Tag: editing

20/10, Releviĝo (TBA Readalong)

LADS. I am so sorry. I am posting this with maybe ten minutes to spare before midnight. I was so convinced the next readalong post wasn’t due until the 22nd October, and I’d run out of pre-scheduled posts, but I was convinced it was fine and I could catch up on them at the weekend. IT WAS NOT FINE. I nearly missed today entirely.

And that would have been tragic! Because on the twentieth of October, Isabel wakes up after believing she was dying, and asks Daragh what the date is. And that means today is one of the only dates that is actually on the page, in the book, and therefore of all the ones to miss, this would have been the worst.

‘What day is it?’
‘Saturday. It’s the twentieth of October.’

There’s no particular symbolism to this date. I chose it because it matched up with the calendar and an appropriate number of days had passed, that’s all. I wish I could tell you there was more to it than that, but if there was actual symbolism, I probably would have remembered that it was due to happen today, and would’ve written this post on time. OOPS.

For obvious reasons, given everything I’ve told you over the course of the last few posts with regard to the development of this section of the book, this scene showed up in the sixth draft. It has always been Saturday 20th October. In fact, that might have been one of the dates that helped me pin down the year (2029), because I needed the days of the week to match up — not that I was particularly attached to this being a Saturday, for the record, but just because I needed to pin it down somehow and that was one way of doing it.

That first iteration of the scene has a few small wording differences compared to the current one, but otherwise it’s almost identical, and the same goes for the whole of this scene. That’s the beauty of the late additions: they tend to show up in roughly the same shape they’ll always be in, and don’t have to be wrangled quite so dramatically into place.

The only real difference — and truly, it’s not particularly substantial — is that in the final book, Isabel wonders whether Ashvin has found somebody to take over her paper round, because she doubts she’ll be getting her job back. Again, it should be obvious by now that that wasn’t in the earlier drafts, because the paper round itself was a late addition, but while it might be a throwaway detail, I think it does add something to the scene: Isabel’s civilian life is a real, concrete loss, and this is the moment she realises she isn’t getting it back. Her paper round is a symbol of that. It was a job that bound her to the world outside the guild, gave her a way to exist within it. Now it’s gone, and she didn’t even get to say goodbye, and she’ll probably never see Ashvin again.

This scene is very much grappling with irreversible decisions, and harm that can’t be undone. They made the antidote. The poison is gone. So why doesn’t that change anything beyond the likelihood of Isabel dying in the next five minutes? I mean, sure, that part’s important too, but… there’s a very real grief here for even the illusion of safety, and Isabel is also blaming herself quite significantly for what she’s been through.

It was always herself she needed saving from.

Whether she’s right to hold herself responsible for making the poison, I’ll leave up to readers. It’s one of those questions the whole series is grappling with: can you be blameless while still being culpable? Are there moral justifications for working in weapons development? The line between victim and perpetrator is never a clear one here: Isabel is harmed, and does harm. Both of those things are true.

But here. Here in this moment the person she has done harm to is herself, her own creation a weapon in her father’s hand. She’s going to need time to process that, and processing requires safety, and she’s got precious little of that at the moment, here in the heart of the guild. So she’ll probably get right on with repressing it very soon. But that’s a topic for the next few days.

Speaking of which: my calendar marks the events of chapter 25 (“recovery, contd.”) running from 21st October through to the 29th, when we next have a specifically-dated conversation, and then on to chapter 26 on the 30th. I will probably write a single post to cover that first 8 days, and post it some time between the 21st and the 23rd, depending on when I finish it. Sound good? Cool. I’ll see you here tomorrow/Sunday/Monday, then.


I’d say it won’t happen again but let’s be honest. It will. There’s a reason I was scheduling these posts at the beginning. 🙈

17/10, Savo–Rezigno (TBA Readalong)

And we’re back. I’m hoping regular readers of this TBA readalong didn’t enjoy that break too much, since it would suggest you’re not having a great time being bombarded with posts, but if it was a relief, I can’t say I blame you; I’ve thrown kind of a lot of words at you 😅 For those just joining us, we’re following the story of The Butterfly Assassin in real time according to the book’s chronology, and I’m talking about the writing process and worldbuilding. We’re getting into the big dramatic plot moments now, so I recommend jumping back to 17/09, Eraro, to start at the beginning!

It’s now the seventeenth of October. The last time we saw Isabel, she was in hospital, drifting in and out of consciousness – still dying, her decline only slowed by the interventions of Daragh and other Comma medics, not halted. For the last few days, she’s been moving further and further past the point where recovery seems possible, but she’s not all the way gone yet.

And on the seventeenth of October, Isabel remembers. A nightmare, a dream, a memory: it’s the missing piece she’s been lacking, the memory that tells her that the reason she can’t break the code on that one page of notes, the one that might be crucial to saving her, is because it was never her father’s code in the first place – it was hers. She’s the one who designed the poison this way, and she’s the one who wrote it down.

With the last of her strength, Isabel gives Daragh the formula of the antidote, and then her heart stops.

She never thought dying would hurt like this. She would have fought harder, if she knew it would hurt like this.

This is… a dramatic moment. We have the only moment in the book with non-standard formatting, as Isabel’s heartbeat slows and stops on page, and then we have the shortest chapter in the whole book (97 words, if I remember correctly). And by making Isabel the creator of the poison, I made her the agent of her own destruction – but also gave her agency over her own salvation. It’s her knowledge that’s the key to the antidote, not the invisible work of off-screen others.

This was a significant change from early drafts, where Isabel had almost no role in creating her own antidote, but she also had less responsibility in those drafts for the poison itself. Like I said in an earlier post, it was important to me that Isabel is at least partially responsible for her own suffering, and that this doesn’t mean she deserves the pain. But it was also a crucial part in making sure she had narrative agency, and wasn’t only suffering at the hands of others.

I love my tiny <100-word chapter here. I haven’t done it anywhere else in the trilogy; I didn’t want to make a habit of it. It works because it’s the only one, because this moment needs to be dramatic, because Isabel’s organs are failing and her heart has stopped and from her point of view, there’s a strong chance the story ends here.

The reader knows – or thinks they know – that it can’t end here, because there’s still a solid chunk of book left. Isabel’s a third-person narrator, but we’re still very closely in her head and we never see others’ perspectives on the story, so it functions like a first-person narrative. And we do not expect first-person narratives to kill off their sole narrators.

Now, this is where I can hear my beta readers sniggering in the background, because they know full well that I have killed off my sole first-person narrators in the past (and also my first-person narrators in multi-POV books). I have written more first-person death scenes than anyone should write, probably; it’s a problem, I’m incorrigible when it comes to killing them off, I accept this. I had one book where I killed the first-person narrator twice. (She died. Came back wrong. Died again. It was a whole thing.)

What I’m saying is, if you ever pick up one of my books and it has a first-person narrator, do not assume that this means they are safe. They are not. Nobody is safe. I can and will write a first-person death scene. (And ain’t that always a weird experience as a writer. The emotional hangover is real.)

But. Fine. Let’s assume this is not permadeath for Isabel, because we have 150 pages left of the book and also two sequels. We still need to feel it, though. The life-or-death stakes don’t mean anything if death was never really on the table, and the last-minute recovery can’t be a painless, easy experience or it starts to feel like we’re cheating. There has to be a cost to letting a character get that close to death, and this is it. The white heat of agony.

Sorry, Isabel. I feel like she’s really going through it in this part.

These scenes, as you can probably deduce from everything I’ve told you about the journey this book’s edits took, originate from the sixth draft, the AMM rewrite. There, they take more or less the exact form they have in the published book, barring a few stylistic tweaks here and there, so there’s nothing I can show you from those earlier versions that you haven’t already seen in the finished book.

But there’s also a confession I need to make, because while I can’t be one hundred percent sure of this, I think I may… possibly… have stolen a line here? Specifically, the line that opens chapter 24:

There is no relief in waking, only noise.

Bearing in mind that I wrote this line in 2019, and at the time I hadn’t reread the Hunger Games trilogy since around 2013 (I reread them in 2021; that post was written after I sold The Butterfly Assassin, but before that was announced), this was at most a half-remembered homage and possibly a complete accident, but this line has a predecessor. In Mockingjay.

Finnick and I sit for a long time in silence, watching the knots bloom and vanish, before I can ask, ‘How do you bear it?’

Finnick looks at me in disbelief. ‘I don’t, Katniss! Obviously, I don’t. I drag myself out of nightmares each morning and find there’s no relief in waking.’

Mockingjay, Suzanne Collins

Okay, it’s five words, and an entirely relatable sentiment for anyone who has ever woken up from something awful to find nothing has improved, so I doubt anyone would be stringing me up for plagiarism even if they could demonstrate that I did this deliberately (and, I will be honest, I don’t know if I did or not). But these days, having noticed the overlap, I prefer to think of it as intertextuality: a commentary on YA books about trauma and violence, about getting trapped in a cycle and becoming somebody you never wanted to be, because you haven’t been given any way out.

When my publisher first started using The Hunger Games as a comp title, I wasn’t sure about it. It was such a global phenomenon that it felt presumptuous, long enough ago that it felt like a throwback (and therefore less relevant to the current market), and my impression of those books had been shaped by the films to the point where the main thing this evoked was “competition” and “love triangle”, neither of which are focus points for my work. (Especially not the latter!)

But when I actually reread the trilogy, I saw a lot of shared themes: the trauma; the societal cycles of violence that disproportionately impact on young people, especially disadvantaged young people; the way that survival instincts and protective instincts can override all else; the impossibility of breaking a cycle while justice and punishment are conflated, etc. And I became extremely okay with that comparison, because it suggested to me that books about trauma, books where teenage girls are messy and violent and awful and hurting, can be hugely popular and influential, even when people keep telling us that nobody wants to read about despair.

Anyway. I’ve confessed my possible theft. Isabel is dying. Daragh has the formula for the antidote, but will it be enough to save her? It’ll be a few days before we find out – on the twentieth of October – so for now, it’s over to you.

