Today is International Asexuality Day, which seems like an appropriate excuse to give a few pieces of news and updates. (Because I am ace and so is the protagonist of The Butterfly Assassin, in case that wasn’t abundantly clear from context.)
A Matter of Art and Death
I’ve been hard at work on a short story called A Matter of Art and Death (named for a quote from The Butterfly Assassin). It’s set about three years before TBA, and it dives into Emma Westray’s backstory. In particular, it looks at how she got to know Grace Whittock. I did a couple of polls on social media a few months back to see which characters would be most popular for a prequel story, and Emma and Grace won (Emma won on one platform, Grace on another), so this story is the result! I even gave it a cover:
The only way to get your hands on this story is to pre-order The Hummingbird Killer and fill in the Google form linked on the Books page. If you pre-order but don’t fill in the form, you will not get the story, because I will not know that you exist. Please fill in the form. And please pre-order the book. Pre-orders are super important when it comes to helping books launch successfully into the world and drumming up attention from bookshops and other readers, so it truly does make a difference.
By filling in the form, you can also be entered into a draw to win a unique, one-of-a-kind annotated copy of TBA, featuring my marginal commentary about where certain details came from, which lines survived half a dozen redrafts, what songs I associate with particular chapters, and more. This giveaway is optional, so if you think you’ve already got enough copies of TBA and don’t want another one, you don’t have to enter that to get the story above — but frankly, is there any such thing as too many copies of my book?
If your preferred method of pre-ordering is to walk into a physical shop and ask them to pre-order it for you and thus you don’t have a receipt, that’s totally fine. Either wait until publication day and upload your proof of purchase then (I’ll leave the form open until 12th May), or take a picture of the shop you pre-ordered from and I’ll trust you on the details.
And yes, leaving the form open until 12th means that if you buy the book on the first day, you can also grab the short story, even though it’s not technically a pre-order. First day sales are also super important. But a pre-order will put less pressure on you and make me happy, so maybe consider it? :)
Speaking of pre-orders…
Book Depository is closing
Book Depository has announced that they’re shutting down, and will stop taking orders on 26th April. Although they’ll be continuing to dispatch items after this, it’s unclear how this affects pre-orders for books that aren’t out by 26th April; their website implies that some pre-orders may be refunded.
As such, I don’t know if pre-orders of The Hummingbird Killer placed through Book Depository will dispatch. Please consider ordering from somewhere else. Blackwells offers international shipping, as do some independent shops. I will try to keep the links on the Books page as up-to-date as I can. If you’re trying to buy The Butterfly Assassin from overseas, Housmans offers international shipping and is a non-profit radical bookshop; I believe they still have signed copies available. After 12th May, they should also have signed copies of The Hummingbird Killer (because I am going to go there and sign some).
If you pre-ordered via Book Depository, filled in the Google form, then subsequently cancelled that pre-order and placed one somewhere else… you don’t need to re-submit the form, it’ll just confuse things. I’ll trust you.
I’m going to be in Yorkshire next week doing some research for a couple of different novels. I’ll be signing books in Waterstones in York and in Leeds, and I’ll also be heading up to The Little Bookshop in Leeds to sign a few bits there as well. These are not, like, live signings / events, just me defacing books for future sales, but if you live in the area and would like me to sign your books, drop me a message (on social media or via the email address on my Contact page), and we can coordinate. Again, I am trusting you not to be weird about this. You’re all lovely and I’m sure you wouldn’t be, but I just feel the need to say it.
Also, if you are from York or Leeds and you have recommendations for your favourite piece of street art in the area, please drop it in the comments below, so that I can go and check it out.
Finally, an academic update, which is that my long-awaited article, ‘What Manner of Man is this Hound?’: Gender, Humanity and the Transgressive Figure of Cú Chulainn, has now been published. This article looks at the character of Cú Chulainn in Táin Bó Cúailnge and how he is presented as a boundary-crossing figure; it uses gender theory and monster theory to explore how those disruptions of category are essential to constructing Cú Chulainn’s heroic identity. This includes exploring a transmasculine reading of Cú Chulainn, and also asking whether we should consider him to be a dragon. It’s available to read for free right here.
I think that’s all my updates for now, so I’m gonna go right back to yelling at my draft of TBA 3 in the hope that it’ll magically fix all its own plot problems.
I’ve been thinking recently about relatability, moral ambiguity, and the way that misunderstanding how these two concepts can work together in a book is part of what feeds a lot of online morality policing and accusations of Being Problematic.
(Warning: there might be some mild spoilers for The Butterfly Assassin in this post. If you haven’t read it yet, now’s a great time; it’s only 99p on Kindle!)
There is a tendency, in this day and age, for the main metric by which characters are scored to be how ‘relatable’ they are. “I couldn’t relate to them” is sometimes presented as the start and end of criticism. This is understandable. We want stories where we can see ourselves, and which tap into emotions we ourselves have felt: if we relate, we feel all of it more strongly, because it has resonances with our own lives.
