Author: Finn Longman

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

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.

Write It Wrong

I’ve never formally studied creative writing. I don’t have a degree in it, I’ve never been on a novel-writing course or workshopped a story — I’ve never even been on a retreat. (Although considering I’ve more than once used a 2-week self-isolation period to get a head start on a project before being released back into the world, maybe that counts…)

This is fine: you don’t need any of those things to become a writer. I sometimes wonder whether, if I’d started writing later, I’d have bought into the myth that you do; as it was, I was thirteen and invincible and the internet told me all I had to do to be a writer was write, so I did. By the time the impostor syndrome and desire for qualifications caught up with me, I had enough novels under my belt to feel reasonably confident that I could go it alone, so I studied medieval Irish instead, because that seemed a lot harder to do by yourself.

That’s not to say there’s no value to studying writing. I’m sure there is. Personally, I learned to write by doing it wrong, over and over again. The Butterfly Assassin was the fifteenth novel I wrote, and it still took seven years to get from first draft to final draft, because I got it wrong so many times. Every book that I’ve written has taught me something, and I don’t regret writing so many of them, but it’s definitely a labour-intensive way of doing things.

I tell people my early novels were bad and they say, “Oh, I’m sure they’re not as bad as you think.” I promise you, they are. While I’m occasionally a poor judge of my more recent work (I recently reread the third draft of Bard, which I wrote last year, and realised I was wrong to shelve it because that book has a lot of potential), I’m more than capable of being objective about my fourteen-year-old self’s output, and I know that they’re irredeemable. It’s fine. It was a process of learning.

I’ve always been a hands-on learner; you can tell me or show me how to do something and I’ll take in nothing until I do it myself. Maybe that’s why I never studied writing: even when I read about it, instructions and ideas don’t make sense to me until I’ve tried to apply them myself, and that usually results in me abandoning whatever I was reading to run off and write a new novel. I tried to take an online seminar last year and only got a few videos in before I got distracted with a new project. (I keep meaning to go back to it, but I never have.)

But my first drafts are a mess. Not on a sentence level — they’re pretty readable when it comes to the prose, which sometimes tricks people into thinking they’re better than they are — but on a plot level. They usually start out okay, and then somewhere in the middle they become a pile of events that don’t completely add up, leading to an abrupt and/or anticlimactic ending, and as soon as you start asking questions of the story it becomes apparent that I don’t have the answers. That’s why I tend to take such a drastic approach to editing, rewriting the book from the beginning — there’s no point fiddling with a sentence if the whole chapter might get yeeted when I change the entire plot to make something work.

Partly, my plot woes stem from the fact that I’m a pantser. Despite my best intentions, I seem incapable of plotting a book before I write it — if I do, I find myself deviating from my outline in chapter two and throwing the whole thing off course. The only way first drafts get on the page is if I start at the beginning and keep going until I get to the end, wherever it may take me along the way. Then I dismantle it in order to plot the second draft, now that I have some idea of what I’m trying to achieve.

Pantser by nature or not, sometimes you hit a point where you need an outline. Now is such a time: I have to write a synopsis of a book that isn’t written, and therefore I need to plan it. Okay, so I have a first draft, but I’m planning to completely overhaul the plot and change the ending considerably, so I have to plan it as though I don’t. As though the 98k I wrote last year was just the first outline, the bad outline, the mess I needed to make before I could do it properly.

And that’s why I’m telling you all of this, about writing things wrong as an integral part of my process, because you need to understand where I’m coming from when I say that there is nothing which activates my writing impostor syndrome like trying to outline.

I know some writers who plot their books practically to the page. They have spreadsheets. Beat sheets. They know exactly what should happen when in order to create the perfect 3-act arc (or 5-act, or whatever their chosen approach is). I live in fear of them, because my brain simply does not work like that. It’s not that I don’t think structure is important, but I’ve always just gone with my gut, relying on intuition honed by years of voracious reading.

Unfortunately, years of medieval literature have scrambled my intuition, convincing my brain that “a series of episodic combats followed by a long list of names followed by a one-page final battle where nothing really gets resolved” is an acceptable structure for a story. Which it is, if you’re an eleventh century Irishman, but for a modern novel, that stops looking like a book and starts looking like a hot mess pretty fast.

And that was fine, when I had as many drafts as I liked to get a story right — when I could just keep reworking it until the pieces clicked into place. But once you start writing professionally and start having contracts and deadlines, suddenly the whole process needs to speed up. No longer can I write a draft a year for six years before sending a book out into the world: no longer can I write by getting it wrong, over and over again, until the day I don’t.

When intuition fails me, that’s when I start to understand why people study writing. Why people like rules and advice and charts and tables. I still don’t think that’ll ever be me: I’ll read one (1) book about writing and decide that’s quite enough for me, thanks, and once again breathe a sigh of relief that my eighteen-year-old self didn’t decide to do a whole degree in it. Again: I’m sure that’s amply rewarding for some people and teaches them a lot (whether about writing or in terms of transferrable skills), but I think going down that path might have put me personally off writing forever.

So, I read a book about structure a couple of days ago, because I felt I needed the help. There comes a point in the process where you go, “Yeah, I need some assistance here,” and since nobody in the world has read the latest version of book two in this trilogy and therefore I cannot ask anyone to help me plot book three, I figured I would have to get my advice somewhere else.

It kind of helped. I had a lot of ideas floating around in my head that I hadn’t entirely figured out how to get onto the page. Or at least, I had them on the page, some of them, but not in the right order. I’d spent a bunch of time talking to myself in a notebook to figure out the character motivations (my usual method of planning: I will literally ramble to myself on paper like, “Could it be X? No, that doesn’t make sense with Y. What about Z?”), but I needed a way of making the resulting plot points fit, and ensuring it was narratively satisfying. With a slightly more formal understanding of how to structure a story under my belt, I was able to come up with an approximate outline, so that’s something.

(The book about structure was Into The Woods by John Yorke. I didn’t 100% vibe with it in places, so this is a recommendation only with caveats, but I appreciated that it didn’t take a prescriptive “this is the only Right Way” approach the way so many writing books do, and also that it looked at 5-act structure rather than prioritising the more common 3-act approach. I have never clicked with 3-act structure, but five acts I can get my head around, possibly because I was a Hamlet nerd as a teenager and some things rewire your brain permanently.)

But even though it helped, and solved a problem I was wrestling with, and encouraged me to cut the oldest plotline in the book because it simply wasn’t working… reading about structure makes me stressed, and sets off alarm bells in my head. Did I do it right in The Butterfly Assassin? I ask myself (because if I didn’t, it’s too late to fix it now). What about book two, am I going to have to rework that completely? Couldn’t somebody have told me this earlier? Am I a hack, a fraud, an impostor who somehow got invited into the writer club when they really don’t know what they’re doing?

And the thing is: I do know what I’m doing, most of the time. On a gut level, running on instinct, I know how to write a story. I wouldn’t be here if I didn’t. I have to keep telling myself that, when the impostor syndrome closes in. But that instinct-led approach means I have no idea how to explain what I’m doing, and it certainly doesn’t always fit neatly into diagrams.

That’s okay, mostly. Not everything has to fit into the diagrams. If there’s one thing I’ve learned about writing, it’s that there are no rules that can’t be broken and there’s no method that works for everyone, or even for every book written by the same person. It’s a constant process of rediscovery and re-invention, figuring out how to write.

But. This book needs to be plotted in a particular way, and that’s the way I find hard, and that makes me feel like a fraud. It’s a very hard book to write: it has to be narratively satisfying both in its own right and as the conclusion to a trilogy; it has to wrap up its own plotlines and any loose threads from the first two books; and being a third book means it starts in a state of absolute chaos, so your usual approaches to the first act of a book don’t work and it kind of has to be structured back-to-front. Unlike a standalone book, where we start with a normal that gets disrupted, a third book following on from a cliffhanger starts with a complete mess that needs to be gradually resolved: there is no normal, and we get dropped in the deep end.

Plus, this book isn’t under contract yet, but I would very much like it to be, so I need to make it look appealing and functional right from the synopsis — something I never had to do with an unwritten book before I started doing this professionally.

So, I have to face up to the thing I’m bad at, accept that I’m bad at it, and teach myself how to do it — all while my brain screams at me that I should have learned how to do it before I tried to make a career out of this, and probably my book is going to flop and it’ll be a disaster and I should give up now. These are not helpful brainweasels to feed, and I try to avoid it, but there’s something about being six months out from your debut novel’s publication that sets them all a-chattering, and I have to say, it’s a full-time job just trying to keep them quiet most of the time.

It doesn’t help that I’m in the process of arranging my first school visit as a professional author — what a bizarre sentence to write — and was asked if I wanted to do a talk or whether I wanted it to be more of an interactive creative writing workshop. Immediately my brain went, I can’t teach anyone how to write, I barely know what I’m doing. And, well, that’s not totally true, but I’m certainly not convinced my approach is replicable.

These brainweasels, this imposter syndrome… it’s all part of the process of going from writing as a hobby to writing as a career, I think — not that I wasn’t always trying to improve, but it’s different, when somebody other than yourself will care if you mess this up. And it is a process, this transition: it’s a constant, ongoing, humbling process. No matter how well I thought I understood my approach to writing, it will change now, by necessity, because a book written under contract is a fundamentally different beast than a book written over the course of several years with nobody breathing down your neck. A book written specifically to be published, rather than a book written only with the aspiration of publication, is a different beast. There are new rules and new methods to be determined.

One of those is learning about structure. And it’s probably not the case that every book I write from now on will fit in a five-act chart before I write it (more likely I’ll write the first draft in my usual chaotic way and try and fix it afterwards, as I always do). But this book needed me to learn this, and so I did. And the next book may require me to learn something completely different, so I will.

Maybe I don’t know how to teach people about writing, because nobody taught me about writing, but I know this: it’s completely fine to learn by doing it wrong, but you have to be able to recognise when that’s what you’re doing, otherwise you’re never going to do it right. Writing this book badly only worked because I could see that it wasn’t working and was willing to make the effort to take a different approach. Without realising the problem was structure, and teaching myself how to fix it, I’d probably have just continued to make the same mistakes over and over again.

Write it wrong first. But then figure out why it’s wrong, and write it right.


Now is a great time to pre-order The Butterfly Assassin. I promise that although it took me seven years, I did eventually write it right. You can also support me by buying me a coffee.

Masterly Reflections

I handed in my thesis this week which means, for those keeping track at home, that I’ve now finished my MA.

It’s an odd feeling: anticlimactic, for one. During undergrad, we all finished at the same time — after a brief, intense period of exams there was May Week, and then results came out, and then we graduated, which saw us all off the premises with appropriate pomp and grandeur. There was a finality to it, and plenty of opportunities to say goodbye to everyone.

By contrast, the small handful of us on this course are all finishing at slightly different times, with the majority handing in from a distance, having already left Cork. They’re long gone, scattered to the four winds; those of us who remain attend seminars as quasi-students, no longer required to be there but remaining out of habit, and one by one we complete our theses and disappear. Thanks to Covid, I know almost nobody outside of this particular course, so the list of people to say goodbye to is short, but it still feels odd, this strange winding down of things.

I’m not the partying type, nor did I have the money to go to half a dozen May Balls in undergrad to blow off steam post-finals (I went to the Ulidia-Finn conference on Skye instead, because I’m a nerd, and then a single June Event). But there was something about that week of social events and frivolities to celebrate the end of the year that made all the hard work I’d done feel more real — that made it clear that yes, it really was over. Now, without that marker, I’m half convinced somebody’s going to pop out of the woodwork to tell me that I’ve missed something, that I haven’t finished after all.

I hoped that taking photos around campus would make it feel more real, but honestly, it hasn’t. Although maybe this process would be even weirder if I hadn’t.

UCC has been a very different experience from Cambridge. At times, it’s hard to know how much that’s because the two universities are so very different, how much it’s the difference between undergrad and postgrad, and how much it’s simply that I’m older and in a very different headspace. I’ll be honest: I was miserable most of the way through undergrad. By contrast, postgrad me has only very occasionally cried over work, even if I’ve cried over other things. That’s an improvement, right?