How did you feel in this moment, when Isabel’s heart stopped? Do you like weird formatting in books, or does it put you off? If you read the book as an ebook, did you even get to experience the full drama, or did it ruin it by squishing everything into left-alignment? (Because that would be tragic.)

Leave your answers, and any other thoughts, in the comment section below.

11/10, Savo (TBA Readalong)

Just joining us? We’re following the events of The Butterfly Assassin according to the book’s chronology, and I’m discussing the worldbuilding and writing process. You can jump to 17/09, Eraro, to start from the beginning (though that’s by no means obligatory! Join in wherever you like!). Since we’re now on Chapter 23, more than halfway through, all posts will involve a certain amount of spoilers. Continue at your discretion.

On the eleventh of October, Isabel wakes up in hospital. A Comma hospital, to be precise: Chadwick Green, in Weaverthorpe. (Named partially after Nora and/or H.M. Chadwick, who were foundational to my academic field. I used to have Nora Chadwick’s book The Celts on my bookshelf, so it’s probably her that it’s technically named after. I’m not sure who donated the Green.)

Daragh is there, and when she confronts him about working for Comma and his connection with Ronan, he admits that they’re cousins, and that he has always had a guild connection. He also tells her that she’s still sick, and they can’t necessarily fix it, because they still don’t have the formula for the poison.

The dates start getting a lot fuzzier at this point in the book, because Isabel is drifting in and out of consciousness, so while this chapter is actually spread over quite a few days, I’m going to treat the first half of it – up to the start of the flashback/memory – as though it all happened on the eleventh, and then you’ll get a break from posts until the seventeenth.

As I’ve mentioned repeatedly throughout this series, Isabel originally spent a lot more of the book in hospital, so this dramatic moment of surrender and then waking up in Comma’s grasp didn’t exist until I rejigged the plot and pacing in the sixth draft. That was also when I combined the characters of Dr Claudia Vernant, the civilian doctor, and Daragh, the Comma doctor, which means it was only then that Daragh became Ronan’s cousin.

Before that, I did briefly have a plotline in which Ronan and Daragh had known each other growing up, because they were neighbours / lived in the same area, and had been close friends. Making it a family connection was really just an intensification of that – it felt like it strengthened Daragh’s sense of obligation, as well as providing useful narrative parallels to Isabel’s own situation and her family ties to the guild. (It’s always about the doubles.)

You can see the moment I made this decision in my notes about Ronan from 2019, during AMM:

Mother’s family also from NI, like Daragh’s – brother is called Kieran, so names suggest this. Possibly actually related to Daragh – cousins??? (That would be wild, but ‘surprise, everyone’s related’ is basically a summary of every book I’ve ever written.) Anyway, this shared background explains why they grew up in the same part of Espera – big immigrant community.

I would also say that Daragh in the earlier drafts was a bit of a prick. I was reading through some of the early hospital scenes while writing these posts, and I was surprised how little I liked him. He was extremely ready to violate Isabel’s autonomy in the name of healthcare, failing to explain treatments to her or get meaningful consent for them, and he was also super complicit in efforts to pull her back into guild training as part of her rehabilitation/physical therapy, which I’d forgotten about.

Obviously, that version of Daragh belongs to a draft in which Isabel’s trauma was far less prominent (and in which it wasn’t handled well even when present). But it’s still the complete opposite of the Daragh we see in this chapter, where his defining feature is that he’s the one who makes sure Isabel knows what’s happening and that she’s okay with it.

Daragh being kind is crucial to Isabel ending up back in Comma. It’s easier to run away from an organisation that has only been cruel to you, and she would never have gone back to the Sunshine Project if she didn’t feel safe there. It’s because Daragh treated her with care and respect that she went to him, but that care is the reason she gets dragged back in, and that’s a betrayal she’s struggling to process here.

Comma is Ronan, her parents, bargains and violence and cruelty, but somehow, impossibly, Comma is also Daragh. […] When Daragh’s there, he explains the different treatments – the blood transfusions, the dialysis – and what her latest round of test results said, though most of it means little to her. […] He doesn’t touch her, but his hand is there and she grabs at it just to feel like she’s real. […] She’s clinging desperately to the hand of a Comma doctor and he’s the only person in this building who gives a shit what happens to her.

This moment is the reason that combining Dr Vernant and Daragh was one of the best decisions I made for this book. It’s rare for me to cut an entire character without also cutting the scenes that they’re involved in, but it added a level of complexity to Isabel’s relationship with Daragh that made everything more emotional: she both trusts him and doesn’t, has experience of him trying to help and associates him with the organisation that hurt her, is grateful to him and furious.

I’m pretty sure this decision was a direct suggestion from Rory Power (for those unaware, I overhauled this book during Author Mentor Match, with Rory as my mentor) and although I was originally hesitant, I’m extremely glad I took that advice. Thanks, Rory.

While most of this chapter is new, or has changed significantly from previous drafts, there are a few lines that I have been keeping and reusing and relocating across drafts for years: the description of Isabel’s nightmares, the strange iridescence of her dreams. After working my way back through draft after draft, I found that the first version of this passage comes from the second draft, dating to 2015:

She wishes she knew how to feel hope like that, but she’s too exhausted to feel anything but the dread settling like sediment in her stomach. The emotions of the day – both the laughter of earlier and the fear triggered by this discussion – have worn her out, and even as she tries to reply to Emma, she’s drifting into unconsciousness and the strange iridescence of her dreams. She’s no longer sure if they’re hallucinations or memories or both, only that they’re always full of blood.

This one has a soundtrack. She thinks she recognises the sound of herself screaming.

As we can see, it initially came after a conversation with Emma, at the end of the chapter where Emma paints the mural of Isabel on the hospital wall. (Comma are not impressed by this, and Emma is barred from the hospital after this point.) Because we’ve shifted everything around, and Isabel has only just entered the hospital, with Emma kept out from the beginning because of her civilian status, it now comes in the middle of a chapter and with a slightly different emphasis.

I knew I’d been keeping these lines for a while, but I didn’t realise it was that long. The other line I enjoy from this passage, the inevitable gravity of total implosion, was a later addition, entering some time after the sixth draft, although there were previous other descriptions of the gravity of illness/pain/giving up dragging her in. I find it fascinating to trace the survival of individual phrases and sentences across drafts, particularly when they wind up in different scenes and different context, and this section of the book is rich with those, because the basic details of the book have stayed similar enough that the lines can survive, but so much of it has been rewritten that they have to move if they’re going to stay.

I don’t think about it as moving, though, most of the time. I edit by opening a new document next to the old document and rewriting the whole book from the beginning, which horrifies a lot of people, including my editor. As such, I’m never deleting lines from the book – just choosing not to include them. And then I might choose to include them somewhere else. It’s a labour-intensive process, but it’s a good way to force myself to think about what I’m keeping: if I don’t want to type it out again, it’s probably not worth it.

But considering how radically I rewrite, I think it’s remarkable how many fragments of the early drafts survive after all these years. To end up in the finished book, they must have been retyped a minimum of eight times, probably more. Each time, I looked at them, and made a deliberate choice that I wanted those words, specifically. The entire scene might be new, but it’ll be built with the bricks of the old.

I did know this about myself, and I did know there were details in the book that had been there a while, but I didn’t realise how many of them or how long they’d survived: writing this blog series has been a fascinating exercise in going back to those old drafts over and over again, and for that reason, I’m so glad I decided to do it – even though it is, also, extremely labour-intensive as a way of working 😅 Did you know I’ve written over 36.5k in blog posts for this series so far? If we’re not careful, we’ll end up with an entire extra novel out of it.

One last detail in this section to discuss. Daragh admits that he doesn’t know how Isabel has survived this long, and Isabel jokes that it’s spite – but she also references the resistance her body has built up after years of poisoning. Now, originally, I had Isabel actually practice mithridatism, where you poison yourself tiny amounts each day to develop resistance to poisons. Turns out, this does not work and you should not do that, and even with the suspension of disbelief that fiction permits us, it was no longer at all convincing once the poisons Isabel started being exposed to were carefully engineered nerve agents and similar, rather than your average poisonous plants.

At the same time, bodies do habituate to bad experiences. People with chronic pain often end up with a wildly skewed sense of what’s normal, and endure situations that others would find unbearable, because that’s their day-to-day experience. So while Isabel’s past experiences of poison are more likely to weaken her immune system than strengthen it, they have taught her to endure sickness and pain and to keep struggling on when everything is awful, and they mean that it’s less of a shock to her body, because it has suffered in the past.

So if her past experiences are helping at all, it’s in that regard, not due to actual resistance to poison. (Again, we know the poison is a new invention and therefore not something she can have been exposed to before because that’s the whole plot.) But I realise the wording of this passage is slightly ambiguous, in part because it is influenced by previous versions of the book back when I did still believe mithridatism worked. (But it is not, as far as I know, a directly-lifted sentence from those drafts.)

So that brings us up to the flashback, which my calendar dates to the seventeenth of October. The twelfth through to the sixteenth are marked for me as “in and out of consciousness”, with parts of the scenes discussed above taking place in that period, but there’s no convenient way to express that in chronological post form. As such, you’ll get a more extended break from the readalong now, and I’ll see you back here on the seventeenth for some Dramatic Moments.

In the meantime, over to you: what did you think of the reveal that Daragh is related to Ronan? How does it make you feel that after fighting so hard to escape, Isabel is back in a Comma hospital? What else stood out to you about this chapter?

10/10, Disfalo (TBA Readalong)

Hello! We’re reading The Butterfly Assassin together and discussing the worldbuilding and writing process, according to the chronology of the book. This readalong started with 17/09, Eraro. Jump to that post to start from the beginning, or join us wherever you like!

