Tag: publishing

Two Months After

After sharing some reflections on the publishing journey one week before the publication of my debut novel, I intended to update you on how things were going one week after publication. The fact that it has taken me two months to have the time, headspace, and energy to do this probably says more about what it’s like to be a debut author than anything I might have written, but here we are. Two months after.

In fairness, this delay is not just due to publishing. June was an incredibly chaotic month for me, with a number of major Happenings, including one that resulted in having to move house in July — my fourth move since November. I can tell you one thing for sure: I’m getting really sick of moving house. There were also some positive events — my sister getting married being one of them — but it certainly felt like a month best described as ‘everything happens so much’.

I coped with all the stress in my usual way, which is to say, I accidentally wrote an entire novel that I was not supposed to be writing and which I had completely not intended to write. I call it the ‘unintentional vampire novel’, because I wasn’t even sure it was a novel when I started it, and a week later I had 88k that its earliest readers reassure me is not completely terrible. Now, however, I’m mired in edits for the sequel to The Butterfly Assassin, and so it seemed like a good time to procrastinate by telling you how things are going.

Let’s start with the highlights:

Publication day

I visited a number of bookshops in Central London with my lovely publicist Eve, and got to sign books and generally feel a bit special. Despite one bookshop losing the stack of books they assured us they had, this was a good way to make the day feel a bit special, and avoid the sense of anticlimax that I know some writers feel on the day itself.

Finn Longman wearing a grey tank top and a black sparkly sunhat, leaning on a very large stack of copies of The Butterfly Assassin, grinning at the camera.
Signed books at Easons on O’Connell St, Dublin

Dublin International Literature Festival

Literally the next day I flew out to Dublin, again with Eve, for my first literary festival. Although we had some struggles with the hotel booking on arrival, and then I had an absolutely nightmarish journey home via Dublin Airport and its newsworthy queues, we had a great day in Dublin on the Saturday visiting bookshops, signing a few books (or many books, in the case of Easons on O’Connell Street), and then heading over to the festival for my panel in the late afternoon. The audience was small, but that was probably a good thing for my first event, and at least I got to talk to some readers at more length afterwards than I would have been able to with a larger audience!

Book launch

I had my book launch a few days after publication, at Housman’s — a wonderful radical non-profit independent bookshop with strong pacifist connections and a really interesting selection of books. Despite being a very stabby book about murder, The Butterfly Assassin is considerably influenced by my own pacifism, and this felt like the perfect venue to get up on a chair and yell about how the arms trade is immoral and why we shouldn’t be recruiting sixteen-year-olds into the military. It was all fairly last-minute and I was terrified that nobody would come, but they did! I signed books! We had a cake with my book cover on it! It was hardly a huge glamorous party such as people tend to think of book launches as being, but it was just right for this book, and Housman’s was the perfect venue. They still have some signed copies, if you’re interested in ordering one.

Finn Longman sitting at a table holding up a copy of The Butterfly Assassin.
Signing books at my book launch in Housman’s, being photobombed by Eve, my publicist.

Visiting bookshops

Speaking of signed books, whenever I pass a bookshop that carries The Butterfly Assassin, I offer to sign it. So far nobody’s turned me down, though one did ask for ID (I suggested they checked the author photo in the back of the book). Occasionally, it’s turned into a quest in which we search for the copies the Waterstones website claims they have — I’ve found TBA in Adult, but also in 9-12, where it definitely doesn’t belong. So at this point, I think it’s my moral duty to check it’s correctly shelved wherever it might be ;) It’s always exciting to find my book in a shop, especially when it’s on a table or a face-out. I’ve also loved having people send me pictures of it in their local bookshops.

Reviews and nice messages

I’m trying to learn to stay off Goodreads — it’s not a healthy place for an author to be spending a lot of time, especially while trying to focus on a sequel, because you end up with too many voices in your head telling you to add more of this, have less of that, and all the while you’re hyper-analysing a review that’s 100% positive and yet only gave you four stars. (What does it take, book reviewers?! What does it take?!) But I have loved seeing some positive reviews, and reflections from people who totally got the book and everything I was trying to do with it. I’ve had some amazing messages from readers and friends, and I’ve been particularly touched by the messages from friends I’d fallen out of touch with, who’ve nevertheless picked up the book and told me how much they enjoyed it.

I was also featured in The Guardian as one of their best YA books of the month, and received a lovely review in the Irish Times, too, which is more than I could have expected from mainstream media!

My first real school visit

Some authors find school visits and assemblies terrifying. Personally, I love to have a captive audience to talk at — I get to talk, they can’t leave, it’s my dream communication scenario. I did my first ‘official’ school visit recently and, while it’s still a little anxiety-inducing to get up in front of a bunch of fifteen-year-olds and talk to them about your book, I think it went well. It was great to sign books afterwards, too, including a pile for the school’s LGBTQ soc. I appreciated how supportive their teachers seemed to be, giving me the chosen names of trans and nonbinary students to write in the books, although it was an all-girls’ school. A lot’s changed since I was at school (we didn’t even have an LGBTQ club of any sort), and it’s nice to see, when the world around us feels increasingly focused on weaponising a culture war against trans people.