Of course, this has also historically limited the variety of books on the shelves, since cishet white abled stories are seen as a ‘default’ template onto which all others should find a way to project themselves, while stories featuring marginalised characters are seen as ‘niche’, only appealing to those who resemble the characters, and thus hard to market. This has started to change, but there are still those who see it as a fundamentally political decision to include women in a book, let alone any other groups, so it’s an ongoing process.
But more and more people are a) finding stories with characters who look like them (yay!) and to whom they can relate, and b) realising that they don’t need to look like the characters to relate to their experiences, because many emotions are universal.
The trouble comes, however, when those ‘relatable’ characters make morally questionable or outright bad choices. We don’t want to relate to the character who did the evil thing, because what does that say about us? And this, in turn, leads to two phenomena: the purity policing of media consumption (“if you like X, you must condone Y, which makes you a Bad Person”), or the refusal to allow fictional characters ever to be truly morally complex (leading to ‘morally grey’ characters who are honestly just vaguely off-white, and anything actually bad that they do has to be strictly off-screen).
I’ve been thinking about this in relation to The Butterfly Assassin and its sequels. This is an unabashedly political series (I am certainly making a point about societal cycles of violence and what happens to vulnerable young people when a society decides war and weapons are more important than their lives), but that doesn’t mean the characters act in ways that reflect my political beliefs. In fact, they very often do the opposite of what you’d expect someone with my values to do, and aren’t ‘punished’ by the narrative because of it. And while certain aspects of the characterisation draw directly on my own experiences and are very relatable to me, in other regards I have very little in common with my own characters.
I don’t see this as a contradiction at all, in part because I think the purpose of fiction is to give us questions, not answers — and because I think what makes a character relatable is their traits, and not their circumstances.
Let’s start with that second point there.
Isabel, the protagonist of The Butterfly Assassin, is a survivor of an illegal training programme for child assassins, and she first killed somebody when she was twelve years old. I very much hope this is not a relatable circumstance — ideally, nobody who reads this book is thinking, “Yeah, that’s exactly what happened to me!” True, as the story continues and she’s manipulated into signing her future away in service to a murderous organisation, the parallels with real-world military recruitment of teenagers become stronger (see my very angry author’s note about that), but generally speaking, the reader is not expected to relate to her circumstances.
Furthermore, the choices that Isabel has to make are a direct result of those circumstances, which frequently results in her choosing to hurt others in order to save herself. These are also hopefully not choices that readers will face on a regular basis — at least not with such high stakes. Most of us will never be put in a position of feeling like we need to kill our classmate to protect ourselves (thankfully!), so again: not relatable.
At the same time, Isabel has character traits that are deeply relatable. She’s a teenager who feels like she doesn’t have control over her life, because everybody is trying to make her decisions for her. She feels trapped by other people’s expectations, and doesn’t want to spend her life doing what her parents want her to do. What teenager hasn’t felt that, to some extent? Isn’t that just fundamentally what being a teenager is like?
(I often say that the popularity of dystopian YA may well be because being a teenager is one of the most fundamentally dystopian experiences there is: constantly feeling the weight of the future while being given no autonomy over the present, your experiences and activities curtailed by higher authorities, a life ruled by exams and grades and league tables, a body that doesn’t feel like yours, etc.)
Some of Isabel’s other ‘relatable’ traits are more specific, but even if they’re minority experiences, they’re not rare. Pain and illness have left her feeling like she has no control over her body. She craves interpersonal connection, but feels like an outsider and doesn’t know how to make friends. She’s prone to sabotaging the good things in her life, because past trauma has taught her that she won’t be able to keep them, and she doesn’t know how to trust that they’ll stick around. All of these are things that real people experience (ask me how I know).
The reason that readers can engage, emotionally, with Isabel’s unrelatable circumstances is because these universal, or at least real, aspects of her character function as a window. No, we don’t know what it’s like to be trained as a killer from childhood. Yes, we do know how it feels to struggle with other people’s expectations of us. No, we’ve never killed a burglar who broke into our house. Yes, we’ve made a social interaction weird because we didn’t know how to respond to somebody’s friendly overtures.
But if somebody whose base-level traits, freed from their circumstances, are similar to ours can do the terrible things that Isabel does… what does that mean for us?
And that’s where we get to the issue of questions and answers.
When we start relating to a character who does terrible things, we are being asked a question: in their place, would you make the same choice? The story has given us the pieces we need to understand why that character made the choice they did, but only we, the reader, have the necessary information about our own lives to know if we would do the same.
There isn’t necessarily a right answer to this question. Which is to say: there might (or might not) be a morally right answer, but this is fiction, not a court of law or a moment of divine judgment. There isn’t a right answer in the sense that a story isn’t better or worse as a result of whether you’d make the same choice as the character. Probably, a story is better or worse if you cannot understand why the character, in their circumstances and with their traits, made that choice — but you can say, “No, I wouldn’t have done that,” and it doesn’t make it less appropriate for the story that they did.