I took two years out after finishing undergrad, convinced I was leaving academia. That evidently didn’t turn out to be the case, but those two years were important in teaching me that there was a life outside studying. It gave me a useful sense of perspective, which I think has helped when I felt overwhelmed, although I also think I’ve simply been a lot less overwhelmed. An MA might be more challenging than a BA in some regards, but the Cambridge workload and course structure was… pretty nightmarish, to be honest. The first time I realised I was only expected to write a couple of essays a semester here, it blew my mind. Sure, so the essays counted and they actually had to be good — my undergrad supervision essays certainly weren’t — but there were so few of them! And they were on topics I was actually studying!

The year has had other challenges. We bounced from one set of Covid restrictions to another, and all the while I’m living alone, lacking opportunities to socialise. Living alone was a new experience in itself, since I’ve always had housemates or family around me before this. For the most part, I’ve enjoyed it, though it’s encouraged many of my bad habits; I’ve been to bed at 5am more times than is wise for anyone, and my flat’s a mess, with no particular reason to deal with my clutter resulting in me simply… not dealing with it. But I’ve been lonely, at times, and the run-up to last Christmas was particularly bad, as I anticipated a day spent alone, a long way from family.

I’ve missed dance. My flat is tiny, and the studios were shut for the most of the year. (They’re open now, so inevitably I have an injury that limits my ability to walk, let alone dance. Thanks, body.) I’ve missed feeling in control of my body, having a chance to de-stress that doesn’t involve looking at a screen, and the social element that came from regular dance classes. I’ve struggled with increased injuries and pain because my muscles are deconditioned, and that’s been pretty miserable. So the lockdowns have definitely proven a major challenge in that regard, even if I have appreciated the total lack of food-based socialising. (It’s been a great year and a half of not getting poisoned in order to feel included in a group!)

And of course, getting a book deal was a dream come true, but one that complicated matters: balancing academic deadlines with edits meant I never really got a break. My thesis was originally due in September, extended to December because of disruption caused by Covid. It wasn’t the pandemic that meant I needed it, though: it was The Butterfly Assassin. I don’t think there’s any way I could have got my thesis and my edits done on time according to the original deadline without completely giving up on sleeping, which would have been bad. I have fatigue and chronic pain, so I spend a lot more time horizontal than most people do; juggling an MA and a debut novel with such limited hours of function each day is… maybe not ideal.

I still managed to write 115k of the sequel in the last two weeks before thesis hand-in, though, because sometimes when I’m stressed it manifests as words. Just as I suddenly translated a lot more early modern Irish when I was stressed about publishing — playing the two causes of stress off against each other proved a pretty effective way of keeping each in check, and I would highly recommend academic deadlines as a way to stop checking your emails while waiting on publishing news.

(And I’m lucky that my supervisor was not only patient with my deadline-juggling, but invested in my book and the publishing journey: during most of our meetings he would ask how it was going, and where we were at in the process, and what was coming next. At times, these were a cathartic opportunity to vent about the inscrutability of publishing and the powerlessness one can feel as a debut author; at other times, it was a chance to celebrate progress. Mostly the former, though, not gonna lie.)

I don’t know what I’m doing next. For some people, the absence of firm commitments would feel liberating. For me, it feels slightly like stepping off the edge of a cliff. I have nothing pinned down at all for the next couple of months, and it’s going to be a strange experience, to be without constant deadlines hanging over my head. There are a couple of opportunities I’m pursuing, but it’s entirely possible (in fact, it’s likely) that neither of them will work out, so I can’t plan for the future. The Butterfly Assassin comes out in May; that’s more or less the only thing I know about next year.

I know that some of my supervisors are hoping I’ll do a PhD, or at least, they think I’m more than capable of one and it would be a shame if I didn’t. A few years ago, I’d have scoffed at the idea; now, I’ve considered it enough to have researched some of my options, looking at where I might go and what I might do. I enjoy research, even if I complain endlessly about the process of academic writing (fiction feels so easy by comparison), and I can’t see myself being done with medieval Irish lit any time soon… or perhaps early modern Irish lit, my most recent research having very much taken the “periodisation is fake” approach to my official degree title (Early and Medieval Irish) and wandered a long way into the seventeenth century and beyond.

But funding deadlines for a 2022 start are imminent, and without a proposal in mind, I won’t be rushing in an application. Despite the sense of vague inevitability about it — I seem to be the kind of person that academia just happens to — I’m not committing to anything at this point. In truth, I’ve got no plans to stay in academia long-term for work; I’m not interested in the constant grind of short-term highly competitive jobs that would have me ricocheting all over the country/world, never able to settle down for more than a year, and these seem par for the course for early career researchers. That means it’s not worth doing a PhD just for the sake of it, because I don’t “need” it. But if I find I have a topic in mind, then that’ll change things.

I came back to do an MA because I had a thesis topic and wanted the support and resources to research it. Since I firmly intend to continue my medievalist shenanigans informally the way I did post-undergrad, it’s plausible I’ll stumble on something that would make a viable PhD thesis. And that’ll change things. In the meantime, I’m keeping my mind and options open, and looking at other ways I might utilise my research skills and experience.

Is there a job that involves teaching geese about medieval Irish literature? If so, consider this my application.

And as for my MA thesis topic? Well, I think I did what I set out to do. I wanted to write about Láeg mac Riangabra, Cú Chulainn’s charioteer, because he’s interesting and has been neglected in academic discussions before now. I came in with a pretty clear idea of the texts I wanted to look at and the directions I planned to go in, and many of these proved to be correct; there were no dramatic revelations that completely changed my angle. At the same time, there were new facets I hadn’t considered and texts I wasn’t familiar with. My conclusions now are not the same as they would have been a year ago, because I learned more: this is good, and expected. But they aren’t wildly different either: I arrived pretty firmly on the path, probably by virtue of having two years to play with my ideas before I started.

My goal was to come out the other end of this degree knowing more about Láeg: I do. I also know more about palaeography, a skill I regretted not developing in undergrad, and believe it or not, I’d hazard my medieval Irish grammar has got better too — though my spelling has got worse, as a result of spending too much time in the orthographic hellscape of the early modern period. My modern Irish hasn’t improved as much after a year in Ireland as I’d hoped, but lockdown can be blamed for that: I find language-learning over Zoom intensely difficult, and opportunities to speak to people IRL have been few. It’s something I plan to work on over the next year, though whether this is more self-teaching or whether I’m able to find classes will very much depend on where I end up living past the next few months.

What I’ve most valued about my time at UCC hasn’t been the subject matter, though. I’ve enjoyed being part of an academic community. My supervisors and lecturers have been encouraging and enthusiastic. Specialising in the thing I was best at during undergrad (medieval Irish lit) has given me the chance to gain confidence as a scholar. Good things have come in twos: I’ve given two undergrad lectures, presented at two conferences, had two papers pass peer review and be accepted for publication. And while it would be easy to dismiss my higher grades as a discrepancy between Cambridge and UCC’s standards — something I’ve been tempted to do on numerous occasions, because I love to put myself down — I think that’s doing myself a disservice. I know I’m a better scholar than I was during undergrad. I know more, I care more, and being less overwhelmed gave me the time to focus on the things that matter.

I don’t know what my final grade will be, or even when I’m due to receive it. I don’t know when graduation is, and therefore at what point I officially become a Master. But I know this: I’m coming out of my MA more confident in my knowledge and skills, and with a totally different attitude towards academia than the one I left undergrad with. I may be burned out from months of back-to-back publishing and academic deadlines, but I’m not an exhausted husk determined never to return. I have plans to mine my thesis and coursework for articles; I’ve spent time in the library this week scanning texts I want to translate and work with in my own time; and I’m looking forward to having the time and space to make videos again.

Whatever else happens, it’s clear Celtic Studies isn’t free of me yet.

But oooh, boy, I’m sure going to miss academic library access.

Checking references, library goblin style.

You can support me in accumulating my own personal academic library by buying me a coffee. Alternatively, if you want to support me in having a less void-like future that involves an actual career, now is a great time to pre-order The Butterfly Assassin.

NaNoWriMo As Productive Procrastination

It’s the seventh of November, and as I cross the 50,000-word mark on my NaNoWriMo project, I find myself thinking, again, about why it is I’m still participating in National Novel Writing Month.

This is my thirteenth year, and barring one or two exceptions, hitting 50k has never proven particularly challenging for me. This is a neutral fact, one that doesn’t make me a better (or worse) writer than anyone who struggles to crawl across the finish line or burns out around the 20k mark. I write speedy drafts, and I write a lot of them, because prose is never my problem — my problems tend to be plot problems, and so large-scale overhauls are a more effective form of editing. Especially when rewriting, rather than writing a first draft, I find it easy enough to write 50k in a week or two, and I’ve been known to go much faster. Last year, when avoiding reality at the start of lockdown, I wrote 236k in just over six weeks. It’s how I work. It is what it is.

With that in mind, taking part in NaNo is essentially a formality. I know I’ll write 50k. My friends know I’ll hit 50k. The NaNo London region knows I’ll hit 50k and will reminisce fondly about those 2012 write-ins where I churned out words at a speed that even I now find implausible (10k in an hour and a half?!) in my attempt to race our ML Sophie to the 200k mark. And November is rarely a convenient month, often full of academic deadlines and other commitments, so why bother, if it’s not going to achieve anything I wouldn’t be able to do at another time of year?

In previous years, I’d have said I was doing it for the sense of community. There’s something about sitting in a cafe with other writers, taking part in a timed sprint, that makes me feel a sense of connection I don’t get in many other places, since writing is a solitary pursuit most of the time. In 2018, writing one of the more challenging first drafts I’ve tackled in recent years, I crossed the finish line at a write-in held at the Maritime Museum, which was a particularly scenic setting. In 2019, I was able to call by the Cambridge write-ins on my way home from work.

But this year, as last year, all events are online, and while there’s still a community spirit being fostered in the regional Discord servers and write-ins being held over video chat, it’s not quite the same.

So was it nostalgia? Perhaps. Like I said, this is my thirteenth year. I completed my first ever novel during NaNoWriMo 2009, and as such, I guess you could say it was a formative influence on me. I strongly suspect it’s part of the reason I write the way I do (rapidly but repeatedly). The Butterfly Assassin was originally a Camp NaNoWriMo project, back in 2014. Hell, you can go further back than that: Isabel’s original novel, a crime novel featuring an assassin-turned-detective was intended to be my NaNo novel in 2012. I abandoned it at the last minute in favour of something else, then came back to it later in the month once I’d finished that, and wrote a solid chunk of it.

(It was terrible. I am forever grateful that I retrieved Isabel from that book, put her into the ideas box in my head, and kept her there for another year and a half until I came up with a concept that actually worked. Took a few more years after that to get TBA into readable shape, but I’m not sure that first book would have ever got there, not least because even I didn’t actually know who the murderer was in that story.)

And, true, I’m a nostalgic person, with a Timehop streak spanning years, but I don’t think it’s that. Nostalgia’s not a great reason to sit down and write an entire novel every year.

So what is it? Peer pressure? A sense of obligation to my past self? If I were going to stop at any time, I reasoned a couple of years ago, it should have been after 10 years. Now it’s like, well, I can’t stop now. I did NaNo in 2013 when I couldn’t use my hands and had to rely on speech recognition the whole time, so most other excuses seem flimsy at this point. If then, why not now? 2013 was a bad year: I was severely depressed and in a ton of pain and I was desperate for an outlet — which NaNo gave me, for all of three days.

I kept a journal, at the time. Still do, but it was more impressive in 2013, when the two small pages I wrote in my notebook represented the sum total of the amount of time I was able to spend holding a pen each day. Some of them are shaky, barely legible, and some days I couldn’t get through the whole thing without taking breaks because of the pain. But I kept it anyway. So I know how I felt that month, how frustrated I was for letting myself hit the target so quickly because it meant the distraction was gone and I was stuck in my own head again.