YALC

My biggest event! I went to the Young Adult Literature Convention in 2016 as a reader, but this was my first time there as an author. It’s a pretty different experience: hanging out in the Green Room rather than queuing for signings (although I did a little of the latter); speaking on a panel instead of watching it from the audience (though I did that too). I loved having the chance to talk to readers in person, especially some that I’d encountered online before, and signed a fair few books. I also got the chance to tell Jonathan Stroud how much his books meant to me, which was, to be honest, as much of a highlight.

Finn Longman wearing a grey tank top, dark trousers and a black sunhat, as well as a white FFP3 mask, standing with their arms outstretched in front of oversized letters reading YALC. In the background is a wall made of huge book spines.
At the Young Adult Literature Convention 2022

So those are some of the highlights — I’m sure there are more that I’ve forgotten, or which have happened behind-the-scenes and therefore aren’t public knowledge yet — and it can often feel, on social media, like that’s all there is to it. Like every author in their debut month is having a whirlwind of events and reviews and sales, and they must be having a good time, so there’s everything to be jealous of and if you’re not having a great time, you must be doing something wrong.

Well, there’s more to it than that, and I’m not going to dwell on it, but I will say: there are days when the comparisonitis is hard. Where all I can think about is how other people’s books seem to be in more bookshops than mine. When all I can focus on is how few people are talking about my book on Twitter, or posting pictures of it on Instagram; how books that aren’t even out yet have more reviews and more adds on Goodreads; how I fall between the cracks of awards and lists because of being upper YA — too old for the teen-focused awards, too young for the adult ones.

Everyone feels this, I think. Authors with small publishers look enviously at authors with big publishers. Authors with small deals at big publishers look enviously at authors with big deals at any publishers. Comparison is the thief of joy — I’ve always known it, but I’ve felt it more in the last two months, and I’m trying to remember that I’ve achieved something I worked towards for thirteen years, and I owe it to my younger self to appreciate that for a moment instead of always wanting more.

But it’s hard! Especially when publishing is frequently opaque: authors know a lot less about what’s going on behind the scenes than people generally assume we do. Well-meaning friends ask me how the book is doing, and the truth is, I have absolutely no idea, because I won’t get sales figures for a while yet. All I can do is guess based on a mixture of social media, Goodreads, Amazon rankings, Gardners stock figures, and pulling numbers completely out of nowhere, the last of which is probably at least as accurate a figure as the first four combined. As somebody who likes to be in control and to have all the information about everything, this is a challenge, and not one I can do anything to change.

In the absence of hard figures and explicit statements like, ‘Yes, you are selling exactly as expected,’ or, ‘Your book is a failure and we regret ever publishing it,’ it’s easy to fixate on the information I do have, like how many people are posting about it, and that way madness lies. Trust me.

And then there are my book two edits.

Ugh. The dreaded book two.

Look, I had mostly avoided the book two angst, by virtue of having written the book back in 2014 when I wrote book one. This meant that completing a draft and sending it to my editor was wayyyyy easier than it seemed to be for a lot of my friends, because, well, it wasn’t a first draft, it was a fourth draft, and that’s easy enough, right?

Unfortunately, the editing process has proved… challenging, in part because this is still, fundamentally, a book that I wrote in 2014, despite some plot changes. The changes were superficial and the foundations were weak, a problem I’d had with book one and solved by rewriting the book from the ground up — before I got the book deal. It turns out, fixing those kinds of issues within a six-week structural edit deadline is a whole lot harder, and I have shed a number of tears and had a number of breakdowns as I attempt to work out how best to do that.

I should add: most of these problems were ones that I identified, rather than my editor ripping the book apart. I think a lot of people see editors as these fierce beings who can instantly spot every flaw and will eviscerate an author’s work, making them feel like failures. What actually happens is a lot gentler at her end than that: she’ll say, “I’m not really following X’s motivation for doing Y. Can we make this clearer?” And then I look at X’s motivation for doing Y, realise it makes absolutely no sense because Z, spend three days trying to save it, and eventually realise I need to rip out that entire plot thread and rework it. Unfortunately, that thread will then turn out to be fundamental to an entire section of the book, and thus I have now pulled out its guts and it’s going to need major surgery to fix it.

In other words, she believed I knew what I was doing; I’m the one who eviscerated my own work and made myself feel like a failure. Lmao. So that’s fun.

Two consecutive comments on a Word document reading "I HATE YOU SO MUCH YOU DON'T EVEN KNOW" and "I'm so done"
One of my earliest beta readers commenting on a book I wrote in 2014, or me about my past self’s decisions? Who can say.

And then, on top of that, there is the fact that it is much harder to write a sequel when people are telling you what you think of book one. Listen, it is impossible to write for every reader, especially when they wildly contradict each other — one review will compliment the worldbuilding and description, the next will say that there’s not nearly enough of either; one review will say they love every character and found the friendships emotive and engaging, the next will say they didn’t care about any of them because the relationships were too shallow. You can’t win!

