Tag: editing

26/09, Konfeso (TBA Readalong)

On the 26th of September, the Echo reports that Comma claimed the murder of Ian Crampton, Isabel overhears Mortimer and Grace talking about her, and Nick invites Isabel to go clubbing with him.

Of these three scenes, Mortimer and Grace’s conversation is the oldest: a version of it existed way back in the first draft. I like finding scenes like that, even when they’ve changed significantly, because it reminds me that no matter how completely I rewrote this book, it is still at its core the book I wrote in 2014. I was onto something – I just needed to refine it a lot before it got to this point.

In the first draft, the scene happened slightly earlier in the book, before Isabel gets sick, and there was, of course, no mention of Ian Crampton, since he didn’t exist at that stage:

She’s only a corridor away from the library, so it’s a matter of moments before she pushes open the door. Graham’s in the small office to the left of the entrance, deep in conversation with somebody. Alarmed, Isabel makes sure she’s not in sight, and tries to make out the gist of their conversation.

“The kid sliced her thumb open and barely even blinked.” It’s Mortimer, she realises. They’re talking about me.

“So she’s tough. What does that matter?”

“Don’t pretend you’re not always the one to befriend the troubled kids. She’ll have been up here half a dozen times already, I’ll bet.”

“Even if she had, it’s not my place to tell you anything she hasn’t told you.”

“You’re infuriating, Graham.”

There’s a major difference between the first version of this scene and the final version, though, and that’s Mortimer’s attitude. In the first draft, he was suspicious of Isabel:

Graham sounds bored. “In fact, she’s meant to be here any moment, so if you really want to know, why don’t you ask her yourself? I’m sure she’ll be delighted to tell you all her secrets if you only ask enough times.”

Mortimer doesn’t miss the sarcasm. “She worries me.”

She worries you?”

“There’s something odd about her.”

“There I was thinking you were asking out of concern for her welfare. She’s a sixteen-year-old girl, Mortimer. If that’s enough to scare you, maybe you’re in the wrong profession. I didn’t realise teaching was high-risk these days.”

All three of them know that teaching’s the safest job there is, at least while Comma and Hummingbird hold back from hiring teenagers. “You’ll regret laughing at me when you realise what I mean,” says Mortimer, and storms out of the office.

In the final version, he’s similarly suspicious that her story doesn’t add up, but he’s concerned for her, worried that she’s in up to her neck in guild trouble and that it’s going to result in her getting hurt. This is partly that I never intended Mortimer to be such a significant, sympathetic character in the first draft, so didn’t particularly work to make him likeable in his early scenes. It’s also because, as I mentioned before, the more I started to understand Isabel’s trauma and background, the more I realised what kind of behaviour would send her running for the hills, and there was definitely no way she’d ever have trusted the first draft version of Mortimer.

In this conversation, we also have a tiny bit more worldbuilding – a reference to rumours about the spons which suggests that even Esperans don’t necessarily know what’s going on in their own city, especially when it comes to the guild-sponsored schools. This is something that always interests me in books – how much do characters know about their world? I couldn’t explain how everything works in the real world, especially if it’s not something I’ve experienced first-hand. There’s a lot that Isabel doesn’t understand about the economy, so it’s never going to be on the page, and the only reason she knows how guild-sponsored schools work is because she attended one.

Grace tells us that the guilds only start interfering with the kids’ education in sixth year, and that tallies with what Isabel told us before about the subjects she would have been doing for Level Three if she’d stayed at Linnaeus. It does beg the question of how Grace knows that, though – is she simply better informed about Espera’s education system, or does she have some personal experience?

We already know, from the introductory scene with Graham and from Grace’s later remarks in the published version of the book, that Grace’s family were Hummingbird. Exactly what kind of school Grace went to isn’t something I’ve delved into, but you could take her knowledge here as a sign of personal experience…

…or you could read it as librarians talking to other librarians, and her being clued into the educational system in a purely professional capacity. Up to you.

The only other small worldbuilding detail we’re given in this chapter, really, is Nick’s invitation to go to an underage club night in Weaverthorpe – a Comma borough, as Isabel notes, when trying to decide whether or not to accept. As I said in one of the first posts in this series, all of the boroughs in Espera are named after real villages and placenames in the area, but their guild affiliations don’t follow any particular pattern. Some of them even share borders with their rivals.

I didn’t delve into the logistics of this, but I have to say, I think I’d enjoy a sitcom about two Esperan neighbours living in adjacent houses with the borough border running straight through their house. Both of them believe their neighbour is a guild agent for the rival guild, and is trying to get them to give themselves away; in fact, they’re both low-level adjacent workers with no guild secrets to spill even if they wanted to, but they’re both convinced that’s the other person’s cover story. Shenanigans ensure. If you would like to write this fic, you are extremely welcome to do so.  

That’s more or less it for this half-chapter – an eventful day for Isabel, but a light one for us. So it’s time for your thoughts. Did Mortimer’s concern for Isabel here make him seem more or less suspicious as a character? At this point of the book, does he seem like a potential ally, or like an antagonist?

As always, leave any and all thoughts and questions in the comments, and I’ll be delighted to chat with you.

25/09, Koloroj–Veneno (TBA Readalong)

I’m going to have to restrain myself today, because two whole chapters happen on 25th September, so there’s lots to get through without me going off on a thousand-word digression about the worldbuilding. So, let’s get right to it:

It’s the 25th September, a Tuesday. Unable to sleep because of pain, Isabel’s used the extra time to finish off her Woodwork homework, jumping through Mortimer’s protective hoops in order to take the safety exam and be allowed to use sharp things in class. When it comes to actually taking the exam, though, her fear gets the better of her, and she panics. Mortimer is a delight about it, but she’s still afraid to confide in him.

Later, she takes the tram to her first appointment with Daragh Vernant, accompanied by Emma, who is heading in the same direction. Emma tells her that the 25th September is her sister’s birthday, so she’s meeting Leo at her grave for a picnic: her sister died of cancer a couple of years earlier, and she and Leo rely heavily on each other to make grief bearable. She makes sure to take Isabel to the door of the Sunshine Project first, though, with a brief tour of the city’s street art beforehand.

Isabel has her first appointment with Daragh Vernant, who tells her that he suspects she’s been poisoned, and guesses that her family has a guild connection. He takes some blood samples for further testing, and Isabel heads home, where she digs out a book on poisons in the hope of answers. While she’s reading, Ronan Atwood shows up at her door again, asking for her help to decode her father’s files. She refuses, admitting that her father experimented on her, and is unmoved by Ronan telling her that her father’s defection puts the whole city at risk, despite his offer of medical care to help deal with the poison.

Phew. There’s a lot in there, and I don’t even know where to start. If we didn’t have so much to tackle, I would definitely be focusing on Mortimer, and how much I love him, but since there’s little worldbuilding to discuss in that scene, let’s move on to Emma and Isabel on the tram.

Isabel running into Emma on the tram and Emma guiding her to the clinic has existed since the very first draft, but initially Emma was meeting Leo for lunch to celebrate him getting a new job, rather than to commemorate their sister. It was also previously the moment when Emma told Isabel that she was fostered, and that her parents had left Espera when she was a child, abandoning her; now, we don’t learn anything about Emma’s family until chapter twelve.

The death of Emma’s sister Jean, and the part it plays in Emma’s desire to help Isabel, was a fairly late addition; I think it originates in Draft VI, the AMM Rewrite. It was a direct result of sitting down to treat my secondary characters as people in their own right, and not plot pieces, giving each of them backstory and motivations and personality traits that reflected both of those things. I’ve always loved Emma as a character, but I have to admit she didn’t have as much depth to her as I’d have liked until quite a few drafts in.

It’s not that Jean’s death is the sole reason Emma befriends Isabel – it’s not as simple as that. But Emma is definitely looking for that kind of sisterly relationship that she no longer has with Jean, and this time she’s taking on the protective big sister role, helping somebody else the way Jean helped her. Understanding this about her clarified a lot for me, although the abandonment issues that drove her in the early drafts haven’t disappeared; they’re another facet of her need to be useful to others. 