Distraction. That’s the key word, I think. That’s why I participated then, when absolutely nobody would have blamed me for skipping a year (although I firmly believe nobody needs an excuse to not participate, because it’s not as if any of this is obligatory). That’s why I sat there in my room with the uncomfortable Dragon NaturallySpeaking headset and struggled to dictate a first draft because my hands weren’t up to the job.

And that’s why I’m here, this month, writing a novel. Even though my thesis is due in less than two weeks, after which I have to pack up my whole flat and move back to the UK. Even though I’m proofreading for The Butterfly Assassin. Even though I should be packing, or making the most of Cork while I’m here (challenging, with a tendon/cartilage injury to the knee).

Because NaNo is a distraction and an excuse, an opportunity to work on something other than whatever I’m supposed to be doing and whatever my day-to-day obligations are. And while I rarely need excuses to procrastinate, I think I welcome anything that makes those non-thesis projects feel like an achievement. Anything that says, “It’s okay, you can be creative for a while and that counts as Getting Things Done.”

I haven’t really written anything new this year. I haven’t had time. I’ve been editing The Butterfly Assassin, and while there have been new scenes, they’ve generally been small contributions to the larger whole. I did rewrite The Wolf and His King, too, but there wasn’t a lot of new material there; it was more of a line-edit for style. It’s my first year under contract, and so the first year where I can’t just run off chasing after a new project because I felt like it.

And, okay, my NaNo novel isn’t new either. It’s the sequel to The Butterfly Assassin, first written in 2014, rewritten in 2015, abandoned for five years, and hastily redrafted for continuity last year so that I could show it to my agent. So this is technically a fourth draft, I guess, although last year’s rewrite didn’t make many plot changes. This one does, including some fairly substantial ones, and it frequently feels like I’m making something new even when I have an old draft and a detailed outline to follow.

Besides which, I’ve read TBA so many times that I’m utterly sick of it and every time I spend five minutes too long looking at it, I convince myself it’s terrible and nobody will ever read it. But I still love the characters, and writing the sequel is the best of all worlds: I get to spend more time with those characters, in a book I haven’t edited to death, with that delightful combo of familiarity and shiny newness.

This book is under contract, but it’s not due until May, which means I don’t need NaNo to help me meet deadlines. True, I really want to have a solid draft on paper before the reviews for book 1 start coming in, because I suspect they’re going to feed my inner critic and make it hard for me to focus on writing, but there’s no editor-imposed urgency. Nor do I need NaNo because I would otherwise struggle to get the words on the page, tormented by an inner editor nitpicking every line.

No, what I need from NaNo is the excuse. The justification. The reframing of writing when I should be working on my thesis from “blatant procrastination” to “actually an achievement”.

And, yeah, the sense of community helps. When others celebrate my wordcount, it reminds me that although it’s unremarkable to me, that doesn’t mean it isn’t an achievement. It’s easy to lose track of that, I think. Sure, so finishing a draft is only step one on a very, very long road to publication. But a lot of people never get that far, and when you’re sitting safely a fair way along the journey, it’s easy to forget how far you’ve come. Maybe what I’m able to do is an achievement. Maybe it is impressive. Maybe, for once, I should stop being so hard on myself.

And though the actual speed of writing isn’t any different for me than it would be in any month — my fingers and brain move at the same speed whether it’s May or November — it’s true that I’m more motivated to write when I know my friends are doing the same, and when there’s a reason to post snippets in the group chat. Especially, I think, when it would be so easy to justify skipping days, because I have so much going on in my life. Of course I could take days off. Days off are healthy. In fact, after rewriting 25k of my thesis in three days during the week before NaNo, I probably should take days off, because my hands are already grumpy and flare-ups are the worst.

But I don’t want to take time off, because I’ve missed writing, and NaNo is finally giving me an excuse to do it.

Even though I’m meant to be doing other things.

Even though I don’t “need” it.

50k was never really the point. NaNoWriMo is about forming habits and daring to try and refusing to let perfectionism get in the way of finishing. NaNoWriMo is about cheering on your friends and being cheered on in turn and finding that tiny window of time each day when you can write (and defending it with your life). NaNoWriMo is about getting the words in your head onto the paper, whether there are 10,000 of them or 50,000 or 200,000.

I don’t think, in the end, it matters if you “win” or not. And I know “it’s all about having fun” is a trite statement, but that is the point, in the end. Why do it, if you’re miserable? Nobody’s making you. For me, NaNoWriMo is about letting myself forget my obligations and to-do list for a couple of hours each day, and writing something, because I want to.

It’s a distraction. It’s an excuse. It’s what I need right now, burning off the nervous energy in my head that haunts my attempts to finish up my thesis or prepare to move. It stops me refreshing my inbox to see if there’s news about the book I’ve got on sub, and it drastically reduces the amount of time I’m spending on Twitter. And it helps me get this book on paper so that I can figure out how to fix it and then, maybe, work on something else.

So that’s why I’m doing this again, for the thirteenth time, with twenty-one first drafts under my belt (very few of which weren’t NaNo or Camp NaNo projects originally). Not because it’s a long hard slog to the finish line, but because it isn’t. I don’t need the challenge, but it turns out, I do need the excuse.

NaNoWriMo stats, at the time of writing:

Wordcount: 50,661
Body count: 7. Isabel would like you to know she only killed 6 of them.
Outline fidelity: about 80%-90%, I’d say, which is honestly fairly miraculous for a pantser like me.
Number of days left until I move countries: 13.
Reasons I could have skipped this year: dozens.
Reasons I didn’t: just one that matters — I didn’t want to.


If you enjoyed this post, please consider buying me a coffee.

The Butterfly Assassin will be released on 26th May, 2022. You can add it on Goodreads or pre-order it today.

All Murder, No Sex: Why “Upper YA” ≠ “Sexy YA”

It’s still Ace Week, until Sunday, so following on from my last post about asexual representation in The Butterfly Assassin, I figured I would talk some more about sex and YA. More specifically, the clear and important difference between “upper YA” and “sexy YA”: terms with considerable overlap that are nevertheless not synonyms, and shouldn’t be considered as such.

There’s an uncomfortable habit that some people have of referring to books without sex as “clean”. This is particularly common in YA and romance — romance, because it’s a genre where distinguishing which books contain explicit sex is particularly relevant, and YA, because it’s a category where gatekeepers worry about what exactly they’re giving young people to read.

Of course, by categorising some books as “clean”, one automatically categorises others as “dirty”, whether or not that’s the intention, and implying that all explicit sex in books is somehow dangerous or inappropriate is a Whole Thing. It’s also something that’s disproportionately weaponised against marginalised creators. For decades, explicit queer content in books was considered illegally pornographic, and even now, LGBTQ+ books on Amazon get classified as “erotica” and hidden from lists and adverts when they don’t even vaguely fall into that category.

My experiences as a queer YA reader will be forever shaped by the fact that the first book with queer characters that I ever encountered — when I was twelve — had a label on the back saying “Advisory: Adult Content”. A label that wasn’t applied to the sequel, which contained substantial amounts of drug use. Only to the book with the gay characters. And I’ll always be shaped by the fact that when I was eighteen, I owned a grand total of three books containing queer characters. I can only recall two of the books, but in both of those they’re cis male secondary characters.

In other words, I never saw myself in books growing up. If I stumbled on queer characters in library books it felt like a strange kind of secret I was sharing with the author. Section 28 was repealed while I was still in primary school, but my county kept a version of it until I was halfway through secondary school, and in 2014, when I finished school, 29% of teachers still didn’t know whether or not they were allowed to teach about LGBT issues in schools.

This was a world of silence. Of not talking about it. Of “think of the children”. Of being treated like someone who was only allowed to exist after the watershed.

As an adult, it’s strange to think how recent this was, though sometimes, being trans, it can feel like little progress has been made. I remember when I first started getting queer books to review, I felt like I had to give all of them extra stars just because they bothered to include queer characters, which I’d seen so rarely. Now, there are enough of them that I don’t have to read any books featuring only straight people, if I choose not to. Now, there are enough that I’m allowed to dislike some of them.

I try not to take that for granted. I try to keep things in perspective. I remind myself that twenty years ago, most of the YA books I read now would have been illegal to display in school libraries.

It isn’t a world we should go back to.


There are constant conversations these days about sex in YA books, and the nature of upper YA, and where the line is between YA and Adult and whether it’s become too blurred, and whether YA is really written for teenagers anymore. Discourse is cyclical; the same discussions happen every few months, nothing changes, and everybody sinks into an ever-deepening pit of despair.

My take? The vast majority of YA books are written for teens. A few aren’t, but end up marketed that way because of the author’s prior readership or because publishers think they’ll do better there. Some of those that fall into this latter category happen to be really popular with older/adult YA readers, who have the purchasing power that makes publishers care about them, and therefore those books dominate the conversation because that’s what happens when money gets involved. Sometimes, I think both readers and authors would be happier if they made the jump to certain adult genres instead of squashing their books into the YA category by default. Other times, I think people are patronising teenagers and thinking them incapable of making up their own minds about anything. A lot of the time I’m feeling both of these things simultaneously.

One thing I find reductive about the conversation is how it always comes down to sex.

I think I have strong feelings about this for two reasons. One, I’m somebody who writes upper YA and adult fiction and often struggles to determine on which side of the line a book should fall. Two, I was a kid who read ‘above’ my age category from a fairly young age but who hated romance in books.

I was a teenager during the paranormal romance boom. Shaped by the Twilight era so much that I wrote one of my GCSE coursework essays about the impact Twilight had had on teen fiction as a whole. You know what I complained about in that essay? That it flooded the market with copycats and love triangles so that those of who didn’t like them had to go hang out in the adult section to find literally anything else.

I was probably being hyperbolic. I’m sure there were plenty of other YA books in the late 00s and early 10s that weren’t fixated on heterosexual white girls and their awkward supernatural love triangles. I probably read a lot of them, and loved a lot of them. But it felt, at times, like every book I read was trying to give me the same story, and it was a story that had romance at the centre, where kissing was a huge, life-changing big deal that everybody was desperate to experience.

And I… wasn’t interested.

Not only was I not interested, but throughout most of my teens I found sex not only uninteresting but actively horrifying and repellent to think about. I looked away during sex scenes in films. I skimmed them in books. I’d retreated to the adult SFF section to get away from ubiquitous YA love triangles, but I’d found the sexual violence of A Song of Ice and Fire (also gaining popularity at the time) to be a pretty poor alternative.

I wanted difficult books. Angsty books. Books with tough choices and sad endings where not everything turned out all right. I didn’t want the kind of kidlit where everybody’s safely home for tea at the end; I wanted books that would make me cry. But the older I got and the further along the YA category I got, the more the world only seemed to want to give me books about sex.


My debut, The Butterfly Assassin, is an upper YA book. It’s a book where I find myself mentally justifying its classification as YA because I don’t feel secure in it. It’s a book where my editor has periodically said, “I’m not sure if we should put that in a YA book,” or, “Should we maybe avoid this detail?” (And most of the time I’ve justified keeping whatever the detail was on the basis that I have 100% seen worse in popular MG and YA books.) It is a book I will not be letting my mum read.

It is also a sexless book. A book with no romance. A book where romance doesn’t even enter into the protagonist’s mind, and she shows absolutely no interest in sex.

It is not a ‘clean’ book.

It’s not a clean book because the protagonist kills somebody in the first chapter. (This isn’t a spoiler. It’s in the blurb.) It’s not a clean book because there’s more than enough swearing to ensure my parents will be vaguely disappointed in me no matter how well it sells. (Sorry.) It’s not a clean book because there’s violence and trauma and the messiness of trying to take control of your life when literally everybody around you thinks they know better than you how you should be living it.

But hey, there’s no sex.

That was a conscious choice, for the record. When I planned this book, way back in 2014, that was one of the first things I knew about it: that it was going to be all murder, no sex. I was eighteen and sick of sexy assassins, sick of ’emotionless’ characters being humanised by their libido, sick of romantic or sexual attraction being positioned as a redeeming feature.