Sometimes, as per the morality policing of problematic media, it can seem like there’s an expectation for the story to give you the answer: you should do this. you should not do that. this is correct. this is incorrect. Characters who make ‘morally wrong’ choices should be Punished By The Narrative, so that the reader understands that this was the wrong thing to do. Characters who make ‘morally right’ choices may be Permitted A Happy Ending.
But I don’t think we should be asking stories for answers. I think stories are supposed to give us the questions, and we are supposed to answer them ourselves. And often, the answers aren’t that simple.
Isabel interests me to write because her story asks, “If the only way you could survive was to kill others, would you do it?” and I don’t know the answer. I value life. I think death is pretty much the worst thing that can happen to a person, because almost anything else still carries the potential for improvement, but death is an ending. Death means nothing can ever get better, ever again. It terrifies me, and the idea of taking life from somebody else is absolutely horrifying.
Which is why I don’t have an answer. Death terrifies me, so I would do many things to avoid it. But it’s so horrifying to me that I can’t imagine being able to live with the knowledge that I’d caused it, either. What would I do? I have no idea. I have no idea because I have never been put in that situation; because my imagination cannot decide what level of guilt is livable; because I have never truly been forced to confront the question of how badly I want to survive.
But Isabel has.
Isabel, in her circumstances, with her training and her trauma, is not me. Some of her underlying personality comes from me, and some of her traits are relatable to me; other aspects of her personality and nature are wildly unlike mine. (She’s good at science. I haven’t done a STEM subject since 2012. We are not the same.) Her circumstances, though, are what make the difference, and for her, the choice is clearer. Would it be clear for me, if I were in her place?
These questions mean that when I write Isabel, or when I read her, I do so with the knowledge in the back of my mind that I cannot guarantee I would do any differently in her place. I like to think I would. In fact, I like to think I’d magically find a third option where everything would be okay for everybody. But the story gives me a question I can’t answer: who am I, when it boils down to it? Whose life do I value more: mine, or others’?
Now, The Butterfly Assassin is making a point about violence. It is not morally neutral. The entire trilogy is underpinned by the idea that violence begets violence: further violence can’t break the cycle, only perpetuate it. But it’s also saying that those trapped within that cycle don’t necessarily have a choice. Kill or die is a question where the answer is always a dead body, and the only question is whose; there is no solution. The only solution is to destroy the very system asking that question in the first place, and that is not something you can do as a powerless seventeen-year-old suffering from severe pain.
And of course, the very fact that Isabel isn’t in a position to dismantle the system she’s living within is asking other questions: who is in a position to change it? What would it take to create a society that is safe, and where people can thrive, and where an economy of violence doesn’t take priority over people’s lives? (And is that something we should be doing closer to home?) But spelling out those questions too explicitly runs the risk of presenting the whole series as a didactic parable, and that’s never been my intention. Sure, I’m making a point, but I want readers to be asking themselves those questions, not trying to answer me.
Maybe we’ll see the answers to some of these questions as the series goes on. Plot, of course, requires a certain amount of answers, others you end up with an unresolved mess and a lot of disappointed readers. But characters, and morality, and just how far we’d need to be pushed before we’d snap in the same way that they’d snap… that’s not necessarily something an author can or should be trying to answer. That one’s for the readers.
So, yes, I think it’s valuable when a character is relatable. There’s also a lot to be said for the questions asked by a character we can’t relate to at all, but that’s a different blog post. But when we relate to a character, it makes the story’s moral questions feel real. When we understand a character as somebody we could, in the right circumstances, become, the questions become harder and the answers ever more slippery. But a character’s relatability should not lure us into thinking the author wants us to do what the character is doing, and by extension, condones what the character is doing.
No — the character does what they do because that’s what’s most interesting for the story, and sometimes (often!), the interesting option is not the most morally correct option. It’s the one that raises more questions, that perpetuates the state of crisis, that forces us to confront something about the assumptions we make. The ones that leave us without answers, because it’s by not being given them that we start to find them for ourselves.
It often feels, rightly or wrongly, that publishing — and the book industry more widely — is obsessed with the debut author. The newest, shiniest author, whose first book has the potential to reshape the nature of literature. How could they not be? A debut author is a blank page onto which any manner of future can be projected. A debut author usually brings with them years of silent, unpaid work before anything came to fruition, but we won’t talk about that. Let’s focus, instead, on the overnightsuccess, on the hottest new title, on the sparkling new voice.
And then the debut author writes a second book, and suddenly they are no longer special and shiny, but only one of many, many authors trying to make enough sales that paying rent might be a possibility one day in the future.
I don’t think this bias is as strong as it feels when you are the debut author, staring down a future where you’ve lost your shine. In fact, there are areas in which it’s the opposite. The number of times I’ve heard someone say, “Oh, it’s really rare for debuts to be included in that list / invited to that festival / nominated for that award,” probably far outweigh the opportunities that are specific to newbie authors.
But still, there’s a peculiar emphasis on that first book, a pressure to be a success right out of the gate so that you’ll get the chance to try again, because if your sales are poor, it might be the end of everything. Is this true? Maybe. Sometimes. But there are also many, many authors whose ‘overnight success’ came with a later book; authors who went five years without selling anything, and then landed a bigger deal than they ever managed before; authors who never hit a bestseller list but kept those slow, steady sales at a solid enough level to build themselves a career.