The tour of Espera’s street art is also a late addition, from around the same time. Emma has always been an artist, and I’ve always imagined the city as being colourful – I was keen from the beginning to avoid the cliché of a dark, monochromatic dystopia, and I took a lot of inspiration from the Berlin Wall and the graffiti that covered it. Those who follow me on Instagram will know that I love street art in general, and photograph it whenever I get the chance. In Ireland, a lot of major cities have murals covering entire buildings; it’s one of the things I miss about it, living in Cambridge, where there’s very little art of that kind.

A 3x3 grid containing photos of street art, including a colourful mural of a kingfisher covering an entire wall of a building, a surrealist design on a cafe, and some smaller butterfly designs on walls.
A few of the pieces of street art I’ve photographed in Dublin, Brighton, Cork, Utrecht, Co. Kerry, Waterford, and Catford (London).

One thing I enjoy about this scene is that, although it’s new, it does contain echoes of earlier versions. The wall Emma painted is a ‘luminous, rainbow paisley design’; in the early drafts, we saw Emma paint something very similar on the wall of Isabel’s hospital room. (She spent a great deal more of the early drafts in hospital; it wrecked the pacing.) In my head, it strongly resembles the design on a paper napkin I saw back in 2014, which I still have kept inside a writing folder somewhere! There are also a few worldbuilding details tucked away here: the ‘shoddy construction’ of housing in Espera, for example, or the fact that Central Espera is a neutral zone, with guild employees living side-by-side with civilians.

Isabel has visited the Sunshine Project – or Dr Vernant’s unnamed clinic – since the very first draft, but that, too, is a scene that has changed considerably. For starters, Dr Claudia Vernant used to be her own character, but having two significant doctors in the book weakened the character development of both, so I combined Dr Vernant with Daragh, and that combination made several plot points possible which hadn’t made sense before.

Another difference was that we used to see a lot more of Isabel’s backstory at this point in time. Daragh ‘guesses’ that Isabel has a guild connection (he does, in fact, know exactly who she is at this point, but she won’t find that out until later), but he doesn’t pry, and he doesn’t see her scars or ask about them until a later appointment. In the first draft, though, Dr Vernant examined Isabel’s scars during this scene, and Isabel told, in full, the story behind one of them – which was when we found out about Cocoon, and Isabel’s backstory.

All of the essential information conveyed in that conversation remains in the book:

  • Isabel was trained as part of a minors’ training programme
  • She was sent on a job that went wrong, and was stabbed in the abdomen
  • Another trainee, Michael, saved her life
  • The injury wasn’t given enough time to heal, and she was re-injured, leaving the noticeable scar she has now
  • As a result of this injury, Isabel is infertile

But all of that is now given piecemeal when it becomes relevant – i.e., not in this specific chapter – rather than as part of a big infodumpy flashback narrative. Because, realistically, there’s no way Isabel would trust anybody with that much personal information the first time she met them, especially not a doctor.

That’s something that actually changed a lot over the years. As I gained a better understanding of medical trauma, and as I refined the details of Isabel’s backstory, I completely overhauled almost every scene in which she interacts with a medical professional, because there is no way Isabel would have reacted well to how they behaved around her in the first draft. In particular, Daragh’s characterisation changed significantly when I decided his defining feature would be that he respects Isabel’s autonomy, as others have failed to do – which I would say he didn’t really do in the first draft.

The first draft version of this chapter ended with Isabel being told she had cancerous growths on her organs, so that obviously changed (thank god, because I did no research for that first draft and it was terrible as a result). This final version of the scene doesn’t take us anywhere near to an answer about the nature of her illness – only a hypothesis that it was poison. But from Isabel’s own investigations that follow, we learn that her father was a poisoner (this has been true since the first draft), and Isabel begins to suspect he might have something to do with her illness.

His poisons are unique concoctions designed to turn your own body against you, to convince your immune system to shut down and your nerves to shred themselves. I spent a lot of time researching poisons over the years of writing this book, from lead and radiation poisoning to your classic plant-based murder methods to the most vicious nerve agents. I ended up with a deeply sketchy internet history – especially the fact that I was researching nerve agents right around the time of the Salisbury Poisonings – and explored several different approaches within the book itself. In one draft, it was polonium poisoning; in another, lead. Eventually, I settled in a completely fictional poison, but one that essentially functions as a slow-acting nerve agent, or a manufactured autoimmune disease.

We’ll see more of how those symptoms manifest later in the book, and I’ll talk about my research and inspirations for those. In the meantime, though, we’ve got Ronan Atwood’s second visit, and a few crucial world-building details:

First, Espera’s currency is pre-decimal British currency, e.g. pounds, shilling, and pence. We sort of already knew this, since shillings were mentioned in an early chapter as part of a conversation with Nick, but we might have assumed meant the money was old. In this chapter, though, Ronan is playing with a freshly-minted shilling, telling us that the city produces its own money.

This is the part where I confess I had absolutely no idea what currency Espera used until after the fourth draft when one of my beta readers asked me, isn’t it? Because… yeah. I really didn’t. The economics of this whole thing were a fairly late development, due to my early drafts coasting by purely on vibes, and those are the kind of basic questions my younger self never thought to ask.

The scene with Ronan and a shilling was an extra scene I wrote and added in somewhere between drafts IV and V (the document was entitled “ronan currency and comma supremacy”), although it got cut back considerably when I combined it with this chapter. It had its moments, though:

Ronan’s playing with a coin – one of the new shillings, still as shiny and polished as the day it was minted. Isabel watches it flash between his fingers and disappear momentarily before reappearing in his palm, wondering what point he’s trying to make.

He places it on the table and slides it across to her. “Take a look.”

“It’s a coin.” But she picks it up anyway and turns it over. The back’s emblazoned with a butterfly, Comma’s primary logo. Not like the old coins, which had a maelstrom of wings representing both guilds. Or the brief issue before that, which simply bore a skull. If Comma’s minting currency under their own symbol…

“Do you know who controls this city, Isabel Ryans?” Ronan asks.

She flicks the coin back across the table towards him. “You, apparently.”

The scene also contained a moment of dialogue that persisted for several drafts but eventually got cut, which I was devasted by:

“I’m not trying to make any enemies.”

“Then you need to stop killing people.”

“That was one time.

Did it make me laugh? Yes. Did it work in the moment and with the focus being on Isabel’s trauma? No, it was pulling us right out of it. That, my friends, is called a darling, and that is why we kill them.

All in all, though, what that scene was lacking was a real sense of the city’s economy and how the guilds functioned – which is what Ronan’s anxiety about Ian’s defection gives us. He’s concerned for the future of Comma’s trade with the outside world, which is the most information we’ve got so far about what that trade entails, and where the city sits, politically. Will this become relevant later on? It sure will. Take notes. You’re going to need them when book 3 comes along.

Mostly, though, the focus in these two chapters is on Isabel’s emotions and Isabel’s trauma, and that is where the early drafts showed up my immaturity. I started writing novels when I was thirteen, and I first wrote this book when I was eighteen. There are no doubt plenty of young authors who could have pulled this off at that age, but I couldn’t. It took me several years to develop the emotional maturity to handle those topics sensitively, accurately, and realistically. Even the things I ought to have understood on a personal level, I didn’t know how to write them in a way that felt authentic, and that’s what I see lacking when I look back at the earlier drafts.

The journey to publication was long, but it gave me time to write this book the way it was supposed to be written, focusing on the stuff that actually mattered. I’m grateful for that.

I’ve probably missed dozens of interesting details in these chapters in the interests of keeping this post a reasonable length, so please, let me know what caught your eye and I can run wildly over wordcount in the comments instead 😅 Or, if you’ve nothing to say about these specific chapters, tell me about your favourite piece of street art (or any other art) that you’ve ever seen.