I was sick of being told, implicitly, with every book that I read, that my lack of interest either made me a sociopath or a child.

It was a pattern I saw again and again. A remorseless, dark character is portrayed as emotionless and their capacity for redemption is in doubt, right up until the moment they fall in love and suddenly reveal themselves to have a heart. It didn’t seem like these protagonists were allowed to be softened by friendship. Nor did it seem that dystopian protagonists were ever allowed to motivated to save the world by platonic bonds of affection.

Because if they were, that wouldn’t be YA. That would be MG.

I wanted upper YA. I wanted books that were dark and morally complicated and that asked hard questions and that my parents would probably disapprove of. I wanted books that didn’t pull their punches (but authors seemed intent on not letting their characters actually die, which infuriated me). But it felt like I was only allowed those books with a solid helping of romance. And the ‘older’ the books got, the sexier they got.


It’s not that sex doesn’t belong in books. During the course of the pandemic, I’ve developed a taste for queer historical romance novels and I’ve read some of them three times or more. Some of them have explicit sex, and if it’s well-written, that can be a plus. Have I read a few that squicked me out? Yeah, because bad sex scenes are The Worst. But it’s not the sex that’s the problem. It’s an important reminder that I want from books as a 25-year-old is very different from what I wanted from books as a 16-year-old — something I try to bear in mind when I write YA. Some people’s tastes don’t change so dramatically, going from being utterly repulsed by sex to having a collection of favourite romance novels, but it’s still important to remember that teens and adults often want pretty different things from books.

But that doesn’t mean that sex doesn’t belong in YA, either. Even if it wasn’t to my taste, a lot of teenagers are interested in sex. A lot of teenagers are having it, too, though possibly not as many as the media would have you believe. (Most of my friendship group wasn’t. Side effect of being late-blooming queers: nobody was getting laid.) If they don’t find it in the books aimed at their age group, they’ll look for it elsewhere. In fanfic. In romance novels. In whatever they take off their parents’ shelves.

(I have friends who read wildly inappropriate books from a very young age by virtue of raiding their parents’ bookshelves. The fact that I wasn’t one of them was probably less to do with my lack of interest and more to do with the fact that my parents’ shelves contained things like Kafka in the original German, and three copies of CS Lewis’ Mere Christianity. The “Advisory: Adult Content” YA novel I read at twelve was sneaked from my sister’s shelf instead.)

Sex has been in YA books for as long as YA has existed as a category. It’s not a new trend, nor is it at odds with themes and ideas that many teenagers are looking for. And it’s not responsible for the ways that the category is pushing older and older and marketing more to adults than to teenagers. That, as far as I can tell, is about money. It’s about who buys hardbacks and subscription boxes and collects special editions versus who is waiting six months for the library to get a copy of the book. Which one do the publishers care more about? And which one of those is the teen?

But listening to the conversations about upper YA, you’d think that sex was the only thing that defined that category, just like manufactured love triangles and creepy, controlling love interests seemed to define the bestsellers in the genre when I was a teenager. And it’s not. There are — and should be — other factors at work. There are ‘sexless’ books that skew older than any of the contemporaries exploring a character’s first time; books that centre friendship aren’t automatically closer to MG than to adult.

I realise that for a lot of people, romantic and sexual firsts are a major part of the process of growing up. But often — and maybe I’d even say increasingly — that doesn’t necessarily happen in one’s teens. A lot of my friends didn’t have their first kiss until their 20s. The YA books we grew up with taught us that that was weird and unusual. It’s not. Especially not for queer people of our generation, who didn’t necessarily have the freedom to explore our sexualities as teenagers.

By reducing the YA category to the types of relationships depicted, we do it a disservice, and we do teenagers a disservice. By making conversations about appropriate age ranges focus on how much sex there is or isn’t in a book, we exclude people from the discussion. There are teens who are interested in sex, yes. And I recognise that “teens want this” is an important weapon against gatekeepers who would treat seventeen-year-olds like seven-year-olds if not for the constant pushback of authors and creators.

But. But. Conversations about sex in YA and conversations about there not being enough books for fourteen-year-olds are not the same conversation. There are fourteen-year-olds who want romance-focused books with a certain amount of steaminess. And there are eighteen-year-olds who want dark, messed-up books with no sex whatsoever.

And these books exist. There’s upper YA that pushes the boundaries of what it means for a book to be YA and they don’t do it by including graphic sex scenes. But when we make the conversation “who is YA really for” to be about how much sex is in a book, we miss the point, because those are two separate things.


I know that people say that authors need to be writing for real teens, who are reading now. Not for their own past self, who lived in a different world.

But they also say you should write the books you want to read, if you can’t find them on the shelf.

When I was seventeen, I wanted a book that was all murder, no sex. I wanted a book that was aimed at my age group, that didn’t pull punches or patronise me, and I didn’t want the cost of maturity to be romance. Because even then I was sick of an amatonormative world that treated friendship as something childish and romance as the gateway to adulthood.

And I’m willing to bet there are still some teens out there who want that too.

The Butterfly Assassin is upper YA. It contains no sex. That doesn’t make it any less upper YA and it certainly doesn’t make it any less likely to get complaints from parents and school librarians — though I’m convinced it’ll be the swearing that bothers them more than the corpses.

I started out by talking about the silence of the world I grew up in, one that only gave me heterosexual options and where anything else was shocking and rare and transgressive, because it’s been 13 years and I’m still angry that a book with a gay character got stamped with ADVISORY: ADULT CONTENT but a book with repeated drug use didn’t. Because being queer was considered more mature, more ‘inappropriate’. Because simply by virtue of containing a character who was explicitly gay, the book’s target audience was considered older.

This is why I’m wary of conversations that position sex as the defining feature of upper YA. This is why I’m wary when conversations about YA not being written for teens start and end with the amount of sex that’s in a book. It is always weaponised against marginalised groups first.

But it’s also why it bothers me that books without sex are automatically considered suitable for younger readers than those that contain it. For years, graphic violence was considered more suitable for kids that consensual queerness. Why are we more okay with letting a thirteen-year-old read about murder than letting them read about sex?

There are so many levels to this problem, and it helps nobody if we treat sex as the definitive factor in a book’s target audience. It is only one factor, one that’s tied up in cultural ideas about maturity and what it means to grow up, and one that’s dominated the conversation for way too long.

YA is about so much more than romantic and sexual relationships. But it’s easy to forget that, when that seems to be all anyone ever talks about. Maybe it’s time we moved on.


If you enjoyed this post, please consider buying me a coffee or pre-ordering The Butterfly Assassin.

Schrodinger’s Asexual Representation

Today is the first day of Ace Week — formerly known as Asexual Awareness Week — and this year’s theme is “Beyond Awareness”. What exactly this means, I’m not entirely sure, but I would imagine it’s about going beyond “asexual people exist” and into having more interesting conversations about it. I thought, then, that I would talk a little about stories, representation, and ace characters, through the specific lens of The Butterfly Assassin and its protagonist, Isabel Ryans.

It may seem strange to talk at length about a book that doesn’t release for another seven months, but now seemed like a good time: because it’s Ace Week, because I’m about to start working on the sequel again, and because I wanted to respond to some of the reactions to book’s announcement.

When I announced The Butterfly Assassin, I mentioned that Isabel is asexual, and emphasised that the book had no romance: the most important relationship is an intense, ride-or-die friendship. All of this is true, but when I saw how people responded to the news that the protagonist was asexual, I began to wish I hadn’t mentioned it. Not because they were hostile: on the contrary, people were excited by this news, and several people told me they couldn’t wait for more ace rep. Somebody else, knowing the kind of thing I generally write, responded to my Instagram Story with, “So there’s all the queer rep, yes?!”

And that struck me with terror.

Why? Because Isabel’s asexuality is never explicitly labelled on the page. I felt immediately certain that those same people would read the book and then take to social media to call me out for claiming representation that isn’t there, or say it’s a cop-out, or subtweet about how it’s Problematic to say a book has ace rep if the only representation it has is the absence of romantic/sexual relationships, or, or, or…

I know that the Internet is impossible to please, and that even the most careful, thoughtful representation will always make somebody on Twitter angry. Writing as though social media is looking over your shoulder is an absolute mind-killer, because you will never be unproblematic enough to be “safe”. So I know that I shouldn’t worry too much about what hypothetical future readers will say if they decide they don’t like me. But I do worry, because I think there are a lot of valid concerns in criticisms like this — some of which I wanted to assuage today.

An open notebook reading "it feels a little like power, but it's not a game Isabel's ever been interested in playing" lies on top of a large, creased asexual pride flag. Beside it are two brown notebooks, on which the words "The Moth Trilogy" can just about be made out. One has a rainbow-coloured butterfly sticker on it. Above those are two kitchen knives.
This quote is possibly the closest Isabel comes to labelling her sexuality in this book.

In fairness to myself, what I actually said on Twitter was that the book had an “asexual protagonist (admittedly, she hasn’t figured that out yet)”, and in my blog post about the announcement, I mentioned that Isabel lacks the vocabulary to describe herself in those terms. But I suspect that by publicly labelling my protagonist in this way, I created an expectation that the word would be used, and therefore, inevitably, I’m going to disappoint some people.

Here’s the thing. Isabel is asexual. The question of whether she’s aromantic is a little more complicated; I see her as being somewhat like myself, in terms of very occasionally experiencing romantic attraction under particular circumstances. Some people might call this grey-aro, or demiromantic; I don’t use these terms for myself, preferring to yeet my sexuality under the far less complicated and gender-expansive term “queer”, so that’s partly why I’d hesitate to put any specific label on my character. Suffice to say that Isabel’s somewhere in the approximate vicinity of “ace/aro”.

(As this discussion makes clear, asexuality and aromanticism aren’t synonymous. For me, though, they’ve always blurred into each other, and I see Isabel’s experience as similar, so throughout this post, I’m using “asexual” as a loose catch-all term to encompass her general lack of interest in romantic and/or sexual relationships.)

In The Butterfly Assassin, there are a number of reasons why she doesn’t label herself in this way, and it has nothing to do with me trying to hedge my bets or because I don’t understand the value of seeing a term like that on the page. Believe me, I do. The first time I saw an asexual character in a book — Quicksilver, by RJ Anderson — I cried, because it was the first time I’d seen the word used anywhere other than Tumblr, and it made me feel seen.

So I understand the value of words and labels, even though on a personal level, I’ve moved away from trying to pin myself down with a specific term. I understand that people can be disappointed when a book doesn’t have the obvious, explicitly labelled representation that they were hoping for. I thought very hard about this, and the absence of the term in this book wasn’t a choice I made lightly.

One factor is that the book is set in a fictional closed city, which has been largely cut off from the outside world for the past century. While they have access to a small amount of external media, and smugglers bring in more, they aren’t engaging with the exact same cultural understandings or material that we, in our world, engage with. Queer communities within the city have developed their own terminology and ways of labelling themselves, which aren’t necessarily the same as our own — particularly with regard to identities that have only begun to be labelled more recently.

A challenge of the worldbuilding in this book, however, is that we only see what Isabel sees — and Isabel isn’t in those communities, nor is she one of the technologically-minded types breaking through the city firewalls to access the unfiltered internet. She’s a teenager with no friends, and absolutely no support network; she’s been deliberately prevented from forming those kinds of connections by the people who raised her. This means she largely isn’t aware that those communities even exist, let alone how they’re describing themselves.

The city itself isn’t as heteronormative or homophobic as many parts of our own world, so queer relationships often pass unremarked. In fiction, this is often called a “queernorm” world — a world where queerness doesn’t have to be explained or necessarily labelled, because there’s no assumption of straightness. It’s another reason why the city’s inhabitants don’t always use the same labels and terminology that those in the outside world do; they have different priorities, and different aspects of their identity which seem important on an everyday basis.