They’re just not the stories we remember, when we’re trying to work out where we belong in the teeming pack of authors on the internet, frantically trying to market their books when they actually hate promo and would much rather be writing.
(Okay, I know there are writers who claim they would rather be doing anything but writing, and will clean their house and pair their socks rather than sit down at a computer and write. Maybe they’re telling the truth, though I have to wonder why you’d become a writer if that was the case. But for me, while there are days when it feels like pulling teeth and I’d much rather be napping, writing is still the thing I do when I’m supposed to be doing literally anything else, because I love it.)
I’m thinking about what it means to be a debut author, because I’m coming to the end of my time as one. Perhaps it’s already ended, magically dissolved the moment the calendar rolled over to 2023 and a new year of fresh-faced authors stepped forward into the sun. By my measure, it’s not over until The Hummingbird Killer publishes, in two months today — but two months doesn’t feel very long, standing on this side of it.
I can’t decide if I’m afraid of losing my debut shine, or if it’s a relief. It never felt quite true, anyway, to describe The Butterfly Assassin as my ‘first’ novel — it was the fifteenth book I wrote, of twenty-four that I’ve drafted so far (the most recent of which I finished on Wednesday; more on that soon, possibly). Yes, I was brand new to the world of publishing, and yes, it’s been a learning curve. But I have been writing for more than half my life. Sometimes it feels like writing is the only thing that makes sense to me.
The debut label can be a double-edged sword. Of course one hopes that the first book is the worst you’ll ever publish — peaking too early leaves you with nowhere to go. But some reviewers latch onto the concept of debut as meaning inexperienced, and while I’m definitely inexperienced at Being Published, I don’t, at this point, consider myself at all inexperienced at writing; I have too many millions of words under my belt for that. That means it stings, sometimes, to receive those inadvertently patronising compliments that manage to hit like an insult, like remarking that the writing style is surprisingly good for a debut.
So it feels more… honest, somehow? to no longer be a debut, to be settling myself in for a career. Or at least the hopes of a career. A second book (a sophomore novel, some writers call it, but I’m perfectly happy calling it my ‘second’ book, I don’t see why the fancy terminology is needed) is still only the foundations, but it’s bringing me one step closer to building something of this. Staking a claim on the ground ahead: I’m here to stay. This wasn’t a one-off.
Saying that, I think I have an easier transition to this next stage of my writing career than many do, because my debut was the first book in a trilogy, and so I have two more books on the way in the same world. I can bring my audience with me, rather than having to convince them to jump ship to something new. And I’d drafted both books before the first was published, so I didn’t have the torture of writing them with readers breathing down my neck and reviews haunting my mind, clamouring for more of this or less of that and confusing my sense of the story.
But I’ve also faced some challenges, which shape my experiences — and I’m not talking about being trans, disabled, and releasing a book with zero romance in a very romance-led genre, although I can’t say any of those things helped. No, the biggest challenges really have been practical ones, and the biggest of those is the fact that I moved house five times in ten months last year, with The Butterfly Assassin publishing about two-thirds of the way through that absolute nightmare of transitional stages and constant uprooting.
Some of those moves were a surprise. I would move to a new area, start befriending the booksellers and exploring possibilities for school visits and other connections in the community — and then I’d be forced to uproot myself again, and leave those bookshops behind, and start again somewhere else. I had some lovely local bookshops at the time that TBA came out, but less than two months later I moved again, leaving them behind and all the connections I’d begun to forge.
By the time I arrived in Cambridge in September, still with lingering covid symptoms, I was too drained and fatigued by the past year to have it in me to start that process again. I called in at a bookshop or two, but trying to catch the attention of an overworked and underpaid Waterstones employee at a large shop like the one in central Cambridge isn’t the same as hanging out in the little independent shop around the corner from your house, chatting to the booksellers for half an hour about everything and nothing. It’s friendships, or at least the potential for them, that I’ve lost there, as much as publicity opportunities, or whatever business-minded way you want to look at it.
As such, I’ve spent a lot of time feeling displaced, uprooted, the most visible champions of my book no longer local to me. No school connections, no idea who to talk to about doing events; that means no World Book Day visits, no assemblies. I did have one library event a few months ago… to which nobody at all turned up, which rather discouraged me from trying again. It’s exhausting, you know, trying to put down roots and then ripping them up again, over and over. After you’ve done that a few times, it becomes a lot easier to give up on trying.
So, yes, my publicity efforts faltered. My attempts to organise events fell by the wayside; I prioritised my day job, and my post-covid fatigue relegated me to bed most of the rest of the time, at least for the first few months. I made one brief visit back to central London in January for the first time since the summer, and called by half a dozen bookshops — it reminded me what it was like to Be An Author, because I hadn’t been able to do that for a while. Otherwise I felt like I was trapped in a box, shouting into the void that was Twitter, and increasingly without the energy to do even that.