But more than that: you can’t even try to win. Writing is a collaborative process, but that doesn’t mean it’s done by committee, or to please everybody who might encounter it. I am trying, at all times, to push the voices out of my head that demand something from the story I’m not intending to give. It’s not their book. It’s mine.

It’s just a lot easier to feel that about The Butterfly Assassin — a book that I am proud of, a book I’m currently listening to on audio again and feeling quietly pleased with — than it is to feel it about the sequel, which is currently a mess, and which I don’t totally know how to fix right now.

I will fix it. This is an inevitable stage of editing, and I’ve been through it enough times to know that the “hating every word on the page” phase is both real and temporary. Doesn’t mean I enjoy it while it’s happening, and having to live up to book one puts a level of pressure on that I haven’t experienced before. Listening to the audiobook is helping me keep the rhythms of book two’s prose consistent with book one’s, but it’s also reminding me of all the ways that the first book is polished and good, making the contrast… stark.

Mostly, however, I would like to extend a massive apology to every author I secretly judged for years when they talked about their deadlines. Six weeks is not long enough. I agree. I get it now. I had, like, six months to draft this book, and it took me less than one month, but man do I need longer for the editing stage, because it turns out I do all of my thinking after the story is on the page, and not before. Next time, I’m hoping I can wrangle things so that I get less drafting time and more editing time, because I’m in hell.

And with that in mind, I should get back to my edits.

But first: to everyone who has already bought The Butterfly Assassin, thank you so much. Thank you to those who’ve read and reviewed it (reviews on Waterstones and Amazon are super helpful, if you have a minute to leave them!). If you’ve taken a nice picture of it for social media, thank you; if you’ve messaged me to say you enjoyed it, thank you for that too. The small notes of encouragement in my Tumblr inbox have been keeping me going through my edits, and I am very grateful for them.

And if you haven’t picked it up yet, please consider it! Debut authors need all the help we can get.

One Week Before

It’s now only a week until The Butterfly Assassin is out in the world, which is a bizarre and surreal experience at the same time as feeling utterly generic. I’m not experiencing anything that hundreds and thousands of other debut authors haven’t already expeirenced before me, and still I find myself reaching for the words to try and articulate the oddities and emotions of the lead up to publication.

It feels bizarre in part because this is a book that I first wrote in 2014, a book that I have rewritten at least once every year of my adult life — except this year, and now never again. Sometimes that experience has felt like co-writing a book with a younger version of me. It’s a book by 2021!me, but it’s also a book by 2014!me, and those two versions of me were not only at substantially different stages in their lives, but also had different ideas about what they valued in a story and what they wanted to achieve. Now, as I let it go out into the hands of readers, I wonder which version of me they’ll find on the page, or if they’ll only see my characters, and nothing of me at all.

It feels bizarre, too, because publishing is fundamentally a bizarre experience, full of confusion and surprises. Everybody’s journey is slightly different, even when they’re at the same publisher, and it can be impossible to predict what’s going to happen for you and when by looking at what other people experience. In some ways, publication has snuck up on me, unmarked by any major pre-pub buzz. I have never had a viral tweet. Social media isn’t clamouring for my book. I feel like an unknown, shouting into the void…

… but at the same time, I know that isn’t true. Friends and reviewers have read the book, and some have said lovely things about it. Fellow debuts yell at me to stop obsessing over a minor critical remark in a Goodreads review, telling me that my book is good, that the reviewer is wrong, that I should stay away from reviews in the first place.

(This isn’t going to happen. I know it’s the accepted wisdom, but for me personally, not knowing what people think is currently much worse than knowing, even when I spiral slightly over passing criticisms. That may change, and then I’ll re-evaluate, but right now, I don’t find it particularly useful to avoid the whole thing entirely.)

I worry about how the book will be received. I worry that a YA book with no romance won’t sell, because people want to ship the main characters. I worry that it won’t be queer enough, that those who picked it up hoping for explicit ace representation will think me a fraud. I worry that it’s too dark — too stabby, too much about trauma, too unwilling to let violence be sanitised and sexy. I worry, too, that people will think it is glamourising violence, rather than being a story about somebody trapped in a destructive cycle with no other options.

I worry because that’s what I do. And at the same time, I go through periods of calm: knowing, in my mind, that I’m proud of the book, which gives me the confidence to feel like if readers don’t enjoy it, that’s their problem, because I know I did what I set out to do, and it’s simply a case of whether that’s compatible with what they’re looking for. I flip-flop between these two states of being on a daily basis: serenity and anxiety, acceptance and desperation. I know what I wrote and why, and if people don’t like it, so what. But also, if it’s not universally adored, I will perish. I exist on a continuous rollercoaster from one end of the spectrum to the other.