24/09, Doloro – Part II (TBA Readalong)

On the 24th September, Isabel goes to school, still suffering from severe and miserable stomach aches, and asks Grace Whittock for help finding a doctor. But it’s Emma who answers, giving her the number of a non-profit clinic for low-income civilians: The Sunshine Project. When Isabel’s anxiety gets the better of her, Emma helps her out by calling her brother, Leo, who volunteers at the clinic, and asking him to help Isabel get an appointment.

It’s a fairly short scene, but one that allows Emma to demonstrate her willingness to help Isabel – and her tacit understanding when Isabel’s fear gets the better of her – as well as giving us the names of two new characters, Leo and Daragh Vernant. It’s also a scene with a long history, though it’s changed considerably over the years.

In the first draft of this book, Isabel did her own research and found that Dr Vernant (originally a separate character from Daragh) was her best option for accessing healthcare. But while she was talking to Graham about it, Emma overheard, and came out from among the library shelves to contribute to the conversation – her first meeting with Isabel.

I mentioned in a previous post that the Sunshine Project (a name it only acquired in a much later draft) was, at one point in the book’s history, more focused on reproductive and sexual healthcare, and that was a focus in the earliest versions of this chapter. Isabel had made the appointment using a phone at school, since she didn’t have one of her own; the receptionists, overhearing the name of the doctor she was seeing, gave her Knowing Looks that she didn’t understand, which is what she was asking Graham about.

From the conversation that followed, in which Emma explained that her knowledge of Dr Vernant’s practice was because she’d accompanied several friends there for STI testing and similar appointments, we got a glimpse of Isabel’s sex repulsion. More than a lack of interest, in earlier drafts Isabel found the entire concept of sex distasteful, and that came across strongly in these chapters.

Isabel is, of course, asexual, but attraction ≠ action, and not all asexual people are sex-repulsed. Some are; others are indifferent or disinterested; and others are actively interested in it and may seek it out. In more recent drafts, I’ve tended to write Isabel as disinterested, with a side of bafflement that anybody finds the idea appealing, because she doesn’t really get it; I’ve downplayed the profound disgust she felt in the first draft. This is mostly due to my own more nuanced feelings about her sexuality and how I wanted to portray it, but also because it was incredibly hard to convey her own personal sex-repulsion without it straying into seeming like she was shaming others, since it was rarely her own actions she was having those feelings about.

These details also became a lot less relevant as the nature of the Sunshine Project shifted and expanded. But versions of that conversation with Emma persisted until Draft V (by which point it was no longer her first meeting with Isabel, but her second, as in this version):

“Though you might as well get tested for chlamydia while you’re there.”

“That won’t be necessary,” she says emphatically. Emma raises her eyebrows, but doesn’t press the point. “I needed a doctor’s appointment, and I’m not registered. That’s all.”

“It’s your call. And don’t worry, Dr Vernant’s legit for, like, regular stuff too.”

“You know a lot about her, Emma,” says Grace.

“Yeah, my friends always make me come with them when they fuck up.” She seems unconcerned by this, and by swearing in front of a member of staff. “Why they think I can offer moral support, I’ve no idea, but I’ve been five times. Herpes, chlamydia, pregnancy, Alice’s hormones…”

“That’s enough,” the librarian interrupts. “Spare us the details.”

Now, though, the focus is more on Isabel’s anxiety about seeking out healthcare – her fear of discovery, her past trauma creeping up on her. It gives us a glimpse of Emma’s backstory, when she mentions her sister helping her through her panic attacks, and we start to understand why she stopped to help Isabel when she was panicking in the bathroom, even though she was a stranger.

It’s also our first mention of Leo and, while he only appears very fleetingly here and in this book more generally, I do want to give a shoutout to Leo, my beloved. (For those who haven’t read it yet, he plays a much more significant role in The Hummingbird Killer, so this isn’t just me being randomly attached to a background character, I have my reasons.)

I think that’s all there is to be said about this scene, so it’s over to you. Emma is really the star of the show here, and we’re getting hints of what she’s going to mean to Isabel later on, but what did you think of her at this point? I confess, I love the ending of this chapter, and Emma threatening to fight the universe for Isabel – that showed up in around Draft VI, if I remember correctly, and I went out of my way to keep it. What about you? Any standout lines for you?

22/09, Doloro (TBA Readalong)

You will be relieved to know that this is a short post and you get a day off tomorrow, since nothing in The Butterfly Assassin takes place on 23rd September. (For Isabel, it’s a Sunday, so a quiet day amidst a school-based schedule.)

On the 22nd September, however, Isabel wakes up in the middle of the night, in severe pain, and wonders what to do next. This is the first couple of pages of Chapter 7, for those keeping track. For the first time in this scene, Isabel attributes her symptoms to the probability of poison, and not to anxiety or general sickness, and we begin to get a sense of where the plot is going…

There is no wound, no knife, and there are no weapons that can protect her from an enemy that’s inside her.

Poison has always been a plot point in this book, even back in the earliest drafts, but it’s changed significantly over time, in terms of the nature of the poison and the symptoms it causes, as well as its purpose within the plot. When I wrote the first draft back in 2014, I had never knowingly been poisoned. By the time it was published, I was describing it jokily as “OwnVoices for poisoning”. What changed?

Well, in 2015, I got diagnosed with coeliac disease, an autoimmune condition which means I can’t eat gluten.

Some coeliacs are largely asymptomatic. They don’t experience noticeable symptoms when accidentally ingesting gluten, although that doesn’t mean there’s no damage: it can cause nutrient deficiencies and malnutrition, and increase the risk of bowel cancer. Many are diagnosed because of persistent, severe anaemia due to malabsorption of iron, which was also true for me – I complained of fatigue, said I thought my anaemia was probably returning, and mentioned that I’d stopped taking iron supplements due to stomachaches. The doctor ran a routine test for coeliac antibodies just in case, and discovered my immune system was halfway through setting itself on fire, with an antibody count of 216. (Around 20-30 would’ve been enough to suggest coeliac disease.)

But I hadn’t had significant symptoms before then, so it was a surprise, the first time I accidentally ate gluten after diagnosis and a couple of months of a strict gluten-free diet, to find myself in the bathroom wishing for death.

It turns out, when your immune system is on fire at all times, you don’t notice the reaction when somebody throws a bit of extra fuel on the pyre. But once you’ve got the fire under control… yeah, after that, the smallest thing sets it off like a flamethrower.

These days, I have to avoid all traces of gluten. “May contain wheat” is enough to mean I can’t eat something, just in case. I have to have a separate toaster to avoid crumbs touching my bread, because they would make me sick. I have separate utensils, especially wooden spoons which are hard to clean thoroughly, and I essentially travel with the kitchen sink to make sure I can safely prepare food when I’m away from home. I have an extensive list of additional dietary restrictions, which makes things extra complicated, but it’s only the gluten where the tiniest trace will make me sick.

I don’t get glutened often, because I’m very careful. But when I do… it sucks. And I drew on that experience for Isabel.

There are no weapons that can protect her from an enemy that’s inside her. Writing as someone with a couple of autoimmune conditions and chronic illnesses, plus chronic pain and fatigue… this, here, is one of the main things the book is about. That terrifying loss of control that comes from realising your body is turning on you.

OwnVoices for poisoning.

I know that this loss of – and fight for – control over your own body has been something that’s resonated with disabled and chronically ill readers, because they’ve told me so. But it probably wasn’t clear from this first glimpse of the poison that that was going to be such a major focus of the book, so I’d like to know how youse reacted to this scene. Did you think, “Oh, she’ll be fine, YA books never kill off main characters”? (lol) Or did you think, “Oh, shit, how’s she going to get out of this one?”

Leave your answers, or any other remarks, in the comments, and I’ll see you back here in a couple of days for the rest of this chapter.

21/09, Informo (TBA Readalong)

In 2029, the 21st September is a Friday, bringing us to the end of a school week for Isabel – a week that began with a murder, and is ending with severe stomach pain and nausea, heralding dangers to come. We’re on Chapter 6, for those following along with the book itself: Isabel in the library resenting her History homework, talking to Grace Whittock and Emma Westray, and finally, finding a warning message from Hummingbird in the letterbox at her flat.

