside of subjects like ASNaC, there’s probably limited appeal in the opportunity to stare at some old books. But I’m glad to see that some are taking the chance that I failed to realise I had — a group of first year ASNaCs went to the UL to see their copy of Bede recently, and I admire them for that.

More recently, we visited Newnham for some training in how to use this website, and afterwards received a tour of the library. Having had a number of late-night essay crises in the Newnham library, I assumed I knew it well enough that there’d be little to surprise me on the tour, and it’s true that most of the Working Library was familiar to me.

(Although it’s only since graduating and having the opportunity to visit lots of other college libraries that I’ve realised how lovely Newnham’s is, and how completely spoiled I was as a student there to have access to that.)

But then we had the opportunity to visit the Archives, the closed stacks in the basement, and the Rare Books Room — a room I didn’t even know they had. If you’d said to me a week ago, “What does Newnham have in the way of special collections?” I’d probably have given some answer about some old children’s books (true) and some interesting material objects (also true); I didn’t know that they had 6,000 early printed books and a handful of medieval manuscripts, all stored beautifully in a dedicated room built in a style in line with the rest of the library’s architecture while suiting the unique needs of old books.

I walked in and all I could think was, “Why didn’t I know about this?” And the answer, I guess, is that I didn’t ask. It never occurred to me that I could. I knew that the UL had manuscripts, but I assumed that you had to be a Serious Researcher doing Serious Research to be able to look at them; I guess there was some impostor syndrome at work, that I wasn’t ‘good enough’ to access that material.

I’ve been thinking, also, about how it took me until final year to ever request a book from my college library, and how I think I only spoke to library staff on two or three occasions (I generally went to the library late at night, when the desk was unstaffed). Now that I’m on the other side of the desk, I realise how much I missed out on by being too worried about being annoying or presumptuous.

Image of an aisle in a college library. On the left are crowded, colourful books; on the right is the end of a shelf with a poster giving the classmarks of books shelved there.
Christ’s College Working Library

It’s made me realise that we, as libraries, can do more to make students aware of those materials, to do more to encourage students that they can access special collections if they need or even want to. To make it feel safe to ask those kinds of questions — “Can I see some old books?” “Will you buy this obscure text?” “What kind of archives does the library keep?” — without feeling embarrassed or ashamed.

The fault here is not on the librarians; I’m an anxious person, and I’m fairly sure that was a major part in my failure to ever approach the library desk unless completely unavoidable. But at the same time, if somebody had reached out to me as an undergrad and told me what I was allowed to do… maybe things would have gone differently.

I’m grateful, at least, that I get a second chance now to experience what I missed the first time around. To have spent four years in Cambridge, of all places, and never to have looked at any special collections material whatsoever, is a crying shame — but I’ve got no intention of making it five. And if I can convince one student to take advantage of this opportunity, to go and ask their librarians about their college’s archives or rare books, then I’ll feel like I’ve achieved something.

Eleven Novembers

November again. It seems to come around so quickly.

I think I’ve forgotten how to blog. I sat down with my lovely, empty site, and the knowledge that I could write whatever I wanted, in whatever style, and not feel like I was breaking with any kind of tradition. A new start! A clean page! And absolutely no ideas as to where to begin!

But hey, that’s kind of in keeping with the whole National Novel Writing Month thing, really. Start a brand new novel. Try and write 50k of it in thirty days. Ignore the inner editor and the self-doubt and the writer’s block and just give in to the sheer joy of creation — that’s what it’s meant to be about. And I’m usually pretty good at that. Writing fast is my entire modus operandi, and the only reason I’ve ever finished anything.

It’s just that apparently that doesn’t work on blog posts.

But in an effort to circumvent that particular kind of block, I borrowed these tag questions from Lorna @ Gin and Lemonade, and I’m going to give them a go.

1. How many times have you participated in NaNoWriMo? How many times have you won?

This will be my eleventh year tackling this particular challenge. I’ve done and won NaNoWriMo ten times, as well as a handful of Camp NaNos (a mid-year, set-your-own-goal more flexible NaNo challenge) and, back in the day, I even did Script Frenzy a couple of times. I’ve yet to ‘lose’ NaNo.

2. Are you a pantser or a plotter?

I am absolutely a pantser. My first year doing NaNo was also the first time I’d ever written a novel in my life. I sat down on November 7th (having just heard about it, a week late) and began, despite having no characters, no plot, no genre — and no idea how to write a novel. Still hit 50k, with several days to spare. I’m obnoxious like that.

This year, I’m working on a retelling, so much of the plot is already done for me. But I’m winding it back a few years and exploring some of the backstory to the original story before I dive in, which means I still have to figure out some of it for myself. I did a bit of planning on October 31st, mapped out an approximate outline for that part of the novel… and have already deviated from it.

3. What are the titles of the projects that you have attempted/completed for past NaNos?

Oh, man, this is quite a list:

  • A Sky Full Of Stars (2009)
  • Beneath the Branches (2010)
  • Figurehead (2010); I wrote two novels that year
  • The Quiet Ones (2011); later retitled The Knight Shift after substantial edits
  • Weapons of Chaos (2012)
  • Recall (2013)
  • Bloodied Wings (2014); a redraft and the sequel to Butterfly of Night, which I’ve recently been editing
  • Folk Stories (2015); a series of short stories based on folk songs
  • Happy Gay Magical Novel (2016); never got a real title, never got a plot, never got to the end despite hitting 50k
  • Lie Down Below (2017)
  • To Run With The Hound (2018)

There were also a couple of years, like 2012, where I wrote half of a couple of other novels after hitting 50k early, like the overachiever that I am.