I am at all times desperate for information that I have no real way of interpreting. How many copies are bookshops stocking? Oh, is that good? Bad? Normal? Is this a good marketing plan? I have no idea. I’ve never seen another marketing plan to compare it to. How much should I be taking charge of my own promotion and attempting to get the word out about the book? Will going into bookshops and talking to them myself help at all? It seems to, but I can’t visit every bookshop in the world, or even in the city. Should I target the chains or the indies? Local bookshops or large bookshops? What’s my best plan?

I don’t know. I send a lot of emails asking questions. I bombard the debut group chat with my anxieties and insecurities and they, very patiently, try to reassure me. I order business cards, even though scrawling my details on the back of a receipt was working for me up until now, because they feel like a tangible excuse to approach booksellers. I fail to blog. I feel guilty about that, even though I know that from a publicity point of view, this blog is never going to be the thing that shifts the needle, and from a readership point of view… well, you guys have known me to fall silent for much longer than this.

I think about writing another book, to squeeze a first draft out between now and the arrival of my edits for book two. This would be unwise but I try anyway, attempting to muddle through an opening chapter. It fizzles out. I know the characters but they aren’t talking to me yet; I don’t have a handle on the voice, don’t know how to tell the story. The book is an egg that isn’t ready to hatch, and I need to give it time.

I read a book instead. I read ten books instead, ten full manuscripts from hopeful mentees who applied to Rogue Mentor, my editorial hat firmly on. I discover I enjoy trying to see what a story needs to get closer to its heart, and how to shift the moving pieces around to better achieve the author’s vision. This feels like a useful thing to know about myself, though perhaps none of these authors will vibe with my ideas, in which case, my editorial recommendations may be less useful than I thought. I struggle to narrow down which book I want to mentor, because I have something to say about all of them. The other 78 queries, the books I didn’t request fulls of, haunt me, in case I missed something that would have been a perfect fit. But I had to choose, and no matter how desperate I am to avoid the inside of my head, even I can’t read 88 books in the time I had available.

I try to go back to dance. It helps, having something physical to channel my jitters into, but soon enough my knee gives out on me again and I’m forced to admit that recovery does not mean “deciding I’m better because I’m bored of being injured”. I get out my harp, hoping that can be my offline hobby instead. A string snaps. I replace it. I feel just as full of tension, sagging when the weather changes, waiting to snap under the right pressure.

I try not to make everything into a metaphor, but it’s hard not to.

Pass pages arrive for an academic article being published this summer, and I force my mind back to medieval literature. It protests, the dense prose of my own analysis defeating my anxiety-shortened attention span. That, in turn, makes me feel like a fraud. I judge my academic writing by the standards of my fiction prose, and find it lacking. I judge my fiction by my academic standards for detail, and worry I’ve been unambitious in my worldbuilding. I wonder how many people my book will disappoint, and feel relieved that at least with my article, the number will be smaller, because my field is tiny and because nobody is expecting much of me.

This feels like an unhelpful train of thought, so I attempt to derail it. I don’t succeed.

I go for walks in the woods, when my knee lets me, and that’s something. I learn to identify the trees and flowers around me — hornbeams and oaks and hawthorns, bluebells and wood anenomes. I begin to understand why knights in medieval Arthurian tales tend to run away to the woods when they’re having a rough time of it. It’s a big mood. I resist the temptation to become a woodland hermit, mostly because I’m very allergic to nature and I don’t think I would last very long. I play Pokémon Go instead, and then go home.

I count the days, and they are endless and flying by so fast I can’t catch my breath.

I think: I’m not ready.

I think: I’ve been ready for months, let’s get this over with.

I post another link to pre-order the book, in case people missed it the first hundred times, and try not to feel embarrassed, like I’m begging for their attention. For your attention. For anybody’s attention.

I’m not ready at all, and I’ve been ready forever. One week to go. Perhaps by the time those seven days have passed, I’ll know how to feel about all of it.

Things Nobody Tells You About Getting A Book Deal

The process of publishing is frequently shrouded in mystery. I don’t think this is entirely deliberate — it’s the inevitable result of every publishing house having a slightly different way of doing things, meaning that there’s no obvious step-by-step route that everybody follows. But this does mean that, as a writer, you spend a lot of time confused and in the dark. “Is this normal?” I must have asked a dozen times this year. “What happens next? Am I supposed to know about X yet? When do I get to announce this book?

The truth is: there is no normal, but yes, that’s probably normal. And there’s no set route for what happens next, but probably, it’ll be a bunch of waiting around and then three important decisions to make back-to-back and also now you have edits to do, good luck, RIP the rest of your life. And so on and so forth. But here are a few of the lessons I’ve learned that I hadn’t anticipated.

Being able to keep a secret is a crucial skill

I mentioned when we announced The Butterfly Assassin that I’ve been sitting on the news since January. I … was not expecting to have to, I’ll be honest. I drafted a version of this post in March, because I thought I would be able to post it soon. Ha! Nope. Now, admittedly, I knew this was a possibility — a friend of mine had to sit on her book deal for eighteen months before it was announced, which quite possibly would have killed me. 7.5 months was more than enough for me.