This is quite a worldbuilding-heavy chapter, which is great, because it gives me plenty to talk about without resorting to analysing metaphors or other on-page details.

Isabel’s reluctant engagement with History as a school subject is the main mechanism I used to provide information about the city’s history, because there’s no real reason it would have come up otherwise. It’s not news to Isabel, when she’s lived there all her life, and it’s rarely of interest, either, since nothing much is changing. There’s no reason for her to suddenly start reflecting on it for the benefit of the reader.

Having a teacher bring it up, though, or having her struggle to reconcile the sanitised history in her school textbooks with what she learned growing up within the guild… yes, that helps us get the details across without belabouring the point, although there’s still a lot that didn’t make it to the page.

I mentioned early on in the readalong that I do a lot of my worldbuilding retrospectively. As such, many of the crucial details about Espera showed up somewhere between the fifth and sixth drafts. Draft V was when the book started looking roughly like a precursor to this book, and Draft VI was a total rewrite based on feedback from Rory Power as part of Author Mentor Match – and a lot of Rory’s questions were about worldbuilding.

That’s actually where my big 2019 worldbuilding document comes from: it was the answers I wrote for Rory, and the details I developed as a result of her questions. As such, while some of the details given in this chapter about Espera’s history – founded during WW1 for weapons development, located in Yorkshire, closed itself off and declared independence – predate that document, essentially none of this had successfully made it onto the page before Draft VI, the AMM Rewrite.

And most of it is first found (at least in readable form) in that worldbuilding document, as part of the same section that gave us that Ronan scene from the other day:

The day the city of Espera declares itself independent, there are several deaths. They go unnoticed at first, underreported; one is in his home, on annual leave, and another visiting family in Scotland. Too far apart to seem connected, even when the bodies are found in Westminster. They’re from different departments. One works in imports, hardly government at all.

And then Espera closes the gates it’s been building these last few months, and several civil servants step off trains at London Kings Cross with their luggage and their notes in their hands, and word goes out that the city is closed now, locked in on itself and keeping to its own laws.

It was never open. Espera wasn’t built to be open. It was built to make weapons, to do the research that would win England the War, and when the war was won it kept looking, kept experimenting, kept building. Never a place you’d visit for the day and then walk away when you wanted. But this is a different kind of closed.

The government hunts for legislation to prove Espera has no right to do this. They check by-laws. They start ringing the offices of the people who dealt with the city to ask if they knew, if they saw it coming – and that’s when they realise.


Espera starts the way it means to go on: by killing anyone who gets in the way.

‘This is an act of war,’ the minister says. He’s just been promoted. They found his predecessor in a pool of his own blood this morning. ‘We have to retaliate.’

The man with the authority to attack is dead too.

The last three shipments of munitions from Espera’s factories didn’t arrive; the junior officer responsible for the paperwork was gone before he could report it.

The message comes through: Espera is no longer content to play armourer for the country’s government. If they want its weapons, they can trade, like everybody else.

I can also tell you that in the very earliest drafts, none of that was true (because, as mentioned, I hadn’t figured out that the guilds were arms dealers yet); Espera was a city in a non-specific alternate world, and then at one point it was Alternate Universe Sheffield, for no reasons other than that Sheffield seemed like it was a good size for what I needed. This is the origin of Espera’s trams: it has trams because Sheffield does, and once upon a time, it was Sheffield.

(I kept them once I relocated the city because they suited the Espera’s history and its focus on clean energy and public facilities, but also because trams are cool. I like trams.)

And I can tell you that the use of Esperanto significantly predates me coming up with an actual worldbuilding reason for that. In this chapter, we’re told that the wartime project drew scientists and spies from across different European countries, and as such, they needed a common language that didn’t imply one country’s dominance over the others within the project. Esperanto was proposed and adopted, and that’s why the guilds still use it as their primary language of business.

This… makes sense. Esperanto is a conlang created in the 1870-1880s by L.L. Zamenhof; amidst the First World War, a language of unity and hope like this might have seemed like a good prospect, and it was still a reasonably new, up-and-coming kind of thing at the time, not a relic or curiosity. My own Esperanto dictionary, obtained secondhand, dates to 1913. It also makes sense for cross-European communication, given its strong similarities to a lot of romance languages, making it fairly easy to learn if those are your first language.

The use of Esperanto, in fact, helped me come up with the city’s backstory, provided one of the pieces that tied it all together, and all in all, grounded it in the early 20th century.

Originally, though, it was a joke.

I’ve mentioned on this blog before that I created Isabel, at first, for an entirely different book: she was a secondary character in a crime novel, a 23-year-old secretary whose backstory was that she’d once been an assassin. When somebody’s murdered in her workplace, her boss naturally suspects her, but she ends up taking on more of a detective’s role, because she suspects her former guild are involved in the killings.

I never finished this book because I never figured out who the murderer was, but eventually I realised Isabel’s backstory was the most interesting thing about her and jumped backwards to write that instead. But three things have always been true about her:

  • Her name has always been Isabel Ryans.
  • Her guild has always been called Comma.
  • Her first language has always been Esperanto.

This version of Isabel, way back in 2012, was raised by eccentric parents who travelled extensively, and raised their daughter through Esperanto, claiming it would allow her to fit in everywhere and instead ensuring she would fit in nowhere. This in turn was concocted to explain why she might speak the language, which I had chosen for no reason other than that it was the most unlikely (and therefore humorously unusual) language I could think of for her to speak.

That’s it. That was the whole logic. “What’s the weirdest language Isabel could have as her first language? Esperanto.” And I built so much worldbuilding on that detail, that detail that started as a joke. Hell, I learned a bunch of Esperanto for it, although mi estas komencanto even now after all these years, since I’ve been more focused on Irish.

A tweet from @FinnLongman from Nov 9, 2012: "My character Isabel has just decided that her first language is Esperanto. Leaving aside that NO ONE'S..." The rest of the post is cut off. The quote tweet, also from @FinnLongman and this time dating to Nov 10, 2022, reads: "The FB post this links to is long gone but let us please appreciate that Isabel's Esperanto speaking predates the first draft of The Butterfly Assassin by more than a year and a half. It is one of her oldest and most consistent character traits."
Sometimes I think about how long Isabel lived in my head before she started paying rent and get a bit overwhelmed.

In this chapter we also learn that there was once a single organisation, which split into Comma and Hummingbird after a schism. We don’t learn much more about this process – Isabel doesn’t know what happened either, her reading interrupted at that point – and, to be honest, it never gets spelled out in any detail in the trilogy, so this seems like a good excuse to share another excerpt from my worldbuilding notes.

At first, it’s one group they find themselves trading with. Not a provisional government; they don’t see themselves as politicians or leaders. But they’re in charge nonetheless. They call themselves Flight, if they call themselves anything, and they are unflinching negotiators. Why wouldn’t they be? They hold all the cards in this game. […]

Inevitably, those wings split, shattering into two factions that threaten to destroy the peace of Espera, a city where the worst danger has only ever come from within. The schism rages largely unnoticed by the outside world, but for the handful of ministers and civil servants whose business it is to pay attention to what happens behind Espera’s walls. They pay smugglers (already doing a roaring trade taking outside goods into the city) to bring them the news they can’t get through official means. It’s the smugglers who bring word of the ceasefire, of the two rival guilds that have built themselves from the wreckage of Flight. The first, the stronger faction, names itself Comma – a butterfly’s grace and a lethal pause. The second, Hummingbird: vicious and fast.

Which is where I should point out, for the benefit of those who hadn’t made the connection yet (it happens) that a Comma is a type of butterfly, not only a punctuation mark, although initially, way back in 2012, Isabel’s guild was named for the latter. (I became aware of the butterfly as a result of a comment left on this blog, but I’ve told that story before, so we won’t dwell on it now.)