Priorities are big part of why this book doesn’t explore Isabel’s sexuality at any length: to put it quite simply, she has bigger problems. She’s in hiding, using a fake name, making poor life decisions, and — for a solid chunk of the book — facing what seems like certain imminent death. All her energy is going on staying alive, rather than worrying about romance and whether or not she’s interested in it. (Although the fact that it’s such a low priority for her at seventeen may be another clue that she’s ace… as a teen, I never could understand why people in movies would start making out during life-or-death situations.)

Finally, there’s the fact that Isabel just… hasn’t figured that stuff out yet. It’s the first time in her life she’s even had a friend her own age; opportunities for figuring out where her romantic/sexual interests lie have been few and far between. I mean, I had a normal upbringing, went to school, and had access to all the usual pop culture, and I still didn’t figure out I wasn’t straight until a similar age; it took even longer before I started finding specific words that fitted. I’ve never related to the “born this way” or “always knew” narratives that are so dominant, and Isabel, who’s been through a lot of trauma and hasn’t had the opportunity to explore her feelings, has even more reason to be a late bloomer in terms of figuring things out.

And I think that’s okay. More than okay, I think that’s important. For every person who “always knew” they were gay or bi or trans, there’s someone who hit their early 20s and went, “Wait, this isn’t right,” or started transitioning at 40 or got all the way into retirement before they found a word that made them feel understood. We need stories about the late bloomers, the people who had to untangle their sexuality from trauma, the people who repressed their feelings and the people who just never had them, the people who didn’t think it mattered until they met a particular person, and everyone else who didn’t understand themselves until much later in life.

Isabel doesn’t understand herself. I know her better than she does. I know her better because The Butterfly Assassin isn’t a standalone, so I’ve seen the progress she’ll make as she begins to process what she’s been through and figure out where she stands in the world. I know that she’ll eventually feel safe enough to start figuring that stuff out, and talking about it to people she trusts. (I know that eventually there will be people she trusts.)

But right now, in book one? There are passing references to her lack of interest, but they’re just that: passing references. Not in-depth conversations or explicit labels. The primary way her asexuality manifests in this book is that there are two relationships which could have been romantic/sexual, and aren’t. One is the “shared trauma” type of relationship — two survivors of the same crappy situation — and the other is the “first kindness type” — i.e. the same person who has ever been nice to Isabel. I’ve seen novels develop both of those types of pairings into romantic ones, and I decided I had no interest in doing so.

So I didn’t.

And that’s it: that’s the asexual murder book. It’s the fact that it never even occurs to Isabel to think about people in those terms. She thinks she’s too focused on survival, the same way I thought I was just really great at the whole “no sex before marriage” thing my evangelical upbringing encouraged. Eventually she, like me, will figure out that there’s more to it than that — but right now, it’s the absence of those thoughts that provides the key to understanding her sexuality.

But that absence means something. That absence is what I was looking for as a teenager. More than a label, more than a word, what I needed was to see a life, a path, a way through adulthood that didn’t assume I would eventually settle down into a relationship. I wanted to know that that was allowed. I wanted reassurance that friendship wasn’t something we grow out of. I wanted stories that didn’t revolve around a type of relationship I wasn’t interested in.

Beyond awareness, to me, means going past “asexual people exist”, going past coming out stories (though there is always space for these, and we always need them), and into the realm of possibilities for the future. It means telling stories that give us space to exist, without pressure to explain our lack of interest. It’s amatonormativity — the positioning of normative romantic/sexual relationships as central and essential to people’s lives, without which we’re incomplete or broken or failures — that puts pressure on us to label ourselves in the first place; I want stories without that.

I wanted to write a book that says: friendship can be every bit as intense and devastating as romance. I wanted to write a book where romance never crosses the protagonist’s mind. And I wanted to write a book where I didn’t necessarily have to explain that with concrete terminology. After all, friendship can be important to everyone, regardless of their sexuality, and even if people want a romantic relationship at some point, that doesn’t mean they’re looking for one at all times. There’s space in everyone’s lives for a narrative outside of romance, one that focuses on all the other types of interpersonal relationships we navigate daily.

(I recently realised that, quite unintentionally, I’d created a story where Isabel’s singleness is entirely unremarkable. Almost all of the secondary characters in this book are single, barring Isabel’s parents; one character references a past relationship, but otherwise, there are basically no couples. Not because they’re all ace — far from it! But because it was so irrelevant to the story I was telling, it simply never came up. More than a queernorm world, perhaps what The Butterfly Assassin offers is a single-norm world…)

That doesn’t mean that Isabel’s asexuality isn’t canon, or that it’s a “word of God” situation, only confirmed outside the book itself. As I said above, The Butterfly Assassin isn’t a standalone, and Isabel won’t always be a terrified, traumatised teenager with a very limited sense of self. In the sequel, we’ll get the chance to explore these aspects of her character more, partly through conversation with another character, who is also ace. (And no, the term still isn’t used, for the worldbuilding reasons outlined above, but their orientations are unambiguously discussed.)

This second ace character is very important to me, because Isabel arguably falls into the “emotionless asexual” (or at least, “emotionally repressed to the point of not actually realising she has feelings”) trope. I didn’t want to imply that her asexuality was related to that aspect of her personality, or that it’s solely a result of what she’s been through. It’s not. The other ace character is a much more functional person in general, and one of the most loving and emotionally open characters in the whole thing; he just happens to also be ace/aro. It was important to me that this was the case. There’s also an aro character who isn’t asexual, and more queer rep in general.

And in book three, if we get book three (the deal so far was for two books), Isabel has the opportunity to encounter more queer people who actually do use labels, and to start figuring out how her identity fits into that web. That book’s at a very early stage right now, so I can’t tell you whether she settles on a specific term. But I promise you it’s something I’ve thought about, and I can see her having a far more concrete understanding of her own identity by the time her story eventually comes to a close.

So no, my asexual murder book doesn’t use the word “asexual”. But it’s still the book that I wanted as an asexual teenager: a book that centred friendship, that didn’t shove two characters into a relationship just because they interacted a few times, and finally, a book that didn’t interrupt life-or-death moments with kissing.

And while Isabel’s sexuality may be ambiguous in book one, I hope that as the trilogy progress, it becomes more and more apparent that she’s ace, even if she never reaches the point of using that specific word. Not because the words aren’t important. But because sometimes people haven’t found their label yet, and that doesn’t mean they’re any less asexual.

If that’s not the ace rep you were hoping for, then I’m sorry. And I hope that one day I’ll write a book with the kind of setting where the characters can use these labels unambiguously, because like I said, I know how important it is to see yourself in a book, when it feels like most of the world doesn’t think you exist. But I still wrote this story for people like us, and I hope you’ll give it a chance anyway.

🖤🤍💜

The Butterfly Assassin will be published on 26th May 2022. You can add it on Goodreads or pre-order it now.

Retelling The Details

I like writing retellings. I joke that it’s because the plot is already done for me: I’m very much not an outliner, because I’m unable to see my way to the end until I’ve got there, but a retelling offers me a ready-made framework and an end already in sight. That is, if I actually stick to the original plot. Some of my ‘retellings’ over the past few years have been looser, ‘inspired by’ their source material more than directly retelling it: Bard, for example, or the chaotic gay orchestra novel that I have yet to finish (or title).

That isn’t to say I only write retellings (The Butterfly Assassin isn’t one, by any stretch of the imagination), but they’ve certainly dominated my output over the past few years, with The Wolf and His King (a retelling of ‘Bisclavret’) being my main focus recently. In that one, I kept most of the original story intact, extrapolating backstory and secondary characters but leaving the plot framework in place. I can tell you something, it made writing a synopsis a lot easier.

There are many different ways of approaching retellings, and the term gets used to describe everything from a direct reworking to something that only borrows a few names or plot points or vibes. All of these are totally valid approaches (although going into a book expecting it to be one kind and getting the other can be a major disappointment), and have their own challenges. I’ve had fun with both, but recently I’ve been thinking about the challenges specific to retellings that stick close to their originals.

There’s a lot to consider. How do you find the balance between something that feels accurate and authentic, and something that works well as a modern novel? The further removed your source material is from that format, the more challenges at play — a novel’s story structure, pacing, and sensibilities can be very different from a medieval prose tale, an ancient epic poem, or a Greek tragedy. How do you write characters that reflect the values and ideals of the society who created them, while also being sympathetic and interesting to modern readers with modern expectations of what a protagonist will be like?

And the closer you stick to the original story, the more the divergences stand out. Why include X, and omit Y? Will your readers notice? Will they know the story as well as you do, and wonder why you chose to privilege one version over another? How do you decide which details matter, and which can be abandoned for the sake of making good art?

To some people, the answer to this is simple: do what you want, and anyone who doesn’t like it can deal with it, because that’s their problem, not yours. And it’s true. Your retelling is your retelling. If a detail is incompatible with the story you’re trying to tell, maybe it’s best simply to let go of it, and sometimes, changing the details is crucial to the retelling. This is a story where A chooses B, not C; this is a story where D has the power, not E; this is a story where F survives. Art over accuracy.

But there’s a flip side to that: if the details don’t fit the story, is the story right? Is this the material you should retell to weave this particularly story? Would another character, another fairytale, another text provide a better basis? Fundamental changes to the mood and vibe of the story should be done with intent and thought: details should be changed because changing them does something, makes the story what it is, not because they fell by the wayside along the way. Intent and thought over carelessness.

And figuring out which details are important to shaping the story and which are merely incidental can be harder than it sounds.

Recently, I’ve been rereading parts of To Run With The Hound. For those unfamiliar with this novel of mine, it’s a retelling of Táin Bó Cúailnge, focusing on the bond between Cú Chulainn and Fer Diad from their training together through to their encounter on the battlefield. I wrote the first draft in late 2018, and have been waiting to have the time and brainpower to edit it ever since.

There are many things I intend to change when I redraft the book; I’ve been keeping note of them for years. Some of these changes are about the writing — ways to try and fix the pacing, the prose, the characterisation. Some of them are more academic: Add more Naoise to part I, says one of my notes, and remember that the sons of Uisliu are known for their singing voices. The more I learn about the Ulster Cycle, the more attention I pay to the secondary characters, the ones who were just names to me when I wrote the first draft.

What really struck me, rereading, was that I disagree with my past self’s interpretations of the source material.

This is, perhaps, a risk you take when adapting a text you’re also working with on an academic level. My relationship to the Táin will never be a purely narrative relationship: it’s one fundamentally informed by my academic work. Everything from how I arrange the chronology of the different remscéla (fore-tales) to which recension I choose to follow when details diverge is an interpretation that relies on my academic understanding of the text. The relationships I portray between characters are coloured by the other texts they appear in, and how those stories join up.

It’s a funny thing. At the time that I drafted TRWTH, I knew the Táin incredibly well. Only a few months out of undergrad, I’d been working closely with the text in order to write my dissertation. I’d read it dozens of times in close succession, and knew the plot back to front.

I know it better now, and so I would write this book differently.

See, in most cases it’s not that 2018!me had a completely unrecognisable reading of the major characters. My reading of Cú Chulainn — and of Fer Diad — was informed by my dissertation, a piece of work I’ve continued to develop, turning part of it into an article. I have a deeper understanding now than I did then, but it’s built on the same foundations.

There are characters I would write very differently, with Láeg being the most prominent of those. I knew almost nothing about him when I began writing TRWTH, and it shows; he has very little in the way of a distinct personality. It was writing that book that made me realise he was interesting in the first place, and so my narrative approaches informed my academic research, and sent me down a rabbithole that led to my MA thesis focusing on Láeg.

Mostly, though, it’s the details. It’s the things I didn’t think were important. It’s the scenes I skimmed over, versus the ones I allowed the story to dwell on; it’s the little changes, where a piece of advice is spoken by one character instead of another, or somebody else takes a watchman role and describes a battle. It’s everything that the casual reader, the one who hasn’t spent the last four years immersed in the Ulster Cycle, probably won’t even notice.