On the tenth of October, Isabel and Emma meet Michael at Gauntlet Drive to investigate their best lead regarding the whereabouts of Isabel’s father. On the way there, Emma shows Isabel a mural she painted of her. Gauntlet Drive is, however, a trap, and they’re attacked by masked assailants. Isabel and then Michael act swiftly to fight them off and protect Emma, but Isabel collapses, the poison finally overwhelming her system. They flee to the Sunshine Project, the only place where Isabel might be able to get help, only to find that Ronan Atwood is there, arguing with Daragh – who, it turns out, has known who Isabel was the whole time, and had an agreement with Comma. Helpless, desperate, and backed into a corner, Isabel makes a deal: she’ll give Comma whatever they want, if only they’ll save her.

This chapter is a big moment, and not only because it puts Isabel back into the hands of her guild. The part of this chapter I’m most attached to is Emma’s portrait of Isabel, a version of which has existed since the very first draft. In that version of the book, Emma painted the mural on the wall of Isabel’s hospital room, while Isabel watched:

“You know I have dark hair, right?” she says, when the figure begins to sport a purple mohawk.

“Creative license,” Emma says simply. “Anyway, I think it would look good on you. You’ve got to let me near your hair some time.”

“Not if you’re going to do that to it.”

The mural is recognisably Isabel, when it’s done – the strong, straight eyebrows and defined cheekbones give her face its characteristic shape – but it’s Isabel as she’s never seen herself. She’s wearing a leather jacket and ripped jeans, and it’s not only her hair that’s had a makeover.

“Have you given me piercings?” she asks. “A safety pin is totally impractical as an ear piercing, and I’m pretty sure it’s against the school dress code.”

“Oh, you’d never get through the school gates looking like that,” says Emma with a grin. “But admit it. You look pretty damn cool.”

“You turned me into a punk,” she accuses.

“I know! Isn’t it great?”

But when I shifted things around so that a) Isabel spends a lot less time in the hospital and b) Emma isn’t actually allowed in to visit her, I needed to find somewhere else to put the scene.

So, I moved it here, and at the same time, expanded on the scene so that it explores more of the tensions at work in the story. Emma paints the mural on the wall we saw earlier: one that used to hold an abolitionist mural, which was scoured away by pressure washers. Is that foreshadowing? Maybe.

The sixth draft, then, introduced the MATTER OF ART AND DEATH t-shirt (which became the title of the short story I wrote about Emma and Grace), alongside this detail about where it was painted:

Then she blinks, looks again. What made her think it was her? The figure has a purple mohawk and an eyebrow piercing, a safety pin through its left ear. It’s dressed in a leather jacket and ripped jeans, with a t-shirt that loudly proclaims this to be A MATTER OF ART AND DEATH – a far cry from Isabel’s soft, plain clothing. But it has the same strong, straight eyebrows and defined cheekbones as Isabel, the same lopsided quirk to the lips that passes for her smile.

In one hand, the figure holds a large, dark moth. In the other, a can of spray paint labelled DISOBEDIENCE. It’s Isabel, and it isn’t. It’s a bold Isabel, a mirror image Isabel, an Isabel rebuilt from the skeleton up.

(In the time since The Butterfly Assassin was published, I’ve encountered some discussions about whether this hairstyle should be referred to as a ‘mohawk’, or whether this is racist, or at least culturally insensitive. I’m not aware that any widespread conclusions have been reached, nor am I aware of a widely-used alternative name for the haircut, but I’m very open to learning more on this topic, and I apologise if the language used here is culturally insensitive.)

The punk rock aesthetic that Emma introduces into the story here is just that – an aesthetic, somewhat disconnected from its history. But it’s an essential part of the book’s vibes, and has been from the beginning. It was also something I found challenging to capture in the early drafts, though.

I’m not someone who makes aesthetics and moodboards for my books, because I don’t think visually enough for those to feel useful. But I do make playlists, and playlists are essential. Maggie Stiefvater once said that if she couldn’t build a playlist for a book it was because she didn’t yet know the story well enough (I’m paraphrasing), and that’s exactly how it feels to me: if I don’t have a firm enough grip on the story’s style and mood and tone, I can’t find songs that fit it.

I have been building my playlists for The Butterfly Assassin and its sequels since 2014, and let me tell you, they are absolutely full of bangers. But they were so hard to make at first, because 2014!me mainly listened to a lot of gloomy indie folk and acoustic music, and while that worked well for some of my other projects, it really didn’t work for Isabel. She needed loud, she needed angry, she needed noise. So, I had to go looking for songs that would suit her. I asked around for recommendations, followed chains of related artists, searched random keywords, and built myself a playlist.

It leans more pop punk than pure punk rock, but I think that’s right for Isabel (let’s be real, in another life, she’d be such an emo kid). Initially I made a single playlist, but I split it into individual book playlists a year later once it started to grow, which is why the earliest dates on this are 2015, not 2014. You can see, though, that I’ve kept adding to it over the years. (I also have substantial playlists for books 2 and 3.)

All right. Back to this chapter. Emma’s painting, in its published form, is one of my favourite moments of the book. It’s also the most detailed physical description we get of Isabel, which always makes me laugh. I really hate describing characters, but apparently I’m perfectly happy to describe a brick wall – so when there’s a painting ofthe character on the wall, well, then, we get to find out what they look like, after all.

I would love, one day, to commission an artist to draw a version of this painting. I would also really like to make t-shirts that say A MATTER OF ART AND DEATH, but I currently lack the skills and time to figure out how to do that. Maybe one day.

After viewing the mural, Emma and Isabel make their way to Gauntlet Drive. This has always – for a given value of always, which is to say, since the sixth draft – been the moment when Isabel collapsed, but the actual appearance of enemies was a very late addition, by which I mean that only entered the story in, I think, my second round of structural edits after selling the book. There was a strong need for more tension at this point in the story, and the whole Gauntlet Drive scene wasn’t working in general, to the point where it gets its own section in my notebook as I tried to figure out how to resolve it.

The biggest problem with this scene is that it’s an indirect encounter with Ian Ryans and his agenda – but I didn’t, for a long time, actually know what that agenda was. A lot of things about this book didn’t come together until I sat down and plotted the whole book from Ian’s point of view. What was he trying to achieve? What was going on behind the scenes? We see very little of that – Isabel doesn’t know about it – but I had to know, so that I could make sure his actions actually made sense.

Ian’s miscalculation here is that he thinks that his help is Isabel’s only hope of surviving: he hasn’t accounted for the Sunshine Project. When Emma and Michael take her there, they inadvertently give her back into the hands of Comma, because Daragh has been working for them all along. In doing so, they put her further out of reach of Ian Ryans – but also further away from a civilian life.  

And Isabel gives in.

Obviously, this scene mostly entered in the sixth draft, the first where Isabel wasn’t already in hospital at this point, but it was much longer there, and Isabel’s collapse less total. While there are some familiar lines, the chapter continues some way beyond them:

Isabel says: “I’ll do… whatever.”

It is a quiet surrender. It’s easier than she thought it would be, to let go of herself, everything she’s fought to keep.

“I…” Daragh looks at Ronan. “We don’t have the facilities here. She needs a proper hospital.”

“Comma hospitals,” says Ronan Isaacs, “are for Comma agents.”

And Comma doctors. Because Daragh’s been one of them, all this time, and she was never free. She was only kidding herself that she escaped. His soft voice and his gentle hands and she thought he was helping and all this time—

Except he was helping. He knew who she was – he must have known all along – but he didn’t drag her back to the guild the first time she came to his office, desperate enough that she might not have fought. Instead he tried to give her another way out. He lied to her, and the betrayal is a throbbing ache every time she looks at him, but not all of it was a lie.

Comma is Ronan, her parents, bargains and violence and cruelty, but somehow, impossibly, Comma is also Daragh.

Ronan’s waiting for her to speak. He wants to hear her say it, wants to hear her give in. It takes all of Isabel’s energy to raise her hand and give him the finger, but she does it. “Then I’m a fucking Comma agent,” she says.

He has a vicious smile, that man; his eyes like lazy pools of brackish water as they rake over her. “Welcome to the guild, Isabel Ryans,” he says. “I’ll call for a car.”

Eagle-eyed readers will notice that a number of lines from this section got reused, either in the next chapter or later in the book. I have apparently been using a version of the “lazy pools of brackish water” description since the first draft, although it’s moved around. I don’t think I even knew what “brackish” meant at the time (“slightly salty”, btw) but it seemed like such a good description for Ronan, I just kept it forever and moved it to whatever scene I could fit it into. It’s now in chapter 27, so we won’t see it until the fifth of November, but it’s still there.

(What colour would pools of brackish water be? A kind of muddy grey, to my mind, like a slow-moving river, with a threat of danger because you never know quite what’s below the surface. Your mileage may vary. My copyeditor did query this description at one point, to which I responded, ‘I mean the intended meaning was “incompatible with life; unpleasant; if you rely on it to save you it will in fact kill you instead” but I can see my metaphors are getting lost’, and then did not change it at all to clarify this fact. But now you know. That is the vibe.)

Fortunately, making the Gauntlet Drive scene more dramatic also meant that Isabel’s collapse could be more dramatic, and we could cut the scene off right after Isabel makes a semi-coherent deal: I’ll do … whatever. Everything she’s been fighting for so far in this book, her independence and her life away from the guild, down the drain in the desperate pursuit of survival.

But there’ll be a way out, right? A loophole? A way of worming her way out of this deal… right?

Or will there?

Anyway, time for your thoughts on this chapter! I want to know what you thought of Emma’s mural, of the action scene at Gauntlet Drive (I didn’t even cover the issue of how much I hate writing action scenes, lol), and of the moment of Isabel’s surrender to Comma. Or do you not see it as a surrender, but simply a pragmatic act of survival? Let me know in the comments.