There are other worldbuilding hints in this chapter: a casual reference to Lutton’s Free Press readership, implying that the anti-guild abolitionist movement may become relevant at some stage; a quick overview of the relationship between guilds and freelance contract killers (not friendly); a glimpse of the minors’ training programme that traumatised Isabel, and the people who were part of it (Toni Rolleston, for example). For a fairly short chapter, I managed to cram a lot into it.

And all of that is on top of finding out that Emma is a library prefect, having started out as a shelving assistant while on academic probation for graffiti – if you’ve read the short story I wrote as a preorder incentive for The Hummingbird Killer, you’ll know how that went down. I had a lot of fun writing that, and getting a glimpse of a younger Emma. In the earliest draft, Isabel first met her in the library, so she’s always been closely connected to it in my mind. We’ll see more of the street art later in the book, and I’ll talk more about it then, but it’s always been crucial to my vision for this book, and how I wanted the city to look.

We also, in this chapter, see Isabel experiencing the first (or perhaps second) symptoms of poisoning, in the form of severe stomach pain, and when she returns home, it’s to find a threat from Hummingbird, implying they know about Ian Crampton. Danger is closing in, from illness or from enemies, and while we’re learning about Espera’s past, Isabel is just trying to survive its present…

Over to you, then. I’m interested to know how easy you found it to get a sense of Espera’s history and purpose, and whether you have any interesting headcanons about the first century of the city’s existence, since we encounter it almost a century after it closed itself off. I’m also interested to know how you responded to these early meetings with Grace and Emma. Did your opinion on them as characters change over time? When (if ever) did you start to get invested in them?

Tell me all of these things, or other things, or these things and other things, in the comments, and let’s get talking.

20/09, Mensogoj (TBA Readalong)

I’m still having some trouble with WordPress subscriptions, particularly with WP Reader, so do let me know in the comments if you’re successfully receiving this post via subscription so I know it’s less broken than I fear. If you’ve missed the earlier posts in the series, we started on Sunday with 17/09, Eraro. If you’re wondering what this is all about, we’re (re)reading The Butterfly Assassin together in ‘real time’ according to the story’s chronology, and discussing the writing process and worldbuilding and anything else that catches my attention. Grab a copy and join us!

On the 20th September, Ian Crampton is identified and named in the papers. We learn that he was only 21, and the primary carer for his chronically ill sister. Isabel, meanwhile, goes to school, sits through a History lesson about the city’s origins, and has a panic attack, which leads to meeting Emma Westray for the first time.

This chapter might be the first time that the guilds’ true business is explicitly spelled out: the most powerful arms dealers on Earth, answerable to no one but the highest bidder. As I mentioned in a previous post, this crucial piece of worldbuilding was something I didn’t figure out until the fifth draft. And I wish I could tell you how I thought the guilds worked before that, but I’ll be honest: worldbuilding in early drafts, for me, tends to be purely a matter of vibes.

See, in the very first draft of this book, I hadn’t even decided whether Espera was in the real world, or whether it was a completely alternate universe kind of setting. I knew it was ruled by assassins, but that was as far as that went. How two competing guilds would be able to sustain themselves – within a closed city with a finite population – and who was paying them were questions that 2014!me didn’t seem to think were important. It was only in 2018 that the missing pieces started falling into place, and in 2019, during Author Mentor Match, that I really dug down deep into the details.

But the fact that the guilds are arms dealers is crucial, not just to constructing a world that makes economic sense, but also to the point of the book – its themes and metaphors. Anyone who has read the Author’s Note at the end knows that I have some strong opinions about everyday militarism, the normalisation of violence, and the routine military recruitment of teenagers in the UK. And the UK arms industry is a huge part of that, supplying weapons to whoever will pay for them – even regimes accused of human rights abuses – enabling the exacerbation of global conflict.

As I write this, on 9th September, a ‘festival of resistance’ is taking place outside the ExCel centre in London, where one of the largest arms fairs takes place every other September. Were it not for train strikes, injury, and 32℃ heat, I would be there with them. Instead, this book is a small act of resistance. By taking something we’ve normalised into invisibility in everyday life and making it just a little strange, a little different to reality, I’m demanding we ask questions of the violence our society puts into the world.

The guilds don’t train children. But they did. Just as 20% of new recruits into the UK military and 25% in the army specifically are under the age of 18. Just as cadets are taught rifle drills from the age of 12. Just as disadvantaged teenagers are preyed on by military recruiters who tell them the army is a route to a better life. Did you know, you can apply to join the military aged fifteen and seven months? Join properly at sixteen as a “junior soldier”?

Writing a novel isn’t inherently activism. But if by putting these things on the page and demanding people pay attention I make one person question why we think this is okay, then maybe I’ll have made a difference.

I have, in my worldbuilding document from 2019, a short story about the city’s past. It’s not ‘canon’. I don’t know whether I think it actually happened, within the universe of the book. But I wrote it as part of developing Espera’s history and relationship with the outside world, and it directly addresses the DSEI arms fair, and the protests about it – the ones I might be at right now, were I healthier and the trains more cooperative. Here’s a scene from it:

Several decades after Espera’s declaration of independence, both guilds send a representative to a global arms fair taking place in London. They’re met there by protestors, blocking the steps of the convention centre: a group who hold each other’s hands and sing and refuse to be moved, even as the police presence in the area increases. At their feet they have a tapestry, woven from squares contributed by friends and allies not standing with them today.

The representative from Comma is surprisingly young – in his twenties, probably. He has grey eyes like puddles under a sullen sky, and when he sees the demo he steps away from the group before anybody can stop him, away from security, and walks over to the idealists on the steps.

None of the cameras are close enough to pick up his words, spoken too quietly to be audible, but they catch the impassive steel of his face, the implacable storms of his eyes as he glances back at his companions before speaking to the protestors.

When he’s finished, they sit for a moment in stunned silence, and then one young woman gets to her feet. Her words can barely be heard above the chill autumnal breeze: ‘If it weren’t for the fact that I believe in the inherent light in all people,’ she says, ‘I’d think there was nothing human in you at all. You have buried your light deep.’

The young man, hearing this, smiles. He has a predator’s smile, all teeth and no joy, but she stands firm where others would have retreated. Then he turns, and walks back to the group, rejoining them as though nothing has happened.

Everybody has heard the rumours about Espera. They know Comma’s reputation. It seems inevitable, then, that the girl will be reported dead, her body found precisely murdered – but she isn’t. Although the image of her speaking to the representative makes waves online, she goes about her life untouched and unafraid. After several days with no retaliation, it becomes clear that she will not die for this.

Perhaps that is because, whatever her intention, Ronan Atwood took her words as a compliment.

(The young woman in this scene is not anybody real, or a character I will come back to. But based on her words, she’s a Quaker, and in that regard, she’s inspired by all of the Quakers I’ve met who do attend these protests. This scene probably took place in 2019, since I remember people around me making squares for that tapestry. Ronan would have been 27. My age.)

In this chapter, we’re reminded of the harm Isabel has done – killing a 21-year-old whose sister needed him, a sister whose autoimmune condition foreshadows Isabel’s own illness – at the same time as seeing the harm that has been done to her. Her fear, her bad memories, the story behind the scar on her palm, and finally, her panic attack in the school toilets.

And that’s where we meet Emma Westray.

Emma. Sunshine and colour and hope, Isabel says about her later. For now, we know only that she’s a brown-haired girl wearing glasses and a concerned expression. I love doing this: one abstract noun and one concrete one, with the same verb. I think it’s called a zeugma, and I’m kind of obsessed with them. Unlike Nick and his changeable appearance, Emma has had brown hair and glasses since she first showed up in the first draft, although their first meeting went differently.

Emma was also canonically trans from the first draft through to the fourth. It wasn’t an important part of her character – it was mentioned once in passing, when talking about her childhood, as she thought Isabel already knew that about her. I cut that detail because I wasn’t sure about the dynamics at work, and thought it might play into some harmful tropes: the trans best friend supporting the cis character without a strong plotline of her own… not to mention, of course, how the book ends. If it had been more of a Thing about her, I probably wouldn’t have cut it; since it really was just a single line, I thought the potential for harm outweighed any benefits of that kind of representation.