But I wanted roots. I wanted to stay. I needed to believe I’d live in this house more than three months, more than six months, maybe more than a year. Not because I like the house particularly, but because I needed some firmer ground to plant myself into, until I could feel settled enough that making connections even felt worth it and I wasn’t perpetually waiting for them to be taken away again.
And I made a promise to myself in the form of planting daffodils and tulips in our front flowerbed, after I’d broken up the horrible hard soil and cleared out some of the rocks and added actual decent compost on top. The bulbs said: I will still be here in the spring to see these flowers.
My daffodillies started coming out these last couple of weeks. It is spring, and I am still here.
And the bulbs I planted with The Butterfly Assassin last year… well, I am still here, and The Hummingbird Killer comes out in two months, and I will no longer be a debut, just as I will no longer be newly moved into a house with a front flowerbed made entirely of rocks, weeds, and the saddest of sad soil. (Even if I really do need to do some weeding soon.)
I think not being a debut will be nice. Maybe there’ll be less pressure. Maybe there’ll be different pressure. Maybe the readers who liked The Butterfly Assassin will hate The Hummingbird Killer; maybe they’ll think it’s better. I will keep writing regardless, just as I will keep planting things in my crappy little flowerbed, because I wrote for over ten years before I sold anything, so that’s never been the point of this.
But I want to stay. After The Hummingbird Killer, there’ll be book three. I don’t know what will come after that. I hope something will. I hope many somethings will. I’m writing some of them now, bulbs that I’m planting with hope, not knowing whether they’ll sprout and certainly not when or where they’ll flower. I’ll work out which connections matter, which roots I want to put the time and effort into putting down, and I’ll start rebuilding some of those webs that felt so constantly shattered during my Year Of Moving House.
Perhaps, like the daffodillies, I’ve been underground for a few months, only gradually beginning to poke my head above the ground. But soon, I think, I’ll be ready to flower. And part of that will be book two, and part of it will be about seeking out opportunities again, creating them where they don’t exist, talking to people and making connections and being part of something, for the sake of friendships as much as for the sake of helping my books find their readers.
(If you’re reading this, and you’re from a school or library or bookshop in the Cambridge area: I want to know you. I want you to be part of what I’m building. Get in touch, please.)
It’s spring. The flowers are coming out. The Hummingbird Killer releases in two months, and I’ll no longer be a debut. A new step in a winding journey.
If you follow me on other social media — and I assume, at this point and given the nature of the internet these days, that most of you do — you’ll have seen that a couple of weeks ago I shared the cover and the blurb for the sequel to The Butterfly Assassin. But, just in case you didn’t, I thought I’d talk a little about it here.
(And, yes, I did mean to write this post two weeks ago, but unfortunately my health is incredibly garbage right now and I have not been very functional lately, so it’s taken me a while to get to it.)
So, book two! It’s called The Hummingbird Killer, and it comes out on May 11th, 2023 in the UK. I don’t have release dates for anywhere else; Amazon is suggesting possibly August for Australia and New Zealand, and I would imagine the French edition will come sometime in the autumn, like book one, but I have no further info on that front yet.
Here’s the cover:
And the blurb:
Teen assassin Isabel Ryans now works for Comma, and she’s good at it: the Moth is the guild’s most notorious killer, infamous throughout the city of Espera. But Isabel still craves normality, and she won’t find it inside the guild. She moves in with a civilian flatmate, Laura, and begins living a double life, one where she gets to pretend she’s free.
But when Isabel’s day job tangles her up with an anti-guild abolitionist movement, it becomes harder to keep her two lives separate. Forced to choose between her loyalty to her friends and her loyalty to Comma, she finds herself with enemies on all sides, putting herself and Laura at risk.
Can Isabel ever truly be safe in a city ruled by killers?
Now that I’ve covered the basics, let’s get on to answering some FAQs, some of which I have actually been asked, and others which I’m anticipating somebody somewhere wanting to know the answer to.
Is it a direct sequel to The Butterfly Assassin?Do I need to have read book one first?
Yes, and probably. Around two years have passed since the first book, so Isabel’s life has moved on somewhat and we’re not directly picking up the threads of any cliffhangers. I’ve also made an effort to remind readers who certain recurring characters are, and there are quite a few characters that are brand new. But events in book one still echo through this one and are referenced frequently, and we’re building on the worldbuilding foundation laid there too. That means if you’re a forgetful reader like me, it should still be okay to read without having recently refreshed your memory with a reread of book one, but if you haven’t read book one at all, you’ll probably find that you’re missing quite a lot of vital context!
Okay, but I am super forgetful and don’t remember who anyone is. Will you do a recap?
I mean, if that would be useful to people, I’m happy to do a deeply irreverent blog post catching you all up on who the characters are and what happened to them in book one. Let me know in the comments if that’s something you’d be interested in.
Is this the end of the story?
No, this is the second book in a trilogy. It’s always been a trilogy in my head, and the ending of this book has been planned from the start. I’m very glad that we sold book three and I didn’t have to change it. That doesn’t mean this book doesn’t have its own arcs and goals and structure etc, but it does mean we’re working towards a larger resolution rather than wrapping everything up here.
