Tag: grief

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

Until she sees Emma coming back.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

03/10, Batalhalto (TBA Readalong)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Grief Nonlinear

Content warning: this post is about grief and contains references to suicide.

I am always haunted at Hallowe’en.

Not by ghosts in white sheets or creepy faces at the window. Just the kind of ghosts that live inside your head, half-forgotten until something draws them back to the surface and then all of a sudden you’re haunted again.

I’m not good at letting go of ghosts, in general. I’m not good at death, and I’m worse at mourning. Maybe this is a sign of privilege – that I’ve not had enough practice with it. So small griefs become bigger, burdens I should never have been carrying weighing me down because I never learned how to relinquish them.

And one of my ghosts comes out – appropriately enough – at Hallowe’en.

You know, one of the things I love about the internet is that no matter how niche or specific your interest, somebody out there has a blog about it, runs a website dedicated to it, spends their life researching it. You might be idly googling some lyrics to a traditional ballad and the next thing you know you’re on Tam Lin Balladry, scrolling through dozens and dozens of different versions.

That’s how I found Abigail.

Well, I know, now, that her name was Abigail, but actually, I primarily knew her as ‘tam-nonlinear’, her Tumblr username. She was the author of Tam Lin Balladry, collecting versions and recordings and retellings and compiling them into one site, but she also used to post about it on her blog, along with jokes and memes that referenced the ballad. We crossed paths because I posted something about one of her descriptions and the fact that it had made me laugh, and she reached out to me.

It would be wrong, probably, to say that we were friends – ‘acquaintances’ is a better word, or ‘occasional passers-by on the weird street that is Tumblr’. Different generations, different backgrounds, we fit into that weird in-between space of online coexistence, united by a common interest though we’d never have crossed paths in real life. Still, I’m easy with my online friendship, and tend to refer to anyone I’ve ever talked to as a friend, so that’s how I think of her. Maybe that’s wrong, and I don’t really have a right to that word. That’s one of the things I often wonder about.

Every year, around Hallowe’en, her Tam Lin posts would intensify – the story told in the ballad takes place at Hallowe’en. Every year, I’d reblog them, with the quiet delight that comes from understanding a niche joke. It’s not a holiday I’ve ever celebrated (growing up, my family actively ignored Hallowe’en), but I came to enjoy that particular nerdy celebration.

Almost four years ago, immediately after Trump’s election, Abigail died.

As someone with a lot of internet friends, of course I’ve thought about it – how I’d find out if something bad had happened to them, whether anyone would think to tell us, or whether they’d just disappear from my life and I’d never know what had happened. In this instance, I found out because she’d scheduled two blog posts. The first asked for somebody to take over Tam Lin Balladry, so that it could continue to exist as a living resource and not merely an archive. The second was looking for homes for her cats.

It was the cats that got me, at the time. I didn’t know how to process the idea that she was gone, and I had absolutely no idea – still don’t – what was an acceptable level of grief to feel for someone whose real name I hadn’t known until they died, but I couldn’t stop thinking about the cats. How they wouldn’t understand that she wasn’t coming back.

Would like to sleep by your side, she wrote about one. Will sneak up on you for a cuddle, about another. And for the rest of the day, the week, the month – even now – I keep coming back to those cats, and how they would be waiting for her, but she wasn’t coming back.

I suspect that some of that initial grief was guilt. Her last post, a few days earlier, had not been a happy one, and there was a part of me that felt I should have seen that something was wrong and done… what? Something. Anything. An ocean away, as a random 20-year-old, I still felt like I should have helped.

Perhaps, considering how little we knew each other, I should have let go of the grief by now. It’s been four years. But I can’t. Because if I think too long about how she wanted Tam Lin Balladry to survive, to outlive her, I have to think about the fact that the site’s last news update was from 2016. Yes, it’s still there on the internet, but it isn’t the active project it used to be. Of course it isn’t. Abigail thought she was replaceable – swap out the parts and the world continues. She wasn’t. The site’s stagnation is a reminder that the world needed her in it.

Instead she has a strange kind of immortality in the form of her Tumblr posts.

That’s the thing about Tumblr, far more than any other social media site – nothing is ever really gone. No matter the fate of the original blog, as long as somebody, somewhere, reblogged a post, it will continue to exist. Posts from eight years ago readily recirculate, accumulating new comments and discourse, and since the dashboard has no timestamps (unless added by a third-party plugin), they might as well have been posted yesterday.

Every Hallowe’en, I see posts from tam-nonlinear circulating again. Jokes, mostly. Snappy references that people familiar with Tam Lin can smile at and move on. Probably, 99% of the notes on those posts come from people who have absolutely no idea that the person who made those jokes is dead.

(Sometimes, I wonder how many ghosts there are on Tumblr. How many conversations are living on like echoes.)

But I know. And we may have hardly know each other, and yes, it’s been four years, but every time I see those posts I think of her. And I’m not the only one, because I’ve seen the way others start posting Tam Lin jokes and references at this time of year, trying to fill a hole we shouldn’t have to fill. Is it how she’d have wanted to be remembered? I don’t know. Maybe. It’s the best I’ve got.

An odd immortality. But her memory survives nonetheless.

I think about her every Hallowe’en, but this year I’m thinking about her more, with the election looming. I have so many political keywords muted on Twitter for the sake of my own mental health, and still it’s impossible not to feel the weight of it bearing down on me, even an ocean away. I think about the last four years, and wonder what would have happened if she’d lived. If her worst fears have come to pass or if maybe she could have held out long enough to see things get better.

Perhaps I shouldn’t still miss her – perhaps my grief is presumptuous and unjustified and those who knew her better look on me and wonder how I dare to say that I lost someone. (I went back and forth for days on whether to even post this; was it an act of commemoration or just weird and inappropriate? I hope I made the right call. Maybe I didn’t.) Perhaps it’s strange to grieve for someone with whom my connection was so fleeting. But it was a connection that meant something. In however niche and specific a way our lives overlapped, they did overlap.

Perhaps all of us underestimate how much those connections mean, how much meaning we ascribe to casual interactions, how many people would miss us if we were gone and how long our legacy – even if our legacy is Tumblr posts about Tam Lin – will outlive us.

And that reminds me of the tweets I saw following the passing of Ruth Bader Ginsburg: a reminder that Jewish communities don’t use “Rest In Peace” when somebody dies, but “May their memory be a blessing”. I’ve thought about that a lot this year – it has been a year full of loss for so many people. It makes sense to me, brings comfort where rest in peace doesn’t. What does rest in peace even mean? How would we know? What comfort does that bring to those left behind? It seems to me the phrase does little to acknowledge that mourning is the part of the living, not the lost.

But may her memory be a blessing means something, brings some comfort. When faced with grief, all we have is memories – may they bring comfort. May they remind us of the good in the world, may they be a little piece of the departed that stays with us, may their legacy ensure that they’re never really gone.

I will probably never not think about Abigail when I hear or read something about Tam Lin. Probably, this abstract sadness and sense of displaced grief will keep recurring, every Hallowe’en. But what she left with me – us – was not only the loss. It was the information, the enthusiasm, the jokes, the passion, and that legacy survives.

May it be a blessing.