This isn’t uncommon in the UK. In the US, it seems like it’s more typical to announce promptly, even if the book is 2+ years away, but in the UK, publishers often wait to announce until there’s a nearly-final draft and pre-order links are ready to go, etc. It means less suspense for readers, but a lot more secret-keeping for authors. I’ve been making vague references to edits for months, because I’m incapable of not livetweeting my entire life, but I haven’t really been able to yell about the milestones. I was jealous of those friends who could — I felt like I was being left out of a special club. But on that note…

You can join the debut groups before you’ve announced

Every year there are group chats and Slacks for debut authors to form a community, get advice, check in with other debuts about the whole “is this normal?” question. I assumed, for months, that I wouldn’t be able to join one until I’d announced, and when my announcement got pushed from March to July to September, I felt more and more like I was being left out.

And then a friend said to me, “You know you can just ask them if you can join, right?” It hadn’t occurred to me. As a 2023 debut who had already announced, she was in a group, and she told me there were several authors in there who hadn’t announced yet. Emboldened, I approached the admin of one of the 22 Debuts groups, and they happily invited me to join. Turned out, I hadn’t missed the party. And several people joined after me, so my worries about being the weird latecomer were unfounded.

Keeping it a secret doesn’t mean not telling anybody

Just because you can’t talk about a deal publicly, that doesn’t mean you can’t tell anybody. My family knew. My writing chat knew. My close friends knew. And my thesis supervisor definitely knew — he needed to be aware that I was juggling deadlines, and why I might occasionally translate 160 lines of early modern Irish, which I’ve never been trained in, instead of the 30 he was expecting, as a means of stress-relief.

Publishing is stressful and that stress can manifest strangely

Like I said. 160 lines of early modern Irish in a week. Sometimes you need something completely unrelated to your book to take your mind off it, particularly when there are arguments happening. That particular stressful period for me was when we were negotiating titles. It was early in the process, before we had the contract or anything on paper, and S&S wanted to changed my title. While I was willing to change it, I didn’t like their suggested title, and so we were having a little bit of a disagreement. Since I have anxiety, and since we had nothing on paper to bind us into the whole thing, I was terrified that if I pushed too hard on this issue, they might turn around and go, “Actually, you’re too stubborn, we don’t want to work with you.”

That kind of anxiety never really goes away. At least, not if you’re me. Even after the contracts were signed and I’d been paid (and even after we’d settled on a title we could all agree on), I went back through the contract itself to see what would happen if they decided they were sick of me, and whether they would ask for their money back. Not to mention the impostor syndrome — what if this was a mistake, and they didn’t mean to offer on my book? Surely they’d eventually realise, and turn up in my inbox like, “Sorry, it’s all a big error, we were trying to buy that person’s book?”

I thought getting external validation on my book was supposed to make me more confident, but it turned out it just gave me a whole new set of issues. Love that for me.

Sometimes that stress comes with guilt

Writing is rarely a solitary pursuit, and if you’re lucky enough to have writer friends, you can end up in a slightly strange position. Even if at the time that you became friends you were all at the exact same stage in your writing career, publishing is a strange beast and doesn’t move at anything like the same speed for everyone. (This can contribute to the impostor syndrome: “Why would they buy my book when I have so many talented friends who can’t even find an agent?”)

When you get a book deal, you end up in the odd position of having something that everybody else in your group chat also wants. Now, good friends might be jealous, but they’ll still be happy for you, and they won’t let that get in the way of your friendship. Seeing your friends as competition is a great way to be totally miserable, in the publishing world. But even when they’re being nothing but positive and supportive, as the person who has achieved the coveted thing, you end up hyper-aware of how you talk about it — especially when you’re complaining. You don’t want to seem ungrateful, when your problems are problems that your friends would love to have, but sometimes you’re anxious or stressed or fed-up or otherwise Not Feeling The Correct Amount Of Joy, and it can be weird to express that.

Sometimes, you just aren’t feeling The Correct Emotions. Half the time, you’ll probably be mad at yourself for that, too. “Why can’t I just be happy?!” But a lot of the things that were hard about the writing process are still hard afterwards. Some of them are harder. Some new things turn up that are stressful in a whole different way. And you need a space where you can talk about that.

I’m lucky that my current writing friends are great and supportive and understanding. But in the past, I’ve been in situations where expressing those negative emotions about something that somebody else wanted, something they thought I should be grateful for and happy about, caused them to lash out at me, and it’s hard not to be self-conscious after that. That’s where the debut groups really come into their own, too — everybody’s in the same boat! And everybody’s probably just as stressed and overwhelmed as you are, too…

It’s always all or nothing

Either you’re totally overwhelmed with decisions and deadlines, or nothing is happening. In the past week, I’ve announced the book, received a draft cover that I had to give feedback on, been asked to pick an audiobook narrator, got my copyedits and a deadline for them, and been asked to draft a synopsis for book two. Considering I’m supposed to be writing my thesis right now, this is A Lot, and my anxiety has not been loving it. But sometimes it’s… silence. My supervisor will ask, “Any news?” and I’ll tell him I’m still waiting… and waiting… and waiting…

And then I’ll get an edit letter and the whole cycle begins again.