Wait… does that mean there’s a cliffhanger?
That would be telling. (But yeah, kind of. Sorry.)
What ‘representation’ does this book have?
I feel faintly uncomfortable with breaking books down into the identities of their main characters, especially when those identities might not be clearly defined within canon or don’t map neatly onto the real world. But I will say that Isabel is much more firmly portrayed as asexual and aromantic in this book, and has more than one conversation about it with other characters; her flatmate is bisexual and aromantic, and her colleague is a Black trans man who also happens to be asexual and aromantic. There are also several other queer characters in the background, including two who use they/them pronouns. Race is a little complicated in the setting, but several characters are definitely not white.
Isabel is also still grappling with the psychological and physical impact of book one, and we see the ways she works around her chronic health issues on a daily basis, as well as her complete failure to do anything that might help her mental health. Gluten free and traumatised, that’s our girl.
Is there romance in this book?
Nope. It’s all about those platonic friendships, weird surrogate parent figures, terrible bosses, and revolutionary colleagues you accidentally end up helping achieve their illegal goals. That seems like more than enough drama, angst, and emotions to me without adding romance into the mix.
Will Isabel have a redemption arc in this book?
Good question! There’s an arc. Off a cliff. Away from redemption.
Real talk, Isabel gets worse in this book. But isn’t that the point of the middle book of a trilogy? This is where I break everything. Book three is where I’ll fix it. And I will fix it — I don’t want this to be a hopeless series — but prepare yourself for a big mess first.
How many people die in this book?
You know, I tried to keep count during the writing process, but things got a little hazy towards the end. I’m thinking minimum of fifty. Of whom Isabel killed probably a minimum of forty-seven. You know that part where I said she got worse? Yeah, so, about that…
Will [character name] come back?
Were they alive at the end of book one? They’re probably in this one. That’s really the only criterion I have, although of course that still excludes a fair number of characters.
Do we get to see more of Espera in this one?
Yes! That’s actually one thing I’m really excited about. Book one follows Isabel very closely, and her immediate priorities are things like “not dying”, so we don’t get to see too much of the city around her. Considering how long I spent developing highly specific details about the city that never made it to the page, I knew I wanted the chance to share more of it with you all! In this book, the camera really pans out to look more at Isabel’s role within the whole city, and we see different aspects of Espera, including its more revolutionary elements. So those reviewers who said they wanted to know more about the city/world, you’re in luck.
Do you have an aesthetic for this book?
I don’t make visual aesthetics (but think colourful street art and a lot of blood, like book 1) but I do have a playlist for it, and frankly, it’s full of bangers. Ignore the title of the playlist. That was the working title of the book and I haven’t been able to bring myself to change it yet; I will do so eventually.
Can I get an ARC?
There aren’t going to be any physical ARCs for this book (sad times) but it should be available on NetGalley at some point. That’s all I can tell you on that front, I’m afraid.
Are you doing a pre-order campaign?
YES, thank you so much for asking, hypothetical questioner. I am doing a pre-order campaign. If you pre-order the book and submit your receipts to this form, you will receive a digital short story set in the world of The Butterfly Assassin, a few years before the start of book one. (It’s about Emma, and to a lesser extent, Grace.) You can also enter into a draw to win an annotated copy of book one, where I will have gone through pointing out all the symbolism and foreshadowing. Frankly, that’s because I’ve wanted to do an annotated book for aaaaages and this is just an excuse, but indulge me, please. (That part is optional, though, so if you’ve already got more copies of The Butterfly Assassin than you could ever need, you can just go for the story!)
And yes, it’s open internationally. All the pre-order links that I’ve rounded up so far are on this page.
Why should I pre-order?
Other than that you want this exclusive short story which will not be posted anywhere else? Because pre-orders really help authors! Even if we’re not the kind of bestsellers who are shooting for thousands of first-week sales and an appearance in every bestseller chart known to man (and I can assure you I’m not), they help signal to booksellers that there’s interest in a title, so that they’ll stock it, which increases the chances that other people will buy it. Or they’ll give it that much-needed boost up the online charts, which again, gives it more visibility and helps others to discover it. Plus, it reassures your local author that people like them, and we authors are deeply insecure and need to be reassured in as many ways as possible at all times.
Pre-orders might not save lives but they definitely bring a spark of joy into the world, and why wouldn’t you want to bring a spark of joy into the world? Do it. It’s a present to your future self. Your future self will thank you (and so will I).
I think that’s everything, but if you have any further questions about the book, please drop ’em in the comments below and I’ll do my best to answer them. It’s now less than 2.5 months until it comes out, so it’s time to start getting excited! :)
And remember, you can always find all the information (including content warnings and buy links) about my books on the ‘Books’ page here.
Edit: I just noticed that The Butterfly Assassin is on sale for 99p on Kindle UK (affiliate link), so this is a great time to buy it if you haven’t already jumped on this particular bandwagon!