We’ll have another post tomorrow, but then the timeline gets fuzzier as Isabel drifts in and out of consciousness, so posts will be getting less frequent for a while. I don’t know if that’s a relief or a disappointment to you, but I’ll admit, it’s a relief to me, as it’s been hard work getting all these posts written and prepped 😅

09/10, Planoj (TBA Readalong)

For those just joining us, we’re a little way past halfway through a readalong of The Butterfly Assassin, with posts matched to the book’s chronology discussing the writing process and the worldbuilding and more. You can jump back to 17/09, Eraro, to start at the beginning.

The ninth of October isn’t a great day for Isabel, but, on the plus side, nobody actually dies. She’s beginning to lose her grip on her civilian life, though: as the symptoms of poisoning become more severe, she’s forced to call in sick to her paper round and to school, leaving her alone in her flat with her father’s encoded documents. From them, she obtains one possible piece of information: the name of a street, Gauntlet Drive.

Emma and Michael come over – the first time they’ve met each other – and they discuss the possibility of going to Gauntlet Drive in search of clues about Isabel’s father’s disappearance. But Isabel has what seems like an allergic reaction to the pasta Michael cooks for her, and although his quick actions help stabilise her for the moment, it’s yet more damage to a body already barely hanging on in there, leaving Isabel too weak to take further action that day.

Spontaneous anaphylaxis to things she isn’t technically allergic to is a clear sign that Isabel’s immune system is suffering severely by this point in the book. For people with MCAS and similar, the triggers can be almost impossible to pin down, and may not have been ingested at all. In this case, it was a food that sent Isabel’s system into panic mode, but it doesn’t necessarily mean that she’s technically allergic to wheat now, just that her immune system has started treating it as a threat. The difference is subtle and, frankly, I’m not a doctor, so I’ll probably do a terrible job if I try to explain it; simpler to say she’s developing new allergies.

Isabel remains unable to eat wheat for the entirety of the trilogy after this, and has to be careful to avoid cross-contamination, both because I wanted a realistic portrayal of what happens when someone has an autoimmune crisis (it doesn’t just bounce back to perfectly healthy), and because I wanted a gluten-free assassin. #representation.

As a coeliac, I also can’t eat wheat and a few crumbs will make me sick, but not in the same way: coeliac responses tend to be more gastrointestinal, with bonus migraines and hives for some individuals, rather than anaphylactic shock. It’s one of the reasons a lot of people might think people are faking it when they’re fussy about gluten-free foods and cross-contamination, because the reactions can be delayed by several hours, and therefore invisible to the person who just poisoned you. (And some coeliacs are asymptomatic, with long-term damage being the main threat.)

Michael stabilises Isabel with help from his own EpiPen – he’s allergic to certain nuts, btw; this is not relevant, but it’s why he has an EpiPen – and a large amount of antihistamine. This is… not adequate treatment for this kind of reaction. Please, if somebody you know is going into anaphylactic shock, call an ambulance. There are a lot of misconceptions about EpiPens – they’re not a cure, they’re adrenalin and they buy the person time to get actual treatment. In this case, the large amount of antihistamine is what stabilises Isabel’s system temporarily, but it’s still a wholly inadequate treatment and she needs a lot more medical care than she’s getting here. But of course, she’s already dying and her inability to access meaningful care for that is sort of the entire point of the story.

I just want to emphasise that because I don’t want to mislead people if they ever find themselves in a medical emergency 🙈 Do not take medical advice from fiction. Notably, Isabel shows a marked decline in health after this point, because this is not good medical treatment. She needs to be in a hospital, a fact that she herself acknowledges within the chapter.

Okay, now that we’ve got that out of the way, let’s look at some past versions of this scene.

Obviously, you can probably guess from our past discussions that this scene didn’t exist in early drafts – it requires Michael to be present, which he wasn’t in the first few; it requires Isabel not to be in hospital yet, which she was until Draft V; and it requires Isabel’s father’s encoded documents, which were a late edition.

To be honest, I was tired when I wrote the post for the scene where they showed up, so it’s a bit lacking in detail, and I didn’t talk about the versions that preceded it. My bad, because they’re actually relevant here. Once I’d decided that Isabel would not be in hospital and that she needed to be involved in saving herself and finding the antidote herself (Draft VI), I did introduce a codebreaking element. Initially, these were notebooks that Michael had stolen from Ian’s lab, rather than documents Comma had seized and passed on to Isabel:

“I came to bring you these.” He gestures to the table, and the pile of battered blue notebooks on it. “They’re your father’s,” he says, but he didn’t need to tell her that. One wall of her father’s lab was filled with shelves of identical notebooks, some held closed with string because of all the loose papers stuffed inside, others stained from spillages and accidents.

They look out of place on her kitchen table, harmless as a bomb. “How did you get these?”

“I broke into his lab,” says Michael, as if this is an unremarkable as popping to the shops on the way home. “He took most of his stuff with him, especially anything recent, so security was lower. I thought they might help trigger some memories.”

“When?” she whispers.

“Before I ran away. I didn’t – I didn’t know if I’d be able to find you, but I thought I might be able to make use of them. Offer them to Comma, maybe.” He sounds unapologetic about his mercenary approach, and she can’t blame him. “Still could,” he adds.

This was a scene much earlier in the book, which got cut when I reduced the number of times Michael showed up at Isabel’s flat, to avoid repetition and slow pacing. But a version of that scene hung around for a while; in the rewrites I did in autumn 2020, it became a laptop that Michael had stolen instead:

“I came to bring you this.” He gestures to the table, and the battered old laptop on it. It’s half held together by electrical tape and it’s a model that would have been outdated five years ago. Isabel recognises it immediately. “It’s your father’s.”

She didn’t need him to tell her that. It looks about as harmless as a bomb, sitting there on her kitchen table. “How did you get that?”

“Broke into his lab,” says Michael, as if this is as unremarkable as popping to the shops on the way home. “He took most of his stuff with him, especially anything recent, but I guess he decided this had done its time. It’s encrypted and he probably wiped anything useful off it, but I figured you might be able to get past that. Could help trigger some memories.”

“You broke into his lab,” she repeats. “And stole his laptop?” The thought of walking back in there voluntarily makes her feel as though her skeleton is being turned inside out, and the idea of stealing something of her father’s – even something he’s left behind – has her gut clenching in fear, waiting for the inevitable punishment. Sure, so she siphoned money out of her parents’ bank account for eight months before she ran away, but that was different. This laptop is… well, it was one of the few things in the lab Isabel was never allowed to touch.

“I didn’t know if I was going to be able to find you,” says Michael, as if this explains everything. “I thought maybe I could offer it to Comma or something.” He sounds unapologetic about his mercenary approach, and she can’t blame him. “Still could,” he adds.

It’s fun to share these two versions of the scene side by side, because they are essentially the same scene, with the notebooks swapped out for the laptop and a few details from the chapter rearranged for impact.

When it was a laptop, Isabel wasn’t trying to decode files so much as understand encrypted messages between Ian and some of the people he was trading with in order to undercut the guilds and defect with the money. That had some advantages, but it wasn’t quite working and didn’t feel entirely realistic, so in the end, I reverted to the decoding of documents. This time, though, they were originally digital, even if Isabel is breaking them by hand.

Moreover, by having Ronan be the one to give Isabel the files, I was also able to introduce new elements to his early meetings with Isabel, which prevented them from becoming too repetitive and eliminated the need for a second early encounter with Michael, in which he brings her the information. So, all in all, that was a good choice. Well done, past me.

Still, there were moments in the 2020 draft that I liked, and which didn’t work in the new context so were lost to the cutting room floor:

Noktpapilio. Butterfly of night. Moth. It’s in amongst a jumble of incomprehensible details, presumably encoded, so she starts flicking through other chats to see if it comes up anywhere else.

ночна́я ба́бочка. Papillion de nuit. Nachtfalter. Whatever language he uses, she recognises the name they gave her, scattered across a dozen different conversations. She remembers the vicious spider guildmark and wonders what her father’s calling his new guild. If his agents have pseudonyms, calling cards, masks to turn them into shadows and rumours and legends.

Little moth. Isabel’s been a shadow all her life.

The biggest difference between this scene and the earlier ones is that Isabel has a lot less information than she did then – but more help. One of the problems with my books, often, is that I like to leave my characters alone for long periods of time, doing things and thinking about doing things and reflecting on their lives. Great if you want introspection, bad if you want action. By giving her only a fragment of the info, Gauntlet Drive and a cryptic message, I’ve forced Isabel to take action to find out more, and the involvement of both Michael and Emma in this scene keeps it moving, combining what was previously multiple chapters into one with a lot more drama.

And drama is, let’s be honest, the name of the game. But we won’t know what’s happening at Gauntlet Drive until we get there tomorrow…

So, for now, let’s talk about this scene. Any observations? Does this small breakthrough in locating Isabel’s father make you feel hopeful about her ability to find the antidote? Are you impressed with Michael’s quick thinking and the way he saved Isabel’s life here? Leave your answers and any other thoughts in the comments, and I’ll see you tomorrow.

08/10, Heredo–Malgajno–Planoj (TBA Readalong)

If you’re just joining us now, we’re reading The Butterfly Assassin chronologically according to the book’s timeline, and I’m talking about the writing process and all the worldbuilding that didn’t quite make it onto the page. The first post is 17/09, Eraro. We’re now far enough through the books that there are significant spoilers in these posts, so if you’re not ready to learn about later plot points, this is the time to flee!

(And yes, I am adding this paragraph into this post specifically because it opens with a spoiler and I want to make sure it’s pushed below the cut in people’s feeds. CW: we’re talking a lot about death and grief today.)

On Monday the eighth of October, Grace Whittock is murdered.

Emma brings Isabel the news at school, soaked from walking through a rainstorm. A spider has been carved into Grace’s cheek, claiming the kill not for Comma or for Hummingbird, but a secret third thing a third guild, the one Isabel’s parents defected to form. Seeking help from anyone who might be able to offer it, Isabel and Emma go to Mortimer with the news, and Isabel reveals her past to him. Mortimer is sympathetic, but he can’t solve anything; his abolitionist values, he says, don’t make him a revolutionary, and don’t equip him to solve problems like this. Grace’s death makes it clear to Isabel that her parents won’t hesitate to hurt those around her, and begins to fear for Emma’s safety. She resolves to find her father – in search of revenge, an antidote, answers, or all of the above.

