Tag: editing

From Cocoon To Butterfly…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

On Making The Trash Words

I have written a lot of books.

At the last count, the total stood at 21 completed first drafts, at least two that passed 50k but were never actually finished, and several more that never got that far. A number of those books were subsequently edited, going through there or five or nine drafts before I set them aside or moved on to another project. If I had to estimate how many words of fiction I’ve written in the past 12 years, it would be in the millions before we even got to the redrafts, and that’s excluding collaborations, short fiction, fanfic, poetry, or anything that doesn’t fall into the category of “solo novels”.

A screenshot of the NaNoWriMo website, showing the profile of user "delorfinde". The header displays a "words written" count of "1,884,385". The visible project is called "To A Candle Flame", and the progress bar is at 131,338 words of 50,000.
I’ve written nearly 2 million words just for NaNoWriMo projects, although some of these were redrafts. (I should note that To A Candle Flame was not 131k in total. I worked on two books during last year’s NaNoWriMo.)

The book that went somewhere, that got me into Author Mentor Match and found me my agent, was — as far as I can work out when I’m not certain of all the chronology — my fifteenth novel. Drafted in 2014, nearly 5 years after completing my first novel. Possibly the first “good” book I wrote, even if took six years of editing to get it there.

Because, you see, many of these books were bad. Some are “not worth rereading let alone editing” bad. Some are “could be fixed but I don’t care enough to put the effort in” bad. Some are “has redeeming features but it would be years of effort to unearth them” bad.

I often say that I learned how to write by doing it wrong — a lot. I don’t have a creative writing degree and I’ve never done a novel-writing course. I’ve never even taken a creative writing class, unless you count when I used to help out with the after school club for year 7s and 8s while I was doing my Duke of Edinburgh award. I wrote a lot and I wrote badly as part of the process of figuring out how to do it better, and while it was a crucial part of that process, it also feels like it was… the most labour-intensive way of doing that.

And sometimes I get frustrated, thinking about how much time it took. I wrote literally millions of words as a teenager, and it still took me ten years to figure out that the motivations of secondary characters are a crucial part of making a plot hang together? I mean, I think on some level I knew that all along, but I definitely wasn’t acting on it. I treated characters, particularly antagonists, like chess pieces: they’d be where I wanted them to be for plot reasons, with no sense that there was much going on in their heads.

I’m grateful to every beta reader, critique partner, and mentor who said, “But why?” about certain scenes. Because it turns out, “Because he’s being an edgy bitch,” wasn’t enough of an answer. “For the drama” was not an answer. When a character is about to make an irreversible decision, we need to know why they’re doing it. For someone who spends so much time overanalysing their own thoughts and has never made a snap decision in their life, it sure took me a long time to figure that out.

Trying to figure out character motivations at the kitchen table in 2018.

I know the platitudes: “no work is ever wasted”, “every novel taught you something”, “it was part of the process”, “you have to make the trash words before you make the flash words” (thanks to my friend Menna for that last one). I know they’re true, even if it’s hard to believe it. But sometimes, when I encounter other writers who were agented with their first or second novel, who sold the first book they ever wrote, who seemed to streamline the whole process — I think, What were all those words for? Why did it take me so long to figure out what I was doing?

I can’t tell if it makes it better or worse that my early novels have different flaws. True, weak plotting and antagonists are a common theme, and true, my prose has been pretty solid from a reasonably early stage, although my third novel does contain the phrase, “All-consuming death spree” and somehow still takes itself seriously. But it’s not like I did the same thing wrong in every book, so I could be confident that by fixing that flaw, I would guarantee not to do it again. They just… failed. For different reasons.

Some of them I was invested in a final scene and twisted the end of the book to fit that scene, even when the plot had diverged and it no longer made sense. Some needed historical research and didn’t get it. Some ran out of plot halfway through and I just muddled through until I found my way back, sacrificing meaningful character arcs in the process. Some were derivative and owed too much to the YA paranormal romances that were popular c.2010 to ever stand alone as originals.

Some of them, the very premise was flawed. The book I mentioned last week was flawed because not only did I find the ideology of the group my characters joined abhorrent (not, in and of itself, a problem: writers =/= characters, morally speaking), but the other views and ideals my characters expressed meant that they would too. As a result, none of their actions made any sense. That flaw existed because I was fifteen and politically ignorant when I started it, and while I tried to address it in later drafts once I recognised the problem, it undermined the entire book on a level that didn’t seem fixable.

As I said last week, I think I figured out how I would rewrite it to keep some elements and characters I enjoyed, while transforming it into a new book where those ideological tensions are an asset, not a flaw. It’s a book that could be rescued, or at least, it’s a book I can dismantle brick by brick and use to build something new. So: not wasted work. I wrote the trash words, maybe one day I can write the flash words.

And yet — five or six drafts, a dozen or so queries sent, a new title, two printed copies of the draft to annotate while editing, numerous beta readers, a trip to the place where it’s set to research details, a bunch of research. Hundreds of thousands of words and hours of my life. Just to create something I might one day pull apart and rework. Was that worth it?