It’s Ace Week! It’s also French publication day for The Butterfly Assassin, which is super appropriate, because Isabel is asexual, so this is her week.
I’ve talked before about asexual “representation” in The Butterfly Assassin, and how there arguably… isn’t any — not if you define representation as explicit labels and discussion of a certain identity. This is a balance I’ve grappled with over the past year, wondering how much to emphasise that element of the book. The fact of the matter is, this is a book that’s all murder, no sex — an upper YA book where the most important, intense relationship is a platonic one, and where opportunities for that relationship to develop into a romantic or sexual relationship are deliberately avoided in favour of taking the narrative another path — and that, much more than labels, is what matters to me, and it’s what my younger self needed.
That doesn’t mean labels aren’t important, though, nor that Isabel’s identity will never be discussed in more depth in the series. I’m a little over halfway through the editing process for the sequel to The Butterfly Assassin at the moment, having finished structural edits and with line edits coming rapidly over the horizon, and one of the things I love about this book is how it gives Isabel more space to explore who she is.
Some spoilers for book one ahead, so if you haven’t read it yet, might I suggest you go grab a copy before venturing further? (Unless you like spoilers, in which case, you do you!)
In The Butterfly Assassin, a major source of tension and conflict is the fact that Isabel has been poisoned. As such, she spends the majority of the book trying hard not to die, focused solely on survival. It is not a narrative that gives her a lot of time to start worrying about whether or not she feels sexual attraction, because it would be deeply unnecessary to her current situation.
Now. I have been told, and have gradually come to observe from my own reading, that this in itself is a pretty ace perspective. Turns out, allosexual people and characters do start thinking about sexual attraction at deeply inconvenient moments, up to and including while Trying Not To Die. Who knew! And I know from personal experience that identity crises do tend to assert themselves at times when you should really be focusing on other things; that’s why I had a gender crisis in the middle of my A-Levels, because I no longer had the brainspace to repress it.
But the fact of the matter is that Isabel is very, very good at repressing things, and not particularly prone to navel-gazing, and as such, it would never occur to her to try and put a label on an absence of certain feelings. She’s so convinced she’s messed up by her childhood that if she recognised a difference in her own behaviour compared to anyone else’s, she’d simply chalk it up to that and move on.
I think this is a common story. I think there are a lot of people whose experiences resonate with ace experiences, and might plausibly fall under that umbrella, but they will never seek out that label. They don’t need to. It isn’t relevant. Some might think the rest of the world is exaggerating about their sexual attraction; others are aware that they’re different, but have chalked it up to some other factor in their life or upbringing or current experiences.
And that’s fine. Nobody is ever obliged to use any label for anything. I find my own sexuality increasingly slippery and hard to pin down, particularly as my sense of gender shifts and matures. I still find it resonates most strongly with ace experiences, but I’m also very aware that asexuality is a spectrum, and that not everybody who sees themselves as belonging to that spectrum is in the No Attraction Ever category, nor is attraction synonymous with interest in sex.
I’m also increasingly aware that romantic attraction can be a slippery thing. To my mind, there is no objective, concrete, identifiable difference between romantic and platonic affection in terms of its expression and what it looks like to an outside observer. The difference is in what it means to the people in that relationship, and how they label it, and what it means to them. One person’s queerplatonic relationship might look identical from the outside to another person’s romantic one, but that doesn’t mean it is identical, if that’s not how those people experience it.
This … dislocation, almost, or at least separation of Objective External Perception from Concrete Labels And Terminology has been freeing. Imagine the possibilities if I say, “It doesn’t matter what you think this relationship is, to me it’s X, and that’s what matters.” Some people kiss their friends. Some people don’t kiss their romantic partners. Why are we assuming that to qualify as one thing or another, certain behaviours or actions have to be exhibited?
I’ve got sidetracked. I’m sorry. At one point I had an actual purpose in writing this post, but at this point it’s purely, “Finn muses on what asexuality and aromanticism mean to them,” and that is probably not why you’re here. Back to TBA…
Except it’s not really a sidetrack. One of the things I’ve really enjoyed about seeing reader reactions to The Butterfly Assassin is how several people have said they don’t normally read books without romance, but that they didn’t feel anything was missing from mine. One person even said that it felt like the friendship hit the same beats as a romantic relationship would have done, in terms of how it grows and develops. That’s deliberate. I’d read a lot of books growing up where the cold, “emotionless” character was “humanised” by sexual attraction and romantic feelings, and I wanted to explore the possibility of platonic affection serving the same purpose, breaking through their shell. There are a lot of ways to love people; why was only one being valued?
It makes me think a lot about what people are looking for when they prioritise reading books with strong romantic elements. I know what I’m looking for when I pick up a romance novel; I’m rarely looking for it when I pick up a fantasy or sci-fi book. But maybe what others are seeking, when they say they want strong romance subplots, is actually just human connection, intensity of feeling, those moments when a character realises their feelings for another have broken through their walls and rules and intentions and changed how they respond to having plot happen to them. And I see no reason why you can’t get those feelings from an intense platonic friendship.