This scene is the first Major Character Death in the book. Like, yeah, poor old Ian Crampton has been dead since chapter one, but this is the first time we’ve lost a character that we actually care about. I receive a lot of outraged messages about this moment in the book – more than I expected, to be honest. I think I get more fury from readers about this death because it’s the first, and until then they still believed this might be the kind of YA book where nobody ever actually dies permanently and everything kind of works out. Which it… very much is not.

Grace has always died at around this point in the book, even when she was Graham, and even when she was less directly involved in helping Isabel’s resist her parents and the guild. In the first draft, Emma brought the news to Isabel in hospital. But it happened a little differently then, a plot point I’d forgotten about: Graham had actually left the city in search of the ingredients for an antidote for Isabel.


“Probably this morning. The rain’s screwed up the body, but that’s the best estimate they can give. They found him just outside Espera. He didn’t have a permit, and when they sent someone out to investigate, they thought at first he might have been shot by a city patrol. They’re meant to just fire warning shots, you know,” she adds, “but sometimes they make mistakes.”

Isabel wonders if Emma’s birth parents got out without being shot, or if they met the same fate. She wonders how many of the other girl’s tears are for the librarian who looked after her and how many are for the family that she might have seen in the same way. “But it wasn’t a city patrol?”

“No. Clearly a sniper. They think it was probably Hummingbird who shot him.” Then she hesitates. “Although he was stabbed too, for good measure, so he wasn’t the only person outside the borders at that point.”

A lot went down differently in that draft, and we’re reaching the point in the book where changing a few characters has had a major impact on the plot. Grace’s death in the published book occurs because she was helping Isabel with the antidote and because somebody who knew this told Isabel’s parents, and received orders to kill her. (More on that later.) Here, though, the culpability is a lot more uncertain, especially as Toni Rolleston has also left the city at this point and it’s implied, later in the scene, that Isabel suspects her of being the one to stab Graham. (An idea that makes absolutely no sense given how the rest of the scene goes down, so I’m not sure what past me was planning there.)

This is one area where looking back at the first draft is both interesting and cringe-inducing. It’s a lot more different from the published book than I remembered, but it’s also… really bad. This section of the first draft deals with Isabel finally obtaining the antidote for her illness, which obviously hasn’t happened yet in the published book, but it’s so incredibly undramatic and Isabel is extremely not involved in the process, which really denies her a lot of agency in the plot.

In the fifth draft, Isabel was once again in hospital, but it was at this point in the book that Michael showed up. Having been spying on Isabel earlier on in the book for Comma, he’s the one who finds Emma hammering on the doors of the hospital with the news and brings her inside – an awkward reunion, to say the least.

Until she sees Emma coming back.

A young man is escorting her – the spy, thinks Isabel first, and then, finally, she recognises the older trainee who saved her life on that job-gone-wrong: Michael. They’re both soaked through. It must be raining.

“I found her hammering on the front door,” says Michael to Daragh, looking past Isabel. “She must have dropped her access card.”

“Emma,” says Isabel; she’ll deal with Michael’s presence later, when she knows her friend is okay. “I thought you were going home.”

Emma just stares. At first, Isabel thinks it’s surprise at seeing her out of bed, until she sees the broken look in Emma’s eyes, and the redness around them. Something’s happened, she’s been crying – whatever she came back to say, it’s something awful.

Isabel finds her voice. “What happened, Emma?”

And Emma says, “Grace Whittock’s dead.”

This draft already has a fair few lines in it that survived in some form until the published version, but it still goes down pretty different. Daragh is present, Michael is present, Isabel is in hospital, etc. One of the major advantages of keeping Isabel out of hospital until much later in the book was that it meant moments like this could have more impact. In the hospital, she’s rarely alone; here, she and Emma can process this between the two of them, without awkward spectators who have no emotional investment in the situation.

(In these early drafts, when Grace’s expertise came from Hummingbird and not from her work as a freelancer, she and Daragh didn’t know each other the way that they do in the published book, though I think in any case their relationship was only ever a professional one.)

It’s not the first exploration of grief in the book – we’ve already talked about Jean – but it’s the first time we’ve seen Isabel try to grapple with bereavement and she’s… not great at it. One of the things she’s struggling with is knowing how upset she’s supposed to be. For Emma, it’s obvious: she’s known Grace for years, she saw her as a mentor figure, they were friends, so of course she’ll react strongly. (If you pre-ordered The Hummingbird Killer, you should’ve got the bonus short story that explores their relationship a bit more.) And that’s always been the case, even since the early drafts, when Graham/Grace let Emma crash on the sofa when she was arguing with Toni.

But Isabel has known Grace less than three weeks. In that time, Grace has gone out of her way to help her and to try to save her life, which creates a more intense bond than you’d expect from someone you’ve known under a month, but it’s still nothing compared to the years Emma’s known her. As such, Isabel feels like an impostor, like she’s not allowed to grieve, like it’s presumptuous to be upset about this.

I have felt this a lot, in recent years, with the loss of people I hardly knew. I wrote about this a couple of years back in the context of an internet acquaintance of mine who died by suicide in 2016: I did not even know her real name until after she was dead, and still there were times when the grief I felt was overwhelming. In May 2020, somebody I knew from university died of COVID. We weren’t close friends, but at the same time, we knew each other well enough that I had a picture of us on my wall, a memory of a departmental trip to Wales. I felt like an impostor grieving for him (I still feel that grief, powerfully, and that sense of presumptuousness) knowing that others had lost their sibling, their best friend, their housemate. They had a claim to grief. I didn’t.

But grief is weird and doesn’t follow rules, and I have always felt it intensely. I feel it about strangers, so of course I would feel it about acquaintances, and so much more with friends – however insubstantial and brief those friendships. Rhodri’s death was a turning point in my experience of the pandemic: I became deeply anxious about going to the supermarket; I hand-sewed myself a mask, because I didn’t know what else to do; I went from hyperproductive in lockdown to spending the summer doing a great slug impression in my bed; I got put back on antidepressants, even though I didn’t want to be on them and they’ve never worked for me.

I wrote those lines before that; I suspect I was thinking of Abigail, my internet acquaintance, when I did. But they’ve only started feeling more true to me as time passes and I’ve found myself facing more of those odd bereavements where I don’t feel like I can justify the way I go to pieces whenever I’m reminded of it, and yet I do, and I keep doing so. And maybe some of those deaths have become proxies in my mind for other anxieties and fears and that’s why they hit so hard, but also I grieved because somebody’s gone who shouldn’t be. Gone, and not coming back.

This one’s not really a fun scene. I don’t have cool worldbuilding insights to share, and I feel like this post is a bummer. All I can really say about my writing process here is that I never, ever want to write books where death is meaningless. Where lives are treated cheaply. And yes: this is a trilogy in which a lot of people die, sometimes very quickly, sometimes off-page. Sometimes, we don’t even learn their names. There are people who would consider that cheap.

But the deaths we do see on the page, like this one, have weight. Have an impact. And I hope that that imbues the whole trilogy with a sense that death matters, and for everyone who dies in half a sentence, there is somebody off-page mourning for them.

I’ve read a lot of books where I never could get emotionally invested, and often a common theme is that the deaths of secondary characters happened too quickly, and nobody mourned them. And while it isn’t always practical to have a plot halt in its tracks so that characters can cry about it – believe me, I’ve faced this same challenge – I struggle to care about a character that the narrative has not present as grievable. If their life doesn’t matter, I find myself asking, why do I care what happens to them?

Grievability is a concept I learned from Judith Butler: it refers to a life that “even before it is lost, is, or will be, worthy of being grieved on the occasion of its loss; the life has value in relation to mortality” (The Force of Nonviolence, p. 75). Lives having value in relation to mortality is something that I think has shaped my writing since long before I had a sociological concept to help me articulate it, and it underpins this trilogy. And, in part, it underpins the trilogy because of all the ways it complicates the morality: if the people Isabel kills are worthy of being grieved, how can we continue to root for her? What makes her sympathetic? This is especially true when she herself doubts her own grievability and her own value in relation to mortality, and the onus is on us to believe that she’s wrong.

Anyway. I said I wasn’t going to dig too deep into analysing what’s actually on the page, and I’ve broken my own rule. And this post is pretty heavy; I feel bad for throwing it at you without anything more hopeful to lift us up at the end. I suppose that’s the nature of a bleak moment in the middle of a book like this – it’s meant to feel dark, with no clear sense of how we’re getting out of this situation. But it still makes for a heavy discussion in a readalong like this, and I don’t entirely know how to add some levity.

So I want to know what you thought of this chapter, how you felt about this first major character death, whether it changed your sense of the book’s tone and where it was going or whether you saw this coming a mile off. And I will see you tomorrow for a couple of scenes that aren’t exactly cheerful, but are a lot less miserable than this one.

06/10, Ĉano–Heredo (TBA Readalong)

We’re reading The Butterfly Assassin together and exploring the worldbuilding and writing process, following the chronology of the book. New to the readalong? Jump to 17/09, Eraro, to start from the beginning, or join us wherever you like! (But beware spoilers if you haven’t finished the book yet…)

On Saturday the sixth of October, Isabel goes to Grace Whittock’s laboratory in an attempt to identify the poison that’s killing her and, hopefully, make an antidote. She’s hoping that either she can break down the poison itself to determine its ingredients, or that the experience of being back in a real lab for the first time since she ran away from home will trigger some more memories of the circumstances of being poisoned, giving her crucial clues. Mostly, what she triggers is a panic attack, the process too much a reminder of her father and everything he did to her – and everything he taught her to be.