I don’t know.

But I know this: the majority of those novels I wrote as a teenager were the product of an unselfconscious writer who knew their books were bad and didn’t care because they were doing it for the sake of writing. Yes, sometimes I planned to “fix it in edits”, but sometimes I realised halfway through that I was going to shelve a book and I kept writing it anyway. Because I didn’t write them because I wanted to have written a book, I wrote them because I wanted to write.

A blurry image of a messy desk. In the centre is a laptop, open but turned off. It's illuminated by a desk lamp. On the right are papers and junk, including a purse and a water bottle. On the left is a red box file, with more papers on top of it, as well as a plastic coat hanger.
My desk in 2010. Can confirm it’s still usually a mess, but these days it’s a mess with better ergonomics. The box on the left contained all my notes and drafts for the book I was working on at the time.

I spent my lunchtimes in the school library writing; I took the early bus so I could write before school; I neglected homework so I could spend more hours hammering out books. Not so that I could Be A Writer, somebody who has completed a book, but because… I wanted to. Because I loved it. Because I didn’t know who I was when I wasn’t writing. Because writing was fun.

I wrote books in half a dozen different genres not to figure out what it was that I wanted to do forever or find my “brand” as an author, but because it was fun. I wrote books in first person, third person, second person. Past tense. Present tense. Epistolary. (That one was a collaborative novel, written in the form of blog posts.) I wrote books with romance and books without. Books with tragic endings and books with — okay, I’d be pushed to say I’ve written many books with a happy ending, although I’m getting better at that as an adult. Teen me was a depressed emo kid who thought tragedy was the best genre, so most of them tended to be a huge bummer, or at least bittersweet.

It wasn’t wasted work. It was part of the process of learning to write, and the importance of that can’t be understated, but that’s also not why it mattered.

It mattered because I enjoyed it.

It mattered because writing was how I made friends on the internet. It mattered because it gave me an outlet for my teenage angst. It mattered because there was a huge sense of achievement in every completed NaNoWriMo and every The End on the final page of a document. It mattered because writing helped me explore who I was, often without realising I was doing it, and process those identity crises in a way that felt safe. It mattered because every book that I created was a part of creating myself.

A selfie of me and my friend Caspian standing in front of the "Lisdoonvarna" sign in Lisdoonvarna, Co. Clare. We are both wearing raincoats and are clearly soaked to the skin, but we're smiling triumphantly.
Soaked through after an extremely rainy walk in the Burren (Co. Clare) with my friend Caspian, in 2016. We met on the writing website Protagonize in 2009.

Most of those first 14 books aren’t worth editing, and will never be read by anyone except me and the poor beta readers on whom I inflicted them. Some of the 7 after that might one day be Real Books. (One of them’s been shelved, and one’s dubious, but the other five I feel pretty positive about.) And yes, I hope that having written them means the next time I sit down to write a book, what comes out will be flash words.

But the trash words, in their own way, meant everything.

So here’s to A Sky Full of Stars. To Legacy and Memory and the middle book in that trilogy, which I never wrote. Here’s to Beneath the Branches, Figurehead, Weapons of Chaos, and Recall, all NaNoWriMo projects that will probably never see the sun. To Watching, Destroying and Returning, the larval stage of the Death and Fairies series, whose characters I’ve kept even while yeeting the books themselves. To Forget My Wings and A Single Soul, two thoroughly depressing products of my seventeen-year- old self, who in fairness, was having a really rough time of it. Here’s to The Knight Shift, which I might one day save, and to Bard and Lie Down Below, my (probably doomed) forays into sci-fi.

They bring us the survivors: the Moth trilogy with its plethora of working titles; D&F book 1, which has gone eight years and three drafts without a title; To Run With the Hound, my sad gay Táin retelling; and The Wolf and His King, a retelling of Bisclavret. And they bring us the incomplete novels and the outlines and the half-imagined books that exist only in notes on my phone and the books I haven’t yet even imagined. These books are built on foundations made of millions of bad words.

And, more importantly, so am I.

A photo of my room. On the left is a white desk with a desktop PC and an ergonomic keyboard.
My desk in 2021… immediately after having been tidied. No, it did not stay like that for long.

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On Killing Darlings

Most writers have been given this advice at some time — if not by a creative writing teacher, then they’ve read it in a book or online. “Kill your darlings”. It’s ubiquitous, maybe because it’s snappy and easy to remember.

But less easy, it seems, to interpret. Some seem to think it means, “Don’t be afraid to hurt your characters.” This would never have occurred to me as a meaning, since I’ve been being horrible to my characters since approximately the age of eight, but I can see where they’re coming from. Some authors do seem to struggle with actually making their characters suffer, or killing anybody off — I’m just not one of them 😈 Others think it means, “Cut out anything even slightly self-indulgent, because what do you mean you’re enjoying your book?” These people usually think it’s bad advice, and they’re probably right.