Nobody reviewing a retelling of this sort would be likely to say, “Well, I liked it, except that the author made Lugaid the observer in this instance of the watchman motif, and that just doesn’t fit, because he isn’t otherwise fulfilling an interpretative or mediating function.” Nobody would say, “Yeah, the author clearly knows the text really well, but they seemed to misinterpret the significance of this character’s skill at board games.” Because nobody cares.

But I care.

With a retelling like this, one where a significant portion of the book hews very closely to its source material (Part I of the book is largely my own invention, informed by Tochmarc Emire and Oileamhain Con Culainn, but Part II and Part III follow the Táin almost beat for beat), it’s the details that matter, the details that make it my retelling and not somebody else’s. Hell, it’s the details that make it a retelling and not a translation. And currently it’s a retelling that reflects my 2018 self’s interpretation, but it doesn’t reflect my interpretations as of 2021.

Now, as well as being a better academic than I was in 2018, I’m also a better writer, and I know that there’s a point at which faithfulness becomes limiting. The story needs to breathe and change, because no matter how much I want to evoke the moods and images of the medieval text, my audience is not a medieval audience, and wants different things from a story. This inevitably means letting go of some details, diminishing some moments in order to give more weight to others, reshaping scenes to fit the greater whole. But a crucial part of doing that is deciding which details have to be kept — and my past self and I disagree on that.

Every time I work on the Táin, I learn something new about it. In writing my undergraduate dissertation, I learned how to approach the different recensions, and how each paints a slightly different image of gender and sexuality within the text; I learned how the story interacted with legal concepts of marriage and adulthood and fosterage. In writing TRWTH, I developed an understanding of the story as narrative, and the complex chronology of the remscéla that defied any attempt to put them in order; I began to notice which details the Táin never gives us, and which characters were worth examining more closely.

In the independent research I did between undergrad and my MA, I developed on all of those understandings, and over the course of my MA I’ve learned a great deal more, albeit mostly focused on Láeg: about the interactions between the Táin and other texts, particularly late (early modern) Ulster Cycle tales, and about the fact that there’s never only one explanation for anything. And the details that my past self thought didn’t matter — who wins at fidchell between Cú Chulainn and Láeg; who tells Cú Chulainn about the warriors approaching his camp — now matter to me, because many of them play a pivotal part in my academic interpretations of Láeg.

This could go on forever. Perhaps I’ll find another character to examine at length, or a new obscure late tale to fixate on that will reshape my understanding of everything that went before it, or some other angle of approach that will bring me back to the Táin with fresh eyes to seek out new readings. No doubt if this book is ever published, there’ll come a point, a few years down the line, when I cease to agree with my interpretations and wish I’d done this or that differently.

What I have to decide — what anyone writing a retelling like this has to decide — is which of those details are important not to the source material, but to the story I’m telling. I need to acknowledge that by omitting something on which I hung an academic argument, I’m not deciding that that detail or that argument isn’t important, only that it doesn’t contribute to the book I’m trying to write at this time. And this book can’t be every story at once, can’t be every interpretation at once, can’t be every reading at once. I have to choose.

I can write a Cú Chulainn who was nursed by Láeg’s mother and raised alongside his charioteer, or I can write a Cú Chulainn who was raised by his parents until he went to Emain Macha when he was five, or I can write a Cú Chulainn whose closest bond of fosterage is to Conall because his mother was Cú Chulainn’s nurse, but I can’t write all of them. I can have a Láeg with Connacht connections, a Láeg with Otherworld connections, or a Láeg who is both human and Ulaid, but I can’t have all of those Láegs at once. I can give Fer Diad’s charioteer a name of my own invention to compensate for his namelessness in the early manuscripts, or I can make him Idh mac Riangabra, Láeg’s brother, as he is in the fifteenth-century Stowe manuscript, but I can’t do both.

(It’s a shame, almost, that there’s little room in ‘original’ fiction to write four different, unrelated books about the same character, which contradict and conflict with each other. Fanfic writers have the right of it, where the same writer may offer multiple readings of a character, and nobody expects them to bring the same version to the table every time. I could write a retelling of Oidheadh Con Culainn and focus on entirely different character details than the ones that are important in Táin Bó Cúailnge, but I would struggle to sell both without the world assuming one was a sequel to the other and being perplexed by the perceived inconsistency.)

Academia is about possibilities, readings, offering interpretations. Retellings are about making choices: which interpretation will we go for? Which possibility will we draw to the front? In a good retelling, there are still multiple readings open to the audience, but they may be completely different readings from those the audience would take from the source material, because the characterisation that’s been offered has already been shaped and interpreted. And that, inevitably, means letting go of some of the possibilities that the source material left open.

When I go back to TRWTH, the changes I make will be informed by my greater academic understanding of the medieval texts. Láeg might actually have a personality, for a start, and this time I’ll remember that the sons of Uisliu are singers, able to charm with their voices. And the details I include might shift in response to those changes, placing the focus on different scenes and different moments.

But ultimately, what I have to decide is not which interpretation I think has the strongest manuscript support, but which interpretation makes the best story. Which reading will pave the way to telling the story I want to tell; which possibility I should lean into, to get the strongest emotional response from my readers. It’ll be a novel shaped and directed by my academic research, but it won’t — can’t — shouldn’t be my academic research in novel form.

In a retelling, an author makes choices. We untangle contradictions, close off alternative readings, privilege one interpretation over another, sideline one character for another’s sake, and in doing so, we let go of details. Even the ones we care about.

Accuracy matters, in a retelling like this. But art, it turns out, matters more.


If you enjoyed this post, please consider buying me a coffee, or pre-ordering The Butterfly Assassin.

The Celtic Myths That Shape The Way We Think (Book Review)

When I first saw the title of Mark Williams’ new book, The Celtic Myths That Shape The Way We Think, I have to admit, I was… concerned. If it weren’t for the fact that I know and trust Mark when it comes to medieval literature (he was my second year Old Irish teacher and dissertation supervisor), I might have thought it was a pop psychology book about the inherent mythic structures in our brains, or something similar.

However, I do trust Mark, and I also know first hand that authors don’t always choose their titles, so I was prepared to give him the benefit of the doubt. And the blurb makes it pretty clear that we’re not talking about any mythic brainwaves: if these stories have shaped the way we think, it’s in the sense of shaping how we think about Irish and Welsh myth/culture, not in the sense of defining our daily approach to interpersonal relationships.

(Which is… good. Because I seriously worry about anyone who bases their approach to interpersonal relationships on the Fourth Branch of the Mabinogi, since, uh, yikes.)

Anyway, I thoroughly enjoyed Ireland’s Immortals and still find it a super useful reference book, so I figured I would get my hands on Celtic Myths and see what Mark had to offer on this occasion, hoping for a new go-to recommendation for people who come to me looking for guidance on what to read to learn more about medieval lit. I finished the book this afternoon, sitting on my landlords’ roof (… don’t tell them), and I thought I’d give you my thoughts.

The tl;dr is that this is a great introductory read, but if you’re expecting short blog posts, you’re definitely in the wrong place, so you’re getting way more detail than that. No, I was not paid to write this review; yes, I bought this book with my own money, etc. Though if anyone wants to give me a sponsorship deal for yelling about medieval literature on the internet, my DMs are open…

A photograph of "The Celtic Myths That Shape The Way We Think" by Mark Williams. It's a bright sunny day, and there's a tree turning autumnal red in the background.
Rooftop reads: climbing out of the window with a book is my new favourite hobby on sunny days.

First of all, Mark makes it very clear from the beginning that this is a book aimed at the general reader. Unlike Ireland’s Immortals, which sought to hit that sweet spot between being an academic/scholarly book and also an accessible work that the general public might enjoy, that means Celtic Myths doesn’t contain footnotes (though there is some ‘further reading’ listed at the back). Quotes are given only in English translation, and technical terms are kept to a minimum; generic “Celtic scholars” are referenced rather than bogging the text down with names. This may be frustrating to those who want to follow up on specific points, but probably makes for a much easier and less daunting read for the newcomer.

Each chapter explores a different story, giving a rundown of the original material and then discussing its afterlife over time, and some of the ways the story has been reworked and developed. Throughout the book, there are pictures (including a number of full-colour plates), showing how characters and stories have been conceptualised over time, from fourteenth-century manuscript illustrations to Hellboy II.

Since I’m not a ‘general’ reader, I found that I was already familiar with almost all of the book’s content; though I’m not an expert on the Welsh side of things, I’ve done enough Welsh lit to be passingly familiar with the stories and poems in question, and there was nothing in the book that I’d say was brand new information. Of course, some of that is because Mark himself was my lecturer for a while: in chapter 3 (“Merlin: From Wildman to Wizard”) there were a number of details I was pleased to find I already knew, only to realise a few minutes later that that was because I got them from Mark, in a lecture he gave about medieval ‘wildman’ stories, Merlin, and Suibhne.

This is great, though, because now it means I finally have an alternative to trying to cobble together explanations for people based on my own undergraduate lecture notes, which are frequently chaotic if they exist at all — I can instead pass them this book, knowing that it covers the same material in a far more coherent way. I get a lot of people asking me questions about medieval literature (mainly Irish, but occasionally Welsh) or looking for reading recommendations, and I’m always looking for books that I trust to be both accurate and accessible.

(Obviously, having been taught by Mark means I’m also inclined to agree with a lot of his interpretations, since he played a significant part in shaping my own approach to Celtic literature. I wouldn’t say we agree 100% of the time, and there are a couple of details in the Cú Chulainn chapter where I’m inclined to quibble with the simplified explanations given, even though I know you can’t go into all the complexities in a general-purpose book like this. But it does mean I’m predisposed to find his conclusions believable: we belong to similar schools of thought.)

I had hoped that I’d be able to make use of the book myself as a sort of general-purpose reference book — sometimes I find it useful to have more ‘introductory’ material around when I can’t remember where I found something, because it can save me time hunting. Unfortunately, since this book has no footnotes and few direct quotes or citations, I don’t think I’ll be adding it to that particular shelf in my library, because unless it’s something where I can cite this book directly, I’d have to go off and do my own detective work to get a more detailed reference. However, as a scholarly reader, I am well aware that I am not the target audience, and this isn’t meant as a criticism — just a note for anyone thinking of picking it up who is wondering whether it’ll suit their purposes.

So who is the target audience? Well, I admit I have no sense of how easy it would be to follow if you came to the book with absolutely zero familiarity with any of the content, because it’s now too many years since I can remember what it was like not to know who Cú Chulainn is. But I’d say this is a really great book if your primary exposure to this material is via T.W. Rolleston or Peter Berresford Ellis or anyone else who offers “Celtic Myths & Legends” in one convenient volume, and you’re looking to understand why actually, it’s all a little more complicated than that. It’ll probably also suit people whose exposure to Celtic myth has been through retellings or reworkings in popular culture, and who want to know whether Neil Gaiman’s Mad Sweeney or Guillermo del Toro’s Nuada really bear any resemblance to their medieval namesakes — people who are trying to figure out what the “real myth” is behind the retellings.

Spoiler alert: “real myth” is both an oxymoron and a complicated metric to apply to anything Celtic, as Mark demonstrates. He uses the word “myth” critically throughout the book, explaining some of the difficulties with using this term for Celtic material. Some scholars use it pretty freely, even for late material, while others try not to use it at all, and still more are somewhere in the middle — Mark generally falls into the third category, acknowledging the mythic content in texts while also foregrounding their medieval or early modern literary context and origin. He discusses the dates and contexts of different texts, looking at how some of the most famous “mythological” material is actually the product of named authors centuries after when most people would have imagined it to be composed, and examines the tension between “pagan” ideas and the Christian context in which our medieval literature was produced, and how contemporary events shaped the literature as we have it.

He does this in a non-judgmental way, acknowledging that many people feel a personal and/or spiritual connection to material, even if it isn’t ancient, and exploring the ways that “late” material may still be an authentic part of a country’s literary and cultural heritage. But he’s also frank about aspects of popular “Celtic” culture that are modern inventions, and how they came to be, looking at the lasting impact of Iolo Morgannwg (Edward Williams), James Macpherson (inventor of the poems of Ossian), and others who shaped our modern conception of Celtic literatures.