You get way less time than you think

For years, every time I did NaNoWriMo, people would be like, “NaNo is pointless, no book written that quickly can be any good.” Meanwhile I don’t think I’ve had a single edit deadline that was more than 6 weeks away, and most have been less; due to overlapping academic deadlines, I ended up with only about three weeks of my structural edit, and had to ask for a bit of extra time. I don’t know if this is just how S&S does things, or whether it’s because they know I’m a fairly fast worker, or what, but it definitely took me by surprise how fast the turnaround was. I’m lucky that as a postgrad student I have a certain flexibility, so it is possible to drop everything and get my edits done on time, but I’m in awe of anyone who can juggle this with a full-time job, because I’ve no idea how they do it.

Your editing process may totally change

Actually, the really weird thing is how your editor will refer to your manuscript as your “first draft” or “revised first draft”, as though the first seven didn’t happen and the past six years of your life were a hallucination. It makes sense — it’s not like there’d be any logical reason why they would count the drafts they’ve never seen — but it was vaguely jarring the first time it happened. First draft? I thought. I *wish* it were my first draft…

See also: asking for the “first draft” of a sequel when you’ve already written three. And yet somehow this doesn’t take the pressure off…

But the editing process as a whole is a bit of a learning curve. It’s slightly different at every publisher, as far as I can tell, and also probably depends on the book, but for me, it involved a topline edit (big picture stuff, cutting a chunk of words, etc), a structural edit (more nitty-gritty stuff to do with pacing and worldbuilding), a line edit (making the words pretty and the details add up), and now, copyedits (Punctuation Hell)*. For the first couple of rounds, my editor was happy for me to keep using my highly labour-intensive but patented technique of editing by opening a new document and writing the book again from the beginning, but after that, I had to resign myself to Track Changes and a maze of comment bubbles.

This would be fine, except that I’m using Office 2010 on my computer and Office 365 on my laptop, and comments have a habit of behaving interestingly when you switch between the two, since that’s one of the elements which got redesigned. Whoops.

Also, that first set of edits I did with my editor? Was somehow simultaneously so much harder and yet so much easier than every round of edits I did before. Like, on the one hand: “Oh no, somebody who isn’t me is going to read this, and I’m at the point where I have to get it right because I can’t just keep redrafting indefinitely!” And on the other hand: “Oh, thank goodness, somebody who isn’t me is going to read this and can catch the mistakes and inconsistencies…”

(*These are all drastic oversimplifications and frankly, Punctuation Hell has been going on for a while. It turns out I have much stronger opinions about commas than I ever realised.)

You’re allowed to say “no”

Finally, here’s a lesson I’m still learning: you’re allowed to say no. Don’t like a title or a cover concept? You’re allowed to say that. Whether or not that will result in change isn’t within your power — but you’re allowed to say it. You’re allowed to disagree with edits too. It’s worth taking the time to sit with them and figure out if your gut feeling is justified or just defensiveness, but when it comes down to it… it’s your book.

And sometimes it’s worth hiding behind your agent for those conversations, particularly if it’s something you’re emotional about. No matter how much you want to be a Strong, Independent Author who can assert themselves, your agent’s job is literally to have the difficult conversations for you. They can figure out a diplomatic way of wording things, advise you on how likely it is that you’ll actually win that fight, and generally make it a lot less awkward than having to go it alone. They can say no for you.

But the important thing is: just because getting a book deal is hard, and you’re grateful, and you want it to continue happening so that one day you can afford to pay rent, doesn’t mean you have to agree to everything. If you’re genuinely not happy with something, you’re allowed to express that, and with any luck, your publisher will say, “You know what? You’re totally right. Back to the drawing board on that one.” (And if they don’t… well, you’re no worse off than before, really.)

I guess reading through this post, the real lesson here is that if you have an anxiety disorder, a book deal probably isn’t going to cure it. Pretty sure I didn’t need 2,000 words to say that — but as my editor will tell you, I’ve never met a wordcount I didn’t want to exceed. But I hope that some of these lessons are useful to some of you if you’re on this same journey, or hoping to take this path in the future. And for those who aren’t, I hope it’s an interesting peek behind the scenes to understand what I’ve been up to over the last few months.

If you enjoyed it, please consider supporting me on Ko-Fi, or pre-ordering The Butterfly Assassin!

What is YA, anyway?

I’ve been thinking a lot recently about what makes a book YA. I write both YA and adult: in June, I was editing a YA book; now, I’m editing an adult book. I also read both YA and adult, but although I’ve stopped tracking my reading in any great detail and therefore don’t have stats to hand, I would suspect that I’ve been leaning more towards adult books in recent months.