(NB: An ace protagonist doesn’t, of course, preclude the possibility of romance, because asexuality and aromanticism are not synonymous. However, as Isabel is ace/aro and those aspects of her identity are significantly entwined, in this specific case, there’s a lot of overlap, and I will sometimes use one as shorthand for another. This is not intended to erase the identities of those who are ace and not aro, or aro and not ace, but I know that my terminology sometimes blurs in ways that could seem careless, hence the clarification.)
Book two once again has one of those intense friendships at the heart of it, but there’s a difference, because it’s no longer the only friendship that Isabel has, and there is a lot more space for Isabel to start reflecting more on her place in the world around her and how she relates to the people she’s surrounded with. In book one, she’s isolated, with very few friends of her own age, almost all of whom she’s lying to. She’s only just escaped from a traumatic upbringing that, in particular, has left her isolated for the past eighteen months, forbidden to see anyone except her parents and one other person. This is not the case in the sequel.
Without wanting to give too much away before the title and cover and blurb are revealed, one of the things I like about book two is that although the narrative voice is still very much in Isabel’s head — it’s in third person, but it’s such a close third person it sometimes feels closer than first, to me — the scope of the story is broader. It’s like the camera has stepped back, and we get to see more of the city, because Isabel is living in it, engaging with it, experiencing it.
Book two gives us an Isabel who has friends, or at least colleagues — a day job, putting her in a position of interacting daily with civilians who challenge her sense of self and open her mind to new possibilities. And, yes, they are mostly queer. Again, this wasn’t a deliberate choice, or a box-ticking exercise (“okay, we need a character who uses they/them pronouns, and a character who’s gay, and a character who’s bi…”). I have very few straight cis friends, and when I come to write, I write characters who feel real to me, who look like the world I see around me. So, inevitably, they end up mostly being queer, because that’s the world I live in.
In a queernorm environment, there’s no need for anyone to come out, because nobody is ever assumed to be straight. But still, in many queernorm settings, there’s an expectation that characters will be interested in someone, even if options are less circumscribed. I didn’t want to fall into that trap, either, but I wanted to see Isabel realising for the first time that her experiences might not be Default Setting. Not to alienate her, or make her feel different, but to allow her to be herself more consciously.
One of the ways I’ve done this — and I’m excited for you to read this part — is to show Isabel picking up some of the terrible romance novels we encountered in book one, when Emma was collecting them. I hope that nobody takes this detail as me mocking Romance as a genre. I have been very public about the fact that queer historical romance novels got me through the pandemic, and if I poke fun at cliché Mills & Boon style romance novels here, it’s done with love. I had a lot of fun coming up with awful in-universe premises (an assassin who falls for their target! two assassins from rival guilds who have a meet-cute over a dead body!) and I knew, as soon as they showed up in book one, that I would want to come back to them properly.
(Psst. If anyone wants to write one of these as fanfic, it would delight me. Or, you know, if anyone wants to pay me to write one of these, I will do so with glee and gusto. Just know that it would be intentionally Extremely Cringe.)
So. Isabel reads terrible in-universe romance novels. (Her friends and colleagues are quick to assure her that good romance novels do exist; she continues to stubbornly read the terrible ones, because Emma collected them, so they mean something.) And she doesn’t get it. And she turns to her flatmate, to her friends, and is like, “Explain this to me.”
The thing I love about this is that it gives us space for Isabel to examine her feelings in a hypothetical situation — but it also lets her explore them with others who, unexpectedly, share some of those feelings. One of the characters she talks to is aro, but bisexual. One of them is ace/aro. Neither of them use labels, because they don’t exist within the setting in the same way that they do in our world, but they’re able to give Isabel perspectives that help her understand herself.
That is representation, for me. Not necessarily specific labels that map directly onto real-world experiences, although these can be helpful for some, life-saving for others. But to have those perspectives, those new ways of seeing the world that allow you to understand your place in a continuum and then explore it deliberately and consciously… I think that’s what really matters, when it comes down to it. And whether readers relate to Isabel’s place in that continuum or not, I think seeing it is part of what allows us all to be ourselves more consciously.
In fact, some of the characters that were the most helpful to me in figuring out I was trans were not trans characters. It was those who made me say, Oh, that’s NOT me, that really helped solidify things. Experiences that I couldn’t relate to that made me prod and poke for the reasons why. But it was also characters in settings where they didn’t have words for things, because I wasn’t ready to put labels on things, and I wasn’t willing to commit to a label. There’s something gentler about seeing yourself reflected without necessarily acknowledging first what that would mean.
In the end, what is any coming out process, what is any exploration of gender or sexuality, but learning who we are and starting to do it on purpose?
Book two shows Isabel learning a lot more about who she is, and doing some of it on purpose — even the parts she doesn’t necessarily like about herself. And her purposeful self is ace/aro, and feels platonic affection so intensely that it can break through all her walls and repression, because there’s never been only one kind of love.
I’m very much looking forward to sharing that with you.
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:
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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… 👀
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 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.
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 hasto 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.