I think the Introduction of the book in particular is vital reading for those new to dealing with Celtic material on anything other than a surface level. Mark points out how many popular treatments are second- or third-hand information, often a long way distanced from their source material, regurgitated uncritically (particularly online). I see a lot of misinformation online, where people misinterpret what the Irish texts say or even just make stuff up from nowhere, and it spreads powerfully quickly, including ending up in published books and guides. Mark doesn’t dismiss the value of these stories as creative works and folk traditions, but warns readers to be aware of what is and is not a genuine part of the historical tradition.

“The upshot is that the afterlife of a given story tends to dominate, to the extent that it completely obscures the medieval original behind a heavy veil of romantic nationalism and, in a few cases, outright fraud. As a result, popular handbooks often depend on retellings of retellings, in which dubious ‘truths’ about Celtic myth are endlessly recycled: these retellings can lie a long way from the primary sources and take on a facticity of their own. People may want to include elements of such retellings in their own creative endeavours or spiritual life — which is of course absolutely legitimate — but some of these ‘well-known facts’ rest on fragile evidence.”

Mark Williams, The Celtic Myths That Shape The Way We Think, p. 12.

In each chapter, Mark considers some of the uses to which the medieval stories have been put. If I’m honest, I would have liked more detailed analysis of some of these — particularly in the Cú Chulainn chapter (how predictable of me), where he touches on the use of images of Cú Chulainn for political purposes. The image of the dying Cú Chulainn has been utilised for both republican and unionist causes, with the same image being used for the statue in the GPO as in loyalist murals in Belfast. I’ve read a couple of really interesting articles on the topic, but it’s something I’d love to know more about, and Mark only gives it a glancing treatment. But, that’s my background speaking — the very fact that I’ve read some academic articles on the subject is a sign that I’m not the “general reader” here.

Still, I’d have liked to hear more of Mark’s thoughts on some of the pop culture he discusses (The Owl Service as a reworking of the Fourth Branch, The Call as an interpretation of the Túatha Dé, etc). I suppose that would be a different book, one focused on textual reception for those already familiar with the stories, rather than one aimed at introducing newcomers to the tales behind the pop culture they’re familiar with. I do think that’s a book the field needs (though I know there has been some work on this already) and when I initially read the blurb of this one, I hoped maybe this might be it, but on most levels, it’s not.

There is slightly more Welsh material than Irish material in the book: five chapters about specifically Welsh material, four about specifically Irish material, and one about Brutus and origin legends which explores both Geoffrey of Monmouth and Lebor Gabala. Where there are parallels or relevant examples from the literature of the “other” country, Mark draws them in, but he’s keen to stress that Irish and Welsh material are not interchangeable, nor as similar as they’re often painted to be in popular thinking. And for those wondering why a book about “Celtic” myth seems to make little mention of Scottish, Cornish, Manx or Breton material, Mark addresses this in the introduction: the bulk of the early literature that we have is from Wales and Ireland, making them his primary focus, though other Celtic-speaking areas are referenced where relevant.

So that’s the content, but what about the style? Well, while this one doesn’t include either the word “sexcapades” or the word “glitterati”, both of which showed up in Ireland’s Immortals and helped secure it a place on my “favourite academic books list”, it’s still plenty entertaining. The humour is often understated, but undeniable, and it definitely doesn’t feel like slogging through dense academic prose. The pictures also help, as does the fairly large print…

(Listen. I’m in the middle of Thesis Hell. I need all the help I can get when it comes to actually absorbing any information.)

So while as a scholarly reader I found myself wanting more — more detail, more discussion of textual reception, more direct quotes — I would have no reservations about recommending this to any general reader looking for a solid introduction to some of the most famous figures in Irish and Welsh literature: Taliesin, Merlin, Finn, Deirdre, and so on. If you want a way in to Celtic mythology that’s grounded in actual sources and up-to-date on recent scholarship and academic interpretations, this is it, and a much better starting place than most of the “Celtic Myths” books on the market.

If, however, you’re looking for a more detailed scholarly investigation into the mythological side of the Irish tradition, go for Ireland’s Immortals. Almost five years after its publication, it’s still one of my go-to recs — but this one is a great addition to the list, particularly for those who are brand new to the material.


You can buy The Celtic Myths That Shape The Way We Think on Amazon UK (affiliate link; if you buy via this link I earn a small commission) or at your local bookshop or wherever you normally buy books, and likewise with Ireland’s Immortals.

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Streaks and Statistics

These days, I primarily read on my Kindle, a trusty Paperwhite that I bought in 2015 when my old Kindle Keyboard shuffled off this mortal coil. The case is cracked and falling apart, but I’m wary of replacing it, in case the Kindle itself follows suit shortly afterwards; the device itself is hanging in there at the moment, but occasionally has its glitches.

Since I first got a Kindle in 2011, I’ve continued to read a mixture of paper books and ebooks. In recent years, I’ve shifted towards the ebooks for fiction. When I was struggling with my visual stress, before I got my tinted glasses, it was easier to tape an orange plastic overlay to my Kindle screen than continually move one from page to page of a paper book. Now, although I can read paper books more easily again, I’m separated by a few hundred miles from the majority of my collection, with only ten fiction books here with me in my flat.

So it’s practical, it’s convenient, and the number of books I’m able to pick up at discounted prices mean that I can feed my reading habit without having to sacrifice the ability to feed myself — all good reasons to rely on ebooks.

Part of me, however, resents that my naive 2011 self locked myself into an Amazon-dependent Kindle, my extensive library of ebooks difficult to transfer to another system if I decided to steer away from Amazon when this device eventually breaks. I don’t like giving money to Amazon, if I can help it: I disapprove of their treatment of workers, their failure to pay taxes, and the impact they’ve had on independent bookshops. But when it comes to ebooks, it feels like a necessary evil, and if that’s a rather more significant portion of my monthly budget than it should be, at least I try not to buy from Amazon in other areas of my life.

(I recognise that obviously, buying from Amazon is crucial for some people in terms of accessibility. This isn’t intended to pass judgement on those people, just to remark on my own choices as a consumer.)

Because I have an actual Kindle, and I prefer reading on the “e-ink” screen rather than on my phone or another backlit device, I rarely use the Kindle app, but I have it on my phone in case I need to quickly reference a book while I’m out and about. The other day, however, I went into the app to check something for a friend, and discovered a whole new function I’d never seen before: “Reading Insights”.

In these Reading Insights, my Kindle told me how many books I’d read this year, my “reading streak” (22 weeks, but only 6 days in a row at present), how many days per month I was reading (23 in September, down from 26 in August but significantly up from 14 in May) and my “records” — “wins and bests from your reading activity”. Reading, like Duolingo, was something to be done and recorded every day, to maintain a “streak”.

Obviously, my Kindle only knows about the books I’ve read as purchased ebooks — not paper books, library ebooks, fanfic, or anything else that I don’t read through its app or devices. However, since this year, 128 of my ~170 reads so far have been Kindle books, this still represents a pretty large proportion of my reading.

I knew, of course, that it tracked me. That’s how it’s able to recommend me books similar to my recent reads; that’s why I occasionally get Amazon recommendations that are made entirely of KJ Charles novels; that’s inevitable when the purchase and the mechanism for interacting with that purchase are so closely integrated. But I still found it somewhat unsettling to see a calendar of my reading activity, to see days marked in blue where I read something. For a moment, I imagined someone looking at that data and thinking, “Wow, this person has seriously messed up sleep patterns. Look how often they stayed up until 2am.” For a moment, I wondered what other uses it could be put to.

It used to be that I’d track this stuff myself, on Goodreads (also owned by Amazon, whose fingers are in nearly every bookish pie these days). My reasons for quitting Goodreads were many, and few of them were to do with data privacy, although there’s been a level of relief about not having to share my opinions all the time. I track my reading in a text file and leave myself a short note about my feelings on a book, to let me know whether it’s worth rereading in future; I can be as caustic or bubbly as I like, and nobody can judge me on it. But I had thought that a pleasant side-effect of leaving was that the internet wouldn’t be quite so aware of everything I’d read, in order to use it to advertise at me.

Except that Amazon knows. And Amazon is in the internet. And Amazon not only knows what I’ve bought, but whether I’ve read it, and on what day I read it, and maybe how long it took me or how long I paused on certain passages or whether I reread a section. What else do they know?

Unsettling.

But, I’ll be honest, I’m part of the internet generation, and while I make a few attempts at maintaining some privacy online — using Firefox and Facebook Container and uBlock and so on — I know that in the end, I’m fighting a losing battle. I can avoid Google Chrome all I like, but my phone is Android, so Google knows too much about me already. I can stop Facebook tracking me on other sites, but that doesn’t change the fact that they get enough info from Facebook itself, and Instagram, and WhatsApp…

My data is out there, whether I like it or not, and I’m not committed enough to burn it all down to eradicate those pieces of my online self, so I just have to live in this constantly-surveilled world. I’ve made an uneasy peace with that. Accepted that in our imperfect reality, that’s the price of convenience. I should probably be angrier about it, but I’ll be honest, it feels like we have bigger problems, and I have a finite amount of energy. I’m still unlikely to ever have Alexa or whatever in my home; I don’t want something listening to me on purpose. But I’m not putting on a tinfoil hat just yet.

No, the thing that really bothered me about these Reading Insights was the fact that reading, like everything else, had become something … almost competitive. “Bests and wins”? Really? Is maintaining a daily streak of reading a “win”? For me it usually means I’m fatigued and spending a lot of time in bed: the less energy I have for other things, the more time I spend reading. Do we need to measure these things?

Part of the reason I left Goodreads, and stopped doing bookstagram, and generally took my reading offline, was because I felt like after a while it became about the numbers and statistics. It was a race: how many books could I read? How many likes on that photo? Could I complete this challenge, that readathon, this bingo card? Did I have a TBR? Was my TBR out of control? Would I like it to be? Did I have a list for this month, next month, next year?

It wasn’t me. I wanted to read what I wanted to read, when I wanted to read it. I’ve never struggled to motivate myself to read, partly because it’s sometimes the only thing I have energy for, so a yearly reading “challenge” seemed superfluous. Plus, I’m what the bookstagram types call a “mood reader” — I read things when I feel like reading them. I actually don’t have a TBR (to-be-read list), except in the vaguest sense of “oh, I’d like to read that sometime”, or my wishlist of books I want but can’t afford.

That’s without getting into all the ways I couldn’t handle consumerist book culture, or the books-as-sacred-object mindset that I encounter so often online. I eventually came to the conclusion that while I was a booknerd and a very voracious reader, I was simply not a Book Person in the internet sense of being a Book Person. I had no interest in collecting six versions of the same book, I didn’t want character-themed scented candles, I think a lot of books actually smell pretty bad, and I really don’t care if people break the spines of their own books, or dog-ear the pages, or write in them, because they’re just books.

(If you do this to my books when I lend them to you, I’ll end you. But that’s a completely different thing.)

So, I thought, I’ll opt out. Go offline. Forget the streaks and challenges. I’ll track my reading in a text file because I have a terrible memory and I need a record of what I’ve read; I didn’t track it at all last autumn after leaving Goodreads in August, and now I have no idea what I read then. But I’m not going to bother about statistics or numbers or challenges.

And all the while my Kindle is sitting there going, “You have a 22-week reading streak!”

I’ve discovered that I can opt out of these insights. I probably will. Because even in the few days since I discovered them, that competitive instinct has ignited in my brain. “I have to read today, to continue my streak,” I find myself thinking. I probably would have read anyway, but not in such a self-conscious way. Not in order to fulfil some meaningless obligation to a chart I didn’t ask to have created. Not to give a corporation more information about me and my habits.