4. What are you working on for NaNo this year?

A retelling of ‘Bisclavret’, a lai by Marie de France. It’s a homoerotic werewolf story from an Anglo-Norman writer and I’ve been meaning to do a queer fantasy retelling of it for years, but somehow never got around to it. Since NaNo has apparently become the month where I write queer medieval retellings that I’ve been procrastinating on (or at least, that’s also what I did last year), it seemed like a good one to tackle.

It doesn’t have a title yet, so it’s on the NaNo site as werewolves & gay yearning. That’s more or less a summary, too.

5. What is one tip that you’d give to someone else that is participating in NaNo?

If you have ten minutes to write, write for ten minutes.

Waiting around for a chunk of sacrosanct writing time or the perfect conditions is only going to make things harder. You don’t have to do your day’s 1,667 words in one go if it makes more sense for you to do them in bits and pieces wherever you can squeeze in a minute. Give yourself that flexibility.

This goes for writing at any time, not just during NaNo. If you make it into A Thing that you have to do in big chunks, it becomes intimidating and hard to work into your daily routine. But it doesn’t have to be a big deal.

6. What was the inspiration for this novel? Do you remember when the inspiration hit you?

I don’t remember exactly when I decided that Bisclavret needed to be a novel, but I do remember getting set an essay on queer readings of Marie de France for a medieval French supervision with Blake Gutt (shoutout to Blake, who is still off doing cool medieval queer theory things), which was my first actual exposure to queer theory, especially in medieval contexts. My essay was over 4,000 words long and got increasingly sarcastic as it went on, as some of the critical articles I was reading were… very frustrating. But it lit some kind of spark.

7. Share the first sentence from your NaNo novel last year.

“He wasn’t a hero when we met.”

And hey, since it’s the second of November already so I’ve started writing, have this year’s first line:

“He isn’t a knight.”

Hmm, I’m sensing a theme…

8. What do you plan to do with your manuscript after NaNo?

Send it to a couple of betas, then leave it to moulder on my hard drive for a few months while I work on other things. I’m meant to be querying Butterfly of Night soon, and I want to edit To Run With The Hound early next year if I can, so those are going to take precedence over editing this one.

9. Are you prepared for NaNo? Are you nervous?

We’ve already started, but no, I’m not particularly prepared. I did a bit of planning on the 31st, as I mentioned, which helped; before that, I had absolutely no idea what I was doing and felt like I’d maybe made a mistake to sign up this year. I just finished editing the latest draft of BoN on Monday, so I’m somewhat creatively exhausted. This happened last year as well, though; I finished something else right before NaNo and then dived straight in. Apparently I’ve never heard of taking a break.

Not particularly nervous, though. 50k isn’t an unattainable target for me; it’s actually slightly slower than my average writing speed when first-drafting, as long as I don’t have a lot of external stuff going on. But I feel less prepared than usual this year, and it’s my first time balancing NaNo with a full-time job, so part of me remains slightly nervous that I’ll break that winning streak.

But I need the creative outlet, especially as I’m off dance with an injury and have been for a couple of months, with no change on that front in my immediate future. I’m hoping this will be the distraction my brain needs.


Thanks for helping me past my blogging block, Lorna (and Natalia, with whom I think the questions originated). Blogging is a strange medium these days, when there are so many other forms of social media each with their own unique traits, and I’m still trying to get my head around how to tackle it. But I’ll get there.

In the meantime:

Are you participating in NaNoWriMo? Tell me about a project you’re working on, whether for NaNo or otherwise.

De-Inventing Myself

Today, I deleted nine years’ worth of posts from this blog.

Around 800 posts. Probably hundreds of thousands of words. Years of my younger self figuring out who I was, talking about my life, sharing my thoughts, slowly developing my skills as a writer and as a person as I continued to live my life almost entirely on the internet.

They’re not gone forever. I’ve moved them all to a password-protected blog so that if I decide I made a mistake, I can import them again. And nothing on the internet can ever be gone forever. Anyone who really wanted to know what fifteen-year-old me thought about something could use the Wayback Machine or something similar to find it; while I admit I’m partly motivated by not wanting all of my younger self’s ignorant, elitist, and otherwise problematic opinions immediately connected to my professional name, I’m also aware that somebody who cared enough could still find them.

The fact is that I have lived too much of my life online, for too long. It’s become harder and harder to keep sight of who I am. What’s the real me, and what’s the online me? Is the me on this blog even really me, or just an entire persona I’ve constructed for your benefit? I’ve often mistaken openness for honesty, and I sometimes think maybe I overshare without ever really being honest and vulnerable.

You don’t know me. You might have followed this blog for nine years, but all you’ve seen is a small part of me. And that’s okay. But I’m not sure the me that I was here is really the me I want to be.

I’m not re-inventing myself. I’m de-inventing myself. Stripping away years of self-creation through text. Can we just pretend it never happened? Can we start again, as though we’ve just met, and all the artifice is gone? Maybe you won’t notice the difference, but I’ll know, at least, that even if I’m dancing the same steps, I’m doing it in new shoes.

I made this blog in 2010, replacing an earlier one. It’s been through four URL changes, three site hosts, and dozens of themes and layouts. And I don’t regret that I blogged my teenage years, because there’s value in being able to look back at those posts and see the progress that I’ve made. Blogging brought me friends, gave me a voice, gave me a platform — even if that platform has seemed to shrink in the last few years. Blogging was the medium through which fourteen-year-old me learned to share my thoughts.

But I’m 23 years old now, and I want to start again.

Hello. My name is Finn Longman. I’m a writer, medievalist, folk musician, dancer, librarian, procrastinator, Quaker, reader — and blogger. I don’t know what I want to talk about yet, but this is where I’ll do it, when I know. It’s nice to meet you.