But in my head, I never really started thinking of Emma as cis. In fact, given that her foster brother, Leo, is canonically trans, I have a vague headcanon that all of Toni Rolleston’s foster kids are trans, and Leo is just the only one Isabel knows about. It is, after all, not the sort of detail she’d be likely to pay attention to.

(You are free to adopt or reject this headcanon as you see fit, since only Leo’s identity is confirmed on page.)

So we have in this chapter the darkness of this story, the reminder that Isabel is a killer and that she has done real harm, as well as been harmed significantly by others, and we also have the first glimpse of its light. Emma, my beloved. Emma teaches Isabel to ground herself amidst a panic attack, focusing on sensory details, and Isabel continues using this technique the entire way through the book.

What struck you about this chapter: the violence, the worldbuilding, the memories, or Emma? Or something else entirely? Were you aware of the UK arms industry and the recruitment of teenagers into the military before you read this book/my author’s note/this blog post, or did that strike you as something unrealistic in the story, exaggerated for the sake of fiction? (I always find this an interesting critique to receive in reviews because I would love for these to be unrealistic details, but unfortunately, reality is terrible.)

As always, leave your answers or any other comments or questions in the comments below and I will be delighted to read them :)

19/09, Memoroj–Sekvoj (TBA Readalong)

Before we start: I spent a lot of time yesterday attempting to resolve a problem with email and WordPress subscriptions to this blog, which may have been occurring for longer than I realised. I think it has now been resolved, but I’m not sure if subscriptions are working properly. If you received this post as an email, or as a WordPress notification, or you are viewing it in the WordPress Reader, please comment to let me know, as I’ll be greatly reassured to know that it is in fact being correctly sent out!

If you missed the earlier posts due to a subscription error, we started two days ago with 17/09, Eraro and continued yesterday with 18/09, Eraro-Trompo.

19th September is a big day in The Butterfly Assassin, because the entirety of chapters three and four take place today. On this day, the death of Ian Crampton is reported in the Echo; Nick invites Isabel to the school library, where she meets Grace Whittock for the first time; and we have our first encounter with Ronan Atwood. We also get a few glimpses of Isabel’s past, in the form of a nightmare about her childhood, a scar on her hand, and Ronan’s offer, which gives us a much clearer idea what exactly Isabel is running from.

Let’s start with Isabel’s conversations with Nick and her visit to the library, because there’s probably the most worldbuilding here, but a lot of it is covered in close succession and easily skimmed over.

We learn that Nick is one of six siblings, while Isabel is an only child; in earlier drafts, this was accompanied by a comment that it’s hard for civilians to access contraception because the guilds have a vested interested in keeping the city’s population up, so being an only child inherently implies that her family might be guild. From Draft V:

“How old is your brother?” she asks Nick; it’s possibly the first time she’s shown an interest in his life.

“That one, ten,” he says. “With the energy levels of a six-year-old and none of the cuteness. The others are thirteen, eight, and four.” He rolls his eyes. “Siblings.”

“I wouldn’t know.”

“You’re an only child?”

“Yep.” Isabel’s glad of that, because siblings would have made everything harder, given her parents more ammunition. But she shouldn’t have mentioned it to Nick. Nothing screams guild like access to contraception.

This conversation implies that Nick is the oldest, although I don’t know if that remains true in the published book, since his siblings are now unspecified in age. If they’re still living at home and he’s in his final year of school, though, this seems likely; rent in Espera is sufficiently affordable that adult siblings would have moved out.

Contraception, and access to it, was more significant in earlier drafts because the non-profit clinic Isabel later seeks out for healthcare, The Sunshine Project, was originally more of a Planned Parenthood type setup, specialising in contraceptive and reproductive healthcare (although they did cover other things too). As such, it’s not somewhere that a guild member would ever have sought out, but it was a fairly essential lifeline for civilians.

This early conversation with Nick, then, was setting up a worldbuilding domino that I planned to knock down later, but the significance of the detail diminished enough that eventually it got cut entirely. Whether it remains canonically ‘true’ is unclear, and I never completely committed in either direction. We don’t encounter too many large families, so I’m going to lean towards it no longer being the case, but it’s possible that it was true at one point in Espera’s past.

Another crucial piece of worldbuilding information we’re given in this chapter comes via Isabel’s History homework, writing about the “1942 Sanctuary Act”. Espera, the City of Hope, taking in refugees amidst the carnage of the Second World War. That is, of course, the other reason it still has a sizeable population despite the murder. People can come in, but they can’t leave; its deliberate neutrality in wartime has, in the past, made it a desirable location, and some of its industrial and civilian boroughs have significant refugee and immigrant populations.

And this detail brings us on to Ronan Atwood. Or, as he was called right up until a very late draft, Ronan Isaacs.

I gave Ronan the surname Isaacs because it was a name that had personal family significance to me. In my head, it also provided a certain degree of backstory for Ronan: perhaps his grandparents or great-grandparents arrived in Espera during the war, fleeing antisemitism, although I never put these sorts of details on the page. (I know a fair amount about Daragh’s family history that never showed up in the book, too.)

I changed it because… well, you can probably see the problem. I should have seen it sooner. I remember sending a very frantic, late-night email to my editor (it was literally 3am): “It’s a family name so I had an actual reason for using it, but don’t you think people might read it as antisemitic to give a Jewish name to the ambitious leader of this shadowy organisation that controls the city and sometimes kills children??”

talk about it, though it's more complicated than that), and the reader obviously doesn't know this story. So I'm worried it may come across as antisemitic. Like, the only character with a visibly Jewish surname and he's the ruthless, ambitious bastard in charge of one of the two shadowy organisations that controls the city? Not to mention the fact he repeatedly causes the deaths of minors, albeit indirectly (via Isabel, usually) -- which is a bit yikes considering the whole blood libel thing.
Email sent: 03:14am.

Yeah. So, that detail had to go. Unintentional though it might have been, and whatever my personal connection to or original reasons for choosing the name, once I realised it had the potential to do harm, I couldn’t knowingly leave it in there. The name, and Ronan’s familial backstory, changed accordingly. Atwood is solidly English; Ronan is Irish. His mother’s side of the family is from Northern Ireland, a detail confirmed somewhere in the trilogy (book 3, definitely, but possibly earlier as well? I’m not sure), and came to Espera to get away from the Troubles.

I don’t often change character names – I find it so hard to come up with a name in the first place, I’m not about to start coming up with two. But these chapters introduce us to another character whose name also changed, for a very different reason: Grace Whittock, the librarian.

Grace, like Mortimer, is a firm favourite among a specific proportion of my readers (mostly those who work in schools or libraries, which shouldn’t come as a surprise). She’s been there since the first draft, but she was originally a male character, called Graham Whittock. (Named for Graham Robb, author of The Ancient Paths, and Martyn Whittock, author of A Brief Guide to Celtic Myths and Legends, both books in my line of sight at the time. I’m sorry, there is no Significant Name Symbolism in these books, this is pretty much the story of everybody’s name.)

Graham, in his earliest incarnation, came trailing Backstory™.

He takes a pen out of his jacket pocket. “Can I have a sheet of paper?”

“Oh, sure.” She tears one out of the refill pad and gives it to him. He writes a title at the top of the page and, like a student, his name in the left hand corner. Graham Whittock. “You moved out too? Sorry. I don’t mean to pry. It’s just…”

“I was fifteen,” he says. “My father was dead. Had been since I was a child.”

“Oh.” She doesn’t know what to say. She’s never been good at consoling people — her understanding of emotions is limited. “How did he die?”

“My mother killed him.”

His mother was Hummingbird; when a hit was called on her husband, she fulfilled it. Graham tells Isabel that he moved out as soon as he was old enough, fearing the same might happen to him. (Later, it became less clear whether this was true.)

