Category: Writing

Two Months After

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

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

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

Let’s start with the highlights:

Publication day

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

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

Dublin International Literature Festival

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

Book launch

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

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

Visiting bookshops

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

Reviews and nice messages

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

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

My first real school visit

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

YALC

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And then there are my book two edits.

Ugh. The dreaded book two.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

One Week Before

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I think: I’m not ready.

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

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

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

Mentor, Master, and Medievalist

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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


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

From Cocoon To Butterfly…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Letters From The Past

The first email I got this year was from myself.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(It has not.)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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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.

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.

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.


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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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