This makes sense: I’m 25. I’m an adult. I’m worried about things like finding a job and being able to afford rent and the fact that I’ve hit the age where a bunch of my school friends are getting married and some of them are having babies — on purpose. The further I get from school and teenage hormones and so on, the less relevant YA would be to me… or so you’d think, anyway.

But there have been a fair few conversations recently about how that’s not necessarily the case, since there’s a huge adult readership for YA books. And again, this makes sense: people like a particular type of story, they enjoy the pacing and themes, they keep reading it. One of the side effects, as has been pointed out over and over again, is that since those adult readers have more money and buying power than the teens the books are written for, they end up being the people the publishers market to, and YA starts skewing older and older…

There have been a lot of discussions about how to “fix” that phenomenon. Breaking down YA into more categories, for example — because realistically, 13-year-olds and 18-year-olds aren’t looking for the same thing from fiction. These lower/upper YA divides exist, but they’re rarely labelled or demarcated. Others think the problem is that NA (New Adult) didn’t take off as a category — books about and aimed at the 18-25-ish age range — so those readers are looking to YA to fill the gap.

I’m not here to suggest any solutions, or to point out more problems. But I have been pondering what this means for my own work.

Most of my YA has always sat slightly uneasily within the category. It’s upper YA, aimed at older teenagers, and some of it would fit firmly into the “crossover” category, where you would expect it to appeal to an adult audience too. While I have some projects that I think are more firmly YA, I also have others where I’m not sure where they fit, and it gets harder once they’re speculative. The age of protagonists is often a good indicator, but while a book about seventeen-year-olds in a contemporary school setting is probably going to fit neatly into YA, a book about seventeen-year-olds in a fantasy society where that’s considered to be an adult might not.

Take To Run With The Hound, for example. This retelling of Táin Bó Cúailnge that I drafted in 2018 has a young protagonist — in fact, both main characters are children at the start, and one is only 17 by the end (the other is 21). But nothing about it feels YA. The characters are that young mainly because that’s (roughly) the age they are in the original stories/myths, but what those ages mean in context is wildly different from what they mean to us in modern society. While the book might appeal to some teen readers, it’s not written for teen readers, and YA’s dominant themes of identity formation, “first” experiences, growing independence, and so on aren’t present/important in the story.

More difficult is the YA book I was editing last month. I know it’s YA, but I also know it fits neatly into the crossover space, and sometimes I find myself second-guessing elements of the teen characters. It’s a fairly dark book, with a lot of trauma and violence, and sometimes I wonder if I’m contributing to the whole “YA books that are really for adults” issue. And yet… I wrote the first draft of that book when I was eighteen. I created that character when I was sixteen. She has been shaped and reshaped and drastically rewritten in the years that have passed, to the point where it’s hard to see how much of that original character is still there, but when I reread the first draft I’m always struck by how much the “vibes” have stayed the same, despite nearly every plot point changing. And those were distinctly teenage vibes, because I was a teenager.

A selfie of me at eighteen. I'm side-on to the camera, sitting with my knees up. I have a slightly messy pixie cut and glasses with a red and black plastic frame. I'm wearing a blue and red blanket poncho over a long-sleeved shirt and jeans; I'm hugging my knees with one arm.
Me at 18. Although I will acknowledge that (a) I haven’t aged much and (b) I still wear that blanket poncho daily.

But most YA is written by adults, and in any case that book is as much the product of 20-something me than of teen me, so that can’t be the standard I judge it by. How can I tell what’s YA and what isn’t? How do I know if my teenage characters are realistic, or if I’m writing mini adults and simply claiming they’re sixteen? I often read books and think absolutely nothing would change about the plot or characterisation if a character were aged up by 10 years, and in fact it would probably make it more believable. I don’t want to write those kinds of teen characters, but I also know very few actual teens, and having been a weirdo even when I was a teenager myself can make it harder to judge what teen behaviour looks like…

The themes and messages of the book are, I think, a huge factor in determining where it stands in terms of age category, but even there it can be tricky. The novel mentioned above deals strongly with wanting to have control over your own body/life, rather than having adults/parents make decisions for you, which I think is something that a lot of teenagers can relate to. It’s certainly something that was born of my own experiences as a seventeen-year-old grappling with chronic pain and mental illness. The adult book I’m editing now, a retelling of Bisclavret, is also about wanting control over your own body/life, but from a very different angle. Similar theme, different vibes, and I’ve never thought of this book as anything other than adult. Why? What makes one different to the other? Some nebulous, hard-to-pin-down vibe? It can’t be the sex scenes, because I’ve read YA way more graphic than my poetic fade-to-blacks…

A few days ago I stumbled upon an outline I wrote this time last year for a possible future project. Not a completely new book, but an attempt to ‘rescue’ a shelved one — a book called The Knight Shift that I put aside c. 2016 after realising it was fundamentally flawed in a way that couldn’t be fixed. This new outline didn’t attempt to patch up the original storyline, but it took elements of it and wove a new plot around them, in a way that both fixed the original problem and made a much more interesting and socially relevant book.