I have a 1000-day Duolingo streak and a 4-year+ Timehop streak. The former is a helpful pressure to keep me hacking away at the mountain of language-learning, even when it seems insurmountable; it tells me that a little every day is better than 3 hours and then a month of inactivity. The latter is honestly a coincidence, the result of my fun mixture of nostalgia and memory loss, that keeps me looking back at old social media posts every day to recall parts of my life I’ve lost. Timehop is forgiving of missed days, I suspect; I know I’ve missed some in the past four years, but it keeps my streak nonetheless.

But reading? Do I need a streak for that? Do I need to be pressured into doing something that for years has been my most consistent and least demanding hobby? Do I need to make that a numbers game too?

Last weekend I was reflecting on the fact that writing, which has always been my emotional outlet, is transitioning from being my hobby to being my career. I can no longer abandon a project to write something else that better reflects my current mood, not if I’m under contract for it, nor can I stop writing for weeks because I’m depressed (unless I’m willing to explain that to my editor). In the light of this, I figured I would probably need a new emotional outlet, a new hobby, ideally one that I couldn’t possibly monetise or make into a career.

These days, it feels like we’re discouraged from having “unproductive” hobbies. We’re told to have a side-hustle, encouraged to sell the things we make. If you’re good at something, there’s an increasing expectation that you’ll find a way to monetise it. Personally, as a perfectionist who has always dreamed big, I’ve always struggled to have hobbies I wasn’t way too serious about. Within weeks of taking up Irish dance as a teenager, I was imagining going to the World Championships; I imagined going to vocational ballet school before I’d even resumed taking classes. These were impossible, implausible dreams, but symptomatic of my inability to do things casually, a mindset that society these days only encourages.

I asked on Twitter and Instagram what people did just for fun, and received more answers than I’d expected. A lot of people found video games helpful — lots of small achievements to keep the brain ticking over and happy. Some watched a lot of TV and films. There were lots of crafty types: knitting and crochet were popular, but also art. Some people played music, or baked, or went for long walks in the countryside.

And then there was reading.

Reading’s a weird one as a writer. Not only do you end up reading books by friends and colleagues and acquaintances, it can also be hard to turn off the analytical part of your brain that reads as a writer reads. I find this is particularly hard when I’m in the middle of edits — copyedits, in particular, made me judge everybody’s punctuation choices, and made it a lot harder to get immersed in anything because I was primed to nitpick. But still, when my pain levels are flaring or my fatigue is bad, it’s always the hobby I come back to. When my hands don’t work well enough to knit and my eyes can’t take the flashing lights of TV and my body won’t let me go for walks, it’s always, in the end, reading.

Not for the numbers. Not to maintain a streak. Not to reach a new personal best of number of books read in a year.

But because books give my brain a break from the world for a couple of hours, and sometimes, that’s all I want from a hobby. A chance to stop being inside my own head for a little while. A comfort when I don’t have anyone to spend time with, or the energy to spend time with them.

As a writer, I don’t always read casually. I often read critically, and analytically, and with an eye to improving my own professional skills. But that doesn’t mean I have to read competitively, as though my reading streak might be marked up on a leaderboard to see where I rank among similarly bookish friends. That doesn’t mean I have to give in to the internet’s desire to categorise and track everything with streaks and trends and statistics, to make me a more ‘productive’ reader.

I probably can’t stop my Kindle collecting that information. But I can ask it not to tell me, and I will. Because sometimes, I want to read because I’m sad or tired or lonely or bored and I want the comfort, distraction, and joy of disappearing into somebody else’s head and somebody else’s world. And that isn’t a numbers game, and never will be.


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Why I Have (Not) Made Words This Week

I send a lot of emails, and all of my emails are extremely long. I get this from my mum. I vividly remember my form tutor at school telling me he found her emails intimidatingly long (she also worked in the school; she wasn’t emailing him about me) and I sympathise. I like to try and anticipate all the questions and clarifications the other person might need, and provide as few opportunities for misinterpretation as possible. Also, I have a lot to say. I mean, you’ve read my blog posts, right? Anything under two thousand words is a rarity.

However, I’ve concluded that a lot of my emails can be boiled down to three basic types.

  1. I know I was supposed to make words, but I have not made words, because {explanation}.
  2. I know I was only expected to make a few words, but I made Many Words, I’m sorry, enjoy.
  3. I made many words but they were the wrong words, so that doesn’t really help you, sorry.

Mostly, I alternate between type 1 and 2. One week, my emails to my supervisor will say, “So, I know I hadn’t actually told you I’d started writing, but here’s fourteen thousand words that you weren’t expecting. When did you want to have a meeting?” The next week, I’ll be saying, “Unfortunately, I have made no progress whatsoever. Should we postpone?”

Frequently, the in type 1 actually turns it into a type 3: “I have made no thesis progress but I did write 8.5k in planning notes for a novel.” “I need some extra time for these edits because I had to write an academic article.” “I know I was supposed to be translating this quatrain, but have you seen my blog this week? I made so many words.”

Sometimes there’s another explanation, usually along the lines of “unfortunately, Pain” or “I was being a depression slug and therefore nothing has happened at all in any direction”. However, these can be tricky to word. What’s an appropriate amount of disclosure? Is it enough to say I didn’t get something done “because of my health” or do I need to be more specific than that? Perhaps it’ll have more effect if I describe the exact way that the tendons in the back of my hands feel during a flare (“like cheese wire, slicing the skin from the inside every time I move my fingers”), or what kind of a migraine this one was (“there is a demon sitting in my eye socket, chewing on the back of my eyeball”).

To help myself navigate this delicate balance between necessary disclosure and inappropriate oversharing, I decided to compile some excuses for why I haven’t made words, or have made the wrong words, or have made more words than I was expected to.

Bonus points if you can figure out which of these are excuses I have actually truthfully made.

  • Unfortunately, I was possessed.
  • I fell asleep on a hill and ended up in the Otherworld, which would have been fine, except I forgot to bring earplugs and I didn’t manage to get out of there before their band sent me to sleep. Best nap I’ve had in ages, though.
  • I had to go to war to defend the honour of a semicolon. I lost, but I did manage to save three commas during the fighting.
  • The demon to whom I accidentally sold my soul while trying to source a copy of that one out-of-print academic book told me they would give it back, but only if I wrote them an exclusive 10,000 word fanfic about their obscure medieval Irish OTP before midnight. I spent the first three hours trying to figure out which Cormac they were actually talking about, and by the time I finished the story my eyeballs were melting. On the plus side, I now know far too much about this one obscure character who shows up, like, three times.
  • I had only intended to write the 2k you asked for but I entered a fugue state and by the time I came out of it there were eight thousand words in the document. I don’t know how they got there but I’m afraid to delete them in case I anger some kind of supernatural beastie.
  • The muse… the muse has abandoned me… I have been cruelly repudiated…
  • I was baking. Would you like some cake? No, I’m not trying to distract you, it’s a genuine offer. Well, if it also serves to distract you, that’s a bonus, but — of course that’s not my intention, how dare you suggest such a thing.
  • Studying palaeography gave me too many feelings about this one secondary character, and so I rewrote the entire novel to make the manuscript production scenes more accurate. I realise I was supposed to be transcribing a text, but I’m happy to send you the sexy scribe scenes if it would help demonstrate my knowledge.
  • I was distracted by my quest to resurrect Robert Graves for the sole purpose of fighting him in a Tesco car park.
  • I was distracted by my quest to resurrect Iolo Morgannwg for the sole purpose of fighting him in a Tesco car park.
  • I was distracted by the possibility of killing two birds with one stone and resurrecting Robert Graves and Iolo Morgannwg so that they can fight each other in a Tesco car park. Unfortunately, all the books on necromancy are held in Special Collections and due to the pandemic, their hours have been very limited, so I haven’t yet managed to book a slot.
  • Somebody was being wrong on the internet, and, well,
  • I accidentally looked at my novel for five minutes too long and decided I hated all of my prose. So I rewrote it. Here’s a surprise redraft.
  • Óengus visited me in a dream and told me many great secrets. Unfortunately, I never remember my dreams, and so I have absolutely no idea what they were. I’ve spent three days trying to nap long enough to prompt a repeat performance, in case more of it sticks this time.
  • I had a disagreement with a crow, and I might be cursed.
  • I had a disagreement with a swan, and I might be cursed, but I definitely have a broken arm.
  • I had a dream about a book that was utterly crucial to my thesis and now I don’t think I’ll eat or sleep until I’ve searched the earth to find it. I can describe it to you — do you know anyone who might be able to find it?
  • In order to properly edit the science scene, I had to teach myself several years’ worth of chemistry and then design a complex, brutal poison. As I have not taken any science subjects since I was sixteen, there was a learning curve. Also, I think I’m on a watchlist now.
  • I’m sorry I haven’t answered your emails for the last four months. I was busy single-handedly defending the province in a series of elaborate single combats.
  • In a follow-up to my last email, I would like to clarify that it was not entirely single-handed, as my best friend and designated driver was also present. However, I would like to emphasise that neither of us had a phone charger and therefore responding to your emails was still entirely impossible.
  • I believed that the most effective way to write a synopsis was to travel to a point in the future at which I will have already written the book, read the book, and then come back and summarise it. Unfortunately, even after I had solved the small hurdle of building a time machine, this caused a recursive loop of plot holes. Eventually I had to travel into the past before I had this great idea and destroy my own time machine, but of course this trapped me there. I’ve been waiting three weeks to reach Tuesday.
  • Wait, it’s Monday? Damn. Didn’t wait long enough.
  • I was bitten by a radioactive pancake and needed to take a week to adjust to my new superpowers. They have not so far encompassed the ability to consume either gluten or milk, so I can only assume this is punishment for my hubris in trying to make pancakes in the first place.
  • I am very small and I have no money, so you can imagine the kind of stress that I am under.
  • I did translate the quatrain you assigned me for the seminar, but it turned out to be a summoning spell for an extremely grumpy creature (who insisted “demon” was an offensive term), and he, uh, maybe ate my notes so that nobody else could use the spell.
  • After retranslating the quatrain, I have concluded that it only became a summoning spell because I misidentified a word as dative when it should have been accusative. In my defence, it’s a Middle Irish text and the two are virtually indistinguishable at this stage.
  • I was abducted by aliens to compete in a Scrabble tournament to determine the fate of the world. However, they couldn’t agree on an orthographic standard and spent four days arguing about spelling. They did not take kindly to my input, nor to the accusation that orthographic standards are frequently classist and also colonialist. Also, I’ve never played Scrabble before, but they thought I was lying and refused to explain the rules. So I might have doomed us all. Sorry.
  • I tried to make sourdough, but gluten free bread is like… the worst. It didn’t end well.
  • My landlord knocked a hole in my kitchen and I had to excavate my computer from underneath the dust before I could even send you this message.
  • I fell asleep on the bus and wound up in Tralee.
  • I fell asleep on the bus and wound up in Galway.
  • I fell asleep on the bus and wound up in a síd apparently only accessible via a portal in a Bus Éireann station. The only way to leave is by bus, and, well, they’re Bus Éireann, so it was three hours late.
  • Due to overwhelming terror of mortality and the fear of not writing all the things I want to write, I have not slept in three weeks in an attempt to get words on the page. Here are 350,000 words of assorted novels. I couldn’t tell you for the life of me what order they’re supposed to go in.
  • I received a letter from a desert island castaway who could only be rescued on a raft made entirely of essays about queer theory in Celtic Studies. Since there aren’t enough of those to make a raft, I had to write some. I think we’re nearly buoyant but one big wave could end that.
  • Somebody recalled the exact library book I needed for this thesis chapter so unfortunately, I had to hunt them down and kill them.
  • Did I mention that I was possessed?

And finally,

  • Trying to write an MA thesis at the exact same time as editing your debut novel and planning its sequel is actually really hard, and I can only make academic words by neglecting fiction words or vice versa. In order to handle the guilt about the things I’m not doing, I decided to do neither of these things, and instead write an increasingly silly blog post, so that I can feel equally guilty about all of them.

In conclusion, I have made some words, but they were the wrong words. I’m sorry.

If anyone sees Óengus, tell him to email me next time.


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