This section was a killer to research, I have to say. I’ve already told you that I am Extremely Not A Scientist; I dropped Maths at fifteen and all sciences at sixteen, and the fact that I got A*s in my GCSE sciences was a sign that I am very good at taking exams, not that I understood anything in the papers. As such, I had never heard of high performance liquid chromatography or mass spectrometry when I started writing the earlier versions of the scene, and I definitely didn’t know how they worked.

All the earlier versions of this scene were… bad. Because Isabel was originally admitted to hospital much earlier in the book, the scene didn’t start existing at all until Draft VI, and by that point, most scenes were fairly decent and just needed refinement. Not this one. It was entirely Fake Science, just bullshit and vibes, and there was no way that anything Isabel was doing in that scene would have given her any useful information whatsoever.

Now, my target audience are teenagers, and most of them are probably not experienced chemists with significant expertise in this particular topic. So I probably could have got away with this, and my editor would have let me. But I know how I annoyed I get when a book doesn’t bother to make the details accurate; I was conscious that some of my readers would be adults and, given the nerd quotient of my circles of acquaintance, possibly chemists; and I knew that I needed to write for the teen with a special interest in toxicology as much as I needed to write for the one who barely knew which way up a test tube should go.

This was… challenging.

First, I had to figure out what sort of science was actually needed her. That was a process, especially as I was still refining the details of the poison. I spent a bunch of time reading about electron microscopes before putting that aside, for a while. My internet searches gradually led me to high performance liquid chromatography as a Thing You Could Use To Separate Out Ingredients, which seemed hopeful, and mass spectrometry as a Thing To Identify Ingredients, which seemed even more so, but I still didn’t know how they worked.

So I spent a bunch of time on YouTube. I’m not generally someone who finds videos a useful way of learning, but I needed to see the machines I was talking about. And there are a lot of videos out there! Unfortunately, a lot of them were more focused on explaining the science of these machines – i.e. what was going on behind the scenes. Which was great (I didn’t understand any of it), but it didn’t really help me with the questions a writer needs to answer:

What parts of the machine would the character interact with? What safety equipment would they be wearing? In what form do they receive information/answers? At what point in the process can something go dramatically wrong? (And, crucially: Was this the correct equipment/process to be using for what I needed the character to achieve in this scene?)

So, it was time to recruit help.

Off I went to Facebook, then, and put out a call for help: did I know any chemists who would be able to help me?  

It turned out I did. See, I went to Cambridge for my undergrad degree, which is notoriously full of absolute nerds. People talk a lot about “networking” as an advantage of Oxbridge-type universities, and while I have yet to make friends with a rich benefactor who will fund everything I ever want to do, I was heavily involved in the ballet club. And the ballet club had a higher-than-expected number of scientists in its ranks. And because we did shows together, we would add each other on Facebook, and now, years down the line when they were off being proper researchers in Chemistry and the like, they would see my call for help, and they would answer.

Thanks, Zoe. After several essay-length messages, a foray back to YouTube for help figuring out the basics, several video tutorials and probably a Crash Course explanation or two later, I returned:

Screenshot of Facebook messages. My message reads:
okay, so steps involved... (assuming the person who owns the lab already set things up to a certain extent)

1. soak the pellet (or possibly 1a. extract contents from special coating and 1b. add the contents to solvent? depends if the coating would break down otherwise i guess)
2. filter the solvent
3. inject the solution into the machine??
4. machine goes brrr 
5. pretty graph time 
6. test tube party 
7. do more science on what is now in the test tubes

The reply is cut off at the bottom, but the first line reads: 
Yup that is a great summary - I would assume your solvent can
I’m clearly great at this.

The science was a go.

Now, I can’t promise that everything that happens in this scene is 100% scientifically accurate. Again, I am assuming that the majority of my readers are not experts in this field, and will not be able to call me out on it, but also, I needed to write it in a way that was both accurate enough not to annoy those who knew more than me, and simplistic enough to be possible to follow for those who, like me, had zero scientific background. Eek!

This, I discovered, was really hard. When I’m writing about dance or music, I know enough about the topic to be sure which details are important, and which are unnecessary technical vocab that your typical reader won’t understand and doesn’t need. (Sometimes I still get overly technical, but it’s usually for effect.) I know when to name a part of an instrument, and when not to; I can simplify a description, and still be pretty confident that I’m accurately describing the steps a dancer is doing, and won’t annoy any ballet dancers reading it. Because I am a ballet dancer, and if I am not annoyed, then that’s a good metric.

But with science, with this scene, I didn’t have that knowledge. It was far harder to determine which terms and details were essential, and which could be jettisoned, and when I only knew one way of doing something, hastily learned from YouTube, it was a challenge to simplify a description while keeping it accurate. It took hours. I think a spent a solid week working on this scene, between the research and the multiple attempts at rewriting it, which, considering I only had about four weeks total to do that round of structural edits, was a lot.

And somewhere in the middle of that process I decided that everybody in The Hummingbird Killer was just going to get stabbed, because I was never doing that again.

When I was done, I sent the scene to a different scientifically-minded friend, who hadn’t heard me describe what I was trying to do, and asked her if it seemed to make sense and whether she could follow it. Only when she told me that it seemed plausible did I breathe a sigh of relief, and move on with the book – narrowly avoiding missing my deadline, because this chapter seriously pushed me to the brink.

This scene is also why I was extremely relieved and happy to receive a lovely blurb from Emily Suvada. For those who don’t know, Emily Suvada wrote an extremely science-heavy YA trilogy starting with This Mortal Coil, all about gene-editing and the like, and is a scientist herself. Now, I don’t know what she thought of this scene specifically, but she liked the book overall, which means my science must have been convincing enough not to annoy her as a scientist. The relief was immense.

Here’s Emily’s blurb:

Praise for The Butterfly Assassin:

"Dark, vivid and uncompromising, The Butterfly Assassin is an utterly addictive story of violence, trauma, and hope -- I told myself 'just one more chapter' well into the night." -- Emily Suvada of This Mortal Coil.

There are a couple of fun bits of foreshadowing in this chapter; I’m conscious, however, that a couple of the readers of this blog series haven’t finished The Butterfly Assassin yet, and I don’t want to spoil anything for them. All I’ll say is that I was leaning heavily on doubles in this one, and the associations Isabel makes between characters when panicking isn’t random.

This is also where we begin to get more hints of Grace’s backstory. As mentioned earlier in the series, her mother was Hummingbird. She gives us very little information about what this entailed, but the fact that she offers this information as solidarity with Isabel who is afraid of the person she realises she’s capable of being – afraid of turning into her father, afraid of how much she’s inherited from him – tells us a fair bit about the emotional side of that process, and some of what Grace may have grappled with in the past.

Grace’s mother was a contract killer, but one who often relied on poisons. Grace’s focus on antidotes takes on a new significance in the light of that, especially when we know, as we do from earlier drafts, that her mother killed her father. How else is a teenager meant to process that, except to try to learn to protect themselves in any way that they can, because they never know if they’ll be next? Grace wasn’t directly trained by her mother, but she was shaped by her work nonetheless.

Isabel, on the other hand, was trained. Quite the little scientist. She is entirely capable of becoming her father, and entirely determined not to, which shapes many of her choices going forward.

But for now, I want to know your thoughts. Did the science convince you? If you’re a writer, have you ever written a character whose expertise is wildly unlike your own? Do you love the research part of writing, or do you fudge it until the last possible minute and have to rewrite everything with the details? And how did you, as a reader, feel about Isabel’s failure to determine the formula’s formula and therefore its antidote in this scene?

No post tomorrow (“She sleeps through Sunday”, Chapter 19 tells us), so I’ll see you back here in a couple of days.

03/10, Batalhalto (TBA Readalong)

I’ve realised these posts are feeding through to my Goodreads profile, via the RSS feed there, so I’m going to make more of a conscious effort to add an introductory paragraph explaining the project to make sure no spoilers are visible until people click through. I apologise if these get a little boring and repetitive to those tuning in daily, but I’d rather that than ruin a plot point for a reader who didn’t choose to seek it out. (I’d completely forgotten I had a blog feed over there, and since it’s Goodreads, there’s a high chance people do have strong opinions about avoiding spoilers.)

So! We’re reading The Butterfly Assassin according to the book’s calendar and discussing the worldbuilding and writing process. Jump to 17/09, Eraro to start at the beginning, or join us whenever you like along the way.

On the 3rd of October, Ashvin, the newsagent, asks Isabel to take another delivery alongside her usual paper round – the boy who usually delivers the Weekly Bulletin of the Free Press is Isabel, and he trusts Isabel to fill in for him. It’s a risky choice for Ashvin to have made, and he can’t know how close he came to disaster, clueless as he is about Isabel’s guild connections. Isabel takes the Bulletin, and is startled to discover that one of the papers is for Mortimer Sark. They have an awkward confrontation, which ends in a kind of truce, or at least, the recognition of mutually assured destruction, with both knowing more about the other than they’d like.

Also on the 3rd, Isabel and Emma reconcile, and Isabel promises not to lie to her anymore. This immediately means having to confess the truth about Grace’s sideline as a freelance poisoner, which is a bit of a shock to Emma. The two skip school, and Emma shows Isabel some of the artwork around the city – as well as taking her to the cemetery, where they talk about Emma’s sister, Jean.

These chapters were largely late additions to the book. There was no space for them in the early drafts, when Isabel was already in hospital by this point, and Isabel’s confrontation with Mortimer couldn’t happen until Isabel had her paper round, an innovation of my 2020 edits. But even before that, their presence in the story required the existence of the abolitionist movement and its illegal writers and newssheet, and that was a much later addition than I remembered.

I’d been vaguely aware that they weren’t in the first draft – the words Free Press appear nowhere in it, and nor does abolitionist. I didn’t realise, though, that the abolitionist movement wasn’t even mentioned until Draft V. In hindsight, this makes sense: it was only in the fifth draft that I began to articulate the crucial pieces of worldbuilding that explained the city of Espera’s history and nature. But since the abolitionist movement plays a fairly significant role in The Hummingbird Killer, and since I had drafts of book two almost as soon as I had drafts of book one, I have to wonder what on earth was going on in the second book before that, too.