I looked at it and thought, Oh, that’s quite good, actually. I should write that.

A selfie of me, holding a practice longsword with a white nylon blade. I'm wearing a grey long-sleeved top and I have short dark hair.
The Knight Shift revolved around a secret society of modern-day knights, so my brief adventures with HEMA in 2016 would have come in handy for accuracy in the fight scenes.

The book is, once again, an upper YA book. The main character is a fresher at university, so she’s 18 and probably turns 19 during the book. Her closest friends are 17/18 and 19/20. The themes include independence, trying to forge your own identity away from your parents, and figuring out which of the principles and beliefs you’ve inherited are ones you want to keep (or even fight for). Arguably, it also uses the YA cliché of “no adults believe that something’s wrong, so the teenage protagonist has to fix it themselves”.

But, since the book is set at university and not school and many of the characters are legally adults, I found myself interrogating my gut feeling that it was YA. Did it need to be? Was that the most useful category for it to be in?

I found myself coming back to a comment I’d made to a friend upon rereading the outline: “the one flaw in this plot is the idea that exposing corruption and violence would ever actually stop it … I feel like for a YA novel, you kind of have to pretend that it would, but in reality, would it?

Because here’s the thing. We have all these YA books in which plucky teens stand up to corrupt governments and dystopian regimes… and it works. And yet if there’s one thing we’ve learned over the last few years (and particularly the last 18 months), it’s that very often, exposing corruption and violence does absolutely nothing. “Plucky teens” stand up every day for gun control, climate action, clean water, justice, and so often nothing happens. Oh, the government’s selling weapons to regimes that enact human rights abuses? Nobody’s stopping them. Ministers are breaking the exact rules they themselves implement? They have a mildly embarrassing day on the internet and continue with their lives. It feels like there are no consequences.

But that would be a bleak book — and dare I say it, an adult book. A literary novel might say there is no hope. A military SF novel might say we can only hope to kill them before they kill us. A poignant historical novel might say, some tragedies are unavoidable.

A YA book… maybe a YA book should tell us that change is possible.

Tweet by Marcus Vance (@MarcusCVance) from July 4, 2021.

"Scifi books:

MG: My classmate is an alien!

YA: No adults believe this is an alien so I have to beat it alone

Hard SF: Let's learn from these dead aliens that aren't quite dead

Military SF: KILL ALL ALIENS

Dark SF: GET KILLED BY ALL ALIENS

Erotic SF: BANG ALL ALIENS"
This post was inspired at least partially by this breakdown of SF categories, and similar tweets.

I’m not saying that YA books should lie to their readers. Not everything in real life has a happy ending, and it would do teen readers a disservice to suggest that in a YA book, evil should always be defeated. When I was a teenager, patronising me was absolutely the way to make me put down a book and never pick it back up. There has to be nuance, and there is space on the YA shelves for sad endings, bittersweet endings, characters who don’t always succeed. And yet I also think YA fiction is about empowering younger readers and teaching them that the world can be changed — that they, through their actions and voices, can change the world.

The outline I wrote had a bold, brave, eighteen-year-old protagonist whose principles and love for her friends led to her changing the world for the better, because when nobody in authority seemed to be taking action, she did it herself. And that, I think, makes it a YA book. Because although I didn’t sit down and say, “Okay, I’m going to write a novel that Empowers Teens™,” that is a huge part of what the genre does, particularly the more dystopian/fantasy/thriller end of the spectrum.

I could age that protagonist up and change the setting slightly, but I don’t think it would make the book an adult novel, because the themes and tone of it are firmly part of that YA “coming of age and standing up to authority” kind of genre.

In the end, I don’t think there’s always a clear line between age categories. Of course there isn’t. People mature at different speeds, and have different life experiences and perspectives. What might seem “precocious” or, conversely, “immature” for one character could be somebody’s reality — some eighteen-year-olds are working full time and living fully independently, while some twenty-five-year-olds live with their parents and still have to be home by a certain time at night to avoid worrying them. But what makes or breaks which category a book most belongs to is rarely the protagonist’s birthday, or whether or not they’re at school — it’s the themes, and the character’s place in society, and the approach the book takes to grappling with those.

So I don’t know if I’ll ever write the book that outline was for, although I think it would be interesting. But if I did, it would be as a YA book. And the process of figuring that out has been useful to me in working out what it is that makes some of my books YA and some of them adult, even when the ideas at the heart of them overlap. I still don’t know exactly what the difference is, but I know that it’s there, and I guess for every new book I write, I’ll just have to make that decision all over again.

Or, alternatively, I’ll keep writing weird nonsense that doesn’t neatly fit into a box (“genrequeer”, as I like to call it), and let beta readers/my agent/future editors decide what genre and category it belongs to. Because I’ll be honest with you: I am bad at labels and boxes and categories, and I absolutely 100% overthink all of them.

Still. If I didn’t overthink things, this blog probably wouldn’t exist. So here we are. Sorry / you’re welcome (delete as appropriate).


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