The way “Kill your darlings” was explained to me, though I can’t remember by whom, is more along the lines of, “Don’t hold onto a scene/line/character once it’s no longer useful, just because you like it.” If a scene isn’t working and the only reason it’s still in the book is because you’re attached to it… that’s a darling, and it needs to be killed.

I’m a pretty ruthless editor of my own work, possibly because my method of editing is to start a new document and write the whole book again from the beginning. This horrifies some people, and it’s a ridiculously labour-intensive way of doing things, but it means I’m not afraid to yeet material. After all, it’s always still there in the previous version, and why would I want to type it out again unless I needed to?

A couple of years ago, when I was being mentored by Rory Power to revise my YA thriller with Author Mentor Match, I took an even more drastic approach. I basically burned the whole thing down and started again, reworking my plot, combining characters, and generally ending up with a new book… albeit one that had important elements in common with the previous one.

One thing I’ve found remarkable about that book is how, even after 7 years and countless reworkings, it still feels like the same book that I wrote in 2014. The vibes are still there, even if basically no scenes have survived. I’ve killed a lot of darlings — scenes that were in the book for 5+ years, lines I loved, jokes that made me snigger — because I made other changes that meant those moments were no longer working.

And yet.

I’ve recently been editing this book again, because it never ends, and while this rewrite hasn’t encompassed such huge changes, I still made a number of alterations that had a knock-on impact on other scenes. It was … a little bit like when you move a picture slightly in MS Word and it destroys the formatting for your entire document. You know the feeling? I moved one tiny thing and suddenly it all went wrong. Oops.

Screenshot of a Facebook message. Sender's name appears to be "perpetually concerned". Message reads "where is the plot equivalent of going 'image > wrap > tight'" and has received a thumbs up and a laugh reaction.

Most of these, I’ve managed to straighten out. There are a couple of problem chapters that I need to go back to, one of which is proving particularly intransigent. Now, I love that chapter. I’ve always loved the chapter — it survived from a much earlier draft, even though its current context is very different, and there are some lines in it that date back years. But it wasn’t working, and I found myself thinking, “Is my love of this chapter getting in the way?”

Maybe, I thought, this was a darling that needed to be cut. Could I delete it? Would that solve anything? Was I holding onto something that had long since ceased to fulfill its intended to function, and which needed to be retired?

After three seconds of thought it became apparent that it would not, in fact, solve anything. Yes, I loved the scene, but independent of my feelings about the prose, it was providing pivotal moments for at least two characters, and underpinning a major plot point. Taking it out would cause a collapse in the middle of the book. The scene still served a purpose, so deleting it wasn’t the solution.

Nope, that one I was actually going to have to fix the old-fashioned way. By rewriting it again. (That’s tomorrow’s job.)

A screencap of a green chat bubble reading:
"me: how much do i REALLY need this scene
like three plot points: bitch don't even think about it"
The bubble is timestamped Mon 2:54 pm, and has been laugh-reacted once.
My writing friends enjoy laughing at my pain.

But there was one moment towards the end where a scene just wasn’t working. No matter what I did, I couldn’t make the new events join up with what I wanted to have happen immediately afterwards. There was this line, you see, the final sentence of the chapter, and I loved it. It was a great end to the chapter. Intensely emotional. Fabulous imagery. Really hammered home the fact that this is a low point for the protagonist. And yet…

I must have spent hours trying to figure out how to fix the scene. I tried to write it on paper. I wrote it, deleted it, abandoned it entirely and went to Lidl, hoping the walk would shake it loose. I messaged two of my beta readers to bounce ideas. Dove into research in the hope that figuring out logistics would shake the answers loose instead.

And then I came back to it and realised the problem wasn’t the scene. It was that line.

I couldn’t fix the scene and keep the line in. I mean, I could write a version of the chapter that still had that line, but it wouldn’t work; it would wrench the mood back in a different direction, and complicate the transition to the next chapter. Was it a great, poetic line full of angst that I was incredibly proud of? Yes. Was it working where it was? Absolutely not.

And when I looked at it again, knowing this, I realised… it actually hadn’t been working before, either. It hadn’t been as out-of-place as it was now, which is why it had been allowed to stay, but it introduced a significant inconsistency in the character’s mood throughout the scene — she went from angry and murderous one second, to despairing and helpless the next, with no moment of transition. If I hadn’t loved it so much, I probably would have noticed that sooner, and resolved that issue, but my lack of objectivity was getting in the way.

So I killed my darling. I cut the line. I finished the scene, I rewrote the opening of the next chapter to reflect the changes, and it solved the problem. It’s a stronger scene, the emotional arc is more consistent, and while something is lost, it’s something I’m not sure had ever really belonged there in the first place. The scene still isn’t perfect, and I definitely want to go over it again to make sure we still get the full emotional effect, but it’s a lot better than it would have been had I tried to shoehorn in that sentence I loved.

Because sometimes, it turns out, the old clichés of writing advice are right. Sometimes, you have to kill your darlings.

The Story So Far

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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