And when I wrote my Developmental Notes in 2019, I wasn’t sure what Mortimer’s relationship to the movement was:

Is Mortimer an abolitionist? I’m not sure. I don’t think Espera is split into guild-favouring and abolitionist – there are probably plenty of people who don’t like the guilds but don’t feel that getting rid of them is the solution. I think Mortimer has abolitionist values, but I also think he’s not sure what would be better – bearing in mind most Esperans have only a very warped and limited understanding of the outside world. He may see the guilds as the only barrier between Espera and political chaos. But also, I think, they’re very normalised to Esperans. They’re hated the way most governments are – by people who don’t actually have a clear idea what they’d choose instead, so they complain about it and find complex workarounds to societal problems while never working actively to change it. Mortimer’s own revolution is a small one – helping a handful of students. It isn’t a lot, but he’s afraid. He wants safety, after all.

This is still, broadly, true – Mortimer isn’t about to lead any revolutions. But he is somewhat more involved in the Free Press than he used to be, and certainly more than Isabel knows at this stage in the proceedings – that will become apparent in The Hummingbird Killer, for those who haven’t read that yet.

Isabel and Emma’s reconciliation is a scene with a longer history, although the initially tentative text messages before the in-person meeting are a later addition. The scene in which they skip school and go to look at the artwork only showed up in 2020, though, as did the visit to the cemetery.

There is a lot of street art in Espera. I mentioned before that some of this was inspired by the Berlin Wall, as well as by the art I saw in cities when I lived in Ireland. Here, it gives us a chance to talk about the political dimension of the artwork, such as the abolitionist mural that has been scoured away – a sign of unrest within the city that we didn’t get in the earlier drafts. Establishing those abolitionist elements – first the Free Press and Mortimer, now this art – was part of my efforts to set up book two and three, which of course, I could only do once I knew where I was going.

I’ve heard plenty of writers of series say that they have detailed outlines for the whole thing, spreadsheets telling them what to foreshadow, extensive planning notes… and that’s great for them. That’s not me. As is becoming incredibly apparent throughout this series of posts, I have a wildly chaotic approach to writing, especially the worldbuilding side of things. Crucial details show up at the last minute, and scenes that have stayed intact since the first draft get obliterated five minutes from publication. The only reason I am able to foreshadow anything from books two and three is because I’d already written them.

I wrote the first draft of The Hummingbird Killer immediately after finishing the first draft of The Butterfly Assassin, since they were always paired in my mind; I edited it somewhat in 2015, and then put it aside until 2020, when I worked on during lockdown. In November 2020, while The Butterfly Assassin was on sub, I decided I wanted to draft the third book. I didn’t know if the first one was going to sell, but I wanted to know, for my own peace of mind, how the story ended. This meant, when The Butterfly Assassin did sell in January 2021, I already had a rough draft waiting for me. Admittedly, it didn’t have a proper ending, but at least it meant I never had to draft a book from scratch on deadline.

A photo of my old laptop, with me reflected in the screen taking the photo. The screen background is dark green with white illegible text. The room is a brightly-lit conservatory cafe, empty apart from me; there's a glass and a can of Fanta next to my computer.
Writing the opening of book two in a cafe on Guernsey, 1st August 2014

And it meant that the entire time I was editing The Butterfly Assassin for publication, I had a fairly good idea what happened in the third book, and where I needed to get to. So while a lot has changed about books two and three since their first drafts, those early versions were pretty essential to my backwards writing process. I am in awe of anyone who writes a series in the correct order without the option to go back and change things to match; couldn’t be me.

The cemetery scene with Emma talking about Jean, and about her own experiences after she was fostered, was also new in 2020, as I mentioned. It was a weird year, with a lot of death in the air. I’d lost a friend to COVID in May 2020, which probably intensified the extent to which everything I wrote in 2020 was, in some way, about grief. I’ll confess, though, that the line about how death means somebody can never surprise you again was stolen, shamelessly, from something I had heard in a Quaker meeting in 2019; it struck me as one of the truest things anyone had said about grief.

I write about death a lot – sometimes very literally, as in my longstanding Death & Fairies series, in which one character is an actual death god, one character is immortal, and one is cursed to kill those they’re in love with. Here, it’s no less literal, though it is less personified: this is a more familiar flavour of grief, one that can and does happen in the real world, bundled up with the added complication of the main character being a murderer.

I think this series has always been about grief; the characters who die in The Butterfly Assassin continue to haunt the rest of the trilogy, their presence inescapable within it. It’s about how to continue after the worst has happened, except sometimes, the worst that’s happened is you. But where grief makes Emma kind, as Isabel notes in this chapter, it makes Isabel sharp, and bloodied, and angry.

This scene was, of course, the direct result of the character development I was doing in 2019: for this scene to exist, I needed to know that Emma was still grieving Jean; I needed those glimpse of her childhood panic attacks and the way that her sister helped her through them. I needed to understand Emma’s relationship with Jean before I could understand her friendship with Isabel, and this scene is where those debts and that complicated tangle of emotions becomes very apparent.

This discussion seems to imply that this is a bummer of a chapter, but it’s not, is it? I mean, you may disagree, and feel free to do so in the comments, but I think this is actually a hopeful moment. Isabel calling a truce with Mortimer, starting to understand Emma and therefore to trust her a little more; these glimpses of the city’s art and its resistance to the guilds, reminding us that Espera is more than its darkness… I think this is a thread of light amidst the shadows.

But perhaps it doesn’t feel that way to you. In which case, tell me how it does feel, and what these insights into Mortimer and Emma meant to you, and I will see you back here tomorrow.

02/10, Kulpo (TBA Readalong)

On the 2nd of October, Grace gives Isabel the antidote to the memory suppressant. They talk a little about Mortimer, and whether or not he poses a threat, and Isabel wonders exactly how deep in Grace’s debt she’s going to be.

Since the previous chapter didn’t exist in any of the early drafts, neither did this scene, although Isabel did, at one point in the first draft, discuss Mortimer with Graham:

“Mortimer’s more perceptive than most people.”

“Yeah, he is.”

“You shouldn’t trust him.”

“I don’t. I don’t trust you either. That doesn’t mean I won’t accept your help.”

(A classic taste of how much of the first draft was pure dialogue with no dialogue tags. This is often the case with my first drafts, but when you take a scene out of context, it makes it very hard to figure out who is speaking. This one is Graham – Isabel – Graham – Isabel, ftr.)

There’s a slightly more readable version of this in Draft IV:

“Oh.” Warily, Isabel allows Grace to take her arm again, and they make slow progress down the corridor towards the medical room. “Mortimer knows about you, you know.”

“You told him?”

“He already knew. He says you’re bad at hiding it.”

“Mortimer’s more perceptive than most people.” A moment of silence. “You shouldn’t trust him.”

“I don’t.”

She thinks Grace probably smiles at that, but she can’t see her face from this angle. “I’m sorry this has happened to you, Isabel,” says the librarian eventually, and Isabel has no idea how to respond to that.

We can see that Grace and Mortimer are on friendlier terms in the late drafts than they were earlier on, but that’s mostly because I gave them actual characterisation, and also because Grace is no longer affiliated with Hummingbird the way that Graham was. Mortimer isn’t aware that Grace is a freelance poisoner, but if he was, the fact that she specialises in antidotes and nonlethals would probably reconcile him to that information, even if it would initially be a shock. On the whole, though, he’d struggle to be friendly with a guild member – Isabel becoming a notable exception to that. His suspicion that Grace was/had been a poisoner in the early drafts was a big part of the tension between the pair of them.

Come Draft VI, Grace was a poisoner, Mortimer didn’t know but suspected, and we were creeping towards a recognisable version of this scene, but we still didn’t have my favourite moment, a version of which showed up in 2020:

“He doesn’t know I’ve been poisoned. Or that I was trained as a child. But the rest…” She shrugs, trying to hide her discomfort. “I don’t know what he’ll do with that information. I don’t think he’s planning to do anything yet, but I can’t be sure.”

“Want me to poison him for you?” says Grace.

Isabel looks up, shocked. “No,” she says instantly. “No, of course not, that would – wait, was that a joke?”

The librarian pulls a face. “Not exactly. I mean, I’d rather not. Despite his many flaws, I do actually like Mortimer. But if you’d asked, I’d have considered it. Something nasty but nonlethal.”

Want me to poison him for you? I love Grace in this moment. This is the moment we realise she’s switched from a threat to Isabel to a genuine ally: somebody who will protect her. And Isabel has few enough of those.

There’s not much else to discuss in this chapter, so I’m going to be slightly cheeky and slip into the 3rd October, because I have a couple of sections to cover there. Since the first of them happens at 04:23am, it’s still kind of the 2nd, especially as it’s not quite dawn.

In this scene, Isabel wakes from a dream, triggered by the memory suppressant breaking down, in which she remembers creating the poison for her father. She wakes before she can remember the formula, horrified to realise she’s been, in part, the architect of her own suffering. Michael, suffering his own nightmares, calls her, and the two have a late-night call, solidarity in the face of mutual trauma.

There are two things I want to say about this section.

Firstly, that it was important to me that Isabel was at least partially implicated in her own suffering. It’s pretty clear that the poison wasn’t her idea, and nobody else would hold her responsible for creating it, or think that she deserved to suffer as a result – but Isabel does, to a certain extent, see it that way. She doesn’t consider herself blameless, and this moment creates ambiguity (to her) about the extent to which she’s a victim.

When I temporarily lost the use of my hands at seventeen, a lot of it wasn’t my fault. I didn’t design my own genetics and give myself hypermobility syndrome. I wasn’t the one who gave me bad medical advice and worsened what might otherwise have been a smaller issue. I didn’t create the school system that pushed me to try and overachieve.