Hints of this backstory linger: My mother was Hummingbird, says Grace in the lab, though we won’t reach that scene until 6th October. I began writing a short story about Grace a few months ago, exploring this aspect of her past, but have yet to finish it. I won’t say more on it now, in case I ever do get to the end and decide to share the details, but we can see that I shifted the dynamic considerably if this is no longer the first conversation that Graham/Grace and Isabel have!

So why is Graham now Grace? Simply put, it was a numbers game. I realised that male characters were dominating, particularly in positions of authority or power: Ronan Atwood, Daragh Vernant, Mortimer Sark, Ian Ryans. At one point Dr Vernant was a separate character, and Isabel’s head of year, Ms Cunliffe, played a more significant role, but after the doctors got combined and Ms Cunliffe was cut, that left only Toni Rolleston as a significant on-page adult woman with any power or authority. So, Graham became Grace, trying to even the numbers a little.

It was an early change – it happened in the second draft, before most of the other changes that made it wholly necessary – so it’s funny sometimes, to remember that ‘Graham’ ever existed. I like Grace as she is, and she’s been a woman in my head for a long time now, but it was Graham who laid the foundations of her personality and characterisation. Much of her role only showed up in later drafts, though.

Finally, Isabel’s conversation with Ronan gives us several crucial pieces of information:

  1. Her father developed weapons – poisons and nerve agents – which the guilds sell to world governments (among other clients), and this made him important.
  2. Her father is missing.
  3. Her father’s name is Ian.
  4. “Defecting” is something that guild members can theoretically do.  
  5. The guilds are not supposed to train children, but they did.
  6. There was somebody else, Michael, who knew Isabel ran away.

1 is of course crucial to understanding the world the story is set in; 2 is establishing the plot; 3 explains Isabel’s actions two days earlier, when she resorted to trauma responses and murder upon being faced with a burglar called Ian; 4 is both a worldbuilding detail and a hint to some of my historical and real-world influences (I looked a lot at closed cities, the USSR, the Berlin Wall etc for ideas); 5 is the missing piece of Isabel’s backstory that’s been hinted since chapter one; and 6 is teasing a future character reveal. A very multi-purpose conversation, this one – I’m rather proud of it.

It goes without saying that it didn’t originally exist, of course. Ronan only started showing up at Isabel’s flat several drafts in, but mostly, this scene didn’t exist because – and this is going to shock you – I didn’t figure out that the guilds developed and sold weapons until the fifth draft of the book. Yep. I have no idea what book I was writing before that – I told you everything important showed up in Draft V. As such, her father’s importance was diminished, and the possibility of defection didn’t really exist. In the earliest draft, Isabel’s parents did disappear, later in the book… because they’d been kidnapped, and were being held for ransom, which Isabel originally considered paying.

Again. I was writing the wrong book. It’s impossible to imagine this Isabel trying to ransom her parents, when she would happily never see them again. But I promise you it was the case. Here, from the first draft:

It’s hot on the heels of the realisation that she cares too much about her parents’ fate for somebody who walked out on them, and for somebody who spent sixteen years resenting their plans for her life, but she’s not sure whether she wants to address that at this moment and so she ignores it to be on the safe side. She doesn’t hate her parents, anyway, just what they did to her. She wouldn’t want them dead.

*flashbacks to how this book ended* Hmm. Yeah. So, that changed a little. (<- Nominates this one for understatement of the year.)

Overall, there’s a lot going on in these chapters, and this is purely on the worldbuilding/process side of things; I could go for hours if I dug deep into the text itself. So I’ll refrain now, and hand the floor over to you. I want to know how you felt about these early explanations of Espera’s backstory, or about Ronan, or what we’re gradually learning about Isabel’s past. Did anything stand out to you about these chapters that I didn’t mention at all in this post?

17/09, Eraro (TBA Readalong)

Here it is! The first post in our readalong of The Butterfly Assassin. All of the posts in this series are, naturally, going to involve spoilers. If that doesn’t bother you, you’re welcome to read them anyway, even if you haven’t read the book, but I highly recommend reading the book, and then you can join us in the comments to discuss it 😊

These early posts will probably be the longest of the series, because there’s a lot of backstory to the opening. Today, we’ve got some alternate versions of the opening paragraphs, we’ve got some Vital Context – lots to get our teeth into. The rest, I hope, will be shorter. But before we start, I feel I should provide some vital context to my ability to pin chapters to dates in the first place.

You see, worldbuilding, in my experience, tends to be a retrospective escalation of small details into larger ones. Take the Esperan education system, for example, which developed like this:

  1. During edits, my editor encouraged me to keep track of the days of the week and the date that events were occurring, to make sure they were consistent.
  2. In order to ensure that events happened on the correct days, and that Isabel was attending the correct lessons, I needed to know Isabel’s school timetable, so that she was always in the right class.
  3. In order to design Isabel’s school timetable, I needed to know how many subjects she was taking, and how many lessons per week she would have for each one.
  4. In order to figure that out, I needed to know what was required for a student of her age within the Esperan education system, beyond my previously vaguely defined “Level Two” and “Level Three” exams.
  5. In order to do that, I needed to understand how university and vocational training worked in Espera, what the difference was between civilian schools and guild-sponsored schools in terms of subjects and qualifications, and how borough and wealth affected these things.
  6. In order to do that, I needed to know which jobs would be done by guild members and which by civilians, what training was needed for each of them, what was required of tangential guild employees in terms of training, how guild boroughs were structured, how secret the identity of guild members actually was, relationships between guilds and civilians in neutral areas…

You can see where this is going.

By the time I actually drew up a timetable, and therefore a calendar of the events of the book, I had several pages of notes about the education system and not only knew what subjects Isabel was taking, but also what subjects Emma and Nick were taking, and what kind of careers or further training they might be looking to pursue. The fraction of this information that made it onto the page is… small.

My calendar for the book lives in the same document as the timetable I drew up, but these notes I made are handwritten, and live only in the notebook where they originated, along with a lot of other worldbuilding material that never made it into the book(s). Hopefully, I’ll get to share some of that with you during this readalong, and then the hours of my life spent figuring out the structure of Espera’s local government will feel more worthwhile 😉

Another crucial piece of information is that this book takes place in 2029, so a few years from now. There is no special significance to this year; I just wanted it to be a near-future date, and this was the first year that matched up with most of the established days of the week in the book as I had written it at the time, so required the fewest edits to firm up. It does mean that Isabel was born in 2012, which is faintly horrifying to me. She would currently be eleven years old.

With that in mind:

Today is the 17th September. On this day in 2029, Ian Crampton breaks into Isabel’s flat, and Isabel kills him.

Technically, this happens at 3am on the 18th, but I’m saving tomorrow’s post for the other half of chapter 1, so it’s the 17th. And technically, one could argue the book begins earlier than this. That first night in her tiny flat – that first night was the 31st August. Two and a half weeks of a normal life, before it all goes wrong, and it goes wrong with a bang. A burglar, a murder, a body to be dealt with.

Opening a YA book with your protagonist murdering somebody can be a risky prospect. A certain degree of sympathy for the character tends to be a staple of the genre, and you don’t want to alienate people too early. But I also knew that I needed to establish quickly what sort of a book we were dealing with. One that contained a lot of violence, yes; one where the protagonist wasn’t a good person, yes; and, crucially, one where the assassin character actually killed people, and wasn’t non-specifically badass in a morally uncomplicated manner.

This has always been the point I’m trying to make. That “assassin” isn’t a neutral character type – death means something, and murder has consequences beyond simple plot points. That if we want to ask difficult moral questions, we have to have characters who actually do bad things, otherwise our questions will lack teeth. The opening chapter is aiming to make that clear right from the start.

This wasn’t always how the book opened. That first night in her tiny flat, she cuts off her hair and her name. Not to toot my own horn, but I think it’s a pretty good opening line… and it didn’t show up until the fifth draft.

Openings are hard. Early drafts had a much slower opening, establishing Isabel’s “normal life” long before anything went wrong, and the murder of Ian Crampton was entirely absent from the first draft:

Isabel lets the door of her flat fall closed behind her and locks the first two locks. Both of them are still shiny with newness, and the key slides into them like a knife into soft flesh. She glances around, but there’s nobody nearby to see her retrieve the third key from her bra and lock the third lock, concealed within the wood.

Comma-proof, they said that one was, but she picked it herself when she forgot her keys on her second day here, so she doesn’t put too much faith in the locksmith’s claims. Still, she knows it’s there, and she was trained to do that since she was barely old enough to walk, unlike most of Comma’s people. The only ones she’s got to worry about are, for the most part, her relatives, and if they decide she’s better off dead, she’ll have bigger problems than whether they can get into her flat.

But that opening chapter was slow, boring, so in the second draft, there it is: There’s somebody in her flat. Straight in with the break-in, the scene following almost the same beats as it does now, though with variation in the wording used. That remained the opening line for another three drafts.

Maybe it was then, or maybe later on, when I decided I needed to study openings. I knew something wasn’t quite working about what I’d got so far, but I didn’t know how to fix it, and none of the books I reread for ideas were helping. So I tried watching the first episode of several TV shows, instead. I don’t remember all of them, but I remember it included Buffy, Orphan Black, and Sense8, among others. I made notes on how the shows introduced characters, how they established ‘normal’ while also hinting at the drama to come, and how they situated us within the characters’ worlds.

It was a useful exercise, so useful that I wish those notes were among the illegible handwritten plot notes I still have in a folder, but they don’t seem to be. I knew I needed context – a normal life for Ian Crampton’s death to disrupt, because it was too bald and abrupt if it happened straight away, before we had any reason to care about Isabel. But I didn’t want as much context as I’d had in that first draft, where we had several pages of normality before we got into anything resembling plot. So, in 2018 I sat down and started trying to rework that opening into something that walked the line between drama and necessary backstory.

It was around then that I realised there was no way Isabel would be living under her real name (as she had been in the earliest drafts), so I gave her a false name to live under: Bella Nicholls. It took me several years to realise that I’d given her my sister’s name; somehow my brain never made that connection until the real Bella pointed it out. They live in entirely separate boxes in my head, even if I did borrow the surname from one of my sister’s friends, the one who seemed the least like Isabel of all of them.

This name became a focus for my attempts at reworking the opening, but it took a lot of attempts before I got one I liked. I have a document from May 2018 in which I go through a bunch of different approaches, trying to find one that clicks.

Here’s one:

It’s impossible that they haven’t noticed she’s gone.

For sixteen years, they’ve made the decisions, controlled her options – and none of those allowed for a scenario where Isabel Ryans could pack herself a bag and walk away.

And it’s impossible that they don’t know where she is. She cut her hair, bought new clothes, and the name on her lease and bank account isn’t her own, but that would never be enough.

Comma can find anyone. It’s why they’re so good at what they do.

Which means they’re just biding their time.

There are a lot of recognisable lines further down the page in this one, but it’s… slow. Lacking in immediacy, in drama.


Isabel Ryans is studying survival.

It looks a lot like school. Like a fake name on her exercise books and on the labels of her new civilian borough uniform. Like not making a fuss when they told her she couldn’t move on to level threes before taking the level two exams; like dropping down a year without trying to explain her past absences. Like agreeing to whatever electives they could offer her when her previous options didn’t work out. Like getting a medical exemption from PE so that no one sees her scars.

It looks like this tiny flat with its shitty locks that she checks and triple checks every evening before wedging a chair under the handle so that at least she’ll have prior warning if someone bypassed them. Like the lease signed with the same fake name as her school registration: Bella Nicholls. Like the bank account filled with stolen money, siphoned over weeks and months so that nobody even noticed it was going.

It looks like waking up every morning with a knife in her hand because today might be – should be – has to be the day that they find her.

What she’s learned is that survival and fear can be difficult to tell apart.

I like this one. It foregrounds the trauma that shapes all of Isabel’s choices in this book. It tells us she’s desperate, and will do whatever she has to do. But it’s a little passive. I hesitate over that word – Isabel is traumatised and frequently denied power and control over her own life, and her lack of agency is not passivity but a part of the abuse she’s suffering. Still, there’s something about this opening that didn’t quite get us where we needed to go, and didn’t provide an effective springboard for the rest of the chapter.

A third:

It’s a strange feeling, to know that you don’t exist.

Bella Nicholls exists. She has a bank account, rents a tiny flat, and goes to school. They call her name in registration and she answers to it. After two days she stopped hesitating. After a week it’s become second nature.

Isabel Ryans, though… Isabel Ryans is a ghost. The people who know her by that name are the reason she changed it. Her parents. The guild.

Yet inside her head, and when she looks in the mirror, that’s the name she wears. Isabel Ryans. Legally speaking more of a fiction than the lie on her student ID card, but a thousand times more real.

We see this sense of identity in the finished draft, Isabel looking in the mirror and seeing only herself. This version wasn’t sharp enough, though. She changed it is a choice. She cuts off her hair and her name is violent, a severing, forced by circumstance.

And that’s the opening line that shows up on the next page of this document, the first where I continued beyond a few paragraphs. I knew, almost immediately, that I’d hit on something that would work, and I chased it until it took me where I needed to go.

The main focus of this chapter is Isabel’s encounter with Ian Crampton, an unfortunate burglar who picks the wrong seventeen-year-old girl to rob. Beyond the fact that Isabel is capable of murder and willing to commit it, we learn several crucial things from this scene:

  1. Isabel speaks Esperanto.
  2. She has baggage relating to her parents, because she flinches at the thought of them.
  3. She’s on the run from the ‘guilds’, who rule the city, though we don’t exactly know who they are yet.
  4. The guilds don’t typically train children, so Isabel is unusual.
  5. She also has baggage relating to the name ‘Ian’; we don’t know why yet.
  6. The city has solar panels in the roads.

We’ll explore all of these in more depth as we go – the Esperanto, for example, becomes more of a focus point in chapter 6, which will be Friday’s post. But a quick note on the solar panels, because they are a small detail but one of the oldest in the book.

In 2014, I saw a Kickstarter for “solar roadways”: roads made of hexagonal interlocking solar panels, which could be programmed to light up to display road markings, traffic lights, speed limits, or heated to melt snow or evaporate puddles. They were, the video suggested, the clean energy solution – better roads and electricity in one go. They’d be perfect especially for long stretches of highway through the desert.

I was so excited by these, so enamoured by them, that when I started writing this book less than two months later, I put the solar roadways in the book. In the past nine years, they’ve not exactly flourished in the real world the way the Kickstarter suggested, but the book’s near-future setting means I can justify their efficacy (even in an urban context) and attribute it to technological advances. The guilds have plenty of weapons developers and scientists who could have refined the invention in a more peaceful moment.

When I describe Espera’s solar panelled roads, I’m thinking of this real invention. I put it in the book for no reason other than that I found it exciting; it has stayed there through many, many drafts, and through vast changes in worldbuilding. It’s a throwaway detail, in many ways (the solar panels are never plot-relevant!), but it’s essential to the Espera that lives inside my head, and it has important ramifications for the city in general.

Here, though, it’s a passing reference. The glittering solar panels of the main road send their coloured lights into the night. A signal: this world is not quite like our world. Priming the reader to anticipate further worldbuilding.

And further worldbuilding is what we will get. But that, my friends, is another day’s post.

So now, over to you:

What struck you about this opening chapter when you read it? How did you feel about Isabel committing murder when you’d only just met her? Is there anything about this scene’s backstory – its past versions, my reasoning for the choices I made – that surprised you?

You’re welcome to leave any comment you like – these are just a few prompts to get you started. I’d love to hear your thoughts on this chapter!

From Cocoon To Butterfly…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

On Making The Trash Words

I have written a lot of books.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I don’t know.

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

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

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

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

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

It mattered because I enjoyed it.

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

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

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

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

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

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

And, more importantly, so am I.

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

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