I did, however, write 700,000 words of fiction in eight months while doing my AS Levels, writing for three blogs, preparing for grade eight flute and violin, and playing in half a dozen musical ensembles. Repetitive Strain Injury was, as it seemed everybody wanted to tell me at the beginning, my fault.

For most people, RSI would have been temporary, if possibly recurring; for me, I became disabled, at first quite significantly. And it was my fault. I believed that. I’d overdone it, I hadn’t listened to warnings, I’d had bad posture, I’d pushed too hard, I’d done this to myself and therefore I deserved it. Did this mindset contribute to the pain sensitisation that trapped me in a cycle of chronic pain? I don’t know. But it sure didn’t help, because believing I deserved it also meant, on a deep subconscious level, that I didn’t truly believe I deserved to get better. Or that I was allowed to get better.

And then, when I got diagnosed with coeliac disease, it was after a year in which I had more or less exclusively lived on bread and pasta. (I was a first-year undergrad with limited kitchen facilities; it happens.) In other words, I’d spent a year poisoning myself. Did I know? No, of course I didn’t know. Did it make it worse? In the long term, probably not; in the short term, yes, it was the reason my antibody count was through the roof and my general health was so poor.

What mattered, though, at the time, was that I was not the blameless disabled person who had done everything right and still got sick, and was therefore worthy of sympathy. I had done everything wrong, and I had made myself sick.

In the years since then, I’ve learned two things: first, it doesn’t matter if you do everything right. This is an awful thing to have to learn, because it makes you realise that no matter how hard you try, you can’t actually protect yourself from illness, because illness is not a moral punishment and sometimes it Just Happens. Yes, even if you were good, even if you took all of your vitamins, even if you exercised, even if you rested – we are not, in the end, in control of our health, and we cannot protect ourselves from illness and injury and pain. And recognising that also doesn’t wholly take away the guilt and sense of responsibility. But it helps a little.

The second thing I learned is that it wouldn’t matter if I was fully, 100% responsible for all of my health issues: I still deserved help. I still deserved to get better.

That is, frequently, the point I am making here. Isabel is not blameless – in so many ways, she has been the cause of suffering. She is not perfect, not innocent, not untouched by her parents’ teachings. She still deserves better. She still deserves help, she still deserves to be safe, she still deserves medicine and care and friends. Because those are not conditional.

I said I wasn’t going to over-explain my motivations and thematic intentions because I want the book to stand alone, but I couldn’t help myself with this one, because this matters to me. It matters to me that Isabel isn’t innocent, and it matters to me that she still deserves better – and this is the first chapter where we really get a sense of that.

The second thing I want to say about this chapter is, you’ll be pleased to know, a little lighter in tone.

When Isabel is on the phone with Michael, he tells her that he can’t sleep because one of his roommates in the hostel where he’s staying is snoring like a rowing machine. This is drawn directly from my own personal experiences of staying in a hostel in Leeds in 2018, on my way to a job interview with the British Library in Boston Spa. Somebody in my dorm snored exactly like this: a long, noisy drag in, and then a sudden whoosh out. I had Green Day playing at top volume through my headphones and I could still hear them.

I may have hit them with a pillow. More than once. You can’t prove it. I’ll deny everything.

By the time I woke up at 7am to catch the bus out to my interview, I had not slept very much, and I was not very happy. I was also wildly unqualified for the job and, frankly, I don’t know why they interviewed me; needless to say, it didn’t work out, which is why I still live in Cambridge with its extortionate house prices, and not in Yorkshire, where less of my monthly income would go on rent. But the experience taught me something vital, and that is that some people snore like rowing machines.

I’m sorry, Michael. Nobody deserves to go through that.

Again, I have to say, I have a soft spot for the Michael we meet in this chapter. It’s clear he understands Isabel in a way that nobody else does; they’re alike, and they have shared experiences that nobody else has. This scene was another late addition to the book (really, this whole section was) – it showed up in 2020, and then almost got cut again in my autumn edits that year, but I decided the character moment was worth keeping. I’m glad I did. I think it was worth it.

What about you? Any thoughts on this chapter? How did it make you feel to realise that Isabel had helped make the poison – did it change how you viewed her and her illness? And, to keep things light, who’s the worst snorer you’ve ever had the misfortune to share a room with?

01/10, Vereco (TBA Readalong)

As of today, everything kicks off with my PhD and various induction activities, so I may be slower to respond to comments. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t leave them, however; I will be delighted to read them as soon as I get a second to catch my breath!

If you’re new here, we’re reading The Butterfly Assassin in real time according to the book’s chronology and discussing the writing process and the worldbuilding. Head to TBA Readalong Starting This Sunday for an overview of my approach, or start at the beginning with 17/09, Eraro.

On the 1st of October, Isabel runs into Emma, who rejects her; asks Grace Whittock for help with an antidote, and discusses her father’s lab; and has a tense conversation with Mortimer, in which he reveals that he speaks Esperanto and has guessed a certain amount about her past. (For those following along in the book, this is Chapter 15.)

None of these scenes exist in the first draft, which doesn’t give us too much to talk about. Although Grace/Graham was always trained as a poisoner, this aspect of the character was far less prominent in early drafts – involving her in trying to create an antidote was prompted by my attempts to keep Isabel out of hospital for longer, and give her more agency in saving herself. In the early drafts, she was in hospital not long after her first meeting with Toni Rolleston, so around this point in the book, and stayed there for most of the rest of it; while there was some action in these scenes, it definitely robbed Isabel of a lot of her narrative power over the plot, and a big part of my Draft VI/AMM rewrites was focused on changing that and keeping her independent and autonomous for longer.

The memory suppressant which Grace mentions in this chapter was also, I think, a reasonably late addition; pretty much all the specifics of the poison changed drastically over time, with various approaches in between, and this would have been an attempt to create a situation in which Isabel didn’t have the knowledge at first but might, over time, recover or discover it, giving her more personal responsibility for and autonomy over the antidote process.

Moreover, since the significance of Esperanto has changed over time, there would be no reason for Mortimer to reveal that he spoke it – in the earliest drafts, everyone spoke Esperanto, even though I hadn’t yet come up with a valid worldbuilding reason why.

I have to say, I do find it very funny when Isabel briefly thinks Mortimer is a Hummingbird spy, watching out for talented students to recruit, until it occurs to her that he’s a Woodwork teacher and the only talent he’s going to spot is for carpentry. While the guilds employ a lot of people with a lot of skills, and some of them are purely practical, everyday abilities, I don’t think those are the people they’re going to be headhunting straight out of school.

This moment is also a sly nod to the fact that in the early drafts (I-V), Mortimer did have a connection to Hummingbird: his sister and niblings worked for them, and he was estranged from them as a result because of his moral objections to the guilds. This was a detail that primarily had significance for book two, but was cut due to a broader overhaul of the characters involved, which disentangled those relationships entirely. For years, it seemed that every book I wrote had a “surprise! Everyone’s related” reveal, and while these are occasionally very effective, I figured we had enough of that with Toni and Emma and didn’t need to do it again.

But, in those drafts, we didn’t see much of Mortimer outside of formal classroom contexts until Isabel was already in hospital – which made his friendship and offers of help a lot less believable. Once again, his larger role was the result of prioritising secondary character development when I overhauled the book… but this specific scene, this moment, was a late addition.

By late, in this context, I mean it showed up in 2020, in the edits I did after I signed with Jessica as my agent. This whole section of the book got restructured, mostly for the sake of pacing – at one point we had two visits from Michael here, multiple scenes with Grace, a Symbolic Card Game, and a far more casual interaction with Mortimer. To keep the tension up, and add to the sense of threats on all sides, I shifted the scene with Mortimer to something a little more hostile and less relaxed.

It’s funny, after writing book two where Mortimer means a great deal to Isabel, to look back at these early meetings and see how suspicious she is of him, and how he’s essentially functioning as a minor antagonist within the narrative. I do love that, though, the transition of a potential threat to a weird uncle/surrogate father figure. Villain decay, but in the most chill way possible, with biscuits. For the moment, it seems like he might be one of the few adults who sees straight through Isabel despite a lack of other information: obviously traumatised. But this does make you wonder exactly how obvious it is that somebody who hardly knows her can see it.

Mortimer also says that he speaks Esperanto because he thought it might come in handy – know your enemy, etc. I have very little in my notes about this, except for one small detail that I had entirely forgotten: according to my Developmental Notes document from 2019 (during AMM), Mortimer originally trained as a Latin teacher.

We already said he was in the model-making club (what a soft nerd boy), and maybe he finds consolation in that – it’s his outlet while he’s grieving [a family member killed by the guilds]. He carries on with the Latin too, and ends up tutoring younger students, which is part of why he thinks he should become a teacher. Goes to college to train as a Latin teacher, but something’s missing. Halfway through he joins an engineering society or something and realises he misses being able to make stuff. Trains as a DT teacher instead, but uses his language (Latin) skills to teach himself Esperanto, in case it ever comes in handy.

I don’t know if this is canon. I had entirely forgotten it, and I’m always coming up with new headcanons about Mortimer’s backstory that I’ll never confirm on page. Since these notes predate a fair bit of crucial Mortimer characterisation due to the extremely late addition of all the most important scenes, it may be that our Mortimer doesn’t have a word of Latin.

But, hey, that’s the joy of these old notes. They’re true for a version of the character, even if it’s one who only existed between drafts as I refined ideas and played around with backstory. If it’s not on the page, you can ignore it or adopt it as you see fit.

That’s pretty much it for today, so over to you. I realise I’ve skimmed over the scene with Grace without delving too much into it: I think everything I might want to say about that part of the chapter is on the page, and I don’t want to focus too hard on that. But if you have any questions or thoughts on that scene and on Isabel’s childhood in her father’s lab, drop them in the comments, or tell me how you felt about Mortimer and his Suspicious Esperanto.

Otherwise, I’ll see you back here tomorrow!